Aesthetics and coming to know

What is the relationship between aesthetics and knowledge?

In ordinary use, the term ‘aesthetics’ relates to theories of beauty and art. It is a field of intellectual enquiry that examines non-strictly intellectual aspects of judgement and activity. In this sense, the discipline of aesthetics aims to distill an aspect of the known from the unknown. It aims to explain a form of experience that falls outside knowledge proper.

But aesthetics is not only a critical discipline. It also refers to the order of experience that the discipline takes as its object – the viewer’s experience, for instance, when looking at an art work; their experience of pleasure, beauty, sublimity or otherwise. To what extent does this correspond to a form of knowledge? Or is it utterly distinct from anything that we may meaningfully regard in these terms? And here plainly everything hinges on our conception of knowledge. We expect knowledge to be rationally and intellectually grounded. We distinguish it from common opinion, subjective preference and merely perceptual interaction. We project a notional body and a notional mind. We project the difference between these two, with aesthetic experience associated with the body (as a space of subjectivity and potential illusion) and fields such as pure mathematics associated with the mind. The latter provide our model for proper forms of knowledge, despite its regular distance from any aspect of our lived experience.

Yet what if we loosened up our conception of knowledge? What if we thought of knowledge differently? In some ways, the notion of aesthetics can assist with this – even if in other ways it reinforces the terms of its own difference and exclusion.

The modern term ‘aesthetics’ has an etymological basis in the Ancient Greek word αἰσθάνομαι, which indicates aspects of learning, understanding and perception. There is no clear distinction made here between coming to understand something sensibly or intellectually. It was only a bit later – still within Ancient Greek – that a new associated term, αἰσθητικός, came to distinguish specifically sensible perception. This early term also has a strong process emphasis. Without specifically referring to knowledge per se, it indicates an inclusive conception of various ways of coming to be aware and know of something.

Knowledge is less objectified here – rendered as particular, tangible stuff – than positioned as a mode of experience. I am particularly interested in the prominence of learning. Learning is, of course, key to our understanding of knowledge acquisition, but it also plays a vital role in aesthetic discourse. Although aesthetics, in the iconic Kantian conception, would seem to be entirely about features of elusive subjective response (and the mysterious basis of a broader ‘common sense’), there is also a rich tradition of philosophical aesthetics that focuses on aesthetic experience as a form of learning. Most famously there is Plato’s condemnation of poetry as a proper form of learning (inasmuch as it conveys illusions more than truths) and Schiller’s conception of the educative role of aesthetics in terms of establishing modes of sensibility that enable enlightened social organisation and interaction. Even if the value of aesthetic experience is questioned, there is still the sense of its intimate relation to learning. Even if better forms of learning are envisaged, there is still a recognition that aesthetic experience contributes to our understanding of the world and our capacity to engage with it in a culturally literate manner. In this broad sense, it has a clear bearing on an overall conception of knowledge – a knowledge that is not restricted to particular rationally sanctioned forms, but is implicit within cultural experience generally.

[And particularly within the texture of practice. Not then as an accomplished quantity, but as something that is always performed – and in that sense ephemeral.]

[I would also look at the elements of aesthetic knowledge within ‘proper’ knowledge. The dependence upon memory, for instance, within complex mathematical cognition, which can never adequately represent the imagined immediacy of rational thought, but rather simply the sense that it once happened in its requisite adequacy. Rational cognition is spread out in time and is never altogether present. It relies both on past thought and future projections. These are all representations – frustratingly blank instances of appearance that can never adequately, in another instant, recover their grounds. They too are performed and perceived.]

A contemporary issue, however, is that knowledge has come to be thought very much in terms of innovation. Knowledge positions itself as endlessly new. The economy of knowledge hinges on a machinery (and rhetoric) of innovation that tends to neglect the value of knowledge that is long-standing and old. It is not only conventional forms of knowledge that are caught up in this paradigm, but also aesthetic forms of knowledge – chiefly within the context of a contemporary art that privileges novelty. Doubtless this novelty is very often ambiguous – representing itself as new when it is actually a reminder of things forgotten or neglected – but still it affects the self-image of art and aesthetics and it tends to shape a gulf between this overall field and traditions of practice and thought that are more focused on cultural maintenance, or that conceive cultural transformation in more complex and less exclusively innovative terms. I am thinking, for instance, of popular traditions that reveal continuing aspects of orality and the carnivalesque.

One final point. Although we tend to think of aesthetics in terms of beauty and art, it seems to me that the field has broader implications. As the ancient term indicates, it can also relate to the overall dilemmas of coming to awareness, of coming to know things. This may not be the sense of the term that the modern tradition has drawn upon. It may have drawn more on the later term αἰσθητικός (relating specifically to sensible perception) and then have taken its own turn to focus specifically on beauty and art, but still at the core of these concerns is a central focus on conceiving another mode of awareness; at once allowing this possibility, bracketing it as distinct and separate, and also considering its broader implications, as well as its strange unsettling relationship to knowledge ‘proper’. Aesthetics is actually centrally concerned with all that the initial etymological point of reference entails. It has always figured as a troubling space of division, mediation and reconciliation. Aesthetics manifests another form of knowledge, but also demonstrates the aporetic features of our conception of knowledge. I have drawn upon an ancient term, but there are conceptual affordances within our own modern idioms. The term ‘sensible’ plays across both the sensory and the intellectual. The term ‘sense’ can refer equally to the senses, as sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, or to sense as an aspect of cognition. The difficulty of ‘making sense’ of aesthetics relates to this awkward and uncertain relation between body and mind – between conceiving an interaction to the world that is materially cast and one that, at least notionally, exceeds materiality. The notion of aesthetic experience engages with the fundamental divisions and dilemmas of Western thought – signalling a mode of ‘sensibility’ that plays on the boundaries between sensation and thought. It works to mediate, exacerbate and renegotiate the terms of difference between the phenomenal and the noumenal.

[And also the ethical, though I have said nothing about this here. The aesthetic represents the very form of human freedom, sitting between the material determination of sensation and the a priori dictates of the categorical and moral imperatives. It is described by Kant as a space of ‘free play’. It is not only a vision of another mode of awareness and judgement, but also of another mode of being altogether that is characteristically human, but also utterly elusive.]

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