What is contemporary aesthetics?
Māra Rubene and Elga Freiberga are interviewed by Ieva Kolmane and Artis Svece

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A. S.: – I think one of the tasks of our conversation is to clarify the role of aesthetics in contemporary philosophy.

I. K.: – Maybe we can also try to find out why the question „what is aesthetics?” seems to be discredited. Why is one inclined almost like sneer when one hears such a question?

A. S.: – Is it so?

M. R.: – It is possible there was a time when that was true, but I am not so sure whether one can say the same about the contemporary situation. I am referring to the time when Martin Heidegger announced that he distances himself from aesthetics, also Hans-Georg Gadamer said he does not want to use the word. Ludwig Wittgenstein did not use the term “aesthetics” either. It is true even before that, during the philosophical crisis just after Hegel. At that time, Gustav Theodor Fechner proclaimed one should stop building castles in the air, one has to built from the base, start with experimental stuff. I think in all these cases one can detect certain amount of disdain, but nowadays it is not any more like that.

A. S.: – Castles in the air – is it aesthetics they refer to?

M. R.: – One can find such castles in Hegel’s system, but one should start with sensation, empirical experience.

I. K.: – Maybe the answer to the question what is aesthetics is also a kind of castle in the air – a task that is impossible to accomplish.

E. F.: – It seems to me the same question can be asked about philosophy in general, not just aesthetics. I would rephrase it as the question: “How should one formulate the object of a theory?” Aesthetics was established as a universal theory. The main arguments of this approach (Baumgarten and Kant are its key figures) are already well examined, and the question of what to do next pops up quite naturally. Are there any new arguments? Can they claim the status of a theory? What is left of the universal theory? Other aspects of aesthetics that come forward with Hegel are art as the main “object” of aesthetics, the philosophy of art and the question of historicism. When art is moved to the center of aesthetic theory, its concept becomes problematic. Is it easier to analyze the concept of art than the concept of aesthetics? Can one define it? Are there any universal or particular criteria one can use to identify different manifestations of art? Do a symphony, a table, a novel and a cathedral exist in the same way? If one rejects the idea of the basic argument, then everything exists just in the historical limits of particular practices and there is no need for a philosophy of art. All this does not facilitate development of arguments, but rather makes one return to the history or theory of art. Nevertheless, the problem is not easy, and it is not a coincidence that books on aesthetics at the end of the 20th century begin with characterization of sensations, for example, Gordon Graham’s book.

M. R.: – Kendall Walton wrote a review on Michael Kelly’s four volume encyclopedia of aesthetics, and he said there that aesthetics is a field of chaotic research and it has the problem of defining and organizing the subject of its research. At the same time, he claims it is one of the most exciting and promising fields of philosophical research. The fact that we smile about aesthetics is probably Hegel’s deed. I agree, we reduce aesthetics to the philosophy of art, and to a certain extent, this is Hegel’s approach. In “Lectures”, he says that the philosophy of art is aesthetics. The beginnings of this approach can be found in Baumgarten’s texts where he claims that sensual cognition is the lowest kind of cognitive faculties and is related to nature. Nevertheless, this is the foundation of metaphysics or, one can say, castles in the air, as well as criteria that allow us to evaluate art. In fact, to a certain extent, this approach devalues art, art is lost here. I think we see today attempts to return to the understanding of aesthetics that is broader than just the philosophy of art and takes account of aesthetic experience and its place in cognition and relationship with nature. By analogy with the linguistic and visual turn, this attempt is sometimes called the aesthetic turn.

A. S.: – Are we talking about some particular moment in history that can be more or less clearly identified?

M. R.: – Well, one can relate it to everything we associate with post-modern discussion. Nevertheless, as far as aesthetics is concerned, one should mention Wolfgang Welsch first of all. This turn means much broader understanding of aesthetics. At certain point, Welsch also writes on universal aesthetization. One of the positive consequences of this turn is that questions of aesthetics are analyzed in the context of the philosophy of culture and cultural theory. That means something different emerges. The philosophy of art has its criteria and limits. When we turn to culture, discussion acquires a new context. Of course, the notion of culture also have caused lots of trouble for thinkers of all the nations. And if we talk about the historic and ahistoric, that exactly is the problem – to what extent can we provide aesthetic criteria that are free of historic and situational aspects? Where should one look for them and who can provide them?

A. S.: – What exactly is aesthetics beyond the philosophy of art? Is it about aesthetic experience and nothing more? Well, if it is just aesthetic experience, we are bound to return to Kant, and that does not necessarily guarantee the renewal of aesthetics.

E. F.: – To joggle concepts is not easy. If we return to Welsch and aisthesis or the notion of fullness of sensations, we must note that the long and complicated period that was related to the criticism of phenomenology has been very important for the development of this discussion. Welsch himself wrote in nineties about the restoration of trust in aesthetics and aesthetic thinking. This is a turn towards everyday life and diagnostics of reality – the diagnostics which is based on perception, observation, examination of reality. As you remember, he claims that everyday reality is extremely aestheticized and because of that it turns into anaesthetics or forgetfulness of sensations. Restoration of trust in the sensible and non-standardized could become one of the areas where aesthetics can express itself. This could be a way to incorporate aesthetic experience, although on the level of argumentation, it is just as fragile as everything else, just as claims: “I experience”, “I feel”, “I can feel it with my hand”. These claims require at least that one looks for an analogy. Analogy with what?

I remember a discussion on similar problems was published in one of the issues of „Magazine Litteraire”. In one of the articles, there was a list of the main areas of aesthetics: 1) the part of the history of art that is close to philosophy (it employs the knowledge of the history of art); 2) speculative criticism of art (this approach uses the category of value and includes psychoanalysis, phenomenology, politics, history); 3) philosophical aesthetics that is concerned with concepts and identification of the different modes of existence for objects. The third approach is the one that concerns also with the problems of argumentation. It seems to me important that aesthetics manages to remain in the boundaries of philosophy, because thus it can avoid its dissolution in the multitude of artistic practices. Besides, questions of argumentation cannot be reduced to some method of the right analysis and evaluation of art works. It rather aims to identify the problems and remain in the limits permitted by certain suppositions. Aesthetics in philosophy and philosophical aesthetics can help to preserve a kind of broader experience: percepts, affects (discussed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari), sensations, thoughts…

M. R.: – I think it is rather good we are a bit outside the tradition, because if one steps into the tradition, one instantly gets entangled in it.

E. F.: – Yes, but we have not stepped in.

M. R.: – With the post-modern turn, the question whether the Western tradition is the only one we should look at becomes rather prominent. That is where cultural context comes in. Why we should talk about one culture, why not many of them, why not other cultures? And again we have to ask ourselves: “What could be common to all these cultures or what could be something that we can build upon?” Should we talk about something that is beyond the historical and situational circumstances of cultures or rather about the aesthetic that will part of what we understand with, let us say, the beautiful?

A. S.: – I am not sure I understood what you said about the importance of culture for aesthetics. If there is a universal aesthetic experience, the role of culture is, most likely, secondary…

M. R.: – We can claim there is a universal aesthetic experience, only if there is some particular theory we identify ourselves with.

A. S.: – Well, yes, but if we doubt this and turn towards other cultures and “psychologies”…

M. R.: – We are doing this all the time. We live in a situation when different cultures exist side by side and there are different understandings of what is beautiful or what kind of pleasure is derived from art.

E. F.: – I would not say so, and we have to return to the question of why we talk about one culture that is usually identified with Western culture. It is not quite as simple as that. Why does one employ the notions of Western aesthetics when one talks about other cultures? It is a possibility of translation and understanding. Namely, on the level of some other culture or experience, certain phenomenon appears different, but we can try to understand this phenomenon, and it is not true that a person from a different culture will necessarily have communication problem. And I liked what Paul Ricoeur said once in an interview – we have not gone very far from Kant. I also believe that the question of aesthetic experience as something distinct, to certain extent singular and subjective, we can reformulate as a problem of communication and interaction, and it has to be translated in order we could understand anything at all. Are the notions of Western aesthetics universal? Yes, they are! Nobody has been able to replace them or replace its language.

M. R.: – Kant’s quest leads him to the question of the beautiful, but the beautiful is understood by him in the context of the transcendental approach. But if we take, for example, cognitive sciences, they probably would perceive the term “transcendental” as a very inappropriate context for something that determines the criteria of beautiful. Or if we take evolutionary approach or biological history? Maybe to our philosophers they do not seem very appropriate for determining any criteria, nevertheless, they do influence in certain ways our perception of the beautiful un aesthetics.

One of the objections that emerges in the context of rejuvenation and self-criticism of aesthetics is that the philosophy of art has distanced itself from life, or that it is not related to our everyday experience, or that it concerns a very narrow circle of educated people and not people in general. And that is when several authors bring in a reference to other cultures. He or she has had an experience of this or that culture in America, or a tea ceremony in Japan where he or she sees direct link between life and art, or craft. Ultimately, it seems to me that the rejuvenation of aesthetics is related to certain struggle that aims to cancel the distinctions that the Western binary way of thinking is very fond of, distinctions between exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside. I see here a return to the question of how aesthetic experience could be redefined as, I do not know, aesthetics of life, aesthetics of living.

E. F.: – Yes, well, one can notice several problems here. First concerns the philosophy of art as something meant for a narrow circle of people. That is not quite true. We cannot ignore so lightheartedly Western education. And Pierre Bourdieu writes that the explosion of artistic education was characteristic not just for Western universities, although now this explosion seems to have stopped. One can find it everywhere where there are people who specialize in different types of art. The influence of this kind of education is huge, and the circle of people related to the problems of art is very wide, I would say, wider than we can imagine.

Probably, that is not the most important issue we should talk about. The problem of aesthetic experience is more complex. I feel temptation of discarding the notion of “aesthetic experience” and using the term “experience” instead, because I think we have not yet reached the point when we should discuss how the aesthetic itself has transformed. We have to talk about aesthesis, because as long as we are using the term “aesthetic experience” we cannot claim we have freed ourselves from Kant’s transcendentalism. The notion of aesthetics is linked to Kant’s transcendentalism. The question of transcendentalism is the question about all and not just one experience.

M. R.: – I think when we talk about transcendentalism as something applicable to everyone, we forget a possible course of criticism, namely, the one that links this “everyone” with certain religious tradition.

E. F.: – Every concept has infinite range of aspects and consequences that we could discuss, nevertheless, maybe we should really try to address the notion of aesthesis and set free the notion of experience.

A. S.:Aesthesis was the concept used by Welsch, wasn’t it? But he is not the first one to use it.

M. R.: – He says it is a Greek concept and used already by Baumgarten. aesthesis is that what is grasped and known by senses and the attempt to retain it as such. Nevertheless, Baumgarten’s understanding of aesthesis is still placed in the Western tradition that sets vision and hearing apart as those senses that give the largest part of our impressions about the world un through which we come to know the world. If the tradition of Enlightenment and rationalism strictly separates senses of vision, hearing taste, smell, and touch, and some of them are sometimes completely ignored and banished, then here all of them are called back. And Welsch argues that we should trust our senses, sensations and experiences.

E. F.: – Experience is always related to time. And aesthesis indicates the culmination of experience. We have to return via aesthesis to sensations, because Western tradition has carried out a reduction of multitude of sensations to two or even one. I talk about the translation of everything through the visual perception, and one can find that already in Baumgarten, because sensations are just material or suppliers of material. And even as suppliers they are arranged according to certain hierarchy. There are sensations that cannot be trust as providers of material and needs mediation of vision or hearing, or something else.

I. K.: – But that is not aesthesis. Welsch describes aesthesis as elevated sensitivity or experience, and although it is very hard to describe what exactly it is, one could refer to the difference between hearing and listening. The difference is qualitative. To eat and to taste, the difference is in the level of pleasure.

M. R.: – Including sexual pleasure?...

I. K.: – Yes, yes, of course. So, it is hard to objectify it.

E. F.: – Taste can exist without an object. One can eat and taste nothing and eat and taste what one eats. The moment of intensity in the perception of senses is related to some model, the model the taste is based on. For example, a memory of a taste. Suddenly a taste or smell appears. And not because something smells here, but something reminds of it, stimulates our senses, begins to act and live.

M. R.: – That, I think, is aesthesis determined by biology and animality. These are so ancient memories… Nevertheless, I know this biological aspect of aesthesis is exploited everywhere in order we… buy something. The commercials and objects that use certain colors and sounds influence us.

A. S.: – That is another aspect of the question of what is aesthetics. One can say there are enough of aesthetic experiences in our everyday life. Is there a danger for aesthetics of becoming a servant to advertising? What can aesthetics offer beyond that?

E. F.: – We have touched another very broad issue. I think one can say the same about philosophy. Philosophy can be a servant just as well as aesthetics.

M. R.: – I would like to emphasize that the terms “aesthetics” and “aesthetic” can be used in very different ways. There are many more meanings besides those we mentioned when we talked about aesthetics as critical reflection on art, or nature, or culture…

E. F.: – Critical reflection on sensations...

M. R.: – Colin Lyas who has written about aesthetics claimed that university professors and theoreticians of aesthetics and philosophers of art can damage aesthetics, and aesthetics is first of all necessary for people in their everyday life. Aesthetics could help them when they read a book or listen to a CD, visit a museum. But since aesthetics usually is presented as high level philosophical reflection, it cannot fulfill its task.

A. S.: – Could help in what way? Experience pleasure more intensively? It would be just an endorsement of consumption.

E. F.: – I do not know. To devote oneself to oneself?

I. K.: – Maybe aesthetics cannot offer critical reflection for everyone, but at least it can offer useful formulations. Just like in the case of love. Could people fall in love and enjoy love if they did not have patterns that are provided by culture and movies, for example? They know certain model of what it could look like and how to construct it. That does not mean that everything has to match the pattern, but such a model to certain extent guides and directs the person.

A. S.: – Maybe I am wrong but it seems to me that other fields of philosophical research have less difficulty in justifying their existence.

E. F.: – Why? More practical?

M. R.: – It seems to me we cannot escape this drive to look for the ways we could put to industrial use what we research.

A. S.: – For example, many philosophy text books has the following structure: first, epistemology, philosophy of science, then maybe social philosophy, ethics and then, in the end, well, aesthetics. Maybe that is just a tradition, let us say, in Anglo-American philosophy?

I. K.: – Aesthetics is hard to present as science. This hierarchy is determined by the degree of resemblance to “science”.

M. R.: – I think this order is introduced with a view to the past. The main influence is the positivist tradition of the first third of the 20th century when it was presumed one could be a serious thinker only if one avoided questions of values. Today there is completely different situation in Anglo-American philosophy as well. For example, there is an influence of cognitive sciences and, I think, we should take note of it in aesthetics as well. The changes can be seen also in the theories of science and culture. Philosophers talk about post-platonic situation. What does it mean? It means that certain things should be reformulated. For example, we talk about sense of nature. Who has this sense of nature? What is human being? If we understand human being in the context of spirit and beautiful soul, than we have one kind of description and in these boundaries we can talk about aesthetic experience...

E. F.: – It seems to me there are other problems here as well. The model of aesthetics that was built according to the presuppositions of Enlightenment is quite lucid and works for a very long time, and it has very clear rules of how to build a theory. Physics is understood as a set of laws, and aesthetics also is understood as precision of laws. Just as physics today experiences great changes in its theoretical setting, aesthetics after Baumgarten is not built just as precisely. I am not claiming one has to construct some kind of universal theoretical model, but there are no strong theoretical or non-theoretical setting that could provide a law. That is why there are so many theories nowadays.

M. R.: – I do not think the situation is that bad. Lots of things are already accomplished in the world. Of course, I do not think it is possible to reduce everything to some single principle or theory, but theory has not become absolutely pluralistic or has completely lost its importance today. For me, aesthetics or aesthetic theory seems to be an interesting attempt to tear oneself away from classic and humanistic tradition that we identified in this discussion as distancing of aesthetics from the philosophy of art. Besides, aesthetics and cultural theory together, or aesthetics and the theory of communication, help to reevaluate oppositions and juxtapositions that determined aesthetics until very recently.

A. S.: – Certainly it seems to me, the overlapping of aesthetics and cultural theory, or the theory of communication, could be more productive than attempts to reanimate Kant’s and Baumgarten’s theories.

E. F.: – One cannot reanimate them, but one can draw attention to some problem. We still read these authors because we notice something in their texts. One cannot reanimate a theory in its entirety, but one can use it and find something in them.

I. K.: – Yes, and one cannot think of aesthetics in the same way we think of physics with new paradigms and the old ones that do not work anymore.

A. S.: – Nevertheless, one should distinguish two different issues – of course, one can always find something in a theory, but then there is a question of dynamics of philosophy. A process can go on, but still be stagnant even though everybody is writing something. Therefore, one of the questions worth asking is what dynamics of aesthetics is.

I. K.: – There is also the question of importance of dynamics. It is an idea of 20th century, namely, that we always need something new. One can also look after and cultivate tradition.

E. F.: – We have accepted that everything is changing very fast. The historical principle is put in motion and set free, and practically one cannot apprehend it, because dynamics itself is in action. And if we come back to post-modern theories, reflection also is in action. And we watch as the world changes and we get this feeling the old theories lag behind because they have to work synchronically with these changes.

M. R.: – Kant’s theory works very well for television. That is not a casual remark. Kant’s theory, no doubt, is linked to the understanding of human being that stays above everything, above irrational animals, and his taste means to be free of prejudices, but how can we talk about a viewer who sits in front of TV set? And then we discover that he is not just cultural simpleton that passively watches. No, he is not passive, he can take part in how it is organized. And we cannot disclose it, we keep working with the same approach of juxtaposition between elitist and mass culture.

E. F.: – I liked the question about dynamics of aesthetics. It indicates not so much that we want something different and are criticizing old theories, but that when we do something we formulate also why we are doing this. And maybe we can talk here not just about some external task, but also importance of aesthetics for ourselves.

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