As opposed to Melchionne and Naukkarinen, I defend an expansive definition of
everyday aesthetics, one that includes festivals, tourism, and many daily
activities of artists and other professionals, along with most ordinary and common
experiences. I argue for continuities
between aesthetics of everyday life and the aesthetics of art and nature. Looking through a window, for example, may involve aspects of all three. Although I agree with Melchionne that
everyday aesthetics is closely related to questions of subjective well-being, I
take a more expansive approach to this, drawing from recent psychological
studies of the experience of “awe” to stress the importance of such experiences
in subjective well-being, thus tying the high points of everyday aesthetics
more closely with the high points in the aesthetics of art and nature.
everyday aesthetics, Melchionne, Naukkarinen, restrictivists, subjective
Background of the debate over
defining everyday aesthetics
When I titled my book on
everyday aesthetics, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary,” I intended to counter
a prevailing tendency in this new and growing field to stress the ordinariness
of the ordinary, limiting everyday aesthetics to this domain. I thought that this limitation failed to
capture the dynamic interaction among everyday aesthetics, nature aesthetics,
and art aesthetics. I wanted to stress the
continuities between these, whereas others wanted to stress the discontinuities. Following John Dewey, I saw the aesthetic
experiences connected with the arts as closely related to the aesthetic
experiences of daily life. Art concentrates and intensifies the
aesthetic qualities we find in non-art aspects of our lives. Moreover, as Oscar Wilde observed, non-art
phenomena often mimic art. Yet often the objects and activities of
everyday life can transcend their ordinariness even without the mediation of
art. Whether by the mediation of art or
not, ordinary objects can be seen in
a way that gives them heightened significance, making them, sometimes
surprisingly, objects of awe or, at least, of fascination.
Often this happens through
seeing the object as an artist would, but sometimes it happens spontaneously. Take human beauty. In every person’s life, there are a few times
when we glimpse a person of great beauty. This is by no means something that happens on
a daily basis. Yet how shall it be
classified? The experience fails to fall
neatly into the traditional dichotomy of aesthetics of art versus aesthetics of
nature. When someone finds a person to
be a “great beauty,” this is not a matter of nature appreciation any more than
it is of art appreciation. Natural
aesthetics has to do with natural environments; great human beauty does not or,
at least, not directly. There are a number of other things that
happen to us in non-art, non-nature contexts that are high points in aesthetic
experience, for example, the way that a smell can evoke a world. These high points, I thought, should help to
define the field of everyday aesthetics.
Inspired by Walter
Benjamin but not following him, I called the above-mentioned quality of
heightened significance “aura.” I
defined aesthetics generally, and aesthetic experience particularly, in terms
of aura. I did not intend “heightened
significance” to mean a greater sense of importance but something closer to
“awesome” at its most intense, “fascinating” at a weaker level, and
“interesting” at a still weaker level. Something
has aura or heightened significance if it seems more alive, more real, more
present, or more connected to other things.
I argued that when an object, event, or experience has an aesthetic
quality, for instance beauty, grace, or elegance, it is because it has aura.
However, I was not just
interested in special aesthetic moments covered by such noble-sounding terms. I was also interested in the pervasiveness of
aesthetic experience. To put it another
way, I was not only interested in the way in which even the most ordinary thing
can become extraordinary, but in low-level aesthetic experiences such as the
pleasure we get in contemplating a neatened backyard. These experiences are as much a part of
everyday aesthetics as the more intense, rarer sorts of experience, the ones that
Dewey called “an experience.” In a later
paper, I argued that these exist on a continuum in which the low-level
experiences have aura as well, although it is less intense. My definition of everyday aesthetics was
expansive in that it included the entire range of this continuum. For example, following Sheila Lintott, I
would include the sublime experience of childbirth under everyday aesthetics,
even though it is neither something that happens every day nor to every human. The importance of including sublime
experiences in everyday aesthetics was highlighted in the last chapter of my
book, in which I discussed everyday aesthetics and the sublime.
2. The search for a definition.
Some have argued that the
field of everyday aesthetics is too open-ended, and that the solution to this
is a definition. In Contemporary Aesthetics, Kevin Melchionne and Ossi Naukkarinen have
each argued for a definition that is restrictive; in particular restricting
everyday aesthetics to that which is ordinary, common and, almost strictly
speaking, daily. As I have suggested above, my position continues
to take the opposite tack, one that could be called “expansionist.” Is this just a matter of semantics, or
arbitrary choice of category boundaries?
I don’t think so. There are deep
reasons for the disagreement and, in what follows, I will try to tease these
out. My discussion will be directed here
mainly to Melchionne.
definition is, in part, a response to the definition I offered in my book. He observed that I treat everyday aesthetics
as a “default third basket for what is not comfortably categorized as fine art
or natural beauty.” This is not entirely true, since I also listed
things generally included in everyday aesthetics. So part of my approach was ostensive. However, the definition I offered was
negative. I said that everyday
aesthetics covers that which is outside both art and nature aesthetics. I now think that the second, negative, aspect
of my approach was too broad. First, it is
not clear that all non-art, non-nature aesthetic
phenomena should be included under everyday aesthetics. For example, what about the aesthetics of
mathematics? Is that now a part of
everyday aesthetics since it is not a part of the aesthetics of art or
nature? Other domains that pose problems
of this sort are the aesthetics of sports and the aesthetics of science. Second, a definition should really get at a
thing’s essential nature or, at least, the core meaning of the concept. Negative definitions do not help with either. Third, as we shall see, the relationship
between everyday aesthetics and both art and nature aesthetics is much too
dynamic to be captured with a negative definition.
problem is not that my definition is negative but that it is expansive. In particular, he is concerned that it would
include things that are not daily or common.
This is what is meant by favoring a restrictive definition of everyday
aesthetics over an expansive one. In
this article, I will defend an expansive definition. More accurately, I will defend an expansive
approach to understanding everyday
aesthetics, since I am not going to offer an actual definition. Although philosophical definition can be
valuable, the process of creating a philosophical definition, insofar as it
involves making strict distinctions, tends to hide continuities and dynamic
interactions, the understanding of which is sometimes more important than
setting up limitations.
Some might say that the
disagreement could be easily resolved. All
I need to do is cede the label “everyday aesthetics” to the restrictivists and
coin some other term, say “festival aesthetics,”
to cover the non-everyday events I had included in everyday aesthetics, but
which they exclude. Naukkarinen,
agreeing for the most part with Melchionne, favors an everyday aesthetics that
focuses on things that are familiar, easy, and obvious; and ordinary routines that
can be performed ”almost automatically.”
He further writes that, “everyday objects, activities, and events, for me
and for others, are those with which we spend lots of time, regularly and
repeatedly. Most often this means
objects and events related to our work, home, and hobbies.” Like Melchionne, he places parties outside of
the everyday since they break the routines of life: “they are exceptions, occasions when we do
other things than the normal." In the chart that illustrated his article,
“Party” appeared in the outer circle, whereas everyday aesthetics relate to
what he called “My Everyday Now,” which is at the center.
The term “festival
aesthetics” has a legitimate use insofar as it can be used to cover such things
as parties, festivals, weddings, and holidays.
However, “festival aesthetics,” plus the aesthetic of the common and
ordinary, would not be sufficient to cover the wider domain I wanted to cover
with the term “everyday aesthetics.” It
would not, for example, include the above-mentioned aesthetics of pregnancy and
childbirth. Nor would it include the
delight I had this morning pointing out to my wife a series of lovely chalk
drawings of animals, perhaps by a child, but possibly by an artist, that have
appeared at one block intervals near our house.
Since not clearly art, these drawings may fall within everyday
I toyed with the term
“life aesthetics” for the broader domain I previously called “everyday
aesthetics,” but rejected it since life also includes experiences of art and
nature. “Popular aesthetics” is also
problematic since it would have to cover popular art, which seems more part of
art aesthetics than of everyday aesthetics.
I continue to prefer “everyday aesthetics” as the name for the broader
realm. “The aesthetics of the common and
ordinary” can cover what the restrictivists want to call “everyday aesthetics.”
As suggested, debates of
this sort are more than a matter of “mere semantics” or efficient territory
organization. They are aspects of, or
perhaps even proxies for, larger debates.
I suspect this is true for philosophical debate in general. The kinds of concepts philosophers argue
over, such as “art,” “beauty,” and “good,” are not natural or mathematical
kinds. They cannot be defined in the way
“water” or “triangle” can. Nor can they
be defined by simply referring to and generalizing over popular usage. What is involved in debates over their
definition is competing visions of larger things. In this case, the debate over the definition
of everyday aesthetics entails a debate over the nature of aesthetics itself,
and also a debate, as we shall see, over the nature of the everyday. Moreover, such debates indirectly deal with more global issues, such as the nature of
knowledge, man, and reality. That’s why
they are so important to the debaters. For
example, an argument about the nature of everyday aesthetics may also
indirectly be about the nature of the good life. This is why one can usually describe this
kind of debate in terms of competing ideologies or worldviews. Imagine one party gives a Marxist definition
of everyday aesthetics and another a feminist definition. If there is a disagreement, then that is part
of a larger disagreement between Marxists and feminists. Of course, teasing out what these larger
issues might be in the long run can be difficult, and it is not clear that my
deeper disagreements with the restrictivists are the same in each case. In the case of Naukkarinen, at least, the
larger debate seems to be that of a Heideggerian (on his part) versus a Deweyan
(on my part) world view.
Motive of the restrictivists
The restrictivists want to
avoid expansion in the direction of that which is not daily or common. Melchionne insists, for example, that
everyday aesthetics should exclude interior decoration, because engaging in
interior decoration, as opposed to house-cleaning and neatening, is not a daily
activity. Now one way we could look at this
would be to see interior decoration as a minor art, making it then fall under
art aesthetics, as long as art is not identified with “fine art.” However, this solution would ignore the
dynamic nature of the interaction between such literally everyday activities as
neatening up a room and the more rare activities involved when one hires an
interior decorator. Melchionne is aware
of this interaction, but wants to keep the two distinct. Yet a lot of what goes into amateur
collecting, rearranging, and decoration in one’s home is pretty close to
interior design, although not professional.
Moreover, it is continuous with the more daily activity of neatening up,
which itself mainly serves to clarify the boundaries established in these
earlier creative acts.
everyday aesthetics in terms of four categories, which he uses as titles to
sections of his paper. They are: “ongoing,” “common,” “activity,” and
“typically but not necessarily aesthetic.”
That is, to be part of everyday aesthetics something must be ongoing,
common amongst most of humanity, and part of a practice, which itself may be
non-aesthetic. (For Melchionne,
practices are primary, objects secondary).
We can see this as a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient
conditions, in which each condition is necessary and the conjunction sufficient. It is easy to see the first three as
necessary conditions. It is harder to
understand how the fourth can be, but we need not discuss that here.
The activity condition is
central to Melchionne’s definition, since it characterizes what we are talking about as ongoing and common. In emphasizing activity, specifically the
kind involved in a practice, Melchionne seeks to give primacy to practices over
objects. However, in the process, he
downplays experiences. Since there are
many everyday experiences that are not clearly tied to practices (for example,
the humor of seeing a truck with sides made from a recycled front-yard fence, something
I see on my daily walk), this restriction is problematic. Following Dewey, I give primacy to
experiences over both practices and objects.
Objects are best understood as aspects of, or elements in, experience. After all, we can only analyze practices and
objects insofar as they are experienced.
Turn now to the “ongoing”
condition. For Melchionne, “ongoing”
means on a daily or almost daily basis. Yet
why exclude certain non-daily events, for example, events that typically happen
because it is the weekend rather than a workday? That workdays are usually more numerous than
weekend days does not privilege them as coming under everyday aesthetics. Why, for example, should the Sunday drive be
excluded? Now, inclusion of the Sunday
drive may be easily conceded by restrictivists under the thought that it is an
ongoing, although not daily, practice. Yet
it is not the practice that is aesthetic, it is the experience. Moreover, something can be occasional but not
ongoing and still be part of the everyday for the simple reason that unusual
things happen, and we see, hear, and smell strange things every day.
And what about events that
happen every day or, at least, frequently, but only in certain contexts and
times of year? For example, I often contemplate
the lights on my Christmas tree in late December or early January. I
consider this experience to fall under everyday aesthetics. Yet, Melchionne insists that holidays, and
hence holiday decoration and the practices and experiences involved in holiday
decoration, lie outside everyday aesthetics; that holidays are seasonal events,
not everyday ones. However, since every
event occurs during a season, and many are marked by their seasonal character,
to exclude the seasonal from the everyday would seem too rigid.
would exclude things we see when travelling as tourists. Yet isn’t there an everyday life for the
tourist? And if you are excluding the
non-daily because it is special, then what about things that happen on a daily
basis that are equally special? What
about, for instance, the nearly daily experience I have of seeing rabbits in my
front yard when I go out to pick up the paper, something that happens because a
neighbor keeps rabbits that constantly escape.
It is somewhat magical to go out in the morning and come face to face
with rabbits in the middle of an urban environment. I would include this experience within
everyday aesthetics although it is neither daily, common, nor part of a
The disagreement may be
about what counts as general for a theory.
Restrictivists may complain that I am focusing on oddball examples. Yet these are examples of things that give
experiences of awe and fascination, or at least they are interesting. This kind of experience, as I have argued, is
as fundamental to everyday aesthetics as it is to the aesthetics of nature and
the aesthetics of art.
The question may be asked whether
everyday aesthetics needs to be tied to practices. That is, can it also include events that are
serendipitous? If everydayness is tied
necessarily to practices, as Melchionne seems to want, then it would exclude,
for example, noticing the amazing way trees look on a city street when taking a
walk at sunset. This may happen every
day, at least for those who like to walk at sunset, and yet noticing this is
not part of any practice. There is a
practice of walking, but that is something different. One can, of course, speak of the practice of
looking aesthetically, but this is precisely the practice that would allow
noticing things that are visually strange or strange to the other senses. So if that practice were allowed, then
appealing to practices would be no help for the restrictivist position.
Problems with the commonality condition.
More significant are
problems with the second condition, that of commonality. Bear in mind, and this is something that both
Melchionne and Naukkarinen are aware of, that what is typical on a daily basis
for one person will be quite different from what is typical for someone else. The everyday life of a Trappist monk is going
to be different from that of every other cultural type. One way to resolve this is to stress what
humans share in common. Melchionne emphasizes
that we all have to sleep, dress (or at least make ourselves physically
presentable to others), prepare and eat food, and go out. The list is helpful, although it excludes
many things I would consider parts of everyday aesthetics. For example, almost all post-puberty people need
to deal with sexual urges, and most adults need to work on a nearly daily basis.
Our sexual and work lives should get as
much of a hearing in everyday aesthetics as our sleeping and eating lives.
Moreover, there is no need to limit
everyday aesthetics to the small list of universal practices and exclude the
vast range of narrower practices.
In attempting to explain
why our work lives should be excluded, Melchionne says, “Few of us are pianists. Thus, the daily finger exercises of the
pianist are not relevant to everyday aesthetic theory.” Yet the number or percentage of people
engaged in an activity tells us nothing about whether that activity counts as
part of everyday life. Piano exercises
are an important part of the daily lives of pianists. Why exclude these activities from the
everyday, at least relative to pianists?
It might be argued that
piano exercises are part of the aesthetics of music and hence not a part of the
aesthetics of everyday life. In
response, let’s think about the everyday life of a typical artist. As I am more familiar with visual art, I’ll
use the life of a painter in her studio as my example. Is the daily activity of the artist
irrelevant to everyday aesthetics? Assume
that there are no finished artworks in the studio. To assume this, at least a provisional
definition of art is needed. An early
version of George Dickie’s definition of art has the advantage, for our purpose,
of being both well-known and brief: “A
work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some
person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the
artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.” On his definition, there is no art in the
room since the artist, as a representative of the artworld, has not designated
anything there as a candidate for appreciation, that is, does not yet consider
it ready for viewing.
Even if we assume this
definition of art, there is a lot going on in the studio that has to do with
aesthetics. Let’s assume that the artist
is painting a still life based on an arrangement of fruit. In attending to these pieces of fruit, the
artist attends to their aesthetic properties, possibly capturing or
highlighting them as he or she represents them.
These properties could also have been noticed in the kitchen prior to
collecting the fruit for use in the studio.
In short, the aesthetic qualities encountered by the artist in the studio
belong to the aesthetics of everyday life.
Also, in the process of
making a work of art, the artist is attending to the aesthetic properties of
the paints used, especially as they interact with each other in the perceptual
field both on the palette and on the paint surface. In addition, the artist may, at least, be subconsciously
aware of the dynamics of the relationship between different parts of his or her
body while painting, for example, the movements of the hands, the use of the eyes,
and so forth. To exclude any of this
from everyday aesthetics is a mistake.
This is not to confuse
everyday aesthetics with art aesthetics.
Art aesthetics, at least on Dickie’s account, only comes in after whatever the artist has created
has attained the status of art. I am not
sure this is right, since even when there are no designated art objects in the
studio it still seems that there is art
in the studio: the activity in the
studio is art-making. So, alternatively,
we might want to extend art aesthetics to include the creative process that leads
to the art product. But this would just
indicate an overlap between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics in the world
of the working artist. It is this kind
of overlap that is ignored by restrictivist definitions. Both art aesthetics and everyday aesthetics
are harmed if each is treated as isolated from the other.
Melchionne himself captured
some of the dynamic relationship between the aesthetics of art and the
aesthetics of everyday life when he wrote that the Japanese tea ceremony
“elevates the everyday to a ceremonial occasion,” and observed that “[a]fter
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.”
He also captured the ameliorative aspect
of everyday aesthetics, for example, that paying attention to everyday
aesthetics can improve our lives, to which I will return later. My point here is not that the Japanese tea ceremony
is an example of everyday aesthetics, but that the close relationship between
both art and ritual and everyday aesthetics is made particularly evident by
More complicated is
Melchionne’s window example. He writes, “a
window with a view of a landscape has no everyday aesthetic value if the room
is rarely occupied or the blind always drawn.” Well, of course, the view has no aesthetic value if it is never seen. Neither does the window-as-window have any
aesthetic value if never used. But what
about the cases in which the room is rarely occupied? Consider a mountain cabin, one with a window
with a view, that is visited only once a year.
On Melchionne’s view, the aesthetic value of this window with its
attendant view is radically different from that of a window we look through
every day. Looking through a window
every day is a practice, whereas visiting one once a year falls, perhaps, under
festival aesthetics. Again, on his view,
the aesthetic value of the object and the experience is secondary to that of
the practice. Nor am I clear how it is
less a practice to look out a window once a year than every day.
I agree that, as
Melchionne wrote, “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.” But this is also the case if these things
contribute to the aesthetic character of a once-a-year experience. When he stated, “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,”
I again agree, but there are other, less
regular, contributors as well. Everyday
aesthetic value also comes from what is unique to the window, for example, its
design, and to the experience, for example, what is seen through the window on that day. Moreover, each instance of these things, each
particular event involving the regular morning coffee and also, perhaps,
raising the blind after waking, can itself take on an aura of heightened
significance, that is, can be aesthetic.
The issue of the window
with its view leads me to think of a related issue in the aesthetics of nature. Just as we have seen that the relation
between aesthetics of art and aesthetics of everyday life is best seen as
dynamic, so too we find this in the relation between the aesthetics of nature
and both the aesthetics of art and the aesthetics of everyday life. Recognition of this has profound implications
for aesthetics in general. A window with
a view of a landscape is, in itself, not nature, and yet looking out of the
window to see a landscape is a matter of appreciating nature and, from a different angle, a matter of
everyday aesthetics. It also relates to
the aesthetics of art by way of the art of architecture. Someone might argue that appreciating nature
through a window is not appreciating nature as nature but rather is
appreciating it as though it were a painting. Yet such appreciation is acceptable as long
as it is not considered the only way
to appreciate nature. It might be
thought that walking in nature is a more authentic or more appropriate way to
appreciate nature than viewing it through a window. But this really depends on how often and how
carefully one does the viewing. Viewing
through a window is one of the many ways we appreciate nature. The aesthetics of nature should be broad
enough to handle this kind of appreciation.
But appreciation of nature
is not the whole of this story. Awareness
of the window, its glass, its frame, its structure, its solidity, its
architectural placement, and so on, may also be an important feature of one’s
overall experience. Appreciating a
landscape through a window, then, is an aspect of appreciation of the art of
the architect as well as an aspect of nature appreciation. The experience of viewing both the window and
the scene through the window is art-related and
nature-related. It is also everyday aesthetics-related to the
extent that both the art-related and nature-related aspects are contextualized
within the everyday activity of “looking through a window.” In short, the everyday, the natural, and the
artistic are often intertwined in complex ways.
everyday aesthetics to practices that are daily or nearly daily fails to
recognize that there are ideals of everyday aesthetics not met in a regular or
ongoing way that are important in the
definition of everyday aesthetics. Examples
of such ideals include what Dewey referred to as “an experience,” and experiences of awe that are also aesthetic.
Subjective well-being and awe
Melchionne has more
recently argued that subjective well-being is the goal of everyday aesthetics. This could be seen as representing an ideal,
but how is subjective well-being achieved?
Melchionne thinks it best achieved through hedonic regulation. I applaud the idea that subjective well-being
is enhanced by greater attention to everyday aesthetic phenomena. However, I am skeptical of exclusive emphasis
placed on hedonic regulation. I have
already mentioned the importance of the concept of awe. There is recent psychological evidence to
support the idea that subjective well-being is increased by moments of awe. As psychologists have observed, experiences
of awe often come from experiences of great beauty or sublimity in art and
nature. It seems then that there is
something problematic about Melchionne’s claim that, “Everyday aesthetic
practices of our own design stand a much better chance of influencing
well-being than the occasional encounter of high or popular art, such as
attending museums or concerts from time to time.” Practices of our own design are only one
factor in life-enhancement. Experiences
of awe can come from nature, art, or everyday contexts.
I argue that we should
treat everyday aesthetics, art aesthetics, and nature aesthetics on an equal
footing when it comes to promoting well-being.
First, our encounters with popular art, at least in industrialized
countries like the United States, are hardly occasional and, in fact, take up a
large part of most people’s days. Second,
although experiences of awe are
occasional, they are hardly rare. Moreover,
it is arguable that such experiences are a large part of what gives life
meaning. Further, although such
experiences are often induced by art and by nature, they are also often induced
in non-art, non-nature contexts.
It might be replied that
talk about awe is just another way to talk about the high end of the hedonic
scale. But awe, and the closely related
concept of fascination, do not simply mark the highest level of pleasure. Rather, like sublime experiences, they have
other, sometimes negative or disturbing elements or aspects and although
pleasurable in some sense, the pleasure is complex.
But is awe aesthetic? It can be, although it does not necessarily
have to be. The dictionary defines it as
"overwhelming wonder, admiration, respect, or dread."
There doesn't seem to be a pleasure or delight component required here in
the way that Burke required “delight” for the sublime to be aesthetic. However, wonder, admiration, and respect
might each have its own associated
positive affect, and while I cannot personally imagine dread having a positive
component, this may be because I am not religious. Dictionary.com suggests that the current sense of awe as involving
“dread mixed with veneration” is because of its biblical use with
reference to God.
Veneration can have a positive affect component, and any dread that a
believer has towards God must be combined with some positive affect, for
example, love. Otherwise, why worship
Him? However, if awe were defined as simply a combination of fear and
surprise, as some have done,
then it could only be tangentially related to aesthetics, unless of course the
surprise aspect also contains within it a delight aspect. Also, psychologists have observed that when
people describe experiences of awe, those experiences are usually considered
More like the work of some
contemporary aestheticians, such as Denis Dutton, Stephen Davies, and Ellen
Dissanayake on art, psychologists Piff and Keltner give an evolutionary account
of the experience of awe. For them, awe motivates people to take part
in community-building,, such as "collective rituals, celebration, music
and dance, religious gatherings and worship,"
and may be adaptive for this reason. All
of these community-building events have strong aesthetic components. So perhaps awe is one of the important
aesthetic phenomena related to, although somewhat broader than, the sublime. Some might balk at this mixture of the
aesthetic and the religious, although it is often also present in the sublime. But in tribal societies, from which all
non-tribal peoples are descended, the arts, like music, dance, and ritual are
not clearly distinguished. So the
distinction may be relatively recent, and relatively unimportant, when
discussing aesthetics broadly.
The psychologists I refer
to associate awe with shifting focus from narrow self-interest to community
well-being. Evolutionary aestheticians have
often seen the arts, or the skills that go into art, as bringing communities
together, thus giving these communities an adaptive advantage. Awe, and whatever gives rise to awe, might be
adaptive in this sense. All of this
relates to the broader issue of the relation between aesthetics and ethics. If everyday awe is closely associated with
ethics, then there is a stronger relation between the two than we may have
thought. Piff and Keltner stated that in one
experiment they found that participants who reported experiencing more awe in
their lives, and who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around
them, were kinder to strangers. Experiences
of awe might make one feel more expansive and less driven to satisfy immediate
Piff and Keltner also
suggested that our culture is awe-deprived in that we spend more time working
and less time outdoors and with others. Young
people today are missing the camping trips and the starry heavens many older
people experienced when young. Kant said,
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the
oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and
the moral law within.” Piff and Keltner argued that in experiencing
awe while looking at the starry heavens, we are more inclined to follow the
moral law, or at least to help others.
Piff and Keltner observed
a decline in attendance at arts events along with a decline in
funding for arts programs in the schools, concluding that
"awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift
...over the last 50 years,” in that “people have become more individualistic,
more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others."
It is hard to measure this, and one would have to be careful in defining
the key terms. The consequence, however,
if true, is that aesthetics, including everyday aesthetics, may be more
important for our cultural survival than many currently believe. Piff and Keltner concluded that, to
reverse the trend, people should experience more everyday awe, actively seeking
out “what gives them goose bumps, be it looking at trees, night skies, patterns
of wind or water or the quotidian nobility of others...."
Promoting this would be an important goal for everyday aesthetics, but
only under the expansive definition.
To stress the ordinary
over the extraordinary and the common over the awe-inducing in everyday
aesthetics is like judging art by its most mundane examples and not by its
masterpieces. The equivalent to the
masterpiece in everyday aesthetics is what Dewey referred to as “an experience,”
which is associated with what we have called awe. Everyday aesthetics can have (should have!) a
normative dimension in the sense of providing high points, things towards which
it can aspire. It can aspire to
increasing the pleasures and diminishing the pains in our lives not only
quantitatively, as suggested by Melchionne’s Bentham-like emphasis on hedonic
regulation, but also by maximizing moments of awe. Moments of awe, however, are not activities
or practices. This is true even though
one can cultivate gaining these experiences, as in the Buddhist practice of
7. The “Garbage Moment”
The point of disagreement
between Melchionne and me can be highlighted by looking at his discussion of
taking out the garbage. He writes that
this 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.” He
admits it is possible to conceive of it aesthetically, but that “what matters is not the logical
possibility of a quality but, instead, its typicality.”
taking out the trash is not typically considered an aesthetic activity or as
something that can have a positive aesthetic quality. But should this exclude it from everyday
aesthetics? One of my favorite comic strips, Rose is Rose,
frequently has one of the lead characters, the husband “Jimbo,” experiencing
what he calls his “garbage moment.” When
he takes out the garbage, he contemplates the stars, the universe, and life. For him, taking out the garbage has a
profound aesthetic character; perhaps it is sublime. Moreover, and because of this, there is a
certain ceremonial quality to his taking out the garbage.
agree with Melchionne that it would be bizarre to embellish taking out the
garbage with an actual ceremony, for example, reading certain verses, lighting
candles, or making it into something like the Japanese Tea Ceremony. However, it isn’t bizarre to sometimes stop
while taking out the garbage, look into the sky, and think about one’s role in
the universe. Nor is it just the
thinking about the universe that provides the experience of awe. The awe of the “garbage moment” emerges from the
experience as a whole.
course part of the experience is the irony that it involves something normally
considered a lowly chore. After all, Rose
is Rose is a comic strip, and it is somewhat funny that Jimbo has garbage
moments. Still, humor does not exclude
the aesthetic. Moreover, it is not clear
that seeing taking out the garbage in an aesthetic way or in connection with an
experience of awe is a bad thing.
a similar way, Thich Nhat Hanh, following the tradition of Buddhism, encourages
us to experience washing dishes through what he calls “mindfulness.” "While
washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that
while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is
washing the dishes." This could be misinterpreted to mean that one
should just concentrate on the truth of the proposition, "I am washing
dishes." Rather, it means that one
should be conscious of one's every action in washing dishes while washing
dishes. Maybe one should be conscious of
the dishes too, as they are part of the total experience, and of their
aesthetic properties, although Hanh mentions nothing about this.
in describing mindful drinking of tea, Hanh writes, "Drink your tea slowly
and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves -
slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only the actual moment is life." In my view, this way of drinking tea would
allow one to concentrate on the aesthetic qualities of the tea, of the moment
as experienced, and also of one's own actions. The aesthetic demand, like that of the
Buddhist, is to notice the now...to live.
As Hanh writes, "Drinking a cup of tea becomes a direct and wondrous
experience in which the distinction between subject and object no longer
exists." If that happens, the experience is not
ordinary or common, and yet the ordinary is elevated and intensified.
follows up his point about taking out garbage by stating that an everyday practice is not made
aesthetic by some “counter-intuitive transfiguration or leap of creative re-invention,”
similar to what happened when Duchamp created Fountain. True, but nothing
so counter-intuitive or avant-garde is needed to have a “garbage moment.” Having
a garbage moment is not a matter of turning something ordinary into a work of
Dewey urged us not only to
notice the aesthetic properties of a great storm or a marvelous restaurant
dinner but also the fire in a fireplace and the aesthetic satisfaction a
mechanic takes in a job well done. In my
book, I stressed the value of taking an aesthetic attitude towards
such ordinary everyday things as shadows of trees on sidewalks. Sherri Irvin has similarly emphasized taking
such an attitude towards, for example, observing her cat or even the way she sits and
These latter things do not take us beyond the stream of daily life, but they do
involve taking a different attitude towards that stream.
In conclusion, I have
questioned Melchionne’s and Naukkarinen’s restriction of everyday aesthetics to
“the aspects of our lives marked by widely shared, daily routines or patterns
to which we tend to impart an aesthetic character.” Although I admire that they have brought our
attention to such things, I argue that things not so widely shared and not so
daily, usual, or common may also fall under everyday aesthetics. An expansive definition of everyday aesthetics
is needed because hedonic adjustment is not sufficient for subjective
well-being; we also need moments of awe.
This can be provided in part by aesthetic experiences of art and nature. However, if we take the path of Jimbo or
Hanh, these moments of awe may also arise out of ordinary experiences of
everyday life, given the right perspective or training. Let’s avoid everyday aesthetics as a mere
third basket for things that are not art or nature. But also let’s not be too restrictive or too
bound to the value of that which is easy and comfortable to recognize the value
of the strange, the interesting, the fascinating, and the awesome in everyday
life. Searching for this may make life,
as Nietzsche would put it, worth living.
If you define everyday aesthetics in a restrictive way you limit life
Leddy teaches in the Department of Philosophy at San Jose State University and
has published widely in aesthetics, most recently, “Shusterman’s Thinking Through the Body and Everyday
Aesthetics,” Contemporary Pragmatism,
vol. 12 (2015); Author-Meets-Critics
Symposium on Richard Shusterman’s Thinking Through the Body, pp. 79-99; and “Everyday Aesthetics and
Happiness,” in Aesthetics of Everyday
Life: West and East eds. Liu Yuedi and Curtis Carter (Cambridge
Scholars Press, 2014) pp. 26-47.
Published October 6, 2015.
 Thomas Leddy, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Peterborough,
Ont.: Broadview, 2012). One example of the position that stresses the
ordinary is Arto Haapala, “On the Aesthetics the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness, and the Meaning of
Place,” in Aesthetics of Everyday Life,
eds. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), pp. 39-55. See also Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigree, 2005).
 See, for example, F.
Scott Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams,” where one of his characters refers to
another as “a great beauty.” Great Short Stories by Great American
Writers, ed. Thomas Fasano (United States: Coyote Canyon Press, 2011)
 Thomas Moore makes
some interestingly parallel points from the perspective of a humanist
psychologist. In his The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life (New
York: HarperCollins, 1996), he writes, “Ultimately, what most satisfies the
soul is that which is captivating, spellbinding, and full of charms.” (Moore, 189)
His book, as the title shows, calls for a re-enchantment of everyday
life, in which we find more of these satisfying things, through perceiving the
world in a way that is more erotic, magical, enchanted, mythological, and
ritualistic. Unlike those who would put
ritual outside of everyday aesthetics, Moore wishes to bring it back in.
 Sheila Lintott,
"The Sublimity of Gestating and Giving Birth: Toward a Feminist Conception
of the Sublime,” in Philosophical
Inquiries Into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering: Maternal Subjects, eds. Sheila Lintott and Maureen
Sander-Staudt (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 237-250.
 The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, op. cit., Ch. 8: “Everyday
Aesthetics and the Sublime.” See Paul
Piff and Dacher Keltner, "Why do we experience awe?" New
York Times, May 24, 2015, Sunday Review section. I want to thank Russell Quacchia for bringing
this article to my attention. See also,
Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt "Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual,
and Aesthetic Emotion. Cognition and
Emotion" Cognition and Emotion 17
 Kevin Melchionne,
“The Definition of Everyday Aesthetics,” Contemporary
Aesthetics, vol. 11 (2013); Ossi Naukkarinen, “What is 'Everyday' in
Everyday Aesthetics?” Contemporary
Aesthetics, vol. 11 (2013).
 Melchionne (2013),
 I owe this term to a
comment by Melchionne.
 Several current
researchers in everyday aesthetics have entered these larger realms. Melchionne, in “The Point of Everyday
Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics,
vol. 12 (2014), for example, holds that enhancement of subjective wellbeing is
the point of everyday aesthetics.
Similarly, I have stressed the importance of happiness in my “Everyday
Aesthetics and Happiness,” Aesthetics of
Everyday Life: West and East, ed. Liu Yuedi and Curtis Carter (Newcastle
upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).
 It should be noted
that Naukkarinen, op. cit., unlike
Melchionne, includes our work lives under everyday aesthetics.
 See Arnold Berleant
and Richard Shusterman on ways in which sexual behavior can have an aesthetic
dimension: Berleant, Arnold, “The Sensuous and the Sensual in Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
23, 2 (1964), 185-192. Shusterman,
Richard, “Asian Ars Erotica and the Question of Sexual Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
65 (2007), 55–68.
 Melchionne, 2013,
2b. Naukkarinen, op. cit., seems more open to including this kind of activity under
 George Dickie, Aesthetics:
An Introduction (Indianapolis: Pegasus, Bobbs-Merrill 1971), p. 101.
 Melchionne, 2013,
 For example, Allen
Carlson, “Appreciation and the Natural Environment,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 37, 3 (1979), 267-275.
 Yuriko Saito has
mentioned to me two nice examples: Frank
Lloyd Wright’s windows without any frame in Taliesin (many of these windows
have incorporated stained glass designs) and Katsura Detached Villa (also
called Palace), Japan, which features a window frame in a decorative shape,
adding a layer of aesthetic appreciation.
 Kevin Melchionne, op. cit., 2014.
 See Piff and Keltner
op. cit. "Why do we
experience awe?" Psychology journalist Anna Mikulak notes that “in two
studies, Van Cappellen and colleagues (2014) found that self-transcendent
positive emotions, including awe, mediated the observed association between
religiosity/spirituality and well-being.”
Anna Mikulak, “All about Awe: Science
Explores how Life’s Small Marvels Elevate Cognition and Emotion,” Observer, 28, 4 (2015). http://www.psychologicalscience.org/
 Melchionne, 2014,
 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of
our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) Section IV, “Of Delight and Pleasure, as Opposed to Each
Other,” pp. 33-34.
 Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (New
York: Free Press, 1992); Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct (New York: Bloomsbury
Press, 2010), Stephen Davies, The Artful
Species (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.)
 Piff and Keltner, op. cit.
 Although it should
be noted that in the eighteenth century, philosophers like Schiller thought
that sensitivity to beauty made one more moral.
 Piff and Keltner, op. cit.
 Whether goose bumps
are either necessary or sufficient for experiences of awe is open to question,
but will not be discussed here.
 For my take on Dewey
on “an experience,” see The Extraordinary
in the Ordinary, op. cit., pp.
 Melchionne, 2013,
 By Don Wimmer and
Pat Brady, which I usually read in the San
Jose Mercury News.
 Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, tr. Mobi Ho
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1987).
 Yuriko Saito has
observed to me that Zen practice
similarly does not discriminate against such lowly activities as washing floors
or cleaning oneself. The twelfth-century
Japanese Zen priest Dōgen left writings regarding these practices in Shōbōgenzō:The
True Dharma-Eye Treasury, Volume I (Taishō Volume 82, Number 2582), tr.
Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Chodo Cross (Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai and Numata Center for
Buddhist Translation, 2007), which can be found at https://www.bdkamerica.org/digital
/dBET_T2582_Shobogenzo1_2009.pdf, accessed 7/16/15.
 Richard Shusterman
similarly interprets Buddhism in this aesthetic way in his “Somaesthetic
Awakening and the Art of Living Everyday Aesthetics in American Transcendentalism
and Japanese Zen Practice,” in Thinking
Through the Body (Cambridge:
Cambridge U. Press, 2012).
 Sherri Irvin, “The
Pervasiveness of the Aesthetic in Ordinary Experience,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 48,1 (2009), 29-44.
 Again, Thomas Moore,
op. cit., goes in the other
direction, attempting to re-incorporate festival, magic, and mythology into
 Melchionne, 2013, 3.
 I want to thank
Kevin Melchionne, Ossi Naukkarinen, and Yuriko Saito for providing helpful
comments on earlier versions of these thoughts.