Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Saito's Everyday Aesthetics revisited

For those interested in aesthetics, the below post from Aesthetics Today blog discusses Saito's influential book (as well as some pretty important connections to philosophers such as John Dewey in an "aesthetics of the everyday.")

Saito's Everyday Aesthetics revisited: call for the in-between
// Aesthetics Today

So it has been ten years since Yuriko Saito's Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2007) came out, a seminal work in the burgeoning new field of everyday aesthetics.  She will be having a new book on the topic coming out soon.  But perhaps now is a time to revisit some of the issues raised especially in the first chapter of Everyday Aesthetics with the understanding that this is not necessarily her current position.  The chapter is titled "Neglect of Everyday Aesthetics."  It is available here.  Most of what Saito says in this chapter I agree with and it should be understood that the purpose of this post is simply to use her piece as a jumping off point for reflection, as I have in the past.  Saito makes a strong distinction between two kinds of experience in everyday aesthetics. One kind is the "stand out" experience, roughly similar to Dewey's idea of "an experience."  The second is another set of reactions we might and often do have to sensuous and/or design qualities of objects.  These would include the reaction of seeing an object as dirty and wishing to clean it up.

I accept Saito's expansion of the concept of the aesthetic to include these kinds of responses.  There is a dialogue going on here since Saito may have been partly inspired in this by an early article of mine on neatness and messiness as aesthetic qualities. "Everyday Surface Aesthetic Qualities:  'Neat,' 'Messy,' 'Clean,' 'Dirty'," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism53:3 (1995) 259-268.  Reprinted in The Aesthetics of Human Environments  ed Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant (:  Broadview Press, 2007).  What I currently want to push is an in-between dimension of aesthetic experience, something between the two extremes Saito posits:  a domain that I believe is fundamentally important not only for everyday aesthetics but for aesthetics in general.  In the tradition of Karl Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts and John Dewey in Art as Experience, but also of Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness, I want to call for expansion of this in-between domain, one that overcomes the alienation (usually based on exploitation as Marx would put it, or inadequate social arrangements as Dewey would put it) that characterizes experience at the low or "practical" end of the aesthetic spectrum.  I also see the three levels of aesthetic experience,  (1) the practical, (3) what I will call, after Buddhist thought, the mindful, and (4) the special/extraordinary, as dynamically inter-related.   So, whereas Saito favors a dichotomy between spectator-like experiences and experiences that "prompt us toward actions, such as cleaning, discarding, purchasing..."  I posit this, the middle "mindfulness," realm.  Following Nhat Hanh in his discussion of washing dishes with mindfulness and Marx in his notion of non-alienated labor, I think that there is a problem at the lowest level of the aesthetic:  a problem if the cleaning or discarding is not mindful, the purchasing is based on false consciousness in a society of consumerism (as critical theorist followers of Marx argued), and so on.  Low level activities of the sort that happen when one cleans for entirely functional purposes or purchases clothes just for comfort, usefulness, or getting ahead, become enhanced when they are are mindful of aesthetic qualities. This means that I favor a notion of low-level contemplation, for example contemplative as opposed to mindless shopping. Whereas Saito associates the idea of contemplation only with the high level experience of fine art experience or contemplation of natural beauty, I think that mindful washing of dishes, for example, is contemplative in its own way.  

One difficulty here is that Saito associates contemplation and disinterestedness with rejection of the proximal senses of taste, smell, and touch.  This is not my approach:  I see contemplation as applicable to multi-sensory experience.  Contemplative aesthetic experience of sexual intimacy for example is the preferred mode. Thus, on my view, one can take an aesthetic attitude towards everyday phenomena, and that this can be a more valuable, actually is generally a more valuable, way to approach such phenomena, as long as it does not interfere with getting the job done.

Actually, then, I disagree with the notion that actions such as cleaning, discarding, and purchasing without any contemplative dimension are "typically the way in which aesthetics functions in everyday life."  They may in fact be typically the way in Western alienated capitalist society.  But they may not be in other societies, for example in Denmark or Bhutan.  Moreover, a better society would be one in which the contemplative or disinterested dimension of aesthetic experience of the everyday would be enhanced.  So, to put the point in another way, when Saito says that she wants to include not only aesthetic experiences of art, however broadly defined, but also "those responses that propel us toward everyday decisions and actions without any accompanying contemplative appreciation" (11) I would count this domain as, yes, aesthetic, but only at the very lowest level, and not something to be encouraged.  It is at the mid-level, where responses such as cleaning and choosing are not "almost automatic" as Saito puts it, but are mindful and at least minimally examples of contemplative appreciation because mindful of aesthetic qualities, that a happy life is constituted.  (I also think that other things that Saito says in her first chapter are actually more in accord with this position.) 

I understand the motive behind Saito's dichotomy: the need to move away from the hierarchy in which everything is seen in terms of Western fine art.  Saito eloquently demolishes that position. What I am offering is hopefully the dialectical next stage.  As with Saito, I also think my approach being more in accord with a multi-cultural, global viewpoint.  But this is because I think that in most traditional or tribal cultures, and in many other non-Western cultures, the middle, mindful, aesthetic domain, plays a more important role in life.  I agree with those people who believe that we should be more like the Navajo or the Bali people in their approaches to aesthetic experience, as much as we can given the Western-based world that surrounds us.  It is the Western mindset that promotes the dichotomy of humdrum practical vs. high art aesthetic.  I think that ultimately both Saito and I wish to undercut this dichotomy.

I also agree with Saito in attacking the tendency to see the aesthetic either as "highly specialized and isolated from our daily concerns, namely art, or else something trivial and frivolous, not essential to our lives, such as beautification and decoration" (12) and I agree that the low-level experiences that we are both interested in are important for practical purposes.  

However, although we both want to "restore aesthetics to its proper place in our everyday life" (12) and reclaim its status in shaping the world, I wish to do so by encouraging and enhancing mindful and contemplative approaches to the everyday, whereas Saito is concerned that these approaches are too associated with an art-centered approach to aesthetics.  I agree that art-centered aesthetics can "compromise the rich diversity of out aesthetic life" but am not convinced that it always does.  Nor am I convinced that what she calls "experience-oriented aesthetics" (12) is detrimental to a sound everyday aesthetics as long as "experience" is not just understood in such a way as to privilege the distal senses or extreme forms of disinterested approaches to aesthetic objects. 

I also agree with Saito that "art is almost always regarded [in Western aesthetic theory] as the quintessential model for an aesthetic object" (13) and I believe that she is absolutely right to pursue this line.  (This makes me consistent with her quote from my 1995 article in support of her position, thank goodness.)  Saito presents an excellent discussion of the problems of art-centered aesthetics in the section with that name.  

My only caveat would be a response to Korsmeyer's approach to the aesthetics of food. Saito quotes Korsmeyer with approval as saying "the addition of taste and food to the domain of established aesthetic theory presents problems:  both inevitably come off as distinctly second rate, trailing the distance senses and fine art."  I just cannot agree that it is never right to understand food in terms of fine art:  my own view that something like the El Bulli dining experience is at the same level of high art as the best example of Japanese tea ceremony, and for the same reasons.  We must not turn our Western prejudices against the proximal senses into a determination of what makes fine art:  i.e. that fine art must use the distant senses. 

Nor do we have to see all food preparation as fine art in order to concede that some really is.  Those who see the highest level Michelin star type dining experiences as somehow second-rate in relation to fine art painting for example are missing the point.   Saito further quotes Korsmeyer that "the concept of art, dominated as it is today by the idea of fine art, is a poor category to capture the nature of foods and their consumption." (17)  This just seems a category mistake since food as a category is broad like photography as a category.  Most photography is not art, and even less is fine art, and yet this does not mean that photography cannot be fine art. Similarly if we want to broadly capture the nature of foods and their consumption it would be best to focus not on El Bulli but on the vast number of practices involving food.  I would venture to say that virtually any social practice:  dance, food, music, video games, advertising, religious ritual, etc., can have a fine art manifestation (can be a product of genius, in Kant's sense).  But most dance, food, music, etc. is not fine art.  In any case, I would not want to, as Korsmeyer puts it, "divert attention from the interesting ways in which the aesthetic importance of foods diverges from parallel values in art." (18)  Of course one of the things that food as fine art does is focus our attention on such "interesting ways" just as dance as fine art focuses our attention on features of dance that differentiate it from other art forms.       

Saito further quotes Wolfgang Welsh as holding that sport, for example, "cannot substitute for Schonberg, Pollock, or Goddard" which, in my view, is just plain silly, since (1) no one is calling for substitution, and (2) the correct comparison class is master artists. It is not sports against Pollock, but Pollock compared to the El Bulli master chef, Adria. 

Saito is also excellent in his list of various things that are associated with the paradigms of classical Western art and which do not apply to everyday aesthetics.  Putting the point negatively, she says that there are various features that make certain everyday aesthetic phenomena non-art, like "absence of definite and identifiable object-hood and authorship, our literal engagement, transience and impermanence of the object, and the primacy of practical values of the object" (17) although I am somewhat concerned about the notion of "primacy of practical values" which can be interpreted in different ways.  

Saito's discussion of frames as unique to art as opposed to everyday aesthetics is of particular interest.  Ronald Hepburn had once noted that non-art objects are frame-less and that we then become the creator of the aesthetic object:  the frameless character can, as Saito puts it, "be compensated by exercising our imagination and creativity in constituting the aesthetic object as we see fit." (19)  I agree with this, but then I also think that this means that we are then virtually framing the object and thereby treating it as if it were a work of art at least in respect to being something that is now unified and has an imaginative/creative dimension, although this time introduced to some extent by ourselves as viewers.  This is why I say in my book that artists are the greatest experts in the aesthetics of everyday life.  They are constantly seeing landscapes for example as if they were works of art by framing them and exercising their imaginations in the process.  It is interesting in this regard that Saito's examples of such framing (a baseball game, the streets of New York, and drinking tea) read like a poet's appreciation of these things.  She has a fine poetic sensibility.  But poetry is an art form.  Moreover, when she says "in appreciating the smell and taste of green tea, I may incorporate the visual and tactile sensation of the tea bowl, as well as the sound of slurping" I note that this is exactly how one ought to appreciate tea in the setting of the Japanese tea ceremony, which Saito elsewhere recognizes to be an art form. (15)  

Saito admits that "In constructing the object of our aesthetic experience in these cases, we do select and specifically attend to certain ingredients in our perceptual field, just as we do when we appreciate art as art." (19)  The difference in her mind is that, in art, we determine this based on social convention and "institutional agreement" not on the basis of "our personal preference, taste, and inclination."  And she is right at least in that there is some greater degree of institutional agreement in the realm of art, but it strikes me that this is only a matter of degree and that there certainly a lot of relying on "our own imagination, judgment, and aesthetic taste as our guide" in art as much as in everyday life. Moreover, as Saito herself has described, there are some everyday practices that involve a lot of institutional agreement, for example sports and cat beauty contests.