Thursday, January 24, 2013

Is there a danger of collapsing the aesthetic into bodily pleasure?

Jane Forsey in her new book The Aesthetics of Design (the citation is in my last post) worries about a danger in the approach of everyday aestheticians like myself, Yuriko Saito and Sheri Irvin.  She writes that attending more holistically to human experience carries this danger:  "it threatens to collapse aesthetic experience into bodily pleasure in general, a distinction that I have argued is important to maintain."  (209)  Agreeing with Carlson and Parsons (in their book Functional Beauty), she argues that if aesthetic pleasure can arise from any of our senses then the pleasures of exercising, taking a bath, or sexual activity can be seen as aesthetic, which she cannot admit.  She asks whether drinking lemonade can be "in any way beautiful or aesthetically great, meaningful or profound?"  (210)  In my book, I argued that it can be, as shown by Proust (see my last chapter on everyday aesthetics and the sublime.)  But even if it could not, would that exclude drinking lemonade from the domain of the aesthetic?  After all, things can be meaningful in a small way, and there are lower grades of beauty (for example, the attractive.):  Something doesn't have to be at the highest level of aesthetic experience to be aesthetic. 

But let's return for a moment to the issue of profundity.  In the recent movie Promised Land the Matt Damon character buys a drink of lemonade from a little girl entrepreneur and then turns on his his oil company employer.  We cannot see within his mind but one is tempted to say that this moment of authenticity and honesty (she refuses to "keep the change") is a profoundly moving one for him, perhaps a turning point in the movie.  So perhaps such an experience can be beautiful, meaningful and profound, i.e. as it is for that character in that movie. 

I agree with Forsey that a satisfying head scratch in itself might not be particularly aesthetic, and yet some other element might be added to this, by way of, for example, contemplating the experience or focusing on its aesthetic properties, that would make it aesthetic.  I do not therefore disagree that there is a difference between aesthetic satisfaction and mere sensual satisfaction, but insist that any mere sensual satisfaction can be raised to the level of aesthetic satisfaction.  Forsey says that Everyday Aesthetics "will need to maintain a robust conception of what the aesthetic amounts to, as distinct from the delicious, the comfortable, the sexy and the physically pleasurable in general."  (211)  I would reply that the delicious the comfortable and the sexy can be aesthetic.  The terms, as I have put it in a linguistic mode, can all be aesthetic terms.  They are not always, but they can be.  They can be when they have indicate the quality which I called in my book "aura."  So what bothers me in Forsey's quote is not so much the distinction between the aesthetic and the merely physical as the categorizing of certain terms as necessarily non-aesthetic. Doing so is part of what keeps aesthetics limited to the domain of art.

How Distant is Art from Life?

One of the criticisms of everyday aesthetics is that everyday life is so distant from art that one cannot have a theory, i.e. aesthetics, which covers both art and life.  A common approach then is to say that the term "aesthetics" should be limited to art.  But how distant is art from life?  It is true that art forms usually involve a frame, and that his is not usually the case in everyday aesthetic experience.  It is also true that we often see art as an occasion to take "time out" from everyday life, and that art should sometimes be experienced as distanced from everyday life.  But art also is about life...this is true even usually for abstract art.  The emotional power of art comes from its associations with life.  We have a dialectic here:  distant from life vs. close to life.  But why not choose both.  I  favor a dual approach to the arts.  One is the traditional approach that involves autonomy.  The other involves contextualizing the work in some way, either in relation to the context of creation or in relation to the context of one's own life.  Both of these approaches, I would argue, are necessary for a full and satisfactory experience of art.  This is what Peggy Brand referred to as "toggling." (Tom Gracyk has advocated a similar approach.)  (See my book for references).

Once art is no longer seen as just detached from everyday life (it is only detached in one of its aspects) then it no longer makes sense to see the aesthetics of everyday life and the aesthetics of art as radically disconnected.  Also, once aesthetics is seen as reaching into every aspect of our lives, it no longer needs to be isolated from the rest of philosophy and demoted to outlier status.  It can take its rightful place as central to philosophical thought.  As Jane Forsey puts it "Everyday Aesthetics, in its attempt to broaden the scope of the aesthetic, can be read as attempting simultaneously to re-enfranchise philosophical aesthetics as an important part of philosophy at large.."  (The Aesthetics of Design, Oxford U. Press, 2013, 199). 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ratiu on Mapping Everyday Aesthetics

Dan-Eugen Ratiu of Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, recently published “Remapping the Realm of Aesthetics:  Recent Controversies About The Aesthetic Experience in Everyday Life,Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics, vol. 4, 2012.  This is a nice overview of the current state of the field and is worth reading by anyone interested in everyday aesthetics.  Ratiu argues for a form of everyday aesthetics (what he calls weak AEL, aesthetics of everyday life) that recognizes both similarities and differences between the aesthetics of art and everyday aesthetics.  Although agreeing with much of Yuriko Saito’s analysis, Ratiu argues that contemporary art and the analysis derived from it plays an important role in making us notice everyday aesthetic features and in approaching the ordinariness of the ordinary aesthetic experience (something Saito thought that fine art fails to do) without disregarding the features by which it should be considered aesthetic. This seems right to me.  As opposed to Saito and Kevin Melchionne, Ratiu argues that “extending the scope and realm of aesthetic(s) towards everyday life and those reflected or un-reflected aesthetic reactions that also prompt us toward decision-making and actions [such as cleaning a room] does not necessarily dismiss the concepts of the aesthetic, aesthetic experience, and aesthetic judgement as … shaped in relation to the arts.”  In defense of weak AEL he argues first that aesthetic experience is normative in the everyday aesthetic domain, second that the current fluid nature of art (after the postmodern turn) allows for a common ground of aesthetic theory (i.e. between everyday and art aesthetics), and third that the current “intermingling and hybridization of the art and everyday life in the continuous flux of experiences” further supports the weak form of AEL.  Basically, art and everyday aesthetics are not to be radically separated (which the strong form of AEL would require) due to changes in the nature of art.  Ratiu associates normativity with intersubjective engagement and thus holds that there is a normative dimension to everyday aesthetics.  He believes Saito, Irwin and Melchione are wrong  in holding to a strong AEL in which there is a radical distinction between the two aesthetic realms of art and everyday life. Saito is also inconsistent, he believes, because she argues for a strong moral dimension to everyday aesthetic experience, and this pushes in the direction of the intersubjective.  (I think this is unfair to Saito, for whom normativity and intersubjective engagement plays an important role in everyday aesthetics, as evidenced by the very moral dimension which he thinks causes an inconsistency.)

Ratiu also observes that if we consider the notion of fine art to be attached to a concept of aesthetic experience as disinterested and contemplative then the distinction between aesthetics of everyday life and aesthetics of art must be strict, and yet this notion of fine art has been much challenged in recent times not only within aesthetics but in artistic practice itself.  I agree that “maintaining a relation of exclusion between our life-world (private) and the art world (public), as AEL-strong did [does], is to miss the actual continuity and interaction between two social worlds.” 

Ratiu gets his impression that Saito is an “isolationist” in this respect (the two social worlds isolated from each other) from a passage in Saito where she insists that artist Tirajanija’s food-related work marks a disconnect between art and everyday life since here, a mundane activity takes place in a museum gallery.  So, as Saito puts it, we are “made even more aware of the difference between our eating experience as a part of a work of art and our everyday eating experience.”  The everyday-ness the artist tries to capture eludes him.  Calling eating food art elevates it out of the mundane.  (Everyday Aesthetics 38-9).

Ratiu prefers Vattimo’s idea that “through its exploitation in the everyday practical world, art evaporates into a ‘general aestheticization of existence’, disintegrating ‘into a world of hybrid artistic products’.” (Vattimo, The End of Modernity, 1988).  This evaporation is also evident, he thinks, in the practices of artification and aesthetization.  These “tend to efface the boundaries between experiences of art and everyday life.”

A nice sum up of Ratiu::   "new concepts of the aesthetic and aesthetic experience are employed in recent
debates about art, different from those related to modern/fine arts: they include practical concerns, literal engagement, multi-sensory and bodily experience, frameless character, transience and impermanence and so on, that were supposed to be non-art features. These concepts are useful in developing a consistent aesthetic theory able to accommodate both arts and everyday life and their interaction, thus undermining the sharp division between them presumed by proponents of AEL-strong."  (Ratiu, 404)

I agree with Saito that Tirajanija fails to dissolve the boundaries between art and everyday life.  At the same time, I think Ratiu is right that those boundaries are more permeable today than during the modernist era.  Tirajanija draws out attention to how ordinary eating of food can be more art-like even though his own art practice remains within the artworld.  Ratiu is right that Melchione’s emphasis on the social connection of everyday experiences to larger social practices, so that the aesthetic value is cumulative, should also be extended to the connections between such practices and art practices which themselves are social and cumulative.  We need to re-recognize Hegel’s idea of “spirit” of a culture in which art and everyday life are both manifestations.  It is unfortunate that Ratiu is rather vague in his talk of the importance of "the embodied
self, intersubjectivity and the ontology of everyday aesthetic life" in everyday aesthetics.  I look forward to further clarification in his future writings.