What brings me to aesthetics?

I can recall that my first response to art was quite simply blank. As a child my parents took me regularly to major galleries. They’d walk around very slowly, far too slowly for me, and ask what I thought of particular images – did I like them? Here my sense was that they were less interested in listening to my youthful impressions than in seeking any slight glimmer of nascent aesthetic capacity. I can remember having absolutely no thoughts or feelings whatsoever. The images simply meant nothing to me. I cared for them no more and most likely much less than for all the other ordinary things around me. I felt stupid, blind and semi-ashamed, but also an acute sense of my own difference – however negatively cast. I also knew not to confess to any of this. I realised very clearly that I needed to discover the means to experience this curious field of art and to speak of it. Gradually I developed these skills, but even now I can recall that initial feeling of incomprehension – and it still returns when confronted by art that is indifferent to to me.

Hardly surprising then that I studied art in my final year of high school. I was determined to makes sense of a field that made little intimate sense to me. Yet to be honest, if I did gradually come to develop an enthusiasm for art, this happened more through language than the experience of art per se. I can remember avidly reading our textbook, Gombrich’s History of Western Art, which provided a compelling overview of western artistic traditions, and more importantly represented art as as an engrossing story of distinct periods, movements and styles. The narrative here was less simply art-historical than philosophical. It was about the evolution and struggle of philosophical ideas, which were in turn related to the formal features of particular artistic styles and works of art. So in this sense it was through the lens of aesthetics that I became captivated by art, rather than vice versa. During this time I can also recall making a studious effort to become knowledgeable about art – to recognise the work, for instance, of specific artists. Plainly a compensatory manoeuvre. What I lacked in immediate sensibility I made up for with flimsy erudition.

My real tastes lay elsewhere. I was much more genuinely absorbed in the spheres of film, television, literature and, in my teenage years, popular music. These were much more significant spaces of immediate pleasure and value for me. I didn’t really connect any of these other spheres of culture to the question of art until a bit later, and once again I suspect it was through language and the discourse surrounding art than to any special interaction with art works themselves.

When I returned in my mid-twenties to university study, the problem of art became central to the theorisation not just of art itself, but of culture and cultural meaning generally. Even just the titles of the set readings made this very evident – for example, Benjamin’s ’The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, and Debord’s ’Society of the Spectacle’. All of these works and many others positioned the problem of art as central to the understanding of contemporary culture and cultural practice – whether or not the cultural forms or practices bore any ostensible relation to the sphere of art or not. So, for instance, the cultural-political dilemmas of resistance and incorporation in contemporary popular music could be precisely mapped to the contradictions of the tradition of avant-garde art, and to issues that are fundamentally aesthetic – that have their basis in critical and philosophical aesthetics.

A decade or so later, as a Communication and Media academic, I produced a series of lectures on the aestheticisation of information. This drew on currents of Frankfurt School critical theory and postmodern cultural theory to argue that the emergence of desktop publishing represented an effort to represent regimes of corporate communication and statistical data in humanly vivid terms. I was struck by the strangeness of this effort, and the notion of aesthetics seemed the best way of clarifying what was at stake. At the same time, as an active rock-climber, I was also very concerned with debates on the ethics of bolting in rock-climbing, recognising that what were portrayed as simply ethical, practical or environmental arguments had a fundamentally aesthetic character. They were about the imaginative scenography and mediation of specific features of a complex cultural form and an associated set of environmental relationships. So desktop publishing was not simply, narrowly about the enhancement of information and fixed climbing anchors (bolts) were not simply signs of ethical disregard and vandalism. Each of these spheres of cultural activity and debate revealed a fundamentally aesthetic aspect. However, neither bear any close and native relation to the field of art as such. As much as I have become increasingly concerned with dilemmas of art (partly in terms of resolving my own personal relation to whatever art means and how it affects me), I have always conceived the field of aesthetics more generally. While French philosopher Jacques Ranciere defines aesthetics in terms of the self-understanding of modern and contemporary art, my own sense is that aesthetics also has considerable relevance beyond the sphere of art per se.

So I come to aesthetics with a sense of personal ambivalence and perhaps a larger sense of categorical uncertainty. I am invested in the notion of aesthetics – and perhaps even in reimagining it – in order to make sense not only of art, but also things that extend beyond it. Ranciere would no doubt point to the paradigmatic character of this desire and conundrum within art, but I can also recognise a more general space of philosophical and cultural relevance.

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