Thursday, November 13, 2014

Liu Yuedi, Chinese Philosophy and Everyday Aesthetics

A new book, Aesthetics of Everyday Life:  East and West edited by Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) points out some interesting cross-cultural connections between Chinese and Western (particularly Anglo-American) work in everyday aesthetics.  The preferred term amongst the three Chinese aestheticians I will mention here is "living aesthetics."  The three thinkers are Liu Yuedi, Pan Fan, and Wang Que. (I will only discuss Yuedi today.) The motives for an interest in everyday aesthetics can, of course, be different in different cultures.  As Yuedi observes, the interest in everyday aesthetics in China is based in part on a reaction against certain aspects of Western aesthetics.  (I suspect it also has to do with specific historical circumstances in post-Maoist China where direct political democracy is discouraged but capitalist production and consumption are encouraged.)  Another way to look at this however is in terms of a movement towards internationalism and intercultural dialogue.   As part of this dialogue Yuedi connects the rise of everyday aesthetics in the west with Arthur Danto's "end of art" thesis.  I have ambiguous feelings about this move.  Although it seems that, for Danto, after the end of art the distinction between art and everyday life dissolves, it is not clear how far that goes.  The construction of a definition of art that depends on the artworld does not eliminate a strong distinction between the artworld and the rest of life.  Indeed, Danto often uses words like "transfiguration" to mark a transformation by which an ordinary everyday life object can be taken up into the world of art.  Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes are precisely not the same as the visually identical objects that might appear in a warehouse.  If the distinction between the everyday world and the world of art really dissolved then Danto's point about indiscernible counterparts would no longer hold.  At best, what we can say is that current developments in art tend to dissolve (contrary to Danto's belief) these very boundaries.  Although it is true that, in the world of contemporary art, as Yuedi observes, conceptual art dissolves the distinction between art and concept, performance art between body and art, and land art between environment and art, all of these movements could be seen from Danto's perspective as transfiguring various types of things into the realm of art.  Still, this transfiguration might tend at least to soften the boundaries between the two realms.  But, still, no one is seriously, contrary to Yuedi's suggestion, going to advocate the identification of art and life...or if there is any identification it is only a metaphor that itself is situated clearly in the realm of art.  So when Yuedi says "Perhaps living aesthetic only arises where art is thoroughly dissolved within life, or where life is thoroughly aestheticized." (19) I register some skepticism.  However, my skepticism is not extended to the broader concern of "intercultural interaction" which I think can be fruitful.  Yuedi puts the issue in a better way when he speaks of the age of globalization as promoting two movements:  "life as art" in which elements of everyday life are drawn into art, and "art as life" in which everyday life is aestheticized.  Here, instead of speaking of identification we are speaking of world-and life-changing metaphors.  The lessening of the importance of the distinction between fine and popular arts has also contributed to this overall trend.  

Yuedi sees the Chinese contribution to all of this rightly I think in terms of three movements in the Chinese tradition:  Confucianism, Taoism and Zenism (where the Japanese term is taken to stand for the Buddhist tradition arising from India, China and Japan.)  Confucianism might well be seen as presenting a kind of unity of li (rituals) and yue (music) in a harmonic aesthetics of living, in which the ideals of daily life are seen both aesthetically and ethically.  Yuedi also mentions the later concept of qing, which "refers to the affections that arise from the nature of man encountering things external to it."  (25)  Taoism, as Yuedi, observes, is also foundational to Chinese aesthetics in a way that stresses everyday life, both Confucianism and Taoism being "philosophies of life."  The importance of Zenism in the aesthetics of everyday life is almost too obvious to mention.  See for example my previous post on Thich Nhat Hanh and the concept of mindfulness.  

I should also mention that this anthology also contains a chapter by me:  "Everyday Aesthetics and Happiness."  26-47.    

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