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.

1 comment:

Glenn Russell said...

Hi Tom -- Your comments on Epicurus and Aesthetics inspired me to write this commentary on Epicurus as part of my overall commentary on the 40 Doctrines of Epicurus -- The wise Epicurean knows there is a type of possession even more valuable than possessing all the fine material goods, and that is possessing the ability to be in the world as a certain kind of artist. Not an artist whose artwork is a painted canvas or a marble sculpture, but instead an artist whose artwork is oneself, to transform our life in a way that we see beauty wherever we look; we have a sensitivity to the texture of things; we bring an element of creativity and artistry to our being in the world. What we taste, hear, feel, see and smell takes on a richness as we deepen our love of life. And the amazing thing about this type of possession, as Epicurus well knew - it is absolutely free! - free and easy, not difficult to obtain in the least. All we need do is slow down and become more attuned to the present moment. The more measured our pace, the more attentive we become, the more beauty we will experience. Epicurus did not formulate a separate aesthetic theory of beauty for the simple reason the entire lifestyle he proposes is itself beautiful.