What was Aesthetics?

Wednesdays 29 May, 19 June, 10 July, 31 July 2024, 7pm

Event type: Seminar

This is an event series.

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What Was Aesthetics? is an in-person seminar led by Jacob Koster and held over multiple sessions in a small group.

Aesthetics has long been considered a moribund discipline. The term ‘aesthetics’ itself, however, has lived on. Its meanings have multiplied, so much so that by the early 20th century to ‘aestheticise’ was to render beautiful what was not, the opposite of the word’s original sense. Today, ‘feminist aesthetics’, ‘postcolonial aesthetics’, ‘queer aesthetics’, and ‘posthuman aesthetics’ are bona fide artistic pursuits.

This ‘aesthetic turn’, however, is not caused by the re-emergence of traditional aesthetic questions. Instead, what the various flavours of today’s ‘political aesthetics’ have in common is a deep suspicion of the aesthetic tradition passed down by the Enlightenment. Critics of the 18th-century paradigm of aesthetics take issue with its foregrounding of a privileged subject, its fascination with nature at the cost of the non-human, and its ruthless expansionism in the name of freedom.

Such critiques may be warranted. On the other hand, the imperative to critique the ‘dead white men’ of the Enlightenment has become a new dogma. The compulsion to replace the démodé concerns of aesthetics (beauty, genius, taste) with a political agenda has not only foreclosed artistic avenues but also impedes a serious critique of aesthetics.

What was aesthetics? How did philosophers theorising sensation respond to its questions, and how did their responses change with time? How did social conditions shape aesthetic discourse? Why did beauty assume the philosophical importance it did, ultimately achieving parity with the true, and the good?

This seminar sets out to reconstruct the object of critique: aesthetics before it was subjected to radical reshaping since the middle of the 19th century. It considers the historical development of the discipline’s concerns since the antiquities, and in so doing illuminates the aesthetic rift of modernity.

This seminar is a collective attempt at self-education for artists, curators, and anyone interested in the philosophy and history of art. 

Seminar structure

The seminar is a series of participatory conversations facilitated by Jacob Koster. The discussions will be based on primary sources. Many of the readings are canonical and include works by Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, Dante, Hume, Kant, and Schiller. No prior knowledge of aesthetics or philosophy is assumed, but abstract thinking will come in handy. 

The first four sessions of What Was Aesthetics? will take place in May, June, and July 2024. These sessions will trace the historical arc of aesthetics from antiquity to the Renaissance. A further four meetings from late September will consider the aesthetics of modernity and its crisis.

Session 1, 29 May 2024

An introduction to the key concerns of aesthetics. Antiquity (the Presocratics, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics).

Session 2, 19 June 2024

Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Plotinus, Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas).

Session 3, 10 July 2024

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Dante, Vasari, and others).

Session 4, 31 July 2024

The Renaissance, conclusion of the cycle, and a look forward to the aesthetics of Modernity.

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  • Jacob Koster

    Jacob Koster is a researcher who explores socially engaged art and social movement practice, as well as aesthetics and the philosophy of art.