It is helpful to view Baumgarten’s treatise as an attempt to understand a perceptual phenomenon, like double vision or déjà vu, although many continue to interpret his writings as an arcane set of rules for taking perfect photographs. Déjà vu – a kind of organic photograph – exists only through its effects on the body, which everyone can experience, albeit with different images. Elevated to a science, déjà vu would have no corpus – constant objects of study would be replaced by expanding examples – but it might be possible to define favourable conditions for its occurrence and the insights produced by it. Baumgarten’s aesthetics exists in a similar way, but applies to our every waking moment. His science is irregular, but it adheres to the truth of our experiences: art becomes a fully legitimate way of producing knowledge about the world through shared perceptions – not just a pleasurable pastime or an exercise in taste. Artists like Carsten Höller and Olafur Eliasson who reference the pure sciences would agree, but so would artists working with documentary, sculpture, film, performance or even drawing. In other words, Baumgarten’s Aesthetica is apposite for the conceptual–theoretical turn of art in the last century – a turn away from the virtues of perfected artistic techniques – that has impacted upon every medium, from painting to video installation.
According to its inventor, the discipline of aesthetics required its practitioners to communicate their ideas with others while anticipating the future. It’s easy to imagine the impact of Baumgarten’s thinking on other eras. A couple centuries before his birth, neologisms like ‘heterocosmology’ would have earned him a one-way ticket to a flaming stake. In the 19th century, his penchant for pleasing the senses would have found favour with the dandy. His ideas even seem to echo the heightened bodily experiences of the Ecstasy-fuelled raves of the last century. Baumgarten was convinced that aesthetics could invent other worlds, not related to imaginary hallucinations, but to real sensations that could be experienced – and turned into knowledge – by everybody. One can only imagine what his reactions would have been to cinematic special effects or the evolution of art from individual, pristine, untouchable objects to palpably shared experiences.