The Rise and Fall of the Aesthetic
I am now convinced that the highest act of reason, which embraces all Ideas, is
an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are brothers only in beauty…
(System Programme of German Idealism 17961)
‘Aesthetics’ covers a vast and forbidding territory. Vast, because it includes many arcane or disputed areas in philosophy and art history; forbidding, insofar as it often appears to be the preserve either of abstruse theoreticians or of self-appointed arbiters of taste. The scale of its judgements ranges from grand arguments about the nature of beauty and its relation to truth to minute discriminations concerning the qualities of particular works of art. There often seems to be a tiresome gap between the immediacy of our responses to a work and the ponderous conceptual apparatus brought in to justify or explain them. Many times I have grown impatient with the abstract, generalising discourse of philosophical aesthetics. On the other hand, I have sometimes felt a sense of despair in trying to account for the specific pleasure given me by a painting to some more sceptical spectator.
Yet aesthetic effects can seem immediate and striking. One writer has gone so far as to assert ‘Aesthetic qualities… given concretely and directly, do not require theoretical assumptions aside from the simplest ones which amount to the common-sense attitude of naive realism and the trust in the credibility of our senses’ (Golaszewska 1988, p.73).
My own view is that while some basic aesthetic reactions, such as attraction, repulsion, excitement or boredom, may exist in this immediate, un-self-conscious way, others require more attention in order to emerge. There is also a feedback effect between such experiences and our attempts to articulate them. We may have to struggle to put them into words; but this can then result in our responses being deepened and enriched, even if the cost is sometimes one of failure or betrayal. Proust wrote about his need ‘to see clearly into my being thrilled’: many passages in A la Recherchedu Temps Perdu not only vividly and subtly convey his aesthetic response, both to nature, and to works of art, but enter vicariously into our own aesthetic responses.