Aesthetic Questions

  1. What is aesthetics? Is it a universal sphere of qualitative human experience or an historically specific field that is intimately tied to the self-understanding of modernity?
  2. How is the term employed? What does it mean in use?
  3. How does aesthetics engage with the problem of sense?
  4. What is the relationship between aesthetics and art? Are they necessarily and essentially linked? How do they overlap? How are they differentiated?
  5. Does aesthetics have any currency beyond its relationship to art?
  6. What are the features of aesthetics as a mode of practice?
  7. What is the value of aesthetic practice on its own and in its relationship to art?

Ranciere argues against those who would neatly distinguish between art and aesthetics that the two are actually (historically) inextricably linked (‘knotted’) and, more specifically, that contemporary art is profoundly affected by aesthetic concerns. Here the term ‘aesthetics’ refers less to a narrowly conceived space of taste (the traditional discrimination of the beautiful and the sublime) than to fundamental themes and dilemmas of art as a field of experience – as a space, for instance, of autonomy, transformation and freedom. In aside, however, it is worth noting that the notions of the beautiful and the sublime demand some care – they have wider implications. They are not reducible to markers of cultural refinement in the most brutal, socially inscribed sense, but also serve as potent symbols of freedom and reconciliation. If beauty and sublimity are associated with a narrow conception of aesthetics this is simply to indicate that their wider meaning and social implications are often disregarded. In any case, arguing strongly for the relevance and value of critical aesthetics, Ranciere describes the contemporary historical formation, in which art art and aesthetics are mutually supportive and interlinked, as the ‘aesthetic regime’ of art. He argues that within the context of several centuries of modernity the major currents of art are now conceived in terms of the paradoxes of the aesthetic.

Ranciere’s scheme provides a useful means of interpreting key tendencies within contemporary art. However, I would argue that although typically tightly coupled art and aesthetics also preserve some level of independent identity. Aesthetics, for instance, is not only focused on the nature of art but also denotes a wider field of philosophical enquiry, which is concerned broadly with the complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty of sense. Beyond this discursive identity, it also represents a form of engagement with things and the world. As a mode of experience, aesthetics is strongly historically determined and strongly linked to the cultural imaginary of art, but it also has general features that would seem to lend it wider human currency. While there are clearly dangers in envisaging anything like a universal conception of aesthetic experience, there is still a need to address aspects of currently inexplicable commonality between different cultural and historical ‘aesthetic’ frames.

In terms of art’s essential dependence on aesthetics, Ranciere’s point represents a very pertinent response towards those who would imagine a simple minded distinction between the materiality of art and the idealism of aesthetics or, in more Romantic terms, distinguish between a mysterious field of experiential truth and one that is more properly abstract and propositional, but still this need not imply, as Ranciere argues, that modes of artistic practice that fall outside the aesthetic regime are necessarily excluded from art. The field of art is varied and diverse. It is not reducible to the cutting edge trends of critical art, however important these are in shaping the cultural landscape and evaluative norms. So while linked in all manner of obvious and more subtle ways, art and aesthetics are not entirely coincident.

My interest is particularly in how the influence of the aesthetic affects art’s own sense of its active, productive nature. While art has always contained a reflective dimension and has always involved a responsive sensitivity to materials and the world, aesthetics, as a pointedly responsive space of affective, non-instrumental and qualitative engagement, emphasises the attitude of reserve within art. It pushes it further from the simplicity of techne and making. It works to suspend the productivity or art, while making this itself productive. At the same time, aesthetic practice – and the art that increasingly follows this model – cannot avoid its relation to consumption. If aesthetics suggests a critical relation to the wider instrumental world this is always with an abiding sense of discomfort and complicity.

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