Appearing across multiple disciplines since its introduction in the eighteenth century, the term “aesthetics” has adopted a definition that is highly variable depending on the discursive context. While contemporary interpretations of the term are largely concerned with the theory or appreciation of art (as in academia) or with ideals of visual beauty (as in popular culture), the origin of aesthetics as a concept precedes the term’s official introduction and can be traced back to Aristotle’s description of sensing or experiencing forms that produce our definition of reality. Aesthetics, then, fundamentally dwells on the relationship that humanity shares with the forms of its reality, suggesting that reality is itself predicated on familiarity, individual experience, and contextual engagement. Immanuel Kant’s definition of aesthetics as “the ability to form judgments regarding sensory qualities with special attention to subjective taste and disinterested pleasure” adds to this fundamental understanding by suggesting that an aesthetic experience constitutes qualitative consideration and assessment.
The aestheticism movement of the nineteenth century, of which Oxford Don, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde were key figures, maintained that aesthetic discourse is protected from ethical, economic, and political engagement and is immune to the “pollution of capitalism,” lending to the cultural significance of aesthetics. Building on this notion, twentieth-century intellectuals such as Lyotard, Lacan, and Derrida concluded that aesthetic concerns obscured underlying power structures and the truth of reality in their superficial and autonomous pursuit of beauty. Twentieth-century figures, therefore, surmised that aesthetics were culpable for restricting political access to an exclusive group of intellectuals and intellectually engaged artists, prompting artistic practices to develop and maintain contra-aesthetic inclinations to favor social and political engagement. In his introduction to the book titled Aesthetics Equals Politics, Mark Foster Gage attributes the current controversial status of aesthetic discourse to such twentieth-century perceptions, and posits that contemporary political and social inequalities reflect the emerging divide between those with aesthetic and political access and those without. Gage’s position is augmented by Jacques Ranciere, who observes in his book Disagreement that political engagement is contingent on the possession of logos, or the capacity to make arguments, thereby creating distance between those who are considered to possess this capacity (political subjects) and those who lack it. In Ranciere’s work, politics is aesthetic as it is concerned with social hierarchies that result from sensory capacities distributed as a result of qualitative information received from the world. For Ranciere, this manner in which qualitative information is distributed across the senses is the definition of aesthetics. Although aesthetics operates independently from ethics and epistemology and solely through tensions between the sensory and the intelligible to spark a redistribution of the sensible, these redistributions may eventually lead to theoretical arguments or the development of ethical stances. As Michael Young highlights in his essay titled “The Aesthetics of
Abstraction,” these are “aspects of the political that emerge from the aesthetic.”
If issues of political inaccessibility are linked to aesthetic distances, there is, as Gage argues, a demand for new creative practices that move away from “singularly observed and rote-based critical theory strategies,” which seek to increase knowledge by exposing the underlying power relations beneath appearances, to collectively assessed aesthetic ones, conveyed through more physical and visual modes which “aim to destabilize and redistribute sensible information.” Thus, it is well within the scope of architecture, which is inherently concerned with form, space, composition, materials, and representation/image, to consider political and ontological problems as aspects of aesthetic experience.
We situate ourselves in this discourse by recognizing that aesthetics is fundamentally a manner of engaging with qualitative information and the capacity to sense and evaluate these qualities to shape familiarity and reality.