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Aesthetics, photography. On "Aesthetics, a very short introduction" by Bence Nanay, "On photography" by Susan Sontag, and...

Updated: Mar 24

About aesthetics, photography. In his rather short book, Bence Nanay evokes, as a film critic and university professor of philosophy, what aesthetics is and what it should not be - a set of negative constraints. Indeed, if aesthetics is "the study of how we exercise our attention", a specific form of openness or freedom seems indispensable: ideally, a spirit of humility.

According to Nanay, aesthetics would be a special form of exercising attention that could be described as "seeing something beautiful", an exercise shaped by emotion. So it is not a matter of defining beauty, pleasure, emotions or attention, but rather the way in which emotion is unfolded or perception is modified.

I enjoyed Nanay's book but there were a few things that bothered me. First of all, a certain number of references to Susan Sontag, whose "On Photography" I recently read, a book that fascinated me by the number of reflections it provoked. Sontag offers the reader a number of powerful judgments, whereas Nanay insists on neutrality. (I think Sontag's book is essential reading for understanding modern art and is visionary about image-related technologies. Prefer the original to the copy...) The reader of Sontag takes a certain pleasure to look for her contradictions or on the contrary to be surprised by the intuitions and the striking lines of the author.

It is therefore surprising that Bence Nanay quotes Sontag so much while defending a humble, neutral and never critical aesthetic. If Sontag had remained in this posture, she could have written only platitudes instead of taking the obvious risk of being rejected and contradicted. Certainly, peremptory excesses are sterile and opposed to artistic creation. But without them, wouldn't the progression of art be limited? The risk for art is to get lost in an equally sterile academic verbiage, in a sad categorization provided by market forces, or political cronyism. It is therefore not enough to reject the normativity of (for example, Western) art, for the (for example, Western) artist inherits a vast culture that obliges him or her to know its manner, origins and historical debates.

One of the virtues of Susan Sontag's book is to show how the accumulation of images modifies our perceptions and sometimes proceeds to a form of anesthesia of the eyes: her conclusions lead her to pose a sharp, even negative glance. It seems to me contradictory that Nanay, appropriating Sontag's interesting conclusions and normative judgments, believes in the same movement that it is necessary not to judge, but only to describe. As long as institutions guarantee freedom, the freedom of discernment seems to me justified and at the heart of an aesthetic approach. Everyone has the right to his preferences.

On the other hand, Nanay seems to me to fail to demonstrate that contemplation would have deserted contemporary art. Don't artists, from Gerhard Richter to the local wildlife photographer, engage in a form of active contemplation? And Nanay's way of contrasting "rasa" (a Sanskrit concept) with "good taste" (standards of the Western past, which he considers prohibitive) seems curious to me: in both cases, these terms seem to describe a correspondence between the way of tasting the flavor of a dish and the way of looking at a work of art, a measure of the sequence of textures, flavors and general harmony... If the contemporary eye of the spectator expects the market to provide him with a list of "ready to eat" and has lost the "open attention" necessary for this contemplation, it is perhaps because it is now necessary to write about the flavor of artworks and to learn to distinguish between different kinds of cuisine.

The book talks about the effect of time on our visual tastes and the role of constant exposure to images in their formation. I would have liked a simpler explanation, since aesthetic experience is best learned the more the student shows curiosity about the subject, until one day he or she can describe what aesthetics is, and how to share passion for it.

The critics who are no longer able to do so could leave more space to the artists, whose work is at the heart of aesthetic research.

Fleur Thesmar

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