Monday, August 5, 2013

Is There an Aesthetics of Human Existence?

It is tempting to see aesthetics as something much broader than dealing with art and nature.  I have elsewhere argued for an aesthetic of everyday life.  There are limitations to this notion, however, since an aesthetic of everyday life might be seen as positing everyday life as distinct from non-everyday life, and a new emphasis on the everyday might shortchange the non-everyday.  Perhaps there is a problem with seeing the everyday as a separate domain in the sense that the aesthetics of art or the aesthetics of nature is.  The division everyday and non-everyday might, rather, be seen as cutting across distinctions between such things as art, nature and design.  It could be argued that there are everyday art experiences, everyday experiences of design, and everyday experiences of nature.  Then there are also unusual or non-everyday experiences of all of these.  For example, an everyday experience of art is noticing and enjoying a work of art by a friend that graces one of the walls in my home.  The work may be highly valued by me, but it is not hitting me for the first time.  An unusual non-everyday experience of art would include one I had of visiting Colmar and seeing the Grünewald Isenheim altarpiece.  The later experience was unique, powerful, and maybe even life-changing.  Still, for the leprosy patients who experience Grunewald’s piece every day of their lives back in the 16th century, this would be literally an everyday experience.  Of course the non-everyday can include experiences that are truly horrifying as well as those that are incredibly uplifting.  Would these be considered aesthetic in a sense?   Moreover, if we collect certain kinds of aesthetic experiences under the non-everyday, let’s say just the positive ones, how are we to distinguish these from experiences of religious enlightenment or from experiences of scientific discovery?  Thomas Alexander, whom I am reading right now as I write this, thinks that a religious world view in which the world is experienced as holy is to be seen as one in which “people experience the world as aesthetically profound relationships that connect them with vital meanings.”  Here, the holy is associated with the aesthetic and the meaningful (and probably not with either of these alone).  This seems right for me, and can even be made consistent with atheism, although not of the reductivist materialist sort.

Keeping these difficulties in mind, it is worthwhile to talk about another broader concept, i.e. the aesthetics of life or the aesthetics of human existence.  Such an aesthetic view would include all of the other subdisciplines of aesthetics under a larger rubric.   Alexander thinks that aesthetics “should be understood first and foremost as ‘aesthetics of human existence.’” [1] So what would the aesthetics of human existence be, and how would it be distinguished from ethics, the other major value domain under which we see human existence….or should it be distinguished as all?  It might consist in (following the language of early American philosopher Jonathan Edwards) seeing the excellency of things, i.e. seeing the world as beautiful (Edwards was deeply religious…so for him it was a matter of seeing the world as God sees it).  On the surface, this may just be problematic since if you did achieve this, as a kind of ideal, you might well be transfixed by the beauty of slavery or some other deeply unethical thing.  Or you might jut not want to improve things or work hard since everything needed for the good life is already present.  Well, the notion of an aesthetic of life probably doesn’t mean seeing absolutely everyday as beautiful, but rather as looking for beauty in every realm of being, and seeing the achievement of beauty and beauty-experience as a kind of life ideal.  Some would see this as a matter of escaping the everyday, but it might be seen rather as a matter of seeing something in the everyday, something special.  It is also tempting to see the aesthetic to be most manifest in the realm of possibility.  I have argued that to see something aesthetically is to see it as having an aura of significance.  Could this be true whenever you see something as containing a future within it?  Well, if one did, this would pose the initial problem that aesthetics is associated with pleasure, and, again, we do not see possibility as always associated with pleasure…often it is associated with dread.  One debate that often occurs in the field of everyday aesthetics is between those who would find continuity between everyday aesthetics and the aesthetics of art and those who want the everyday to have its own distinct quite separate realm.  I have argued for the continuity thesis.  However, this has sometimes been interpreted as giving primacy to art and to the aesthetics of art within the domain of aesthetics.  Shouldn’t the primacy go, following Alexander’s comment, to the aesthetics of life, under which art experiences, both everyday and extraordinary, will count as no less or more important than experiences of beauty, for example, in an individual or a designed object such as a wonderfully designed chair, or the moving experience we might have of a wooded dell.    

Alexander also writes “With the rise of modernity, the holiness of the world as an aesthetic home has been fading away.”  This seems right, but what approach should we take to it?  Let’s say that the word “holy” just is associated with belief in God, and the rise of modernity correlates with the death of God.  But what of the notion of the world as “an aesthetic home”? 

[1]  Thomas M. Alexander.  The Human Eros:  Eco-Ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence. (Fordham University Press, 1913)  "Chinese an American Philosophy:  The Aesthetics of Living." 

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