For the final session of the course we considered the idea of Aestheticism.
The word 'Aesthetics' is used in a number of ways. It has come to be a synonym for the Philosophy of Art. Historically it has been more specific in scope, and was the study of beauty in art and nature experienced through the senses.
'Aestheticism' is the focus on personal experience of a sensual kind. Historically it is associated with the 19th Century movement in the arts that put beauty above social concerns - 'Art for art's sake' was its slogan (Théophile Gautier may have coined this phrase). The idea was that art needed no justification beyond itself and the aesthetic pleasures it gives rise to.
In Kierkegaard's Either/Or, the author of the section 'Either' exemplifies the life of an aesthete, who sets morals aside, and concentrates on his own sensual pleasures, whether from music, or from seduction. His biggest fear is boredom (and he devises Crop Rotation as a solution!)
Listen to a podcast summarising Kierkegaard's Either/Or (from my book Philosophy: The Classics)
If you're interested in Kierkegaard you might like this BBC Radio 3 programme 'Fear and Trembling in Copenhagen' (though note that I mispronounce 'Regina Olsen' throughout!)
Walter Pater in the Conclusion of his book The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873) stressed the need to 'burn always with this hard, gemlike flame' so that we would not miss the moments of beauty that give life significance. Read Walter Pater's Conclusion (omitted from a later edition of the book because, in Pater's words 'I conceived it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall.') Pater seems to be advocating a hedonistic pleasure in the moment, a cultivation of perception to enjoy the beauty and emotions stirred by life and art. This aestheticism inspired Oscar Wilde, who loved the book. It stood in stark contrast to the view of many Victorians that art should get its value from its utility and its moral stance.
Clive Bell's book Art (1914) set forward a different kind of aestheticism with his notion of Significant Form (the quality that all genuine works of visual art allegedly shared), i.e. patterns of lines, shapes, and colours, capable of stirring the Aesthetic Emotion in a sensitive viewer. This is aestheticism in the sense that all that matters is the personal response of the sensitive viewer - art history, utility, artistry, social context are all irrelevant to experiencing art as art:
'The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful, but it is always irrelevant. For to appreciate a work of art, we must bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its affairs and ideas, no familiarity with its emotions.'
Read the relevant extract from Clive Bell's book Art. For a critical examination of Clive Bell's views, see my book The Art Question (Routledge).
In the gallery at Tate Modern we went into the Alexander Calder Performing Sculpture exhibition, and attempted to burn with gemlike flames, making ourselves receptive to the three dimensional patterns of his mobiles
Read a review of the Calder exhibition (Adrian Searle in The Guardian).
Thanks to everyone who came to the course. It was great meeting you all. I hope you enjoyed it. For information about future courses, keep an eye on this weblog or sign up for email updates, or follow me on Twitter at @philosophybites I won't be teaching another course at Tate Modern until early next year (2017).