Aesthetics in the 21st Century?

I posted a link to this review of Documenta 13 on Facebook and because I thought it was related to what I will be discussing at the upcoming Aesthetics in the 21st Century Conference at the University of Basel. This review got a very smart friend of mine to ask a good question, “I think aesthetics in this context doesn’t mean what I think it means? Can you give me a lay person description of what your talk will be about?”

I started writing a response to my friend and I realized that this is a pretty long comment and maybe I ought to post it on my blog since I’ve been neglecting this little corner of the Internet for a while now…. What follows below, then, is my response.

It will sound like I’m being silly, but the truth is, what is meant by the term “aesthetics” is not so settled among philosopher/theorist-types.

In part this is because the tendency in philosophy has been to point to what are often called “first questions,” i.e. when I encounter something I am not familiar with I ask, “what is that?”

Asking the question in that way leads me to a string of presuppositions about what can be said about Being (ontology) and—implicitly—this asking also establishes a relationship to what can be deemed knowable (epistemology). Opposed to that first—ontological—question (i.e. “what is it?”), when I encounter something I am not familiar with, I could ask the first question that is often used in Chinese, “how do I cook it?” Asking in this way I am privileging a pragmatic or aesthetic relationship, rather than trying to arrive at abstract kinds of knowledge about an object’s “nature” or “essence.”

Rather than privileging relationships to the world that are first filtered through a process of abstraction and conceptualization (which isn’t really something we tend to be aware of in our day-to-day actions but is tacitly supported un-mindfully because these presuppositions about the world are “just how the world is”), folks began looking to aesthetics as an activity in the mid-19th century as an activity that could provide unmediated, direct experiences of the world.

Throughout the 20th century we see the role of the artist, the “avant-garde,” become this messianic figure that delivers a new vision of how societies and individuals can relate to one another and to themselves. As the 21st century hums along there has become a lot more conversation about how limited the human mind/brain can know, how reliable it can be as a tool for solving problems, and most importantly what role the human being plays in the functioning of human habitats.

As our understanding of deep time (i.e. geological time) becomes more robust, as we develop more granular measurements of neuronal activity, as we gather better understandings of how the weather works—we are becoming more and more aware that the knowledge we’re gaining is more informative about the limitations of the human experience than about the way the world actually is.

That’s probably not too controversial of a thing to say—that human experience is kind of a poor tool for measuring most of what is out there in the world—but it’s something that tends to surprise us fairly frequently. What we are seeing is that the universe is a lot weirder than we might think.

So, my talk at this aesthetics conference is going to focus on one performance by an artist named Marina Abramovic. In that performance she holds a bowl of milk for a long time. I am going to discuss some of what I think is at play in that performance based on an interview I did with her. I’m hoping that, by discussing the performance and the interview in the way that I like to think about those elements, the audience will see opportunities for developing weirder ways of thinking about the world.

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July 6, 2012 · 9:26 pm

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