The History of Aesthetics
In the history of western thought, there have been many theories of aesthetics - that is, philosophical theories about the purpose, function, meaning, and value of art. Some of the earliest theories of aesthetics were forwarded by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle.
Although Plato and Aristotle were, as is well-known, student and teacher, their aesthetic theories were very different. In the millennial that have passed since, there have been almost as many philosophical approaches to art as there have been philosophers.
In recent years, some European philosophers have been developing new aesthetic theories that attempt to take into account the artistic and technological developments of the twentieth century.
Avant-garde art movements and the invention of new artistic media like film have called in to question the role of art in society and the relationship between art, politics, and truth. These changes have rendered some traditional aesthetic theories obsolete, and philosophers have been attempting to fill this newly created void.
Alain Badiou's Inaesthetics
Among the new aesthetic theories that have emerged from Europe in the past few decades is French philosopher Alain Badiou's theory of "inaesthetics". Badiou calls his aesthetic theory inaesthetics because he thinks that previous theories of aesthetics have given philosophy too much power when it comes to saying things about art.
Badiou's contribution to the field of aesthetics is his claim that philosophy and other fields of study are incapable of saying what art is or should be. Artistic truths, according to Badiou, are specific to art, so philosophy is more or less powerless when it comes to art.
Philosophy and Art
It might seem strange for a philosopher to claim that philosophy is powerless, but that has been a big part of Badiou's appeal in the world of philosophy. Of course, he doesn't say that philosophy is useless, but he does say that philosophy's job is not to reveal truths about the way the world is.
Instead, philosophy's job is to talk about truths that other disciplines - including art - reveal, and to see what consequences those truths have.
One example Badiou favors is the example of the French poet Stephane Mallarmé. Mallarmé's unique style of poetry introduces devices into the poetic vocabulary that hadn't been there before.
For example, Mallarmé arranged words in interesting configurations on the page, using the space of the poem itself as part of the poem. This type of thing is common by now, but at the time it was revolutionary. According to Badiou, Mallarmé's poetry is an example of artistic truth.
Badiou has written quite extensively about Mallarmé, discussing what his poetry means and how it is situated in the context of the history of poetry. These writings are limited to a descriptive level, however. Badiou always stops short of saying what art or poetry should or shouldn't do. That is the essence of inaesthetics.
Art is Irreplaceable
Whether we agree or disagree with the idea of inaesthetics, it is interesting to consider what such a theory indicates about philosophy and aesthetics today.
Even in an age when we know that scientific truths can be overturned or altered by new discoveries, and when the boundaries between art and entertainment have been blurred beyond recognition, philosophers like Badiou still want to make sure that art continues to play an important role in our lives.
Badiou might go a little too far when he says that artistic truths are specific to art, but his point is to say that art can't be replaced in our lives. That is a point that everyone ought to agree on.