Friday, January 11, 2019

Kant and Everyday Aesthetics


Kant seems at first not to be a friend of everyday aesthetics.  It might seem that the distinction between everyday aesthetics and fine art aesthetics divides neatly according to Kant’s distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful.  However Kant’s concept of disinterestedness is such that anything can be an object of aesthetic delight.  So this could include the everyday as well as the unusual.  The examples may be a bit deceiving.  For example, Kant insists that canary wine can only be agreeable, and roses can only be beautiful.  But this doesn’t really work.  Canary wine can be beautiful if perceived disinterestedly.  Food can be beautiful if perceived without hunger.   Likewise, roses can be perceived in an interested fashion, for example as a way to curry favor with a lover.  

But what good is disinterestedness?  Everyday aestheticians have often been particularly unhappy with this concept.  It seems sometimes that there are two modes of everyday aesthetics.  There is the everyday aesthetics of the ordinary and the everyday aesthetics of the extraordinary.  I have argued in the past that there is a continuum between these two branches and that they are not necessarily at odds.  But I have also argued that once one attends to something aesthetically one raises it above the humdrum.

Still, there are pleasures that just do not rise to the level of the aesthetic.  These might well fall into the realm of the merely agreeable.

Aesthetic perception, I have argued, involves perception of something as having an aura.  This requires what Kant called imagination.

One central issue here is how we ought to live our everyday lives.  I am inspired in this by the work of Buddhist philosophers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh.  We should attend to the surrounding environment in a focused way, and this gives rise to aura.  Aura arises spontaneously, usually because of ever so slight novelty.  It is not that with mindfulness everything has the same level of aura.  

I have been reading Michel Chaouli  Thinking with Kant's Critique of Judgment  (Harvard, 2917) .  I agree with Chaouli that aesthetic perception is poetic.   Disinterestedness brackets out normal everyday concerns and focuses us on the appearance of the thing.  It frees us up in a way.  Focuses us on the now, not the past or the future.  

Chaouli has a somewhat different approach to Duchamp than Danto or Dickie.  (13)  For him Fountain  can actually be understood from a Kantian perspective.  Here we have to dis-associate the beautiful from the merely pretty.  The urinal is a thing of everyday life. 

What Danto and Dickie failed to see (in my view) is that Duchamp was engaged in deconstructing the distinction between the artworld and the everyday.  "the difference between aesthetic and nonaesthetic pleasure that Kant is working to reveal does not lie in the content of the feeling, nor in the object that evokes each, nor again in its intensity, duration, or relation to other feelings...[aesthetic pleasure] describes the relation that the subject establishes between and object and the feeling of pleasure..."  This, of course, can be had towards the everyday.  

One important issue for everyday aesthetics is whether there is judgment in the everyday and not just what Kant called gratification.  When we quarrel we quarrel over things that we judge.  Let's say that I pronounce a cup of coffee good, and my wife agrees.  This is sufficient judgment and sufficient community for us to talk about the pleasure as aesthetic.

The key to knowing whether something is aesthetic in the sense of the beautiful is putting it on a pedestal.  So in what way do we put things of everyday life on a pedestal.  Of course we submit things to judgment everyday:  for example, the neatness of my room, the cleanliness of the kitchen, the tastiness of the dinner, whether or not this sentence is well-formed.  But we also have private experiences:  the odd thing in the neighborhood that gives me a moment of delight.  Do I put that on a pedestal?

I can use the ideas of Susanne Langer here.  The thing appears to exist in a virtual world.  Whenever the real world becomes the virtual world, or whenever a virtual world is created we have something that goes beyond the humdrum.  Maybe the word “extraordinary” is not best:  but whenever something a bit special happens then we have the aesthetic.  Through mindfulness a lot that would ordinarily seem to be humdrum becomes something a bit more special.  One can think of how important taste is in everyday life:  taste in home d├ęcor for example.  Let’s not think too much about “rightful claim upon the assent of all men” and just think of what happens when anyone enters our house.  Who has good taste is my friend.    

We need to also think about the closeness of the aesthetics of nature to the aesthetics of everyday life.  In previous writings I have stressed the relation of the aesthetics of everyday life to art.  But what about nature?  In a way you could say that the world of the everyday is the natural world as it is, normally, for humans.  Our houses, our clothes, our roads, etc. are all part of our natural lives.  We speak of this as culture, and yet it is equally nature, as much as the hive is for the bees.  When the tree I look at on my walk has a certain aura, has aesthetic presence, this is the tree as natural thing as well as cultural artifact:  how can the two be separated.

Kant suggests a way of life.  Again, I am drawing from Chaouli.  He quotes from Kant "If a man who has enough taste to make judgments about products of beautiful art with the greatest correctness and refinement, gladly leaves the room in which are to be found those beauties....and turns to the beautiful in nature, in order as it were to find here an ecstasy for his spirit in a line of thought that he can never fully develop, then we would consider this choice of his with high respect and presuppose in him a beautiful soul."  (#42)  For nature, read everyday life.  But then this would be a kind of human ideal.  This is much like that kind of experience described by Emerson and Thoreau.  There is also a moral dimension here:  a "beautiful soul."   Chaouli observes that this does not involve, for Kant, isolation from human society.  Note that the experience Kant describes is the same one gets from apprehending an "aesthetic idea":  a line of thought he cannot fully develop.   It is interesting that it is a man of taste who turns to nature.   In my view, it is the phenomena of nature that here serve as aesthetic ideas, i.e. as symbols.  They therefore appear in a virtual space, to evoke Langer again.

I think that when things emerge into aura this is their essential nature.  And yet this is not cognitive, at least not in a science like way.  It is poetic.

In a review of Chaouli's book (for the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76:2 2018) Samuel Stoner writes "for Chaouli believes Kant "familiarizes us with the idea of aesthetic experience, that familiarity with this idea prepares us to experience the world aesthetically, that this experience allows us to live poetically, and that living poetically can make us happy."  (246)  This makes clear how Chaouli's interpretation of Kant can push Kant in a useful direction for everyday aesthetics.  As Saito has often observed, the importance of everyday aesthetics includes an ethical dimension.  And as Aristotle has taught, happiness the our human goal.  Kant, on this account, encourage seeing the world in the way an artist (of genius) would.  Stoner also correctly observes that Kant would stop short of this since he associates happiness with the agreeable and not with contemplation of beauty.  But is an overall narrow view of the English word "happiness":  surely Kant would accept an expansive notion of happiness that incorporates the notion of fulfilling ourselves as humans.   As Stoner says "Chaouli uses happiness in an un-Kantian way..."  (246)  "opens up the possibility of a life that is happy because it is meaning filled and therefore meaningful" (248, referring to Cahouli 234)   This leads to a kind of existential fulfillment.   

Chaouli believes that the freedom of taste is "freedom to make anything into an object of pleasure for ourselves"   This, of course, opens Kant up to everyday aesthetics, as is his claim that aesthetic experiences is essentially creative, poetic activity.  "I feel aesthetic pleasure thanks to my poetic imagination." (11)   One way that Chaouli helps us appropriate Kant to everyday aesthetics is that he explains the idea of poetic imagination with respect to Kant's notion of aesthetic ideas.  Although "aesthetic ideas" is a concept mainly devised to discuss the artistic genius, it can also be used to describe a certain way of seeing things in the world.  If one sees things as aesthetic ideas then one sees them as symbols that have indeterminate meaning, one sees them poetically.   The line of thinking that I have pursued in everyday aesthetics has been in this direction.