Wednesday, August 20, 2008


“Cute” is a term of great importance in everyday aesthetics, although it is also usually considered to be negative in fine art contexts. Back in 1991 John Morreall argued that since it is not important for the arts, and is a second-class aesthetic property, it is nonetheless important for humans. [i] Drawing from work by Konrad Lorenz, he asserted that cuteness is an evolutionary response to the need for mammalian infants, and in particular, human babies, to be protected by adults. Cute dolls exaggerate features (for example “round protruding cheeks”) that have evolved in this way in order to get adults to admire and purchase them. [ii] Morreall and Loy (his co-writer in the second article cited) associated cuteness with kitsch, and insisted that there is something objectionable about a painting of a girl with eyes much larger than usual. As they put it “Kitsch is perfectly suited to most people's passivity, short attention span, and shallow understanding, for it promises them immediate gratification requiring no special background knowledge or activity. It offers itself as instant art.”[iii] It sounds like they are pretty down on kitsch. Robert Solomon, by contrast, also writing in 1991, defended cuteness, even in art, denying that it makes much sense to speak of an excess of the emotion.[iv] However, Ruth Lorand opposes the cute to the beautiful, associating the former with insignificance. She argues that “[a]n insignificant object cannot be beautiful. Great works of art are works that touch and illuminate important and basic issues in human life … An insignificant, well-organized object is often cute, pretty, lovely, or decorative, but not startlingly beautiful.”[v]

I don't doubt Morreal's theory about the origins and imortance of cuteness, although the Lorenz citation is pretty old. It is interesting that no one has really said anything else about the topic since that time. It is also too bad there was never a debate between Morreal and Solomon. Morreal thinks sentimentality is problematic, Solomon does not. Since 1991 it seems that cuteness has become less "objectionable in the arts." Still I can be sympathetic with Morreall when he says that "I ...want more than simple autonomatic emotions from my experiences of art works. I want emotions that are complex..." (47). But what proves that the the cuteness reaction "could never be the stuff of great art"?

[i] See John Morreal, “Cuteness,” British Journal of Aesthetics 31:1 (1991) 39-47.
[ii] John Morreal and Jessica Loy, “Kitsch and Aesthetic Education,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 2:4 (1989) 63-73.
[iii] Pg. 68.
[iv] Robert C. Solomon, “On Kitsch and Sentimentality,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 49: 1 (1991) 1-14
[v] Ruth Lorand, “Beauty and Its Opposites.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52: 4 (1994) 399- 406. pg. 404.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Does attending to everyday experience aesthetically make us more moral?

Many philosophers, including Sherri Irwin, argue that if we attended more (in an aesthetic way) to everyday experience then we would have richer lives. I think the truth of this is fairly obvious. However, Irwin also holds that doing so will make us more moral. This seems more problematic. First, drawing from Richard Shusterman, she argues that attending to everyday phenomena will contribute to self-knowledge. This seems true enough, although we need to still distinguish between kinds of self-knowledge and determine the value of these kinds in relation to other values. Second, she believes our ability to appreciate these ordinary pleasures should not be dismissed as insignificant: for doing so would involve us in a kind of philosophical or ascetic renunciation. This seems right to me, but seems unrelated to the issue of morality. Third, and more cogently, Irwin argues that people are often dissatisfied in our consumerist society since gaining the products they want only gives short-term and partial satisfaction followed by an escalating need for something bigger and newer, which leads to the destruction of the natural environment and to many other ills of our time. She then suggests that this focus on consumer satisfaction involves a denial of the aesthetic. In response, she believes we should “focus on moments that do not involve Humvees or iPods or designer jeans” i.e. on aesthetic experiences “already available to us.” Doing so, she argues, might give us time to help others, which would then provide an even greater source of satisfaction. This seems more problematic since all of these consumer products are appreciated aesthetically: for example one might see the designer jeans as "cool" or even "beautiful." Thus it is not clear that turning to consumer products is a turn away from the aesthetic. And making do with what we already have will, in our society, involve making do with consumer products anyway. Admittedly, they will be older ones and hence making do with them will be more environmentally sensitive. But even granting this, it is not clear that a pared down hedonism that makes do with what we already have will necessarily contribute to our helping others. Tending ones own garden can be just that. Fourth, Irwin also thinks that attending to everyday aesthetic phenomena will “contribute to our ability to sustain projects undertaken in the pursuit of moral and other values.” Of course the development of any skill might contribute to the ability to sustain certain sorts of projects. The question is whether there is anything moral to this call to attend aesthetically to the everyday phenomena that are not consumerist- oriented. Irwin’s point is that if, for instance, one wants to become a vegetarian for moral reasons it is best not to see this as giving something up, and one can take this approach if one focuses on the aesthetic pleasures of a vegetarian life, or “by finding different ways to indulge the tastes that were once satisfied by meat consumption.” This last point seems sound to me: moral agency can be helped out by including an aesthetic element in our shifting behavior. Still, it seems to me that one could focus more on, for example, the pleasures of shifting air on one's skin, and not become the slightest bit more moral.

Sherri Irvin. "The Pervasiveness of the Aesthetic in Ordinary Experience," British Journal of Aesthetics, 48:1 (2008) 29-44.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Objects of Wonder

Most people would see the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson as a model of someone who maximizes everyday aesthetic experience. Referring to Cartier-Bresson however, Arto Haapala writes that, “in the context of art the everyday loses its everydayness; it becomes something extraordinary.” He believes, therefore, that Cartier-Bresson’s photography contributes “to the neglect of the aesthetics of everyday” for “[w]hen taken out of the context of day-to-day living and put into an artistic context, a picture such as Cartier-Bresson’s A Bank Executive and His Secretary (1960) becomes an object of wonder.” On his view, to be an object of wonder is to be taken out of the realm of the familiar and hence of the everyday.

Did Cartier-Bresson’s act of photographing the scene cause harm to everyday aesthetics? It seems not, for the scene must have been an object of wonder, or at least of interest, to the photographer even before he snapped the shot. Otherwise he would not have taken the picture. This is not to say that the wonder or interest he felt in looking at the scene was the same, or of the same intensity, as what he might have felt when looking at the completed photograph. Still, the two are not unrelated. If the business of everyday aesthetics were to encourage us to see everyday scenes as lacking in wonder, then Haapala would be right. But why should anyone do this?

"On the Aesthetics of the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness, and the Meaning of Place," The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, ed. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005) 39-55.