Limit of Aesthetics

I argue that field of aesthetic practice is broader than art, that it relates to wider dimensions of experience. Unlike art, which takes shape as a particular and idiosyncratic social institution and form of cultural practice, aesthetics characterises a qualitative layer of experience that is associated with a wide range of social phenomena and modes of being. But here’s the dilemma: in imagining some distinctly aesthetic layer of experience, I run into a similar problem that art encounters. Just as art at once gains and loses critical value in its autonomy – just as it affects everyday life and then is rendered radically separate from it – so too aesthetics both discovers and abandons critical value the more it obtains distinct identity. In conceiving a specifically aesthetic layer of experience, I cannot avoid reconfirming a whole range of distinctions that critical aesthetics primarily questions. So, for instance, if one aim is to undermine the difference between work and play, then the notion of aesthetic practice seems critically useful. It offers a means of rethinking the relationship between labour and leisure, between the negative character of instrumental being and the field of impractical, imaginative action. Yet as a distinctly identifiable notion, aesthetics still only makes sense as that which is other to work. If it represents a layer of experience then it is not both work and play at once, rather it appears as the playful dimension of work. This leaves us ultimately within the initial conceptual framework in which work and play are meaningful in terms of their fundamental difference. If we are to think beyond this opposition then the notions of both work and play, and the conventional relationship between these two, must be questioned. This also entails questioning the nature of the aesthetic – the nature of its difference from any other layer of experience.

The point then is perhaps not to resolve the identity of the aesthetic, but to tease out its contradictions, which exemplify precisely the nature of the problem: the difficulty of imagining some other way of being that is not framed in terms of the difference between work and play, the gap between sensibility and rationality, the antagonism between ends and means. The notion of the aesthetic assists in thinking to the limit and tentatively beyond, but always ultimately in metaphoric terms, in terms of the existing conceptual repertoire. Finally, assuming that any reflection whatsoever is possible in this limit space, we would have to shift beyond the notion of the aesthetic. The ultimate success of the term would depend upon it disappearing.

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