We are embodied beings. As a condition of the embodied state, we possess an interface, namely what are termed the “senses,” which functions as a point of mediated exchange between ourselves and all that is other. Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch are the canonical five senses, but we should also consider those which are more subtle or hidden as well. It is primarily through the senses that we understand and process our experiences. Even more liminal or disembodied experiences, such as the dream state, are perceived through the senses – though here, one could perhaps more accurately speak of senses more subtle and expansive than the canonical five.
The category of the “aesthetic” admits all that pertains to the senses – hidden, subtle, vulgar, or otherwise. Aesthesis, or sensation, lies at the very core of embodied experience. To be under the influence of an anesthetic is to be entirely deprived of sensation; to experience synesthesia is to lose the convenient distinctions between one mode of sensation and another. The art object, as an interface for, and as a producer of, varied sensation is the aesthetic object par excellence. While aesthetic philosophy is generally thought to be concerned with the problem of beauty, we should extend the concept to include all sensorial experience – the attractive, the repulsive, the compelling, the resonant, the dissonant, that which fascinates, which inspires trepidation, which disturbs, which elates. Beauty, as such, is a transcendence of vulgar experience. Indeed, I would argue that all art objects which propose to traffic in the transcendent do, by definition, trade also in beauty. This would also be true for works that operate through an inversion or distortion of the beautiful, artworks designed to repulse, or those that induce a kind of negative or ambivalent fascination – for here too, the aesthetic force is of a comparable transcendental nature, only directed by a somewhat different means.
The work of art is fundamentally transformational in nature. This is a necessary supposition even for those who would eschew any transcendental purpose for the work. The category itself necessitates a transformation of sorts, even if only a discursive or contextual one. Were it otherwise, a painting would merely be a surface splotched with color, a sculpture another object resting on the floor. Transformational operations, at whatever scale, require a greater or lesser amount of intrinsic power, a power that can then be directed, focused and used at will to meet the needs of the artist, the viewer or other vested party. This process can also be reversed; as many who make them will attest, artworks will often express a will of their own, their desires and predilections operant even after the artist has long since passed away. An artwork’s longevity and potency beyond that of its author is a reification of its aesthetic value. One can see this easily with works whose author is unknown, for instance, or works whose subject matter is disputed. Such ambiguity can, in fact, serve to actually increase an object’s potential for fascination. Giorginone’s “The Tempest,” for instance, could be cited as a famous example of a work whose enigmatic content has served to intensify its auratic presence, a presence that seems only to have increased over centuries of scrutiny.
The artwork, as an object both material and auratic, is itself an embodiment. As a body, in addition to representing or acting as a repository for such, the work of art could also be said to actually produce sensation. As an agent of aesthesis, the artwork’s auratic presence lies within a condition of receptivity – primarily a receptive relationship to its originating producer, then a mutually receptive relationship with the beholder, and finally, an accumulative, anamnestic function responsive to the accretions of meaning, interpretation and exchange occurring over the lifetime of the object.
It would only be fair to describe such an object as being one endowed with a kind of sentience. As esotericists, that is, those who are concerned with the numinous interiors of things, we might say that such an object has a spirit. To engage in congress with a source of aesthetic impulse (often personified as a “muse”) is a commonplace in the anecdotal discourse surrounding the artist. How much more worthy of discussion is aesthetic congress with the spirit of a work itself? Here we can posit a relationship equally powerful for all of its sensuality, transcendent import and relative imperviousness to the temporal, a relationship made all the more powerful over time as subjectivities and responses accrue far beyond the span of the originating artist and his or her intentions. This is the aesthetic realm of the truly auratic – out of time, transcendent, transformational, transpersonal – the realm, that is, of magic.
– Tom Allen