The Modal Aesthetics Project aims at researching and advancing some conceptual tools that may enable us to think both artistic production and aesthetic perception in relational, pragmatic and generative terms, as performative ways of organizing both our most extraordinary experiences and our everyday ones.
Modes of relation, as relatively stable conformations of perceptive, relational and expressive possibilities are here considered as the basic units of this theory of distribution, a theory which could also be understood as an aesthetic ontology with some possible implications for the fields of meta-ethics and political philosophy.
As was the case with most of the approaches to aesthetics before Hegel and the Romantics, modal aesthetics does not take as its natural object the restricted field of recognized art practices, rather, it goes further, attempting to discern common features between such art practices and the wider field of experiences and ideas that – being irreducible to a concept – can justly be called “aesthetic”.
What is specific about this understanding of aesthetics is that in our attempt to include such a wide range of differently formalized aesthetic experiences, we have come across a new unit of analysis and codification. That is what we have called “mode of relation” understood as a basic operational device in between agency and structure: bigger than the former and smaller than the latter; able to establish its own repertoire of “subjects” and “objects”, which would ultimately be accidental and contingent. Modes of relation may be translated as specific grammars organizing perceptions, representations and behaviours. We are likely to find clear precedents of modal devices such as these in a great deal of premodern and non-western aesthetic discourses, which distributions of aesthetic materials and aesthetic experiencial possibilities normally gather around modal concepts such as the Hindi raga or the Polynesian patet which make clear allusions not just to the music scales used in every one of the “modes” but also and indiscernibly to the wider ensemble of environmental and situational circumstances that surround and make possible each mode.
So far, in all these modal aesthetics we are likely to find basic units which allow us to think both artistic production and aesthetic reception which are not restricted neither to the artist as producer, nor to the artworld or not even to the style under which such an experience is produced and processed.
Modal basic units are always specific intensities, modulations of the different relationships between artists, audience and the milieu in which all of them are situated. This is so to such a degree that even once the specific experience or work of art has gone it can be revived alluding to what could already be called its modal entity: its specific consistency at the time of defining and articulating a set of relationships.
So far, this deliberate complicity with pre-modern aesthetics and practices does not alienate modal aesthetics from contemporary aesthetic problems, rather it allows us to work through a great deal of some of the most pressing contemporary conflicts and predicaments, so we can figure out a way to deal with the obvious pattern of widening the range of fields and objects where aesthetic experience is likely to happen, a pattern followed by most avant-garde practices in the last century, with their focus on introducing materials, sounds and situations which would not have been easily admitted as proper to art experience in the 19th century. This Emtfrendung – rediscovering whole areas of our relational capabilities – has been recoded in institutional terms by hegemonic trends coming from Anglo-American art theorists and scholars, and therefore has lost most of its social and political potential.
For this potential to deploy itself fully we should take into account the development of certain perceptive and distributive capabilities we would like to call “modal competences”. Modal competences allow us to recognize modes of relation as they occur so that we may become part of their deployment and become a different version of ourselves through them.
Modal competences can be said to be innate and common to that historical and conflictual entity we may call, with Marx, generic being (Gattungswessen).
Through an optimal development of these modal competences we are not just able to have full access to an aesthetic experience but are also likely to recodify and, as it were, compress, whichever materials under artistic keys give back all its modal potential to the so processed materials.
Modal competences may then work in a double sense, as Marx used to say about our memory of nature: modal competences let us remember certain relationships we have never experienced, but that we profoundly miss nevertheless.