2005-04-23 6,757 share

What ever happened to the subject in aesthetics?

What ever happened to the subject in "aesthetics"? Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, proclaimed that perception of beauty was more concerned with form than function or content. Hence the formalism tradition of aesthetics, born in Plato and Aristotle, was reinvigorated with Kant's claims of aesthetic universality, and along this line, aesthetics developed into the branch of philosophy that saw itself more often concerned with social and impersonal art criticism than joie de vivre; it fell away from 'experiential philosophy, the spirit of Europe', as Kundera put it.

Along the other line, the more semantic line of aesthetics, lie Freud, and Dewey, standing atop the shoulders of Burke and Hume. For them, aesthetic is just the opposite. It is not a matter of form, but "related to feeling" as Freud put it (cf. The Uncanny); for Freud, aesthetic was a much more intimate notion, and we might even go so far as to say that Freud's Narcissistic position on 'the aesthetic' is that it is something which _moves us_, and for him, what moves us is seeing the resemblance of ourselves in things (identification), where we were (nostalgia, re-memberance, or, disgust, pity, rejection, contempt), where we are (satisfaction, or, discomfort), and where we want to be (mystery, excitement, or, fear, loathing). Dewey, too, is important in having helped to shape this line; in "Art as Experience", he began to shape the thesis that art has the character "aesthetic" because art has the ability to seduce us into a state of vulnerability, a state in which our censors are sublimated and we become sensitized to the nature of things; here, we are highly perceptive, and receptive to sensation, thoughts, psychic imagination, and feelings. Dewey also initiated the conceptualization of 'the aesthetic' not as a property of an object or phenomenal within a perceiver but as a transaction between object and subject. "Aesthetic" within the object exists as a potential energy; most of what a culture considers aesthetic has the potential to transact with a significant fraction of the participants in a culture, but this should not mean that it is in any sense more diminutive for an object to be "aesthetic" for and to transact with just one person.

So aesthetic is a transaction or ephemeral relation between subject and object. But what are some of the characteristics of this transaction, and how does this aesthetic transaction defer from other types of transaction? Reading theorist Louise Rosenblatt distinguishes between two types of transactions between a person and text, in example. A person may have an efferent transaction with a text, meaning that a person is reading in order to carry something away (information) from a text; and just as a person requires a bucket to carry away some water from a river, efferent transactions imply that a person takes a mindset as a container, and uses the mindset to scoop away something from the text. The second type of transaction with text is aesthetic, and what this implies is that a person interacts with a text not through the narrow peephole of a mindset but feels the full brunt of its potential; the person allows herself to become affected and connected to the text-- to receive sensation, moods, imaginations about a text. So then an aesthetic experience is an affected transaction between subject and object-- we say affected not to mean that the relation is necessarily emotional in nature; it may be emotional, it may be only sensorial, or it may be both and many other things too. By affected, we mean that what was transacted falls under the following three-part episode: firstly, that the object lured the subject into perceiving it (seduction), secondly, that the subject sublimated and became vulnerable to object (affection), and thirdly, that the subject began to be aware of and accept the potentialities of experience that the object offered to the subject (reception).

The interesting development of our evolving collective sensibility of "aesthetic" in the Twentieth Century is that sometimes the seduction panel of this triptych is allowed to exist external to the object of art, and this harkens to that famed postmodern incantation on art, that "art is just an intention". A urinal never affected anyone to perceive it when laid in the loo, but when Duchamp laid one in a gallery as a fountain, the contradiction and expectation violation produced by that crazy juxtaposition amounted to this seduction; and ironically the motor of this instance of seduction into perceiving Duchamp's urinal is modernity itself-- we have such a low cultural tolerance of logical paradox that we obsess to resolve rational dissonances; we must 'solve' why this urinal is in this museum, for its existence, left unchecked, threatens the harmony of our rational condition. While for some who cling to formalism, the externality of seduction to the object of art is a betrayal of the integrity of art as aesthetic-in-itself, for the rest of us, it is a blessing. If art's seduction is external, then perhaps it can be carried always within our subject. Aesthetic, then, sees a new possibility as a subject-position, a standpoint, an optics through which we, as subject, view the world. Everything then, can be art, and this truly is Dewey and even his occasional rival Croce's greatest shared contribution to our understanding of 'aesthetic'-- to free it from being a pawn instrument of intellectual hegemony, and to re-view it as a notion fit not only for culturally legitimated art, but also, continuous with everyday life, fit for any object within or aspect of everyday life. We have hope to anticipate a revival of experiential aesthetics which rights the impersonalities of Kantian aesthetics and which refocuses with rigor on joie de vivre, the art of making life aesthetic: lifesthetics.