Why am I so focused on the term ‘aesthetics’? It is not as though I can make it mean whatever I like, yet it seems to represents a more open field of possibility than the notion of art.
I’m not regarding aesthetics as simply a supplementary reflection on art. Since Hegel, aesthetics is typically regarded as the philosophy of art. This remains evident in Ranciere’s sense that aesthetics represents a mode of thinking the paradoxes of contemporary art – for example, art’s notional autonomy and its dissolution into everyday life. For Ranciere, the role of aesthetics is to render this space of confusion lucid and to tease out its underlying politics. While I can see the logic of Ranciere’s conception, and certainly its relevance to making sense of the tradition of philosophical aesthetics, I am drawing upon a less historically determinate conception.
I am interested, for example, in the tension between two different definitions of the aesthetic that are evident in Kant’s critical philosophy. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant, drawing upon Baumgarten, regards aesthetics as the philosophy of sensible perception and experience. Less than a decade later, however, in his Critique of Judgement, he defines it in terms of a philosophy of the beautiful and the sublime. He relates these qualities less to art than to nature. It is Hegel who makes the decisive shift away from nature towards the philosophy of art (yet of course art is also conceived as a form of nature, of the uplifting of nature into a more properly spiritual realm). So I am interested in these tensions within the early notion of aesthetics. As a philosophy of sensible perception and experience, aesthetics has wide-ranging epistemological and ontological implications. Conceived more narrowly as the philosophy of art, aesthetics nonetheles refuses to obtain clear resolution – constantly bleeding out beyond the sphere of art per se (assuming this per se has any meaning whatsoever).
As a dimension of experience – sensible, but also tending into the conceptual, however much this is resisted – the aesthetic takes shape as something that is more than a mode of thinking. It is also a mode of practice. My interest is less in the philosophy of aesthetics than the possibility of aesthetic practice.