Aesthetics is both a body of knowledge and a kind of practice. Either aesthetics designates an active engagement with the work of art, or it refers to the study of the constellation of affective states that directs this engagement. Aesthetics counterposes the spectator’s feelings about the object, with the way she should be feeling about the object. This disconnect derives from the Kantian distinction between the transcendental and the concrete thing-in-itself. By installing an interval of non-contact between our body as shaped in space and space as read by our body, Kant effectively split the phenomenal world into two pools that could be drawn upon to supplement one another, when needed. The first was shiny and perfect while the second was soiled and lived. On a local scale, Kant’s transcendentalism was figured in terms of the free perceptual play of the subject’s intuition and cognition, or reflex and reflection. This original distinction was merely legislative in pointing out the subject’s legitimate relation to the sovereign Form of Law: it was enough to know the balance of one’s behaviour against the moral concepts by which the body in space is circumscribed.
If the subject can position herself mimetically in relation to others through a shared lexicon of moral concepts <in the world of Kant’s public sphere we are all at least the ‘same’>, mimesis devolves to similarity when subject to subject relations are critically replaced by the subject’s relation to the object. If the former connection is figured through the discursive power of legality and legitimacy, the latter can only ever be known through the labouring difference of touch. That is why, when Kant progressed to his third critique and the study of aesthetics, his epistemological program had to account for touch by descending from its transcendental watchtower, to become a real, lived practice in the world. This would be fine, even good, if the bourgeois-homme-citizen was encouraged to spend his lunch hour stroking the cheeks of a Rodin sculpture before returning to business interests inflected by an experience of the beautiful; but instead, and probably with the museum’s red rope and glass panes in mind, Kant erased touch from the subject’s experiencing of the object altogether, and replaced it with a critically ‘disinterested’ distance. The logic for this disavowal was that, if touch continued to govern our relation to the object, we would only ever be able to experience a dirty pleasure, without ever reaching the Beautiful, which itself depended upon the object’s subsumption to the realm of moral concepts from which it could be transcendentally unfolded and impregnated by our understanding of the Good.
But what if we left all our moral concepts behind at the office, before taking a lunch break? And what happens to touching feeling, if disinterestedness straitjackets my body? Kant invested vision itself with touch, so that witnessing was elevated to beholding and looking itself becomes a material praxis. Vision is now the exclusive channel through which Kant upholds his transcendentalism, in the face of the phenomenal world, while touch has been clinically desensitised.
When the eye takes the place of the hand, when perception drags apperception into the room and refuses my squinting nerves, muscles and skin, I want to scream.