Friday, December 29, 2017

Play and Everyday Aesthetics

I am reading vol. 3 of Paul Guyer's A History of Modern Aesthetics.  (Cambridge U. Press, 2014).  It covers the 20th century.  Guyer has a particular theory of role of play in aesthetic experience (not surprisingly, since Kant gives a big role to the free play of the imagination and the understanding in the experience of beauty).  In his discussion of Collingwood, Guyer quotes Collingwood on Schiller (also famous for his views on play and art) in a way that seemed suddenly relevant to the project of everyday aesthetics.   Collingwood writes:  "Schiller's identification has often been rejected because art is a high and serious thing and play a childish and trivial; or because art is a thing of the spirit and play a thing of the body, its source the mere exuberance of physical energy, its aim merely physical pleasure."  

This caught my attention because the same criticisms have been raised against the aesthetics of everyday life.  So perhaps the aesthetics of everyday life is in some way closely connected to the tradition of Kant and Schiller in the play theory of art and aesthetics.  

Collingwood goes on:  "But these antitheses are totally false.  Serious art is serious and trivial art is trivial; children's games are for children and men's games are for men.  But as children are naturally and instinctively artists, so they naturally and instinctively play; and as art for grown men is something recaptured, a primitive attitude indulged in moments of withdrawal from the life of fact, so play is for grown men something to be done as a legitimate and refreshing escape from 'work.'"  This all from his Speculum Mentis pp. 103-5.  

I would argue that there is a continuity between art and play and that the dichotomies suggested and traditionally held are false.  This is not to say that art is the same as play or even a species of play.  Surely art is generally more serious than play, but the aim of neither art nor play is merely physical pleasure.  So too, the pleasures of everyday life are not merely physical.   

Guyer speaks of both art and play achieve their goals of refreshment and relaxation "through their use of bodily energy without the conscious intention of solving any specific practical problem."  And this is also true for many aesthetic experiences of everyday life, for example taking a walk in the park.  Guyer's argument is intended to defend Collingwood against a common charge of excessive idealism.  He claims, I think rightly, that "the rejection of a rigid division between mind and body is essential to Collingwood's defense of both play and art and of the identification of the two"  (207)  although, again, I would hesitate to simply identify art and play.

Another quote from Guyer in this discussion of Collingwood is also relevant to our concern.  He quotes from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria ch. 1V in support of Collingwood's rejection of rigid distinctions between childhood and adulthood as well as play and art :  "the character and privilege of genius ...[is to] ...carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances, which every day ....had rendered familiar..."  (207)    This seems relevant to the contemporary debate over everyday aesthetics.  The everyday may be seen in terms of "the familiar" but it can also be seen through child-like eyes.  Both Coleridge and Collingwood seem to be arguing for an approach to the everyday through a child's sense of wonder, which is what I, much later, called finding "the extraordinary in the ordinary."

Thus reading Collingwood and Coleridge could perhaps help in developing an everyday aesthetics. 

I will close with another quote, again taken from Guyer from Collingwood's Speculum Mentis.   "The true defence of play is the same as the defence of art.  Art is the cutting edge of the mind, the perpetual outreaching of thought into the unknown, the act in which thought externally sets itself a fresh problem.  So play, which is identical with art, is the attitude which looks at the world as an infinite and indeterminate field for activity, a perpetual adventure."  Collingwood concludes later that "the spirit of play, the spirit of eternal youth, is the foundation and beginning of all real life."  (107)   

This would mean of course that art and play are not entirely to be detached from the realm of the practical.   But it approaches the practical from the standpoint of this word "adventure."  If life is approached as adventure it is approached as drama, as something with heightened significance, as wondrous.  The playful approach to the everyday is more in line with what the artist does, hence the continuity between everyday aesthetics, nature aesthetics and art aesthetics.  

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