Aesthetics – Lecture 5

brillo-soap-pads-1969What do we mean by aesthetic judgement and what are we doing when we talk about something that we call art. The word ‘aesthetics’ comes from the Greek word αισητική. It means ‘sensation’ in the sense in which we might feel the cool wind blow against our cheeks or the taste of the bitter sweet coffee in the morning. Both these are sensations. Let use this word as a clue for our own investigation of aesthetics, even though for the ancient Greeks this word had no reference to art. We might say, therefore, that the first, and most simple, component of art is the existence of an object, for it is objects that we sense. Let us not make any judgement about this object at the moment, for we will want to leave the contentious debate about what constitutes an art or media object till the end of this lecture. At the moment all we have before us is an object and the idea, perhaps the most obvious one, that without objects there wouldn’t be any art.

So well and good. But what is an object in an aesthetic sense? We know what it means to sense an object, but is this all we are speaking about when we speak about an art object. We say that the object has certain properties or qualities that are, what can we say, ‘picked up’ by the brain in the way that a radio picks up signals from space. The coffee is bitter and sweet and this bitterness and sweetness is somehow, very mysteriously, transported to my brain via the taste buds of my mouth and tongue, and then even more mysteriously translated into the thoughts ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ in my mind (not my brain this time!).

This whole occult process of sensation has been the debating point of philosophers for centuries. Is the sensed object real? Is the bitterness and sweetness actually in the object, or only in my mind? How can we distinguish the brain from the mind? And so on and on ad nauseam. Thankfully for us we don’t have to get involved in this debate, but it has introduced something that we might find as useful for the understanding art as an object, and that it is the subject who senses, perceives and reflects about the object. Thus, no matter what kind of art we are talking about we can always say that there must be at least two things: an object, and a subject relating some way with it.

Let us stay with this subject and object for a bit, and see whether it may help us understand the nature of aesthetic judgement a little bit more. The question we need to ask ourselves is how the subject, the spectator, stands towards the art or media object. To get closer to this we need to think about how we ordinarily stand towards objects in the world. I would say that objects mean something to us in relation to their uses. We interpret objects in relation to what matters to us. Thus, it is probably incorrect to say that we have sensations that we then convert into meaningful objects, rather the world of objects we move around in, and which is our home and context, is already meaningful for me. I do not hear sounds out of my window and then hear a car, rather I hear the sound of the car from the first (of course I might hear sounds that I cannot recognise, but they would still have the meaning ‘unrecognisable sound’ attached to them, and I might be wrong about the sound that I hear, but nonetheless I would be hearing meaningful sounds and not just a jumble of senseless noise that I then have to construct into a meaningful object). Even in our most theoretical approach to object, there meaning is given in advance by the corresponding scientific telos, whether we are talking about quantum mechanics or evolutionary biology.

With art, however, something different is going on. For in art sensations are in some sense redeemed; that is to say, sensations matter to us, but not in the same way as they do in our practical involvement with objects. In the latter, sensation is subordinate to meaning, but in the former sensation and meaning are in conflict, and the experience of art is perhaps nothing else than a deep feeling of the gap or gulf between them. This is why the experience of art is always the experience of a resistance of expression. For unlike with our practical involvement with objects, sensation is never wholly subsumed under meaning. This is why art and media are significant, but not in a conceptual manner. They always seem to resist being completely exhausted about what we say about them.

There are two ways we can look at this strange relation between sensation and meaning in art: one from the side of the subject, and the other, the object. Let us begin with the subject first. We think that what makes something a artwork is a property of the work itself, such that it has ‘art’ just in the same way that our coffee has ‘bitterness’ and ‘sweetness’. Perhaps this is most common-sense theory of art, and is certain the one that you most hear about in the newspapers, on radio and television, and the internet. Thus, we get the endless and infinite debates about what good art is, as if it were a matter of simply recognising something about a painting in the way that one comes to recognise what a dog is by the ability to remember certain features. From this it follows that good art has certain properties (x, y and z) that bad art does not possess. Good art, for example, is usually figurative, and bad art abstract or conceptual.

But that is to treat art as though it were simply an object of perception with certain objective properties, which is to miss completely the significance of the aesthetic relation to objects. What is important is precisely this relation itself and not the object, for it is clear, with what is called ‘modern art’, that anything can be art object, for what the object it is not just what matters, but how we relate to it. This does not mean, however, that aesthetic judgements simply a matter of liking something? This is when this peculiar gap between sensation and meaning, which is how we spoke about art, returns. For if art were merely a matter of sensations, then aesthetic judgements would be merely a question of preference. You like Picasso, I like Duchamp and so on.

To see that the relation to art cannot be the same as mere preference is to understand that in talking about art I am making a claim upon others. There are actually three elements we need to be aware of when we are investigating art: the object, the subject (the spectator, if you prefer) and others to whom I address my claims about the object (of course, I also belong to these others). The difference between an object of mere sensation and an aesthetic object, is not to be found in the object itself, rather it is in the claim I make to others. In saying something is a work of art and has aesthetic excellence, then involved in this judgement is the implicitly the notion of universal agreement (Kant called it the sensus communis (1952, p. 82)). This does not mean that there will be universal agreement. In reality we know this is never the case, but I make an aesthetic judgement as if it were possible. Thus I do not just say that I like Picasso, rather I say that Picasso is a great painter, and you ought to agree as well, and there is something wrong with (you lack understanding if you don’t). This is not the case with mere preference, which is purely subjective, and I do not seek to gain, if only ideally, universal agreement that chocolate is better than strawberry ice cream, for this is merely a matter of enjoyment and pleasure and not an aesthetic judgement. The difference would be if the ice cream were in an art gallery and some one asked for my aesthetic opinion about it. I would have misunderstood them completely if I had gone up to the ice cream and licked it and said that it tasted quite good. Of course I could do this as an aesthetic judgement, as a statement that I didn’t think it was a work of art, but that would be something quite different, precisely because I would be making be making a claim for universal agreement.

This subjective account of the relation to art, however, misses out something very important, and this is the object. For in this subjective account of aesthetics, what counts is the discourse about art and not the art itself. An object is art, because it part of a discourse about art that has a certain form of the ideal universal agreement, rather than the mere expression of liking and preference. But I would like to say that the art object also has a presence, which differentiates it from ordinary objects, and which always resists our judgements about them. I would not say ‘outside’ or ‘exterior’ to, for this resistance of the object only ‘appears’ as such through the judgements, including their appeal to an ideal universal agreement, we make in their failure to capture completely their enigmatic and obscure presence. It is this that is the particular tension between sensation and meaning that creates the aura of an art work.

This resistance interrupts our understanding of our everyday world. In so doing it makes our world present. In our everyday affairs and general business, it is not so. It is only when my involvement is broken and interrupted it does so. A chair that I sit on every day at my desk is not present, nor the world in which it stands, unless one day it breaks as I sit on it. But Rauschenberg’s bed does so. In our everyday lives we never notice that the door is there. We simply grasp hold of the handle and walk through into the room. But if one day the door handle were to break, and I could not open the door as I ordinarily do, then the presence of the door would be visible to me, but also, and this is the most strange thing, so would the world in which working doors are necessary. The class room where I need to teach students about aesthetics, the university, the aim of teaching, Western culture and so on. Art, in its strange and enigmatic presence (a presence which is the opposite of the commodity) are like broken objects that reveal our world, like the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux grant us a glimpse the absent world of the Palaeolithic age.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 1952. The critique of judgement. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

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