Monday, December 23, 2013

Denis Dutton and Mapping the Field of Everyday Aesthetics

Denis Dutton’s effort to give a naturalist definition of art provides some interesting material for our effort to understand everyday aesthetics, particularly those aspects that are very close in character to art.[1] Dutton gives a list of criteria for something to be art, none of, and no set of which, are necessary. He adds that if something meets none of the criteria it is not art, and if it meets all of them it must be art. It is also part of Dutton’s scheme that none of the criteria are sufficient for something to be art. Because of this, at the end of each discussion of a criterion he speaks of phenomena which are not art but which meet the criterion. This gives a nice list of properties of non-art phenomena that are worth paying attention to aesthetically.
It is useful for the purposes of developing a theory of everyday aesthetics to go through his discussion of each term in his list and observe each of his comments about non-art applications of these terms.  The reader should understand that, unlike Dutton, I do not intend to say anything here about the nature of art. Rather, I am using Dutton’s criteria of art as a way of mapping the field of everyday aesthetics. This may seem off if one feels that art aesthetics is radically different from everyday aesthetics, but less so if one believes that aesthetics is a general field of which art aesthetics, natural aesthetics and everyday aesthetics are parts, and that there is a continuity between art aesthetics and everyday aesthetics in that many features of art depend on aspects of the world that would exist even without art.  In what follows, Dutton’s name for each property is in italics.
Here then is Dutton’s list of features of art connected with his comments about non-art applications of these features. (1) The art object is typically valued as a source of immediate pleasure, and this is also true for sports and play. (2) High skill is valued not only in art but in other areas, for example in sports. (3) Style is found not only in art but in most other human activities that are not merely reflexive. (4) Novelty and creativity are admired in plumbing and dentistry as well as in art. (5) Criticism is found wherever the activity is complex. (6) Realistic representation is found in scientific illustration (not mentioned by Dutton) as well as in art. (7) Religious rite, ceremonial pomp, political activity and advertizing all try to make something special by giving it a theatrical character. (8) Any activity with a creative element, including designing a company newsletter, may have expressive individuality. (9) Many non-art activities are saturated with emotion. (10) Like art, puzzles and many games give us intellectual challenge. (11) All organized activities have institutional and traditional backgrounds. Finally, (12) there is an imaginative experience dimension of much that is non-art, although Dutton agrees with Kant that art takes imagination to another level, away from practical concerns, logic and “rational understanding.” However, it could be argued that art is not the only thing that can do this. Everyday aesthetic experience also often takes imagination to a new level.
It seems, in short, that one could map the aesthetics of everyday life precisely in terms of the various criteria of art each of which, Dutton has observed, art shares with other aspects of life. There is another way that Dutton’s call for a naturalistic aesthetics of art can be helpful in the construction of an aesthetics of everyday life.  Drawing from the writings of various anthropologists and linguists, Dutton makes a list of “innate, universal features and capabilities of the human mind.”  Each one of the items in the list is something that one can take pleasure in.  When we do this we see that the list can be of primal human pleasures that can provide the basis of aesthetics. I will add the term “pleasure” to the items on this list:
  • pleasure in keeping track of how objects fall, bounce, or bend
  • pleasure in taking an interest in plants and animals in their species division
  • pleasure in making tools, in flaking things, in attaching objects to one another
  • pleasure in observing the operations of the minds of others
  • pleasure in imaginative mapping and spatial understanding
  • pleasure in body adornment
  • pleasure in manipulating numbers
  • pleasure in estimating probabilities
  • pleasure in reading facial expressions
  • pleasure in being able to throw objects precisely
  • pleasure in organized pitched sounds, rhythmically produced by the human voice or by instruments
  • pleasure in exchange of goods and favors
  • pleasure in a sense of justice
  • pleasure in the operations of logic
  • pleasure in learning and using language[2]
Not all of these are aesthetic pleasures if such pleasure must be sensuous.  For example pleasure in a sense of justice, in the operations of logic, in manipulating numbers, in estimating probabilities, and in exchange of goods and favors are not aesthetic in that sense.  However, it is hardly new to suggest that these things can have aesthetic properties, for example beauty.  To that extent they belong to the aesthetics of everyday life.  

[1]  Denis Dutton. “A Naturalist Definition of Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism  64:3 (2006) 367-377.  Also see his The Art Instinct:  Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. (New York:  Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
[2]   Dutton, The Art Instinct, pp. 43-44.

No comments: