Thursday, January 12, 2017

Everyday Aesthetics as a New Direction in Aesthetics

The Bloomsbury Companion to Aesthetics edited by Anna Christina Ribeiro (2015) (but originally published in 2012 as the Continuum Companion to Aesthetics) features everyday aesthetics its last chapter titled "New Directions in Aesthetics" by Paisley Livingston (255-267).  The article focuses on Livingston's response to my own work on everyday aesthetics from 2005 ("The Nature of Everyday Aesthetics" in The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, ed. A. Light and J. M. Smith, New York: Columbia U. Press, 3-22) and to Yuriko Saito's book Everyday Aesthetics from 2007.  Of course I continued to develop my ideas on the nature of everyday aesthetics after that period, particularly in my The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (Broadview Press, 2012) but also in a series of more recent articles. 

Livingston rightly complains that in the 2005 article I proposed that everyday aesthetics covers, as he puts it "all aesthetic experiences that are not already included in 'well-established' domains of aesthetic theorizing" so that not only fine arts and the natural environment are outside everyday aesthetics but also aesthetics of mathematics, science and religion.  His complaint is that, as disciplines get established in everyday aesthetics, for example the aesthetics of food, they then fall outside of it, and "[t]he very success of everyday aesthetics as a branch of aesthetic inquiry would lead to the continuous expulsion of its own topics and results from this subfield." (259)  I agree that this is a problem. 

Livingston, nonetheless, recognizes that the motive of everyday aesthetics has been to deal with material that has been neglected through emphasis on fine arts and nature aesthetics, and so, he defines the field more simply than I did as "the aesthetic experience or aesthetic appreciation of things familiar or everyday, but not the aesthetics of the fine arts and scenic nature." (259)  Interestingly, although controversially, he seems to imply inclusion of non-scenic nature under everyday aesthetics.  It is also not clear whether decorative and popular arts fall within or outside everyday aesthetics on his definition.  At best, his offer constitutes a necessary and not a sufficient condition for everyday aesthetics:  a partial definition that should probably be narrowed further.

I appreciate Livingston's next point which is in favor of my view that, as he puts it, "there have been valuable interactions between the aesthetics of the fine arts, nature, and everyday life."  He rightly observes, via a reference to Bryson, that still-life paintings can make us more aware of the aesthetic properties of everyday phenomena.  He also agrees with me that we should not see everyday aesthetics as a radical break from something negatively called "traditional aesthetics."  

Livingston's article gets interesting when he discusses what I have called a "tension" in everyday aesthetics.  This is a much-discussed issue these days, and Allen Carlson has his own solution, as does Saito.   I will be providing my own solution to what Carlson has called "the dilemma of everyday aesthetics" at the American Society for Aesthetics conference at Asilomar this Spring. 

Livingston, drawing on an article by F. Dretske, puts the issue somewhat differently than I would.  He observes that some experiences "do not cross the threshold into the domain of aesthetic experience...[but] satisfy behavior and motivation conditions on what should be recognized as perceptual uptake in the absence of awareness" (260) and that these often include "what is wholly commonplace and familiar."  So we have non-aware perceptual uptake that is also non-aesthetic.  His example would be a person who makes a daily commute but pays little attention to the "complex flow of sights, sounds and smells along the way."  I am a bit confused about this line of discussion since the commuter is surely aware of her surroundings, including the sights of braking cars and perhaps the smells of burning oil.  I admit that there are some things that are beneath consciousness and yet involve some sort of perceptual uptake, but the question at issue is when something rises to the level of the aesthetic, and I cannot see how unconscious perception is even relevant to that.  Of course, as I have long argued, there can be low-level aesthetic experiences, ones that can be described, for example, by applying aesthetic property terms such as "pretty," or "nice," or "looks good."  It seems that once perceptual uptake reaches the level of awareness it has reached the domain of the low-level aesthetic. 

Still, we may be quibbling about terms here.  Livingston can fairly argue that I am using "aesthetic" in a stretched way, that what he is really talking about is "aesthetic" in the sense of that which is attended to "for its own sake," and that the attention paid to the sounds and smells of brakes and so forth is "practical" (which is the word he uses later in the essay) and not aesthetic.  I suppose the issue for a Deweyan like myself is whether the "practical" can so clearly be delineated from the aesthetic, of which I will have more to say later.  

Livingston further thinks that the everyday aesthetician comes along (not the theorist here, but the person who practices her life in such a way as to focus on everyday aesthetic phenomena) and "reclassifies this part of the world as falling within the sphere of everyday aesthetics."  She does this by attending to the same stretch of road aesthetically.  But, and here is where the tension comes in, the worry is "that although the philosophical operation has been successful, the very 'object' of everyday aesthetics has somehow vanished or been vitiated as a result."  (260)  Well, the answer seems obvious to me since, if the commuter is not aware at all, if she is a kind of automaton, then she is not having either aesthetic or non-aesthetic experience, and thus what happens to her is not a matter of any sort of aesthetics.  But if she is aware and has low level positive or even negative aesthetic experiences, then no re-classification or special philosophical operation is needed to get her experience to the level of aesthetics.  

I can see that there is a difference between the two commuters, but it just seems that the first is attentive to more practical-oriented aesthetic qualities than the second.  I do not know how other people experience driving, but my way tends to alternate between the two modes.  If I smell gasoline or hear knocks in the engine I am going to be more focused in the practical mode, and yet these smells and sounds are ugly, i.e. negatively aesthetic. (As you can see, I do not accept the practical/aesthetic dichotomy that Livingston apparently does.)  On the other hand, usually I am attending mainly to the sights along the road, say on a drive up the 280 Freeway to San Francisco, and this is a less practical-oriented form of aesthetic perception.  Alternatively, I might be attending to the conversation of my companion, or to the music or other entertaining shows I get over the radio, and these experiences have aesthetic qualities too, although, again, at other levels.

Admittedly, because of my strong love of visual arts, I am probably more attentive to what I would consider to be interesting features in the passing visual environment than most.  One point at issue here is whether everyday aestheticians are promoting an approach to the world that is more like mine to the road:  i.e. what is sometimes called an aestheticization of everyday life.   (I want to add that there are differences between kinds of driving that are significant to what one might call the aesthetics of road experience.  For example, it is particularly difficult to have high level aesthetic experiences during commute rush hours.  I find commute driving stressful and quite the opposite of non-commute driving.  Some of my best road experiences have come when driving on 280 when there is no significant traffic.)  

In any case, if the worry is that, by making the ordinary extraordinary, or at least special (as I would currently put it), one harms the ordinary because one takes it out of the ordinary, I think that this is a misleading worry.  The person who is stressed by her daily commute is not helped by learning how to attend to or perhaps even accept the boring, humdrum, or stressful nature of that commute.  She needs to be able to experience things differently.  Her ordinary bad experience is not harmed by transforming it into something better!  Nor are ordinary very low-level aesthetic experiences harmed by being enhanced.  So I am at a loss to how rendering the ordinary extraordinary can be a bad thing, unless it causes moral problems.  I suppose, for example, that if the commuter has achieved a kind of aesthetic enlightenment and can only experience the commute in an aesthetically heightened way she might be less willing to support sensible measures to lessen congestion, and this would be immoral since she would not be considering the suffering of others.  

There is also the problem of neglect of everyday life phenomena, especially the most ordinary ones, by aesthetic theorists.  Such theorists forget that much of our lives operate at a low aesthetic level, both in terms of pleasures and pains.  All everyday aestheticians, I think, agree on this point.  I admit this for example by my talk of aesthetic property attribution that does not rise to the level of aesthetic experience and yet indicates an aesthetic aspect of our everyday lives, talk like "its a nice day."  

There certainly is a normative dimension to everyday aesthetics in that everyday aestheticians are trying to improve things.  I agree with Saito that "there is a pressing need to cultivate aesthetic literacy, so to speak, with respect to everyday objects and environments." (243) The call for change is ameliorative.  It says, “this is can lead us to better lives,”  "pay attention to this stuff at least some of the time," and “an aesthetically more attentive life is a better one:  try it!”  In some ways the claim is like that of the enthusiast for meditation who recommends that we meditate every day.  To that extent, interest in everyday aesthetics could be a movement, one that calls on a new aesthetic literacy in a way much like previous calls for computer literacy or literacy in the fine arts.

Saito makes these calls partly because she sees this literacy as necessary for changes we need to make in our relationship with our environment.  That is probably true (no, it certainly is!).  Yet one could well call for such literacy even if it would not do much to save the whale or stop global warming.  Maybe we just need it to bear living in a world in which global warming just won't be stopped because of human greed or some other intractable problem. In any case, I certainly agree with Saito that everyday aesthetics "has to be a part of the strategies for the project of world-making" where that is a matter of creating a more healthy, humane and environmentally sound world. 

It is after this call that Saito, in the concluding chapter of her book, talks about the "tension" in everyday aesthetics.  (244)  She understands this tension as one between "descriptive function of everyday aesthetics and its normative function."  I will look at her solution and then get back to Livingston.  My basic take on this is that the distinction between these two functions does not hold.

One approach to everyday aesthetics, according to Saito, is to follow "traditional aesthetic theory" with regards to "aesthetic attitude," and this would be to free ourselves from a practical attitude, i.e. from such normal ways of experiencing or reacting as "appreciating a utensil purely for its functionality or deploring a dirty linen that prompts us to clean it."  Traditional aesthetic attitude theory, on her view, would, instead, call on us to closely attend to sensuous surfaces.  In doing so, she admits, we can certainly find "hidden gems," for example in "the way in which the stain on the linen appears."  However we do not notice or appreciate these "because we usually do not engage with them as aesthetic objects."  In order to find these hidden gems we turn to art, for example to poetry and photography, and we appreciate the help they provide.  She concludes that this is "one way everyday aesthetic functions normatively."

I agree that this is one way to appreciate everyday phenomena, and I have emphasized this in my writings.  But, I wonder what exactly is "appreciating a utensil purely for its functionality"? And do we ever actually do this?  I see a spoon and a cereal bowl in front of me that I have just used.  I like the way the spoon is shaped and how it works, and much prefer this spoon to a plastic spoon or one that has less of a soup-spoon look.  The spoon has fine lines, but it also holds cereal nicely.  The cereal bowl is one we purchased at a Frank Lloyd Wright museum and looks vaguely like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.  I love this bowl which functions perfectly for my morning cereal.  But I cannot separate in my mind my aesthetic appreciation of the bowl from my appreciation of its functionality.  

I am not always contemplating these two utensils as I am now, and yet I choose them for my morning cereal because they look and feel right.  Even now, as I am more conscious of this bowl and spoon, after I have eaten my cereal and am writing this piece, I think of my life as a little better because of these utensils.  

I insist, however, that my taking an aesthetic attitude toward the bowl is not radically discontinuous from when I just choose it from other bowls for my cereal.  That is, I appreciate the bowl for reasons pretty similar to why I choose it.  So, to go back to Livingston, the "below level of awareness" use of this bowl (if we assume now that this level is nonetheless conscious) is pretty strongly related to the appreciative contemplative level.  You might say that the second level involves taking an aesthetic attitude, but it would be wrong to say that I take nothing like an aesthetic attitude when choosing the bowl for my cereal in the first place, even though that choosing is not in itself contemplative.  

Nor is it fair to say, as Saito suggests, that, either in choosing the bowl or in contemplating it as an aesthetic object, I am simply attending to "sensuous surfaces."  Actually, this point is a bit confusing for me.  Of course I am attending to sensuous surfaces: what else could I attend to in the physical object I am looking at and using?  Maybe the problem is with the word "surfaces."  I do not think that in attending to my bowl aesthetically, even in the contemplative mode, I am just attending to its surfaces.  I also attend to how it feels in my hand, to its heft and weight and balance.  Surely these are not surfaces, although they are sensuous. 

I can also attend to things that are not sensuous but are related to the bowl, for example to conceptual matters, such as how it fits the definition of bowl, or how it could be used as an example in a philosophy paper, or how it fits into my overall taste in design, or how it fits into the history of modernism.  I can also to practical matters, such as how my wife would react if I broke it.  I suspect that all of these things are "there" in the background although I am not currently consciously aware of them. A complex phenomenology of meaning hovers around my bowl.  But if I attend to this I am still not attending to "pure functionality."  There is really no such thing.

The case of the stained linen is interestingly different.  It is certainly true that there is a difference between the person who looks at it as if it were a work of art and someone who looks at it simply as something that needs cleaning.  Imagine an abstract painter who is not maintaining the linen in the house but is actually more interested in getting inspiration for her art; and contrast this to the person who sees it as marring the cleanliness in the house and who commences to clean it as soon as she sees it.   I can see a source of house conflict here.  My view is that both of these attitudes towards the stained linen are aesthetic:  they just focus on different properties and consequences.
I always have trouble understanding what "normative" means. Webster’s says that it is "of, relating to, or determining norms or standards."  A norm is commonly considered a standard or a type, but is also associated with "normal" or "customary" and with "prescriptive."  So, when Saito says that everyday aesthetics functions "normatively" when we appreciate "hidden gems" with the help of art, I wonder what she means.  She says that this is by way of bracketing our normal response, which is to, e.g., clean up the linen stain.  So the normative is not normal?  But which is more normative in this case:  cleaning up the stain or seeing it as a hidden gem by way of the help of art?  It seems that both are equally normative.  Or, at least, each could be if each advocate prescribed his or her own approach.   The society in which the artist looking for inspiration would be more normal might have a norm in her favor, and the other society might have a norm in favor of the linen leaner.  Alternatively, cleaning up the stain is more normative because this is, after all, the more normal reaction...again, in most societies.

I grant that treating the stained linen as a hidden gem is rendering the ordinary extraordinary.  I now reject the idea of jumping all of the way from the ordinary to the extraordinary without considering all of the possible intermediary steps or the continuum of possibilities between these extremes.  Normativity extends all of the way down.  In my current view, cleaning the stained linen is normative in that the very action of making it look better is intended to enhance a low-level aesthetic quality, i.e. "looks nice" or "is clean."  

Now there is the issue of whether we "lose something of the everyday life's everyday-ness or ordinary-ness" in taking the arts-based attitude, i.e. in seeing the stained linen as if it were an abstract painting.  (245)  I cannot see that anything is lost here except that one ought not to be spending time turning the stained linen into an imagined work of art if one's household job is to make sure that such things look nice.  

Saito calls the "clean it up" approach "descriptive" rather than normative.  In my view, "descriptive" is not quite the right word either.  Sure, something is described, in this case, the attitude of the person who has the household job of making things clean, neat and nice.  But we were also describing when we imagined the artist who came into the kitchen from her studio and was mesmerized by the interesting aesthetic qualities of the stained linen.  So, overall, I do not think that the distinction between normative and descriptive really helps resolve the tension in everyday aesthetics.  

Saito has made us more aware of how action in response to what we see in the world is as important aesthetically as experience that is more detached and contemplative.  I wholly agree when she says that everyday aesthetics "should not be exclusively concerned with discounting ordinary and seemingly pragmatically directed reactions that often result in various actions, such as cleaning, throwing away, purchasing, and preserving..." (245)  (Saito herself begins to doubt her critique of what she calls the normative approach when she recognizes that she herself makes normative claims with regard to aesthetic reactions that have "environmental ramifications."  (245))   

Saito's concern seems to be summed up in the opposition between de-contextualized aestheticization and everyday practical concerns. (245)  I will want to pursue this issue further since I think this is the core concern in the tension of everyday aesthetics.  But it depends on the nature of the practical and also on whether a firm dividing line can be maintained between the two.  It depends on whether, for example, there is no role for de-contextualizing in the practical realm and whether there is nothing practical going on when we de-contextualize.  We might need to de-contextualize something to use it for a new purpose for which it was not intended.

Again, there is a big issue as to when we should make the ordinary extraordinary and when we should focus on achieving the low-level aesthetic results indicated by "neat," "nice," and so forth, i.e. results that are not always associated with the term "aesthetic" (which is why Saito calls them "seemingly non-aesthetic").  The problem, as she sees it, is with "indiscriminate aestheticization."  This returns us to what I once called the LSD problem, although it could also be the problem of Zen Enlightenment.  What happens if everything is experienced as extraordinary, as a hidden gem?  Well, the result could be pretty disastrous!  The dirty linen doesn't get cleaned up if everyone is spaced out on incredible relations of lines and colors. So yes, there is a problem with indiscriminate aestheticization.  Yet, Zen Buddhists seem to get on even after enlightened.  And how bad is it really to promote more art-like experiences of everyday life?  

Livingston interprets Saito's descriptive side as the goal of representing "familiar, everyday life and experience faithfully" (261).  I think that representing everyday life faithfully is not just a matter of representing the need to clean up stained linen but also the experience of seeing the stained linen as if it were art.  These are both sides of everyday life, even though the second relates more to the everyday lives of artists, aesthetics, and aesthetically sensitive people generally.  I suppose the problem is that you have to stop seeing the linen as needing a cleaning to see it as an aesthetic gem.  But there is nothing to keep us from alternating between the two perspectives, or even combining them to some extent, or even allowing some people to focus on one and others on the other.  Combinations are possible too.  Consider that in washing dishes one can enjoy the qualities of cleanliness as they emerge in the cleaning process in an intensified way quite different from the ordinary experience if one practices "mindfulness" in the Buddhist tradition described by Thich Nhat Hanh (which is not to be confused with the earliest Buddhists who were deeply anti-aesthetic insofar as they rejected all sense experience).  

Livingston's own solution to the tension of everyday aesthetics is to move to the level of aesthetic properties.  On this view "everyday aesthetics would then be the subfield that investigates the aesthetic properties of items not falling in the categories of scenic nature or the fine arts."  (261) This is something like the approach I took in my book and in my comments above, although Livingston seems to forget that almost all aesthetic property terms may be applied to both art and everyday life.  Both artworks and flower arrangements can be called "beautiful."  It is more that some terms are used more often in the arts, for example “powerful,” and some more often in everyday life, for example “cute.”

Livingston develops this idea however in terms of the kind of strict distinction between the practical on the one hand and "intrinsic valence" of experience on the other that I have questioned. This, he believes, is the clear dividing line between that which is everyday aesthetics and that which is not.  The intrinsic valence is seen to be positive but always instantaneous, as when the nose of a fine wine "is instantly rewarding," or the immediate sensation of pain has "a negative valence."   I have a lot of trouble understanding how this distinction is going to help solve the problem Saito raised (and that I raised in my 2005 article).   A strict distinction between practical and intrinsic just cannot be maintained.  Also, can’t we talk about a continuum between instantaneous and slowly evolving appreciation, or even of an appreciation that starts off as instantly rewarding and then continues is a slower reflective fashion?

Livingston thinks that "what is wanted in thinking about everyday aesthetics is a broad contrast between two kinds of experiences," where, in the first, "means-end rationality prevails" and the primary object of attention is the agent's goal:  these are "instrumental experiences," and they are "predominantly anticipatory."  They are contrasted to experiences that focus on intrinsic valence which is described as "whatever makes the experience positively or negatively valued intrinsically or for its own sake."  (He is following C.I. Lewis in this).  So aesthetic experience is when the intrinsic value is predominant over the instrumental value.  Value by way of contemplation is "inherent value" of which aesthetic value is one type.  It follows that the relation between aesthetic and non-aesthetic is "a matter of degree."  (262)  Also value/valence need not be reducible to pleasure and it can be a matter either of first-order content of the presentation or of second-order evaluation.  For Livingston, "[c]ontemplation of what is immediately presented" is, finally, crucial to aesthetic experience. (263)  As Lewis puts it, the "pause of contemplative regard...suspends the active interests of further purpose."  (263) This all depends on the kind of radical distinction between the practical and the contemplative that Dewey, my hero, would reject.

Livingston explicates his solution of the dilemma of everyday aesthetics in terms of a story of three fictional characters ironically named Yukiko (I suppose he is thinking vaguely of Saito, who's first name is Yuriko...but that is of no importance for the example.) We need concern ourselves only with Yukiko 1 and 2 since Yukiko 3, who focuses on negative aesthetic qualities, raises no new problems.  Yukiko 1 receives a gift of wa-gashi from a suitor and considers what his choice indicates about his discernment and taste. She then attends to the "practical problem" of undoing the package without damaging the materials, which is "the only proper way to do it."  After that, she sets it aside. Yukiko 2, by contrast, "experiences a mild pleasure as she examines the exquisite packaging" and "relishes the cakes."  Livingston then says "it strikes me as uncontroversial to observe that our second Yukiko has an aesthetic experience, while the first one does not."  (264)

It is not uncontroversial!  Actually it is false.  Again, I may be accused of overextending the term "aesthetic" here, but in the Deweyan tradition I see continuity where others see radical division.  As Yukiko1 looks at the wa-gashi gift she considers issues of taste:  although she may not be focusing on the surface qualities of the item as such, she needs to take these into account as she evaluates the taste of her suitor.  So she is more focused on background considerations than Yukiko2, but these are also aesthetic!  Moreover, she engages in an activity which is done in "the only proper way."  Is not "proper" being used here in an aesthetic way, much like "clean" in the case of the dirty linen?   Livingston is correct that both Yurikos are responding to the same object, but they are responding to different features of that object.  
Livingston, anticipating this objection, writes, "It might be of concern that the first Yukiko's reaction is more typical of everyday life with its emotionally and cognitively entangling web of social and practical concerns, whereas it is only the everyday aesthetician who would have people slow down and appreciate everyday packaging 'for its own sake'....yet the second...Yukiko's experiences are by no means so very extraordinary."  (264)   I agree that they are not extraordinary.  But I also think that both Yukikos' activities involve a heightening of significance, a heightening which I have called in my book "increase of aura."  

Perhaps the second Yukiko attends to this in a different way or in a more intensified way than the first.  Perhaps she is at a "higher level," although I am wary of judging without more information: Yukiko1 may be having a very sophisticated experience in her evaluation of the taste of her suitor by way of evaluation of aesthetic qualities of his gift.  

Livingston says that "in describing such experiences, we do not render the ordinary extraordinary" (265).  Although I am willing to concede that point, I have no idea why that is an issue, since the description of either Yukiko's experience doesn't seem to change it at all!  

Key to this discussion may be the following quote:  "In her concern for social distinction, the first Yukiko misses out on an aesthetic experience, even if she accurately classifies the packaging's place in a hierarchy of goods."  (265)  She would be missing out on one aesthetic experience, in my view, but might be having another.  We miss out on things all of the time.  Is she living a bad life because she is "vain, self-absorbed and sadly obsessed with her relations to other" even though she is "a young woman of leisure with ability to attend to objects around her with discernment..."  I feel like I am reading a novel that is way too short...I need a lot more information to judge Yukiko's life. 
Right now I see no reason, despite her negative character traits, to not grant her aesthetic experience with the gift.   
Livingston stresses that "the key content of this postulated, intrinsically valued experience on the part of the first Yukiko is her own proud sense of her status or identity in relation to the suitor;  in short, her social distinction," and such a self-directed attitude cannot be included in aesthetic experience.  My only question here is, why not?  

Another mark against Yukiko1 seems to be that her pleasure seems not aesthetic but rather "immediate delight in acquiring an expensive object."  (265) By contrast, the second Yukiko is focused correctly on the quality of the packaging, which concern is not "overshadowed" by practical considerations (i.e. how expensive the object is).  The first Yukiko's experience is, according to Livingston, "instrumental," and she "fails to appreciate the inherent aesthetic value of the packaging..."  I cannot help but feel that Livingston has a puritanical judgmental attitude towards Yukiko1 who might rather be linked to the darker, because more ethically challenged, aesthetic world-views.  It is ironic that 
Livingston ends his essay by stressing that "relational properties can be relevant to the objects' inherent value" and that these relational properties include background knowledge about the item of appreciation. (266) given that Yukiko1, who is not favored, is especially sensitive to relational qualities, for example the relation of the gift to the taste of her suitor.  

So, in general, I do not think that the example and the use of Lewis's theory, or the distinction between immediate and intrinsic, has laid to rest the "fundamental tension" of everyday aesthetics as Livingston believes.  One just can't solve the problem by making a clean break between the merely instrumental and contemplative appreciation of surface qualities, particularly given that background considerations are taken into account anyway.

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