Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How should we respond aesthetically to ordinary things and events?

Jane Forsey in The Promise, The Challenge of Everyday Aesthetics" Aesthesis attempts to address an issue raised in my book,  which she poses in this way:  "when we subject [a sofa or a ballgame] to our theoretical gaze - we also seem to lift it from the realm of the ordinary and everyday to that of the unusual or striking" making it "somehow extraordinary."  But, she argues "this seems to rob it of the very everydayness that the movement [of Everyday Aesthetics within philosophical aesthetics] has been striving to focus on" although, she continues, if we focus on its ordinary nature then why attend to it aesthetically.  She attributes to me the position which Chris Dowling calls ( The Aesthetics of Daily Life', British Journal of Aesthetics 50:3 (2010) the weak formulation of everyday aesthetics:  "the concept of the aesthetic at work in discussions of the value of art can be extended to include experiences from daily life."  I actually have some trouble understanding why anyone would deny that ideas found in discussions of the value of art could be extended to everyday life.  Concepts are amazingly flexible and, especially if allowed to operate metaphorically, can extend quite widely.  However,  I also have trouble understanding what Dowling means by "the concept of the aesthetic at work" in such discussions, since there is not just one such concept.  So I can't subscribe to Dowling's "weak formulation" quite as stated.  It would have to be modified for me to accept it.  But as modified it seems to me that everyone should accept it:  accepting it marks no special distinction between aestheticians.  

Forsey thinks my claim that to approach "the ordinariness of the ordinary without making it extraordinary, without approaching it, therefore, in an art-like way"  commits me to the weak formulation.   The "strong formulation" is also described by Dowling and advocated by Forsey.   It is that "experiences from daily life can afford paradigm instances of aesthetic experience.  Such experiences are not bounded by the limitations and conventions that temper discussions of aesthetic value in the philosophy of art."  (Dowling, 2010, 124)  I must be missing something here since it seems to me that everyone involved should accept this claim since it only says weakly that this "can" be done.  In any case, I hold that everyday experiences not bounded by limitations and conventions of art may be as paradigmatic (i.e. can also be central examples) of aesthetics as great works of art.  That's the whole point of saying that everyday aesthetics is a subdiscipline of aesthetics.  I would think that everyone involved in everyday aesthetics thinks this.  So I have the difficult problem of agreeing with both the weak and the strong formulations of everyday aesthetics, although I am perceived by some (Forsey, for example) to favor the weak version.  Maybe it would be better to drop all of this talk of weak and strong and say that some people believe that everyday aesthetics fundamentally deals with everyday experiences qua extraordinary whereas others believe that it deals with everyday experiences qua ordinary.  Without trying necessarily to be consistent with my previously expressed views, I would like to consider which of these is true, or if some other option is possible.   A quick answer might just be:  (1) that there is high point of everyday aesthetics, just as there is a high point of art and nature aesthetics, and this involves something extraordinary, and (2) when ordinary things are perceived aesthetically they do go beyond the ordinary, but not necessarily to the level of the extraordinary (the high point)....maybe they just go to the level of "aesthetically interesting."  This is my intuitive response to Forsey, and if it is inconsistent with my previously expressed position I am willing to drop the previous one.  

This leaves open the question, "how should we respond aesthetically to ordinary things and events?"   I am not sure that there is a good general answer to this question, and I am not even sure then the question would be worth answering.  How should I respond aesthetically to the current relative neatness of my room?  I do respond by being somewhat pleased at the lack of clutter, the absence of piles of books, the color of the seldom seen bare wood floors, and so forth.  If I contemplate my room as an aesthetic object with its current neatness my pleasure increases a bit, even becomes a bit richer.  Reaching the level of the extraordinary would be quite unusual here, however, and probably a bit disturbing.  It might mean I had mistakenly ingested some LSD, or perhaps, after months of meditation, this is how my satori experience will be manifested.  Is there some "should" involved here?  Is one aesthetic response necessarily better than the other in the debate between "looks nice" and "wow, wow, wow"?  Is this even a question?

Forsey attributes to me the following view:  "an aesthetic experience is prompted by an object standing out from the flow of ordinary perception, and demanding our notice as being unusual or unfamiliar in some way."  She calls this the "extraordinarist view." I am not sure whether I agree with this view as formulated.  If Forsey means that "an aesthetics experience is always and only prompted by [such]" I would say that this is probably false.  It she means that aesthetic experiences  commonly or often happen in this way, it is probably true, although this would be as true for the interesting as the extraordinary.  However, I think she is attributing the first claim to me.  Why would it be false?  Sometimes aesthetic experiences occur even when the object does not stand out from the flow of ordinary perception. Doesn't this depend on what is ordinary for whom.  Ordinary perception for the enlightened one may not involve anything standing out at all.  On a more down to earth level, some people are just more sensitive to aesthetic properties on a day to day basis.  So, seeing something aesthetically would not be extraordinary or strange for such a person.  Also, turning to the object, sometimes it just has certain aesthetic properties that we notice, but not in a stand-out way.  We might just notice that the room is neat, for example.  So, I am willing to grant that certain low level aesthetic experiences do not "stand out from the flow."

Forsey goes on to attribute to me, and also to Kant, the view that aesthetic experience is "importantly different from the ordinary perceptual, cognitive or moral relations we have to the world around us."  This would make me inconsistent since I have stressed in my book that ordinary perceptual, cognitive and moral relations in the world around us (and ordinary perceptual, cognitive and moral experiences of those things) have an inescapable aesthetic dimension. 

Forsey also says that "approaching the ordinary as extraordinary does not entail that we treat it as fine art," which is certainly true.  I think she attributes this view to me ... but I have never held it.   If I did I would have had a chapter in which I presented an example of a good approach to, let's say, a great painting (by, let's say, a great art critic), and then showed how the exact same things could be done with an ordinary object, say a flashlight.  I didn't do that.  

Forsey may unconsciously hint at how this kind of understanding comes about, however, when she mentions Danto's idea that there is a great gap between "mere real things" and works of art that are indiscernible from them.  Perhaps she thinks that I am attempting to overcome this gap.  Perhaps I am, at least in a way. (See my recent posts on Danto.)    For Danto, the urinal Duchamp saw in the hardware store and chose to transfigure into a work of art called Fountain could have no interesting art-like qualities.  This may well be true for most people when looking at that urinal.  But it is also true that when Duchamp saw ot and said something to himself like "fits the bill...this could be used to make a work of art" he perceived it in an imaginative way that did bring out art-like qualities.  If this is typically how artists view their materials, and I think it is, (whether the materials be gobs of paint on an unfinished canvas, arrangements of flowers in the studio, or figures in a photograph taken in preparation for a figurative study) then the gap between "mere real things" and works of art is not nearly as great as Danto (and Forsey) make it out to be.  This is not to say that one ought to see urinals in hardware stores as having artlike qualities.  However, one way to have aesthetic experiences of ordinary objects is to see them under the influence of experiences of artworks with similar subject matters.  

Forsey wants to argue that "as everyday objects are not works of art, they carry no artistic value, although they may have aesthetic value."  I do not have much of a problem with this, although I wonder whether we cannot include many everyday objects as having artistic value in the sense of having the values typical of the design arts, the decorative arts, and other "minor arts."  Before me I see a number of books and the covers of each are designed.  Some look more elegant or at least pleasing and attractive than others.   I think though that what she means is that such objects should not be approached in the manner we approach great works of fine art.   Her claim perhaps is that there is hardly anything similar between our appreciation of a book cover and our appreciation of Michelangelo's Last Judgment.  Forsey quotes Robert Stecker's minimal concept of aesthetic experience where it is "the experience of attending in a discriminating manner to forms, qualities or meaningful features of things, attending to these for their own sake or for the sake of this every experience."  This seems fine, but it is not clear how this minimal concept can't be applied both to the flashlight (as someone like Roland Barthes might do) and to the Last Judgment.  We can do similar things to things that themselves are vastly different.  For example we can "look closely" at both the flashlight and the masterpiece even though looking closely might mean something very different in each case.  

Forsey further explicates her objection with my position when she says that I (and implicitly Dowling and Irwin) trade on "a view of art as being somehow meaningful or profound" and I "seek to extend this view to our experiences of the mundane objects and activities that make up our everyday lives.  Only by attending to the ordinary in this intensified way can our experiences be called truly aesthetic."  This she sees as the strategy (following Paul Ziff) of "giving meaning to quotidian phenomena."  I do think that good works of art are meaningful and that great works of art are profound.  I also think that mundane objects are meaningful in the sense that we can analyze them for meaning.   I also think they are meaningful in the sense that we can have meaningful experiences of them.  Sometimes experiences of ordinary objects can also be profound, as Richard Shusterman has shown in Living Through the Body when he speaks of his experiences in a Zen Monastery, and as I do in the last chapter of my book.  

Forsey's analysis becomes interesting when she says that "the weak view seems to suggest that my experience of a bowl of peaches on my dining room table, to be aesthetic, must not only involve a normative evaluation, but be qualitatively similar to, say, that of a still life of a bowl of peaches by Chardin."  This is what she thinks I mean when I suggest that one ideal for the aesthetics of everyday life is "to see the world with the eyes of an artist."  Is it true, as I seem to claim, that (using her words) "only by adopting this stance can the ordinary objects and activities of our daily lives have any kind of aesthetic dimension."  I don't know.  I don't want to imply that she has to look at her bowl of peaches in the same way as she would look at a Chardin painting of a bowl of peaches.  Again, however, if she saw her bowl of peaches in the same way Chardin saw the bowl of peaches he was painting, this might be a high point in everyday life experience.  I think that there are lower level aesthetic dimensions however:  if I look at my bowl of peaches and simply note that they look nice, and in a way that is uninfluenced by my looking at paintings of bowls of peaches, I do think this has an aesthetic dimension, and I thought I argued for that in my Chapter VII on neatness and messiness.  But I can see the problem here.  Forsey continues:  "an ordinary bowl of peaches need not be meaningful to be beautiful" and the experience need not be profound to be aesthetic.  I have a little trouble understanding how something can be beautiful without being meaningful, but perhaps we are talking about different senses of "meaningful."  I certainly agree that something need not be profound to be aesthetic.


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