Aesthetics and Value

Aesthetics must enable a revaluation of the world.

But how is this possible? Especially if aesthetics is conceived narrowly as a form of pleasure? We must either re-conceive aesthetics or abandon it for something else – some other notion that incorporates a more extensive and inclusive sense of value. This study pursues the first option. It argues that aesthetics is already loosely defined and already has the potential to be more broadly conceived. This is not to say that it may not be better that we invent another term at some stage, but for now there is scope to mobilise the notion of aesthetics differently. The field of aesthetics is shaped at the outset as one of mediation. It is less substantive than a force that mediates between existing human faculties and philosophical categories. It strays between sense, imagination and understanding and between being, knowledge and ethics. If it defines a positive existence this is precisely in terms of conceiving a curious space of radical difference from ordinary modes of existence, feeling and thought. This interplay between the positive and the negative and between integral clarity and straying is what enable aesthetics to have wider relevance and to serve an alternative basis for human value.

More simply, the aesthetic is not simply about liking something. It is not simply about appreciating something from a distance. It defines here not only a species of pleasure but also an ontology, an ethics and a mode of comprehension. It suggests a mode of being that is not entirely active, that incorporates a vital dimension of passivity. This active passivity also entails a relationship to the world that is at once dialectical and non-dialectical – that responds to the world without destroying it. This response is irreducible. It motions away from the thing while also holding closely to it – not allowing its existence and difference to be entirely subsumed, while still necessarily articulating a distinct space (of contemplation, representation and invention). Beyond this, the aesthetic response is associated with freedom, human identity and community. In this sense, it provides a complex ground for the possibility of enlightened society, with all the ethical and epistemological implications this entails.

The aesthetic only becomes meaningful then as it slips free of its narrow association with beauty and the philosophy of fine art. It is not that beauty and fine art are not relevant to the aesthetics, but rather that they are aesthetic symptoms rather than the aesthetic itself – in its complexity, in its contradictions, in its promiscuity.

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