Catching Oneself Looking

At one level aesthetics is all about a specific, but ill-defined, mode of experience. Yet this necessarily involves something else as well – the recognition within the complex contours of beauty, sublimity, etc. that we are subject to an aesthetic experience. So the aesthetic is never simply the experience itself, but also entails a current of self-reflective awareness. We recognise that particular contemplative activities are pressing identifiably aesthetic buttons. In this respect, the aesthetic can never simply lie altogether outside ordinary processes of cognition. Some aspect of cognition is necessary for aesthetic experience to ever distinctly appear. The notion of the aesthetic involves then a double sense of distance: firstly, the Kantian notion of a distance from ordinary appetitive or rational-instrumental-ethical engagement; and secondly, a distance from the putatively intimate texture of aesthetic experience itself. The immediate field of reflective contemplation is evident only via another level of contemplative regard. This second field of distance bears an uncertain relation to the first. It can scarcely be straightforwardly aesthetic because it employs a conceptual lens. It works to identify and categorise experience. But it can only do this by recognising, at the lower level, a suspension of conceptual resolution. Beauty, as it is immediately experienced appears not so much as a neat reconciliation of the faculties as an exacerbation of their differences – a curious, unresolved prolongation. It is only at the subsequent stage when the experience obtains focused resolution that any sense of an overall context of reconciliation can become evident.

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