Twenty concepts for Aesthetics: A lecture

Quite literally, an assembly of twenty concepts reckoned useful for thinking about a range of aesthetic questions

For nearly twenty years I gave seminars at the University of Sussex on the nature of art, art-making and our experience of art. These seminars ranged across all the major art forms, including photography, film and dance, and some of the not so major ones. It seems a reasonable request that, after all that time, I should be able to name and describe some central categories, some leading ideas, within and with which I have found myself talking about art in general and individual forms or works in particular.

By way of preparing you for some disappointment, let me say that I am a great believer in simplification. On his writing desk Bertolt Brecht stood a wooden donkey; around its neck he hung a sign, "Even I must understand". I like that image. And the donkey-work of 20 years yields the following would-be simplicities, which even I reckon to understand.


First of all, I use a pair of sharply differentiated categories, though in some limit cases the differentiation may break down. So I distinguish between the materialsof an art and its medium. Let sculpture serve as a paradigm. The materials of sculpture are such things as marble, granite, wood, fibreglass, steel, which serve the sculptor's purpose in virtue of whatever primary qualities of extension and density and secondary qualities of colour and texture they may possess. As my sample list makes clear, some of these materials occur naturally or nearly-naturally and some are very much manufactured. At this stage of my thinking, that fact is of secondary importance.

Very little art making has a na�ve character - very rarely does an art-maker work with a material in ignorance of the conventions or traditions of its corresponding art-form, though there are varieties of 'home art' which come close to that state: the paintings of Alfred Wallis, hung in the Tate, would be an example. No, for the most part, art-making is literate or informed art-making and I call the inherited sum of conventions, traditions and habits of an art-form its medium. So the medium of sculpture comprises all those ways of working a material available as a cultural inheritance, passed on in academies of art, and so on and so forth. It is in relation to those conventions and traditions that, to use a lovely phrase of Maurice Blanchot, the sculptor 'glorifies the marble' Themedium is simply our knowledge of how to do something with the material.

All goes smoothly with this distinction of material and medium across numerous art forms. In dance, for example, one of the materials is the living human body and its repertoire of everyday movement possibilities. The medium of dance is the means by which dancers and dance movements are created out of that material. That is not all there is to dance - dance also makes use of arrangements of bodies in space, which the medium transforms into dancers on a stage. But this is only a sophistication of the analysis, not a disaster for it.

The distinction runs into difficulty when we come to look at poetry and prose, but here I shall leave aside those difficulties.

Does the distinction serve any purpose, say, in relation to important aesthetic questions? I think it does, specifically because there is a question about art as something material and art as something ideal. Because works are, typically, embodied in materials, then our relation to them is a relation to - or even just a response to - the material and not only the ideal properties of the work. The primary qualities of extension and the secondary qualities of colour have their own effects. Take, for example, one of the sub-categories of sculpture, that of monumental sculpture. Donkey like, I want to say that the thing about monumental sculpture is that it is monumental - that it is big in relation to the human scale of things. So we are dwarfed by it, an experience heightened every time a plinth provides a base. The primary extension in space of a monument is an essential feature of our experience of it. The same is true of any building and it would be a fundamental mistake in any architectural aesthetics to suppose that what matters is only the look of a building and not its feel. The cathedrals of Europe are as much adventures in organising internal space, the experience of which overwhelms us as we enter, as they are exercises in creating external appearances.

I am moving away from simplicity here and it is tempting to go on to talk about the role of sound, as acoustic material, in our experience of music. It's the obvious next example, but I shan't tackle it now.


The next pair of categories I introduce has application to the activity of both the maker and the audience for art. In this case, though presented as contrasted possibilities, the categories of use and engagement really belong on a continuum. But let me begin by trying to dichotomise them.

A sculptor may come at a block of marble armed with a commission, a preliminary drawing, a maquette, and knowing exactly what is to be done. The marble will, it is hoped, oppose no resistance to the sculptor's intent. The sculptor's intent is to use the marble as material to make the sculpture, already prefigured in the commission, the drawing, the maquette. The resistance which the marble opposes to the sculptor's intent is, one might say, anuisance. If a technician can take over all or part of the task from the sculptor, so much the better. The object is to use the marble.

In contrast, a sculptor may approach a block of marble with fewer preconceptions, perhaps without a commission or drawings or maquettes. The sculptor is or tries to be open to this block of marble as one is or tries to be open to a person. The sculptor responds to the way the marble is configured, the way the grain runs, the way it takes the light. In this case, I want to say that what the sculptor is doing face to face with the marble ought to be called engagement.

Just as one can use or engage with a material, so one can use or engage with a medium, one's inheritance of traditions and conventions. One might define academicism as that kind of art practice which takes the appropriate traditions or conventions to be deployed in artistic work as if they were unproblematic givens, as providing a pattern book for use. Asked for a bust of the President one just gets on with the job as one did last month when asked for a bust of the Prime Minister. In contrast, when an artist engages with the traditions and conventions of a medium, the medium becomes problematic in relation to each topic or subject which presents itself. A President and a Prime Minister may well be almost as alike as two peas in a pod, but not quite, and the artist who engages with the medium allows the newly-presented subject-space to problematise the inherited medium. This, again, is rather like being open to a person in their specific individuality. This is possible and plausible not least because the pattern-books are never complete, the rules never specified exhaustively enough to cover every individual case - and it is, of course, a topic of philosophical argument whether indeed they ever could be.

On the other side, it seems to be the case and it may well be a conceptual truth (Polanyi, Bhaskar) that not every element in a tradition or convention-set can be problematised at the same time. The artist committed to engagement with the medium must always on some particular art-making occasion merely use some elements of the medium, as a background against which engagement with other elements is foregrounded. This serves to focus and highlight the specific newness which the artist is proposing to an audience, as critical and historical studies will be able to demonstrate.

In parallel with the artist, audiences can also use or engage with the works they encounter. Using or engaging with a work is not so very different to using or engaging with a person.

Since few of us have significant sculptures around the house, the distinction of use and engagement is most readily made in relation to music. If we put a disc into the CD player to create a mood, an ambience, of a fairly generalised kind, then we are using the music - and in this case to a purpose possibly extrinsic to the music itself (though some music is written and sold precisely as mood music. It is the stuff of compilation CDs). In contrast, to engage with music just is to listen to it for its own sake, and that is something we may not so often do.

The more I have thought about it, the more it seems to me that our inherited notions of what it is to give proper attention to a work of art are analogous to, and possibly modelled on notions of worship which have evolved within the dialectic of Catholicism and Protestantism over several hundred years. So I was pleased to come across Malebranche's 17th century claim that paying rigorous attention is "the natural piety of the soul" (cited by George Steiner in his Real Presences, p 156). Rigorous - proper - attention just is engagement with an art work in its specificity, our own immediate cares and demands bracketted off. The analogies with paying attention to a person ought to be obvious.

Concentrated attention/Floating attention

What I have just been sketching might go under the name of Concentrated Attention. At times, I have been inclined to call this Protestant Attention, but the contrast implicit is not with some notion of Catholic Attention, but more accurately with what one might call Orthodox Attention (or lack of it, as will become clear).

In the Orthodox churches (the Armenian one is the only one with whose services I have any acquaintance) what matters is that a rite is celebrated, not that anyone pays any specific attention to it, even when it is exquisitely beautiful, as is Armenian Church music. Attending for the first time a three hour Sunday morning service at the cathedral church of Echmiadzin - the Armenian Church's Vatican - I was puzzled by the fact that the congregation - if that is the right word - wandered round during the service (there were no seats). I was even more puzzled to notice people including priests going out and coming back in. When, out of curiosity, I looked round to see what was happening, it was shockingly obvious: the priests were going out for a quick fag. This constituted a considerable challenge to my unreflective Protestant notions of what it is to pay proper attention - notions which are in any case probably at the Quaker end of the spectrum.

Now it follows on from this that one might well look out for the possibility that some art is designed for Protestant attention - Concentrated Attention - whereas other art has more in common with the celebration of a rite, for which Orthodox attention (or lack of it) is the appropriate mode of response. If you give the wrong kind of attention to a work, you risk disappointment and incomprehension.

There is available in our culture yet another and relevant concept of attention, Freud's Floating Attention This is the attention the analyst gives to the discourse of the neurotic [Parenthetically, the reference to 'neurotic' here is not generic - it does seem that psychotic (notably schizoid) patients will not settle for anything less thanundivided attention - R D Laing pointed this out many years ago, I recall].

Now this concept of floating attention is an extremely interesting one, especially in a context where our experience of art and entertainment does often enough involve casual dropping-in and dropping-out (as when we listen to car stereos or watch TV) or alternatively active channel hopping and surfing.

For Freud, the concept of floating attention emerges in the context of looking for ways in which the analyst can hear - rather than miss hearing - the significance of whatever is being said in an analysis, especially when it hits up against his or her own personal limitations or theoretical preconceptions. The idea is that there might be a kind of attention which allows things to get to us, rather than deny them entry

This line of thinking is surely of relevance to any worthwhile engagement with the question of how we should attend to a work of art. After all, it's surely a reasonable aspiration that works of art should get to us. And it may be that too Protestant a notion of attention - a notion which is too straight-laced in its demands that we sit still, shut up and pay attention! - may itself constitute an obstacle to some central ways of experiencing art - ways which may, on occasion, constitute themselves asepiphanies.

Communicative/ Expressive

Though the contrast of material and medium is evaluatively neutral - neither is in any sense better than the other - that between use and engagement is not, nor is it meant to be. It allows me, for example, to give a critique of the work of Damien Hirst. Likewise, for me the contrast between communicative and expressive work is both essential and essentially evaluative.

Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair - I choose this because of the recent film - starts promisingly enough, but collapses as a novel two thirds of the way through. At that point, Greene's need or desire to communicate to the reader the plausibility of what is presumably his own Catholic belief in the possibility of everyday miracles completely takes over from the plot line. We are left with a tedious - to be blunt, ludicrous and embarrassing - tract driven by the desire to communicate a message. It is as bad as anything in D H Lawrence. We no longer have a novel with which we can engage, but a fixed idea presented in an inappropriate form, such that we can't properly engage with it for what it is: an idea, a belief, part of an ideology. Under the weight of the thesis they are made to carry, the fictional characters simply collapse.

Art fails when it is used to vehicle a message, to communicate ideas. If you have a message you want to communicate, then you must act as its messenger, as I am now. That is what responsibility is about. If you want to communicate an idea, try to communicate it as directly and simply as you can. That is what language is for, and is very good at permitting. Art is for something else.

Art is a place for expression, and especially for the expression of that which we are less than clear about. Marble is great stuff. Sculpture is a great medium. You can engage with them and hopefully find that in and through them, some inarticulate feeling can be expressed. You may find that some vision can be expressed - formulated even - which would otherwise remain latent and inarticulate. Maybe it becomes a place where something which is known can also be acknowledged.

It is worthwhile for an audience to pay attention to what artists do, what they have produced, just because with any luck (or grace, if you prefer) something will be expressed there which, in an act of engagement, it is worthwhile trying to locate.

But the articulacy which sculpture permits is not the articulacy of language. And the articulacy which the novel permits or demands is not the same as the articulacy which is permitted or demanded in a tract of the Catholic Truth Society.

'Art' which expresses nothing is no more to the point than 'art' which seeks to communicate everything.

But can we make 'express' and 'expressive' precise enough for it to be reasonably clear when there is expression and when there is something else? I think philosophers have already done enough to make a concept of expression viable as a key concept of aesthetics. The central distinction to make is that between expressing directly that which one is currently thinking or feeling, and representing what one feels for thinks or might feel or think in such a away that a work can be truly said to express such and such a thought or feeling.

For me, the paradigm expressive art makers of the 20th century include Samuel Beckett, Mark Rothko, maybe Strauss in the Four Last Songs and Michael Nyman inThe Piano and other works.

Had Beckett simply sought to state something of a feeling of abandonment it would have been less memorable - indeed, it would have been forgettable - than is the exploration of that feeling in the world ofWaiting for Godot. Had Rothko told us about his despair, we would surely have appreciated it less than we do in engaging with its non-figurative representation in his canvasses. And Michael Nyman's love for the physicality, the materiality of music itself radiates from every note of The Piano. There is nothing that he needs to add to convince us.

As Rothko liked to remark, silence is so accurate.

Knowing/ Acknowledging

This distinction between the communicative and the expressive can be further explored, perhaps ultimately restated, by means of a distinction between knowing andacknowledging. This is a distinction I picked up at the very beginning of my academic career from Stanley Cavell's Must We mean What We Say? (1969), though what I have done with it since may not literally reproduce what he says there (I haven't checked back).

One might say that much of psychoanalytic therapy is designed to allow the patient to move from knowing that something is the case to acknowledging that that something is the case. We may know we hate someone, yet be unable or unwilling to acknowledge that. We may know we are dependent on someone, yet ditto. We may know we were traumatised at age four, yet ditto. Christopher Bollas calls that which we know but don't/can't/won't acknowledge 'the unthought known'

In art, there is very little interest to be had from observing an artist tell us or even show us what he knows. The didactic art work is generally the boring art work. This repeats what I said about the communicative. In contrast, working well with the material and medium the artist is led, as it were, to acknowledge the truth or significance of emerging intuitions. Or, rather, the artist does so - makes the acknowledgment - in accepting a line, a phrase, a bar into the emerging work and letting it stand as part of the work. At the end, the artist acknowledges the work as a whole by signing it off as finished.

The audience in turn confronts a work and always has the option to allow or refuse acknowledgment of what it expresses. The audience can simply stop at the point of knowing - knowing what the work is about, if you like. Acknowledgment, as in psychoanalytic therapy, may well not be instantaneous. Time has to be allowed for it to occur. Silence and solitude may need to follow the encounter with the work for the work to be efficacious

I now want to introduce four pairs of categories which are meant to indicate ways in which art-work, and the work of art, can allow for the expression of the inarticulate, the unthought known, and for acknowledgment of its presence and value. These are perhaps rather idiosyncratic categories; I have found them helpful.

Perfect/ Imperfect

We think of the artist aiming to achieve some kind of perfection, under that or some other name, in the work resulting from artistic activity. The artist aims to get it 'just right'. But in fact 'just right' may not always mean 'perfect' in some standard sense. To make this point I shall limit myself to just one main example.

In The Magic Flute a small but significant part is assigned to a trio of three boys (Drei Knaben) In many productions the parts are actually taken by young female singers from the Opera company. Sometimes, young boys are recruited, from choir schools and such like. On the operatic stage their voices will sound thin, unformed, imperfect - that is why trained female singers are often enough substituted. But to me the whole point of these voices is that they should sound thin, unformed, imperfect. That is just right in a context where other voices - the high-wire act assigned to the Queen of the Night, the gravitas expected of Sarastro - are pushed to sublime limits. The imperfect voices of the boys are a reminder of our humanity, but also intimate the possibility of an unachieved perfection. And that moves us. "Children" says Walter Benjamin, "are representatives of Paradise".

If you think it a good idea to 'perfect' the voices of the Three Boys by replacing them with trained soloists , you would think it a good idea to put Tom Jones into Dire Straits to beef up the woefully weak vocals of Mark Knopfler.

By way of one further brief example, at the end of Happy Days Winnie finally gets to sing her song. The tune can and probably should be taken from the Merry Widow, as Beckett hints and as Jane Metcalfe established by singing the song in my seminar. But under no circumstances should Winnie's voice approximate to that of a trained opera singer. The voice required must be cracked, reedy, failing. That is the point and poignancy.

So what is 'just right' in a work of art may not always consist in something perfect of its kind.

Finished/ Unfinished

If I now introduce the second pair of concepts, my line of argument can probably be guessed at on the basis of what has been said under the previous heading. Artists aim to finish their work, and yet value often attaches, for an audience, to work which is technically unfinished. Such work is valued because it leaves space for the imagination - that's the shortest way of putting the argument.

For me, Gainsborough's 18th century portraits hold little interest - I can't give them much attention. But I make exception of the stunning paintings of his own daughters, Mary and Margaret (two in the National Gallery, one in the Victoria and Albert). Done for a client, these paintings would be rejected as unfinished. Done for himself, these paintings show everything that needs to be shown about Mary and Margaret and Gainsborough's love for them. They go to the heart of the matter. The unfinished paintings are just right for the representation of the mobility, the transitoriness of childhood.

Interestingly, I have to admit that it is specifically in the visual arts that the unfinished has this kind of value. Less often - though it sometimes happens - do we attach exceptional value to an unfinished piece of music, unfinished poem or novel. We may be curious about how they would have been finished, but that is all. Why this should be so requires further reflection.

Enduring/ Evanescent

The idea that art is a gamble on immortality provides only psychological insight into a possible motivation to artistic activity. 'The Test of Time' (the title of a book by Anthony Saville) is often invoked as a criterion of artistic worth - that is truly beautiful which withstands the test of time. What is to me interesting about this argument is that it assumes as unproblematic that art works come in ways which at least physically or ideationally endure. But this is by no means necessary, and I wonder whether it is necessary as an artistic goal.

To the enduring one might oppose the evanescent and as exemplary of the evanescent I'm inclined to go for fireworks. To me, the firework display enchants in part at least because, like the rainbow, it comes and goes, it vanishes, it's over and it leaves no trace.

I think there ought to be a place in art for the evanescent, whether as auto-destructive art or otherwise, however hard it may be on the artist to make works which are fated to disappear without trace and however hard it may be on critics and curators. I think that the evanescent allows the audience a range of experiences which the enduring may not or may not so readily afford. I think these experiences connect to Burke's sublime. After all, why did so many people think that the appropriate way to celebrate the Millennium was to watch a firework display?

Deliberate/ Chance

Art-making involves choice and consequently it has most often seemed it implies deliberateness. The end-product of artistic activity consists in considered choices such that they can be reasonably referred back to a guiding intentionality. We now know that these connections can be broken - the artist can choose to introduce chance or random elements into a work, for example, by adopting some kind of random choice procedure (as with throwing dice). Of course, it remains true that the results of recourse to such chance procedures always have to be signed off - it is difficult and perhaps impossible for the artist to buck the decision (the deliberate decision) that a work is finished and ready to be shared with an audience. Chance elements in a work (as with say Jackson Pollock's drip paintings) are always bounded in this way, that an artist may reject the results of chance procedures and throw the canvas away or re-paint it in a more deliberate fashion. Or else simply try again with the dice.

For the most part, the engagement of an audience with a work is a deliberate activity (chosen, conscious etc). And yet one of the things we know and don't sufficiently reflect upon, is that turning points in our life, and experiences of art which overwhelm us, are often the results of chance encounters. The epiphanies arising from such chance encounters cannot be engineered, by definition, but that is not a reason for neglecting them. (see my essay 'Lifelong Unlearning').

And now one final, analytic pair of categories:

Space and Time

Space and Time are analytic categories which have been central to aesthetics since at least the time of Lessing's La�co�n (1766) . In this famous work of neo-classical aesthetics and criticism, Lessing argues that the starting point for an understanding of painting is that it is and can only be the organisation of figures and colours in space, whereas poetry employs articulate sounds in time. Painting is consequently adapted to showing the visible properties of bodies and poetry to representing actions. Poetry can properly suggest bodies through their actions. Painting 'in her co-existing compositions, can use only one single moment of the action, and must therefore choose the most pregnant , from which what precedes and follows will be most easily apprehended' (La�co�n, section 16). When much else in Lessing's book has not survived, the doctrine of the pregnant moment is still very much alive, notably in writings on photography. It is found, for example, in John Berger and Jean Mohr's Another Way of Telling at pp 119 -122. Also alive is the idea of thinking about the arts comparatively in terms of their relation to space and time. Lessing himself intended to extend his analysis to music, dance, mime and drama, and more recent writers have accomplished the extension.

However, we should now want to draw a clearer distinction than does Lessing between the mode of existence of a work of art (its ontology) and the manner in which we experience it (its phenomenology). For example, one could think of a musical composition as a (timeless) set of instructions for patterning a real sequence of sounds and silence in clock time, but the experience of listening to a musical performance is not adequately characterised in terms of the passage of clock time as one listens. Indeed, it is commonly said that in listening to a musical composition our sense of the passage of clock time is suppressed: music is a machine for the suppression of time, says Adorno

Again, one could say that the literary work of art (poem or novel) like a mathematical problem is out-of-time (non-temporal, timeless), but that it takes real (clock) time to read it, as it takes real time to solve a mathematical problem. Though we ourselves set the pace of reading a novel, in a way that we do not set the pace of a performance of a play (which gives the playwright an opportunity denied the novelist), it is the novel which sets the way we experience our relationship to time while reading it. This is not just a question of whether the novel is fast-moving or drawn-out. For example in Feeling and Form, Susanne Langer argues that narrative fiction orients us to an imaginary past, so that we experience a novel as in the past tense (whatever the actual grammatical tense of the novel), and in reading it we are involved in the creation of what Langer calls virtual (that is, imaginary) memory.

If one wanted to compare the novel with say film or drama, one would also have to consider the spatial phenomenology of our experiences of works in these different media. For example, one might argue that drama in the theatre is experienced as spatially closer to us than film in the cinema - as something here rather than something there. If this is so, it might be explained fairly straightforwardly in terms of the differential crossability of the space between audience and stage, audience and screen. What we do in the cinema cannot affect what happens on screen; but our laughter, applause, signs of boredom and so on can influence what happens on stage. Likewise, stage actors may forget their lines; screen actors never do. The stage actor is consequently closer to us psychologically: the boundary between imaginary and real world is not always sustained, as when an actor corpses or dries.

The subjective contrast between things Here and thingsThere is complemented by the temporal subjective contrast between what is experienced as happeningNow and what is experienced as happening Then (in the past or in the future). In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes suggests that photographs have a Here-Then character in experience. We experience photographs as spatially close because they are the real traces of real events. But we also experience them as temporally distant, because they are the traces of events which are irretrievably and necessarily past. Thus the nostalgic character of photographs.


This has been a romp through ten pairs of concepts or categories. If you have tried to give it Concentrated Attention, you may be a bit exhausted. But if your attention has floated, it is possible that something I have said has struck you in a way which will now make some discussion possible and worthwhile.

2000; not previously published