Aesthetics with a capital ‘A’ refers to a slightly marginal field of philosophy – one that has seen better days, but that prattles along regardless and may even be making some kind of return. It sits forlornly alongside the major fields of Ontology, Epistemology, Logic and Ethics, hoping to be taken more seriously, fantasising about its wider relevance. Extending beyond philosophy proper, there is also aesthetics with a little ‘a’ that denotes a more general space of critical and cultural debate.
Continuing with the little ‘a’ and dropping the trailing ’s’, aesthetics shifts from a noun to an adjective. It describes a particular category of experience. With characteristic ambivalence, this category is both regularly restricted to the contexts of art and literature while also stubbornly preserving a sense of wider scope and purpose. How are we to recognise it? Visit any major civic art gallery. Gallery visitors contemplate but do not touch. They are idle and yet engaged. They experience things inwardly, yet in a socially licensed and legible manner. They manifest an anxious, affective interiority that, for Kant, also provides the basis for community.
More informally, aesthetics also refers to a manner of composing things that motivates an aesthetic response. We refer to to an artist’s ‘aesthetic’ to indicate the strategies they employ to organise their work. This involves dimensions of both form and sensory, experiential composition, and is always distinguished from ‘content’. Aesthetics relates to the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of an artistic work. It is associated with aspects of appearance and surface – with parameters of manifestation and style rather than the invisible field of whatever it is that manifestation contains.
So we have roughly three meanings:
- Aesthetics denotes a field of philosophical (and more general critical) discourse.
- Aesthetic experience indicates a distinctive modality separate from biological, appetitive being and rational, purposive activity. According to Kant, it represents a sphere of pleasure, play and freedom that is reflective and specifically and characteristically human.
- An artist’s aesthetic refers to their stylistic approach to dimensions of presentation and manifestation – how they compose works to facilitate aesthetic delectation.