What is contemporary aesthetics? The answer to this
question is often
simply stated rather than
carefully elaborated, even if the current nature and scope of the discipline is
far from self-evident. To examine how both the concept and
the field of contemporary
aesthetics can be understood, I suggest that it is useful to consider three
themes: the time, space, and content of aesthetics, i.e., the
questions of when, where, and what contemporary aesthetics is. Through this, it
is possible to construe a conceptual space of contemporary aesthetics and to
compare different instantiations of it with each other.
contemporary aesthetics, contemporaneity,
content, space, time
The easiest way to describe contemporary aesthetics is
to say that it covers everything that is currently done in the academic
discipline so named. This is true at the rudimentary level but it opens up
several further questions: What kind of entity are we trying to comprehend when
talking about contemporary aesthetics? What is the nature and scope of “the
contemporary” and is it synonymous with “the present?” Where and how does
contemporary aesthetics manifest itself? Where are the boundaries of the
aesthetics always and only an academic discipline? Is aesthetics of today different from aesthetics of the
past decades and centuries, and in what ways?
These are topical questions in a world that is
becoming more and more global in the sense that there are no self-evident geographical,
linguistic, or ideological centers of academic fields but competing actors who
might have wildly different ideas of the answers. In such a situation, scholars
and teachers should be able to clearly communicate what their conception about
contemporary aesthetics is and why. This is important because our idea about what is contemporary reveals
what we think is relevant and worth focusing on, in our own society, today.
Moreover, what we deem important for any reason tends to define what
contemporary is for us. Often, non-contemporary conceptions are not seen to be useful
or even intelligible. Different ideas of contemporaneity are related to
different ideas of the current field’s most important features.
When we search for our own answers, it is useful to
pay attention to at least three themes: the time, space and content of aesthetics, i.e., to when, where, and what aspects of
contemporary aesthetics are significant. Beyond helping us define our own
notions of contemporary aesthetics, the points of view can be used in analyzing
the issue of contemporaneity in other fields. I will concentrate on the first two themes and provide
only some tentative remarks of the last one. First, however, we need to more
clearly focus the issue by considering some implicit conceptions manifested in important
recent works of aesthetics.
Every new publication, event, or lecture on aesthetics
necessarily presents at least an implicit interpretation of the field or of its
parts, suggesting what is currently relevant to the field. Perusing, for
example, the latest issues of this journal, Contemporary
Aesthetics, provides an idea of what contemporary aesthetics is, although
the idea is necessarily limited—even if by no means wrong—if no other sources
However, there are contexts where a more explicit analysis
of contemporary aesthetics would be in order. Everyone who teaches
philosophical aesthetics should be able to clearly articulate what kinds of
lectures and curricula are relevant to students right now and why. Introductory
courses, undergraduate textbooks, companions, encyclopedias, and anthologies
that seek to present the best contemporary work, especially those containing
the word pair “contemporary aesthetics” in their title, evoke expectations
related to this. Whenever the field is introduced, one would assume that the
introduction is relevant right now, presents things that are currently
happening, but also analyzes how the picture of the contemporary situation has
been formed. Surprisingly, explications of this kind are fairly rare.
First, there are textbooks that are otherwise
interesting and clear but that do not raise the issue of their temporal nature,
instead presenting themselves as if they were written in no particular period
of history. Colin Lyas’ Aesthetics,
for example, is written in such a way that it is difficult to say how he
perceived contemporary aesthetics in
the mid 1990s, when the book was published.
This might have to do with two aspects of analytic aesthetics, whether flaws or
just characteristics of it, that have been pointed out by Richard Shusterman:
the neglect of both social context and history of the phenomena addressed, art
In Marcia Muelder Eaton’s Basic Issues in Aesthetics
and Robert Stecker’s Aesthetics and the
Philosophy of Art,
the time-related nature of their approaches is briefly mentioned: They say that
they offer a picture of current or contemporary aesthetics, each at their own
time of publishing. Richard Eldridge’s recently updated Philosophy of Art, which does not cover the whole field of
aesthetics but only the philosophy of art, also pays attention to some of the
latest currents in aesthetics. However, none of these authors analyzes at
length how each formed their understanding about contemporary aesthetics and
how they see what “contemporary“ or “current” is.
In the preface to the third edition of Philosophy Looks at the Arts, Joseph
Margolis goes a bit further. He explicates how the three editions are different
from each other because they were compiled at different historical moments.
“Every age understands itself as a transition: consolidating what is best,
against disruptive pressures; absorbing new conceptions, to liberate us from
what confines our entrenched habits of thought; doubting the viability of
legitimating either commitment, previously endorsed or now admired.”
He notices that each contemporary moment has its own needs, but even he does
not explicate how to understand “contemporary” (in 1987).
The situation is not much different in publications
that include the term “contemporary” in their titles. Part One of the book Contemporary Aesthetics, entitled “What
is Aesthetics?,” and which includes the essays “Twentieth Century Aesthetics”
by Monroe C. Beardsley and “Recent Work in Aesthetics” by Joseph Margolis,
does give a good picture of what these writers wanted to include in the
discourse of the early 1970s. In Contemporary
Aesthetics – A Philosophical Analysis, R.A. Sharpe writes: “I have tried to
present a picture of how the main problems in aesthetics appear in the last quarter
of a century.…”
Again, in Contemporary Studies in
Aesthetics, Francis J. Coleman merely states: “In this book I have brought
together a compendium of many of the more influential and stimulating articles
in aesthetics written during the past thirty years.”
Yet, these authors do
not explicate how they have actually
considered what is contemporary and on which grounds they have based their
One of the broadest and many-sided presentations of
contemporary aesthetics is the Encyclopedia
of Aesthetics edited by Michael Kelly. The second edition (2014) contains some 800 hundred essays
in six volumes. In the Preface to the first edition (1998), Kelly explains that “To capture these multiple
dimensions, the Encyclopedia of
Aesthetics has been created using a definition of aesthetics as ‘critical
reflection on art, culture, and nature.’”
Seen from this perspective, aesthetics is not merely a sub-field of philosophy
but includes many different disciplines and has local and global aspects. The Encyclopedia tries to encompass “the key
centuries (eighteenth to twentieth) and countries (Germany, France, Great
Britain, United States) in the history of Western aesthetics,”
different disciplinary perspectives, various cultures, many of the arts,
various critiques of aesthetics, and dozens of other views.
Kelly also gave a name to the period in which the work
for the first edition was done and characterized it briefly: “One of the marks
of our present age, which is typically characterized as postmodern, is a
skepticism toward any claims about philosophical systems or historical grand
This skepticism led the editors to take the postmodern, critical attitude into
consideration and provide good reasons for their choices. Kelly continued,
“Topics were chosen according to the following general criteria: (1)
philosophical or critical significance in the histories of aesthetics, art, or
fields related to aesthetics or art; (2) relevance to contemporary aesthetics;
and (3) historical or contemporary importance in non-Western cultures.” Nonetheless, even
if they are much more critical than many others, Kelly and his fellow editors
do not really analyze what is “contemporary” and why these things have
“relevance to contemporary aesthetics.” They do say what aesthetics means for
them and give plenty of examples of that—that is, they suggest what is
relevant, but they don’t say what “contemporary” is, in either 1998 or 2014.
The situation is similar to that in such volumes as Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the
Philosophy of Art, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, A Companion to
Aesthetics and Theories of Art Today.
Moreover, in my experience, browsing through various Internet pages does not
reveal anything more substantial on the matter, even if it is possible that
somewhere in the digital universe there are gems that I have not found. Even
this electronic journal, Contemporary
Aesthetics, refrains from defining what the contemporary is.
It seems to be rather typical for many widely used,
well-known and in many other ways excellent works on aesthetics, that they
don’t problematize the concept of contemporary aesthetics. I emphasize that the
tendency of not analyzing what contemporaneity is does by no means diminish the
value of such important publications. My aim is not to criticize them but
simply note that addressing this theme has not been typical in academic
aesthetics. In many other fields the self-reflection that is necessary for
understanding the nature of the contemporary state of that field has been very
active for a long time, for example, in gender studies, post-colonial studies,
and historiography. The perspectives offered by them have also been utilized in
philosophical aesthetics, in other ways, but for some reason this has not
typically resulted in an analysis on the nature of the field’s contemporaneity.
When is “contemporary?”
In different sub-fields of historical studies—the history
of the visual arts, theater, music, architecture, philosophy, political events
and processes, and so on—the issue of periodization is practically as old as
the fields themselves. It is probably impossible to form any idea of history
without periodization, i.e., without dividing the past into certain phases,
periods, epochs, or eras. Giants of philosophy, such as Plato, Aristotle, Hegel,
and Marx, had their own ways of periodizing. We are all used to period names
such as the Renaissance, Middle-Ages, and Romanticism, and we may even take
them as given. However, after analyzing a number of historiographical questions,
Thomas Postlewait showed that in theater studies alone there have been at least
twenty-two different principles for periodizing history, each including several
sub-categories. Periods have been formed by focusing on political empires and
dynasties (Hellenistic, Hapsburg, etc.), normative attributes (primitive,
festival, etc.), chronology (the seventeenth century, between the wars, etc.),
audience types (bourgeois, aristocratic, etc.), performance modes (Noh,
baroque), institutions, famous playwrights, and so forth.
Postlewait’s message is that we necessarily construct
such periods and that they are stipulative, nominal interpretations. No period
exists as such in the past, and none of them has a singular, indisputable
identity. We simplify many things when we make use of them but that is not a
problem that we can solve for good; rather it is an unavoidable feature of such
We must be critical about them exactly because we cannot do without them. We
must ask why we think that a certain period starts and ends at some particular
time, what kinds of features characterize it, even if we give a period a name
and some characteristics, how many phenomena that existed during that time
frame actually represented the supposedly dominant currents of that period,
which things are related to what kinds of periods and which out-live them? In
aesthetics we can ask, in which sense can we speak of aesthetics of antiquity,
the Renaissance, the twentieth century, modernity, and postmodernity? Are all
of them periods or something else?
Such questions clearly have to do with the history of
aesthetics and are dealt with by specialists in it, such as Władysław
Tatarkiewicz and Paul Guyer.
However, they are just as important for understanding the contemporary
situation. Yet unlike other periods, the contemporary era is still here; we are
living it. Furthermore, the fact that we think that there are periods that have
ended indicates that we think that we are living a contemporary period that, in
turn, will end sooner or later and become history. When, why, and how this will
happen is unclear, although some ideas related to this are also sometimes
pondered by philosophers of aesthetics.
Our ideas and beliefs about the past and the future clearly affect our ideas
about the present, but I cannot go into the relations of these three modes of
time in this article. Instead, I will concentrate on analyzing the concept of
The word 'contemporary' is sometimes used as a term
that indicates that its users refrain from taking a stand on the questions of the
kind of times we are living in, what we should call the present, and when it
started. It is supposed to simply refer to anything existing or happening
presently, simultaneously with us. But as soon as we start to think about it,
questions arise that should be answered carefully.
First, what is the temporal scope of contemporaneity,
i.e., when did the present start and can we know when it will end? 'Contemporary'
in the year 2014 most probably refers to this year. However, a single year, not
to mention shorter periods, appears to be too short and arbitrary a unit to
define the scope of contemporaneity for an entire academic field. So, when did
the contemporary era start? What can be considered being “the same time” as
ours today? What kinds of things need to happen that make it end?
As we saw above, many authors operate by paying
attention to the last few decades; some tens-of-years might not be a completely
useless rule of thumb even if that is not very exact. Also, in a recent
international call for papers of the Italian journal Rivista di Estetica, the theme was entitled “The Contemporary,” and
this period seems to be understood to have started in the late 1970s to early
On the other hand, it is quite possible to focus on much longer periods and
suggest that in some ways we are still living a period that can be called
modern. In everyday parlance, at least, 'modern' often simply means “new,” “the
latest”—or “contemporary.” But of course, whether modern aesthetics is the same
as contemporary aesthetics is a complicated debate. In Tatarkiewicz’s History of Aesthetics, modern aesthetics
started in 1400 and ended in 1700,
whereas some others suggest that modern aesthetics really began with Kant and
ended at some point in the twentieth century. Another opinion is that we have left the modern behind and are living a
postmodern period, as we noted Michael Kelly writing (at least, that was the
case in late 1990s). Still others suggest that postmodern is also already
history and that the current period started after the postmodern in1990s. This
is how Terry Smith described the situation in What is Contemporary Art?,
and the same idea can be applied to aesthetics. However, it is not senseless to
say that both postmodern and contemporary are smaller entities within the much
bigger whole of modernity,
although, at the same time, modern is and will always be what is the latest. It
is not at all clear how to call the present period or to pinpoint when it
started and for how long it has been going on.
If one thinks that modern and
postmodern (or romantic, baroque, etc.) are not contemporary phenomena but
something that belong to the past, one must have an idea about why this is so.
Something substantial must have changed so that present phenomena must be understood
in a new and different way. The point of Smith’s book in 2009 was to show that
such changes really had occurred and that they should influence our approaches
to and theories about works by such artists as Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Matthew
Barney, and Tracey Emin. What these changes are, according to Smith, cannot be
analyzed in more detailed here, but they are related to various strands of globalization
and digital communication. Art that is
created in this context is different from modern and postmodern art and thus
calls for new kind of aesthetic theory. It is not self-evident that temporal
frames must be drawn like this, but Smith’s solution clearly shows that
defining any kind of frame for
contemporaneity has an impact on which theoretical and other tools we think are
needed for understanding contemporary aesthetic phenomena, whether art or
otherwise. Moreover, as we focus on certain issues that we find important, it
is easy to think that precisely those issues are contemporary while others are
There are also borderline cases. Arthur C. Danto’s
work can still be seen as contemporary in many senses even though he is,
unfortunately, not among us any longer as an active author. I believe that we
still live the same contemporary period he was a part of, whatever the name of
that period is. Danto was one of the front-row aestheticians in the
English-speaking world who saw the role of time to be quite central in
art and the philosophy related to it, linking his ideas directly with Hegel’s
thinking. Interestingly, he sometimes wrote about very old works of art and
operated with timelines covering hundreds of years. Yet he sometimes stated that the present
period of the complicated mix of art, historical awareness, philosophy, and
criticism more or less started with Andy Warhol in the1960s, while at other
times he focused on the very latest exhibitions and currents in his criticism in
The Nation and elsewhere.
What Danto found relevant at any given moment may have been created a long time
ago; there are different starting points for different phenomena important for
the present. How long the contemporary period or moment is, is a flexible
matter; in one sense, we are contemporaries of Warhol (and Danto), in another,
we are contemporaries with things that are happening around us right now.
This is why we have to make a distinction between recent phenomena (publications, events, ideas, theories) that have been or are
being produced during the present period and those from earlier periods but still
relevant to us, such as Plato’s or Kant’s theories, independently of how and
when we think the contemporary period has started. Are Plato and Kant a part of
contemporary aesthetics? I think that they are, unlike things that have been
forgotten and are not in active use right now. Their ideas are often seen to be interesting in
themselves and they are also used as tools for understanding present day
phenomena. Interestingly, however, even forgotten theories and ideas may become re-contemporized, as has been
happening with John Dewey’s thinking since the end of the twentieth century
through the neo-pragmatism of Shusterman, Thomas Leddy and others.
Not everything that is currently produced is equally
distinctive for the discussion of contemporaneity, but many publications and
lectures simply continue the tradition in the form that was developed much
earlier. Yet, exactly the bulk of most of the publications, in any field,
comprises the most typical cases of any given period. Not everything can be
new, innovative and epoch-making. This issue, too, has been analyzed by
historians: is history to be described through what was usual, typical, and
everyday-like or through breaks, changes, and exceptional events and
individuals? Similarly, when we speak of contemporary aesthetics, are we
referring to the bulk of the present or to the most exceptional, best, and
innovative cases that are clearly different from cases of earlier periods? One
possible way of thinking is that there are simply several schools, styles, or
traditions living side by side, some older, some younger, and that as long as
they are productive and active, be they innovative or more traditional, they
are examples of contemporary aesthetics.
To sum up: there are phenomena,
questions, and ways of thinking that have existed for a very long time and are
still relevant to contemporary aesthetics (hundreds or thousands of years: the
human interest in pictorial representation, modernism broadly taken), ones that
have come about later but still span significant periods (tens of years:
conceptual art, analytic aesthetics), and some things that only cover recent or
short periods (years or months: the latest internet developments, publications
in aesthetics in the year 2014), all of which have their role in the whole of
contemporary aesthetics. Some old periods and phenomena from them are no longer
relevant and they are not really part of the contemporary situation.
4. Space: Where is aesthetics?
While historians actively problematize time-related
issues, including periodization, a group of academics in social sciences,
cultural studies, gender studies, globalization studies, post- and de-colonial
studies, humanistic geography, and elsewhere question the traditional
conceptions related to places, regions, borders, centers, peripheries, and other
spatial themes. This current, which had already gained interest in late 1970s
through Edward W. Said’s Orientalism,
also has its bearing on considering the scope of contemporary aesthetics.
The root question here is, where is contemporary
aesthetics? A fine example of this kind of research attitude closely related to
aesthetics is Pascale Casanova’s The
World Republic of Letters,
where she interestingly analyzes “the global literary space” and its changes
over the centuries. Does such a space exist? In which way? When was it born?
What kinds of texts are noticed in it? Such works should have made us sensitive
to the question of “where?”
Indeed, spatial questions have received more attention
in the core areas of aesthetics than the time-related questions of contemporaneity.
For example, the Encyclopedia of
Aesthetics clearly pays attention to them, there are special volumes of
journals and events on non-Western aesthetics, and the international congresses
of aesthetics organized by The
International Association for Aesthetics have taken place in different
parts of the globe to make sure that various voices and ideas will interact.
There are strong signs of a widening of the geographical and linguistic boundaries
of academic aesthetics and the present journal has also been active in this
process. At the same time, it has become more and more evident that the word
'aesthetics' should be used in the plural, not in the singular: there are different aesthetics in different places
as there are different aesthetics in different periods. A recent book
addressing the versatility of the field and presenting a number of key figures
behind such broadening of tendencies is Monique Roelofs’ The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic.
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. Most authors come from these
countries and many issues they address are of the same origin, even if the so
called Continental tradition is often noticed. By looking at the national
societies of aesthetics listed on the web page of The International Association for Aesthetics,
one might get a somewhat different idea. Yet while there are almost two hundred
independent countries in the world, only twenty-nine national societies are
mentioned, only one of them from Africa and three from Asia. Aesthetics seems
to be a very Western endeavor, even if not entirely Anglo-American. Does this mean
that aesthetics does not exist in other countries? Most probably not, but it does
not get much visibility, at least in English publications.
A matter which is of a different scale but still of interest
is how aesthetics exists within national borders. In the US, the American
Society for Aesthetics has done some work in clarifying the state of aesthetics
within the country: “During the fall of 1998 the American Society for
Aesthetics conducted a survey of the chairs of philosophy departments in North America
in order to gauge the status of aesthetics (or the philosophy of art) in the
American academy. In particular, the survey was designed to ascertain what
proportion have philosophers of art on staff, what aesthetics courses are
offered, what the demand for those courses is, and how many graduate
departments are training students with a competence in aesthetics.” However, the results
presented on the webpage are already fairly dated and represent the situation
solely in North America. I am not aware of similar surveys done in other
regions. We do not really know where
contemporary aesthetics resides.
Be the perspective national or international, the
question of the center and periphery, so dear to post-colonial studies, must be
asked: Which areas or spots on the map of aesthetics are hot and actively
interconnected, which are somewhere in the fringes of topical discussion, and
which are completely outside of it? Are there different kinds of hot areas and
networks independent of each other? How has the map changed over the past hundred
I do not think that the spatial situation can ever be
completely balanced. A number of factors affect the map of actors contributing
to contemporary aesthetics. It is always a result of various kinds of
processes, conflicts, intellectual fashions, political events, economic
currents, and power struggles. Some actors and areas get more attention and
have more influence than others. Who, from where, and doing what will be
included? What kinds of things does a map or even an entire atlas cover?
Institutions, publication channels, individual scholars, events, women, men,
different languages, schools of thought? There can never be a complete picture
of this because the whole is simply too complex for anyone to comprehend in
When we discuss the scope of contemporary aesthetics,
we should actively ask these questions and test our different ways of mapping. The map and its actors look very different from the perspective of the US and,
say, Gabon. Still, even if the perspective of the English-speaking actors seems
to be globally rather dominant, I am not sure that they can be accused of not
paying attention to all the different areas on the map in the way that
political actors have sometimes been accused of colonializing or even forgetting
whole countries or regions. Rather, scholars from Scandinavia, South America,
Africa, and elsewhere have the responsibility to take care of their own
traditions and current situations, to affect the atlas and its contents. Many
issues in aesthetics are very culture-dependent and thus must be dealt with
locally, i.e., by scholars and other actors who know enough of such local
issues, language-dependence, or otherwise.
Even if there are issues that are so
local that they cannot really be understood elsewhere, in some cases the
globally dominant English discourse is enriched when other perspectives are
noticed. This is accomplished by societies and in events mentioned above, and
by authors such as Yuriko Saito, who has not only presented Japanese aesthetics
to Western readers but also opened up new perspectives on Western cultures with
the help of it.
Still, the question remains whether this simply means including new aspects in
the dominant Western discourse or truly respecting the idea that there are
completely different centers and quarters in the broad field of global
aesthetics. It may well be that in some cultures the whole Western idea of
contemporaneity, which values change and newness, is not considered important.
More generally, I believe that there are phenomena in
contemporary aesthetics that are fairly global or very wide-spread (interest in
the arts, Kant’s philosophy), some that are more culture-dependent (conceptions
about French art by French aestheticians), and some that are very local, even
individual. All of them have their place in the totality of the contemporary
situation, and we should be sensitive to all these levels in the same manner that
we need to be sensitive to various time layers.
I assume that while scholars in aesthetics become
better at using large data bases and their combinations, so-called big data
will bring new knowledge to the current field of aesthetics. Thus far,
extensive results of this type of research have not been published. To my
knowledge, there are no large-scale data analyses on where publications in
aesthetics have been published, in which languages, by what kind of people, how
they are related to each other and to publications in other fields, what is the
overall volume of activities in aesthetics as compared with some other fields’
activities, where courses in aesthetics are taught, and so on. Such issues
could be analyzed and presented in charts and images, but carrying through such
analyses requires team work that has not been very typical in the humanities.
It is probable that working practices developed in the so-called digital
humanities will eventually change the situation.
The scope of aesthetics in the age of databases and data flows probably looks
rather different from that of traditional universities, printed books, and
physical locations. In many ways, data
do not have locality at all and it is sometimes mind-boggling to try to figure
out where and how things in the internet actually exist. How the atlas of
aesthetics of Google, Amazon, Scopus, university databases, Facebook, Twitter,
and other digital systems will look remains to be seen.
What is aesthetics?
When we try to understand when and where contemporary
aesthetics exists and manifests itself, we must have an idea of what we are
looking for. Not everything that can be included in the category has the name 'aesthetics'
stamped on it. Are we looking for texts, people, institutions, ideas, theories,
or what, and what makes all these things instances of aesthetics?
Philosophically, we should have a conception of the ontology and epistemology
related to aesthetics: what is aesthetics and how do we know that?
Depending on our way of defining what aesthetics are
we will have a very different map of the current field. The field of Analytic Aesthetics
is probably somewhat different from the Continental, Psychoanalytic, Pragmatist,
or Marxist traditions, even if liberal minds can include all these in the
comprehensive picture. But even liberal minds have some limitations: not everything is aesthetics. This is
probably the biggest, toughest, and longest-living question any field of
knowledge faces: how to define itself? I am not trying to offer an answer to
this question here; the debate has been going on since the days of Baumgarten
and will continue. Instead, I just refer to some problematic issues that we
face when we try to find our own answers.
First, can works
written in, say, anthropology, the social sciences, or psychology, following
their terminology and methodology, be considered aesthetics if they focus on
the arts or beauty? Many issues relevant to aesthetics are actively dealt with
in these fields, even if not philosophically.
One only has to think of the activities of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, pursued mostly
by psychologists. In fact, this is still a fairly simple case because the
association openly uses the name 'aesthetics' in its title, but there are other
contexts where the name is absent and yet what is done seems to be, at least
partly, aesthetics. I am thinking, for example, about Susan B. Kaiser’s work in
the social psychology of clothing.
Also, in environmental aesthetics the borderline between philosophical
aesthetics and natural sciences is often very thin, if it exists at all.
On the other hand, it is not evident that everything
that is called aesthetics is aesthetics in the sense that I understand it. Do
we have quite different uses for a single word; is this a case of homonyms? There
have been interesting discussions over the term in art education and even
suggestions for strongly questioning the usefulness of it because, according to
some authors, the word seems to be referring to too many things or to not much
at all. Taken to the extreme, this would mean that in some sense contemporary aesthetics
does not really exist or is some sort of illusion. But if contemporary
aesthetics doesn’t exist, what would all that be that I have thought belongs to
Moreover, we need to consider whether aesthetics is
something that happens only in academia—in philosophy or elsewhere—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? At least, they address aesthetic issues, their
activities by far outnumber anything academic aestheticians could ever imagine doing, and they create things
that academic aestheticians are also interested in. Some artists and artworks explicitly comment on and develop themes that
occupy philosophical aestheticians’ minds. This current that is openly pondered in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
becomes evident in a number of exhibitions and biennales, along with books such
as Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985. The difference between academic and
non-academic aesthetics is blurry, as is nicely stated by Kevin Melchionne at
the end of his article in Contemporary
Aesthetics: he says that he “paints
and writes aesthetics.”
And perhaps, in the end, we can
even think that some animals have their aesthetics, as David Rothenberg has
It is possible that they really consciously pay attention to aesthetic matters
and in that sense have their aesthetic ideas and preferences, even if not
It is crucial to realize which perspective to
aesthetics one is adopting and tell it openly. I don’t have a problem with
stating that aesthetics is something that is created by academics at
universities and disseminated in linguistic form (as books, articles, web
pages, lectures, and speeches), that is, what is labeled as aesthetics by
aestheticians themselves. And I don’t
have a problem including a nebulous group of artists, designers, journalists, athletes,
and their products in the sphere of aesthetics, either. These are two very
different ideas of what aesthetics is and how it should be approached
ontologically, epistemologically, and otherwise, and they may be useful and
comprehensible in different situations. One of the most promising approaches is
presented by Casey Haskins. Even if he focuses on academic circles of
aesthetics, he sees aesthetics as an “intellectual network” that includes and
connects very different instances of aesthetics together, evolves over time, and does not have a
clear, dominant center and operation practices, nor a single ontology or
Again, we can make use of a tripartite scheme. If
there are very old, “middle-aged,” and quite recent strands in contemporary
aesthetics considered temporally; global, culture-dependent, and local
phenomena considered spatially; there might be explicit, semi-explicit and implicit
cases of contemporary aesthetics' content.
Together, these three axes form an imaginary or metaphorical
three-dimensional space of contemporary aesthetics. We can try to posit
different instances of aesthetics into this space and see how they are related
to other cases. A philosophical essay on the definition of art published in
this journal belongs to a different location of this space than an opening
speech of an art exhibition in a small town in South Korea.
This kind of space is a metaphorical construct, not a
neutral picture of a reality. But many, if not most, theories and other
conceptual entities are exactly that. Still, it can be a useful tool for
demonstrating the multifaceted aspects and versions of contemporary aesthetics.
The next step, then, is to discuss them in more detail and probably debate
whether all types belong to the field or space of contemporary aesthetics or,
rather, to the past, to the future, or outside aesthetics altogether. It may
also make it easier to clarify from which linguistic, cultural, philosophical,
methodological, or other standpoint one is approaching the contemporary field.
is Vice Dean at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design, and Architecture,
Helsinki, Finland. He has published books and articles on everyday
aesthetics, mobile culture, and environmental and visual arts. He would like to
thank the anonymous reviewers of this journal and Professor Michael Kelly for
their valuable comments and help that greatly improved the final version.
Published on December 2, 2014.
 Colin Lyas, Aesthetics
(London and Bristol: UCL Press, 1997).
 Richard Shusterman, “Introduction: Analysing Analytic Aesthetics,” in Analytic Aesthetics, ed. Richard
Shusterman (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 10–11.
 Marcia Muelder Eaton, Basic
Issues in Aesthetics (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1988).
 Robert Stecker, Aesthetics and
the Philosophy of Art: An Introduction (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, Inc., 2005).
 Richard Eldridge, An Introduction
to the Philosophy of Art, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University
 Joseph Margolis, Preface to Philosophy
Looks at the Arts: Contemporary Readings in Aesthetics, Third Edition, ed.
Joseph Margolis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), p xi.
 Monroe C. Beardsley, “Twentieth Century Aesthetics” and Joseph Margolis
“Recent Work in Aesthetics,” in Contemporary
Aesthetics, ed. Matthew Lippman (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1973), pp.
44–50 and 51–74.
 R.A. Sharpe, Preface to Contemporary
Aesthetics – A Philosophical Analysis, ed. R.A. Sharpe (Brighton: The
Harvester Press, 1983).
 Francis J. Coleman, Preface to Contemporary
Studies in Aesthetics, ed. Francis J. Coleman (New York, etc.: McGraw-Hill
Book Company, 1968).
 Michael Kelly, Preface to Encyclopedia
of Aesthetics, Volume 1, editor in Chief Michael Kelly (New York and
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. ix.
 Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Matthew Kieran (Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell Publishing,
2006); The Routledge Companion to
Aesthetics, eds. Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (London and New York:
Routledge, 2001); A Companion to
Aesthetics, ed. David Cooper (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992); Theories of Art Today, ed. Noël Carroll,
(Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).
 Thomas Postlewait, The Cambridge
Introduction to Theatre Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2009) p. 189.
 Władysław Tatarkiewicz, History
of Aesthetics, Vols. 1–3, ed. D. Petsch (The Hague: Mouton, 1974); Paul
Guyer, A History of Modern Aesthetics,
Vols. 1–3 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
 Arthur C. Danto, “A Future for Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 51 (1993), 271–277;
Francis Sparshott, The Future of
Aesthetics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).
 Tatarkiewicz, History of
 Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics
from Classical Greece to the Present: A Short History (Tuscaloosa and
London: The University of Alabama Press, 1966), p. 210 onwards.
 Terry Smith, What is Contemporary
Art? (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 242
and passim. An illuminating contribution to the discussion on
modern vs. contemporary art and the history of the idea of contemporaneity is Richard
Meyer’s What Was Contemporary Art? (Cambridge:
The MIT Press, 2013).
 Whether we should speak about modernity, the modern, or modernism, and
whether these terms refer to periods, attitudes, styles, or something else is a
matter of debate. On this, for example, Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch,
Postmodernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987).
 All these aspects come together, for example, in Arthur C. Danto, Encounters & Reflections: Art in the
Historical Present (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990).
 Although it is not exactly the same, this tripartite model can be
compared to ones addressing overlapping period durations in historical studies
presented by Fernand Braudel and Norbert Elias. See Postlewait, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre
Historiography, pp. 167–168.
 Edward W. Said, Orientalism:
Western Conceptions of the Orient (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
 Pascale Casanova, The World
Republic of Letters (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press,
2004). Originally published in French in 1999. In the visual arts, similar issues have recently been
addressed in The Global Contemporary and
the Rise of New Art Worlds, eds. Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter
Weibel (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013).
 Monique Roelofs, The Cultural Promise
of the Aesthetic (Bloomsbury: London and New York, 2014).
 One reason for why this may not be so easy in current academia is that
scholars all over the world are pressured to publish in English.
Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2007).
 Susan B. Kaiser, The
Social Psychology of Clothing: Symbolic Appearances in Context (Fairchild
Publications: New York, 1998).
 Kevin Tavin, “Eyes Wide Shut: The Use and Uselessness of the Discourse
of Aesthetics in Art Education,” Art
Education, 60 (2007), 40–45 and Paul Duncum, “9 Reasons for the Continuing
Use of the Aesthetic Discourse in Art Education,” Art Education, 60 (2007), 46–51.
 Theory in
Contemporary Art Since 1985, eds. Zoya Kocur & Simon
Leung (Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).
 Kevin Melchionne, "The Point of Everyday
Aesthetics," Contemporary Aesthetics,
 David Rothenberg, Survival of the
Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution (New York, London, New Delhi,
Sidney: Bloomsbury Press, 2011).
 Casey Haskins, “Aesthetics as an Intellectual Network,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
69 (2011), 297–308.