Askēsis in Art and Aesthetics

IMG_1228I noted earlier that Platonic askēsis, as seen in the beholding of the vision of beauty described in the Symposium, is a kind of aesthetic askēsis, which is also capable of transfiguring the self in unique ways. This kind of askēsis figures strongly in the work of Gabriel Trop. Trop positions art as a way of life, as an askēsis “that continually modifies, often imperceptibly, the manifold patterns of being—whether they are perceptual, behavioral, or affective of the person who undertakes it.”[1] Art and aesthetics for Trop exist in a dual sense, both in the mode of existing art objects created and released into the world, and in the sense that the artistic act is about refiguring the perception of the artist, and the viewer of the work of art.

Art as Transformation of Perception

The work of aesthetics is thus understood as an active effort of training perception. As Trop notes, “The aesthetic subject, in the act of giving form and plasticity to the world, simultaneously molds its own perceptual capacities.”[2] Trop refers to this molding as a form of perceptual and cognitive askēsis; it’s a kind of training or preparation that begins first as an act of mimesis, whereby the artist attempts to mimic or bring forward some aspect of the world, but ultimately drives at self-transformation,[3] at becoming the type of being for whom that aspect of the world is present. The same applies to the art viewer.

Art is in this sense a means of transforming the physiognomy of seeing. The art object in Trop’s understanding is a material presence that interacts with and transforms the ordering of perceptual experience. Trop for example speaks of “how art influences patterns of cognition and ways of perceiving in the world,”[4] but he’s clear that such a transformation is not the effect of a simple or passive receptivity. It is rather the influence of aesthetic regimes of practice. “The aesthetic exercise,” writes Trop, “is generated not from the object itself or its intrinsic properties, but from the attempt to weave it into our identities, our actions, and our commitments.”[5] As with the idea of askēsis in general, aesthetic askēsis involves work, aimed this time at a craft: “To practice art as a vocation, as a craft requiring a set of skills and a certain technē, necessarily presupposes exercises that generate a specific way of being in the world.”[6]

It’s worth repeating that askēsis is related to regimes of exercise, but also to notions of living or being in the world in a certain way, often with an expressed spiritual commitment or understanding of being human. Thus we have Trop echoing sentiments one also finds in Hadot, such as the notion of the human being as a practicing being, an open-ended project partially exposed to its own effort of self-transformation and organization. And here one should not be surprised that Trop, like Hadot, also appeals throughout his work to “ancient exercises [that] aimed to produce certain patterns of thought and action.”[7]

This emphasis on exercise is also a central theme, as I described earlier, in the work of Sloterdijk, who Trop also picks up in his text, if only to distinguish askēsis in its aesthetic mode from Sloterdijk’s own version of it. For all his generality and scope of vision, there’s a sense in Sloterdijk that askēsis is skewed towards performance and optimization, at least this is how Gabriel Trop reads him,

For Sloterdijk, exercise constitutes a critical element in the maintenance of the organism, in its optimization, in its ability to secure itself from threats of its surroundings and in its expansive power over its environment. Exercise serves a primarily immunological function. . . . The reduction of exercise solely to optimization appears particularly problematic in the domain of art, above all because art often ends in questions rather than in imperatives.[8]

But of course this isn’t the only way to read ascetic practice, and Trop takes the discussion in a different direction, even as he does maintain a privileged connection between aesthetics and spiritual exercise.

Aesthetics as Spiritual Exercise

Trop links the importance of spiritual exercise specifically to his notion of the human, writing, “To regard the human being as one who practices, as Homo exercitans, gives to the human being the perpetual status of being unfinished.”[9] The aesthetic askēsis Trop is concerned with is precisely this kind of spiritual exercise, which gives way to the development of the whole human being, to the formation of his or her inner and outer sensibilities. Askēsis is in this sense the effort to coordinate in a directed way the manifold of sensuous perception so as to achieve a certain understanding of things, or at the very least to reinforce oneself against the tide of unexamined opinion, derived either from one’s own psychology or from the surrounding society.

Trop’s emphasis on exercise in aesthetic askēsis can make it sound like these practices are limited to modes of strict self-discipline alone. To be sure, while certain styles of askēsis do emphasize austerity, celibacy, fasting, physical endurance, and so on, Trop makes clear that askēsis in its aesthetic mode also includes the lively cultivation of the senses through music, art, and poetry. Such acts of creativity come with their own affects that one can appreciate in the light of ascetic practice. As Trop states, “Lightness, joy, and play are not the opposite of askesis; rather, they can be a product of it.[10] It is not, then, a set of specific feelings that circumscribe Trop’s aesthetic askēsis, it is rather the emphasis on the creation of artistic objects, which in turn recirculate back into the perception of their creators and viewers, that forms the basis of this mode of ascetic practice and exercise.[11]

In this regard, Trop writes about the spiritual reading of key texts—his own exemplars being eighteenth-century German poets such as Friedrich Holderlin, Novalis, Friedrich von Hagedorn, and Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim—as itself a kind of aesthetic exercise of reorganization or formation of the self.[12] As with the art objects created by the artist, Trop is concerned here to highlight the transformative circularity between the text and its reader, whereby thought itself is transformed by the literary power of the trained writer, the ascetic aesthete. Poetry, for example, is treated in this sense in terms of its power to affect our ways of seeing in the world. Trop repeats again his central thesis to drive this point home, “Aesthetic askēsis modifies the very structures of perception and cognition of the self.”[13]

Poetry is one way of achieving this transformation. As Trop writes of the poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, “Poetry is not merely something we do, a thing composed or enjoyed, one human activity among others. It is the atmosphere in which we live and breathe.”[14] What could such a statement possibly mean, poetry is the atmosphere in which we live and breathe? It’s a subtle point, and I take Trop to mean poetry more in the general sense of poiesis, from the Greek meaning “creation” or “production,”[15] than in a limited, literary sense (though the two are entwined). Trop continues, writing on the poet Novalis,

For Novalis, the form-generating activity of the human being [that which I take to be a kind of poiesis] does not merely create things, objects in the world, but rather, new worlds in which objects themselves find their home. . . . for poetry is not a thing (Ding), but a world in which things appear.[16]

Poetry is in this sense more a world-forming incantation than a representation, or perhaps it is, like the philosophical systems discussed above, an effect of the ascetic practices that preceded it. Hadot expresses a similar sentiment when he writes, “the philosophical act transcends the literary work that expresses it.”[17] One could say the same of art, music, poetry, science, or religion. Each one is a record, a crater left in the mind by an impact, by some psychic event, by a moment achieved in thought or perception; it is an experience rendered by the human power to transfigure the body in the direction of new possibilities of being. Aesthetic askēsis is the preparation required for calling forth this event.

[1] Trop, Poetry as a Way of Life, 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 16

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] Ibid., 5. Technē is an important relative of askēsis but tends to refer more specifically to craft works, “An art, skill, or craft; a technique, principle, or method by which something is achieved or created,” OED, s.v. “techne,” accessed July 30, 2019, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/ 273538?redirectedFrom=techne#eid

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid., 25.

[10] Ibid., 16.

[11] Ibid. 31–32.

[12] Ibid., 25.

[13] Ibid., 26.

[14] Ibid., 123.

[15] OED, s.v. “poiesis,” accessed July 31, 2019, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/146580?rskey=O96DdD&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid

[16] Trop, Poetry as a Way of Life, 123.

[17] Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, xxx.

2 Comments

  1. Foucault in his usual bookish mode frames this in terms of “the perpetual putting oneself into discourse” but that gets fleshed out better in thinkers like Emerson whose psychopompic bricolaging of Socratic undoing/de-constructing is a kind of guided tour thru our media-ted ecologies:

    Click to access Intellect.pdf

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s