Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds

Everyone agrees that ultimately one essential of art is unity. After that the agreement breaks down. This fact of unity doesn’t seem to say much, which is an ancient characteristic of aesthetics, the most uncertain and least developed branch of philosophy and the most ignored by those it concerns, including myself until now. Barnett Newman told Susanne Langer that aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds. It’s now a famous quip. (1)Donald Judd, “Art and Architecture,” in Complete Writings 1975-1986 (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 1987), 27. Donald Judd (1928-1994)

Aesthetics, admittedly, belongs to the past. As we can see, its relevance to visual artists came to rest well before the 1960s. Dead and buried, it is perhaps no wonder art history departments in universities tend no longer to incorporate its hardened yards within lectures. Yet any practitioner who recognises the integral role unity plays in making ‘space’, has eventually to delve aesthetic’s bottomless depths to understand how.

This, though, is to work against the times. Any notion of ‘wholeness’ in art has from prior World War One onwards been well and truly blown apart to leave us in a world of fragmentary perspectives that conflict and contradict in our relativist times. This, though, not only typifies the shattered perspectives of a cubist picture plane. It also typifies our engagement with it.

At some point we seem to have accepted singular perspective as a limit of our embodied knowledge. Unable to escape this limit, we are unable to reach an aperspectival (intersubjective or objective) point of view. For we tend generally to link aperspectivity with the disembodied knowledge of a ‘God’s-eye view’.

Any consideration of ‘unity’ in art today after minimalism has, therefore, to consider it on two fronts: that of a work of art and that of our engagement with it. For in minimalism the space of a work of art is no longer quarantined from the space of a viewer’s engagement (by a pedestal, for instance), but takes place in the space of a viewer’s engagement.

This, though, leads to an often-rehearsed criticism of minimalism. Although minimalism recognises the space of a viewer’s engagement, it does not recognise the particularity of that engagement, a particularity at odds with its ‘wholeness’. A particularity, more to the point, that defeats any unity taking place within it.

Admittedly, minimalism has been left in a daze by this criticism. Yet only because important work by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) has been missing from the debate. Not his third critique, mind you, the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) generally referred to in art texts, but his first critique, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781 and 1787). For it is Immanuel Kant who links aperspectivity, Paul Redding tell us in Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche, not with a disembodied ‘God’s-eye view’, but with the ‘achievement’ our embodied perspective has gained through the mundanely terrestrial activity of ‘conceptual thought’. (2)Paul Redding, Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 58.

While Immanuel Kant, himself, compares the import of his critique with the Copernican heliocentric revolution, it is a revolution in thought yet to dawn on what it means for a work of art to take place within a viewer’s engagement. When it does, aesthetics may once again be a part of art history lectures and the role of a viewer’s intersubjectivity in enabling the unity of a work of art, a new and much needed part of those lectures.

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