Emmanuel Kant laid out his thoughts about the nature of Aesthetics, and changed our perception of beauty for all periods that followed. To digest the question of “what is beauty” isn’t in my scope or my interest for this post. What I am interested in is Kant’s description of the aesthetic encounter, or what is happening when we encounter the world through framework not based on language or concepts.
Kant is interested in no less than describing how mankind interacts with the world in all aspects. He spend most of his energies speaking to the faculties and nuances of rational thought. When it comes to aesthetics, however, he describes the way in which we encounter the world unmediated by language or rationality of any kind. An aesthetic judgement is essentially our non-rational and non-judgmental response to the world which we are experiencing in the moment. It cannot be put into words but does provide us with an experience and a kind of knowledge. It also awakens our curiosity through the linking of our imagination and understanding.
Imagine our potential reactions to a great work of art by someone we have heard of as a great master of the brush. We may praise its masterful execution, or composition, color theory or novel use of narrative elements, but these are all intellectual judgements we have made using what we know about the artist, the technique or the context. When you stepped into the space with the painting or sculpture, how did it make you feel? What was the energy in the room? Did it take your breath away or quicken your pulse? Did you feel overpowered or overwhelmed? Were you drawn in to look at it from across the room without even realizing what you were looking at? The aesthetic judgement is how we feel before the words come, the initial buzz of excitement or halting of our attention. Nothing in the aesthetic can be explained to someone else. It is an unmediated encounter with the object. It might be more helpful to talk about it as a relationship with the object.
It is perhaps clearer to think of aesthetic reactions when we talk about the awe-inspiring or the wonderous in nature. A beautiful sunset or the sight of dramatic clouds sweeping across the landscape. These sorts of things, precisely because they have not be curated according to human rationality, make sense to us in terms of emotional reaction. Aesthetic knowledge, however, is not the same as having an emotional response.
Paying close attention to the details of a tree, to the heft of a familiar tool or how a certain ingredient blends with other elements of a dish are all forms of aesthetic knowledge. They are things that we know just as much (if not more) than facts and figures. The knowledge of the body lives with us in ways which often do not realize. Each time we interact with the world and make ourselves open to a relationship, we put ourselves in a position to gain aesthetic knowledge. Unlike data, the body seems able to hang onto aesthetic information more comfortably. While trying to juggle phone numbers, birthdays, appointments and due dates it is common to have something you just worked to remember fall right out of the head. Contrast that to what we think about muscle memory. There is a reason we use the phrase “like riding a bike”.
Beyond being able to ride a bike, or skillfully manipulate a tool, aesthetic knowledge seeps into us about relationships that exist in the world around us.
Like any kind of knowledge, aesthetic knowledge can be sought, gathered, consciously added to. Unlike what we learn through words, the lessons taught in a more visceral way are not always apparent, and the knoweldge we gain main not come readily to hand.
Having an artistic practice can be like having a gnawing question. If an artist has a practice, and this practice solves their problem, then why do they continue? Do they need to craft a cup out of clay because they thirst for water, or are they seeking something else? Is their pleasure simply in the making of the cup? For those artists who are seeking through their art, it is both the execution and the final product which can provide steps towards the solution. Trying out technique allows us to see what is technically possible, but the magic of actually creating something new is that we are provided with a further aesthetic subject from which to ignite our imaginations.
Is artmaking a physical pursuit of philosophy? A methodology for systematic questioning of our aesthetic relationship with the world? I believe that it is, and propose that it is something very helpful for our time and place. A world in which rationalism and conceptual studies are being rejected on the public stage, and experts are regarded with skepticism. Moving towards a new aesthetic understanding would encourage individuals to tune themselves towards beauty, and would encourage refinement of taste.
Could aesthetics philosophy be useful in a post-post-modern or post-deconstructionist world? Perhaps this plays well with the “earnest” arts categories in their overlap of seeking an authentic and non-ironic expression. Perhaps it is a post-words world in which we live, and a positive spin on a sort of “post-truth” experience. The caveat here is that the onus is on the individual to actually refine his or her taste, and not simply repeat back what the world is saying.
Perhaps in this way artists are a model for what that sort of knowledge seeking might look like. Art as a path towards aesthetic understanding. Art making and craft skills as a physical in-road, a non-verbal in road, to a non-conceptual encounter with our world.
One of the most promising aspects of Kant’s description is how much he hangs on this sense of “purposiveness” or inner directing aspect that is required in order to talk about art. This aspect is always included within any aspect of the natural world. Every tree and animal in its natural environment grows and develops according to its own inner purposiveness. It is related to the innate self-regulating “is-ness” of each unique aspect of the natural world. In judging taste for beauty, one is specifically looking to identify the underlaying purposiveness, or nature, of the thing. I personally find it very interesting to think about how this particular skill might come in handy as our society slips further and further away from nature towards a human-centric and human-built world. If we were all spending time looking at things for their underlaying nature, would it help us to formulate values and segment off those digital aspects which, in my opinion, lack that particular quality?