Negative Aesthetics In Art, Environment, And Everyday Life: Arnold Berleant’s Theory And The Novels Of Kirino Natsuo  

Negative Aesthetics In Art, Environment, And Everyday Life: Arnold Berleant’s Theory And The Novels Of Kirino Natsuo

Mara Miller


Arnold Berleant’s valuable analysis of ‘negative aesthetics’ in his 2010 book Sensibility and Sense: The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World provides an analytic framework not only for general investigation of negative aesthetics but for understanding their extension into daily life and literature. It illuminates the work of Japanese novelist Natsuo Kirino (1951- , 夏生桐野), just as her novels illustrate Berleant’s negative aesthetics. In Kirino’s narratives, negatively aesthetic landscapes determine characters’ mindsets, even as they mirror the moral and aesthetic bleakness of society at large, revealing characters’ internal dynamics and the larger social world with the same destructive efficacy Berleant points out—an efficacy we ignore to our peril.

Key Words
aesthetics; art; Arnold Berleant; engagement; ethics; moral; Kirino Natsuo; negative aesthetics; trauma


1. Introduction

Arnold Berleant’s analysis of ‘negative aesthetics’ in his 2010 book Sensibility and Sense: The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World is one of his most valuable contributions in a highly original and productive body of work.[1] Berleant’s most important contributions lie first in his insistence on the limitations and perversions that aesthetic distance brings to aesthetic theory in general and to the understanding of environment in particular, then in his recognition of the interrelations of the aesthetic with the moral and ethical and of the interpenetrations of—or erasure of the boundaries between—the aesthetic and daily life.

In general, “aesthetics” typically refers to positive aesthetics. Berleant’s expansion of aesthetic analysis to the negative is valuable for several reasons. First, he recognizes that aesthetically negative appears in many kinds of situations: the built environment, nature, cultural practices, and artworks (including “fine,” “folk,” and “applied” arts, mass and popular arts, etc.), and that negative and positive aesthetics often coexist in the same work. His work therefore provides a framework not only for general investigation of negative aesthetics but for their extension into many related areas of intense concern today.

His analysis of negative aesthetics goes beyond the ugly, monotonous, and other commonplace shortcomings typically recognized by negative criticism, the vernacular, most common (and easiest) of the four types of criticism.[2] For Berleant recognizes that negative aesthetics may be either intentional or unintentional, and their depictions either unsuccessful and successful, again as in Kirino’s work—distinctions crucial to our understanding of artworks and their effects.

Berleant’s work on negative aesthetics illuminates a number of issues regarding the fiction of award-winning Japanese novelist Natsuo Kirino (1951- , 夏生桐野), work which in turn illustrates many of Berleant’s important points regarding negative aesthetics.[3] While many aspects of daily life within Kirino’s narratives exhibit negative aesthetics, negatively aesthetic landscapes in particular claim attention, not only setting the stage for action but conforming to—or determining—characters’ mindsets, even as they mirror the moral and aesthetic bleakness of society at large. Rarely contrasting with either actions or feelings, the landscapes amplify, as they comment on, their internal dynamics—and relate them to the larger social world.

Before exploring these, however, we must understand what Berleant means by negative aesthetics, illustrating it with selections from Kirino’s fiction that illustrate Berleant’s points (in Section 2). Section 3 addresses Kirino’s novel Real World directly for illumination by Berleant’s philosophy of negative aesthetics.

2. Berleant’s negative aesthetics: definitions

Berleant’s most important contribution is the attention he has drawn to aesthetic engagement, to the situations and the ways in which engagement arises, and to the limitations of aesthetics traditionally construed—where it typically pertains to aesthetic objects (works of art, views of landscape). Although aesthetics as traditionally conceived typically arises in the context of sensory experience, philosophers often regard aesthetics as ultimately independent of or unrelated to actual physical existence. For Berleant, however, “aesthetic value rests on the centrality of sense perception, [and therefore] it involves experience that is somatic and not exclusively psychological” (p. 157) nor any other kind of mental. He contrasts engagement, a participatory and direct mode of relation, with the predominant Western models for experiencing landscape and art, and for aesthetic experience in general, models that are based on observation of the object or environment from a distance, and that imply a Cartesian metaphysics and epistemology.[4] His position sabotages the familiar distanced bi-partisan relationship between the Subject having the experience and the object occasioning the experience.

As we see in Part 2, Kirino’s opening of her novel Real World exemplifies Berleant’s position, challenging views of aesthetics as distanced, as recognized by an autonomous Subject who functions -who is able to function-independently of her environment.

2.1 Aesthetics and engagement

Most aesthetic theory is based on some version of the notion of distance or disinterestedness—the premise that aesthetic appreciation requires or entails that we have separated it out in crucial ways from the ways we appreciate and/or engage in other things. These more customary—and vital—ways include survival value and “interest.”

Engagement, by contrast, is a concept introduced by Arnold Berleant to help us capture the sometimes-distinctive modes of aesthetic experience—awareness, interest and interaction—that human beings have with their environment(s), with landscapes, and with art. The concept is necessary because while aesthetic experience is typically understood to presuppose or require distancing (also understood as disinterestedness), the experience of landscape invariably entails some degree, however minimal, of interest and involvement in even the rawest or most “primitive” physical/material senses—and may demand far more.

By “primitive” I refer here to the sorts of involvements all living organisms have with their physical environments, including the demands of physical safety, the provision of nutrients, etc.

2.2 Definitions of negative aesthetics

Berleant defines negative aesthetics as what is “perceptually distressing, repellent, or painful, or [that which] has effects that are harmful or destructive” (p. 158). Typical examples apply to many environments, both natural and built:

perceptual assault …[h]igh levels of sound or noise, bad air, excessive visual stimulation, and overcrowding” (pp. 162-3); …every form of pollution also includes perceptual insult and causes aesthetic damage as well. High levels of sound or noise, bad air, excessive visual stimulation, and overcrowding are aesthetically as well as physically damaging (pp. 162-3).

2.3 Characteristics of Berleant’s Theory of Negative Aesthetics

There are several important points to be made about Berleant’s view of negative aesthetics. 
First, as I read it, Berleant’s negative aesthetics allows—and sometimes requires—the individual’s personal, even what we typically think of as “subjective,” evaluation, and thus cannot by definition be purely objective; if so, it must—and does—come to terms with variance in evaluation. There are also cases, however, where Subjects are not aware of it, and negative physiological and/or psychological responses are nonetheless quantifiably documented, as with studies of effects of noise pollution on school children have found.

Second, it requires a quantitative component: “…[it] occurs when an aesthetic situation has a predominately negative character that outweighs the positive…” (p. 157), although this “quantitative” component is not necessarily quantifiable in all cases, and also depends on the quality of the experience:

trite, perceptually shallow, offensive, demeaning, or even harmful;(p. 157) [They are works or situations] with no redeeming qualities, from those that are trite, baldly unsubtle, overly sentimental or maudlin to those that are sadistic, degrading, or damaging… [and] bad taste, such as kitsch and sentimentality. … clichés, jargon, and all such formulaic writing… (p. 160).

Third, our recognition of negative aesthetics is often subliminal rather than conscious. Yet it is no less offensive for that:

… the aesthetically negative often slips by unnoticed and eludes critical scrutiny, settling into vague discomfiture. Part of this discomfort… may result from the subtle presence of negativity or from the very failure to recognize that aesthetic negativity is indeed present (p. 160).

This is borne out by the continuation of a character’s experience in her parking lot in another of Kirino’s novels, Out:

As she always did at this moment [after getting out of the car, and before going in to work], she lit a cigarette, but tonight she realized for the first time that she did it to cover the smell of the factory (p. 1).[5]

And indeed the difficulty we have recognizing it may make it more harmful. Like a patient with fever, we become less capable of recognizing our infirmities and the steps we must take to remedy them as the effects of the illness become more severe.

Fourth, aesthetics is commonly recognized as relating both to intrinsic qualities and to arrangements of qualities (“composition”); similarly, negative aesthetics may inhere in the presence of something offensive, or an annoying way of combining or arranging features that are in themselves positive. But Berleant notes that negative aesthetics can also arise even with features and/or arrangement that are positive—provided they are insufficiently stimulating. Particularly in the context of landscape and built environments, aesthetic negativity often takes the form of aesthetic deprivation:

We can speak of social and physical environmental situations [that are] so thoroughly bland that they dull our sensibilities as aesthetic deprivation: tract housing, big box stores, and ritual conversation (p. 164).

Ritual conversation is one of the principal irritants in the lives of Kirino’s Real World teenagers, one of the forces that prevents them from wanting to maintain relationships with parents and teachers, and propels them into the ethical and emotional quagmires in which they find themselves. Their physical environments are equally offensive and destructive: the new tract housing around Ninna’s home, with cynical attempts to distinguish them with names like “estates” that fool no one. Such is the case with the ominous landscape of the opening of Kirino’s Out:

The boxed-lunch factory was in the middle of the Musashi-Murayama district, facing a road that was abutting the grey wall of a large automobile plant. Otherwise, the area was given over to dusty fields and a cluster of small auto repair shops. The land was flat and the sky stretched in every direction. The parking lot was a three minute walk from Masako’s workplace, beyond another factory, now abandoned. It was no more than a vacant lot that had been roughly graded (pp. 1-2).

Of course, Berleant’s aesthetic deprivation is not the only theoretical construct to apply to this landscape, whose negativity is compounded by the absence of signs of human caring. As Kirino continues:

The parking spaces had once been marked off with strips of tape, but dust had long since made them almost invisible. The employees’ cars were parked at random angles across the lot…. The whole effect was somehow sinister, and Masako glanced around nervously as she locked the car (p. 2).

Ninna Hori in Real World has noticed the equal indifference to human needs and to the physical environment in her suburb:

Seven years ago the boy who lives in the house diagonally across from us kicked a soccer ball that shattered a window in the room where we keep our Buddhist altar. The kid completely ignored what happened, and later on he was transferred to a school in Kansai. I remember the abandoned soccer ball sitting there under the eaves of my house forever.[6]

Again, as in the shared inattention to the smog alerts, victims and perpetrators alike share this indifference. It is earned helplessness for, as with the voices over the loudspeakers, it is impossible to assign agency; as landscape researchers Kevin and Rachel Kaplan found, the presence of signs of human caring is an attribute necessary to landscapes if they are to be both pleasant to human beings and physically and socially safe;[7] indeed Masako interprets her landscape as “sinister.” One of Berleant’s most important contributions is drawing our attention to aesthetic indifference and unconsciousness.

Fifth, as we have seen, negative aesthetics depends upon our subjective responses, and our recognition of negative aesthetics is often subliminal rather than conscious. But in such cases it can often be identified nonetheless, not only by the negative feelings or sensations associated with it, but by negative effects:

Like the permanent physical damage caused by persistent malnutrition, habitual drug use, or extremely loud sound, the damage to both perception and health may be deep and lasting. Here one can count things that may not be directly apparent and dramatic but are pervasive and damaging, such as the many forms of environmental pollution, among them smog, noise, water, and space pollution (p. 162).

The smog and noise pollution of Ninna Hori’s morning meditation are as invasive, as damaging, mentally as they are physically.

Sixth, for Berleant, unlike most philosophers, the moral and the aesthetic per se may co-occur and even be integrally related:

…[]t is worth noting that although pollution is rightly condemned on ethical grounds for its adverse effects on health and well-being, …every form of pollution also includes perceptual insult and causes aesthetic damage as well. High levels of sound or noise, bad air, excessive visual stimulation, and overcrowding are aesthetically as well as physically damaging (pp. 162-3).

That these effects often include the moral constitutes a significant break from much of traditional aesthetics since Kant- though not, of course, from Plato or from Aristotle, for both of whom the moral was integrally connected with the aesthetic. The moral and the aesthetic are two dimensions along which negative aesthetics may operate.[8]

Kirino, too, recognizes the relationship between negative aesthetics and ethical and/or moral deterioration. In Kirino’s Real World, the impersonal aural onslaught, whose peculiar pretense of caring and authority, denial of responsibility, and concealment of agency have become so familiar that adults take them for granted, sets the stage for the moral cacophony that follows engulfing the teens:

The siren keeps on droning. Right in between one of its groans, I hear a loud sound, something breaking next door. Our houses are so close that if you open the window, you can hear the parents yelling at each other, or the phone ringing. I’m thinking maybe a window broke (pp. 3-4).

The noise pollution due to the overcrowding of the houses leads, paradoxically, to an artificial distance between the neighbors: Ninna Hori, the girl whose inner monologue opens the novel, like her neighbors, lives in ignorance of her neighbors’ lives, in spite of how easily their lives may intersect.

2.4  Berleant’s contributions

A powerful theory of negative aesthetics should prepare us to deal—both theoretically and practically—with the variety of effects negative aesthetics has—on us as individuals, on our feelings and actions, on our societies and sub-cultures, on other aspects or modalities of the range of venues where it emerges.

In addition, it should cover the range of venues where negative aesthetics appears. Berleant includes not only works of art and natural environments (the typical objects of aesthetic analysis since Kant), but environments like Disney World,[9] and the “[p]erhaps more prevalent … forms of aesthetic negativity not directly associated with art objects but present in situations that are not ordinarily considered aesthetically: urban environments, cultural practices such as ceremonies and rituals, and the functioning of an organization” (p. 162). Again Kirino, in the voice of the boy known as “Worm,” who has killed his mother:

The first thing I heard was a woman’s whispered laugh. And then I opened my eyes and saw some heavy dingy green curtains. The same crummy curtains my old lady had bought at Peacock for my room… (p. 109).

Although these crummy green curtains return us to the issues of the personal nature and variability of aesthetic judgment, they also remind us of how determinative everyday aesthetics can be—not only of the immediate aesthetic experience but of matters such as interpersonal relationships and personal identity.

Finally, a theory of negative aesthetics must encompass both inadvertent and deliberate uses. Here Berleant rightfully recognizes the need to distinguish between a negative aesthetics and negative criticism, which encompasses lack of talent, patience, technical training, appropriate materials, etc., which it is the task of critics to elucidate and which is determined at least partly by scope:

Negative criticism thus does not necessarily exclude positive values but may find that they are in some way unfulfilled or unrealized. Negative aesthetics is distinguished by its scope. There are circumstances, though, where no positive value is present or intended or where the merit of an entire object or situation is entirely obscured by negative factors (p. 160).

In other words, we must distinguish between work that is simply unaccomplished and that which is the intentionally unpleasant—between the unwitting clashes of the novice pianist and the brilliantly and deliberately discordant piano in Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up to Dry.”[10] In cases like the latter, the painful discordance is aesthetically positive—pleasurable—as we recognize two valuable forces at work. First, there is a higher pleasure (that is, beyond immediate sensation) of integrating different realms of sensation and making them work together—a higher level of integration, the combination of individually pleasing sounds of a simple (pleasant-enough) song must be heard in conjunction with a highly discordant piano. The effect is at first unpleasant, and then immensely satisfying. Second, we realize the discord and required integration are suited to the intense emotions expressed in the lyrics—which are not in fact appropriate to the song’s superficial simplicity and pleasantness. The overall structure expresses an experience we have all had: we act as if we are getting along fine, perhaps mention the crucifying pain we feel inside—but only in pleasant terms (“My wife and I are getting a divorce;” “My girlfriend is leaving me”)—while the underlying pain is expressed only at times, and as a “bass riff,” as it were—almost unheard, almost unnoticed.

Berleant’s special gift has been to integrate into aesthetics not just this bi-modal distinction, but also works and situations and environments to which we can attribute a variety of forms of human agency: a) no human agency at all (a purely natural environment) or b) an at best confused or dispersed agency (a commercial strip not regulated by zoning laws), or, worse, c) an agency that is, deliberately destructive (death camps, some prisons), willfully or arrogantly negligent (work housing for immigrants), or unyieldingly heartless regarding the side effects or by-products of one’s (or one’s corporation’s) actions. This is the range in which Kirino’s protagonists live.

Beyond that, in fiction, film/video, painting, and sculpture, for instance, we must distinguish between work that is deliberately painful because it presents the pain of others (here I would include Kirino’s work as well as examples cited by Berleant, paintings such as Toshi and Iri Maruki’s Hiroshima Panels[11] and Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808” and Disasters of War series), and works that are painful to the audience because of the style, with little pain evident in the characters. In some (not all) cases, this is due to “aesthetic deprivation”—an excess of the blandness.

2.5 The bland and the boring: negative and positive aesthetics based on style

An example of the latter is Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, where little or no pain for the characters is presented, but so little happens, and the characters seem so unaffected by what does happen, that the effect is overwhelmingly boring.[12]

In fact, the boring or bland marks out a huge territory. To begin with, although the boring or overly-bland constitutes for Berleant an important category of negative aesthetics, especially in landscape, I would want to distinguish the boring as an attitude toward what is perceived as overly bland. And both this attitude and the perceptions upon which it is based are culturally determined, and change over time; they also often depend upon the level of “education” or familiarity of the perceiver with the artform and its underlying theory.

We also recognize cases where it is—or comes to be, over time—a valuable aesthetic in its own right. The simple beat of early rock-n-roll, the repetition of Philip Glass’s operas, and the deliberate blandness of strokes, color and composition in much Confucianist and neo-Confucianist literati (aka wen-jen hua, Bunjinga, Nanga) aesthetics in China, Japan, and Korea,[13]for instance, are all highly valued by their cognoscenti, who have learned either to perceive differences invisible to outsiders, or to value the blandness and repetition in their own right. And in some physical contexts, either the ambient light is so bright or the over-all level of sensory stimulation or information input is so high that dullness becomes a positive value in and of itself.

Still other cases—Kafka’s The Castle comes to mind—present mind-numbing repetition not as a value but as grimly negative. Yet this formal structure replicates our situation, and thus constitutes a major thrust of the work; passages describing Gilgamesh’s journey to find Utnapishtim function in much the same way, replicating its arduousness for the reader. They are valuable not for their intrinsic pleasure, but for their accuracy in depicting experience in a modern bureaucratic state or the hero’s journey through mountains and desert, and for the penetrating vision and the moral that comprises a critique of modern life and the determination of the hero’s quest.

2.6 The importance of aesthetics and of the negative effects of negative aesthetics

Berleant rightly recognizes the far-reaching effects of aesthetic deprivation. Although they may be physical, as is the case with the environmental aspects mentioned, these harmful effects include the specifically aesthetic:

Deprivation can become so complete that it actually extinguishes our capacity for sensory experience. Conditions of such deprivation may be harmful and produce aesthetic damage either through the loss of the capacity for perceptual satisfaction or by withholding aesthetic occasions (p. 164).

On a Kantian view, the presence of beauty or sublimity and of the capacity to perceive them would always be positive, an addition to life. Yet their absence, for Kantians as for Platonists, may go unremarked, and is not necessarily seen as a deprivation or harm. For Berleant, (positive) aesthetic pleasure is not simply an “extra,” but a necessity.

Indeed, in the aftermath of twentieth-century genocides and the Holocaust, when we have seen so many survivors (and survivors’ families, and other secondary and tertiary witnesses) lose the ability to enjoy life, a condition reported and studied as dysthymia or alexithymia, the presence of negative aesthetics and the absence of positive aesthetics in daily life become matters of life and death. As Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) put it after visiting Hiroshima and seeing the effects of the atomic bombing, “Looking at old works is a matter of life and death.”[14]

The need for pleasure is a long-established human peculiarity. Although as a species we began our production with tools, we soon added jewelry for personal adornment; if our early cave paintings are not the result of conscious decisions to make images that are beautiful, they nonetheless reveal an innate facility for making beauty. One of the earliest industries in the Mediterranean area was fragrance-production and trade. Denis Dutton has argued powerfully that our species has an “art instinct” that is adaptive and facilitated by both natural and sexual selection.[15]

In the case of environments, the coexistence of negative and positive aesthetics gave rise to an entirely new art, the garden, which is always an attempt not only to increase aesthetic pleasure but to decrease the negative aesthetics—those due both to natural forces (too-bright sunlight and heat, too little water) and to social and technological events: passing traffic, loud noises, rampaging wild animals, etc.

In contrast to art, where we expect to find most or all formal features to be intentional, in the context of landscape and environment, what is negative is often not intended as aesthetic at all, but the result of carelessness, of lack of control, “of the very failure to recognize that aesthetic negativity is indeed present” (p. 160):

In the technologically- [and… profit-] oriented social world that has developed since the industrial transformations in the dominant technology, the aesthetically negative is represented in the many “quick and dirty” solutions that disregard both their environmental and human consequences in the interests of speed, convenience, and profit. The list here is endless, from the polluting runoff from the hills of slag that accompany mining operations and the utility poles disfiguring and obstructing the streetscape, to roadways that blast a straight course through every geographical configuration in the name of efficiency (p. 166).

Whereas in environmental cases it may be a by-product or side- effect of an economic or physical benefit, in other cases the negative might be deliberate. This is especially often the case in the arts as we will now see.

2.7 Negative aesthetics in the arts

Berleant’s negative aesthetics has complex relations to the arts. First, negative, even painful, effects are often intended. Second, in some cases, negative aesthetics gives rise to art: our need to ameliorate unpleasant environments was one force leading to the creation of pleasure gardens, landscape architecture, and architecture as an art. Third, arts, especially literature, have also often led the way in identifying and criticizing negative aesthetics.

For Berleant, such usages are justifiable because they bring moral awareness and may lead to moral and/or political action. In fact, as Berleant reminds us, much art uses negative aesthetics for positive (ethical or moral) objectives:

It is crucial to distinguish between art that is itself aesthetically negative and art that exposes negativity (p. 171).

Several of Kirino’s novels push the limits of what is tolerable to read about. Are these

cases of deliberately press[ing] against the limits of perceptual and moral comfort….a social benefit …extending the range of endurable experience, as in scatological art, erotic art, pornographic art, and profanatory art[?] Even though some may find such work deeply troubling and even painful, [does] it … perform a social function by accustoming people to face experiences that they consider unmentionable or anathema[?] (p. 161).

Such works do not do this in a way that either makes us more callous and tolerant of other people’s pain, or makes us enjoy the pain per se. This makes them valuable.

2.8 The aesthetics of trauma & pain

This brings us to another kind of artwork incorporating deliberately painful effects. The twentieth-century’s works of true genius are those that have found a physical/artistic form that does full justice to the victim’s pain and terror, works such as Virginia Woolf’s description of the psychological disintegration of Septimus Warren Smith, the First World War veteran who ultimately kills himself in her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, which manages to recapitulate for the reader the internal monologue of a mind suffering from what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Similarly Picasso’s “Guernica” and Iri and Toshi Maruki’s Hiroshima Panels not only offer the world evidence of injustice and preventable cruelty for the moral imagination, but simulate visually a) the physical dismemberment, flying bodies, and chaos of their scenes, and b) the disruptions and ruptures of cognition and feeling that accompany actual trauma (which is, after all, defined psychologically and psychoanalytically by missing memories and lack of appropriate feeling). Such painting is not a telling about but a reproducing of the experience of the victim, the feeling (and sometimes the not-feeling) Subject. It may make us more empathetic, if we are open to it. (Not everyone is.) It also presents that experience in ways that we can then use to think—to make decisions, and so on.

Work that represents the pain of others may not only reproduce their experience, as those just discussed do. They may also refuse the full identification with the structure of the experience and just show the events—in ways that either foster empathy and identification (as with images of the Crucifixion) or inculcate callousness.

These two are not inherently inseparable, as we know from the video of the real-life beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, which largely kept fresh its ability to affront the viewer and arouse righteous anger on the victim’s behalf, yet when shown repeatedly in court turned out to render the viewing jurors apathetic. The inculcation of callousness may be unwitting or deliberate and may depend on either the work’s formal qualities or the conditions of viewing.

2.9 Further Complexities and Contradictions Among Negative and Positive Aesthetics

Berleant takes care to stipulate that aesthetic values are not necessarily singular or homogeneous: “A situation may possess complex and even incompatible value” (p. 157). And negative aesthetics embrace a wide range of feelings, both negative and positive:

A dramatic situation, for example, may be at the same time bizarre, ludicrous, pathetic, and perhaps even tragic, combinations of the sort that Harold Pinter was a master at evoking (p. 157).

Such combinations, unlikely by previous artistic standards, have become a hallmark of contemporary—that is, post-World War II—art.

This is not the negative aesthetics of an aesthetic deficiency, nor is it the sort of thing we find when the aesthetically positive and the morally negative … coincide, as they do when fine graphic design [is] used for the purposes of advertising. These introduce another moral dimension in the commercial exploitation of art “where the effects of commercially motivated persuasion are frequently deleterious to the recipient, sometimes to a relatively mild degree by encouraging unaffordable expenses or imprudent behavior, sometimes flagrantly by enticing the victim into unhealthful or dangerous activities (p. 165).”

Berleant’s analysis here is insufficient: it is not only moral negativity that is used by such artists, but aesthetic. The power of Picasso’s Guernica lies not only in the morally reprehensible acts, the destruction of civilians during the Spanish Civil War, that gave rise to the chaos depicted, but in the chaotic form of the representation itself—a form that would itself have been understood as reprehensible (or at the very least ineffective) in an earlier period, when visual harmony was thought necessary for aesthetic success. This same chaotic form of composition—analogous, in the way it visually recapitulates the experience of the persons depicted, to the stream-of-consciousness writing of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf earlier in the century—had to be rediscovered by the Maruki’s depictions of the atomic bombings and later of radiation poisonings, other technological catastrophes, and the concentration camp Auschwitz.[16]

I disagree with Berleant here regarding the Picasso: I believe it is not in itself a condemnation, but a work that presents the grounds for condemnation. In such cases, the negative aesthetics is used to point out the negative morality. But it also replicates the aesthetic (sensory) experience of victims and witnesses—and thus makes what would otherwise be unavailable available for contemplation, for analysis, for discussion. From such activities, done alone or with a community, new forms of positive action can emerge. Aesthetic negativity may therefore be a necessary step in the evolution of the human spirit.

There are three standard criticisms here. First, some argue that such work shows that we exult in seeing the destruction, the pain, the death of another. Here Berleant follows ground broken by Katya Mandoki, who argues that it is an “attraction [that],” “perverse or not, amoral or immoral, is aesthetic, embarrassing as it maybe.” (Mandoki cited by Berleant, p. 172.) The second argument Berleant makes against depictions of violence is a function of the first: because we enjoy it so, artists using it are taking a cheap or easy route to success and/or critical attention, “cynically contriv[ing] to be offensive merely to achieve notoriety” (p. 162). Both Berleant’s and Mandoki’s views lead to a third argument against depictions of violence, namely, that they make us more callous to human suffering, and may even lead to viewers becoming more prone to violent behavior.

But often, where art seems to be most morally or ethically reprehensible, it presents not negative aesthetics, but a positive aesthetic of negative acts.

3. Negative aesthetics in Natsuo Kirino’s Real World

Kirino’s novel Real World exploits the phenomenon of psychical distance as evinced by her characters, who use it to preserve a sense of Subject-as-agent, while using it and the negative aesthetics of environment it facilitates to criticize post-modern society as a whole. The book opens with the sardonic observations of Ninna Hori, one of an eventual four female teenage protagonists who assist Ninna’s next-door neighbor, a boy their age, to evade the law after he has killed his mother. Ninna adopts this tone to distance herself from an environment that has proven painful, but in which she is enmeshed, inseparable. Her opening soliloquy proves oracular of the full ethical and emotional catastrophes ensuing:

I’m penciling in my eyebrows when the smog alert siren starts blaring. It’s happened every day since summer vacation started, so it’s no surprise. “May I have your attention,” this woman’s voice drawls over a loudspeaker. “An air pollution advisory has just been issued,” and the siren continues to drone on, like some kindly old dinosaur groaning away.

Most of these advisories happen in the morning, usually just as I’m about to leave for cram school. Nobody does anything because of them. Everyone kind of goes, oh, again. What I’d like to know is where they hide those speakers. To me, that’s creepier and weirder than anything about smog.

I live in a crowded residential area on the outskirts of Suginamiku in Tokyo. It used to be a nice, laid-back neighborhood, but all the old, larger houses got torn down, replaced by smaller single-family homes and apartments. When I was little, several neat but tiny buildings went up on where there used to be plum orchards and farm fields. They slapped fancy names on these— Estates or whatever—to help sell units.[17]

3.1 Unpleasant and/or Offensive Art

Let us here revisit the question of art that is unpleasant or offensive, focusing primarily on Real World, disregarding cases that are clearly of no redeeming value (and ignoring the often-discussed issues of who gets to determine what is offensive). There are familiar cases where the pain of explicit depictions of violence and its effects prompts us to learn new truths and/or to act upon those truths we suspect but are afraid to acknowledge fully: contemporary films, and the classical tragedies, according to Aristotle, whose value lay in what they could teach us about the possibilities of our own lives. Still others are cases where the pain is either necessary for purely artistic reasons (to make evident the nature of a character, perhaps) or is attractive to us in spite of its unpleasantness, either because of our individual idiosyncrasies or perversions, or due to an inherent “evil” or sinful nature in human beings.

Even though some may find such work deeply troubling and even painful, it may perform a social function by accustoming people to face experiences that they consider unmentionable or anathema. Apart from any aesthetic value such art may possess, it may have value in enlarging our emotional capacities.

Art that is deeply disturbing to moral or religious feelings can, in fact, be artistically strong, as evidenced in work by Courbet and Dali. It may be difficult to adjudicate between art that deliberately transgresses the limits of propriety to explore untrod regions of aesthetic sensibility and art that cynically contrives to be offensive merely to achieve notoriety (pp. 161-2).

Either of those functions may also contribute to ethical/moral behavior.

Working within the mystery genre, Kirino both engages fully the murderous violence within everyday life, yet deliberately opens the genre to more dangerous and uncomfortable themes such as domestic abuse, incest, and parenticide. Real World focuses on a teenage male matricide and four girls who become accomplices—girls who outwardly seem fully integrated within society (as daughters, friends, students, workers), yet who are internally alienated, peculiarly isolated within their own desperation.

Challenging the definitions of the mystery genre, Kirino adheres to them enough that our overall sense is one of pleasure. Yet violent pain and the painful antecedents that provide the killers’ motivation are at the core of such work—as they have been since the Iliad and the Odyssey and the ancient tragedies. And so, concealed within the generic aesthetics, negative aesthetics is at the core of all such work. As Berleant points out, we need to be able to consider such events, both as individuals and as societies. It is the task of (positive) aesthetics to make the contemplation (both cogitation and feeling) of such painful events possible, by making them tolerable, even pleasant, via the various aesthetic modalities. It is thus the structures of the genre, the literary language and attitudes, and the distancing provided by the “aesthetic attitude” that facilitate—or, to use a more skeptical verb—“enable”—our enjoyment. From this perspective, work such as Kirino’s is a positive contribution to our collective and personal moral life.

It is these comforts and consolations of literary aesthetics that Kirino jettisons— the comforts an author provides by conforming to genre expectations: both of the overall form, in which we proceed from ignorance to knowledge and from chaos to justice, and of identification with the cognition and emotions of the detective, firmly entrenched within the establishment. Her work is thus less comforting, and so, less “fun,” distinctly less enjoyable.

What, then, does Kirino offer us instead? Why do we keep reading? Is it just Aristotle’s grim pleasure in looking at dead bodies? Is it Plato’s recognition of the delights of voyeurism from The Republic (Book 4)?[18]

3.2 The aesthetics of Kirino’s style

In spite of her sophisticated emulation of the teenage spirit and forms of expression, Kirino’s language is never that of apparent literary accomplishment. There is no adult voice, nor voice of authority; when adults appear, they are pathetic, ineffective, offensive, pitiable, ridiculous. Hers is the language of her still-largely-uneducated teenagers; not only the cadences and terminology, but the attitudes presented are theirs, like an updated Holden Caulfield—made female—in their full adolescent cynicism, solipsism, and despair. She also abandons the mystery/detective plot entirely: there is no mystery about who killed protagonist Ninna Hori’s next-door neighbor. Ninna, at the opening is neither detective nor, like Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson, his accomplice privileged to hear the inner cogitations. Nor is she, as in so many late-twentieth-century mysteries, the murderer. She is a bystander, not directly affected by the crime, with no history of relationship with killer or victim, no privileged knowledge, and almost no emotional involvement. She is drawn in by happenstance—she has overheard the crime, although she doesn’t know that’s what it is at the time—and, like many teenagers, it is only as her friends become involved (by protecting the killer) that she allows herself to be drawn in.

We are informed who the killer is, and are never led into the inquiries of the authorities—the police or their representatives. Indeed there barely seems to be any social authority to register this violation of social and familial order. Paradoxically, we rely principally on the self-marginalized Ninna to register this absence of authority as best she can.

It is this lack of authoritative presence, apparently in the lives of her characters as in the novel, that provides for the reader the key insights that justify the overall negative aesthetics of the book. On the one hand, it positions the reader within a mental, social and psychological world that contains little confidence, pleasure, or joy. On the other hand, the challenges it presents to readers’ confidence in their society making sense and in their transmission of values to the new generation are necessary if we are to understand the situation we are in—the only situation from which it is possible for us to take action.

3.3 Stylistic aesthetics and ethics

This novel itself comprises, then, an ethical action, one that enlarges the possibilities of further ethical action on the part of readers. Negative aesthetics operates on several levels in all of Kirino’s work, and may be resisted by readers who find her heroine’s actions, thoughts and feelings repulsive, even though as feminists they may be repelled by their seeming apathy, powerlessness, and inability to rescue themselves.

Yet ultimately it is advisable to become able to understand the actions of other members of our society, and to empathize with their feelings and motivations, even when we cannot—or must not—adopt them ourselves. This is particularly true when those others are our own young, our own children, so as to avoid the extreme alienation of the children in Real World.

4. Conclusion

Kirino Natsuo’s novels such as Real World and Grotesque illustrate many of Berleant’s points regarding negative aesthetics. In their descriptions of environments, they provide a critique of both the varieties of negative aesthetics and of the range of their effects on lives, and demonstrate just how powerful negative aesthetics can be. Yet as works of art in and of themselves, they are often painful to read, and thus exemplify intentional negative aesthetics as a device of the Modern and post Modern, even as they raise questions about the uses of such aesthetics.

Aesthetics is often interpreted as the impulse—or compulsion—to make life more pleasurable, provide Berleant’s “occasions of aesthetic transport.” Both Berleant and Kirino help us understand how important other kinds of aesthetics can be. For ultimately it is the tasks of art and all aesthetic experiences not simply to make life more pleasurable (whether overall or for some of us, at some special times) but to sustain life even under conditions of adversity, to make it possible even at the worst times, and to make it better, more worthwhile in all ways. Sometimes this means giving us moments of joy and enjoyment even when life may be otherwise close to unendurable. Sometimes it means giving us understanding and empathy even when they are not enjoyable.

Mara Miller

Visiting Scholar, Center for Biographical Research at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

Mara Miller, an artist and a professor of philosophy and Japanese art and literature, has been teaching traditional and modern/contemporary Japanese literature, Japanese religion, and Death and Dying at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she is a Visiting Scholar at their Center for Biographical Research. She is the author of The Garden as an Art (SUNY Press), The Philosopher’s Garden (forthcoming), and six dozen scholarly articles on the philosophy of art; feminist, East Asian, and environmental philosophy; selfhood; and of Japanese arts and aesthetics. Miller has been a visiting fellow/research associate at the University of Canterbury (Christchurch, NZ), Rutgers University’s Center for Historical Analysis, and the Folger Library’s Center for the Study of British Political Thought. Her articles on Japanese aesthetics have appeared in The Monist, Philosophy and Literature, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Oxford’s Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Sztuka i Filozofia (Studies in Philosophy), and The Oxford Handbook[s] of World Philosophy and Of Japanese Philosophy, among others. She is currently finishing Terrible Knowledge, philosophical reflections on the importance of teaching and thinking about the atomic bombings. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Yale University, master’s degree from University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies, and B.A. from Cornell University.

Published January 5, 2021.

Cite this article: Mara Miller, “Negative Aesthetics In Art, Environment, And Everyday Life: Arnold Berleant’s Theory And The Novels Of Kirino Natsuo,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 9 (2021) Aesthetic Engagement and Sensibility: Reflections on Arnold Berleant’s Work, accessed date.



[1] Sensibility and Sense: The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World  (Exeter, England and Charlottesville, Virginia: Imprint Academic, Philosophy Documentation Center, 2010), “The Negative Aesthetics of Everyday Life,” pp. 155-74. All subsequent citations are to this book.

[2] “Criticism” in the vernacular sense points out deficiencies in everyday life, sports, arts, politics, etc.; in aesthetics, criticism identifies deficiencies in aesthetic objects and experiences relative to audience expectations, artists’ objectives, and cultural or generic standards. This is the first of four types of criticism in the arts. (As I define them, these are 1) this vernacular sense of fault-finding; 2) identifying both weaknesses and strengths, the foundation of criticism in the arts, technology, and sports; 3) identifying the artist’s project, what they are trying to do, which in arts is often something new; and 4), in a sense derived from Kant’s Kritiks, exploring the principles that make the work and/or the project possible.)

[3] Kirino won Japan’s Grand Prix for Crime Fiction and the Edogawa Rampo Prize and was a finalist for the Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America.

[4] The unpacking of this idea and its implications is the focus not only of the book in which the theory of negative aesthetics is explored, Sensibility and Sense, but of his first several books, (Berleant cites in this regard Re-thinking Aesthetics, Rogue Essays on Aesthetics and the Arts (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), Art and Engagement (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1991)) and is also presented more briefly in his other work.

[5] Kirino Natsuo, Grotesque, translated by Rebecca Copeland (New York: Random House, Inc., Vintage International, 2007). The page number from this book will be indicated in the text.

[6] Kirino Natsuo, Real World, translated by Philip Gabriel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008),
 p. 4.

[7] Stephen Kaplan and Rachel Kaplan, Cognition and Environment: Functioning in an Uncertain World (New York: Praeger, 1982).

[8] Positive moral effects of positive aesthetics are more often alleged, though they are also highly suspect. For a discussion of why aesthetically positive works are not necessarily ethically beneficial, see Mara Miller, The Garden as an Art (State University of New York Press, 1993), especially the section on “Evil Lovers of Good Art,” pp. 117-120.

[9] Berleant, “Deconstructing Disney World,” in Living in the Landscape: Toward an Aesthetics of Environment (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1997), pp. 41- 58.

[10] From their CD Robbers and Cowards.

[11] John Dower, Japan in War and Peace: Selected Essays (New York: New York Press, 1993) and John Dower and John Junkerman. The Hiroshima Murals: The Art of Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki (Tokyo: Kodansha Intl., 1985).

[12] Since he is an accomplished writer, it is unlikely that Murakami was unaware of his effects; in fact, it was most likely a formal experiment. Yet they kept this reader from finishing the novel for months.

[13] See Francois Jullien, Eloge de la fadeur (Paris: Editions Philippe Picquier, 1991), published in English as In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics, translated by Paula M. Varsano (New York: Urzone, 2004). This highly valued quality is documented by most native and Western commentators on literati painting.

[14] Cited and translated in Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, vol. I. (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1981), p. 827. On what he may have meant by this, see Mara Miller, “‘A Matter of Life and Death:’ Yasunari Kawabata on the Value of Art After the Atomic Bombings,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 74:2, Summer 2014, 261-275.

[15] Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).

[16] See Dower and Junkerman, The Hiroshima Murals and the Maruki Gallery website

[17] Natsuo Kirino, Real World, translated by Philip Gabriel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), p. 3.

[18] I have Carol Gould’s forthcoming philosophical monograph Aesthetics, Glamour, and Human Beauty (Bloomsbury 2021) to thank for reminding me of this point.