Note on pragmatist aesthetics

There are wide range of current approaches to the field of aesthetics, everything from efforts to resurrect the notion of beauty in contemporary art, to continuing strands of critical aesthetics that envisage both the political possibility and the limits of art, to aspects of mainstream pragmatist, analytical and phenomenological philosophy that are concerned with the problem of our embodied, felt relation to the world. The latter will often draw upon the work of John Dewey (Art as Experience) to posit at the outset the broader relevance of the aesthetic. Rather than being restricted to a theory of art, the aesthetic is positioned as integral to experience generally.

My own work emerges from within the critical tradition, however I share this contemporary philosophical concern to conceive the wider relevance of aesthetics – and particularly to look beyond art as the paradigm for aesthetic practice. While the critical tradition tends to remain within the liminal space of contemporary art, with all its obvious blurring of boundaries, transdisciplinary associations and motions of curious return, my concern is with practices that have no specific interest in art, and that exist just fine aesthetically without any reference to art.

In this respect, unlike Dewey, my aim is not to extend the category of art, but rather to position it as just one form of aesthetic practice. It is aesthetics that should be more broadly conceived, not art. Indeed, rather than serving as paradigm of ‘aesthetic practice’, I argue that art deflects aesthetics from its genuine critical possibility. Art represents a special case. The amorphous, ill-defined space of broader aesthetic practice contains a potential that art cannot properly countenance due to its clearer systemic determination. The complexity of the aesthetic – its insubstantial and shape-shifting character and its role as a mediator – lends it a critical capacity that risks being lost in the moment that it is recognised. Indeed it is necessarily lost in this moment, which makes the aesthetic itself an intermediary concept. The ambiguity of the aesthetic, its refusal to subsist as a straightforward concept or experiential category, is here maintained and compromised at once.

The danger in extending the aesthetic is not that the notion becomes meaningless, but that it becomes all too obviously meaningful – or, more simply, that it becomes banal. This is my issue with a great deal of the recent philosophical accounts of a general aesthetics. So, for instance, in a recent edited collection, The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, Tom Leddy argues that aesthetics should be broadened to consider all kinds of everyday aesthetic phenomena – the ‘cute’, the ‘pretty’, the ‘clean’, the ‘nice’, etc. Now while there is certainly value in considering the contemporary topology and rhetoric of popular taste, aesthetics cannot be reduced to aspects of appreciative engagement with the world. The field of taste is an exemplary instance of aesthetic interaction, but is hardly sufficient on its own. Only in as much as the ‘the cute’, the ‘pretty’ and the ‘nice’ inform an experiential worldview and a particular sense of integral relational identity – of coordinated dimensions of sensation, appearance, imagination and knowledge, and of freedom, constraint and possibility – do these terms begin to reveal their deeper aesthetic implications. But none of this evident if the aesthetic is conceived simply in terms of a continuum between the agreeable and the beautiful (as a narrowly delineated sphere of delectation) rather than as something richer and more integrally meaningful.

All too often, the pragmatist aesthetic tradition insists upon the importance of the aesthetic, but devotes very little time to considering what the notion means beyond the most commonplace understanding. So it will be simply linked to vernacular taste and everyday liking and disliking, without any developed sense of its complex ontological, epistemological, ethical, political and social dimensions. Dewey himself, while opening up the aesthetic to a broader experiential field, ultimately conceives the aesthetic very much in terms drawn from the idealist heritage. Aesthetics, in his view, involves recognising the narrative arc of any given experience – its sense of unified, formal identity. There is a Kantian sense to this recognition of an experiential ‘whole’. It takes shape as a moment of reconciliation in which experience appears naturally aligned with our understanding. There is nothing of the sublime here, nothing abrasive or aporetic.

There is also in Dewey an unclear relationship between art and aesthetics. Aesthetics is broadly understood, but so too is art, in a manner that makes it difficult to precisely distinguish them. It seems that for Dewey art represents the aesthetic as a form of practice, hence there is a need to criticise a narrow understanding of art and allow an artistic aspect to all experience. The aesthetic becomes a means of delineating a qualitative dimension of life, and art becomes the way in which this dimension is actively lived. Yet this confuses matters. It renders narrowly conceived art as the model for all qualitative experience, when it would better, in my view, to allow art its ambivalent specificity and consider more carefully the possibilities of a more broadly conceived aesthetic practice.

This more radical and less clearly delineated option is evident in another chapter in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Michael Principe describes the work of the Italian artist Baruchello, who during the middle of the twentieth century ran a small Italian farm. Baruchello deliberately did nothing to present the farm as an art ‘project’, but wrote instead in How to Imagine of its power to serve as a generative context for creative thought and action. In this manner he comes much closer to conceiving an aesthetics of the everyday that eludes the conventional model of artistic work and appreciative subject. The farm represents a context for living and acting in the world, without any sense of a structural divide between artist and audience, art and aesthetic response. He imagines his friend Marcel Duchamp building one of his ready-mades in one of the rooms of the farmhouse. Baruchello has no wish to own it. He would just like to speak to Duchamp while he is making it. The work is meaningless as a work. It only obtains meaning as an everyday generative force or relational context. This is much more interesting and fruitful in terms of conceiving the critical potential of everyday aesthetics than simply acknowledging the existence of popular taste or envisaging the coherent character of any particular experience.

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