Monday, October 5, 2015

Aesthetic Health

Kevin Melchionne has an idea of aesthetic health as found in an article of his called "Artistic Dropouts," to be found in Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions, a textbook I am using this semester.  The article first came out in 1998.  I did not recognize it previously, but it is one the founding documents of the new sub-discipline of everyday aesthetics.  This should not be surprising since Melchionne's later writings have also consistently addressed this issue. In  this article, Melchionne argues that aesthetic health is like emotional health.  Let us say that emotional health includes the ability to empathize with others, for example, or to control emotions.  In parallel, "an aesthetically healthy person reflects upon the pleasures that she has and seeks to discover their sources."  He further says that aesthetic health "means being open to sources of satisfaction encountered randomly in the world or proposed for our consideration by our friends" or artists through their artistic creations.  This is a matter of "being able to appreciate a decent chunk of what is offered by the world."

I doubt that any of this could be proved or established in the way we establish notions of emotional health, but it seems reasonable as a working idea.  It is interesting to contrast Melchionne's conception of the aesthetically healthy person and Hume's concept of the good judge.  They are not totally different since the good judge is someone who is not "defective" in delicacy of imagination, although it seems a stretch to speak of the good judge as healthier than others.  One difference is that Melchionne's aesthetically healthy person is interested in the sources of his or her pleasures, whereas this does not seem to be an interest of Hume's good judge.  Another difference is Melchionne's inclusion of random sources as well as those proposed by artists and friends.  

An important feature of aesthetic health for Melchionne is that it develops through both expansion and refinement.  He speaks of an aesthetically healthy person as being able to "expand her capacity to appreciate more and more of what the world has to offer."  This is not an idea that you would find in Hume, but does accord with the above-mentioned idea of appreciation of random things.  This person "seeks out new experiences or creates new variations of past successes." This is a glass-half-full type of person, an overall optimist about life.  For example, when she approaches the artworld she is looking at it as a "feast of visions rather than a glut of egos."  The picture Melchionne offers is of someone who is actively seeking out new experiences rather than someone mainly interested in judging. 

What about refinement, though?  Melchionne must have had Hume in mind here because he indicates that the capacity to refine experience allows for "convictions about the aesthetic quality of what she encounters" that allows the aesthetically healthy person to discriminate in the "sea of aesthetic possibilities" and thus avoid nausea...possibly a reference to Sartre.  But, in contrast to Hume, he observes that "without the thirst for new, unforeseeable experiences [the expansive part], her capacity to make these fine distinction would degenerate into the pedantic quibbling of the snob."  In other words, someone who just follows Hume's theory of taste may just be a snob:  we need this openness of expansion to escape this fate.  For Melchionne, the exploration of possibilities is more important than establishing a hierarchy of values.  The snob may be focused only on the superiority of this wine or that cheese.  Thus aesthetic health does not depend on clear judgment alone [or at all?]:  nor are judgments really as clear as is often pretended. 

He goes on to make the even more anti-Humean point that "aesthetic health doesn't depend on our recognizing that one wine is really better than another."  Rather it depends on our capacity "to discover which wine we ourselves enjoy more," as well as understanding the source of that preference.  I cannot agree with the idea that aesthetic health is just a matter of knowing one's own preferences and the sources of those preferences.  How does one come to know one's own preferences better, anyway?  Nor am I willing to throw out the concept of qualitative difference, since with that would go the concept of the good judge itself.  

Like Hume, Melchionne speaks of refinement, but mainly understands this in terms of a development of personal confidence and a coincident development of "a sense of adventure and higher expectations"  Yet, again, although development of such a sense may well be an important part of the journey of taste, what sense can be made of higher expectations if there are no qualitative differences?  

Melchionne's expansiveness leads to his version of the aesthetics of everyday life.  As he puts it, "a finely honed but voracious aesthetic appetite helps us to combat the boredom and banality of everyday life," allowing us to develop "our everyday aesthetic perceptions."  Melchionne believes that these things are "pleasurable in and of themselves."  

This leads him to suggest that "the most valuable art is that which we can do." (Wouldn't it rather be this?  The most valuable art for us is that which we cannot do extremely well but can do fairly well.  Thus, someone might value ball-room dancing because he does it fairly well, while still recognizing that the most valuable form of this it was someone else does extremely well.)  That is, that we can "practice certain arts on a daily basis" makes them valuable.  This leads to his notion that human well-being consists mainly in "the art that surrounds us in our everyday lives," i.e. the "everyday arts."  These arts "are valuable simply because the everyday matters."  Further, "everyday art is the world of immediate experience upon which a good part of our overall satisfaction with life depends." 

He then argues that examining this everyday artworld allows us to see the "artistic dropout" referred to in an earlier part of the paper as dropping "into" something, i.e. "an ordinary life of creative possibilities.:"  These include "decoration and maintenance of the home" and "mundane excursions across town" all of which now, become art because they "arrange our lives for the enhancement of aesthetic experience."  This can, for example, happen in garage bands or auto-customizing.  

For Melchionne the home itself ends up being most people's largest project, with our daily excursions forming perhaps the next largest when those excursions involve appreciation.  The basic pattern of everyday life:  "most of us do most of these things on most days."   

Melchionne concludes that when others "derive aesthetic satisfaction" from these things "we become artists of everyday life." So the concept of art itself is expanded. 

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