Thinking Aesthetics More Generally: How and for What Purpose?

There have been numerous contemporary efforts to decouple aesthetics from art – both within modern art itself and in strands of philosophy that focus on specialised topics such as environmental aesthetics or the aesthetics of everyday life. The latter fields often draw inspiration from early conceptions of the aesthetic, where the focus was less on developing a philosophy of art than considering wider problems of sensible cognition (Baumgarten) or the experience of the beautiful and sublime in nature (Kant). In all of this, there is the recognition that aesthetics can be thought more generally, and applied to forms of experience that extend beyond the conventional institutional space and self-identity of art.

My aim in this short paper is to convey firstly the relevance of thinking aesthetics more broadly. I do this by teasing out the aesthetic implications of two accounts of contemporary leisure experience – road cycling and rock climbing. My second aim is then to pose some questions about the value of extending the scope of aesthetics. What does it offer not only in terms of reconceiving the category of the aesthetic itself, but in terms of rethinking aspects of contemporary experience?

Cycling and Climbing

I freakin’ love squeezing into my Lycra and heading off in the early hours on my road bike. Actually, any time of day will do, but I particularly love creaking out of my flat, cleats clicking down the stairs, carbon road bike in hand (it lives in my lounge room), just as my neighbour is coming up them.

I turn Strava on, clip in, hit the bike path and feel as light as the coming dawn. It’s my freedom machine, for sure. I often head off on a solo 30-kilometre loop of the city, speeding along bike paths to Southbank where I dodge the sad and sorry. I take energy from the city as it starts for the day.

(Jayne D’Arcy, ‘Dear Male Cyclists, Lose the Attitude’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/2018)

A simple account of the pleasure of road cycling. This relates to the field of fitness based leisure, but it also has aesthetic features. The author describes an integral experience, with memorable kinaesthetic details and an overall sense of self-realisation and freedom. It is aesthetic not only in terms of its experiential dimensions, but also in terms of its capacity to be reflected upon and communicated. It is experience noticed and considered. It is experience that gestures to a potential for identification. The reader may never cycle themselves, but they will recognise something of what it is to be essentially human in this activity. The aesthetic character of this experience and this space of reflective common feeling obtains poignant form in terms of the backdrop of dully instrumental experience. Road cycling here provides a counter image to the world of work, obligation, etc. If other aspects of activity are less intimately felt and described, it is because they lack this aesthetic dimension – this capacity to reconcile, authenticate and console.

As a structural complement to ordinary life and as a form of limited consolation, we could regard this aesthetic aspect as entirely compromised, doing little more that to affirm the status quo via a small gesture of cathartic release. This release is compromised again by its dimensions of commodification and consumerism. That sense of lightness at dawn, that sense of drawing energy from the awakening city, is shaped by the inevitable need to work many days to pay for the cleats and the carbon fibre. But this represents an old school critical theoretical response. These days, rather than conceiving a monolithic system where any instant or resistance is instantly subsumed within the interests of the whole, and is conceived simply as negative after image of that system, more recent criticism envisages a multiplicity, a complex assemblage of forces that must be positively as well as negatively conceived.

Another example – the description of the moves on a particularly difficult rock climb:

You leave the ‘rest’ with your right hand, moving to a small slot that wants to be crimped but won’t let you as there’s too much cliff in the way for your knuckles to get much elevation. Your left foot now comes up to a heel-toe cam on the rest jug next to your left hand. Keeping your core ultra tight you have to punch to a pod with your left hand. The pod is junk. It’s basically vertical and has a tendency to feel like a recently-microwaved bowl of porridge that has too much milk in it. Now comes the tricky bit – squeeze the three points on the wall together, bring the right foot up into a drop-knee on the rest jug in front of your face, release the left heel-toe and stab the toe into the roof to a small ripple. The jump position is now engaged and set for blast off. Throw your chest and hips high into the roof in the direction of the next right-hand hold, your hand will know what to do and follow. The hold you throw for is about 1.5m away and it’s a good letterbox ‘jug’ when used in opposition with the left-hand pod. Your feet cut and do all sorts of helicopter-break- dancing and you try your absolute hardest to hold the compression between the two hands and slow the momentum of your lower half. Once you hold the swing and have somewhat stabilised yourself, you need to pull up into a front lever, stab your left foot out at full extension to a rampy foot, right foot flags out right to balance yourself and you now dive with your left hand across yourself to a thin, letterbox slot. Your feet swoop off again and fly around and around. You’re now just under the lip of the roof and you can swing a right heel up around the lip to a good rail and bring your hands up to two good edges. This is another ‘rest’.

Tom O’Halloran’s describes the moves in almost impossible detail; just the level of detail needed to get through this impossible sequence. Here it is the sense of utter focus, of heightened experience and awareness that enables not only the performance of the moves themselves, but also their very precise description. The climb is at once abstracted into a set of discrete moves and engaged with in its particularity (the details of each hold). There is this sense of strange alignment between abstract will-comprehension and embodied experience. The aesthetic here has a microscopic aspect. It discovers a view of everything by turning away from everything and engaging only with just this focused space of action. Almost ironically, the sequence is described more or less as a set of instructions, as though the reader has only to pay close attention and they can complete the same sequence of moves. When, of course, this is plainly not the case. The route is far beyond the difficulty of most people – even most elite climbers. In this sense, the rhetorical ‘you’ is less about literally opening up the climb to others than about projecting O’Halloran’s experience as something more general. The commonality lies in the experience of extremity, which all climbers can recognise.

Kant describes four characteristics of the aesthetic:

  • Disinterested pleasure
  • Non-Conceptual
  • Purposiveness without purpose
  • Universality

Both examples display these characteristics. Although less distant and contemplative than Kant’s aesthetic regard for nature, road cycling and rock climbing are disinterested in as much as they involve perverse pleasure, demanding a level of physical effort that is equally pleasurable and arduous. In this manner, they provide artificial contexts for the experience of extreme necessity. This aspect of artifice enables a complex, finely determined play between experiential engagement and reflective distance. The activities can be regarded as ‘non-conceptual’ in that are less the product of underlying conceptual principles than emergent phenomena marked by the interaction between affective dispositions, regimes and things. In terms of Kant’s third aesthetic characteristic, road cycling and rock climbing are utterly pointless activities that nonetheless reveal a deeper purpose (an experience of freedom and heightened awareness). Finally, the two spheres of activity display a universal, normative dimension. Especially as descriptions, they trace possibilities of commonality and identification. The activities are pursued with such intensity that, even if we would never attempt them ourselves, their significance is unquestionable.

But what of beauty and the sublime? Without pursuing this question properly or in detail, we may simply suggest that the modern world shapes both endless prospects of beautiful and sublime images, but also – more or less as an antidote – all kinds of novel forms of immersive engagement and movement. Road cycling and rock climbing relate more closely to the latter. If there is beauty here it relates to a dynamic harmony in motion. If there is the sublime then it is discovered less as dramatic external thing than in the microscopic texture of extreme effort. In these moments human activity appears both intensely realised and estranged. This paradox of engagement and disengagement lies at the heart of the aesthetic.


While I can recognise aspects of the aesthetic in cultural fields beyond art, what is the point of extending the notion of the aesthetic, of discovering its wider relevance? After all, as Rancierre argues, contemporary art is pointedly defined in terms of it play of limits – tending either to portray a sublime and autonomous interior/exterior or pushing beyond the iconography, scenography and institutional configuration of art to render non-art art and art non-art. In this sense contemporary art will have already long anticipated all of our efforts to conceive wider cultural fields in terms of their aesthetic potential. In this respect, art will have also pushed things to a further point – to a critique of the aesthetic itself. Its own efforts at self-negation (always also a form of self-aggrandisement) deliberately seek out and summon the non-aesthetic as an alternative to the compromises and paradoxes of the aesthetic. It is not clear that this same sense of discomfort and critique is evident in the various efforts to extend the aesthetic more broadly, to position it as a general category of experience – a qualitative register of experience – that can be applied in all kinds of contexts, and certainly beyond the narrow space of art. For example, I have drawn on Kant’s very traditional conception of aesthetics. I have accepted it as a model for evaluating the aesthetic features on non-art phenomena. In this respect, I have not attempted anything very ambitious. I have not attempted to rethink the nature and potential of the aesthetic beyond its conventional definition. I have simply applied the notion more generally, but with what aim precisely?

Thinking carefully, It would seem that I am trying to discern some vital layer of cultural potential within road cycling and rock climbing – and possibly within all manner of everyday experiences and activities – that somehow connects with strands of aesthetic speculation, and that enables the aesthetic to gain a relevance that it can never have within the awkward, self-annulling autonomy of contemporary art. But as I have suggested, this involves more than simply extending the aesthetic, it involves rethinking it. Kant’s four conditions are not sufficient and in any case do not engage with his more thorough holistic rationale for conceiving a category of aesthetic judgement that operates alongside logically governed cognition and ethically geared social interaction. It is only within the context of this wider system of relations that the aesthetic makes coherent sense as a space of mediation and reconciliation. But even more than this, Kant’s conception of aesthetics, however important and influential, is not the only relevant model. The aesthetic takes shape as a complex permutational space involving a rich set of of ontological, epistemological and ethico-political elements. At one level it dutifully functions within larger metaphysical systems. At another level, without even necessarily saying this specifically, it works to disturb them. In this sense, the history of aesthetic speculation reveals both an affirmative and a critical, deconstructive aspect. The risk in so many effort to apply the aesthetic more broadly, is that the aesthetic is reduced and flattened, rendered in very conventional terms as, for instance, a dimension of qualitative sensibility or a vaguely determined realm of appearance and play. The problem, it seems to me, is to somehow recover and develop a sense of the aesthetic that works to disrupt existing relations, yet not necessarily always via the conventional means of making strange or shaping the new, but also by speaking of very old things – of discovering continuities where least expected.

For example, road cycling and rock-climbing, even though plainly a product of modernity and structurally meaningful in their relation to systems of leisure and consumption, also provide an experience that connects people to their bodies and the wider environment, engaging with dimensions of experience that recall possibilities that may appear under threat or lost. However problematic, however compromised, they summon a memory of old ways of being within new visceral frameworks. This may simply be regarded as a sphere of consolation, in which the larger system persists precisely by enabling ever diminishing contexts of hope, yet this falls into the trap that I discussed earlier of envisaging an entirely monolithic system. The small gestures of compromised hope are also the signs of the impossibility of the closure of the overall system – and also the signs that system itself somehow retains these memories, fictions and hopes as an assembled multiplicity.

But there is still a need for something more, some effort to think through the contours of the aesthetic more carefully, to reconfigure and redistribute our sense of the real itself. This involves both describing the permutational space of the aesthetic (in terms of variety of philosophical and historical backgrounds) and engaging critically with current forms of life. The aim is less to impose a conventional model of the aesthetic than to foster new conceptions and modes of practice that draw upon the nascent potential inscribed within present forms of life.

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