Aesthetics and philosophy of perception: happy ever after?

The discipline of aesthetics has been conducted in something of a vacuum over the last hundred years or so. Philosophers of perception have had little input, or interest, in the discipline. Aesthetics was, they felt, too concerned with formal features of artworks to have much to say about perception. And philosophers of perception were too focused on epistemic certainty to be able to say much about areas of human experience where being certain of what is thus-and-so seemed to be less of a priority.

This is changing, as the recent conference on Philosophy of Perception and Aesthetics in Antwerp showed. A measure of how much things have changed was how difficult it was to categorise the individual talks as being ‘about’ either philosophy of perception or aesthetics; rather, the focus was on cases where the line between the two disciplines gets blurred. Talks about the perception of absences and empty space suggested the possibility that a successful account of perception can’t always be straightforwardly about ‘what is present'; in cases like this, the aesthetic glimmers in the background. Discussions of the role of testimony in matters of taste brought epistemology and aesthetics into conversation. And the really compelling thing, for me at least, was how natural it all seemed. Of course we don’t just perceive canonical, extended, physical things. Of course testimony features in the aesthetic as well as the perceptual. Of course the two disciplines aren’t as far apart as they have been assumed to be.

The day after the conference, I spent a few hours wandering around under the looming rib-arches of the Cathedral of Our Lady, staring open-mouthed at the enormous Rubens works on display there. The bulging sinews, the luminous skin, the sheer vibrance of the figures impressed me deeply with the force, not only of one artist’s skill, but of an entire world-view: these paintings said more to me in an instant about how a people saw its place in the world than any number of historical texts could have done. Seeing these canvases in the space for which they were designed, imagining their effect on the devout burghers of Antwerp, reminded me that art isn’t about formal features. Not really. It’s about communicating something about how the world should be seen. And if seeing the world isn’t a question for the philosophy of perception, I don’t know what is.

I like to think that Dewey would have been pleased. Dewey famously argued that the aesthetic and the ‘everyday’ were intertwined, each lending support to the other. It seems that it is only now that this insight is beginning to be taken seriously. The day that aesthetics is no longer a ‘fringe discipline’ in philosophy will be the day that expressive experience is finally given the philosophical respect that it deserves. If the conversations I had in Antwerp are anything to go by, things are changing for the better.

But this shift isn’t just something for philosophers to get excited about. Maybe society itself is changing, with respect to how it sees the role of art. Perhaps we are moving towards a situation where art, in all its forms, is no longer seen as an optional luxury in a developed society. Art, in some form, has existed for as long as society itself has existed. It’s high time that philosophers, but even more importantly, policy-makers, took this basic fact seriously. The sooner that expressive experience gets the respect it deserves in philosophy, and in society at large, the better for all of us.

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