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Art Theory Now: From Aesthetics to Aesthesis

Start here, with a work of art that commanded the highest price ever paid for a single
piece by a living artist. The back story turns out to be a little more complicated than this
blunt statement would suggest, since the high price tag suggestion that this is the most
valuable work of contemporary art has to be qualified by recognizing the machinations
and manipulations of publicity, promotion, and self-investment that are part of the bigger
scene in which this price got paid for the work. (Hirst is part owner of the investment
firm that purchased the piece, a non-trivial fact.) But that elaborately manipulated
situation is part of my point and part of the work, the reason why it serves as the initial
touchstone for my argument. The piece you are looking at here, this platinum skull
studded with diamonds, a work of in-your-face bad taste kitsch if ever there was one, is
the centurys later answer to Duchamps Fountain. With a name meant to provoke at the
most sophomoric level, For the Love of God (that god being Mammon of course), has
inverted Duchamps readymade formula, and instead of exposing the institutions of art
through gestures that insinuate a piece of mass-produced plumbing with no inherent value
into the art system through use of its validating naming-pointing-framing gestures, Hirst
is taking the investment gamble of art market futures to new heights by encrusting the
most precious of metals with the most outrageously vulgar commonly recognized bling
bearers of value diamondsand turning the art system into a means of reifying capital
in rarified objects. Hirsts skull is the opposite but in a deliberate sense of the
readymade. The artwork as hood ornament bauble is a hyped artifact whose made-ness is
an effect of all the promotional staging through which it performs like any other celebrity
as a meme-unit accruing value according to the rate at which its identity circulates
through hierarchies are made to frame it and us as complicit partners in the game. What
game? Who is us? Not me, say my artist friends, with their deep commitment to purity of
purpose. Not me either say my critical colleagues, with their finely honed didacticism and
aloofness to all things crassly consumable. But Hirst has it all over the rest of us, having
trumped the high stakes gamble and pushed the bids to a place that is a new metric
against which, for better or worse, terms of assessment are gauged and calibrated.
What has any of this to do with aesthetic theory? Whether I like Hirsts work or
dont is a non-issue in reconciling its specific performance with the terms I want to drag
out of the obscure shadows of aesthetic discourse and into new insights. How to
illuminate these spoils without being blinded by light refracted through the (we are
assured) genuine gems of such a piece and all it says about the way the work of art is
created as a product of an elaborate system of relations that now seems to require or at
least desire that its investments (critical as well as monetary) be backed by so much
capital? Poor Adorno would turn in his grave with a restless uneasy fury in the face of
such monstrous artifice, and Benjamin would be appalled to see the revenge of aura and
the son of aura, and Shklovsky would have his work cut out for him to lay bare all the
many devices of such an elaborately social network of complicated relations. Bakhtin
these quaint ghosts pale and thin, their earnest arguments fading against the simulacral
force of consensual illusion operating to produce the most decadent expression of a
decadent world within the very inner sanctum of the domain that was meant to preserve
us from the Philistines, not promote their interests to the highest pinnacle of recognition.
But enough about Hirst, at least for now. He may be an easy target, but his work
is a necessary and important benchmark, a referent against which any claims for aesthetic
theory have to be tested. Not because theory has to be totalizing in its explanatory force,
quite the contrary. We cant claim to explain everything anymore. Ours is the age of
partial knowledge no, correct that ours is the era that recognizes all knowledge is
partial, situated. Theory can no longer claim to be a proper noun, it has been demoted,
like Pluto, from its former status. Indeed, the world can change. But we cant pretend to
the non-existent of Hirst any more than we can ignore the successes, failures, aspirations
of other artists and their works in thinking about how theory takes shape and gives voice
to the demons and angels of outrageous fortune. The place from which theory gets
spoken has to be within the known universe of coordinates, acknowledging a world
shaped by forces and conditions not of its making, but of which it is a part.
Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy concerned with perception. Theory
provides analysis of the ways we understand and interpret objects and phenomena.
Aesthetic theory exposes the assumptions on which the identity and social purpose of art
objects is understood, also addresses the nature of aesthetic experience. What gives a
work of art its distinction from other made things, and what ends moral, spiritual,
politicaldoes it serve.
If we were to look back at the longer history of aesthetics from its inception as a
distinct field in the 18
th
century work of Alexander Baugarten, we could trace a tension
between the study of aesthetic experience (the refinement of sensibility, cultivation of
taste, awakening of perception, or alignment with the higher orders of human judgement)
and the attention to aesthetic objects (distinguished by formal properties, attention to
form, self-conscious reflection upon the assumptions on which conception, production,
and reception operate). The productive aspect of this tension has to be further explored,
and Ill return to it later. But examples of both emphases come quickly to mind from our
collective knowledge base from Kant and Hegel and Fry and Bell to philosopher-critics
and artist-theorists throughout the modern period. None have occupied a more central
position than Theodor Adorno. The legacy of Aesthetic Theory has shaped critical
thinking in art history and literary studies, particularly those areas concerned with works
of esoteric high art, difficult or experimental work, and the traditions associated formally
and ideologically with modernisms special branch, the avant-garde. But the power of
that avant-garde model is also the limitation of Adornos work in the current climate. Can
we use the basic premises of his approach autonomy, irreducibility, and resistance to
describe or explain the identity and purpose of art nowor, at least, some works of art
being done now? Not without some adjustment.

Rather than go back to Hirsts skull, Ill take up a vibrantly satisfying work I saw
recently. (Though I admit the conundrums posed by Hirst give me some pleasure to
ponder, since they defy easy assimilation into any system that involves judgment and
provide a kind of intellectual puzzler challenge).

Phil Collinss video installation, The World Wont Listen, opened at the Dallas
Museum of Art in Dallas in November, 2007. Worldwide fan culture is the focus of
Collinss piece, in particular, the cult of The Smiths, the legendary British punk band,
whose lead singer Morrisey has a huge following, with enthusiastic adherents across all
kinds of demographic categories. Collins took four years to make this piece, going to
three places Jakarta, Bogota, and Istanbul to locate clubs and through which to connect
with other Smith fans. He put out calls for participation, then arranged, staged, and filmed
Karaoke performances of every song on the album whose title is borrowed for the
installation. The performances are magnificently filmed, in vivid seductive color, with
lighting that gives each individual a flatteringly glamorous appearance. Skin tones, body
types, expressions, are all filmed with a warmth that is reinforced by the weird
technicholor-like backdrops in the studios. These images of the American Southwest
desert scenes or tropical paradise images right out of a travel poster add their own
unreality to the performances, and Collins said they were very much like the wallpaper
murals popular in the 1980s in British working class environments, homes and offices, as
inexpensive visual art and dcor that offered its own fantastical promises and allure. The
result is that the actual performances seem to take place far from real time or real places,
in a bubble world of vacation packages and promised escapes. All the performances are
distinctly marked by the peculiar out-of-phase-nesses that characterize karaoke. By
definition, these performances are imitations, the mimetic taking on of stylistic trappings
and personae that are always other than the individual acting a part. As Collins himself
said in an interview at the museum, the images show the constant tension between
aspirations and failures of individuals in relation to mass culture.
Jakarta, Bogota, Istanbul are not the far flung reaches of the world. More directly
than any cult stud critical piece, this record of fan activity shows points to this as an age
of global consumerism and networks of audience production. But Collins isnt
doing cultural studies hes a Smith fan and a fan of Smith fans, and he clearly does not
feel either superior to or separate from the people whose performances he filmed. That
shows in the way they look and act in front of the camera. They expose themselves in the
most touchingly vulnerable, comic, convincing, alluring, amusing, endearing, and
pathetic ways. Among its many compelling qualities, the most outstanding may be the
sheer humanity of the piece. The sincere respect for each individual fan shows in the
intimacy with which they reveal themselves. But this is not old fashioned, reactionary
humanism staking its resistant claim to the forces of mass culture industries. Collinss
work is directly involved with mass culture. The Smiths, an influential British punk band
from the 1980s, have a world wide fan base. But by tracking the circulation and reception
of their music through these global networks reveals the ways identity, nationalism, self-
identification with communities and subcultures works in real peoples imaginary
livesthat is, the lives they are really living as complicated social beings capable of
sustaining all kinds of apparent contradictions.
Every kind of hyperbole applies to the production values of this piece. The inky,
velvet, infinite darkness of the custom built bays in the Dallas Museum of Art provides
extra fine and highly absorptive framing for the piece. And the work is as seductive as it
is subtle. The rich complexities of the work are almost inexhaustible, produced by the
nuances of each individual performance and performer read against the other and then
into the field of associations that the combination of The Smiths, and Columbia, Turkey,
and Indonesia provoke. But watching the amazing videos offers its own satisfying
experience. You dont need theory speak to know that the variously shaped and
individuated bodies, outfits, poses, gestures, body-and-soul languages performing before
your eyes are coming and going from their own fantasies and those of mass culture.
Every move shows the combination of performed and inhabited reality. These are fans
who want to be what they can never be the objects of their fetish-y thick desire. But
they are also all very specific people none of whom is even remotely like the others in
their actions or appearance, state of grace or anxiety, condition of total engagement or
degree of separation.
Collins and Hirst are high profile artists and both of these projects are capitalized
to a degree that reflects the ability to command substantive resources. This puts their
work in contrast to that of Dean Dass, a painter and printer whose books, The Age of
Partial Objects, and For Girolamo Francastelano? , were heavily invested with the
techniques and materiality of craft production. Dasss pages are thick with work, drawing
and collage, the stained, distressed, palimpsestic saturation of the sheets recording the
artists own dialogue with his images and process in layer after layer. Finely made and
rarified, often done as unique objects, his books are not so much about a shifted approach
to knowledge and experience as they are embodiments and demonstrations of it. The
record of natural disaster and collapse of species that shows in the damaged images that
progress through Girolamo has a mournful quality, elegiac more than hortatory in its
rhetoric. Sadness and loss are registered in the traces of shapes that were once forms, and
in the flight of easy meaning from the central space of the page. Formal qualities are at
the core of visual eloquence in this work, even as its thematic concerns with ecological
disaster are evident. The book is not only not didactic, its crucial move is to undo the
authoritative assumptions on which didacticism is premised. This move aligns it with the
arguments of The Age of Partial Objects. Arguments appear in both works as
expressions of visual phenomena whose ability to create associations and suggestions
hovers on the edge of closure. The sustained ambiguity of Dasss formal approach keeps
the imagery from programmatic subordination to a didactic agenda. The work is not
message-driven or dominated. This page, that page, with its hints and phantoms, vapors
and atmospheres, shows the impossibility of getting hold of knowledge with any
certitude. Acknowledging the failure of representation is an epistemological issue, one
that we will come back to. Dass produces an experience of knowledge as partial, always
fragmented and inadequate. The systematic certainties of visual representation put at the
service of a rational, scientific knowledge slip away, their objectification premised on a
notion of totality that isnt sustainable. We are inside of what we know, and knowledge is
experiential, not transcendent. The knowing is local and fragmented, though we aspire to
piece together some map of what is going on, who we are, where we fit and how the
fragments make something of which sense can be made.
Dasss approach sets up the basic frame within which my argument unfolds. The
concept of knowledge as partial, and of aesthetic experience as crucial to its imaginative
life, is at the center of a notion of aesthesis. This pulls aesthesis back towards the
experiential focus of philosophy, but with the difference that current theories of cognition
are grounded in a probabilistic and co-dependent approach, not a mechanistic or
empirical one. We dont aspire to know everything, or be in a position to describe a
general theory of anything at all, but rather, to address the emergent condition of knowing
and known as a series of models according to which we imagine our own experience.
Now that is a radically different idea of both aesthetics and knowledge than we can find
in the work of our predecessors, even if it does build on the convictions that sensation,
sensibility, refinement of judgment and taste, are the result as well as the pre-conditions
of knowledge through experience.
Why call this aesthesis? Why not just get rid of art objects and artists and
institutions of the artworld altogether and address cognitive studies on its own? Because
the imaginative life of culture is served by those expressions that come into being without
a clear instrumental purpose. Dasss Partial Objects have no a priori purpose. They dont
exist to do something in advance of their appearance, they produce an effect, provoke a
response and reading, sensory rewiring, or not, as the case may be. Critical theorists have
debated the role of artistic activity for decades, more now, centuries, in these terms with
all the tools available to us asserting the value of de-familiarization, of exposing that
which we do not know, of showing the limits of our ability to conceive and have our own
experience. We can think about this from a critical theory perspective, with all the
apparatus of terminology that offers a way to describe false consciousness, ideology, and
hegemony. But the assumptions and correctives in such approaches, earnest real and
necessary as they may be, have gotten so formulaic and predictable as to be parodic. The
world is broken, and we must change it, this is true. Do not tell me what to think, show
me a different way of thinking, seeing, experiencing, otherwise the structures and
strictures of pre/proscription lock down the very possibilities meant to be brought into
being.
The artists who curated Fuzz in Charlottesville last fall put together an exhibit of
works whose common element is small scale pieces of hand-made-and-slightly-funky
image-objects that use the stuff of mass culture as their raw materials. The combinatoric
freedom of their approach isnt new, weve seen such collages and hybrid works for
decades, but what is striking is that as young artists the place they are starting from is that
the raw stuff of their work is the cooked culture of our times. Nature is a past tense term,
no longer relevant within their horizon, and the transformation of materials into new
meme-structures re-familiarizes the fragmentary bits and pieces. Re-familiarization is a
push-back term, meant to counter the legacy of shock and novelty, by assuming, as Dass
does, as Fuzz artists do, as Collins, that we need to reintegrate our understanding of
experience into the cultural and social systems and relations in which it is produced. So,
looking at Patrick Costellos pajama-clad boy with felt trimmings, painted on wood,
small, endearing, with its allusions to Nemo, to sentimental images of the lost boys and
Peter Pan nursery images, and its product-placement recognizable repetition through his
work, as a brand icon that acts out his identity, we begin to see the image not as an entity,
but as an occurrence, an event. Not an image, but an image now, seen, related to and
experienced through associations and connections that make its existence a time slice
instance of a broader set of interrelated conditions. Seeing what they are and how they
operate takes us back to the partial knowledge Dasss objects express.
Much more can be said about the provocations that push us to rework our
assumptions about artistic practice based on specific examples of contemporary work.
Takashi Murakamis manic products, Jennifer Steinkamps immersive paintings,
animated and disorienting, Karen Finleys wonderfully analytic and whimsical drawings
of the bits and pieces of Condoleeza Rice according to which we recognize her, think we
know her, Robert Longos existentially emotional large drawings of deep space, of bomb
blasts, and of infants faces all are compelling in their attempts to create some space for
experience. Art, I have said before, is the space we make so that we can have space a
place of non-aligned movement, the parallax-effect, and play. Instance after instance
arises to my mind, a fun-house candy-store sensation that the marvels and imaginings
of my peers outstrip the time and capacity to fully describe adequately their many
operations and delights.
But the task I set myself here wasnt only to call interpretative attention to
specific works I love, a task inexhaustible in my lifetime, but to elicit from this a
reflection on the theoretical frame adequate to such work and its identity and effects.
Adornos Aesthetic Theory, still monumental in impact and effect, remains the
point of departure against which any theoretical formulation has to originate. Why?
Because it is what we have, have had, and because the precepts that structure its belief
system remain a potent legacy. Like it or not, the terms of autonomy, made-ness, non-
self-identicality, and resistance have dominated, particularly in some quarters, the
discussions of art practice for a good half century. If you could put a trace on the citations
and excerpts lifted out of Adornos work and then light up the instances, the
bibliographic field in critical studies would look like a phosphorescent tide, with all those
aphoristic bits sparkling in the dark field of print.
Four principles organize his aesthetic theory, and for all the many nuances and
refinements in his complex arguments with their reservations, qualifications, thinkings
and rethinkings, the ideas of autonomy, made-ness, non-self-identicality, and resistance
are primary.

made-ness (empirical nature to formed culture) Works of art are defined because they
come into contrast with the arbitrariness of what simply exists. (p. 5) The separation of
the aesthetic sphere from the empirical constitutes art. (p.10)

autonomy (without purpose or utility) Art is irrevocably autonomous. In a world
dominated by utility, art has a utopic aspect as the other of this world, as exempt from the
social process of production and reproduction. (p.311)

irreducible non-self-identicality (formalism non-unitary relation of concept-matter) In
art the means and the ends are not identical. In their dialectic, the former constantly
asserts a certain, and indeed, mediated, independence. (p.14) The work resides in part in
the fact that the object is not unitary with its materials. (p.95?) and the higher seeming
purpose is To make things of which we do not know what they are. Aesthetic identity
seeks to aid the non-identical, which in reality is repressed by realitys compulsion to
identity. (p.4)
-
radical resistance (simply by removing itself from utility or purpose a work of art
embodies an act of resistance) By crystallizing in itself as something unique to
itself, rather than complying with existing social norms and qualifying as socially
useful [art] criticizes society merely by existing. (p.225) Keeping works of art, with
their ability to produce pleasure, from being merely easily consumed, is essential to
Adorno, since pleasure would simply end the cycle of awareness and turn art into a
reified, hardened, cultural possession or a source of pleasure that the consumer
pockets. (p.17) In the administered world, artworks are only adequately assimilated in
the form of the communication of the uncommunicable, the breaking through of reified
consciousness. (p.196)


The shift from aesthetics to aesthesis mapped in my title arises from the conviction that
any attempt at a systematic theory of aesthetic objects is doomed by certain limitations --
its attachment to formalisms as the basis of identification of works of art and its entity-
driven approach. The flaw in an attempt at a totalizing description is inherent in the way
it posits the existence of a world available to full description, as if it existed outside of
and independent of the descriptive act. So the system-building approach that Adorno
struggles with throughout his text shows, by that very struggle, that he knows this is a
failed project from the start. Because even at mid-century, approaches to knowledge had
to face the realization that mechanistic, positivistic epistemology had been irrevocably
supplanted by probabilistic and constructivist attitudes towards knowledge production.
The belief that political agency or instrumentality can inhere in or accrue to art works
through their aesthetic identity that follows from the extension of a particular formalism
in relation to a cultural condition is plagued and tainted by the abuses to which it has
been put within the critical sphere of much banal art historical discourse and even more
banal academic work that seeks to justify its own irrelevance on the basis of a
difficulty=radical resistance equation so morally bankrupt and intellectual skimpy it
would be beneath notice if it werent so widespread. Beating that dead horse would be a
sorry exercise at this stage of our collective cultural lives. Instead, the challenge is to
envision an approach to aesthetic theory as a theory of knowledge, not objects, premised
on a challenge to the foundations in mechanistic positivism that support administered
culture, managed hegemonic power structures, institutionalized hypocrisy, and abuses of
cultural authority. I use the term aesthesis to mark this distinctive turn back towards
aesthetics as a study in perception using this as a way to insist on a theory of knowledge
that incorporates constructivist, probabilistic approaches to partial, situated, subjectively
based epistemology. Aesthesis challenges the positivistic and totalizing approaches on
which the managed, administered instrumentality of cultural authority is based. Adorno is
not the enemy here, nor the straw man in the argument, but rather, the point of departure,
the last station in an otherwise unmarked and uncharted territory, from which, now, we
must set out anew with a radically different agenda that attends to perception and
knowledge as processes rather than objects and their purported effects.

The shift of categories to accommodate these practices within a concept of Aesthesis:

Instead:
- shift from cultural product to reformulated, repositioned art does not, as
Adorno syas, inevitably end up on product. it begins with and as product. no
nature, only culture. the reconfiguration of relations in materials, not just as
things, associations, provocations. The work of art is comprised of the
reworking of cultural material from one situation and circumstance to
another., a shift out of phase. The ability for this to register is always a
temporal event, a state change momentarily perceived, before the process of
reification returns this dynamic move to the condition of an object. But it is
not the objects that do the work, it is the work that makes the objects. (Fuzz
things)
- no possibility of autonomy no outside, no separate ness, rather, complicit to
a high degree, situated, and constituted art works are not objects circulating
in a system of exchange, but are symbolic constructions created in a co-
dependent relation of social systems of production as meaning production (the
means of meaning production in this sphere are highly integrated and
distributed through academic critical, news and press, ads and markets,
auctions and buyers, investments and criticism, etc. the entire
institutionalized system of constituted value) how can this be autonomous?
strains belief. (Hirst Skull perfect)
- formal the impossibility of self-identicality not only in the thing but in its
relation to reading and interpretation. the possibilities of reading it suggests.
Dass Age of Partial Objects cateagories and breakdown, then Girolamo
ongoing open-ended, constantly shifting, reformulating its own positions. not
become a thing (within chains of association/meaning)
- - political-ideological another model besides either resistance or reaction,
instead, alternative knowledge, experience , bringing into being that which is
not, envisioning otherwise

What do we want of works of art? And of an aesthetic theory within which to apprehend
their identity and operation? Not a mode of being but of knowing
- Not about being but knowing pedagogical not didactic, opening not
reductive
- Not about representation but interpretative provocation not thing among
things but an agent of dialogue
- Not about destruction but construction (the difficulty with mass culture is not
what is there but what is left out, absent) so, make something
- Not about de-familiarization but re-familiarization


Can images matter at all given the extreme state of current (visual) culture?

Because the
history of fine art images is intertwined with the belief in political efficacy, the effect
they are charged to make has ties to an idea the artist as an agent of social change (the
political artist). Aligned with a left-leaning sensibility, that idea is often used to support
unsustainable claims about how art matters. But the counter extreme is expressed with
an increasingly totalized absoluteness in the work of Jean Baudrillard that of the utter
impossibility of efficacy in our supposedly completely virtual condition. My argument is
deliberately designed to recall another option that has an equally long tradition that does
not depend on an automatic link between awareness and political agency nor on giving up
accountability to the reality of lived experience as a scene for individual action and
engagement. (The first I call magical politics and the second the simulacral disorder.
Neither seems accurate as a description of what aesthetic objects do.)

The shift from aesthetics to aesthesis mapped in my title arises from the conviction that
any attempt at a systematic theory of aesthetic objects is doomed by certain limitations --
its attachment to formalisms as the basis of identification of works of art and its entity-
driven approach. The flaw in an attempt at a totalizing description is inherent in the way
it posits the existence of a world available to full description, as if it existed outside of
and independent of the descriptive act. So the system-building approach that Adorno
struggles with throughout his text shows, by that very struggle, that he knows this is a
failed project from the start. Because even at mid-century, approaches to knowledge had
to face the realization that mechanistic, positivistic epistemology had been irrevocably
supplanted by probabilistic and constructivist attitudes towards knowledge production.
The belief that political agency or instrumentality can inhere in or accrue to art works
through their aesthetic identity that follows from the extension of a particular formalism
in relation to a cultural condition is plagued and tainted by the abuses to which it has
been put within the critical sphere of much banal art historical discourse and even more
banal academic work that seeks to justify its own irrelevance on the basis of a
difficulty=radical resistance equation so morally bankrupt and intellectual skimpy it
would be beneath notice if it werent so widespread. Beating that dead horse would be a
sorry exercise at this stage of our collective cultural lives. Instead, the challenge is to
envision an approach to aesthetic theory as a theory of knowledge, not objects, premised
on a challenge to the foundations in mechanistic positivism that support administered
culture, managed hegemonic power structures, institutionalized hypocrisy, and abuses of
cultural authority. I use the term aesthesis to mark this distinctive turn back towards
aesthetics as a study in perception using this as a way to insist on a theory of knowledge
that incorporates constructivist, probabilistic approaches to partial, situated, subjectively
based epistemology. Aesthesis challenges the positivistic and totalizing approaches on
which the managed, administered instrumentality of cultural authority is based. Adorno is
not the enemy here, nor the straw man in the argument, but rather, the point of departure,
the last station in an otherwise unmarked and uncharted territory, from which, now, we
must set out anew with a radically different agenda that attends to perception and
knowledge as processes rather than objects and their purported effects.

Because this, this is what theory sounds like now.