Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Some questions about everyday aesthetics.from my students

Some Questions About Everyday Aesthetics from Students

Does the concept of aura introduce too much subjectivity into everyday aesthetics?  

This is a difficult question.  My basic answer would be that since aura is not taken to be wholly subjective, but rather can be an aspect of shared experience, then it is not too subjective, although of course it is subjective in a way that the truths of science are not. In general most things that are considered subjective are not totally subjective and most things considered objective or not totally so...the distinction between objective and subjective is seldom all that clear. 

Do some things count as aesthetic but with no aura at all, for example photographs in the age of mechanical reproduction?  

Some photographs in our age or mechanical reproduction do lack aura, for example most photos taken by mistake.  But actually, most of the things Benjamin discusses in his "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" have aura despite his claim to the contrary, assuming that we can allow for low-level aura.  I do not accept anything counting as aesthetic with no aura at all. 
Michael Hatzikokolakis asked me to explain my claim that "everyone experiences aura in a variety of manifestations" (128)   I am referring here to distinctions between low level aura and aura that is more intense.  But also every aesthetic term, such as beauty, grace, loveliness, prettiness, ugliness, disgusting, refers to a types of aura. 

Samson Lau has asked me whether "the definition for an aesthetic experience should be the same" for each aspect of aesthetics, aesthetics of art, nature and everyday life.  The issue is that the aesthetics of nature might require all the senses whereas the aesthetics of art may not.  Although aesthetic experiences in different domains require different senses, and sometimes more and sometimes fewer senses engaged, the common thread is that in each case there is an experience of aura.

Andre Li suggests that the way couples enjoy each others' company through laughter and playfulness can be part of everyday aesthetics.  This is an excellent thought. Lover's play is a case in which something aesthetic is shared.  The notion brings out the erotic dimension of the aesthetic, which Plato recognized, but which is sometimes neglected.  Conversation has been seen as aesthetic, for example in the work of Gadamer and Scott Stroud.  Richard Shusterman has argued for an aesthetics of erotic play.

Elena Marquez is concerned that making artists the experts of aesthetics of everyday life implies that this discipline is not for ordinary people.  She thinks saying that artists are the experts seems to contradict the purpose of everyday aesthetics.  I think that the artist's experience of everyday aesthetic phenomena, when it happens qua artist, has two features that differentiates it from everyone else's experiense:  (1) it is more intense than the usual everyday aesthetic experience, and (2) it is directed towards the possibility of current or future artistic projects.  So, part of the phenomenology of the artist's experience of a chair he is painting in a studio, for example, is in how he is seeing it as material for transformation (by way of the mediation of his eyes and hands) into a work of art.

Thomas Nguyen says that I do not focus enough on everyday aesthetic experience derived from appreciation of rare occurrences.  When he observes a puzzling chemical reaction he notes that although the phenomenon is not particularly pleasing, it still attracts his interest and his "marveling at the statistical unlikeliness before me." We are sometimes fascinated by physical phenomena that are statistically unlikely, for example coincidences.  Is there anything aesthetic about this?  I think that the object does then have a kind of aura.  Things that are really new or unusual have this quality too.  I do not go along with the idea that this fascination is not pleasing.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics Part II

Today I continue my discussion of Allen Carlson's "The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics."  (See the previous post)  Carlson observes that aestheticization and, more specifically, what Naukkarinen has referred to as artification, might be seen to resolve the problem.  Artification, as Naukkarinen describes it, is "situations and processes in which something that is not regarded as art in the traditional sense ..is changed into something art-like or into something that takes influences from artistic ways of thinking and acting.  It refers to processes where art becomes mixed with something that adopts some features of art."  Carlson rightly thinks that this is not useful as a "program for everyday aesthetic appreciation" or for resolving the dilemma of everyday aesthetics.  Naukkarinen's definition entails changing something that is non-art into into something art-like, and/or a process of making something in which artistic ways of thinking and acting are involved, and/or creation of a mixture in which some non-art things take on features of art.  It is an interesting category (I have written on it here.)  The artification of kitchen remodeling would take this process beyond mere design to make it into a quasi-art form, for example giving it expressive properties or suggesting that it represents something.  Note that even before any process of artification kitchen remodeling already shares many features with art-making:  materials are involved, these materials can exemplify certain properties; and the result can have aesthetic properties such as beauty, prettiness, harmony, niceness, grace, and also negative qualities.  The result can be attractive, comfortable, lovely, or striking.  Presumably artification of kitchen remodeling would involve making the process even more like art than it already is.  And it is arguable that this has been happening recently in some craft areas: for example, TV cooking shows seem today to involve more aesthetic judgments, and involve treating the cooks as geniuses or genius-like.  Still, the problem Carlson has is that artification would cause the object to lose its everydayness, since it tends to make the object something extraordinary.  Yet, I do not see how the processes of artification of cooking that I have described  harm our understanding of ordinary everyday cooking.  I suspect that they seeing such shows can even enhance our experiences of ordinary cooking.

Carlson also considers another form of aestheticization, which is what he calls "rituralization" (he must have meant "ritualization") in which ordinary acts are performed in ways that make them into rituals or ritual-like; for example, tea drinking becomes ritualized in the tea ceremony.  He says, "since the point of aestheticization processes such as rituralization and artification is to raise the events, activities and objects of everyday life above the humdrum of day-to-day existence, they do not resolve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics" since they do not focus on appreciating the everydayness of the everyday.  

My thought about this is (1) these activities of ritualization reflect, on an intensified plane, what we actually do on a much smaller scale when we appreciate everyday aesthetic phenomena:  for example, if we truly attend to drinking tea we treat the experience more like art in that art is treated as something that is primarily an object of contemplation; and if we truly attend to drinking tea in an everyday context we also turn that experience into something like a ritual, something closer to the way we attend to tea in an actual ritualized context like a tea ceremony (an artist friend of mine always takes her morning coffee with her out into her garden for a meditative moment -  it is a kind of ritual for her), and this is why, after attending a tea ceremony one does in fact attend to drinking ordinary tea in a different way, and (2) the dilemma of everyday aesthetics is precisely that in the very experiencing of something everyday as aesthetic it is necessarily raised above the humdrum so that the notion of appreciating the everydayness of the everyday is paradoxical if not impossible:  what is intensified can no longer be humdrum!  At best, we can act as if we are appreciating the everydayness of the everyday, or we can make reference to it, as when an artist takes ordinary-looking photographs of ordinary gas stations. Attending to these ordinary things (for example, when the artist snaps the picture in front of the gas station), even when their ordinariness is referenced, has the effect of moving them out of the ordinary realm.  By the very paying attention to the humdrum one transforms it. 

Carlson praises Sherri Irvin for her approach to the everyday when she says that even in a tedious department meeting one can observe that "there is a texture of experience in those moments that is possible to appreciate aesthetically, to gain a real satisfaction from."  He thinks that Irvin avoids "the temptation to see such moments as special or extraordinary" which he suggests that I and others succumb to.  He may be right to some extent:  "real satisfaction" is not quite the same as experiencing something extraordinary.  So let me grant that not all aesthetic experiences of the everyday are extraordinary.  However, there may be some confusion here just based on semantics.  Carlson associates the term "extraordinary" with great art and magnificent nature, for he says the dilemma of everyday aesthetics is "the worry that when we turn our aesthetic appreciation away from that which is in itself special and extraordinary, such as great art and magnificent nature, and toward that which is truly ordinary in itself...then there is nothing to motivate...aesthetic experience."  (63)  My use of "extraordinary" was more in tune with the idea of taking something out of the ordinary, as when we perceive it aesthetically, for example as a artist might perceive a subject matter, and not perceiving it as though it were great art or magnificent nature.

The issue is deeper than semantics, however.  Although Irvin does not experience the meeting as extraordinary (as like great art or magnificent nature in Carlson's sense) neither is she experiencing real satisfaction in the tedious nature of the department meeting.  What is tedious is tedious!  As Irvin herself notes (in a quote Carlson gives) neither is the experience "boring or hum-drum."  What Irwin is doing is detaching herself somewhat from ordinary experience:  perhaps what has happened is not extraordinary, but it is non-ordinary. (Most of us do not ordinarily have Irvin's skill of transforming a tedious department meeting.) So I do not think that Irvin is encouraging an aesthetics of everyday life ordinarily experienced but rather an aesthetics of everyday life non-ordinarily experienced.  Actually, what she is encouraging is something very much like what Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to do in his philosophy of mindfulness (except that Nhat Hanh does not focus on aesthetic qualities).  Perhaps one way this issue could be resolved would be to say that we do not ordinarily experience the everydayness of the everyday and that to do so would be to experience it in the way the Buddhist adept does, or in the way that Irvin has described, which is really quite a non-ordinary way of experiencing things.

Carlson raises two problems with Irvin's approach, one being that she treats the proximal as aesthetically equal to the distal senses, which he would deny; and second, that she teats all pleasurable things as aesthetic.  I discuss both of these issues in Chapter 2 of my book, and so will pass on them here except to mention that, although there is a distinction between simple pleasures and aesthetic pleasures, simple pleasures can be enhanced or given greater significance through associations, through the way in which they are perceived, and through artistic mediation, all of which makes them not so simple as a consequence, and hence ready for the attribution of "aesthetic."  

This brings me to Carlson's critique of my own approach.  Carlson correctly describes the key elements of my theory in which I introduce the idea of "aura" in the tradition of disinterestedness although enhanced by my own understanding of Bullough's notion of "psychical distance" as imaginative perception.  Carlson writes that "Leddy's account is explicitly not an aesthetics of everyday life ordinarily experienced...[and] cannot resolve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics." 

There is some ambiguity in the phrase "aesthetics of everyday life ordinarily experienced."  In one meaning of the phrase, my approach is providing such an account in that I recognize, list and categorize a wide variety of ordinary experiences in everyday life that involve low-level aesthetic experience, for example when one selects a shirt to wear in the morning because it "looks nice."  At the same time, one chooses this shirt because it stands out a bit and does not look boring or inappropriate.  Very low level aesthetic experiences of this sort have a very low level "aura" in my sense of the term, but they are in contrast to things that have a negative aura or have less aesthetic value or none at all.  The aesthetic choice of shirt is the one that is not too ordinary. I grant that the term "extraordinary" should be reserved for high points in aesthetic experience, while at the same time recognizing that the aesthetic takes us out of the ordinariness of the ordinary, the boringness of the boring, the dullness of the dull, and so forth.  

Carlson follows his discussion of my position, which he suggests may or may not be subtle enough to escape the disadvantages of the disinterestedness tradition, and moves on to Arnold Berleant's position, which rejects that position entirely, seeing engagement as the criterion of the aesthetic.  Although Carlson correctly observes that Berleant rejects various dichotomies, for example between subject and object, Berleant does hold on with great vigor to the dichotomy between disinterested and engaged perception.  I would question that dichotomy as well.  Elsewhere I have argued that engagement can, and ultimately must, incorporate moments of distancing or disinterested perception.  Berleant thinks this is a contradiction in terms.  One way I have suggested a synthesis of the two traditions is through the process of toggling between disinterested and interested perception.  Another thing neglected by the engagement view is the important role played by imagination in engagement itself.  It is only through imagination that we can seem as if one with our surrounding environment, for example.  It is only through imagination that we can identify with what we perceive.  It is only through imagination that an object seems to have greater significance than what is presented as pure sense data. I do not see how one can even engage with what Carlson calls "the mundane, common, routine, humdrum, banal, and even just downright uninteresting" without taking the very things so-labeled out of those categories, making them interesting, for example, and doing this by way of "seeing as."  The dilemma of everyday aesthetics is resolved by recognizing this.

Carlson ends is article with a defense of his (and Glenn Parsons') own approach to everyday aesthetics as developed in their various articles and in their book Functional Beauty.  I have addressed this already in my book and in my review of their book and will try not to repeat myself in this comment.  Carlson applies aesthetic cognitivism to appreciation of everyday life, saying that the relevant expertise for appropriate appreciation is information about histories, functions and roles in human life of the phenomena considered (for example, urban landscapes).  Carlson observes that "ideas from folklore, mythology and religion frequently play a significant role in appreciation of [cultural] landscapes."  (62) (I am not clear what distinguishes a cultural landscape from any other sort of landscape on Carlson's view.  Is it any landscape seen through the eyes and according to the categories of a particular culture?) Similarly, smaller "day to day" things are similarly understood.  For example, appreciating coffee pots is "a matter of knowing about their histories and traditions as well as about their fascinating details, their complex operations, and their subtle functioning."  (62)  Carlson's conclusion is that "it is knowledge of the workings of the everyday world makes it interesting....enough to both motivate and sustain aesthetic appreciation."  (63)  

I agree that such knowledge can be valuable in aesthetic appreciation, and yet is not absolutely necessary.  I can find aesthetically interesting an object of everyday life from another culture about which I know absolutely nothing.  But more important (and this is a similar point to the one I raised about Berleant) the dimension of imagination seems to be lacking in a purely cognitivist approach. The dimension of emotional engagement also seems to be similarly absent.  Carlson and Parsons, in my view, participate in a overly narrow-minded conception of what it is to be human, one that goes back to Descartes.  Cognitivism is a form of Cartesianism.  It assumes that man is essentially a thinking being, without any serious attention paid to the non-cognitive aspects of our being in the world, i.e. the sensuous, imaginative and emotional.  It is only when all of these are synthesized (which is accomplished to some extent in Dewey's aesthetics and to some extent in the feminist aesthetics of Gottner-Abendroth) do we have a full holistic account of human experience as the product of a live creature interacting with its environment.  

Carlson concludes his essay with a critique of Saito's way of appreciating a baseball game, a way that does in fact include some of the other dimensions of experience I have mentioned.  Carlson's view is that "appreciation will be difficult to motivate and impossible to maintain unless we have knowledge of the game," a point that goes back to Plato's idea that it would be wrong to appreciate a painting of a shoemaker by a painter who knows nothing about shoe-making.  But a baseball game or a shoemaker in his studio can be appreciated aesthetically from a number of different angles, and Carlson and Plato's point can only be relevant if we are talking about appreciation of a baseball game qua baseball game and of shoe-making qua shoe-making.  The experience of a baseball game can be framed in different ways, and it is not the case that only the baseball expert can have a good time (aesthetically speaking) at a game.  A photographer can have a great time while knowing little about the actual game.  There is much to experience at a baseball game and it is not all baseball qua baseball.  This of course can all be true while conceding that the main reason for going to a baseball game is to enjoy a baseball game and that this is what motivates most people.  But I also think that the example is telling.  Baseball games are special:  they are very much like both art and ritual in that rules are central to what happens and what is appreciated.  They, and other formal games, are as much unlike everyday life experiences (like making a meal or taking a shower) as are fine art experiences.  So to use the appreciation of baseball as the paradigm for appreciation of everyday life is problematic. to say the least.  Appreciation of a coffee, a shower, an outfit, or a baby playing, does not require any knowledge of history, traditions or rules.  So, although cognitive aesthetics is immensely valuable as an approach to appreciating such things as baseball games qua baseball games it does not resolve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics.