This article responds to
recent controversy in the aesthetics of everyday life with a succinct
definition designed to clarify the domain of study. The article is intentionally designed for brevity
and accessibility in order to facilitate usage.
Dowling, everyday aesthetics, Leddy, Saito
In recent years, everyday
aesthetics has developed into something of a sub-discipline. Innovative work has been matched by a dose of
controversy, a healthy sign of energetic inquiry. Some of this controversy derives from
vagueness in the object of study, a tendency toward generosity in categorizing
objects or practices within everyday aesthetics, extending it to activities
that seem unlikely candidates for aesthetic consideration, like laundry or just
sitting quietly. At times, scholars have treated everyday
aesthetics as something of a catch-all, a default third basket for what is not
comfortably categorized as fine art or natural beauty. For instance, Tom Leddy defines everyday
aesthetics negatively but still broadly, reserving it for “objects that are not
art or nature.” Others have resisted this expansion, arguing
that it undermines important features of the concept of the aesthetic. Faced with the seeming triviality of many
everyday aesthetic experiences, Christopher Dowling worries that “we are in
danger of losing the sharp and significant focus on those responses that
legitimately engage critical attention and interest.”
The expansive and
restrictive approaches both have reasons in their favor. Thought-provoking analyses of practices like meal
preparation, wardrobe, and the daily commute have distinguished work in
everyday aesthetics. Yet, the range of
objects or practices that one finds under the rubric everyday can seem arbitrary and this calls for a definition of the
everyday. Without a conception of
everyday aesthetics, it is not clear what the distinctive value of everyday
aesthetic activity might be and why it is useful to speak of everyday
aesthetics on its own terms.
notoriously difficult. The value of a
carefully drawn concept of everyday aesthetics may be considerable but the
chances of drawing it conclusively are still slim. At the risk of ignoring Aristotle’s advice
that one should not expect more precision than a subject permits, I propose a
definition of everyday aesthetic activity. The definition should help us to distinguish
everyday aesthetic activities not just from fine art but also practices which,
though outside of the fine arts, are not really everyday aesthetic practices.
2. The confluence of the everyday and the
The problem is how the
concept of the everyday restricts a broader category, aesthetics in general. An everyday aesthetic object or practice is:
This may seem obvious but
it bears mentioning that everyday aesthetics is not merely a synonym for minor,
vernacular, or non-fine art but, instead, represents a particular way that the
aesthetic exists outside of conventional forms of artistic expression. Everyday aesthetics concerns our recurring,
daily routines rather than episodic events or projects. Dwelling, the cleaning, inhabiting, enjoying
of the home, is a daily activity made and remade on a regular basis. By contrast, interior decoration is rarely
done, only once every few years at its most frequent. To be sure, interior decoration nourishes and
informs the aesthetics of dwelling. But,
by itself, interior decoration is simply not an everyday practice. Likewise, the aesthetic character of everyday
activities like cooking, dressing, or cleaning will be different from episodic
activities such as, say, holiday feasts, weddings, or vacations. The latter group still counts as vernacular,
folk, popular or ordinary aesthetic activity. But it is better seen as embracing seasonal or
life-cycle events, requiring complex planning and big decisions focused upon a
single event of short duration. In
contrast, everyday life is marked by an economy of effort, a minimum of
planning, and the easy integration of the aesthetic into routines with
amendments and variations along the way.
By common, I mean widely
experienced or practiced. An everyday
activity is not exotic, esoteric, or otherwise specialized or credentialed. It is accessible and generally, though not
universally practiced. For instance,
although rife with experts, contests, and awards, cooking or food preparation
is widely practiced, usually without the benefit of advice from star chefs. By contrast, finger exercises are only a
typical everyday aesthetic activity for pianists. Few of us are pianists. Thus, the daily finger exercises of the
pianist are not relevant to everyday aesthetic theory.
Similarly, the Japanese
tea ceremony does not count as an everyday aesthetic practice despite its
prominence in discussions of everyday aesthetics. For all its attention to the beauty of the
ordinary, the traditional tea ceremony is esoteric and rarely practiced, even
in Japan. In Tokyo it is far easier to
find people drinking a cup of coffee or eating a donut than participating in a
traditional tea ceremony. At best, the
Japanese tea ceremony offers a model that we may apply to practices in our
lives. It elevates the everyday to a
After participating in a ceremony, if I
return to my daily food preparation with a deeper appreciation of the utensils,
the heating and pouring of water, the aroma, then the tea ceremony has improved
my everyday aesthetic life. But like an
instructional film, this edification does not make it part of everyday life.
Even when they revolve
around the same cultural products, professional and everyday activities are
worth distinguishing. For instance,
nearly everyone watches television but few of us are in the business of making
television shows. The everyday aesthetic
practice, then, is watching, the way we integrate narrative into our leisure
time by following a series.
everyday life, some experiences take on value from the overall practice of
daily life, the everyday routines, habits, or practices. Everyday aesthetics is defined more by form
than content, in other words, more by the doing than its product. Many works of art have the everyday as theme
or subject matter. Having the everyday
as thematic content does not make an object or practice part of everyday life. A still life painting of a table of food, an
opera with a quotidian setting, a novel treating the protagonist’s everyday
life only have the everyday as a theme.
objects are not part of everyday aesthetics merely because they are ordinary. With ordinary objects, our tendency is to
consider the object itself and its distinctive design or arrangement. When it comes to the everyday, design can be a
red herring. Instead, we must look to
the object’s role in everyday life. For
example, a window with a view of a landscape has no everyday aesthetic value if
the room is rarely occupied or the blind always drawn. However, if the light, the view, and the bench
beside it contribute to the aesthetic character of some daily moment, then we
may speak of the window in terms of everyday aesthetics. It is the regular morning coffee, the acknowledgement
of the evening sunset, or the mere raising of a blind after waking that imparts
everyday aesthetic value to the window.
typically but not necessarily aesthetic
everyday aesthetic practice has aesthetic features as a matter of course,
though not of necessity. For instance,
one need not dress with style but it is not perverse if one does. In contrast, taking out the trash is an
everyday activity for nearly every one, but it is not typically an aesthetic
activity. It would be bizarre to
embellish it with ceremony. Of course,
it is possible to conceive of taking the trash out aesthetically. But what
matters is not the logical possibility of a quality but, instead, its
typicality. An everyday practice is
not rendered aesthetic by some counter-intuitive transfiguration, leap of
creative re-invention, such as an artist’s ready-made. The flow of everyday life is not conducive to
mental gymnastics. Instead, the
typicality and conventionality of the activity fosters and gives shape to the
Instead of an expansive
catch-all, everyday aesthetics is restricted to the aspects of our lives marked
by widely shared, daily routines or patterns to which we tend to impart an
aesthetic character. The practices which
enjoy these dual features of everyday pervasiveness and aesthetic character are
limited. There are five main areas of
consideration: food, wardrobe, dwelling,
conviviality, and going out. Nearly all
of us eat, dress, dwell someplace, socialize, and go out into the world for
work or errands on a nearly daily basis.
We prepare meals and appreciate the meals made for us with respect to
aesthetic features. We assemble
wardrobes for aesthetic and expressive purposes, to enjoy and be enjoyed (or,
for some other effect) by the people we encounter over the course of a day. We dwell someplace, cleaning, arranging, and
rearranging the space each day, and resting or relaxing in it. We engage in social interaction, routine acts
of conviviality, like greetings, humor, story-telling which have aesthetic
dimension as well. We go out into the
world, to work or on errands, designing a path to see and enjoy where there is
to enjoy among the possible paths to our destination. When these activities have an aesthetic
character, they are properly the subject of the aesthetics of everyday life.
In relation to what is
offered by great works of art, the satisfactions of everyday life may be modest.
However, their pervasiveness in our
lives makes them important, arguably more important than what we gather from
conventional works of art that we encounter from time to time. The everyday is the portion of our aesthetic
lives which we occupy the most. Although
not reducible to it, well-being is greatly dependent on everyday aesthetic life. Indeed, there may be features of everyday
aesthetic life (for instance, autonomy, flexibility, insouciance) that make it
especially conducive to well-being.
Like any definition, this
discussion is bound to elicit some head-scratching. I am sure that there are more than a few
cases that test the boundaries. The definition
offered here is both expansive and restrictive. It is restrictive in that it identifies
everyday aesthetics with a fairly narrow range of widely practiced daily human activities.
However, it is expansive because, in
giving the category some shape, it opens neglected aspects of our lives for further
Kevin Melchionne paints
and writes aesthetics. More information about
his work can be found at www.kevinmelchionne.com and independent.academia.edu/KevinMelchionne.
Published on January 7, 2013.
 Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2008), especially the
discussion of the appreciation of ambiance in Ch. 3; and Sherri Irvin, “The
Pervasiveness of the Aesthetic in Ordinary Experience,” British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 48 (2009), No. 1, 29-44; for
laundry, see Pauliina Rautio, “On Hanging Laundry: The Place of Beauty in Managing Everyday Life,”
Contemporary Aesthetics, (Vol. 7,
2009), www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=535; and Jessica J. Lee, “Home Life: Cultivating a Domestic Aesthetic,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Vol. 8 (2010), www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=587.
Downloaded on November 11, 2012.
 Thomas Leddy, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life,
Broadview Press, 2012, pp. 8-9.
 Christopher Dowling, “The Aesthetics
of Daily Life,” British Journal of
Aesthetics, Vol. 50 (2010), No.3, 225-242. For more on expansive and restrictive
approaches on everyday aesthetics, see Kevin Melchionne, "Aesthetic Experience in
Everyday Life: A Reply to Dowling,"
British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 41
(2011) No. 4, 437-442.
 I am grateful to Yuriko Saito for