Aesthetics and Value

At one level I am tempted to describe aesthetics as a form of value. Very briefly, aesthetics provides an alternative to systems of value that reduce, consume and dispense with the world. It projects a non-exploitative relation to things that is engaged but not destructive, ordered but open, and oriented equally towards preservation and change. Clearly, this is hardly an altogether novel proposition. It aligns with a conventional conception of aesthetics as a space of experience and evaluation that stands outside and resists the field of instrumental reason.

It is worth noting here a level of contradiction. Aesthetics gains identity and value in terms of its ethical implications – in terms of how it can provide a basis for re-evaluating and transforming the world. In this sense, aesthetics manifests a meta-level use value. It is conceived in ultimately instrumental terms.

Linked to this dilemma is another one. The notion of ‘aesthetics as value’ works to conceive the aesthetic in extra-aesthetic terms. Aesthetics is positioned as a constitutive and immediate form of ethics. This risks oversimplifying and displacing both fields. Nonetheless, as French philosopher Jacques Ranciere argues in a different context, aesthetics characteristically and constitutively confuses issues. It refuses to remain within ordinary boundaries. It is conceived at the outset in terms of processes of categorical mediation. The uncertain relation between aesthetics and ethics can scarcely be resisted altogether. Instead it is arguably integral to the knotted identity and non-identity of the aesthetic (Ranciere, J., 2009, Aesthetics and its Discontents, p.14).

Of course, one could just easily argue that aesthetics is associated with notions of epistemological ‘truth’ as with ethical ‘value’. It links to a notion of non-conceptual truth. This truth can be framed in both rational and sublime terms. In relation to the former it can be conceived, for instance, in terms of a felt sense of organic proportion and symmetry, which aligns with more abstract processes of cognition. So, from Alexandre Baumgarten’s perspective (drawing upon Leibniz), mathematical equivalence and difference have their basis in the approximate and confused conditions of ordinary sensible (aesthetic) experience. Kant does not quite take this view. He distinguishes aesthetics from any particular conceptually lucid notion of truth, but nonetheless proposes a space of agreement (reconciliation) between the apriori conditions of rational cognition and our immediate experience of the world. Despite their differences, both of these attitudes suggest the relevance of aesthetics to questions of epistemology. Even if they do not propose a notion of ‘aesthetic truth’ per se, they indicate the relevance of aesthetics to rational conceptions of truth and its scope to serve as an alien epistemological ground and as an unlikely field of authentication.

We are more accustomed, however, in the contemporary context to regard ‘the truth of aesthetics’ in sublime and existential terms. The Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling famously argues that aesthetics engages with a higher sphere of truth. It enables a recognition of features of being that can never adequately be translated into abstractly rational terms. Many strands of modern aesthetics (including the work of Heidegger and Lyotard) draw upon this romantic conception of ‘aesthetic truth’.

The key issue is that aesthetics gains epistemological relevance in both the rational and sublime conceptions. Aesthetics projects a different model of knowledge in which the known and the unknown correspond, in which knowledge is at once elusive and immediately manifest.

I will add briefly that alongside relating to both ‘value’ and ‘truth’, aesthetics not only mediates between the different main fields of philosophy – ontology, epistemology and ethics – but also between different orders of experience and being. It mediates between sense and rational cognition, feeling and abstraction, contemplation and engagement, activity and passivity, and seriousness and play. This is potentially liberating, but also makes the concept profoundly elusive. Almost anything you can say about aesthetics can be contradicted and must, at the very least, be carefully qualified.

In summary, the shifting, medial status of aesthetics entails vital aspects of value and can be regarded as having particular critical value, but also demonstrates that it is reductive to describe aesthetics as ‘a form of value’. In any case, there is an allied need to unpick the notion of value. I must acknowledge, for instance, that I am using the term ‘value’ in multiple senses – to refer to an ethics, a mode of judgement and an orientation towards ‘good’ ends. Here aesthetics variously appears as a form of value, a mode of evaluation and in terms of its broader cultural and critical value (efficacy). Aesthetics is structured within and infused by vital questions of value. Yet at the same time it is never simply ‘a form of value’. There is no single point of alignment or essential feature ethical or otherwise that can adequately encompass the aesthetic. The notion tends to be lost when it is glibly defined and only in its motions of loss does it flicker into view. Nonetheless, we have to have means of introducing and briefly defining the term. Following Hegel, we regularly say that it is the philosophy of beauty and art, but that hardly adequately accounts for its strange ‘value’.

But let me return to the question of value. Forgive me for turning on this question, but I’m wondering what value aesthetics has just now. What can aesthetics offer as an alternative basis for value, and for making evaluations and accomplishing beneficial things in the world. Why pose this question just now? It could be posed at any time (we are always in crisis), but the current COVID-19 pandemic conditions and the broader economic, political and social consequences make the question of value particularly pressing.

Value, yes, but the question of aesthetics, perhaps less so. After all, almost everything that we associate with aesthetic activity – the visual and performing arts, for example – are shut down, or can only exist via largely remote and on-line forms. Within this context, ordinary aesthetic activity, except in the context of private practices, can appear effectively irrelevant, or at least less publicly visible and significant. How can they obtain wider public value if they cannot even properly exist?

Now I should stress that I don’t hold to the view that art and aesthetics are necessarily twinned – that one cannot exist without the other. I am increasingly interested in non-public aspects of aesthetic experience and activity – spheres of everyday aesthetic practice and engagement that fall outside the iconic field of the visual and performing arts.

Nonetheless, the suspension of public arts, as well as the privileging of dimensions of broader social and economic necessity at both the domestic and public level, raise questions about the relevance of aesthetics in this period of pressing, socially distanced crisis. Aesthetics can appear relevant perhaps in terms of practices of privatised distraction and psychological survival, but hardly at all in terms of notions of cultural and political transformation. Arguably, the values we need now are less those linked to notions of play and pleasure than to care and responsibility. Once again, in very characteristic terms, aesthetics appears as a sphere of excess that only properly obtains relevance when all the other conditions of life are in place – once we have addressed primary problems of survival and equity.

And this is what prompts what I am writing at here. I am trying to get at how aesthetics links to questions of fundamental value. Friedrich Schiller poses this question famously in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), which is written in response to the ‘reign of terror’ during the French Revolution. Schiller considers how a revolution that began with declarations of ‘egalite fraternity liberty’ could dissolve into the systemic injustice and barbarity of the guillotine. He suggests that what is missing – and what is needed – is a more fundamental ground of value that prepares the way for enlightened human identity and community. The model of idle play is positioned as the foundation for then establishing a society that is genuinely equal, fraternal and free. At the same time, however, Schiller has no means of conceiving where this foundation occurs or how it actually exists. Instead it appears as a foundation myth and a vision for the future. It reveals a general human capacity but is something only available to a societal elite. All of this simply demonstrates the contradictions of the aesthetic – the difficulties of making sense of it not only conceptually, but also actually and historically.

I can only offer, the most minimal, poorly delineated suggestions here. There is a need to think beyond the autonomy of the aesthetic and beyond the special conditions of the aesthetic. Rather than an uncertain ground and epiphenomenal field, the aesthetic must be somehow thought in terms of its integral relevance to the problems at hand – to survival, equity, common effort, etc. This can hardly take place within the conventional space of art or even in some notion of a dimension of play within the contours of everyday life. Instead it needs to find a way into the thinking of societal priorities, how things are organised and why they are organised in that way. It needs to find its way into the tissue of survival and labour so that these things are not quite the same again – so that their space of necessity and alienation can be re-examined and re-experienced.

This indicates the deeper relation to value that concerns me. My aims is not to represent aesthetics as entirely ethical, but to displace ethics in manner that retains a sense of care and responsibility – that renders the practical in terms that include the aesthetic, which is itself displaced from its ordinary imaginary, practices and frames of reference. A more integral and holistic conception is needed, but we cannot get there with the current set of categories and categorical distinctions. While these cannot be simply swept aside they need to be thought through and pushed into novel relations.

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