Saturday, March 8, 2014

What is the point of everyday aesthetics?

This is a tricky question.  The different authors who have explored everyday aesthetics have different answers to it.  There are many motives for exploring the everyday.  One is environmentalist.  Some authors, for example Yuriko Saito, believe that fundamental to everyday aesthetics is recognizing that many of our consumer choices are not environmentally sustainable.  Things that give us pleasure shouldn't give us pleasure:  ultimately we should change our standard view of beauty, prettiness and so forth so that a green lawn which is not environmentally sustainable will no longer look beautiful, whereas a sustainable native plant garden will.  This is certainly a valuable project although I would hesitate to hang the significance of everyday aesthetics on this alone, and neither does Saito, by the way.  Another approach is to argue that everyday aesthetics encourages life-style changes that are good for us in that they promote happiness.  More specifically, we are encouraged to notice the little things in life.  This approach might generate a book that would go into the self-help section of the library.  The theme might be:  one ought to maximize happiness by maximizing the pleasures of life.  Do not just take a shower but see a shower as an occasion, as a possibility to pay attention to the multiple dimensions of experience, and hence to, in a sense, treat the shower experience as though it were a work of art.  This is a version of hedonism somewhat like Walter Pater's epicureanism.  It involves a kind of amalgamation of everyday aesthetics with utilitarianism, particularly of the sort that John Stuart Mill favored.  Mill stressed that the quality of the pleasure one maximizes is important.  Now Mill expressed this unfortunately by saying, contra Bentham, that pushpin is not as good as poetry.  The everyday aesthetician would insist that sometimes pushpin is as good as poetry:  life need not be a zero sum game when it comes to pushpin vs. poetry.  There are riches to popular arts, to sports, and to many other aspects of life, that need not be neglected in order to enjoy the riches of serious art.  Or at least the only zero sum aspect here is just the amount of time one has to spend on leisure pursuits.  Time spent on pushpin is time not spent on poetry.  But even then, there are times when we only have the psychic energy to indulge in pushpin, poetry be damned.  Probably the best approach to everyday aesthetics with regards to the debate between an environmentalist approach and a hedonist approach is to try to balance the two concerns/motives.

Another related issue is the ongoing question of whether one ought to base everyday aesthetics on special experiences or whether it should be based on the ordinary experiences of life.  This has been a point of contention between Dewey and myself on the one hand and Haapala, Melchionne, Saito and Naukkarinen on the other.  Let me propose a possible resolution by focusing on Saito. 

Saito in her book Everyday Aesthetics (45-53) wishes to oppose those who hold the aesthetic attitude theory even though they would certainly open up aesthetics to everyday aesthetics. (If you believe in the aesthetic attitude then you believe that anything can experienced aesthetically, although some things are much harder to so experience, and some reframing may be needed).  Saito grants that there are experiences in which there is some "dramatic break from our humdrum experience."  This might be caused by taking the aesthetic attitude, being disinterested in Kant's sense, being distanced in Bullough's sense, or having "an experience" in Dewey's sense.  She describes a couple such dramatic experiences in her own life.  She then says:  "However, I maintain that [these] views are...still too restrictive.  What is common to these theories is that the aesthetic (qua experience) is something which contrasts with the humdrum of everyday experience."  Dewey, for example, considers the humdrum the enemy of the aesthetic.  Saito goes further in her attack on this tradition (especially Dewey) arguing that in this tradition "the aesthetic experience is described as a kind of encapsulated unit that is hermetically sealed off from our ordinary engagement with daily life."  Bullough, for example, is cited as calling on us to cut our the practical side of life in having such an experience.  

I agree with Dewey that "the humdrum" experience is a deep problem and that it is the opposite of the aesthetic.  This is not however because I would want to make everyday aesthetics based only on the possibility of some very rare type of self-transcending experience that is itself sealed off from everyday life.  So how to resolve the difficulty?  This relates back to the beginning of this post.  The solution is to posit a range or continuum of possible aesthetic responses that avoids what appears to be a false dichotomy.  Instead of having to choose between focusing on unusual special experiences and the everyday as ordinary one needs to recognize a vast in-between area in this continuum.  The humdrum, on this view, falls just below the continuum of the aesthetic.  It is the vast region of everyday experiences that has nothing or every little aesthetically positive about it.   A large part of our experience is of this nature, and part of the motive of everyday aesthetics is to raise our everyday experience above the humdrum, to, in a sense, aestheticize it.  At the upper end of the continuum are certain self-transcending experiences, and these are ideals, but they need not define the field.  Dewey himself recognized many of the mid-level experiences.  He not only talked about that fine meal in a French restaurant that summed up all a meal could be but also the satisfaction a mechanic could get from doing a job well, and even the contemplative pleasure we experience in watching a fire in a fireplace.  Similarly, Bullough's idea of distance need not be tied simply to special once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  Yesterday my wife said to me as we were driving "look at the clouds:  they look like paint brush strokes."  I looked and enjoyed:  this was a low-level aesthetic experience that rose above the humdrum but certainly did not arise to the highest point in the continuum.  Metaphorical seeing can make some things just a little more special. (I have perhaps contributed to exacerbation of this debate by emphasizing the word "extraordinary" in my boo.  Ellen Dissanayake in her many books stresses the phrase "making special" which is much more mid-level or more to our purposes here.)  Moreover, a recognition of low-level and mid-level aesthetic experience allows for the kinds of activity-oriented responses that Saito stresses, for example seeing that a room is messy and cleaning it up.  However, here is where an important issues arises.  Sometimes, well usually, actually, cleaning up is humdrum.  Often, for the vast majority of workers in our world, work is tedious, boring, deadening, alienated.  So this comes back to the normative thrust I would wish to give to everyday aesthetics.  On my view it is a matter of encouraging us to attend to the aesthetic possibilities of ordinary experience in order to make it not humdrum.  Instead of sealing off certain experiences from ordinary engagement with everyday life the hope is to enhance these ordinary engagements.  

Saito writes about cases in which we "fail to achieve such a special experience." (46)  She speaks of these as cases "in which we form an opinion, make a decision, or engage in an action guided by aesthetic considerations without invoking any special experience."  She observes that "most of us attend to our personal appearance almost daily:  choosing what to wear and what sort of haircut to get, cleaning and ironing clothes..."  decision and actions which are guided by aesthetic considerations.  I agree:  we make these choices based on, for example, whether the aesthetic term "looks cool" applies to these clothes, etc.  However, many of these experiences of choice only rise very minimally above the humdrum.  They are hardly even aesthetic in any interesting sense of the term.  Why is this?  Well, for an answer to this we need to turn to William Morris, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In short, most everyday aesthetic choices are alienated, express false consciousness, are inattentive, and show a herd mentality lacking unity of style.  Certainly they do not rise to the level of a high level experience, but they also do not rise much above the lowest level.  They are shallow.  Saito and Haapala stress that we should focus on the everyday ordinarily experienced, and I agree that this should be a major focus.  But I would also suggest that what is ordinarily experience may just barely hover above the level of the non-aesthetic.  When Bullough says "we are not ordinarily aware of those aspects of things which do not touch us immediately and practically" he is calling on us to see things in a way that escapes what the Marxist critical theorists called "false consciousness."  Saito quotes Sartre with disapproval on this point, but I think he is on the mark when he describes the state of alienated consciousness so common in our society:  "There are no beginnings.  Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition." (40)  Sartre complains, through he character Roquentin, that there are no adventures or perfect moments in life like works of art.  This is a dour way to look at things, to be sure.  It asks us to exist only at the highest level of the continuum of aesthetic experience or not at all.  But Sartre's complaint about ordinary experience and his claim that in order to aestheticize the ordinary one has to relive it as a story:  this seems right. 

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