Aesthetics – Fumbling towards a Theory of Art
Aesthetics – Fumbling towards a Theory of Art
What does a religion of art, art for art’s sake, what does it actually look like? Can you be a materialist, as I am, and still believe in the primacy of stories? Does a belief, a fervent belief, in the strength of narrative and its ability to interact with the physical world require of us that we become idealists? If one intends to take up a life of art, a creative life, in a thought-through manner, it does seem necessary to come to grips with these questions…I was about to write, as a conciliatory move, that ‘there is nothing wrong with the unexamined artistic life, the raw push to create,’ to preclude any criticisms of elitism or snobbishness. However, truthfully, I don’t think that this is the case. I won’t say that the premeditated art work is superior to the spontaneous, amateur or naïve – that’s demonstrably false. I will stand my ground when it comes to the “continuous work-ing,” though. It is one thing for a discrete article, an isolated piece, to succeed by accident, it is quite another for the tenor of the mind, over the course of a life-work, to be in a continuously uncritical state. To make an art-work because you enjoy the process, that’s fine, but to do it for more systematic reasons than this, to know that it is worthwhile beyond the scope of your immediate gratification, I suppose that that is what I’m driving at.
Grasping at this higher level, if we want to conceptualise it as such, does it carry a raft of metaphysics with it? Can it be developed without having to import any number of unverifiable, mysterious teleologies?
It is a severely impoverished materialism that couldn’t account for these things – while one may allow that the world is made up of only physical things, and that we are no more than crude matter, the arrangement thereof is still of overwhelming importance. Even amongst hard-line materialist theories, this position has been held for the last several centuries of modernity. As our knowledge of our own bodies deepens, it becomes ever more apparent that our interactions – which we have no reason to suspect of the failure to obtain – are filtered. Everything we know points towards an external world that we can interact with, but, we are also fairly certain that the way this experience plays out, our own interpretation of it, that’s internal to us. This then is where the compulsion of aesthetics enters. Aesthetics – whether we have a comprehensive theory of it, a handle on it, or otherwise – is the go-between, mediating our relations with the external world. I underline the lack of need for a full conception because, much like political economy, while aesthetics comes from us, i.e., it is something that we “do,” it nonetheless gets on with its work irrespective of our knowledge of it. Just as the Capitalist is shunted into a particular set of behaviours by the logic of valorising capital, so too are each of our experiences guided by aesthetics. I’m not sure I’m yet comfortable saying that there is a law-like behaviour in play, so the analogy may fall apart there, but it seems illustrative despite this. Of course, I’m not saying that the mediation between us and the external world is aesthetics full-stop. Rather, aesthetics, art – that is how we make sense of the raw material our senses provide us. The patterns we discern, the way we play with qualia, especially the things that we fail to notice or ignore automatically, aesthetics is the way we form and change these interactions.
On these grounds then, that aesthetics should be a set of emergent properties of our own makeup, both determined by and determining our own actions, it seems that a robust materialism should have no issue in allowing of it. Nothing could be more apposite to a materialism than the recognition of complex systems, built up out of small interactions. It’s true that the leap from “hard” science to the “soft” sciences is one that is fraught, but this is not because the social sciences are inherently flawed – more than likely, it is because their subject matter is much harder than that of the hard sciences. It would be a difficult task to tease out internal laws of a subject like aesthetics, for the same reasons that it is difficult to pin down the ramifications of systematic oppression. Complex, not easy to model.
Nor is it really necessary to do so, merely to have support for the belief that there is a mechanism by which artistic things can make a difference. Don’t even need to know that they do. Of course, as is usual with these sorts of things, the common sense approach has already arrived at the answer long before any philosophical examination. Does Art make a difference, you ask the average person. Yes, of course, they answer – it makes me feel things. Does it really need to be taken further than that? Not if we’re looking for the reason for the discrete art-work: reason-in-itself, the creation thereof is enjoyably, external reason, it makes people feel (the reasons for which I have some ideas, but that is another topic). However, if we want something bigger, a reason to dedicate ourselves to the labour of it beyond the instrumentality of enjoyment, then, yes, it does help to have an idea of how and why it does the things we already know that it does. Another brute example, beyond the rather moderate titillation of an artistic experience: the sorry state of the world today, and the majority of known history. You need look no further than religion (it should be noted that I’m not blaming religion for all the ills of the world, mind. It is both a source of them and resultant of other, more abstract, affairs) to see the power of art – the ability to convince people, most people, throughout most of history, that something impossible exists. It’s the answer to the Riddle of Steel, after all.
Without yet having provided a proof for it, I want to argue for the idea that aesthetics is more than just some airy-fairy facile affair. It not only obtains, but it is fundamental to our experience of the world, to our lives. As such, it is as valid a pursuit as something ostensibly more immediate, such as engineering or finance, perhaps even more so than these. Bears more thinking on, certainly.