Thursday, August 1, 2013

How should “everyday aesthetics” be defined?

How should “everyday aesthetics” be defined?

Kevin Melchionne addresses the issue of defining everyday aesthetics.[1]  He rightly has a problem with my own negative approach to this definition.  I had said that everyday aesthetics covers everything that is not art or nature.  That was a mistake on my part since it should also exclude aesthetics of mathematics, science, and perhaps even sports.  However Melchionne’s own effort at defining everyday aesthetics may have its own problems.  He wishes to distinguish the everyday in the sense of what is recurring and ongoing (for example in cleaning and other daily activities) from activities that are more rarely done, such as interior decoration or preparation for a festival.  The distinction is a useful one but should not be used to limit the field of everyday aesthetics.  That is, we should not be overly limited by the literal meaning of the phrase “every day”:  everyday aesthetics should not be literally limited to that which occurs every day.  The reason for this is that a general field of aesthetics not covered by art aesthetics or by nature aesthetics is needed.  That is, we need a field that covers both daily cleaning and preparation for a wedding.  It is true that many minor arts are involved in the later (for example, fashion and cake-decoration):  and so perhaps they are covered by the notion of “art” broadly conceived.  But it is not clear that this has been done, i.e. that the aesthetics of weddings has been generally included in discussions of art even when the minor arts are included.  Moreover, there are various activities that are not daily in nature, for example “putting on one’s Sunday best” or “taking a Sunday drive” that can be analyzed in terms of aesthetics but which do not literally happen every day.

Melchionne also insists that “the daily finger exercises of the pianist are not relevant to everyday aesthetic theory.”  This, he argues, is because few of us are pianists:  it is a specialized practice.  But should specialized practices be excluded from everyday aesthetics?  The issue is mainly a matter of terminological choice.  I prefer to think of specialized practices as a branch of everyday aesthetics, while the common practices mentioned by Melchionne are another branch.  Art aesthetics is not normally going to include the finger exercises of pianists, or at least it has not yet done so.  Of course these exercises may play an important role in the creative process of the pianist.  So it is hard to see how they may be totally excluded from art aesthetics.  Perhaps we should say that they fall someplace between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics, or within both domains depending on how you look at it.  I would say that finger exercises form part of the aesthetics of everyday life for the pianist.

On the other hand I would agree with Melchionne and Saito that the Japanese tea ceremony is not part of everyday aesthetics:  it is, after all, an art form of its own.  The relationship between the tea ceremony and everyday life is nicely captured by Melchionne’s comment: “After participating in a ceremony, if I return to my daily food preparation with a deeper appreciation of the utensils, the heating and pouring of water, the aroma, then the tea ceremony has improved my everyday aesthetic life.” 

Another example of Melchionne’s overemphasis placed on the idea of daily practice is his idea that “a window with a view of a landscape has no everyday aesthetic value if the room is rarely occupied or the blind always drawn.”  This is an interesting case that has wider ramifications in relation to the aesthetics of nature.  A window with a view of a landscape is in itself neither art nor nature, and yet looking out of the window at the landscape is a matter of appreciating nature.  Allen Carlson and his followers would argue that it is inappropriate to appreciate nature in this way since in doing so one is not appreciating nature as nature.   Moreover, this would be an instance of using the landscape model for aesthetic appreciation of nature, and Carlson disapproves of this model.  Carlson would find particularly problematic the way that the window frames nature as if nature were a painting.  One should not, on his view, appreciate nature as though it were a painting.  I see this as a telling counterexample to Carlson’s theory.  It is perfectly acceptable to appreciate nature as framed by a window.   Indeed, this is one of the many wonderful ways that we do appreciate nature.   The aesthetics of nature should be broad enough to handle this kind of appreciation of nature.  But does this imply that I would exclude this experience from everyday aesthetics?  No. If awareness of the window is an important feature of one’s appreciation of the landscape, then this experience is also part of everyday aesthetics.  One might for example be appreciating the natural scene as picked out by the architect through placement and sizing of the window.  This is also, then, an aspect of art appreciation: of appreciation of the art of the architect.  What conclusion should we draw?  It should be that the everyday, the natural and the artistic are often closely intertwined.  Architecture is the art form that is closest to everyday aesthetics since our everyday experiences are so often governed by the designs of the buildings in which they take place.

But what about the distinction between daily experiences in the room and ones that are quite rare?  Contra Melchionne, this distinction is of little importance.  I agree that “if the light, the view, and the bench beside it contribute to the aesthetic character of some daily moment, then we may speak of the window in terms of everyday aesthetics”: but this would also be the case if it contributes to the aesthetic character of a  once-a-year moment.  At the same time Melchionne is right to draw our attention to the special kind of experience which is daily:  his notion that certain experiences are aesthetically important because pervasive is an important contribution to everyday aesthetics.  It is just not so important as to require limiting everyday aesthetics to pervasiveness that is daily.

Now I wish to speak briefly about Melchionne’s comment on taking out the trash.  One of my favorite comic strips Rose is Rose frequently has one of the lead characters, the husband “Jimbo,” experiencing what he calls his “garbage moment.”  When he takes out the garbage he contemplates the stars, the universe, and life.  For him, taking out the garbage seems to have a profound aesthetic character every time.  Melchionne says  “taking out the trash is an everyday activity for nearly every one, but it is not typically an aesthetic activity. It would be bizarre to embellish it with ceremony.  Of course, it is possible to conceive of taking the trash out aesthetically.  But what matters is not the logical possibility of a quality but, instead, its typicality.   Agreed:  taking out the trash is not typically considered an aesthetic activity, except for Jimbo (and for me, actually).  The comic strip has resonance, and others on the web have referred to their “garbage moment.”  I also agree that it would be bizarre to embellish it with ceremony.  But then what counts as such embellishment?  It isn’t bizarre to, for example, always stop, look into the sky, and think about one’s role in the larger nature of things when one takes out the garbage….just a little odd.  Part of this experience can include the irony that this involves something as lowly and disgusting as garbage.  After all, Rose is Rose is a comic strip, and it is somewhat funny that Jimbo has garbage moments.  Still, humor does not exclude the aesthetic.  Moreover, it is not clear that seeing taking out the garbage as aesthetic is any more odd than seeing ordinary everyday cooking as aesthetics.   Melchionne follows the above quote by saying,An everyday practice is not rendered aesthetic by some counter-intuitive transfiguration, leap of creative re-invention, such as an artist’s ready-made.”  Fine, but is a counter-intuitive transfiguration or creative re-invention of the sort Duchamp engaged in when he put up Fountain as a work of art really needed to have a “garbage moment”?  I don’t think so.  Melchionne concludes “the typicality and conventionality of the activity fosters and gives shape to the aesthetic.”  Admittedly, Jimbo and I are not typical in our garbage moments, and what we do is not considered “conventional.”  Should our experience then be excluded from the aesthetic? 

In conclusion, I have questioned Melchionne restriction of everyday aesthetics to “the aspects of our lives marked by widely shared, daily routines or patterns to which we tend to impart an aesthetic character.”  Things that are not so widely shared and not so daily, may also fall under the domain of everyday aesthetics.  Rather, Melchionne may have marked out a sub-domain of everyday aesthetics, one worth considering on its own.    

[1] “The Definition of Everyday Aesthetics” Contemporary Aesthetics (Vol. 11, 2013)

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