Contemporary Aesthetics: What’s in a Name?

Contemporary Aesthetics – What’s in a Name?

Kathleen Higgins


Drawing on Ossi Naukkarinen’s analysis of the meaning of “contemporary aesthetics,” this article considers several layers of meaning that make the title of this journal appropriate to its mission. After two decades, the journal is doing much to fulfill the promise of its name.

Key Words
Contemporary Aesthetics; diversity; inclusiveness; hot topics; newness; periodization; postmodernism; timeliness


1. Introduction

Reflecting on the approach of the twentieth anniversary of Contemporary Aesthetics, I find myself drawn to a question raised by Ossi Naukkarinen in 2014:  What is “contemporary aesthetics”?  Naukkarinen considers this question in the abstract, and I will draw on his ideas as I specifically consider this question in relation to the journal.[1] Founding editor Arnold Berleant asserts that the purview of the journal “is explained in our statement of editorial policy. This appears on our home page as well as in our very name.”[2] What exactly does the name capture, and how does it reflect the journal’s mission? I will contend that the expression references historical periodization, newness, timeliness, and democratic inclusiveness. Although “contemporary aesthetics” may seem vague to the point of obscurity, the journal’s title suggests several layers of significance. Two decades past the journal’s first appearance, the name remains apt.

2. Historical periodization

Naukkarinen considers various ways the term “contemporary” might be understood. One interpretation is that it indicates a specific historical period. Although the number of periods and the bases on which one divides them can vary considerably, depending on one’s purposes, contemporary aesthetics is always going to be anchored to the period that includes the present.

But what exactly distinguishes the current period? Attempting to periodize the present is complicated by the fact that the endpoint of the period underway is not determinable. One can give various accounts of what has happened recently, and, depending on the account, we might accept quite different developments as signs that the period is coming or has come to a close. Consensus on how to delineate the present period is thus unlikely, and any characterization is clearly subject to change. We need only consider the dissimilar descriptions of the present we might have given at the beginning of 2020 and at the year’s end to recognize how radically we can adjust our view of current times in relatively short order.

Moreover, we can take more fine-grained or more sweeping views as we carve history up into periods. The Medieval era amounts to a period only as it relates to very broad characteristics, while the Romantic era is relatively limited in timespan and scope and characterized exclusively by developments in “high” culture. Naukkarinen also points out that periods are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Modernity arguably includes the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and more, so the spans of certain periods include others as proper subsets.

Allowing that “contemporary” indicates an indefinite temporal span, the journal’s title can be interpreted as concerned with recent developments in the field, with “recent” to be interpreted open-endedly. But is anything ruled out by this interpretation?  On one reading, we might take “contemporary” to encompass anything currently written. By that standard, virtually anything published in any scholarly journal would be contemporary. Naukkarinen suggests that contemporary aesthetics includes not only what has been theorized quite recently but also theories that continue to have relevance for those currently working in the field. This narrows the scope a little, but not much.

Editorial policy for Contemporary Aesthetics seems more or less to conform to the scope that Naukkarinen favors.[3] Nevertheless, the scope for contemporary aesthetics is not completely unrestricted. The webpage on submissions includes the statement, “Articles that are primarily historical or that focus on particular art works or individual artists are not appropriate to the mission of this journal.”[4] The editors stress that the journal is not aimed at art criticism or art history narrowly conceived, but otherwise do not prejudge what topics are of suitably “contemporary” interest. Articles have focused on Hume’s ideal critics, Plato’s Republic, Confucian aesthetics, and Schiller’s conception of beauty; others significantly deal with historical figures. Consideration of historical theories is welcome, it would seem, as long as they are shown to bear on current concerns.

Returning for a moment to the topic of periodization, it is worth considering to what extent the “contemporary” effectively amounts to the “postmodern.” Naukkarinen points out that some present-day authors have interpreted the period in which they are writing as postmodern, in particular citing Michael Kelly’s preface to the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Kelly claims that “the present age” is “typically characterized as postmodern,” and marked by “a skepticism toward any claims about philosophical systems or historical grand narratives.”[5] One might consider the “contemporary” of Contemporary Aesthetics to be marked by this skepticism, in that it does not restrict its remit to work connected with a single tradition but seeks to include, in the words of founding editor Arnold Berleant, “aesthetic aspects of cultures and their arts that have not received much attention.”[6] The journal might be seen as postmodernist in the pluralistic and eclectic character of the contents of each annual volume, which grows by virtue of the happenstance of what articles are submitted and meet with the approval of blind reviewers. The openness of the journal’s title might, in fact, be read as a sign of deliberate avoidance of any implication that some topics are more “core” to aesthetics than others, an attitude that would be characteristically postmodern.

Despite the affinities between the orientation of the journal and postmodernism, in my view the editors have been wise to avoid characterizing the journal in terms of it. “Postmodernism” was not a term that was generally embraced by present-day scholars. Instead, invoking it created schisms in departments and fields within the humanities. In Anglo-American and Australasian philosophy, postmodernism was associated with “continental” thought, and those who considered themselves to be “analytic” or prided themselves on their commitment to rational inquiry were often alienated by the term “postmodern.”  To invoke it was to draw a battle line.

I have been using the past tense advisedly, for I think the term “postmodern” has run its course. It seemed considerably more fitting to use it in 1998, the year in which Kelly was writing, than it would now. The retrospective reference in the term itself was perhaps well suited to the late 1990s, in which a widespread fin de millénaire sensibility anticipated an impending break with the past and a celebration of openness to novelty. By now, the word itself seems dated, even mildly archaic, as if we are decidedly past that “post.” The question of what comes after postmodernism, a topic of some interest in the 1990s, now seems itself a bit quaint. Indeed, Naukkarinen has a point when he suggests that “it is not senseless to say that both postmodern and contemporary are smaller entities within the much bigger whole of modernity,” and it is noteworthy that he distinguishes these “smaller” periods from each other.[7]

If the “post” in postmodernism gives the impression of reflection in hindsight, “contemporary” does not insinuate a belated perspective. Instead, it seems nonjudgmental and open to whatever happens to be new. Significantly, the journal began publishing in 2003, not at the end of a millennium but at the beginning of a new one. Even though we may dismiss the idea that the year 2000 represents the arrival of a new era as numerological hocus-pocus, the event had a psychological impact on those of us who use the Gregorian calendar. At present, we are inclined to consider ourselves as looking forward, optimistically or otherwise. Contemporary Aesthetics builds on this cultural tendency.

3. Newness

In interpreting the journal’s title, perhaps we should highlight the theme of newness. What is contemporary is at least relatively new, and whether or not we think of current times as a period, we distinguish the contemporary from what is bygone. In light of Berleant’s comment on the name of the journal, we might see its allusion to newness as a rhetorical gesture, suggesting a break with what has previously been done. And Contemporary Aesthetics does present itself as having new things to offer in several distinct respects.

An obvious novelty of the journal is its essential connection with the internet. The basic concept of the journal would be inconceivable without contemporary technology and the world wide web. Of course, other journals in the field also make use of the internet and online publishing, but Contemporary Aesthetics is entirely online. The journal’s editors stress the advantages that stem from this: “texts . . . can easily be downloaded, copied, searched for key concepts, and excerpted without the need for scanning or re-typing.”[8]

Contemporary Aesthetics is also new in that the editors take a fresh approach to publishing, in light of the journal’s being situated in cyberspace. The journal has been ahead of the curve in exploiting the potentials of online publishing and distribution by comparison with other peer-reviewed publications in aesthetics. Its format enables an open-endedness that would not be practicable in a printed journal. Volumes are not restricted to a particular number of pages or bound by printer’s deadlines, so their contents can grow as the year proceeds, with articles published as they are accepted.[9] The online format also facilitates the incorporation of “additional materials to supplement the text, such as images, musical examples, and video clips.”[10]

The open-ended, additive nature of each annual volume of the journal may seem a bit haphazard, but this may be quite appropriate, assuming that the aim is to foster conversation that is free to proceed in any direction. The journal has also taken advantage of the flexibility of its medium for accommodating a variety of formats and groupings. Thus, special volumes can be mounted without limiting the space available to articles on other topics. Because they appear alongside the current year’s regular volume, there is no motive for regularizing the interval between the publication of one special volume and the next. The journal has also published symposia and forums on more or less specified topics. As of 2016, annual volumes have also included a “Short Notes” section comprised of brief, relatively informal pieces that express a view, sometimes with short responses to them. The inclusion of this new section showcases both the ease with which innovations can be made in the journal’s format and the editors’ willingness to facilitate discussion of ideas that are not yet as fully developed as would be required in a standard journal article.

Although short notes may appear especially soon after the inception of the ideas they present, the articles published in Contemporary Aesthetics are on the whole newer than typically is the case for journal articles. The journal can properly boast a quick turn-around time for submissions. The fact that special issues do not compete for space with annual volumes also obviates the kind of delay in their appearance that would result if they had to take a place in a queue of forthcoming issues.

A fourth way in which the journal is aptly associated with newness is perhaps the most rhetorically assertive. The journal was founded “to encourage new work in aesthetics.” Berleant made clear in his inaugural editorial that a central aim was to provide a venue for articles on content that had been largely excluded in other publications. He mentioned the prospect of articles on the “environment, everyday life, popular culture, and comparative aesthetics,” in addition to work in various disciplines. I will consider the journal’s breadth in a later section, but the editorial interest in publishing work beyond the range of customary Western, art-focused topics is a commitment to promote something new — and, I might add, a move that is very welcome.

4. Timeliness

In addition to suggesting newness, the title of Contemporary Aesthetics conveys the idea of being timely.[11]  “Timely” can simply mean something like “not delayed,” as when current editor Yuriko Saito refers to the journal’s “timely publication of accepted articles.”[12] But the kind of timeliness I wish to emphasize is associated with keeping in step with and responding to new developments. Contemporary Aesthetics might be seen as timely, in that, as already considered, it is responding to the possibilities afforded by recently developed technology, the linked-in character of current scholarship, and the growing interest in, and in some regions insistence on, open-access publishing.

However, the journal is also timely in the sense that it facilitates scholarly consideration of topics of burgeoning interest. Some of the special volumes, in particular, gather articles on themes of growing cultural importance. They give momentum to the discussion of their respective topics by making them visible and demonstrating that numerous authors already have much to say about them. Of particular note in this connection is the special volume on “Aesthetics and Race.” The belatedness of attention to this topic in English-language aesthetics journals should disturb us, but Contemporary Aesthetics preceded many other aesthetics venues by giving focused attention to the topic in the special issue, which appeared in 2009. The special volume on “Aesthetics and Terrorism” also addressed a timely topic, given the many species of terrorist violence that have been utilized and threatened in the two decades of the journal’s existence.[13]  The special volume on “Aesthetics and Mobility” addressed what Naukkarinen, in his role of guest editor, calls a “moving field” of perspectives on the diverse and expanding variety of means through which we move ourselves and the things we produce, including “objects, images, vehicles, pollution, information, capital and other things.”[14]  The timeliness of this topic has become all the more apparent since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As is evident from the topics just mentioned, the journal responds to developments not confined to academia. The special volume on “Artification” should also be mentioned in this connection, for it draws attention to the broad range of “situations and processes in which something that is not regarded as art in the traditional sense of the word is changed into something art-like or into something that takes influences from artistic ways of thinking and practicing.”[15]  The volume includes discussion of this phenomenon in management, design, sport, and natural history museums, and also the role the concept plays in theoretical discussion of everyday aesthetics. This seems timely in the sense that it’s about time that the many perspectives outside the academy be better reflected in aesthetics publications.

Consideration of timeliness in the journal’s coverage raises the question of its relationship to “hot topics” in the field. Presumably, to the extent that an issue emerges as a hot topic, it has already established itself as contemporary. But what often makes an issue a candidate for being a hot topic is that something ignored has been brought forward as a matter worthy of discussion. Typically, a topic becomes “hot” because it has been recently noticed and taken up by others. However, a topic does not become hot unless there is uptake by others. What counts as a hot topic is surely debatable, but a few topics that might currently be candidates are: aesthetics and social justice issues, aesthetic agency, aesthetic perception, body aesthetics, aesthetic normativity, everyday aesthetics, and the aesthetics of videogames.

Contemporary Aesthetics is not designed to track which topics in the field are fashionable or to select articles for publication on that basis. With the exception of guest-edited special issues, topics for articles are not specified in advance. As Berleant observes, “the final appearance of a volume may be as much a surprise to the editors as to the readers.”[16] One might also see hot topics as not central to the aims of the journal, for by the time a topic has become hot, it is no longer of special interest for the mission of drawing attention to topics in the field that so far “have not received much attention.”[17]

That being said, because the contents of each volume of Contemporary Aesthetics reflect what has been submitted and accepted, articles on arguably hot topics appear with some frequency, given that they are hot because many people are currently writing on them. A more interesting phenomenon is the journal’s precipitating role in relation to hot topics. Because it encourages submissions on topics that have been neglected, the journal may bring new topic areas to the forefront. For example, it is very likely that it has contributed to the movement of everyday aesthetics from the margins to a more central place in aesthetic discussion. By publishing an article on a topic, the journal presents that topic as having currency. Naukkarinen submits that what counts as “contemporary” might be a function of what is taken to be significant. “As we focus on certain issues that we find important,” he observes, “it is easy to think that precisely those issues are contemporary while others are obsolete.”[18] Of course, which issues are important at a given time is disputable, and any judgment on the matter is always subject to revision. Whether the topic of a published article becomes a focus of widespread attention depends on uptake, but an article’s appearance in the journal establishes that its topic is at least a candidate for further consideration. In this sense, the journal can play a role in setting trends, even if that is not an explicit editorial aim.

Following fashion is not the mark of timeliness, but timeliness does depend on being responsive. Meilin Chinn discusses timeliness in connection with the performance of music, and her comments have relevance for the mission of Contemporary Aesthetics. According to Chinn, timeliness in music involves the arrival of a musical event, such as the entrance of a particular voice or instrument, at just the right moment. To achieve timeliness, a performer must pay attention to the context, both in terms of the occasion and the specifics of what other performers are doing. Chinn describes timeliness as a virtue because it manifests respect for all who are involved with the music, listeners and performers alike. [19]

Aspiring to the kind of timeliness Chinn describes is an apt desideratum for any journal that aims to be “contemporary.” The idea of responding to contextual changes, both in scholarship and the world at large, is key to being in step with what is happening. To do this, it is essential to abandon efforts to give definitive aesthetic accounts that are presented as the last word on a subject. A more fitting goal is to contribute to an ongoing discussion, in which reconsiderations and shifts of focus are not only expected but desired consequences. Monique Roelofs, editor of the special volume on “Aesthetics and Race,” proposes the possibility of reading the articles as “strands of conversations that have begun to take place across disciplines.”[20] This stance of seeking to open or further conversations seems an appropriate and indeed virtuous way for a journal to exemplify timeliness.[21] That this kind of timeliness is an aspiration for Contemporary Aesthetics is suggested by Saito’s editorial comment in 2021:

Indeed, aesthetic matters abound in the drastic changes we are experiencing with the pandemic, including social relationships mediated by physical distance or technological media, changes in body appearance by face coverings, and the absence of directly participating in or experiencing performances of music, theater, dance, and team sports. We look forward to highlighting the role aesthetics plays in appreciating our changed lives and culture.[22]

This comment highlights the journal’s mission to be in tune with the many ways in which the world and people’s lives continue to change. To the extent that it achieves this kind of timeliness, the journal gives readers an ongoing reason to stay tuned.

5. Democratic Inclusiveness

At the time of writing, the world is hardly becoming more democratic. Many nations are becoming increasingly authoritarian, with political leaders actively obstructing open expression of views. In that it seeks to be democratically inclusive, enabling content that emerges as a result of elective choices on the part of contributors, Contemporary Aesthetics does not reflect prevailing circumstances in the world. It is timely, however, in responding to these tendencies by modeling a contrary approach, one that reflects progressive aspirations. It does so by aiming at more diverse participation in conversation on aesthetics and allowing the focus of attention to move in accordance with the concerns of participants, as opposed to being dictated in accordance with some doctrinal view about an aesthetic “mainstream,” as it relates to geographical center, disciplinary approach, or topical focus.

We might see the journal’s reformist agenda of welcoming what has been previously excluded as “contemporary” in the sense of breaking with old models. But we should note that the journal’s progressive aims stand in some tension with a conception of “contemporary” that encompasses whatever is current, regardless of how much of it reflects the inertia of long-standing habits and hierarchical prejudices that remain common within the field. Contemporary Aesthetics attempts both to reflect what is happening and to diversify, and while these goals do not easily harmonize, the tension between them itself is contemporary and a challenge to all who favor democratic inclusiveness. To the extent that the shape of things is determined by its participants’ choices, even where broad participation is encouraged a particular outcome or distribution cannot be ensured. Nevertheless, faith that editorial openness and a widely welcoming policy will result in a diverse range of submissions seems justified by the record of Contemporary Aesthetics. The journal has both revealed existing diversity in aesthetics and promoted more of it, including participants from many more backgrounds than has been typical of English-language scholarly venues up until now.

When I refer to “participants,” I mean to include both readers and contributors. The journal has sought diversity in both categories. From its inception, it has aimed to welcome a broad audience and has facilitated this goal through its policy of being offered free of charge to anyone on the internet. Personal funds or affiliation with a college or university are often required for easy online access to current issues of journals, many of which depend upon the money that comes in through subscriptions. Contemporary Aesthetics foregoes the security of funding that paid subscriptions makes possible in order to extend its readership beyond those with the means and disposition to pay for access and those employed by institutions that would subscribe. Of course, the ambitious aim to have a global reach is not fully realizable, given that an internet connection is needed to access the journal and not everyone is on the internet. But the journal’s status as a non-profit organization that does not charge users certainly widens the playing field.

The journal has also advertised its aim of encouraging discussion of aesthetics among participants with myriad interests working in many fields across the globe. Berleant describes the journal’s purpose as to serve asan international forum for the dissemination and exchange of ideas in aesthetics,” with the intention of promoting “scholarship that explores the range of aesthetic interests.” [23] In its twenty years of existence, the journal has achieved much in broadening the scope of English language publications in aesthetics, in terms of authorship, style, topics, and cultural focus.

In his 2014 article, Naukkarinen observes that “despite the critical and broad-minded attitude of some publications, looking at much of the literature written in English one would still think that the discipline exists mainly in the USA, Canada, and the UK.”[24] Contemporary Aesthetics has admirably countered this tendency by regularly publishing work by authors from many nations besides those mentioned. While the majority are from Europe or one of the three nations cited by Naukkarinen, authors from Australia, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Turkey have also published in the journal. The journal has also followed through on its promise of interdisciplinarity. Many authors are affiliated with philosophy departments or departments of aesthetics, but a significant number are from other academic departments, among them Art Theory, Criminology, English, Environmental Studies, Gastronomic Sciences, Global Studies, Humanities, Music, Psychology, Visual Culture, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Others are from outside the academy, working, for example, in architecture, design, journalism, music, non-profit foundations, law, or the visual arts, and one recent author is a high school student.

The journal also has not restricted the approach of articles to that typical of analytic aesthetics. Articles have engaged with such continental thinkers as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Rancière, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Peter Sloterdijk, and also with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Nor has the journal given pride of place to articles on the fine arts, artistic movements, and the aesthetic theories of major figures. Even if Katya Mandoki is right to think that aesthetic analysis continues to be dominated by habits developed when the field attended almost exclusively to art and beauty, the range of topics discussed in the journal are impressively broad.[25] Articles have considered such matters as everyday activities, including strolling, knitting, baking, hanging laundry, home life, and conversation; paleolithic tools; financial markets; the political significance of various aesthetic phenomena; aspects of human psychology, for example, the self, the lower senses, trauma, and emotions such as melancholy, disgust, political mourning, awe, horror, humor, and aesthetic disappointment; rarely discussed aesthetic properties, for example, prettiness and cheesiness; natural phenomena, including weather, marine life, the Pacific Ocean, space, dust, mud, night, cockroaches, and animal aesthetics; humanly constructed environments, including junkyards, wind farms, city environments, aquariums, zoos, ruins, and gardens; and a broad swathe of visual culture, including digital images, television series, videogames, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), sports, trademarks, propaganda, and astronomical photography. The range of topics is in keeping with an interpretation of contemporary aesthetics as including whatever research is currently being done in connection with aesthetic matters, without treating some as more central than others.

Of course, the journal cannot have a completely neutral stance towards topics and their treatment. Blind reviewers’ assessments are inevitably shaped by internalized criteria that have been shaped by their own disciplinary backgrounds. The editors can select reviewers whose scholarly orientation aligns with that of the author of a given submission to prevent the application of unfair categories in the review process. But disciplines and subfields have distinctive biases that are bound to be factors in what submissions are accepted. We might see the status quo of such biases as itself part of “contemporary” aesthetics.

Nor is it possible for the journal to be equally accessible to all. Besides operating on the wired side of the digital divide, the journal is an English-language publication. This restricts its audience to readers of that language and thus represents a limitation on the inclusiveness of the audience, as would publication in any particular language. The fact that English is  the current “lingua franca” of international scholarly discussion means that scholars in many lands read and write in English, and perhaps this makes English-language publications more widely accessible than publications in most other languages. But the journal’s publishing in English reinforces the lingua franca status in addition to the dominance of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies on the intellectual playing field. Naukkarinen rightly observes that we must ask “the question of the center and periphery,” and so we must recognize that the journal is centered in the English-speaking world.[26]

One would hardly expect otherwise, given that the journal is published by a non-profit organization based in the United States. Admirably, the editors recognize that the use of English limits the journal’s ability to facilitate world-wide conversation, and they have made efforts to counter this limitation. One recent special volume involved translations of many papers originally presented in Polish, and a new initiative has been announced “to invite scholars to write a short summary of recent books on aesthetics that are not available in English.”[27] Both the volume and the initiative center on users of the English language, but by giving readers of the journal an impression of some developments going on in other languages, it draws attention to the fact that scholarship in other languages is also “contemporary” and may encourage interested readers to seek ways to build bridges between different linguistic communities of scholars.

Admirably, the journal has treated “aesthetics” as a culturally inclusive term, not restricting it to Western aesthetics.[28] Although the majority of articles are Western-focused, many take up aesthetic topics as they figure in non-Western cultures and in societies that have been under-represented in English-language journals, such as those in Eastern Europe. Many of the journal’s articles on non-Western topics feature cultures with longstanding “high” art traditions, so Berleant’s expressed hope for articles on aesthetic aspects of cultures that do not have such traditions has yet to come to fruition. I join him in wishing for more articles that discuss aesthetic life in such cultures, particularly some of those in the global south. Nevertheless, the journal has certainly given more extensive coverage than most English-language journals to aesthetics in various non-Western cultures. Besides publishing special volumes on “Aesthetics and the Arts in Southeast Asia” and “Aesthetic Consciousness in East Asia,” the journal has also served up articles on non-Western aesthetics in regular issues, including them as part of “aesthetics” full-stop, without ghettoizing them into specific geographical categories.

In considering the issue of center and periphery, Naukkarinen proposes considering “aesthetics” a multiple term that encompasses phenomena that are “fairly global or widespread,” those that “more culture-dependent,” and some that are “very local, even individual.”[29] I see this as a call for a diversity of perspectives among works that consider non-Western phenomena and for the avoidance of creating impressions that non-Western cultures are internally hegemonic.

Contemporary Aesthetics has been working toward the kind of inclusion that Naukkarinen advocates by publishing work on aesthetic phenomenon within specific cultures, for example, everyday aesthetics in Japan, and across cultures, such as ecological thought in Berleant’s work and in China.[30] The perspectives brought to aesthetic phenomena within cultures also have been both emic and etic, with various articles considering aesthetic phenomena in the author’s own culture, in an adopted culture, or in a culture that is seen from the outside. By showing cultural phenomena from various viewpoints, the journal resists any tendency to authorize one of these as central.

A final sense of inclusiveness that I will consider is suggested by Naukkarinen, though I do not have a clear idea of how Contemporary Aesthetics might further expand its notion of inclusiveness in light of it. He asks whether aesthetics is a narrowly academic discipline, situated mainly in philosophy departments, or “whether some of the things done by artists, fashion designers, art educators, critics, cooks, carpenters, athletes, hairdressers, web designers, and cosmeticians are equally important parts of the field of contemporary aesthetics?” His way of formulating his point positions philosophy as central for aesthetics, but he notes that some works of artists and other non-academics “explicitly comment on and develop themes that occupy philosophical aestheticians’ minds.” If aesthetics is a matter of commenting on issues, there may be various ways of doing this, and Naukkarinen proposes that “there might be explicit, semi-explicit and implicit cases of contemporary aesthetics’ content.”[31]

The idea that works of many non-academics may be implicit or semi-explicit contributions to aesthetics is provocative, for it suggests that work in aesthetics might take other forms besides writing. But we should note an ambiguity in the term “aesthetics.” It may be interpreted as involving written elaborations or discussions of positions taken on specific issues, or it may be understood to include manifestations of views on such issues that are evident through works or practices in various media. The latter understanding of aesthetics seems to align with that promoted by Dominic Lopes, Bence Nanay, and Nick Riggle in a recent work, in which they defend a widely inclusive notion that emphasizes “aesthetic life” and “aesthetic culture.” They consider many everyday acts that express preferences of taste and self-styling gestures as aesthetic. Sometimes they also refer to such acts as artistic.[32]  This suggestion, taken together with Naukkarinen’s proposal of non-explicit aesthetics, raises anew the question of the relationship between aesthetics and artistic activities. Although the dominant contemporary view is that aesthetics is concerned with vastly more than the traditional fine arts, we might still find a large part of the purview of aesthetics to be “art,” albeit art understood in a very broad sense.

In connection with Contemporary Aesthetics, the operative notion of “aesthetics” seems tilted toward explicit statement of philosophical ideas expressed in writing. The idea that work in aesthetics is formulated through writing seems the most obvious and practicable idea for a scholarly journal, even one that includes visual images at the heads of tables of contents and that encourages insertions of visual and auditory illustrations. Contemporary Aesthetics is committed to pluralism regarding styles of writing, but it is unclear how far that pluralism might extend. Many consider philosophical writing to require the presentation of arguments for or against a position that is clearly stated. The “Submissions” page of the journal’s website refers to “reassessments” and “issues,” and this might seem to endorse the idea that articles should take argumentative approaches and to limit “aesthetics” to a specific genre of writing. However, the webpage also states that the journal “encourages the submission of articles that bear directly on contemporary aesthetic theory and concerns,” and this does not seem clearly geared to explicit argument.[33] Might the kinds of writing appropriate to the journal include some genres that do not overtly trade in argument?  Could satiric writing, argumentative or otherwise, be welcome, even if it defends a position that is only implicit?  Might a manifesto that asserts a view without explicit defense be deemed a written contribution to aesthetics?  And what about a paean, more geared to celebrating something than to making a case?

But perhaps this contribution itself demonstrates the journal’s breadth even as related to genre. It might be seen as falling into the paean category, celebrating the journal as it completes its second decade and only implicitly promoting the view that has organized this essay. That is the view, suggested by my title, that the journal has been guided by a number of ideas. I certainly mean to celebrate the journal’s perspective on aesthetics. Contemporary Aesthetics treats “aesthetics” as an open concept that evolves as the “contemporary” scene does, embracing whatever new or newly considered phenomena come its way. The range of topics indicated in each table of contents may seem rather scattered, but the implicit vision is steady. The journal is committed to promoting the range of aesthetic projects currently being pursued around the globe and to facilitate their communication, enabling aestheticians to respond to and build upon what is offered. This open and facilitative stance makes Contemporary Aesthetics a model for how scholarship can be relevant in our present day. I find this model to be well suited to our times and aesthetically pleasing as well.


Kathleen Higgins

Kathleen Higgins is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and a former president of the American Society for Aesthetics.

Published on November 29, 2022.

Cite this article: Kathleen Higgins, “Contemporary Aesthetics – What’s in a name?” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 10 (2022), Twenty Years of Contemporary Aesthetics, (accessed date).



[1] Ossi Naukkarinen, “Contemporary Aesthetics: Perspectives on Time, Space, and Content,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Volume 12, Article 5. Available at:

[2] Office, Editorial (2016) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 14 , Article 1. Available at:

[3] It may be appropriate to point out that Naukkarinen is on the journal’s editorial board as of 2018.

[4] Contemporary Aesthetics, “Submitting to Contemporary Aesthetics.”  Available at:

[5] Michael Kelly, Preface to Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Volume 1, editor-in-chief Michael Kelly (New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1998), xii.

[6] (2003) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 1 , Article 1. Available at:

[7] Naukkarinen, Ossi (2014) “Contemporary Aesthetics: Perspectives on Times, Space and Content,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 12 , Article 5. Available at:

[8] “About Contemporary Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics.

[9] Berleant’s editorial for Vol. 3 points out that the symposium on the body and aesthetics would be continued into a second year. See (2005) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 3 , Article 1. Available at:

[10] “About Contemporary Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics.

[11] Berleant clarifies, in his editorial for Volume 2, that “Once an article is accepted for publication, it usually appears on our site within a week.”  (2004) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 2 , Article 1. Available at:

[12] Saito observes, “The advantage of this form of publication, the first of its kind in the field of aesthetics, is the timely publication of accepted articles.” Office, Editorial (2018) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 16 , Article 1. Available at:

[13] Saito characterizes this subject matter as “timely.” Office, Editorial (2020) “Editorial.”  Contemporary Aesthetics, Vol. 18, Article 1. Available at:

[14] Naukkarinen, Ossi (2005) “Aesthetics and Mobility – A Short Introduction into a Moving Field,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Special Vol. 1, Article 3. Available at:

[15] Naukkarinen, Ossi and Saito, Yuriko (2012) “Introduction,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Special Vol. 4, Article 1. Available at:

[16] (2014) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 12 , Article 1. Available at:

[17] (2003) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 1 , Article 1. Available at:

[18] Naukkarinen makes reference to Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago and London:  The University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[19] Meilin Chinn, “Only Music Cannot Be Faked.” Dao 16 (2017), 345.

[20] Roelofs, Monique (2009) “Introduction,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Special Volume 2 (2009) AESTHETICS AND RACE: NEW PHILOSOPHICAL PERSPECTIVES, Article 1. Available at:

[21] Cf. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton:  Princeton University Press,1979), 372. Rorty proposes a conversational model of philosophy generally.

[22] Office, Editorial (2021) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics: Volume 19, Article 1. Available at:

[23] (2005) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 3 , Article 1. Available at:

[24] Naukkarinen, Ossi (2014) “Contemporary Aesthetics: Perspectives on Times, Space and Content,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 12 , Article 5. Available at:

[25] For Mandoki’s discussion, see Mandoki, Katya (2010) “The Third Tear in Everyday Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 8 , Article 4. Available at:

[26] Naukkarinen, Ossi (2014) “Contemporary Aesthetics: Perspectives on Times, Space and Content,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 12 , Article 5. Available at:

[27] Office, Editorial (2019) “Editorial,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 17 , Article 1. Available at:

[28] For an argument for the desirability of interpreting “aesthetics” as global, with Western aesthetics just one of many subsets, see Kathleen Higgins, “Global Aesthetics — What Can We Do?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 75 (2017): 339-349.

[29] Naukkarinen, Ossi (2014) “Contemporary Aesthetics: Perspectives on Times, Space and Content,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 12 , Article 5. Available at:

[30] Cheng Xiangzhan, “Arnold Berleant’s Environmental Aesthetics and Chinese Ecological Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 9 (2021). Available at:

[31] Naukkarinen, Ossi (2014) “Contemporary Aesthetics: Perspectives on Times, Space and Content,” Contemporary Aesthetics (Journal Archive): Vol. 12 , Article 5. Available at:

[32] Dominic Lopes, Bence Nanay, and Nick Riggle, Aesthetic Life and Why It Matters (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2022). Nick Riggle’s contribution, in particular, uses the term “artistic” in connection with many practices and activities that do not fall within the category of the fine arts.

[33] Submissions, Contemporary Aesthetics.