Thomas Symeonidis: ON ART: Draft for a pocket aesthetic tractatus


Thomas Symeonidis (Thessaloniki, 1977) studied architecture at the National School of Architecture in Paris (Val-de-Seine) and engineering at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He pursued postgraduate studies in Economics and Political Sciences at the LSE and Architecture and Design at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) where he completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics. He has been an adjunct professor and a post-doctoral fellow at the Athens School of Fine Arts exploring the interrelation between ethics, politics and aesthetics. He has also lectured in a number of undergraduate and post-graduate courses at the School of Architecture at NTUA, The Hellenic Open University and the Chair Michelis at the University of Crete. He has translated Jacques Rancière’s Malaise dans l’esthétique (Aesthetics and its discontent) and Le Destin des Images (The future of the image), as well as prose, essays and plays of Samuel Beckett. He is the author of novels, plays and essays with contributions in the intersection of philosophical aesthetics, visual arts and literature.


  1. The Introduction

I often think of Wittgenstein’s aphorism that the work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose. Seemingly simple, this aphorism is in fact an intractable equation. On the one hand the reminders. On the other, the purpose. We can argue, and it would not be an exaggeration, that our whole life is an endless process that involves many individual processes of assembling reminders. We are constantly assembling, and at the same time accumulating reminders, notes, images, objects, files. We are assemblers. We are unique, singular, constantly oscillating between the awareness of our inconsequentiality (we are infinitesimal compared to the infinity of nature and reality) and the awareness of our infinity (we are products of nature, without being exhaustively mapped, participating in an open and non-prescribed manner in society and reality). It can be easily understood that this process of assembling reminders, leaving aside the question of content, needs necessarily to be organized. Umberto Eco provides us with an example of this in his Infinity of Lists (2009) which is essentially based on the same logic as his other well-known study The Open Work (1962). The list, while being created, is being mediated by thought. You need to specify some initial parameters, but this is not always followed. What is the object of the list? In our case, the object is given by the title. Reminders for art, a draft for a pocket aesthetic tractatus.

  1. The Draft
  2. Begin with the necessary clarifications such as: When you are talking about art, are you talking about a particular genre of art? In which genres are you referring to.
  3. Speaking of art, ask also: Who is talking about art? What is the age or period. What is the field it belongs to.
  4. The field I feel most familiar with is that of philosophical aesthetics. My favorite thinkers are Jacques Rancière, Theodor Adorno, Wittgenstein, Plato and Heraclitus.
  5. I was led to these thinkers by people I met or other thinkers or artists I love or by accident. I stayed with these thinkers out of love. In their own voice I see assembled pieces of my own voice, the one I have, the one I would like to have. Ideally, I would like the voice, the notion of voice to be synonymous with that of thought and poetry.
  6. Enough about me.
  7. Back to the questions, a key question now: Are you a Platonist or an anti-Platonist? Do you think that artworks are manifestations of the Platonic idea? Do you think they express the absolute? Alain Badiou, for example, believes that artworks are events of the Platonic idea.
  8. Another issue, that of the boundaries between art and everyday life. Begin with the question: What belongs to art and what to everyday life? If we are to follow some past and actual perspectives on that matter, we will come across with the view that art and everyday life could end up being the same thing, that is, an exemplary way of life, the art of living, the culture of life. See for that matter, Aristotle, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Why not Arendt or Agamben.
  9. In your thinking about the boundaries between art and everyday life, add the thought of the difference between the objects of art and the objects of everyday life. An object of art, a painting for example, enters your everyday life when it is placed on a wall of your room: a surface upon another surface. Is that enough, though? Consider the differences between the aesthetic function of this object (the painting) and the decorative function. A classic reference here is Adolf Loos and Ornament and Crime (1908).
  10. The reverse now. The displacement of an object from the context of everyday life to that of art. Start by disconnecting the everyday object from its function. Then, neutralize it or attribute to it another function, while being in an artistic composition now. Objects with unprecedented or unexpected properties, embedded in exceptional formations. They force you to see the world differently.
  11. In the role of art you can add the education of the senses. I am thinking of Schiller here. You see in a new way or you see something that you were unaware of its existence heretofore or you haven’t seen before. You get to know incidents that encompass their own senses. One such example, the sounds a child produce when playing, the image of a child playing. Hegel in his Lectures on Aesthetics (1835) refers to children’s gestures as an attempt to control the manifestation of nature. This is a thought that Rancière reproduces in the introduction of Aesthetics and its discontent (2004). Correspondingly, Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory (1969) states that the relation to the new is modelled on a child at the piano searching for a chord never previously heard. Music, thanks to its proper abstraction, can be more easily perceived as an inventory of such incidents. Here I am thinking of Igor Stravinsky’s excellent lectures delivered in 1939-1940, grouped under the Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons (1970).
  12. Today, we have moved away from thinking about the rules. There is a lot of discussion on technique but not on poetics. Somewhere between these two, in some areas, the concept of creative. There are no rules for creation, only exercises and techniques that could release it. So, when approaching art today, don’t think if there are rules available for appreciations. The pleasure offered by the beautiful is not subjected to rules (see on that, Kant’s Critique of Judgment, 1790). But if the concept of beautiful belongs to traditional aesthetics, in contemporary aesthetics the artistic practices and manifestations of art can be considered as suggestions for a different way of being, for a different way to exist. Instead of the beautiful, let’s rather focus, with respect to Rancière’s contributions, on art as a producer of new, paradoxical sensory experiences.
  13. But how are these paradoxical sensory experiences being produced? To begin with, I will try to define the two ends of the spectrum. A. Say you are in a room, say you are seated in front of your desk. There you have various objects, mainly souvenirs. On the right side, you have two mugs, filled with pencils and other writing tools, one of them is from the Wimbledon tournament, it has the Logo printed on it along with the year 2005, you remember right, it is the year when Roger (Federer) won the trophy for the third time in a row, beating Andy (Roddick) for the second time in a row. In women, winner Venus Williams. That’s for the mug. So, let’s suppose that you step out of the room for a while and once back in the room you realize (immediately or later) that the Wimbledon mug is missing or has changed place. Let’s also assume that no one else came into the room while you were out, or even better, let’s assume no one is in the house at the moment. So, in this case, focusing solely on what’s happening to the senses, imagine, you, in a state of perceptual alertness. The displacement of the mug (whether in a place you can spot or not) leads you to an inspection of the place (where is the mug), of the objects in this place (what else may have changed in terms of disposition or disappeared), of sounds in that place and outside of it (in search of signs regarding who might have moved the mug), but also in a questioning of the nature of the place (what happens in this place as an outcome of what this place is). It is very likely that you backtrack your own moves under the suspicion that it might be you that moved the mug, but you were so absent-minted that you do not remember. B. You are in the same place (in the same room), in the same situation (sitting in front of your desk). Suppose you are leaving the room for a while. Once back in the room, you realize that a very large opening has been created on the ceiling, and for the first time you can see inside it (say above it a roof sloped on both sides). From this point on, fiction and directing is yours, you can model on Gregory Crewdson, Jeff Wall, Steven Spielberg or even the classic Hitchcock and Bergman or on the other side, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Foreboding, is the movie coming to mind.
  14. At one end, the displacement of the mug. At the other, the sudden appearance of an opening in the ceiling. In the first case, your relation to place is adjusted through the rearrangement of relations that objects have or could have in space. In the latter case, your relation to place is not merely adjusted. You are invited to exist in a new space and think about what this space is.
  15. At one end and the other, forces are implied. However, this is not an exercise in science fiction or metaphysical quest. The two examples (the two ends of the spectrum) have been fashioned in a way to understand the logic under which the art of today and the contemporary art operate. At one end, then, there exist artistic practices structured in the rearrangement of objects and images, the redefinition of relations and the creation of new ones. We are talking about objects, images and relations that are inseparable from our daily lives. At the other end, there is the pursuit of expressing or even causing an unusually strong sensory experience. Here, we can give prominence to the radicality of art, to the uniqueness of the artistic objects that are being produced. Summing up, at one end, we are in the field of relational art, at the other, in the field of sublime art.
  16. Basic references for relational art: Nicolas Bourriaud, Jacques Rancière.
  17. Basic References for sublime art: Immanuel Kant, Jean-François Lyotard.
  18. But what is art?
  19. You might think that art is the production of resemblances of reality. It does not copy reality, it does not reproduce it. Art creates resemblances of reality in such a way that there is a distance or difference from reality itself. In our example, the displacement of the mug is the production of a small, relatively painless, distance from reality. On the contrary, the opening in the ceiling is the production of a great, and rather painful, distance from reality. The simultaneous production of resemblance and dissemblance means that every work of art or artistic practice is structured upon a system of relationships between a set of resemblances and dissemblances. In our example, the room, its given and familiar form, is the resemblance. Displacing the mug (a mild gesture of art) or creating instantly an opening to the ceiling (a powerful gesture of art) is dissemblance.
  20. Art is the construction of presentation spaces (the room and what will happen there) within which relations are formed (at one end of our example, the mug in the desk and their relationship to you, on the other, the ceiling above you) and redistributed on the basis of an unknown causality (at one end of our example, how or who transposed the mug and why, at the other, how or who created the opening on the ceiling and why). The manifestation of this unknown causation creates a suspension of the conventional ways of perception and experience. Confronted with that condition, you are submerging in a state of undecidedness. You need time to perceive or re-establish new relationships between things. Art affects you: you are in a state of aesthetic effect.
  21. The aesthetic effect is not the same as the moral effect (see Plato) or the pedagogical effect (see Aristotle). The aesthetic effect invalidates any determined relationship between the artist’s intention and the production of a specified effect to the spectator. In our example, the moral effect would have been: The mug has been lost or the mug changed position because you left the room. So, the subsequent ethical rule is: do not leave the room again to avoid the same thing happening again to one or more objects. Similarly, the subsequent pedagogical effect: The mug has been lost or the mug changed position and this is a good lesson for to appreciate the objects in your possession and their place in your life.
  22. In Plato and Aristotle we come across two different versions of somehow the same equation that co-articulates aesthetics, ethics and politics. In Plato the aesthetic representation of immoral behaviors can lead citizens to immoral behaviors and thus endanger the stability of the Republic. In Aristotle, on the other hand, the representation of an immoral behavior and its punishment (attribution of justice) leads the spectators to catharsis. In both, ethics and pedagogy, the equation that links aesthetics to ethics and politics is linear. But in the case of the aesthetic effect, this linearity is abolished.
  23. The aesthetic effect is the experience of a difference stemming from a disagreement. In our example, the room is governed by a system of perception and interpretation (I am perceiving that the mug remains in the same position and I have an interpretation for the choice of the position and the stability of the mug in this position) but this system is internally undermined by a system of perception and interpretation that appears to ‘‘disagree” with the situation as it is (I disagree with the position of the mug and its constant presence there). Through the disagreement comes a redistribution. What’s so important about it?
  24. Art redefines materially and symbolically the reality. In our example, the room has been redefined materially (the mug has been transposed, the opening in the ceiling has been created), but also symbolically (the changes in the room as thumbnails of changes in a large-scale common space). In this instance of the aesthetic effect, we could identify the notion of the aesthetic play in the form of a cognitive function in Kant and Schiller, but also in the form of a condition that is widespread in contemporary art (the suspension of meaning of the artistic phenomena). In fact, art no longer claims to have the power to transform the world nor art intent to do it. It produces resemblances of reality but not large-scale propositions for what should be reality. It produces resemblances, paradoxical sensory formations, that suspend the usual perception of reality and upset its diagram. That in turn raises (critical) questions: What could be in place of what already exists? And how?