Aestheticians without borders
thoughts arising from The Aesthetics of Everyday Life
thoughts arising from The Aesthetics of Everyday Life
Donald Keefer Rhode Island Institute of Design
Thanks to Don Keefer for contributing his comments on my book, comments that were delivered at the American Society for Aesthetics national conference in St. Louis this October.
For a reply to Donald Keefer by Tom Leddy, see here.
For a reply to Donald Keefer by Tom Leddy, see here.
If there are skeptics of everyday aesthetics (EDA) out there, Tom Leddy’s new book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (XO), should allay their doubts. And, for the most part, few of the dominant debates in philosophy of fine arts are not relevant to questions that naturally arise in the aesthetics of the everyday. The philosophical exploration of our aesthetic experiences of objects close to home (the created-environment and the self), Leddy rightly notes, will make a significant contribution to a general aesthetics. It should.
The nature of aesthetic experience; the definition of the aesthetic attitude and aesthetic object; determining the domain and nature of possible objects of aesthetic attention; and a general theory of aesthetic value, mark the salient perennial problems Leddy explores in the book. I can’t hope to do justice to Leddy’s work in the time we have. Like Borges imaginary map that needs to be the same size as its territory, to do justice to Leddy’s book would seem to require an equal number of pages. I’ll respond to some of his most provocative theories and hope that my observations, if off base, will provide an opportunity for his clarification.
Under General Aesthesia: The Aesthetic [Point of View or Attitude, Experience, Object, Properties, Value and Pleasure]
All of the above are essential concepts of any general aesthetics. Almost always, they are defined or explained in terms of each other. Either the definition and explanation of these concepts fail to break out of their circle or the theories turn out to be rooted in ground that cannot sustain them. Tom Leddy’s view is that the aesthetic experience can be best understood as a function of its aura. Whether or not Leddy’s aura passes through these Straits of Scylla and Charybdis, I won’t address. I discern a fellow pragmatist in Leddy. I want to see how this works in practice; in situ. I am not sure he would agree with the following, but I’ll hypothesize that Leddy would accept the following are virtues of his theory.
· It recognizes that aesthetic affect is not epiphenomenal to, not part of a parallel humanistic universe we live in when not preoccupied with more practical matters, nor is it like a vacation from our practical lives. On the contrary, aesthetic affect is fully integrated in our engagement with the world. The weight of one or the other varies with need, but neither the cognitive and conative, nor the affective, are ever absent in experience.
· It accepts the view that, to a significant degree, aesthetic value is based more on the affect of the experience than anything cognitive. [I take this to be a virtue of Leddy’s aura-theory.]
· It accepts and promotes the apparent liberties we exercise when engaging aesthetically with the world. Such liberty is evident in our variability of our viewpoints; they reveal flexibility and creativity in how (and when) we engage aesthetically (and affectively) with the world.
· Finally, it embraces and promotes the idea that enhancing aesthetic engagement is part of a more fulfilling life.
These are virtues in the Aristotelian sense. They represent a mid-point between possible extremes. Neither radical operationalism, nor aestheticism; neither rigid objectivism nor solipsistic subjectivism. And so on. Such a rubric may provide a useful way of determining whether Leddy is striking the mean or has gone in the direction of either excess.
Domain of Experiences that can be Aesthetic Ones
Before confronting Leddy’s core aesthetic theory, I want to briefly consider the borders of the aesthetic experience—are there any criteria for an object to be experienced aesthetically? In Leddy’s world, any object, event, process, doing is a member of the land of aesthetic pleasure (LAP) when it is an object of an aesthetic experience. According to Leddy, aesthetic experiences are by definition pleasurable. The result is that there is no object that cannot be experienced. This radical openness seems wrong to me for several reasons.
There are objects and experiences that call into question such openness. There are three different sorts of objects that intuitively we might exclude from the objects that we appreciate aesthetically.
1. Unlikely Objects seemingly impossible to appreciate. Obviously, there are objects that our ethical commitments will (or should) rule out of an aesthetic perspective. We would expect that learning a canvas was created from victims of the Holocaust would negate any provisional aesthetic pleasure we might have otherwise taken in the painting. Still, even when morality is not an overriding factor, it would seem that are some experiences of objects or situations that cause extreme disgust, confusion, pain, dissmell, shame, humiliation, whether self-regarding or in sympathy with another that most normal individuals could not find a source of aesthetic pleasure. [Some claim that there are smells, such as vomit and rotting flesh which are universally repulsive; electric shocks of nearly any intensity seem to carry a negative charge affectively.]
2. Non-audio/non-visual sensory experiences: smells, tastes, somaesthetics. AV experiences form a subset of our experiences which have objects that are (as far as common sense goes) are open to intersubjective comparison. While I can’t experience the affective experience of another, I certainly may be able to see and possibly feel for myself what they are talking about. This is not so for massages, meditation, runner’s highs. The aesthetics of smell and taste is a bit more complicated, because we have established associations with ingredients. Intersubjective comparability appears to be a crucial component of what may count towards, I’ll provocatively call a “true aesthetic experience.”
3. Doings and undergoings—we engage in many pursuits and enjoy events that go through. Cooking, smooth landings, scratching an itch, even the rush of a drug experience can be pleasurable. What makes these peculiarly aesthetic seems problematical. These appear almost entirely interior to the subject. I think Leddy’s observations provide key reasons why these are aesthetically problematic.
The Unlikely Object
Leddy denies that there are objects incapable of being experienced aesthetically. That is, there is no object that we couldn’t find a basis to enjoy. Barring any conflict with moral standards, given sufficient background, contextualizing, and theory, any object can be provided with a pretext for appreciation. For Leddy, if anyone finds an object aesthetically pleasing, the object cannot be ruled out as an AO (aesthetic object).
[Added reflection: This raises fairly common philosophical and existential puzzles. Whatever is not ruled out by logic is possible in “some possible world.” Its non-actuality or physical impossibility of its existence is irrelevant to the modal status of the claim such as: something is something else. In some possible world, there may be someone whose aesthetic life is one of great intensity resulting from a repeated experience of being dunked in a pool of vomit and given non-lethal electric shocks. Does this make the event a potential object of pleasure?
We are using possibility according to common sense. There is a possible world where I am elected president of the US by write-in vote in the next election. Common-sense-wise, only a severe break with reality would facilitate entertaining its real possibility. (If so, no matter. I am not seeking, nor will I accept, the role of president of the US.)
But suppose, we take Leddy as speaking of this more common sense, existential sense of possibility, though most of his cases are imaginary. A lone para-aesthete might actually enjoy the experience of donning a sweat suit equipped with devices that imitate a swarm of angry hornets. I’m not sure we should agree an aesthetic perversion means we must take seriously this “Yellow Jacket Jacket,” as an AO.
Of course, I must acknowledge that, if the para-aesthete is having an aesthetic experience, the jacket is an AO. After all, I have no qualms about accepting an acid-trip to be aesthetically pleasing. However, the taste for yellow jackets may fit my category of objects or experiences that are problematic in social ways I have tried to develop here.]
Perhaps, Leddy is right in theory, but I think we should be weary of accepting this at any operative level.
For one, this appears to conflate the conditions of artistic enfranchisement with those of aesthetic reception. This is common-place in the art world; we are expected to understand how the work could be considered art. But grounds for being an artwork and those of being an AO, at least as Leddy requires are different. The link between the provision of reasons for appreciation and actual appreciation are contingent. Leddy believes given adequate background knowledge, context, etc, one can appreciate the work. Perhaps, in the case of some objects, it is extremely unlikely. And if it does? The reasons given may have nothing to do with our appreciation of the work. I don’t want to downplay the role of giving reasons in our aesthetic encounters however.
Secondly, with a truly appreciable object, providing aesthetic reasons can provide us with a model for appreciation. The acceptance of those reasons and success in coming to see aesthetic properties that are the source of satisfaction is a significant socio-cultural event: it creates and expands the community of aesthetic appreciators. An ad hoc (or arbitrary) justification of an unlikely (unacceptable) object for aesthetic appreciation undermines the community that cares about aesthetic objects.
There are a few key points to be made in light of this: Authentic appreciation of an object often entails desires that the object be perpetually available for future engagement—to put a twist on Kant moral theory, I will that the object exists as a permanently possible source of aesthetic satisfaction. Clearly, one would want a source of pleasure to be available for future pleasures. This may be one way of understanding Stendhal’s much cited claim, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” The permanent possibility of future aesthetic enjoyments provides the possibility of sharing the objects pleasure with others. For example, out appreciation reveals a recognition that appreciation is often influenced by the model of a respected fellow member of the aesthetic community. Often that is a teacher. To borrow from Kant again, the judgment of beauty gives rise to subjective universal judgments. Thus, it’s not simply that I like it, I think you should like it. Or to put it closer to home: “Try it, you’ll like it.” Similarly, the publicly accessible sharable nature of such aesthetic experiences is that the objects can bear some range of aesthetic predicates. There is some sort of existing thing that we are able to talk about.
Thirdly, imagined appreciation resulting from ad hoc justification is a bit like aesthetic caprice. The result is what might be called, aesthetic solipsism. By its nature, it disconnects the experience from the object and whatever role aesthetic appreciation might play on an interpersonal level. The chief defect of aesthetic solipsism is that it has really nothing to say except report on one’s personal engagement.
Thus while we may not be able to determine where the line would be, having no border to separate what can be a source of aesthetic appreciation is too anarchistic and violates important aspects of our community of appreciators.
If this public nature of sharability is critical to the aesthetic, it may provide a better way to think about aesthetic experience. Perhaps it can help illuminate the “LSD problem.” Monroe Beardsley denied it was possible to have an aesthetic experience while on LSD. For Beardsley, my appreciation of my hallucinations, say, the dancing patterns on the ceiling, will be false, because the ceiling is in really unchanging white. Leddy has no problem accepting that a LSD trip can be an aesthetic experience. That the aesthetic properties experienced are a figment of the acid-soaked brain, and are false doesn’t alter the fact that the tripper experienced aesthetic pleasure. The real problem is that no matter how glorious the trip was, I am reduced to expressing my responses and reporting on my experiences.
[Added clarification: Some accounts of acid trips are as vivid as anything reported in Proust’s Swann’s Way. It is the representation of the experiences that the reader gets pleasure from, not the experience itself. Let me tell you: When I was hospitalized, with high fevers and on heavy opiates, I saw a parade of Loony Toon characters marching around the room just under the ceiling. I could tell you how they marched. I enjoyed it. But that is my full report. I strongly doubt you’ve enjoyed it as I did.]
Must we say anything? Many of us can be dumbstruck by a powerful aesthetic experience. What is there to say looking at an extraordinary natural wonder? However, as potential conversants in the community, we are susceptible to the way others appreciate the object. Someone knowledgeable of geology, nature, history might share with us their background knowledge, thus model their appreciation for us. In so doing, they open another door of perception and appreciation of the vista. Sir Kenneth Clark didn’t just give a personal view, as he said he did, in his series, Civilization. For me, he provided a model of appreciation. It was infectious.
It appears that domain of objects that can be appreciated aesthetically really demarcates experiences that are sharable, susceptible to the fresh ways of engaging (of other), that may be interpersonally interesting and those that are not. It is not an Iron Curtain between the artificial solipsistic aesthetic experience and sharable ones. In fact, artists and imaginative interpreters can get us to look at the world differently.
[Added: For example, I’ve been look at the knobs on outdoor spigots as if they were blossoms. I’ve tried to translate this framing of my experience into photos, but so far unsuccessfully. When I look at these spigots, I see flowers, is a personal report. It is especially uninteresting to anyone and it would be especially unhelpful in helping them frame the experience to provide aesthetic satisfaction in some of the spigots around the world. This is what is missing in aesthetic solipsism.
I don’t dismiss the value of the completely private aesthetic experiences that make up aesthetic solipsism. I can see these as aesthetic experiments where I see to what extent I may appreciate unlikely objects. Some I may try to objectify, others not. Some may bring me pleasure that doesn’t rise to any level that I’d wish to go further. The important point is that these experiments may be incubators of future art or design. Leddy’s frequent exploration of the dialectic between art and everyday experience illustrates just this point.]
The second challenge is the enjoyment of sensory experiences such as smell, taste, as well as touch and proprioception. I agree with Carlson and Parson view that such pleasure are “too localized in the body,” to be full aesthetic experiences. The problem is not unlike the LSD problem where I seem to be limited to bah-hurrah statements and reports. “I like the smell of brown sugar.” “Yummy.” On the other hand, most sensory experiences can take a range of aesthetic predicates. The interiority of non-av pleasures makes them much less susceptible to modification by knowing about the experiences and judgments of others.
[Added: These considerations need to be sorted out. There are in fact practices of taste regarding food, drink, and scents. They have well-developed languages for descriptive and evaluative judgments. Whether or not this makes a difference analogous to aesthetic infectiousness needs to be explored. I suspect that learning the history of Channel perfume, or the ingredients favored and singled out by those who enjoy will much change my olfactory antipathies towards its No. 5. No reasons for enjoying blue cheese are likely to move in that direction. But these may not be critical to whether or not pleasures (or pains) of the tongue or nose are of an aesthetic sort. I will leave this for now.]
Finally, Doings: Tom Leddy joins with other contemporary aestheticians who consider doings such a cooking, cleaning, stroking a cat, and even scratching an itch to be aesthetic experiences. Certainly enjoyable, but aesthetic? The “aesthetics” of processes and activities comes straight out of John Dewey’s Art as Experience.
For “an Experience” call John Dewey
The psychological acuity of John Dewey in mapping the dynamics of our psychic life as it reacts, endures, pushes, resists, feels, interprets, values throughout our waking hours is unparalleled. Out of the flow of experiences, with so many of its sentences interrupted and left dangling or troths of inattention, there occasionally comes an experience that has a wholeness, completeness, resoluteness and order that makes it maximally satisfying. One of the first such experiences Dewey considers is of a delightful dinner with someone. His description serves as a model for looking at our own doings. Because Dewey’s term, “an experience” is so awkward, and impossible to make plural, I’ll call these “Dewey-eyed doings and engagements.”
Leddy highlights the grandiosity that Dewey requires of an experience. Our experiences are far more modest. Leddy observes that Dewey-eyed experiences are made up of “experiencing things as having aesthetic qualities,” or moments of aesthetic enjoyment. Moreover, there are aesthetic experiences and satisfactions that are fulfilling yet not strung together into “an experience.” At best, Leddy sees Dewey-eyed engagements may be “an important kind of aesthetic event, perhaps even an ideal.” I think this is correct, but it raises the question of whether or not Dewey-eyed doings are just a fancy term for a good time. [Perhaps a good time.]
Sherry Irvin’s almost Proustian account of drinking a cup of coffee is taken as fulfilling the Dewey ideal experience without the inflation of his master narrative. I would parse the event into smaller bits: Irvin savors and enjoys a cup of coffee, and I imagine she recalls other savorings in her past and famous accounts of savor such as Proust or of Japanese Tea Ceremony. At this point, she has a model or template for how to experience her coffee. Such a model can go all the way down to feeling our self move as the narrator does. [I would locate other deeper memories in the countless coffee commercials I am sure she watched in her childhood.] Her experience is then transformed by writing into a kind of Proustian intensity. My next coffee, I could trigger a fresh cup of experience by filtering my experiences through the model of Proust and Irvin.
It should be clear that the Dewey-eyed approach produces a heightened self-awareness of the person aesthetically monitoring their doing. It is a rare talent to take that and turn it into art. Short of such a transformation, Dewey-eyed doings suffer the same faults of other primarily intrapersonal events.
I remain very puzzled by the idea of aesthetic pleasure of an activity such cleaning, cooking, building a timber frame house. I understand what it is to enjoy an activity, especially when there is the satisfaction of having accomplished something challenging. After carefully and lovingly whipping my white sauce into a perfectly smooth, texture, I have produced an aesthetic object. I want to rush my béchamel sauce to collect her admiration to add to my self-congratulations. We appreciate the result of all that stirring. I may have been stirred, but not her. It is a purely private affair however.
[Added: Consider another example. As a punster, I enjoy playing with words. Sometimes that play results in something potentially humorous to someone other than myself. However, much as I may have a good time concocting a pun, the enjoyment of the pun is the focus of the peculiarly “aesthetic” part].
Essential to Leddy’s notion of the AE is the “aura” of an object when judged to have aesthetic properties. An aura is something extra-ordinary in the experience of, or in, the object which “intensifies the thing or its qualities.” Aura is not in the object, as such. Aura is a phenomenological concept concerning an aspect of experience of seeing or feeling in the object. “Aura is what aesthetic properties have in common,” Leddy writes. (135) All aesthetic descriptions (the aesthetic properties of an object) are “descriptions of aura.” (136)
I don’t fully grasp the role of aura. If all aesthetic properties are descriptions of an object’s aura, I’m not sure why we need aura.
I’d ask if his intention was to create a concept that could seem to be a natural part of an object, one that could be triggered to view the object aesthetically, or one that we could adopt at will to engage aesthetically. Thus, a photograph of peeling paint could trigger our attention towards aesthetic properties when normally we focus on the need for a paint job; and we are generally at liberty to adopt an aesthetic point of view of the peeling paint. Aura is essentially affective, but to play the variable role I describe, it must have cognitive component, frame, which guide us in the experience. Thus, one learns to read Renaissance paintings by directing our attention to perspectival features of the work. Haydn’s music sparkles when we are able to hear its structural organization. It’s all neat; everything in its place. Tidy.
Real (estate) Aesthetics
For the last year, my wife and I have looked at houses for sale. Internet sites provide information and pictures to study. We’ve been to untold open houses. It has taken me into the heart of everyday aesthetics. I earlier associated finding something aesthetically valuable, pleasurable, or beautiful with a desire to perpetuate the existence of the object of beauty. In the everyday world I’ve seen that one measure of beauty is whether I would will to live in such a space. And in this sense, aesthetics literally reconnects with the promise of happiness.
EDA has the potential to enliven our experience—to adjust our aesthetic feelers to get more aesthetic pleasure out of the world. But I look for a different outcome: I’d like for an EDA to help us create a more aesthetically pleasing environment. We should be less tolerant of properties that are ugly instead of looking for creative ways to find them attractive. To do this I believe requires that EDA recognize the existence of aesthetic pain. In the world of general aesthetics, there is either pleasure or the experiences are not aesthetic. I know of no general theory of ugliness or aesthetic pain. Yet it seems absolutely essential. To find something aesthetically displeasing is the negation of the aesthetic pleasure: an object that has aesthetic disvalue is one in which we desire that the object not exist as any further possible source of experience. Unfortunately, our environments are far more aesthetically aversive than they are attractive. With the compendious coverage of everyday aesthetics in XO, I believe I know how to carry on.
For a reply to Donald Keefer by Tom Leddy, see here.
For a reply to Donald Keefer by Tom Leddy, see here.
 A version of this was given at American Society for Aesthetics, National Meeting, October 26, 2012.
 I take this to be the essence of John Dewey’s pragmatic psychology of art in Art as Experience, in “Having an Experience.”
 What of idiopathic sexual fetishization of such disgusting objects and/or painful experiences? Perhaps an interesting angle for exploring the world of object-shifted sexual “perversions,” might be to consider the aesthetic components. Depending on one’s theory of aesthetic value, it may shed some light on the mysteries of the fetish.
 Provocative, to say the least. It is not an apt way to put it and I try to find better language ahead. My arguments lead to a reframing which is actually at odds with such a conceit as “true” aesthetic experience. A philosopher’s use of such a designation is really an invitation to say, “Kick me.”
 The recognition of these are primary sources and examples of aesthetic experience is straight out of Dewey’s Art as Experience. This point is developed ahead.
 The community of aesthetes should echo the epistemological construct, community of enquirers, used by CS Peirce to provide a non-foundational basis for the justification of knowledge: Truth is that which will in the long run be agreed on by the community of enquirers (or body of experts). My construction need not entail actual aesthetic value, but that an object can be taken to be valuable by such a community. This accords with Danto, in his article, “The Artworld,” and Hume on the “Standard of Taste.”
 This takes us into a compound controversy concerning Kant. For one, Kant’s “aesthetic,” by his lights, is takes no interest in the existence of the object, but merely delights in the free play of the imagination responding to the object. Kant is either confused, or his statement is incoherent. That’s another paper. Some version of distinterest makes sense, but not as Kant puts it. My statement springs not from his aesthetics, but from his theory of teleological judgment and his ethical theory. What may I hope for? Can I hope for happiness? Can I hope social harmony? These are only possible to the extent that I can act towards their realization. We can’t always act, but we can still will that such a world exists. Thus, to find some objects to be sources of pleasure would be to desire that they be available to us in the future.
In the Q&A, was challenged on this. Aren’t some objects all the more valued because of their ephemerality? What accounts for their value is not that they are short and one time only. The more desire we have than an object be permanently available, the more we regret the knowledge that it cannot be so. If we didn’t wish it to be a possible experience in the future, we’d really have little care that it is a bright but momentary blip on the radar screen of our consciousness.
That the object does not, or cannot actually exist, is irrelevant to the idea that this object provides the sort of pleasure I would will that it be perpetually possible for future experience.
 What is meant by limitations regarding what one has to report in a merely personal experience is not simply a report of pleasure or displeasure—bah-hurrah.
 Alas, a great deal of art theory and politico-centric art history closed that door to Clark’s mind
 Were Proust alive today, Remembrances of Things Past would be a blog.