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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 87-95
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It is generally agreed that aesthetic objects do not constitute a set of special objects, but rather are determined by our attitudes and experiences. A consequence of this view is that, as Jerome Stolnitz claims, "anything at all, whether sensed or perceived, whether it is the product of imagination or conceptual thought, can become the object of aesthetic attention." 1 The same point is made by Paul Ziff, who contends that "anything that can be viewed is a fit object for aesthetic attention," including "a gator basking in a mound of dried dung." 2
In light of this consensus, it is both curious and noteworthy that today's aesthetics is mostly concerned with art. As Thomas Leddy observes, "although many aestheticians insist that aesthetic qualities are not limited to the arts, even those thinkers generally take the arts as the primary focus of their discussion." 3 Indeed, the subject matter of aesthetics is dominated by the definition of art, expression in art, artist's intention, art and reality, art and ethics, as well as the issues specific to each artistic medium. As a result, the aesthetics of non-art is marginalized, attended to only when we discuss beauty and aesthetic experience.
But even discussions of non-art objects and activities often focus on their likeness to art, conflating art and aesthetics. For example, discussing the aesthetic in sport, one author questions whether "any sport can justifiably be regarded as an art form." 4 Another contrasts most artists who "do not equate art with cooking . . . nor . . . hold cooking in such high theoretical esteem" with "chefs through the centuries who have seen themselves as artists." 5
It is understandable that the aesthetics of non-art objects and activities are explained through comparison to art, simply because, for better or worse, aesthetics of art is our familiar frame of reference. [End Page 87] However, there is also a risk in such comparisons. Non-art objects tend to be regarded as "wannabe" art, which often turn out to fall short of those features characterizing art, such as formal coherence, expressive power, embodiment of an idea, and creativity and originality. Consequently, non-art objects are regarded, at best, as something "like art" or as second-rate art. I find this implicitly hierarchical procedure to be problematic. Particularly with respect to aesthetic matters, pursuing and celebrating diversity is more rewarding and constructive than limiting what counts as worthy aesthetic objects. Just as Paul Ziff reminds us about the different "aspections" required for various works of art, 6 I believe that diversity of aesthetic objects in general requires diversity of analyses and approaches.
Ignoring the rich diversity of aesthetic objects impoverishes the scope of aesthetics in two respects. First, it represents a rather parochial viewpoint unique to modern Western aesthetic theories, which presupposes the institutionalized artworld and certain cultural and economic conditions. 7 Second, it unduly limits the range of aesthetic issues by implying that only those related to art are worthwhile for theoretical analysis. I intend to address these limitations in what follows.
The first limitation is simply based upon observation. Most non-art objects and activities concern our everyday experiences of eating, clothing, dwelling, cleaning, and dealing with natural elements. Unlike the institutionalized artworld, these are shared universally. In a culture like ours with a distinct artworld, the experience of art is usually limited to special occasions set aside for that purpose, although not all of us have access to or knowledge of the artworld. In contrast, all of us engage in everyday activities and handle non-art objects. Arnold Berleant thus remarks: "the custom of selecting an art object and isolating it from its surroundings . . . has been . . . most pronounced since the eighteenth century, with its aesthetic of disinterestedness. Yet it is at variance with the ubiquity of the aesthetic recognized at other times in the West and commonly in non-Western cultures." 8 Other writers also point out that Balinese and Inuit culture lack the Western notions of art and artist because they embrace the aesthetic concerns in everything...