Michael Lingner

How Can Aesthetic Reflection Be Productive Within Artistic Practice?

Some social and methodic aspects of philosophical aesthetics

The question in the title concerns the productive function of philosophical and aesthetic thinking within the practice of art and clearly corresponds to the special interest that all art academies have in theory, that is, if they are concerned with it at all. It is certainly not in all institutions that this interest is so convincingly documented as it is here, where a Department of Theory has been especially set up. From a practical standpoint, the interest in a productive, art-based theory may be legitimate, but this does not automatically make it theoretically well-grounded. It is in any case unclear in what way this interest can, in fact, be met. In order to approach the question of how aesthetic reflection is to be constructively related to artistic practice, it would at first be sensible to find out the reasons whether, why and in which sense philosophy, on the one hand, and art, on the other, require a mutual exchange in today's world. The following is a brief look back at the historical relationship between art and philosophy that I hope will provide further enlightenment.

For a long time in the history of philosophical aesthetics there had been no reason to go into the problem of the relationship of philosophy to the concrete forms and the developments that art took, although Hegel did, for example, find it highly desirable that every philosopher who pursues aesthetics should have 'an exact knowledge of the immense field of individual artworks from ancient and new times' (1). However, the 'knowledge of an art scholar' was not at all decisive in the classical models of aesthetics as we know them, stemming from the time of German Idealism. Whether Kant, Hegel or Schelling, each had erected a philosophical system within his own established epistemological texts, in which their respective thoughts on aesthetics formed a 'keystone'. The structure behind the aesthetics was systematically and thematically determined according to the cognitive position from which it came. The systematic derivation as well as the encyclopaedic integration into an overall philosophical concept is what has made these aesthetics extraordinarily pointed and universal with a high potential for actualization. In the end, this is what has also given them their unbroken paradigmatic validity.

This makes it all the more important to remember that the great aestheticians seldom posed their questions from the vantage point of art but were first of all meant to provide answers to philosophical problems. Early modern aesthetics, as was the case with Baumgarten, was grounded in a philosophical objective, namely one committed to rationalist philosophy. This philosophical objective also needed to establish proof of a cognitive capability for sensuousness - if only of a 'lower' order - so that it could be submitted theoretically to the principle of rationality and subject itself practically to the governance of reason. The dominance that classical art theorists gave to philosophy over art went so far that art not only had to partially transform itself into philosophy, but even in a certain way to follow it. We need only think of the extraordinary effect Kant's 'Critique of Aesthetic Judgment' had not just directly on Schiller but, with the precedence it gave to imagination, also indirectly on Romantic painting, as well as a strong influence on the whole of Modernism. In the same way, the reactions of the early romantics to Schelling's philosophy now show that the dominance of philosophy in no way has to be unproductive within art, as long as it is based on an epistemological standpoint that can place man in new positions.

As we all know, the era of the great projects of epistemological systems ended with the 19th century. All the post-idealist attempts to create an aesthetic theory were much less inspired as a result and developed either from a reference to the classicists in one way or another, or they were dedicated to one of the ever growing number of different philosophical schools and movements. The theoretical formation of aesthetics is fed more and more from the tradition of pure philosophy and its immanent problems, whose character and pretension have, in addition, become increasingly less fundamental. Philosophy has in the course of the 20th century become more oriented toward its own tradition, and the more hermetic it has become, owing "to its internal differentiation, the more it loses the insight into, and the effective expression of, all non-philosophical phenomena and their chronological development.

The increasing retrospective introversion and specialization of philosophy has proved to be especially problematic to the kind of art that has devoted itself to Modernism for almost two centuries and that has almost programmatically cultivated its own constant change and expansion. Thus I thoroughly support the warning that the philosopher from Tübingen, Rüdiger Bubner, formulated in 1973 in a remarkable essay, in which he said we should not continue to practice aesthetics 'like an undercover history of philosophy' (2). The widespread academic restriction to the examination, analysis and reanimation of the classics, or to certain authors considered preeminent, not only makes philosophical art theory more sterile, but also creates a vacuum in which it is all the easier to help oneself to it piecemeal. Many of these philosophic quotations or even whole texts are thoroughly undemanding as regards their scholarly standard and can be exploited in a purely legitimizing, repressive, representative or propagandistic way. Texts like these are now booming in art. The fulfilment of these functions are transfigured into a theoretical discourse and it is not at all seldom that they are understood, and even sold, by art academies as desirable practical orientation. In fact, these texts function for art museums and galleries as mere mood-conveyers that promise culture in the same way as the background music of the media organization, Muzak, denotes 'happiness' in department stores, airports and doctor's offices. The sounds they send out are no different than the texts; they serve, above all, as pacifiers to distract us from reality. Their existence is justified when they are not listened to. Who, for example, even reads the articles published in today's art catalogues?

Because of ever sharper competitive thinking with regard to already known human failings, any philosophy that does not deal with art itself or other cultural sciences lays itself open to a vacuousness of its contents and methods in view of the overpowering influence of rhetoric. Fortunately there are, in the more recent history of philosophic aesthetics, examples that show evidence of the opposite. I will limit myself here to the two most important trends in the German-speaking world, namely the aesthetics of phenomenological hermeneutics and the Marxist influenced critical aesthetics. Martin Heidegger and T.W. Adorno were utterly contrary and hostile protagonists of these two intellectual orientations, yet they have, amazingly enough, one and the same methodic motive that guides their aesthetic interest. Both of them entertain, for quite different reasons, a profound distrust of rational philosophical reflection. Very briefly formulated, Heidegger's crucial concern is that philosophical reflection should comprehend its own basis, which is why he is compelled to search for an access to this basis that is beyond, even independent of, reflection. In order to bypass this logical dilemma, Heidegger relies on art. It should, 'as a truth introduced into the work' (3), make graphically visible to us what exactly is the true source of reflection, without being itself produced by it.

This same function of the artwork, i.e., that of being a reflectively independent source of truth, is also something Adorno assigns to it. Once again, stated in a grossly simplified way, he distrusts reflection, as his thoughts on the 'Dialectics of Enlightenment' (4) show, because each ideological criticism, although undertaken with the most enlightened intention, is itself inevitably ideologically endangered. This is why the 'Verblendungszusammenhang', or smoke screen, produced by the ideological veil cannot be penetrated by critical reflection. Adorno refers back to Hegel's dialectic model when he claims that only the work of art, because it itself is Schein [illusion], can neutralize the deceptive and ideological Schein.

With regards to this presentation, there may be objections and other opinions, but what is above all decisive for my argumentation is the, for me, undeniable fact that access to the phenomena of art is distorted by an intrinsically philosophical way of seeing a problem. This applies to the thinking of Heidegger and Adorno as well, although their philosophical underpinning provides a better substantiation for their speculations and makes them valid beyond the bounds of philosophy. After all, Heidegger's Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes and Adorno's Ästhetische Theorie are two of the most stimulating texts on art. But in order to demonstrate and solve the philosophical problem of how reflection independent of truth is possible, both count on being able to perceive truth vividly in the work of art and, as a result, shut themselves off from the decisive questions of modernism.

While Heidegger and Adorno continue to be fixated on the concept of the classically unified work and consider their thinking to be 'essential', modern art since Duchamp has been systematically working towards the dissolution and the break-up of the classical work. As regards the constant aesthetical question 'Do we still know what a work of art is?', philosophical aesthetics has not only remained silent but in fact even normatively stabilized the traditional concept of the work. What has contributed above all to this is the humanist mania for wanting to reduce something new to eternal sameness. Beyond the problematics of the work, artistic experiments of whatever kind have been ignored or negated by academic philosophy rather than followed reflectively. In any case the statement by Dieter Henrich can hardly be doubted that aesthetics has 'up to now not succeeded in being on the same level of today's philosophical awareness while still not standing in contradiction to the self-awareness of its artists' (5).

It is one of Adorno's greatest accomplishments that in the so-called 'Early Introduction' to his Aesthetic Theory (which still today has not been fully examined as to its methodic aspects) he critically discusses the problematics of the relationship between art and philosophy applicable to his own work. He too complains that 'aesthetics is blemished by the fact that, as to its concepts, it trots along helplessly in the wake of a situation in which art shakes up the concepts, unmoved as to what will come of it all' (6). That is why 'Art mistrusts aesthetics as something retardedly behind it' (7), a situation which philosophy as a whole seems to be able to live with. For it is in its own interest if problems that are intrinsically philosophical dominate aesthetic theory, whose continued existence the philosophical guild probably does not expect much of anyway. But, as seen from the perspective of art, the inadequacy of a reflection that comes from a highly reluctant aesthetic theory is a very dramatic one. The fact is that, for modern art production and its reception, theoretical thinking is a necessity.

Hegel had already seen that for his time 'a science of art is much more a need than in times in which art itself is granted full satisfaction as art' (8). Because 'we are beyond honouring and worshipping artworks as godly,' (9) what is now important is 'to recognize scientifically what art is' (10). 'Thought and reflection have outstripped the fine arts' (11) so that they require 'our thoughtful observation' (12). What Hegel considered characteristic for the romantic art form was further developed and sharpened in the subsequent period. To give it a name, what we have in Modernism is a conceptualization of art, in the sense that the latter itself has become increasingly subject to abstract terms.

This principal feature of modern art can hardly be seriously denied, although even today outdated, dualist ideas are being cultivated that see art as a realm of the senses and images that can be excluded from the world of reason and concepts. To counter this argument we need only refer to Schlegel's famous essay 'On the Study of Greek Poetry', in which he declared that a peculiarity of modern art is exactly that its 'guiding principal is no longer instinct but certain governing concepts' (13). Conversely, we can cite Arnold Gehlen, who was one of the first to show that the abstract art of classical modernism is 'peinture conceptionelle', i.e., 'the image's own elementary data are defined from a set conception.' (14). Finally, I myself have tried to show how obvious it has become that, for example, the Conceptual Art of the 60s is focused completely on working and thinking through all the implications of the term 'art' (15).

There is no doubt: modern and certainly postmodern art stand 'under the dominance of conceptual definitions'16 and is now 'in the form of a science' (17). Theoretical thought, like that of Paul Klee which he called Bildnerisches Denken (thinking in forms), of today's conceptual thinking, are, in any case, forms of aesthetic thinking and can be considered the logical precedent to art practice. The more conceptual that art becomes and the more it has a 'tendency by way of self-reflection to set up its own categories as themes' (18), the more aesthetic theorization will become one of art's prerequisites and an essential, productive factor. Adorno determines the function of aesthetics, as he understands it, very concretely: 'If artists are compelled into permanent reflection, then this reflection must be wrested from any arbitrariness so that it does not turn into random and amateurish pseudo-hypotheses, rationalized tinkering or uncommitted declarations of world views on what was envisioned.' (19).

If the conceptions on the implementation of art are indelibly inscribed, this will naturally have consequences for the reception of art. As a matter of consistency, art reception must also encompass the concept of the artwork. The reception of art can no longer be accomplished solely by perception or experience, since the concept behind it must also be understood. Art reception not only consists of an aesthetical judgment of taste; it is also unalterably linked to a rational moment. Thus aesthetic thinking, and with it the philosophy that governs its necessary basic principles, is an overriding requirement for the reception of modern art. Gehlen, because of art's conceptual character, called this requirement aptly enough 'commentary neediness' (Kommentarbedürftigkeit) and this can be concretized in a different way than is usual. In order to be receptive to modern art, a specific foreknowledge is necessary that, in contrast to earlier mythical and religious traditions independent of art, must be newly worked out and transmitted by virtue of theoretical elaboration. Here too, aesthetics is predestined to fulfil this requirement.

My conclusion is: for the existence of art, it is no longer enough to have a special intention or capability for forming the material; art, in its production and reception, has become increasingly dependent on aesthetic theory. But, up to now, there has been no attempt on the side of academic philosophy to create an aesthetic theory that would do justice to the necessities of art. This is the actual and, above all, existential basis for the question of how aesthetic theory can be made useful to artistic practice. At issue is not only an increase in the stimulative or even the legitimizing character of aesthetic theory. The greater need is for its productivity to be measured by what it accomplishes for the production and reception of art. In any case what is required before anything else is a basically different self-image of aesthetic theory formation.

The first and decisive step in an artistically productive aesthetic would consist in accepting Adorno's insight that 'nothing that relates to art is more self-evident, not even its right to exist' (20). For this reason it would be wrong, as Adorno says in another place, if 'aesthetics were to (continue to) proceed from the reality of art as Kant's theory of cognition once proceeded from the reality of the aesthetical natural sciences' (21). Pointedly and inversely formulated, what we have to deal with today is a 'positivation' of art, which means, that even art, as Duchamp with his 'ready mades' had already demonstrated, has become 'makeable'. Philosophical aesthetics has also taken part in this process, if mostly unconsciously. But whether aesthetics cares to acknowledge it or not, it is its theoretical determinations that declares something to be art or not and that in any case contribute to a specific state of art that could be imagined otherwise. Not the artist alone, but also the aesthetician are in this way automatically given artistic responsibility. The basic prerequisite for a productive aesthetic is to be aware of this responsibility and to confront it. In this way it would be, not only nominally but in actuality, a cultural science in the sense that it would assign itself the task of making culture possible and understand its activity or omission of activity as its own cultural practice. Instead, only a superficial aesthetization and poetization of scientific language, patterned after secondhand literary specimens, has up to now proved fashionable.

Although self-knowledge adequate to today's art realities is necessary, it is not enough for a productive aesthetic. One of the few indications of the possibility for an aesthetic that is different and more than just 'a latent history of philosophy' is something we have Rudiger Bubner to thank for, whom I have already mentioned here. He appealed to his own field of study when he said that 'attempts at a contemporary aesthetic must be oriented towards the phenomena of art' (22). However, in answer to the crucial problematics of how an aesthetic that still considers itself a science is able to undertake such an orientation - there is no follow-up. My suggestion for a solution is easy to guess, after what I have said up to now. A productive aesthetic should not be oriented towards the phenomena but towards the conceptions of contemporary art.

For any orientation towards the phenomena would not only require a certain status of the work as a precondition, but above all its specific quality would only be conveyable by the art experience. As a result, the selection and reflection of the phenomena, which should not be oriented towards any criterion other than quality, would be threatened by a dominance of subjective caprice. In contrast, there is at least one qualitative aspect independent of and essential to the artwork that is available in the artistic conception and that cannot only be felt but also recognized. As to conception, there is also, to assist mere taste, a judgment of perception possible, since it is an abstract and intentionally self-explanatory formulation and is a quality to which scientific thinking has, in principal, access.

How aesthetics should apply in detail its methods in dealing with artistic conceptions should be more precisely clarified. In any case, it should not stop at an immanent study of, and critical reflection on, the conceptions. Instead of, at best, beginning with philosophical questions as in the past, it would be more important for an art, which understands itself as 'research', to reconstruct, reflect and discuss the conceptions' own basic questions and to relate these to the tradition of philosophical aesthetics. Along with a productive aesthetic, that is, one that makes the production of art possible, there is also a speculative momentum that develops from these conceptions and their rationally substantiated hypotheses on the core question posed by modern art: if and how it can be continued.

Whether this artistically productive aesthetic can best evolve in philosophy or in art is difficult to foretell, but this is actually irrelevant to its cultural significance. Adorno sees both possibilities. He believes, on the one hand, that art would need 'to fear that an aesthetic, which is no longer anachronistic, could cut through the lifelines of art that are stretched to breaking point' (23). On the other, he opts for art when he challenges it - after the loss of its naivete - 'to incorporate reflection and to carry it to such lengths that it no long hovers overhead as something external and alien; that today is called aesthetics' (24). Finally, there is also the possibility that a certain type of art and a certain type of philosophy could intermingle and generate cultural qualities that are as yet unimagined.

(1) G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, ed. by F. Bassenge, Vol. 1: p. 26.

(2) R. Bubner, 'Über einige Bedingungen gegenwärtiger Ästhetik', Neue Hefte für Philosophie, No. 5/1973: p. 39

(3) M. Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks, (Stuttgart 1960): p. 33, a.o.

(4) T.W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung (Frankfurt, 1969).

(5) D. Henrich, 'Kunst und Kunstphilosophie der Gegenwart', W. Iser (ed.), Immanente Ästhetik-Ästhetische Reflexion (Munich, 1966): p. 524.

(6) T.W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt, 1970): p. 50.

(7) Adorno, ibid., p. 505.

(8) Hegel, see note I, Vol. 1: p. 25.

(9) Hegel, ibid., p. 24.

(10) Hegel, ibid., p. 26. (11) Hegel, ibid., p. 24.

(12) Hegel, ibid., p. 24.

(13) F. Schlegel, 'Über das Studium der griechischen Poesie', Schriften zur Literatur, ed. by Wolfdietrich Rasch (Munich, 1972): p. 97/98.

(14) A. Gehlen, Zeitbilder. Zur Soziologie und Ästhetik der modernen Malerei (Frankfurt, 1960): p. 74.

(15) M. Lingner, 'Art as a Project of Enlightenment beyond Pure Reason', Verbal Art Communication (Maastricht, 1995): p. 21 ff.

(16) Schlegel, see note 13: p. 104.

(17) Gehlen, see note 14: p. 74.

(18) Adorno, see note 6: p. 505.

(19) Adorno, ibid., p. 507/508.

(20) Adorno, ibid., p. 9.

(21) Adorno, ibid., p. 503.

(22) Bubner, see note 2, p. 39.

(23) Adorno, see note 6, p. 505/506.

(24) Adorno, ibid., p. 508.


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