Contemporary Aesthetic Experience
“... that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality.”—JORGE LUIS BORGES
In Ad Reinhardt’s cartoon book How to Look at Art, there is a detail that drew my attention: the two angels of Raphael’s painting The Sistine Madonna are having a conversation, and one of them affirms: “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like”, while the other angel replies: “Yeah, isn’t it nice that the obligation to be intelligent doesn’t extend to the field of art?”
These two statements are an invitation to think about the notion of aesthetic experience—with its limits and potentialities—when it comes to analyzing various phenomena in the relation artwork-spectator in contemporary art. Furthermore, the content of this dialogue calls to question the role played by theory in the production, reception and understanding of art and asks how to address the idea(l) of democracy in the field of arts. Art is everywhere. It took over all facets of our daily life. Art never succumbed to life; instead, art surrounds us on every corner; art is in a gaseous state—following the thesis of Yves Michaud. Art is woven into every fibre of our existence, but we don’t recognize it. Thus, contemporary art is co-dependent on theory more than ever. Today it is impossible to recognize art without a concept, or at least an idea of what the artist wants to communicate with his/her productions.
Besides, artists don’t know exactly what they are doing, so they need a discourse, something that holds the pieces together; artists depend on academic-scientific support to present and sell their work to an audience as art. However, they are not the only ones in need of a theory: the spectator comes to an exhibition and, most often than not, feels lost. To grasp some of the intentions of the artist and/or curator, the audience needs to read the long statement at the entrance of the exhibition room/gallery or has to buy the catalogue at the end of the tour. The need for a theory or some academic-scientific explanation is vital for initiating a process of communication between the artwork and the spectator to, at a certain point, have a certain kind of dialogue. Nevertheless, the truth is that the spectator really doesn’t care whether or not they understand what they are seeing or consuming. The simple and reduced act liking or disliking an artwork is enough—a development highly problematic for both, the spectator and art itself. We like art in the same way we like design products or kitties and “if art is only a matter of taste, then the art spectator becomes more important than the art producer. In this case, art can be treated only sociologically or in terms of the art market – it has no independence, no power by itself. Art becomes identical to design.”Boris Groys | The Truth Of Art | e-flux Journal #71 | 2016
On the assumption that art needs theory for its production and reception, we are nothing more than the passive spectators of Hegel’s theory of the end of art. And if the only way to appreciate art is to have a catalogue of concepts, and if there is no room for experiencing it as something aesthetic, we are losing an essential form of reasoning—different from logic, norms, morality or religion—but so valuable for comprehending life. Art, in the end, becomes part of the realm of philosophy or sociology. Art, in its symbolic ways, is an aperture of the world, as Heidegger pointed out; art, even belonging to the natural language, can create worlds, and in doing so, it expands the limits of understanding, presenting ways of life that we would have never imagined otherwise.
Today we are witnessing the aestheticization of an already atrophied experience. Every period, every society, has had its particular way of experiencing the sensible, and now the period of experiencing and considering everything around us as artistic and beautiful has arrived. Under this scenario, our judgment, unfortunately, goes no further than the mere like. Beauty is everywhere, just like art; the Cremaster Cycle is beautiful, so is the iPhone, so are my photographs, my posts; Rick Owens’ designs, Schönberg and Superstudio are also beautiful; there are no distinctions made between all these products of our culture. We have left behind the times of the society of spectacle; we are no longer the passive consumer, no. We are active producers. However, our production isn’t leading a new social revolution and/or our emancipation—as Walter Benjamin believed it would happen—and that leaves us, as Adorno pointed out, with art that aspires nothing but the spectacle. It is a form of production that represents and confirms the power of the Kulturindustrie by giving an illusory idea of freedom. Humankind has never experienced such an incredible amount of artistic production. Worldwide, there are thousands of art events per year: biennales, documentas, fairs; there is not a city in the world that doesn’t want to follow the Bilbao-Guggenheim model to take part in the circuit of art and tourism catalogues; thus, each year, there are hundreds of new museums around the globe being built; the equation art + museum + tourism seems a profitable choice for urban designers and policymakers.
In addition to this, every social media feed is filled with art; it is evident how people try to frame their daily posts artistically. This attitude goes further than the mere act of showing. It arises in the placebo effect that, after all, is based on the likes-and-hearts count each production receives in social media platforms. Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler, stated Joseph Beuys highlighting this previous statement. And he is while also being a critic, a curator, and sometimes all of them in once. And in the middle of this aesthetic disorder, each person, like Jeder Mensch, is free to judge, and his/her taste rules.
Beyond our self-designed society and the ideal of each becoming a producer and an artist, we may have reached the stage where we become our own self-production – a piece of art – or at least a designer product. Our contemporary experience, besides being aestheticized and atrophied, is a distracted experience: a multi-tasking, zapping, scrolling-a-like experience.
Walter Benjamin pointed out that this distracted experience could benefit the revolution: the spectator, aka the masses, will no longer be alienated from the artwork through the passive cult-alike role he/ she/it was assigned to. Despite the former, our contemporary distracted experience and production is even further away from emancipation and confirms the power of the industry of entertainment. Furthermore, the expositive value is taking over the cult value and our experience, following Nicolas Bourriaud thesis, is also relational. By interacting and making connections, by playing rhizomatic détournements and de-tours, is how today’s art consumer is creating his/her experience, or to be more precise, his/her/it aesthetic milieu.
We are no longer placed against an artwork, and our experience is no longer passive. Since the appearance of minimal, installation and performance art, we are mostly installed as a part of the whole piece, playing an active role and that, definitely, has modified our way of experiencing it. However, let us not forget the critics against these art practices, especially coming from Michael Fried, when he argues that the theatrical way of inducing and conducting the experience by manipulating the body and its movement oppresses the spectator even further.
During the course of the 20th Century, many art movements were born out of some theory. Russian Constructivism, for instance, was based on Marxism; Conceptual Art was mainly based on Wittgenstein Language Theory. Nowadays, art uses theory not only to translate its meaning into symbolic language: it is necessary for giving sediment and scientific value to the pieces. But also experiencing contemporary art requires knowledge of the theories used by the artist. Thus, for those not taking an active part in the Artworld, judgment has been reduced to matters of taste. Contemporary art practices can also be considered a tool of exclusion for unprivileged sectors of our society. It celebrates the status quo postponing equality for a further time and space.“ Complex art is considered bourgeois. It needs skills, connoisseurship, and culture that can only belong to the socially privileged. Therefore, when dealing with zones of the socially unprivileged, art should reject its artistic features: complexities, paradoxes and involvement. But it is here that the argument lies. If art is about refined aesthetic difference and taste, if it is reduced to skills needed for its perception, or skills acquired by long-term education to produce it, then such an argument has reasons. But if art is seen via existential, eventual, and ethical dimensions, then it is not coincident with education or dependent on social advantages or taste. Art’s complexity turns out to be about those issues that are embedded in anyone’s personal or social life, in acting in it or reflecting on it [...] Hence the paradox: the more democratic art tends to be, the less open it is to those who constitute the demos.”Keti Chukhrov | On the False Democracy of Contemporary Art | e-flux Journal #57 | 2014
“I know what I like” even though “I don’t know anything about art” serves here to ratify that in our so-called democratic experience of art we don’t need the figure of the critic or the expert, neither the artist nor the curator to tell us what is beautiful and what is not. But we are missing something valuable in the act of experiencing art: the power of communication and aperture of the world that art, in its symbolic ways, has to offer. Even so, and more than ever, this situation invites us to reflect on what we might have lost by eradicating the aesthetic experience as a form of reasoning when it comes to comprehending life. Art cannot be reduced to a theory, either to a simple like. Our approach and understanding of life are both linguistic and aesthetic. The first one is based on the idea that language precedes us, language, following Wittgenstein, is Darstellung. Heidegger also resumed it with the sentence die Sprache spricht—(the) language speaks. The second comes hand in hand with the first: Darstellung is the mental representation of meaning and/or idea but through a symbolic form. “Thus, we can argue that all knowledge can be considered aesthetic, since seeing means recognizing a sensible form that embodies a meaning, such as the shape of a rose or a mathematical equation [... and] what differentiates the theoretical re-cognition from aesthetic re-cognition is the clue of the look in each case. In the theoretical view, the form in which meaning is embodied is understood as a description of the world with claim of truth. In the aesthetic view, however, we are faced with what Kant called ‘a form of an endless end’, the famous Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck [...] If we contemplate an object as theoretic, we are subjecting it to logical-theoretical pragmatics, to a theoretical concept [...].”Gerard Vilar | Las razones del arte | A Machado Libros | 2005
The aesthetic experience in Kant belongs to the theory of general experience. Still, it plays a different role than other forms of experience such as reason and logic, science, morality or religion. However, it is based on common sense and inter-subjectivity. To know the world by sensuous means, that’s what the aesthetic experience is all about. And something with aesthetic qualities means something that has the power to seduce. It is the sensuous form that creates the perceptive pleasure that leads to the aesthetic experience.
Aesthetics, following Kant, focuses on the notion of beauty and resides in the realm of sensitivity, not compatible with the cognitive sphere of understanding based on concepts or norms.
In Kant, the aesthetic experience doesn’t mean a mere joy of an object: art should also create an experience. Thus art holds a truth, and to experience, it means to acknowledge that truth.
Beauty is a universal and transcendental category shared by society via sensus communis aestheticus that is often experienced-based disinterestedness in the act of judging; aesthetics, let’s not forget, is about perception. On the other hand, taste responds to a question of inter-subjective and universal communication that is created from common sense, through daily ordinary talk. And when referring to common, it is not only to the “vulgar” or ordinary meaning of the term, as Kant refers to in the Critique of Judgment. For taste is the closest to our sense-feelings, and to create the basis of understanding of this aspect is as valuable as a scientific norm. “[...] Taste can be called sensus communis more legitimately than can sound understanding, and that the aesthetic power of judgement deserves to be called a shared sense, more than does the intellectual one if indeed we wish to use the word sense to stand for an effect that mere reflection has on the mind, even though we then mean by sense the feeling of pleasure. We could even define taste as the ability to judge something that makes our feeling in a given presentation universally communicable without mediation by a concept.” Beauty became the main category in judging the artistic condition of an artwork, and taste has been established as the category by which the beauty of art is judged. Bearing in mind that taste was that which was shared, that which was common to all individuals, it was also considered a universal category. Thus, the need to appeal to extra-aesthetic judgments to experience an artwork faded little by little. For that, the individual had an aesthetic reason as valid as other ways of reasoning to issue judgments and sentences regarding the condition (understood as quality) of an artwork.
If the aesthetic reason is inherent to individuals (for the fact of being rational), taste also can be considered an a priori, because it is the category of value – communicable by a community – of judgments about the beauty that is in art.
David Hume, in his text Standard of Taste, speaks of taste as a form of judgment shared by individuals that can be improved and cultivated. Cultivation is closely related to the idea of exercising. Exercising my judgment, my notion of taste, not only as an opinion but also as a constant practice in which I dominate the medium, the language in which I give an opinion. The idea behind Hume’s argument is that not only taste but also culture considered an “entity in movement”, can be cultivated. However, it also fluctuates and responds to the needs and desires of a community at a particular moment in history. Hume takes the working field as an analogy for arguing that culture must be cultivated for the benefit of civilization, and therefore for the individuals of who it is composed. Taste as well must be cultivated and exercised.
Jürgen Habermas, in his text on the public Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, talks about the value of arguing in social discussions at the time when the public has been constructed. Essential here is the power of arguing through creating the common sense, where the expert succeeds with that element of Aufklärung that allowed him, not only to conduct behaviours but also to generate “the common thing” by the value of his arguments. Based on understanding, those with higher knowledge and experience in the subject had greater power of persuasion, since their ideas had a stronger foundation, and therefore their common-basis judgment was stronger. Put differently: The expert who judges through the category of taste is the one who has experience because he/she has lived and exercised that which he/she speaks about.
Hume would have referred to the understanding of language: to issue critique, it is necessary to know what is spoken about. And if taste is the category by which I judge the beauty of a work, it is clear that I must have seen and thought art to express an opinion based on its language.
Concerning this Wittgenstein formulated a simple but forceful phrase: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen. The sentence appears to be imperative, especially in a society characterized by talking just for the sake of talking but not for the value of the arguments. Though, what makes Wittgenstein statement so powerful is not what seems to be an invitation to remain silent in the face of ignorance. Its force relies on the necessity of exercising the common sense, to cultivate it to emit arguments and judgments not completely outlandish and thus to speak with adequacy. It also highlights the impossibility of naming what is not known, forcing a deeper reflection: A contemplation that allows the understanding and acceptance of the new and, in short, to think about the possibility of creating language and thus of enabling communication. Here is visible how Wittgenstein’s Tractatus should also be thought of as an ethic treaty, but this is not the topic in question. Hume emphasizes an aspect that should be taken into account for the purpose of this text: If an artwork survives the course of years and criticism as something outstanding, or if it is highlighted and therefore remains meaningful in a different period in history, it is because many individuals must have agreed upon it; not only “ordinary people”, but also experts. Thus, the work of art becomes a reference for taste and beauty.
This attitude of Hume is quite accurate in customary law as it would be arbitrated by an Anglo-Saxon right that judges based on what has already been judged. The work that stands out creates the basis for the exercise of judgment and at the same time opens new pathways and expands possibilities for other works and practices, as it guides behaviour, styles and forms of expression.
Within this notion lies a parallel, or, if I may, a similarity between Kant’s idea of space for reflection and understanding and Heidegger’s notion of aperture. The work of art, in its capacity of becoming a space of knowledge, that is autonomous, and sovereign entity over other forms of discourse, can open new worlds of understanding through its symbolic form. It is aperture of the aperture of the world. This, however, does not mean that the work of art holds an inherent function. Artworks are not beautiful by themselves: It is our judgment that defines their beauty.
An artwork ought to invite us to reflect. Art is loaded with messages, both aesthetic and extra-aesthetic. It is through the experience of art that, in a way, the meaning of art and life is complemented. However, it is also possible to think that a work of art can be complemented in the act of experiencing and interpreting it—in the way Walter Benjamin believed was the duty of a critic. An artwork that fosters our capacity of understanding the world through the conjunction of different languages of knowledge is an art that has as a purpose to generate communication, meaning and reflection. Beautiful art can be unpleasant, shocking and sometimes even repulsive. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t communicate. On the contrary, there may be many more elements that grasp our attention and invite us to investigate and understand it.
Art that has the ability to generate reflection through aesthetic reason without suppressing other forms of reasoning will be of benefit to and enrich both art and the spectator by expanding the limits of understanding, comprehending and perceiving.