There is a blindspot in the contemporary debate about the notion of the aesthetic, which is the aesthetic itself, assuming that it makes any sense to refer to the aesthetic itself, when it appears always more or less as a cipher for other things – for ethics, for politics, for all manner of contradictions within our experience of the social world. And this sense of blindness is not a recent phenomenon. The aesthetic always seems to withdraw, appearing reticently and last. It is the substance of Kant’s third critique, and then again not even that. The actual theme of judgement only takes aesthetics as an example. Of what? Of a dimension of agreement that cannot be explained – a moment of imaginary, felt reconciliation that has no basis in any specific, neatly delineated order of experience, but rather in something that from the outset mediates, and thus that is in this sense cast in terms of what it is not. It is not rational thought, but somehow resembles it. It is not ethical law, but somehow mimics aspects of the universal. The aesthetic is never simply itself. It always that only makes sense in terms of its relationship to other modes of being. It appears at the tail end of things. It appears to mend holes and fill gaps. It is an afterthought that represents the ultimate incomprehensibility and untenability of the whole. And that is also its value – its capacity to represent the limitations of that which makes it necessary.
Despite its untenability, the challenge is not demonstrate the inadequacy of the aesthetic or to dismiss its furtive identity altogether, but rather to search for that impossible horizon of the in itself – not to make the aesthetic properly coherent and adequate, but rather to enable a lucidity that we have no means of speaking. Because I also have no idea what the aesthetic is, but I am confident that it is more than a mirror of the social, that it has, at the very least, some kind of philosophical identity, which plays out not only in ethical terms, but also epistemologically and ontologically. Baumgarten associated aesthetics with sensible experience, but what precisely is the sensible? How does it relate to the problem of the soul? Of animated life? How does the sphere of sensibility relate to matter? How does it relate to form? Clearly the aesthetic does not fall neatly Into this ancient space of distinction. Rather it emerges from it as another aspect of mystery – a kind of complication, a scene in a play – perhaps a tragedy, perhaps a comedy, perhaps something that escapes Aristotelian categorisation. There is a scenography of the aesthetic, a play of light and dark, action and reflection, knowledge and its opposite. The aesthetic is an apparatus in which these things appear, drift apart, clash and are briefly reconciled. In this sense the aesthetic is a form of theatre more than anything else. It plays out, resolves and leaves unresolved various compelling antagonisms.
But in order to discover this sense of the aesthetic there is a need to do something very crude and direct – to differentiate the aesthetic from art. It not that aesthetics and art are not closely entwined, but the aesthetic is not limited to art. So if there is a rhetoric of autonomy within the aesthetic, this is not simply reducible to the problem of the social autonomy of art. No doubt the notion of the non-instrumental is socially legible, but that it not to say that the notion is entirely exhausted by it social legibility. At the very least this notion also needs to be taken seriously philosophically, in terms, for instance, of various ways of conceiving the relationship between the rational and the aesthetic and the ethical and the aesthetic.
There is a circularity in the way that contemporary art criticism addresses the relationship between art and the aesthetic. Ranciere argues that contemporary art takes shape in terms of an aesthetic regime, but also that the aesthetic regime is charged specifically with the task of identifying the proper contours of contemporary art. Both terms are thus defined in terms of the other. There is no sense of their slippage or the potential gap between them. This is evident for instance in Grant Kester’s defence of socially engaged art (SEA), in which he expounds a notion of dialogical aesthetic that it radically different to ordinary notions of art, and yet that somehow at the end must always be recuperated to the interests of art. Despite lacking any clear disciplinary identity, despite no longer being about making, despite reaching out to the other to the point that any sense of work becomes indeterminable, Kester still insists on the notions of art and artist. When you could just as easily argue that SEA is a limit discourse that can ultimately leave art behind, that has an aesthetic aspect that is inexplicable in terms of our ordinary understanding of art. Why not, for instance, discuss dimensions of conversation – of dialogical practice, of opening to the other – within ordinary species of social activism; activism that makes no claims to art? Why not tease out the aesthetic dimensions of non-art practice? It is as though ultimately, despite his claims to the contrary, Kester remains focused on the field of art. If not narrowly enforcing its accepted limits, he is at least working to accommodate its notional expansion within the compass of an expanded aesthetic paradigm. But perhaps the real point is to take the aesthetics more seriously and seek it our wherever it appears. Beyond the field of art, so be it.
I am afraid to think the aesthetic in universal terms. All my critical reflexes resist this thought. Yet perhaps the aesthetic is more than simply a pre-modern, Enlightenment invention? Perhaps it has a more general currency? Perhaps it exceeds the constellation in which it emerged? I know there are risks in even thinking this way, but perhaps it also enables a more general concept of the aesthetic that has current critical value? There is, if nothing else, the need to acknowledge other strands of aesthetic thought and being beyond the Western paradigm of contradiction and reconciliation. I have no way of convincingly arguing this, but sense its importance.
I can walk along a path slightly to the left or slightly to the right. I choose one way or the other. Where does this decision come from, especially if it makes no difference which way I choose, if they are both equally effective and equally distracted and distracting. There is in any particular choice an element beyond simply instrumental interests. There is a kind of indeterminable play that renders the experience of time and space vivid and poetic. It need not be anything profound or elevated – just the most ordinary, everyday decision and way of being. Somewhere in this for me is the basis of the aesthetic – a certain freedom that no manner of constraint can every fully constrain. But it its also not just freedom or play. It is something else. It is linked to the fatality of time and the suspension of that fatality in imagination. The aesthetic has yet to be thought.