interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

Greatest Hits of Aesthetics?

Kul-Want, Christopher and Piero. Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide. Icon Books, 2012.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

The problems with aesthetics begin with spelling and pronunciation. In my experience, a lot of people incline to calling it ascetics.

I took some courses on aesthetics once, and I usually think I like it, but it’s been a long time, which is probably what made this “little” introduction jump into view at the bookstore the other day. That, plus my perennial sense that I need to fill in the gaps and chinks in my education. I thought “Oh, this will be fun.”

Then I remembered that it’s possible to read too much aesthetics at once. Because I start thinking “How can anyone take any of this seriously?” And “??” And “I wonder whether the author has trouble explaining to people what he does for a living.” Some jobs are like that.

And in the case of this particular book, I got part-way through and started thinking “It seems like we’ve drifted away from aesthetics and into the realm of cultural studies or epistemology or something …” probably because I had missed the warning notice on page 7, where the author did say quite explicitly

Following Baumgarten, aesthetics as a philosophical activity became concerned not just with the question of beauty but with the whole nature of experience in terms of perceptions, feelings and emotions. Philosophers, however, quickly realized that this inquiry opened out onto issues of subjectivity and identity and the potential for transforming values and beliefs. This is because the issue of experience relates to the question of consciousness and, by implication, the role of unconscious experience in shaping identity. So, while aesthetics began as a specialist branch of philosophy, it was actually in the right position to form the kernel for nearly all future philosophical inquiry (7).

So to be fair, I should have seen it coming. And then all that seeming drifting off with the general currents of modernism and reflections on the unconscious and the postmodern fragmentation of the subject came together at the end, where Kul-Want sums up his quick tour of the history of aesthetics in the 19th and 20th centuries with:

So at the start of the 21st century we find an aesthetics of disembodiment and fragmentation. Aesthetics has been central to the re-evaluation of the Subject since its inception by Baumgarten and Kant in the 18th century. It is no coincidence that the official beginning of aesthetics in the 19th century coincided with the re-evaluation of the subject in philosophy. This has led to the postmodern idea of the breakdown and decentring of the subject. Aesthetics has taken this central role because its primary concern is with experience and how we experience ourselves (169).

I thought “Darn, how’d I miss that?” About aesthetics, that is. It made a different kind of sense of A LOT of the reading I did in all those courses several years ago. If only I had been able to read this particular introduction to aesthetics then.

So while the insight into the relationship of aesthetics to thinking about The Subject might be old hat and something everyone but me already knows, I appreciated it. It reminded me that one of the nice things about introductions is that they organize a lot of material from some particular perspective, and sometimes looking at “the same material” from that perspective will make me see something new. At least, new to me.

In other words, I think this is a pretty nice very short introduction to aesthetics. It is not nearly as frothy as its graphic form might lead a person to expect. [Again: aesthetics is deeper than we think.]

Introductory texts always have the problem of needing to condense vast amounts of complex material into a few pages, or paragraphs, or in the case of this book, sometimes a few sentences. A lot of detail and complexity gets lost that way. The trick is not to allow that loss to constitute, in effect, misinformation.

Introducing Aesthetics seems to pull that trick off pretty well, with the exception of leaving the impression that Heidegger and Adorno could have been intellectual BFFs. As Frederic Jameson once said about Adorno,

… I have been surprised by the increasing frequency of comparisons with his arch-enemy Heidegger (whose philosophy, he once observed, ‘is fascist to its innermost cells’) (11)

But, again to be fair, Jameson’s quip implies that Kul-Want wouldn’t be the only one, and since he probably read it somewhere, he may have a genuine excuse.

And [I’m tempted to say “predictably”] the relationship of Christian theology to aesthetics makes a brief appearance under the heading of “medieval aesthetics,” and then is quickly dispatched as metaphysical, never to be heard from again, thanks be to Nietzsche. Despite the relationship of God to The Subject, which you’d think might be worth a mention or two a bit later, come to think of it. This after the statement “Metaphysics is a dualistic system – the gods exist in a higher transcendent realm and the world down below, inhabited by humans, is a pale imitation of it” (8). Which I think makes the mistake of confusing “metaphysics” with “Plato’s metaphysics,” and is anyhow based on the popular mistake that we can somehow do without metaphysics just because it’s basically the contemplation of human ignorance. But like I said, “predictably.” We don’t know what we don’t know, and a philosophical culturally conditioned blind spot can illustrate that as well as anything else.

Aside from those objections, which in a way are minor given the project of the book, I thought this was a helpful book: a decent introduction, a pretty quick read, illustrations that made a reader think and contributed to the meaning of the text (maybe that goes without saying, considering it’s a “graphic guide,” but then again maybe not; I especially liked the one on page 51 of Kant putting “the sublime” in a jar), a decent bibliography of accessible primary and secondary texts for “further reading.”

And it made me think and ask some new questions, so it was fun, after all.


Adorno, Theodor. Gesammelte Schriften vol. 6, Frankfurt, 1976, 637-8. [quoted in Jameson]

Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or The Persistence of the Dialectic. Verso: 2007.

Kul-Want, Christopher and Piero. Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide. Icon Books: 2012.

A circular view of an endless stack of books
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