The Origins of Aesthetic Theory
It was either Hegel or Schelling, in 1796, who proclaimed the ‘aesthetic act’ as the ‘highest act of reason’. Indeed, though the concept of aesthetics has been around since Plato’s theory of the forms, it was not until the mid eighteenth century that aesthetics (from the Greek ‘aisthanesthai’ meaning ‘perceive sensuously’) had developed into an philosophical discipline in its own right.
There are obvious historical reasons for this development. Modern philosophy ‘begins’ when God dies. The departure from Platonic conceptions of beauty is the connection of aesthetics with the emergence of subjectivity, and the search for new meaning and orientation in a world without a deity. On the one hand, this leads to such formulations as Kant’s argument about the universal validity of the judgement of taste:
… when [a man] puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Thus he says that the thing is beautiful; and it is not as if he counts on others agreeing with him in his judgment of liking owing to his having found them in such agreement on a number of occasions, but he demands this agreement of them. He blames them if they judge differently, and denies them taste, which he still requires of them as something they ought to have; and to this extent it is not open to men to say: Every one has his own taste. This would be equivalent to saying that there is no such thing as taste, i.e. no aesthetic judgment capable of making a rightful claim upon the assent of all men. (Kant, 1790)
On the other hand, a conception of aesthetic autonomy emerges with the idea that art freely produces rules which do not apply to nature or human products. The experience of beauty is the creation of new meanings. This involves aspects of the self that cannot be theorised in terms of the subject becoming present to itself as an object of knowledge (the corollary of subjectivism is the reification of the subject to an object). Beauty for the sake of beauty, rather than as a manifestation of God, as well as the human production of art which carries significance outside of a scientific explanation: both are essential to the search for new meanings.
The Turn to Subjectivity
In simple terms, reflection on subjectivity produces two responses. On the one hand, enthusiasm is generated by the sense of liberation from traditional sources of power and explanation, such as theological narratives. On the other hand, a deep suspicion permeates this freedom, since it is left unclear from where meaning is supposed to originate. Indeed, it is now a merely human projection onto the natural world: inherently fallible, temporal and relative.
Both responses, however, attach equal significance to art. Art produces images of what the world could look like if we were to establish a proper relationship with nature. Art is now the only way in which we can create meaning for ourselves, thus a coping mechanism for dealing with a meaningless existence. Underpinning both responses is a suspicion of the ‘dominance of quantifying rationalism as the exclusive principle of modern life’ (Bowie). It is rationalisation, the apex of subjectivity, which gives rise to the crises of meaning in modern life. Rationalisation strips the world of any intrinsic meaning it could have for the individual; scientific vocabulary reduces our relationship with nature to one of pure mastery, to be responded to mechanically rather than sensuously.
The rise of capitalism as the dominant form of economic organisation in the industrial and post-industrial societies of the West is concomitant with the emergence a type of thinking which assigns exchange value (monetary or otherwise) to both individual subjects and nature. Art would appear to resist this type of identitarian thinking; beauty has nothing to do with usefulness or exchange value. Schelling, for instance, argues that the demand for usefulness from art ‘is only possible in an age which locates the highest efforts of the human spirit in economic discoveries’ (Schelling, 1800).
Aesthetic Theory takes its starting point from the belief that nature (art’s object) should have intrinsic value that makes it worthy of contemplation; crucially, this should be separate from its utility or exchange value. Aesthetics responds to the process of rationalisation and the crises that it engenders in modern society by providing a reminder that there are other ways of seeing nature and human activity. Not only can art be its own purpose, an understanding of it can enable what has been repressed by a limited conception of reason to be articulated.
Baumgarten and Hamaan
An awareness of the danger of such repression is found in Baumgarten and Hamaan. Still later, it will be a leading theme in post-structuralism. Both Baumgarten and Hamaan share a concern about the failure of eighteenth century rationalism to do justice to the individual’s sensuous relationship with nature. Art, as a result of its particularity, subverts the Cartesian standard of ‘clear and distinct ideas’. Nonetheless, at this stage, it is possible to focus on the particular because God still acts as a guarantee that everything hangs together in some way. What happens if there is no centre point from which to organise the endless moments of pleasure into a network of moments which have some kind of connection with each other? Should aesthetic theory search for a whole into which aesthetics ‘fits’?
Unlike Baumgarten, Hamaan does not wish to integrate aesthetics into a narrow Enlightenment conception of reason. He develops a theory of language, a precursor to the structuralist conception of language from the twentieth century, in which the signifying chain is celebrated for its endless differentiality precisely because it never comes to an end. Hamaan believes that, if adequacy between the sign and signified were to be achieved, it would be at the cost of language’s ability to speak about the fullness of existence. Language is never separate from sensuousness, so it is not a pure articulation of truth. In this way, he prefigures Derrida, for instance, who will come to argue that communication relies upon temporalised chains of signifiers that can never be completed. He also prefigures Heidegger’s theory of the ‘clearing of being’, which is manifest to us in language as the ‘house of being’.
Aesthetics and Modernity
Modernity was founded on the Enlightened principle of subjectivity. In the twentieth century, this resulted in two responses. The first defines, to a greater or lesser extent, defines the postmodern movement, centering on a questioning of the idea of universal rationality. The second, led by Habermas, focuses on trying to sustem the universalising demands of rationality with a turn to intersubjectivity. These ideas, however, were already present in Schelling, Schleiermacher, the early Romantics, Schlegel and Novalis: there is nothing intrinsically original about either approach. What links German Idealism with Heidegger, for example, is a questioning of the assumption that truth is adequately defined in terms of the propositional assertion of ‘what is the case’, independently of how we apprehend it (philosophy of consciousness).
For Heidegger, Western philosophy has sought the truth about being by asking what being is, or seeking an explanation for the fact that it is, an epistemic rather than ontological concern with the nature of being. This is bound up in modernity – and specifically Descarte’s – expression of the subjectification of being (the cogito). In this scheme, everything is regarded in terms of its relation to our consciousness. German Idealism presents the idea that subject and object are identical, in so far as the world is a subject thinking itself and we are objects of the natural world as well. Thus, the way we think about the world and the world itself are identical. Can a philosophy based on subjectivity establish a place from which it can explain how thinking and being relate, without one dominating the other?
The emergence of aesthetics is part of the process of subjectification; works of art are reduced to subjective contingencies such as taste and reception. There is no way to articulate the truth of a work of art outside the totalising scheme of subjectivity. The linguistic turn ‘discredits’ subjectivity, as it locates subjectivity in texts and discourses, as an effect of the texts. This is the postmodern line; the effect is a Nietzschean celebration of self-legitimation – autonomy rather than heteronomy. And yet, this view presents a one dimensional view of subjectivity. By equating the centrality of the subject with the dominance of science, for example, theorists cannot adequately account for the ways in which rationalisation actually attempt to exclude the subject in the name of objectivity.
The point of aesthetics in modernity can be simply defined as the confrontation between aesthetic objects and perceiving subjects, in which the subject does not attempt to determine the objects, but rather to engage with the object as a work of art: beauty in particularity, irreducible to general schema, an interrogation of traditional concepts such as truth and universality. Aesthetic theory therefore confronts the paradox of unifying the potential for individual meaning with the requirement that meaning should obtain general validity. It cannot hope to offer a final answer; there is no way out of the paradox. Perhaps it is this confrontation itself – facing it head on – that generates new means of self-expression and diversity of meaning in aesthetic production? This points to the view that aesthetic judgements demand some other type of cognitive relationship. Rather than approach the work of art with a view to controlling or appropriating it, we must give ourselves up to it in order to understand something deeper about the relationship of subject to object, man to world.
(Notes from a reading of Bowie’s Aesthetics and Subjectivity and Autumn term lecture on Aesthetic Theory)