Aesthetic Practice: the Dilemma of Categorisation and Imagining a Potential Beyond Art (However Daft this Must Seem)

The notion of aesthetics emerges historically within the context of the recognition of a specific and traditionally neglected category of human receptive experience. Alexander Baumgarten (1750) conceives a lower analogue of rational thought, a logic of sense that involves aspects of affect, inclination and judgement. This sphere, although never previously named, had been regarded as both alien to properly rational human existence and, more pointedly, as placing it at risk – through the perils of blind appetite, unrestrained emotion and beguiling illusion. Descartes, for example, founds modern critical philosophy on a suspicion of the body and sensible experience. More generally the privileging of abstract logical truth appears as a key feature of the Platonic heritage. While adhering to the conventional metaphysical hierarchy that privileges mind and abstract reason, Baumgarten draws upon Leibniz’s less binary view of the relationship between logical thought and sense to consider aspects of continuity and analogous functioning. Instead of being positioned as altogether other, aesthetics comes to designate an intermediary and indeterminable space allied to the senses but also echoing reason – with its own sense of clarity and its own capacity to discriminate, evaluate and judge. So right at the outset, aesthetics is characterised by an effort to draw together and reconcile antithetical tendencies. Arguably, however, this works less to shape a coherent categorical identity than to raise fundamental questions exposing the aporia of the wider philosophical system. With the advent of this awkward middle terrain there is now not only the uncertainty of sensible experience, but also of rational thought itself, which risks appearing inevitably affected, at some level, by sensible operations.

With Kant’s philosophical aesthetics the sense of paradox – of awkward intersection and uncertain correspondence – only increases. Aesthetics is described as a form of disinterested pleasure, non-instrumental engagement and concept-less thought. Curiously necessary and curiously bracketed, Kant argues that aesthetics involves a free play of the faculties that works to align the apriori and aspects of actual experience, as well as charting an intimate relationship between the universal and the particular. Once again, the emphasis is on the reconciliation of opposing categorical fields and forces. Appearing late in his overall metaphysical system, aesthetics provides a means of tying things together – even if it actually does the opposite; exposing the unresolved, impossible relation between the overall categories.

This play of contradictions, this difficulty in clarifying the proper nature and scope of the aesthetic, prompts two responses: one to try to describe the notion more clearly and consistently; the other to allow it its instability and complexity, and to regard this as itself significant. The contemporary French philosopher Jacques Ranciere takes the latter approach, arguing that there is no such thing as ‘aesthetic sentiments in general’ (Aesthetics and Its Discontents, 2009, p6). Instead the notion is historically specific, emerging in the Enlightenment and associated with the socially disruptive and transformative forces of modernity. Aesthetics, via the sensible forms of modern art, represents a new source of value within a wider context that involves the breakdown of fixed social hierarchies and established spatial, temporal and sensible-existential systems (AD, pp.10-11). In line with Hegel’s similar rejection of a more general aesthetics and his insistence that aesthetics be restricted to the philosophy of art, Ranciere links aesthetics closely to the modern cultural identity of art, which appears as the productive field in which aesthetics is realised, in which it discovers its relation to the sensibly articulated, social, material and immaterial object realm. More particularly Ranciere defines aesthetics as a ‘specific regime for the identification of art’ (AD, p.8). Aesthetics is positioned then neither as a wide-ranging independent field nor as a narrow and superfluous discourse parasitical on art, but rather as the particular conceptual means by which modern art – with all its contradictory calls to sublime distance and dissolution into the forms of everyday life – becomes visible and meaningful.

In associating aesthetics with the dilemmas of modernity and the practices and cultural imaginary of modern art, Ranciere denies the notion any broader historical or cross-cultural relevance. Aesthetics obtains identity in terms of its role in addressing modern contradictions. It is not sufficient then to simply point to some dimension of sensible engagement with the world, of taste, discrimination, etc. and to name this ‘aesthetic’. This far too general understanding of the aesthetic involves no discomfort and no unsettling of boundaries. Existing distinctions are simply reinforced. This toothless and innocuous version of the aesthetic marks little more than a legible division rather than signalling a space of awkward intersection and paradox.

In these terms, to envisage a pre-history of the aesthetic, say in ancient philosophy is misguided. Ranciere argues that what we find there is less the contemporary ‘knot’ of the aesthetic than a conventional order in which the logos appears at the summit and forms of common sense are positioned as alien and apart. So Plato literally exiles the poets from his ideal republic (they are forbidden from playing any role in the education of its citizens and defenders). Rather than forming uncertain associations with properly rational and truthful political and social life, they are categorically excluded. This gesture of exclusion is emblematic, for Ranciere, of what he describes as the ‘ethical’ regime of the arts, which long before the notion of aesthetics was developed provided the basis for comprehending and delineating art. Images were valued or condemned in terms of their ethical value, their links to ‘the good’ and their capacity to teach people how to feel, believe and behave. This period was quickly amended, augmented and partly superseded by ‘the representative regime of the arts’, which was less ethically prescriptive and transposed a notion of social order on to the organisation of the arts. With Aristotle there develops a sense of proper and improper subjects, particular genre and media, and notions of formal integrity and appropriateness. In this sense, the organisation of the arts becomes reflective of wider aspects of social and cultural order. The arts had their specific place and mechanisms, with no scope for general systemic disruption. Ranciere associates the representative regime of arts with Aristotle’s Poetics , in that it defines a neatly ordered relationship between poesis (modes of artistic making), aisthesis (modes of feeling and being) and mimesis (which Ranciere defines less as imitation than as ‘story’, emphasising how the ordered relations of the dramatic plot draw together modalities of art and being). As an aside, I wonder about this interpretation of mimesis, this emphasis on the logical patterns of dramatic action, rather than upon imitation per se. Mimesis in my view is not reducible to ‘story’. It delineates a much wider framework of social reproduction that involves a vital relationships between repetition and difference. Representation is never re-presentation as such, but always finds means of staging and realising dimensions of opening. This will become important to my argument later on when I address the problem of aesthetic transformation – of how it can conceived in terms that are not entirely focused on the articulation of the new.

For Ranciere then the modern era is conceived in terms of its breaks with both the ethical and representative regimes. What is interesting here – apart from the sweeping historical generality of this tripartite schema – is that art appears as the larger and more encompassing term than aesthetics. While Ranciere acknowledges there is no such thing as art generally, still he imagines three regimes of the image – the use of the term ‘image’ guarding against any confusion on the issue; that there cannot possibly be any transhistorical notion of art, or more specifically any continuity between the art of the aesthetic regime and the art of the ethical and representative regimes. While each regime involved images and things made there remains no underlying coherent and consistent notion of art. However, it is still worth observing the dimension of commonality that enables these three regimes of the ‘image’ to be associated. If not ‘art’ precisely, then the ‘image’ appears as broader phenomenon than the entirely modern notion of aesthetics. This is very unlike many contemporary aesthetic philosophers who insist the situation is reversed; aesthetics has a more general identity than the notion of art. So there is a considerable body of contemporary work, for instance, examining the relevance of the aesthetic to making sense of all manner of aspects of ordinary, everyday life – raking leaves, riding a bicycle to work, pushing a chair back from a desk, etc. Ranciere would no doubt argue that this represents a misconception of aesthetics and a devaluation of its genuine possibility. It imagines that aesthetics has some distinct categorical status, rather than delineating a space of intractable confusion and knottedness, and, despite its ostensible aims, effectively marginalises aesthetics – rendering it powerless and politically irrelevant. Ranciere adopts Adorno’s stance that the contemporary relevance of aesthetics is linked precisely to its contradictions and its refusal to adequately resolve them, to permit ever any sense of settled, secure identity. Those who describe a definite category of aesthetic experience with wide historical and cultural currency actually render the aesthetic less and less significant – a mere component within a wider system that has little time for the aesthetic.

So in conceiving these options we discover an apparent impasse. We either acknowledge the aesthetic as a distinct category of experience and it effectively disappears (becomes politically insignificant) or we deny aesthetics any relevance beyond the contradictions that disable it in any case. Ranciere strives towards a third option – one in which art and aesthetics enable a ‘redistribution of the sensible’, so that the field of aesthetic contradiction becomes a basis for political and social transformation, but never precisely and never directly; always with sense of a constitutive distance linked to the necessity that the antagonism between the withdrawn and the political dimensions of art and aesthetics is never adequately resolved. This suggests an ambivalent space of opening that insists upon its own impossibility to ever become manifest. Even more seriously, it suggests a residual allegiance to categorical distinction – so while politics and ethics reveal a vital and intrinsic aesthetic aspect, aesthetics is also not quite politics and not quite ethics. Categorical identity is both questioned and curiously, at the last instant, reinforced.

How else can this be thought? I wonder whether there is a need to risk rethinking the historical character of aesthetics? Is it, for instance, so simply tied to the social and cultural disruptions of modernity? Does it have any wider currency – and not simply as taste (a category of engagement and qualitative pleasure), but as space of more general existential dilemma and paradox? Risky terrain indeed, but I can’t help rethinking, for instance, Plato’s expulsion of the poets as not simply indicative of a confident recognition of the difference between logos and the lures of poetic sense, but as an acknowledgement of their intimate association in human thought and affairs. The republic is a fantasy of clearly delineated distinction that has no place in the confused actual world. The fantasy is indicative of a desire for clarity that has no basis in actual thought. In any case the immediate and pressing perils of poetic imitation – the dangerous distance they entail from formally conceived truth – are writ large in this fantasy. They provide evidence less of a neatly ordered ethical or representative system than of an endlessly entwined relationship between logic and sense. In this sense then it would be possible to argue that the tensions and contradictions are not only the product of modernity, but lie at the heart of the tradition of Western thought. This hardly entails their universal character, but it does suggest the need to consider their complex origins and broader currency.

My aim, however, is really not to explore the viability of a general transhistorical and transcultural concept of the aesthetic. I agree with Ranciere’s fundamental socio-political critique of this project. I especially do not want to delineate aesthetics as a category of qualitative experience. I once again agree with Ranciere that the aesthetic is valuable precisely in terms of its capacity to interrogate the overall categorical system rather than in terms of delineating a particular field of taste, discrimination and evaluation. Nonetheless, I will argue that aesthetics has a wider historical and philosophical sway than Ranciere acknowledges and, as well, that the closely correlated relationship between art and aesthetics that Ranciere describes is looser and more amenable to renegotiation. This latter point for me is key. By restricting aesthetics to a discourse for the identification of art, Ranciere develops an anthropocentric, narrowly inclusive and productively focused notion of art and aesthetics. Let’s examine each of these in turn:

Anthropocentrism: art and the imagination of nature. Ranciere disputes the French Analytical philosopher Paul Shaeffer’s (2000) suggestion that the relation to nature has been largely lost in the aesthetic tradition since Kant. On the contrary, Ranciere argues that the Romantic notion of artistic genius represents an internalisation of the concept of nature within art. He adds that Friedrich Shelling’s (1775-1854) insistence on the merging of conscious and unconscious forces in art represents a profound reflection upon the relationship between art and nature. While this has considerable validity, it clearly also demonstrates a strongly anthropocentric orientation. Nature appears as significant only in as much as it is mediated through art – through the innocent, naive gesture of the artist that manifests and incorporates a wider space of nature that actually – as de-centred and wider-than-human field – disappears. Of course, this is not simply Ranciere’s omission. It lies at the heart of the contradictions of Romanticism and is more broadly indicative of a dialectical conception of the human relation to nature, with human social (and spiritual) development linked to the destruction and incorporation of nature generally. There is now, however, an increasingly evident need to question any convenient sense that nature is effectively or adequately preserved within the human. While the human is ultimately natural, it is plainly still, via its current economic and social forms, contributing to rapid environmental devastation, involving climate change and a significant decline in non-human habitat and bio-diversity. In this sense, there is a pressing need, as Shaeffer suggests, for aesthetics to look beyond the internalisation mechanisms of art and to deal as directly as possible with literal forests, creeks, drains and suburban lawns. There is particularly a need to develop an aesthetics that fosters attitudes and practices of custodial care.

Narrowly inclusive: art appearing as the adequate form of everything that lies beyond art. Ranciere disagrees with Schaeffer on another issue, the interpretation of short passage from Stendhal’s Vie de Henry Brulard (1835). The passage describes childhood memories – ‘church bells, a water pump, a neighbour’s flute’ (AD, p.4). Shaeffer compares these observations to similar memories by Chinese writer, Shen Fu, to provide ‘evidence of a cross-cultural “aesthetic attitude” that is not directed to artworks.’ (AD, p.4). Ranciere argues, on the contrary, that this can equally be regarded as entirely characteristic of the ‘aesthetic regime’ of art, which is precisely characterised by a blurring of the stuff of art and life:

Far from revealing the ‘confusion’ of aesthetic theory, Stendhal’s water pump testifies precisely to something that this theory strives in its way to interpret: the ruin of the old canons that set art objects apart from those of ordinary life, the new form – at once more intimate and more enigmatic – taken by the relation between the conscious productions of art and the involuntary forms of sensory experience in which their effects are manifest. (AD, p5)

So any orientation beyond art is instantly incorporated within art. There is nothing – certainly no aesthetic field – that can lie beyond art. Any beyond will have already been anticipated within art and so will ultimately always be yet another instance of art’s inclusive relation to the world. This has the consequence that there can be no aesthetic phenomena that are not already, in that instant, inscribed within the space of art. This means effectively than no external phenomena can be addressed in their own terms – in terms that may not correspond to the aesthetic philosophical and institutional space of art. One of the important implications of this is that non-art cultural forms lose their specificity and extra-artistic logic. Because a newspaper headline can be incorporated in a collage hardly implies that the newspaper – our engagement with the newspaper, which has largely shifted from paper to screen – cannot have its own aesthetic integrity without the imposition of art.

Of course, the other thing missing from Ranciere’s critique of Shaeffer is any engagement with the memories of Shen Fu. Where did they come from? How are they constituted. If they have no aesthetic relevance then what relevance do they have? And can there be no alignment between the reflective attitudes of Stendhal and Shen Fu? Are they utterly and absolutely rendered alien to one another due to their distinct historical and socio-cultural conditions? If they do intersect at any level, how can this intersection be conceived?

Productively focused: aesthetics as a field of reception (and consumption) is necessarily tied to art as a field of making (production). Ranciere’s argument that aesthetics is solely directed to the identification of art manifests a conventional cultural and economic relation in which production is tied inevitably to consumption, in which the two material and discursive spaces are necessarily allied and aligned. But what if we were to envisage a looser and less determined relationship between these two? What if we were to develop a notion of aesthetic practice that works against the larger socio-economic paradigm of the paired relationship between consumption and production? This could shape a form of experimental and inventive critical practice. It may also provide a vehicle for interrogating a specific conception of the role of art in terms of mobilising innovation. With productively conceived art as the focus of aesthetics the emphasis is upon traditional avant-garde conceptions of creative disruption – ‘making strange’ as well as ‘the redistribution of the sensible’. But this conception of novelty bears an implicit relationship to the larger system that is destroying the planet and generating massive social justice. Aesthetic practice, on the other hand, has the potential to suggest a different model of creative action and inaction. It places the emphasis on receptivity and upon patterns of following rather than novelty. It is directed towards the problem of social reproduction and maintenance rather that social transformation. Transformation is conceived as occurring within the texture and tissue of aesthetic practice – through following, iteration and repetition – rather than as a radical disruption.

This is to describe a very simple difference between art and aesthetics, with art linked to processes of making and aesthetics to processes of receptive engagement. Dewey acknowledges this opposition but also questions its overly strict enforcement, suggesting that art and aesthetics contain dimensions of one another and are mutually constitutive. Art entails a sensitivity to materials and a general openness to things that reveals a dimension of receptive engagement, while aesthetics, as an active work of imaginative interpretation, involves a dimension of making. He traces both art and aesthetics to their basis in aspects of ordinary experience – the capacity for experience to take and be lent coherent and meaningful shape. Dewey clearly does not subscribe to Ranciere’s sense of the narrowly historically specific sense of the aesthetic. Indeed his ‘Art as Experience’ offers the most lucid and paradigmatic alternative to the tradition of critical aesthetics that positions the field as entirely historically legible. At the same time Dewey is also profoundly suspicious of the wider philosophical system that renders aesthetics only a curious afterthought or a minor category of experience far less important than reason or ethics. Dewey employs the category of the aesthetic not in order to reinforce existing categories, but rather to pick them apart. The field of aesthetic ‘sense’ interests him precisely because it is indeterminate – it cannot be reconciled within the standard binary conception of the relationship between body and mind, sensible experience and reflective response. But this is an aside. I will not try to pursue Dewey properly here. My point just now is that Dewey clarifies and complicates the relationship between the productivity of art and the receptivity of aesthetics. I take his point, but resist blurring their difference altogether. I will argue, for instance, that strands of contemporary art that avoid making things, that are attached to ephemeral processes, that occur in non-art-institutional spaces and that minimise the gap between artists and participants are effectively shifting beyond the conventional processes of art. They are working instead to realise aesthetic aims. They are employing deliberately passive, receptive methods. This can, of course, simply be regarded as another modality of art (the rendering aesthetic of art perhaps) but can also be regarded as representing a critical alternative to what has always been most fundamental to the notion of art – the sense of making things, of being creatively productive. Within the context of the broader contemporary questioning of the overall capitalist model of economic and social organisation, this shift away from a primarily productive notion of art seems significant. Aesthetics as a sphere of receptivity and reflection offers within this context the glimmerings of an alternative, even if it too is inevitably complicit in some level of production, even if it can never adequately or convincingly shake off within its own operations a relation to the active space of art.

My aim in this paper has not only been to clarify the dilemmas of aesthetics but also to envisage a space of cultural possibility – a future, if you like, for a concept and discursive mode that may appear increasingly anachronistic and irrelevant. While I acknowledge many of Ranciere’s arguments in delineating the historical character of the field, I still insist on its more general implications, and particularly its value in thinking beyond the conventional theatre, paradigms and social exclusiveness of art – in considering, for instance, all kinds of extra-artistic phenomena: everyday life and the natural world; amateur practices; and alternative means of conceiving the relationship between continuity and transformation in creative practice. None of this entails envisaging a distinct category of qualitative experience. Rather it involves mobilising aesthetic thought in new directions to inform a more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable world.

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