May 18, 2008

Aesthetic Experience and The End of Art

Filed under: Conceptualism, Theory, Art into Life — Graham Coulter-Smith

The most beautiful thingA couple of weeks ago the title for a book sprang into my mind “The End of Art” it seemed like a very good title for a book that I would like to write. I was rather disappointed, therefore, to learn that this book had already been written. But, of course, when I actually got hold of this book—which is by the art critic Donald Kuspit—it was not the book that I wanted to write.

Nevertheless, there are some interesting aspects to Kuspit’s book and I would like to deal with one of them in this post. Reading Kuspit’s The End of Art one immediately (on the second page) encounters an important issue which centres on Kuspit’s reference to ”the aesthetic experience”. Kuspit poses the question:

What’s the everyday point … of the aesthetic experience—a so-called higher experience (an altered state of consciousness, as it were, and thus an abnormal or at least non-normal and unconventional consciousness of reality), in contrast to everyday experience (with its convention-respecting, and thus supposedly normal, “realistic” consciousness)—high art professes to offer? (Kuspit 2004: 2)

Kuspit suggests that the aesthetic experience is the crux of what “high art professes to offer”. He defines aesthetic experience as an “altered state of consciousness” a “non-normal and unconventional consciousness of reality” (Kuspit 2004: 2). One wonders about this particular definition. To call it an “altered state of consciousness” is simultaneously insightful and hyperbolic. One immediately thinks of drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy, and LSD; and this, I would suggest, is the point at which Kuspit’s definition becomes hyperbolic.

One could also, however, refer to the experience as phenomenological. It is possible to cite, for example, Immanuel Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience as a heightened awareness of one’s perceptual processes. But even Kant’s definition is limited in the sense that we have to acknowledge that perception is intimately interconnected with cognition, especially in the sense of the pattern recognition oriented nature of unconscious cognition. 

Nevertheless, Kuspit’s use of the phrase “altered consciousness” is acceptable in the sense that it is reasonable to make a connection between looking at an object under the influence of cannabis, for example, and looking at that object without the influence of cannabis yet experiencing a similar depth of phenomenological awareness.

Without chemical assistance, the aesthetic experience often takes the form of looking at something and thinking that it looks like a work of art (artintelligence). This is where the cognitive dimension enters into the picture. It is evident that we are not only self-conscious about perceptual processes in the Kantian sense but that there is also a process of re-cognition. Which is to say, the mind is making a comparison between a generalised or universalised conception of “art” and a specific instance encountered in the real world. This generalised or universalised concept of “art” stems from an unconscious schematic extrapolation performed on the contents of memory. The fact that this process is unconscious indicates that it is not extraordinary, or “high” (in the sense of status), as Kuspit suggests, but is instead an artefact of everyday mental processes.

It is not uncommon to have an aesthetic experience after seeing works of art in the flesh or in reproduction. When one exits from the environment in which one was experiencing the artwork and enters into a more ordinary, everyday environment one can sometimes experience seeing everyday objects as works of art. It is as if one’s perceptual processes have been programmed by the intensive visual experience of looking at art. I have also experienced this effect after watching a film in a cinema and walking out onto the street.

I would agree with Kuspit that there is something magical about this experience, but I don’t think that it is as elevated or extraordinary as he seems to suggest. Although Kuspit judiciously uses the qualifier “so-called” he does refer to it as a “higher experience”, the suggestion being that this experience is an especially precious mode of perception that is the preserve of a privileged few. This is a concept that can be traced back to Romanticism. It is evident for example in Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art (1911). But as a society we have come a long way since then and it seems patently absurd to suggest that aesthetic experience is the preserve of a privileged few. It appears more reasonable to suggest that it is simply another facet of the extraordinary phenomenon that is consciousness.

One of the most interesting aspects of aesthetic experience is that one can have it in the absence of art. And it is significant that Kuspit kicks off a book entitled “The End of Art” with this notion because it simultaneously suggests that aesthetic experience is both the very core of art and the potential source of its annihilation. It can certainly be suggested that it is the mode of consciousness that is of interest rather than the actual object that one is observing while in this state of mind. And when one considers this possibility one is entering into the territory explored by conceptual artists in the 1960s (artintelligence). A consideration of aesthetic experience also leads logically to the Duchampian Readymade (artintelligence). It is entirely possible that Marcel Duchamp saw the bicycle wheel, the urinal, and the snow shovel etc while having an aesthetic experience.

Such objects, accordingly, become significant because they become invitations for the viewer to have a similar experience. But we can take this logic further, to the point where we do not need to have works of art or art galleries. If what is really important is the aesthetic experience then all we need is some way of encouraging other people, indeed as many people as possible, to have this experience.

Why do I say “as many people as possible”. Well I am influenced by the long-standing and extremely elusive avant-gardist goal  of bringing art to life. But I can also refer back to Kuspit. After the passage quoted above Kuspit observes:

What’s the use of high art’s subtleties and refinements in the low, practical, demanding world of everyday life? It lays claim to all of one’s being, as though there was no alternative to it, which might offer a measure of detachment - a certain uncanny aloofness and serenity, giving one the illusion that one is above it and can hold one’s own against it, without denying its implacable givenness - and thus a different kind of sanity than the kind of sanity necessary to live in it. (Kuspit 2004: 2)

At this point Kuspit’s position (if we ignore its implicit elitism) comes close to the Situationists who offered aesthetic experience as a means for subverting the alienating effect of  mass media saturated consumer culture.  The “situation”  of which the Situationists spoke is everyday life. This is the space of revolution, the space in which society can be changed. The art gallery is most definitely not a site of subversion. It is instead a socially sanctioned, institutionalised space where subversion can be hermetically sealed off from society in a species of temple and elevated into an extremely up-market commodity.

One can see therefore, the potential power of the aesthetic experience, and why the “end of fine art” might not be such a bad thing. Because the real title of Kuspit’s book is “the end of fine art”; he misses off the “fine” in order to hitch a ride on Hegel’s famous prediction of the end of art as a state when materialist and spiritual consciousness eventually intersect. But that is obviously a distant dream. In the meantime we have the reality of the everyday, and the reality of a state of mind that is the aesthetic experience. And what is subversive  about the aesthetic experience is, as Kuspit points out,  that it (albeit momentarily) releases us from means-ends  rationalism: what the Frankfurt School  thinkers called  “instrumental reason”.

The current methodology deployed by putatively progressive contemporary artists for provoking aesthetic experience in everyday life is the Readymade. As Peter Bürger has pointed out (1984), this has proven an ineffective  strategy. It is not enough to simply display the object one saw while having an aesthetic experience and suggest that this is sufficient to encourage viewers to have the same experience. What we are dealing with here is an empirical fact, there it is such an experience, and it is possible to engender it via visual programming and psychotropic drugs. The latter have been touched upon by artists one thinks of the use of drugs by the Surrealists, references to LSD in the work of  contemporary artists such as Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, and Hélio Oiticica’s Cosmococa project which references cocaine.

But this is not an especially interesting trajectory compared with the “natural” experience, which is much more effective  in terms of social subversion  because it can be made part of  a more general consciousness that includes political consciousness. Drugs, in constrast, do not mix well with constructive political consciousness. It does not seem absurd, therefore, to suggest an art project that focuses on ways in which visual perception-cognition can be programmed so that the viewer can take this experience into the everyday  in a manner that can be consciously subversive. Perhaps so very few contemporary fine artists are doing this because most implicitly share the romantic elitist position that this experience should be the preserve of a privileged few. rtists seem content to engage in academic repetitions of the classic tenets of conceptualism (artintelligence) rather than seriously engage with the problem of bringing art into life.

Bürger, Peter. 1984.  Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kuspit, Donald. 2004. The End of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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    Comment by Judith — May 22, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

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