Art and Aesthetics

What is wrong with art? Why prefer the term ‘aesthetics’ to ‘art’?

What is meant by these two terms? More importantly, what meaning can we make of these two terms?

Any talk of ‘making’ instantly brings to mind the thought of art, because art is form of skilful making – or at least this is what art has traditionally meant. So if we are making meaning, we are doing something that involves at least an aspect of art. Although this is clearly also the work of philosophy, which is distinguished from art precisely in its impractical, conceptual focus. It seems that we must distinguish then within making between that which occurs theoretically and that which is applied.

And this is how the relationship between aesthetics and art is normally portrayed. Aesthetics appears as a supplementary and tediously abstract philosophical space that can never quite account for the mysterious reality of art and art-making. Art, in contrast, adopts the role of mute seer – doing and communicating a great deal, but saying very little.

But aesthetics is not simply a philosophical discipline. The term also refers to modes of experience that are characterised, for instance, by beauty, sublimity, disinterested engagement, etc. Notably, aesthetic experience tends to be conceived in reflective terms. It is not about doing so much as perceiving and experiencing. So while art is associated more with the artist and their active work of making, aesthetics is associated with the reflectively disposed ’viewer’ who somehow finds the means to experiences nature, art or whatever in aesthetic terms – in other words, beyond the ordinary contours of practical interaction with the world.

Art also steps back from the world, but at the same time is grounded in a key aspect of the world – the field of making. Art originally referred to all kinds of skilful making, with no effort to distinguish between instrumentally geared skill and more reflective and aesthetically cast approaches. And this is, of course, what allies art to aesthetics. Contemporary art involves processes of making that are detached from ordinary instrumental ends. Even, for instance, when they are explicitly couched in instrumental terms – say within the context of a socially engaged art project – they represent a play upon the instrumental, a reassertion of possible relations between the instrumental and the ethical and political, that represent exemplary and evocative instants, rather than simply meeting taken for granted, efficient ends. In this sense, art represents a reflection on – and very often a critique – of processes of instrumental making. Yet, even at its most critical, this can entail dimensions of blindness, elements of exploitative making that reproduce wider social and environmental conditions and relations. There is nothing wrong with this as such. Efforts of pure autonomy are untenable and most likely less valuable than art that risks more complex positioning and articulation. However, the latter demands a sense of self-awareness – a lucid reflection on the dilemmas of making.

If I have an issue with art in this context, it is that aspects of tension and contradiction too often pass unnoticed. For all of the efforts to link art to other disciplines and to break up its integral space, there is still the sense that there are these specialised makers called artists who are competing to establish an identity for themselves. They adopt the role of the hyper-active agent – the mini, wayward entrepreneur, who wheels and deals to get things done and to be noticed. All of this is good no doubt. More is being produced. The best and most innovative works and ideas obtain wider social circulation, contribute to cultural dialogue, etc. But at the same time this play of production, novelty and competition is also necessarily aligned with the wider productive system and set of cultural and social relations. It may set forth different models of making and consumption, but is still interpretable in these more extensive structural terms.

And this is why I cannot help conceiving – however naively, however misguidedly – another option. Let us call it simply aesthetic practice without the necessity for art – without the necessity for the institution of art (including the art market), without the necessity for artists and without the necessity for an audience for art. Now I realise that this is a dumb and impractical option, and that it reproduces all kinds of revolutionary, egalitarian dreams of the early 20th century avant-garde, but let me explain its appeal. Instead of a specialised set of artists, we can envisage a more fluid and democratic field, in which art loses some of its status as a distinct specialised activity and cultural space. Art still exists, but relates to a broader field of activity (and experience) that is aesthetically conceived. Now I realise that nobody is going to want to speak about ‘aesthetics’ per se. It is not a better term than art. It is not a replacement for art, rather it is the imperfect means of imagining a dissolution and altered trajectory that affects not just art, but society generally. Aesthetics, however awkward and inadequate, provides a means of thinking the social and the social-environmental in other terms – of conceiving options beyond ordinary paradigms of exploitative and unsustainable production.

It is within this context that I am interested in exploring not only the history of aesthetic thought but also forms of contemporary life that involve an aesthetic dimension without being intimately bound to the paroxysms of contemporary art (its tendency to either retreat into a sublime interior space or theatrically and interminably nullify itself). I am interested, for instance, in amateur folk and popular music cultures that are focused more on participation than creative production and consumption. Strands of playful physical activity provide another example. I am thinking of something like the niche sport of rock-climbing and bouldering that project complex, intimate and ambiguous aesthetic relations to nature. The value of the notion of the aesthetic is that it broadens my focus. It allows me to think more widely than the tortured and paradoxical space of art.

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