Art and Value: Towards a New Rationalist Aesthetics

It’s been too long since I’ve written something substantial here on deontologistics, and I’ve promised myself I’m going to try and remedy that this year. However, for now you’re going to have to be satisfied with an advertisement for my next course with the New Centre for Research and Practice. I’ve been threatening to run a course on aesthetics since I started working with them, and the time has finally come. However, unlike my past few seminars, this will be a full 8 weeks, and will involve a more focused reading and discussion of some important texts in art theory and the history of aesthetics. I’ll quote the course outline here for those who are interested, but full details are available over at the NCRP website:

What is art? Contemporary art is haunted by this question, sometimes obsessed by and sometimes outright hostile to it, but never truly free from it. This constant tension is sublimated by those philosophies of art that developed during the transition from modern to contemporary art, which resolve the conflicts between traditional aesthetics and contemporary practices by dissolving them, indexing art to its institutional reality and the historical context of the artworld. That this dissolution is no solution is apparent in the continued strife between aesthetics and philosophy of art, which fluctuate between superposed identity and resolute distinctness, as much as the constitutive crisis of self-identity that determines contemporary art as such. Nevertheless, if we aim to provide a genuine solution, we must remain sensitive to the historical process of self-definition driving the institutional evolution of art. We must trace the various moments of its self-imposed split from craft: as propaganda, decoration, or entertainment; examine the gradual reinforcement then sudden collapse of the barriers between mediums: the dialectic of concrete figure and abstract form in painting and sculpture, the subsequent rise of performance and installation, and the eventual emergence of the exhibition as its own medium; and explore its tumultuous relationship with literature, music, drama, cinema, and other institutionalised practices that covet the title of arts.

But we must go deeper still if we wish to free contemporary art from this question. The only way to define art that accounts for its continuity with and distinctness from other ‘aesthetic’ domains and practices is to transmute the question: what is the value of art? Since the end of the 20th century, there has been a concerted effort to rehabilitate the aesthetic dimension of art, beginning with the question of sensation, engaging with the status of pleasure, and ultimately returning to the classical concern with beauty. However, this development essentially ignores the issue from which classical aesthetics emerged, namely, the status of beauty as a value comparable to (and for some, identical to) truth and goodness. It was the slow reduction of beauty to a specific sensible quality in the aesthetic tradition that enabled the artistic rejection of beauty in the first place, catalysing the crisis of definition that has lead us here. The rehabilitation of the ‘aesthetic value’ of this quality thus invites the deeper question of what such value consists in, and, if it extends beyond the domain of art, what is peculiar about the form it takes in that domain? These questions demand that we return to the philosophical roots of aesthetics, and determine whether there is a place for a more expansive concept of beauty qua value: encompassing perfection, sublimity, and fascination as well as harmony and simple prettiness, and sufficient to articulate the relations between natural wonders, crafts, arts, and ‘art’ simpliciter.

The goal of this seminar is thus to answer one question – ‘What is art?’ – by addressing more foundational questions about the nature of value. This strategy is thoroughly rationalist in spirit, but our pursuit of it will be equally rationalist in practice: it will involve exploring rationalist themes in the aesthetic tradition from Plato to Hegel, and leveraging ideas about reason, freedom, and normativity from contemporary rationalist thought. However, it remains a research seminar. The relevant questions must be broken down further, and what would constitute adequate answers remains to be seen.

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