I 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.” 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.
I write sometimes about philosophy as a way of life, as an exercise (askēsis) of conversion or transformation. But one could also write a parallel story of art as a way of life, as an aesthetic askēsis likewise oriented around a re-constellation of sensing, feeling, and thinking.
Gabriel Trop writes this way about art as a way of life, and of poetry in particular. Trop’s idea is that art begins as a kind of mimesis, an imitation of the world, but ultimately drives at askēsis, a reconfiguration of the artist and the viewer of the work of art.
The art work is a material presence in the world, an attractor that interacts with and transforms the ordering of perceptual experience—art is a means of transforming the physiognomy of seeing; it is a way of re-patterning habitual modes of experience.
Aesthetic askēsis, the work of making art, is thus different from other modes of askēsis, like the critical self-examinations of philosophy or the practice routines of athletics and physical development, which are aimed at maintenance, improvement, and optimization.
The figure of the athlete shares in common many characteristics with the figure of the artist—they are both engaged in acts of askēsis—but they also exhibit important differences. The athlete has a special relationship to the program—to the set and predictable ordering of a routine, executed again and again with a ritual intensity that favors the mad person capable of unending repetition.
The artist, on the other hand, certainly partakes of the athletic sensibility in their upswing and development—as the artist builds strength in a craft—but the end result and aim is something quite different from that of general athletics.
The athlete operates within the structure of a pre-existing game. The artist creates new ones. Art is in this way a kind of anti-program; it is not a planned routine in the same way that athletic preparation is. Art delivers the unseen or the unforeseeable; it creates novelty.
Aesthetic askēsis aims at states of absorption without purpose, though as with every kind of askēsis, the work of art—both the artwork and the work required to produce it—links exercise and perception. Aesthetic work is an act of transforming perception and being.
These figures, the artist and the athlete, may cohere in the same person. The artist may be an athlete of preparation and the athlete may derive creativity through artistic inspiration—the great ones always do—but they are nevertheless distinct, if mutually enhancing, activities.