Researching a piece on Kant, I came across philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. His thoughts are interesting in light of recent musings on aesthetic judgment’s conflicting mandate: to establish a stable, objective foundation against which to evaluate merit through time (in other words, a standard of excellence that can be used to measure new artistry), while simultaneously responding to personal, subjective, fugitive likes and dislikes, specific to locale and period.
According to this article, Gadamer’s key claims in this area are:
- Aesthetics is not the study of specific types of subjective pleasures derived from art. It is a study of what objectively informs our subjective awareness of art.
- Hermeneutical aesthetics seeks to break through the pleasurable distractions of aesthetic consciousness in order to disclose the cultural and linguistic realities that manifest themselves within it.
- Hermeneutical aesthetics presupposes phenomenological involvement with the subject matters of art rather than disinterested detachment.
- Hermeneutical aesthetics regards aesthetic appearance not as a distraction from the real but as the vehicle through which real subject matters reveal themselves. It over-turns the notion that art works are at one remove from reality.
- Hermeneutical aesthetics is dialogical in character. It recognises that practitioner and theoretician share in bringing a subject matter to light and plays down any theory/ practice division in the arts. Interpretation is a means to a work’s realisation.
- Hermeneutical aesthetics is not a theory of art per se, more a set of practical contemplative notes for enhancing one’s encounter with art. The end of hermeneutical aesthetics is not to arrive at a concept of art but to deepen our experience of art. In hermeneutical aesthetics, theory is deployed to deepen contemplation of artworks rather than to categorise their nature.
- Gadamer’s aesthetics is deeply respectful of art’s ability to disrupt and challenge customary expectations. It attributes an ethical significance to art as being able to reveal the limitations of fixed cultural expectancy and to open the spectator towards the other and the different.
Gadamer’s determination to reveal the cognitive content of aesthetic experience requires him to expose the ontological grounding of subjectivity. To approach art works solely on the basis of subjective responses to them or, to read them only in terms of an artist’s intentionality, is, for Gadamer, always to miss the point. Hermeneutically speaking, the philosophical focus should be on what shapes subjectivity and guides its expectations. This initiates a speculative re-figuring of aesthetic subjectivity. In Truth and Method he writes,
All self-knowledge arises from what is historically pre-given, what with Hegel we call "substance," because it underlies all subjective intentions and actions, and hence both prescribes and limits every possibility for understanding any tradition whatsoever in its historical alterity. This almost defines the aim of philosophical hermeneutics: its task is to retrace the path of Hegel’s phenomenology of mind until we discover in all that is subjective the substantiality that determines it … (TM 302).
In The Relevance of the Beautiful Gadamer elucidates substance as follows.
"Substance" is understood as something that supports us, although it does not emerge into the light of reflective consciousness, it is something that can never be fully articulated, although it is absolutely necessary for the existence of all clarity, consciousness, expression and communication (RB 78).
Uncovering the ontological foundations of aesthetic experience does not undermine the primacy Gadamer gives to art’s immediate address. The aim is to demonstrate the cognitive legitimacy of subjective experience by revealing how aesthetic experience is both involved in something larger than itself and, indeed, reflects (speculum) that larger actuality within itself. The ability of aesthetic experience to express trans-individual phenomenological structures explains what is meant by substance and his speculative attitude towards it. Gadamer’s aesthetics is properly concerned with experiencing what underlies its more abstract concepts. This is not a matter of naming or describing the reality which manifests itself in aesthetic experience but of trying to say something about the experience an individual has of it. Gadamer’s reflections commence with the immediacy of art’s claim, its contemporaneous nature, and then explore what influences the experience of that claim. The aim is seemingly paradoxical: to understand that which shapes, lies beyond but only "shows" itself in aesthetic experience.