The Idea of the Aesthetic: A Class Review

A Lawnmower and Grass. (Credit: Pixabay)

When I started my freshman year at my home institution of Skidmore College, I was determined to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in visual arts. Like many other students, I had been drawing, painting, and making art since I was a kid. So, when the time came for me to start applying to college, it seemed only natural to me that I keep doing what I’ve always done and  loved doing. However, both during high school and my early years at Skidmore College, I developed an interest in political science. My fascination with politics quickly grew into a love of social and political philosophy. For a large part of my education, the two fields of art and philosophy were entirely separate subjects to me. In fact, art began to fall away from my studies as I dove deeper into philosophy. I assumed that there simply weren’t any connections between these two spheres. It had not occurred to me that philosophy of art would be of any significance, because to me it appeared to be an apolitical, amorphous field of formal criticism.

Then I decided to study abroad at Bard College Berlin. A major factor in my decision to attend was the philosophical bent of many of the school’s academic courses. Among the classes I signed up for was Katalin Makkai’s The Idea of the Aesthetic. Katalin was highly recommended by friends of mine who had taken courses with her in previous semesters. While I had always been intrigued by aesthetics as a branch of philosophy, I did not expect it to become important to me and my philosophical interests, which were almost exclusively of a political nature. In the class, we picked through the ideas of important philosophers in aesthetics. We started with Plato, Kant, and Schopenhauer, and then moved on towards Noël Carroll and Susan Sontag, examining them individually and in relation to each other, keeping in mind the question: What is aesthetics, and what is it for? This question gave rise to impassioned discussions about issues within aesthetics, especially with regard to the relation between art, aesthetics, and politics.

In Ancient Greek, aesthesis refers to sensory experience, and this is also where we get the term “anesthesia” (not-sensing) from. It is Immanuel Kant [*1] who we consider the godfather of aesthetics. Kant, I would argue, developed aesthetics as a way to explain the unique experience of beauty, like when we look at a beautiful flower or painting. Simply put, aesthetics asks the question: What is it about an object that makes it beautiful? What is beauty? For Kant, these questions are crucially different from the question: Why do I like what I like? So, to interrogate beauty is to interrogate its object—a sculpture, for example—and to ask how the object elicits an aesthetic response in a person. This has become the traditional definition of aesthetics in the West. In this way, Kant gave definition to the field of aesthetics, articulating its common association with art and, to some extent, nature.

But how do we define aesthetic experience?

Fast-forward to 1912: Edward Bullough comes on the scene with his popular idea of “psychical distance” [*2]. In my opinion, he provides the most comprehensible explanation of aesthetic experience. Simply put, “psychical distance” occurs when an object (such as an artwork) affects us in such a way that it momentarily erases its context, forcing us to experience the object ‘purely’. To take a common example, suppose I am looking at the Mona Lisa. When I see the painting through psychical distance, I am no longer thinking about who made it, what it is made of, who is depicted, or how much money it is worth. Instead, I am looking at it as art itself. Of course, there is a paradoxical problem here, which Bullough recognizes in his article: If you “distance” yourself too much from an art piece (“over-distance”), it becomes incomprehensible—zero context effectively results in zero experience. On the other hand, if we pull in too much context (“under-distance”), the aesthetic experience dissolves, becoming indistinguishable from everyday experience. The Mona Lisa then becomes a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, universally famous, the holy grail of the art market. Proper psychical distancing occurs when you, the viewer, find yourself comfortably between these two limits.  This constitutes a simplified explanation of proper aesthetic experience.

Bullough’s account comes close to how I have always conceived of aesthetics, namely as the study of art in and of itself. But, I find it an unsatisfying account: by failing to address the relation of art and aesthetics to politics and everyday life, and through his abstraction of art from context, Bullough suggests that these fields are wholly separate. Aesthetics, and therefore art, are limited in their effects and uses.

However, as the course progressed, I began to realize that aesthetics is not nearly so narrow a field. Initially it seemed to me that aesthetics was a distraction from “what really matters”: the isolated world of art had no relation to the realm of political and social justice—what bearing aesthetics had on these matters was not even about art in and of itself. Instead, what mattered were the circumstances surrounding aesthetics. An example that may help clarify this idea is if we were to ask: Who controls and has access to museums? I have been to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) many times during my summers back home in the Boston area, but I have never seen a fellow brown person there; not to mention that the gallery spaces in the museum are filled predominantly with works of white, male painters. Entire wings are dedicated to European art, but there are merely two dark and narrow rooms that feature  “The Art of Africa” [*3]. Thinking back on these trips in class, I decided that aesthetics was virtually irrelevant.  “What really mattered” were the social constructs that surrounded it; the art world was merely one apparatus that solidified the a locus of control for the dominant class.

So why should we care about the subject of aesthetics? If we strip away the sociopolitical context, what relevance does it have beyond the elite world of museums and art critics? One of the most recent things we read with Katalin was Yuriko Saito’s Everyday Aesthetics (2007) [*4]. Here, Saito shifts the focus of aesthetics away from objects onto experience itself. She classifies traditional aesthetics as “special experience-based aesthetics” (Saito, 43) and makes brilliant use of John Dewey, an American philosopher who was influential in education and social reform, to explain this concept. She writes that he would likely describe an aesthetic experience as being an experience of an experience—that is to say, a unique experience that stands apart from the continuity of everyday life. But, Saito inquires, “what about those cases in which we form an opinion, make a decision, or engage in an action guided by aesthetic considerations without invoking any special experience?” (Saito 46). When women put on makeup, when we mow the lawn, or go the gym after work, we are making aesthetic judgements. Aesthetics is inevitably inseparable from day-to-day life.

This is not to say that we should approach ordinary experiences as “special” experiences, as the phrase stop to smell the roses suggests. Rather, that there exists an aesthetic to life ordinarily experienced—one that, as Saito argues, deserves investigation. Consider the dangerous aesthetics of Nazism, which revere the ideal male form and roots itself in classical iconography. Or consider the futurist and utilitarian aesthetics of the Soviet Union. Or, to bring it into the contemporary discourse, the aesthetics of race and gender. Saito shows us how aesthetics goes well beyond the rarefied field of art theory, affecting almost every aspect of our lives. In a sense, it could be said that Saito brings aesthetics back into orbit of its original meaning, aesthesis: sensory experience; everyday sensations. Day-to-day, when we walk out into the world, we make aesthetic judgements which both shape and are shaped by the world around us, both consciously and subconsciously.

In Taste in Bodies and Fat Oppression (2017) [*5]. A.W. Eaton shows explicitly how our tastes on a societal level—our “collective taste”—shape the world, often for the worse. Within her work, she provides an expansive list of discriminatory practices that find their origin in aesthetic judgements. Consider, for example, that a majority of healthcare professionals “report feelings of disgust when caring for fat patients” (Eaton, 2017: 43). This results in serious levels of discrimination within healthcare practices: “physicians spend less time with fat patients, and fat women are one-third less likely to receive breast exams, Pap smears, or gynecologic exams (Fontaine et al. 1998)” (Eaton 2017:43). This is just one of many examples that Eaton provides where aesthetics have severe impact on society. Clearly, we need to pay closer attention to the role aesthetics play in our lives. Far from marking the end of aesthetics, I believe that works like Saito’s Everyday Aesthetics and A.W. Eaton’s Taste in Bodies and Fat Oppression provide the possibility of a renaissance for the field of aesthetics.

Thinking about my class, The Idea of the Aesthetic, why should we pursue earlier philosophers of aesthetics, given their seeming irrelevance? Certainly, Kantian aesthetics is now a rare field, but this is where aesthetics was born: Kant’s innovations, as well as those of Schopenhauer, Bullough, and all that follow, are the foundations upon which a greater aesthetic theory can be built. We read Kant so that we can take the field of aesthetics out of the museum and into our everyday life. We study aesthetics so that we can understand the ways in which aesthetic judgements produce both material and social landscapes and cement certain kinds of oppression. Such a reevaluation of the aesthetic field could bring about serious change to society and our personal lives.

 

Notes:

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement. Eds. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  2. Edward Bullough, “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,” in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, eds. Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008).
  3. Map of the MFA can be found here: https://mfas3.s3.amazonaws.com/mfa_map_level1_march2018.pdf
  4. Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  5. A.W. Eaton, “Taste in Bodies and Fat Oppression” of Body Aesthetics. Sherri Irvin, ed. Oxford University Press, 2017.