Monday, January 9, 2017

“The Aesthetic as a Matter of Practices: Form of Life in Everydayness and Art” by Giovanni Matteucci,

I just read “The Aesthetic as a Matter of Practices: Form of Life in Everydayness and Art” by Giovanni Matteucci, Comprendre  18:2 (2016)  9-28 link, a very interesting paper with which I mainly agree.  

Here is his abstract: "A set of phenomena that have been marginalized for a long time are now putting to test the traditional boundaries of aesthetics. Today it’s not surprising to find books and
essays concerning the «aesthetics» of food and clothing, sport and daily objects and events. Such expansion de facto of the topics covered by aesthetics is sufficiently justified by the fact that the fore mentioned phenomena – although it is often difficult to
assess their aesthetic significance from a philosophical point of view – have a decisive influence on the current configurations of taste. This role was in the past assigned mainly to art and to its ability in shaping high cultural styles. But nowadays it seems to
have become the prerogative of daily life’s practices which include design, fashion, tourism, gastronomy, recreational and leisure activities, wellness, wellbeing etc. –in other words the crucible in which life-styles (instead of art-styles) are formed."

Matteucci argues for continuity between aesthetics of everyday life and aesthetics of art, agreeing with John Dewey, and yet also wishes to raise issues concerning the problems of aestheticization in our contemporary culture.  He has an interesting discussion of my concept of “aura” as developed in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary link but has a problem with what he considers my failure to consider the dialectical relation between auratic and non-auratic as well as with my stress on the notion of the exceptional or the extraordinary.  

Matteucci observes that the aura view leaves out the dialectical tension between the auratic and the non-auratic "that is necessary in order to avoid a dogmatic use of this notion."  I think he is right that aura is dialectical tension with non-auratic or with what Dewey called "inchoate" experience.  Part of that is that we see our auratic experience as a way of dealing with the dreadful aspects of everyday life.  Also I think he is right in his suggestion that there can be false or repressive aura, for example as generated by advertising campaigns or "reality" shows on television, or currently that which surrounds our President-elect.  Kitsch seems to have aura, but this is very shallow.  In the age of mechanical reproduction, as Walter Benjamin coined it, aura hardly disappears (contra Benjamin): it is just displaced, but in a way, often, that seems to strip it of most substance.  Strangely, original artworks take on even more aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. Witness the ways in which we treat great works of art as though they were religious relics.  But there is a positive side to this too.  Some of us still go to museums to contemplate great art in the original (and in fact, this is a very popular pastime, here in the San Francisco Bay Area...witness the popularity of the Museum of Modern Art).  

Matteucci also writes, "It’s not a matter of something exceptional or extraordinary, but of something that appears pointful in our interaction with the environment"  I don't have any problem with this as I think that the term "extraordinary" had important rhetorical purposes for me earlier but now can be replaced by other terms for other purposes.  "Pointful" might be too broad, however, or at least ambiguous since it might confuse the aesthetic with the important, useful or interesting.  We can meaningfully organize our experience without organizing it aesthetically.  Aesthetic meaning may be just one type of meaning.

One of the things Matteucci discusses is the change of aura and everyday aesthetics in a digital era.  This reminds me of a classroom experience I have been having recently.  I often show "slides" in my classroom, but see them on my computer screen more often than on the screen the students see.  And sometimes I notice that what they are looking at is drained of color or pixilated poorly.  The students are actually getting a worse aesthetic experience than I got when looking at actual slides projected by way of a light bulb in my undergraduate classes of the 1970s:  the color was just richer then.  I require my students to take a trip to a museum or art gallery and writer a paper about a work they have physically encountered.  At least they will get the color, texture and other rich aspects of the work not captured in the digital image, not to speak of the physical context of its placement.  

Along similar lines, we might also consider the thinning of experience within the library, where books are replaced by electronic products which are remarkably similar to physical books in look and experience and yet are resistant to the complex interactions we have with physical books, especially in our ability to flip not only through pages but through entire sections, while also flipping to the back for footnotes and index, back and forth.  In addition, the experience of marking up the book, and then rereading it with attention to our marks is largely lost with the electronic book.  Increasingly our libraries refuse to buy physical books, and only provide us with (usually more limited) access to electronic versions of the books.  This is an aesthetic as well as a scholarly loss in the everyday life of the scholar: a conscious loss for the teacher, less conscious for the student.

Also, Matteucci writes, in relation to our technological age, "even a painted image can enter a person’s aesthetic background more as a photograph or a screen picture rather than as viewed without artificial mediations."  In support of this point I have observed that some of my students are no longer able to distinguish between a photograph, a digitalized image, and a painting.  They often, quite surprisingly, use the word "photo" to refer to all three, even to a painting observed in a gallery.  In one instance a student referred to a photo as a painting!  They often also use "picture" to refer to all three.  Although this is grammatically right, it shows an unawareness of the differences between each kind of image. 

I find it difficult to correlate the idea of "rational argumentation," which Matteucci seems to support as a basis for legitimization of everyday aesthetics in relation to art (following Kant:  the sensus communis works in each case), but which I think is overrated in everyday aesthetics (do we really engage in rational argumentation over whether or not a room is neat....only when one is obsessed with rational argumentation?), and Roger Scruton's very different claim, supported by Matteucci only a few lines later, that, "[t]he doorframe is not just preferred but interpreted, and the interpretation involves metaphors..."!  I think Scruton captures better what happens in everyday aesthetics:  it is more a matter of interpretation by way of metaphor than one of "rational argumentation."

However, I like Matteucci’s idea of "a form of competence, a know-how that concerns and supports the ability to manage and enjoy an aesthetic experience while exploiting the normative criterion of its pointfulness," and especially his idea that “The new topic for aesthetic analysis is no longer the experience of something, but the experience with something. And this is the source of the current pervasive force of the aesthetic, a reservoir of experiential intensification in a reality connoted by the saturation of functional needs” which is to say that the very notion of “an experience” that Dewey once described so well is under transformation in our own information age.   

Finally, I am not sure I agree with the idea that there has been a shift of aura from art to practices and forms of life.  Rather there has been a shift in theoretical interest.  Why can't we just say that the newly enlivened field of everyday aesthetics has opened up a new arena of interest that, in no way, takes away interest from the long tradition of fine art.

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