Twenty Years of Contemporary Aesthetics
Contemporary Aesthetics was established twenty years ago by Founding Editor, Arnold Berleant. As the first, exclusively online, open-access journal in aesthetics, it provided an academic space for intellectual discourse unencumbered by various restrictions observed by print and subscription-only publications. More importantly, it encouraged and continues to support voices that have not been prominent in mainstream Western aesthetics. We are grateful to all the authors in this volume for sharing and supporting this aspiration of the journal, not only by their specific contribution here but also by publishing articles with us and serving as reviewers.
The impetus for this Special Volume was to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Contemporary Aesthetics. The title, “Twenty Years of Contemporary Aesthetics,” was left intentionally ambiguous, because the history of the journal overlaps the history of aesthetics discourse over the past two decades. In addition, ‘contemporary’ is left indeterminate to capture both backward-looking and forward-looking perspectives on aesthetics.
With this deliberately open theme, we invited internationally renowned authors to share their thoughts on twenty years of contemporary aesthetics, however they interpret it. The resultant collection traces the changing social, cultural, and aesthetic landscapes of the past two decades, helping to situate Contemporary Aesthetics in its past history and its current state with an eye for its future development. We are deeply appreciative of the authors’ thought-provoking insights informed by their thorough research and thoughtful analyses.
Because each essay is so rich, I will not attempt to summarize or comment on each of them. Instead, let me summarize some of the common themes that emerge from all of them by way of a general Introduction. First, there is a strongly felt sense of the evolution in aesthetics discourse in the past two decades. Various movements, ranging from postcolonialism and cultural inclusivity to liberatory artistic practice and everyday aesthetics, challenge the heretofore leading role played by the Eurocentric, patriarchal aesthetic tradition. These more recent developments critically question the assumptions that for so long have bolstered the Western philosophical framework in aesthetics. They interrogate the supposed central focus on art and beauty, the primacy of spectator-oriented and object-directed judgmental discourse, and the separation of aesthetics from its social/cultural/political context to help us reconsider what counts as legitimate or worthy subjects of and approaches to aesthetic inquiry. Exploring such neglected subjects and modes of inquiry does not invalidate the Eurocentric mainstream in aesthetics. It does, however, question whether it should remain as the core of aesthetics discourse against which everything else is judged. Such a critique also, importantly, enriches aesthetics discourse by encouraging diverse ways of conducting aesthetic inquiry.
Second, there is an emphasis on cultural inclusiveness through exploring previously neglected perspectives, traditions, and practices, whether of non-Western societies, colonized cultures, or marginalized populations, as is evident in the current state of aesthetics discourse and artmaking. Charles Peterson and Anne Eaton point out how culturally inclusive art helps us cultivate an aesthetic sensibility that is undeveloped or misdirected in the prevailing White, patriarchal perspective. Liu Yuedi alludes to the Chinese legacy of “Living Aesthetics” with its ancient roots that resonates with us, today, and how its wisdom is still relevant in a modern world. Attending to other non-Western aesthetic traditions which are diverse in themselves, as Bence Nanay does, helps us expand our aesthetic palette, thereby promoting genuine democracy regarding aesthetic matters.
Still, as Kathleen Higgins notes, encouraging multiculturalism does not necessarily address the issue of multilingualism. English remains the lingua franca of aesthetics discourse and Contemporary Aesthetics is no exception. Despite inviting summaries of books unavailable in English and working closely with non-Anglophone authors, facility with the English language and its attendant linguistically constructed worldview is presupposed for both authors and readers of the journal. We would also do well, as Monique Roelofs suggests, to address different forms of “aesthetic publicity,” to mount a site suffused with a structural organization that facilitates and shapes encounters of a variety of participants associated with cultural and artistic production and reception. Thus, even given the best efforts made by a journal like Contemporary Aesthetics, there is work to do as we enter the next twenty years.
Finally, the ever-evolving nature of ’contemporary’ aesthetics is clear from the rapidly changing state of the world. One major transformation is the increasingly virtual environment. As Alexandra Łukaszewicz and Jakub Petri point out, today’s lived world is hybrid. The relative diminishing of physical engagement accelerated with the technologically mediated human interactions forced on us by the pandemic that swept across the globe for the past two and half years. We are also experiencing a radical transformation of the world in the extreme weather caused by climate change. In the face of these radical changes, can we find both a challenge and an opportunity for the ways aesthetics can contribute to the future of humanity? As Wolfgang Welsch reminds us, aesthetics was traditionally considered indispensable for promoting a good life and contributing to our collective wellbeing. However, he observes that commercialism has co-opted this power in recent years with its frenzied effort to aestheticize the environment and ourselves. His call to stand up against this effort suggests a return to the roots of aesthetics discourse to regain the power to heal our lives.
Thus, far from cutting off ties with the past, the authors collected in this volume recommend that ‘contemporary aesthetics’ can build on its legacy, by restoring the role of aesthetics in human flourishing and liberating its scope and orientation from undue limitations and biases to render it appropriate for the contemporary context. Looking back on twenty years in the development of aesthetics discourse and what Contemporary Aesthetics contributed to it, we can look forward to a future of aesthetics that will be evolving, more inclusive, and expansive, providing a resource for genuine human flourishing.
Yuriko Saito, Editor
Published on November 29, 2022.
Cite this article: Yuriko Saito, “Twenty Years of Contemporary Aesthetics: Introduction,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Special Volume 10 (2022), Twenty Years of Contemporary Aesthetics, (accessed date).