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some thoughts on aesthetics : the gap between mind and material

I am going, over the coming weeks and months, to break down and share some of my thoughts and investigations on the subject that is called “aesthetics”. “Aesthetics” can be understood to refer to a collection of ideas and premises that run through, and also constrain, discussions about art.

The reason that I am going to share these is that it has been important to me personally to be able to find understandings which underpin my intuition that art is important. Reading, researching and thinking in this area has been a great help to me in doing so.

Katerina Gregos looks at the question very eloquently and very well in her 2014 TEDx talk called “Why Art is Important“. Drawing inspiration and strength from her, my discussions have, as their centre of gravity, her assertion that “art is not an added bonus, but is integral to human spirit and aspiration”.

I am going to start with a discussion of several key thoughts that underlie much of “aesthetics”, beginning with the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose work is foundational to how we think about, and how we talk about, art.

(Please bear with me on this, I always struggle with making sense of Kant…)

I think it’s fair to say that Kant’s project, as a philosopher, was not about art. His project, the thing that he wanted to do, was to show that our capacity for reason is what offers us access to truth. Kant’s philosophy has been hugely influential in aesthetics, perhaps partly because it has been influential everywhere; partly because he talked about beauty and “the sublime”; and partly, perhaps, because in order to prove what he wanted to prove about reason, Kant needed to make tame our unruly capacities of perception.

For Kant, the mind makes the world. Perception, for him, is the process where a part of the mind (‘the imagination’) arranges the inputs of chaotic sensory information into ‘representations’ of the world. For him, the key is that our ‘understanding’ (also translated as ‘judgment’), is a rational mental function; he described this ‘understanding’ as the process of making conceptual categories which can give order to our ‘representations’.

A fundamental and problematic premise of Kant’s work is that he relies, in his idea that the mind makes the world, in drawing a division between mind and material. In making the division, Kant had been relying on the work of earlier thinkers, including René Descartes. The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pointed out that as our thought has evolved, we have come to depend on the “scheme” of:

“a fundamental duality, with material on the one hand, and on the other hand mind. In between there lie the concepts of life, organism, function, instantaneous reality, interaction, order of nature, which collectively form the Achilles heel of the whole system.”

(Whitehead, 1925: 57)

I’ve shared this quote here because it’s worth taking a little time to reflect on Whitehead’s words. Mind / material is, after all, a division that we encounter and use really often. What is so very unsettling in what Whitehead is saying, is that when we rely on the division of mind / matter, lived human experience dissapears into the gap, and is unaccounted for. Whitehead has listed ideas like “life”, “function” “interaction”, and “instantaneous reality” as falling ‘between’ mind and material. But it is easy to see that this gives us a horrible problem, because these are ideas which are essential to a world view that allows for meaning in human existence, and for shared values between us.

I’m going to give an example of a very well known public art work in Britain where it seems to me that the central theme or tension is the mind/material division, and its discomfort : Anthony Gormley’s sculptural installation Another Place at Crosby Beach, Merseyside.

The work consists of one hundred castings from Gormley’s own body, placed on the huge expanse of tidal sands at Crosby Beach. These castings are not self-portraits. In a TED talk of 2012 called “Sculpted Space, within and without”, the artist describes works of this type as “a cast of the space of the body”; “an indexical register” of the making process, during which Gormley stands completely still with eyes closed, inhabiting “the darkness of the body”.

The figures on Crosby Beach are separated by distance; and through the mould-making process, the sculptor’s skin is transformed into an impermeable iron boundary: Gormley uses the term “exclusive membrane”. These formal factors act to isolate the figures from one another, from the people who walk among them, and from the world. The spaces inside the figures are “another place”, impenetrable. There are no orifices through which there could be a coming and going between the figures and the world; they are people, but they are people who are alone, and who cannot be reached.

I’ll return to Kant, in my next piece in this series, and consider whether and why Gormley, when presenting us with these isolated individuals, may be leaning on Kant to offer us a possibility of solace.

Sources, & resources for further research and reading:

Gregos, K (2014) Why Art is Important : https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=UPk56BR1Cmk

Lyas, C. (1997) Aesthetics. London; Bristol, Pa.: UCL Press.

Watson, R. (2020) René Descartes : French mathematician and philosopher : https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rene-Descartes

Whitehead, A.N., (1925) Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press.

Gormley, A. (1997) Another Place [Sculpture / Installation]. Crosby Beach, Sephton Metropolitan Borough Council.

Gormley, A. (2012) Sculpted Space, within and without: http://ted.com/talks/antony_gormley_sculpted_space_within_and_without

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