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Reviewed by:
  • The Aesthetics of Everyday Life
  • Jeffrey Petts
The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, edited by Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, 224 pp., paper.

Confronted with the notion of "everyday aesthetics," one is immediately faced with some problems of definition. Such problems potentially threaten the viability of the everyday aesthetics project to extend the scope of philosophical aesthetics, so that, as Jonathan Smith suggests in his introduction to this collection of essays, "nothing in the everyday world (or at least very little) can be supposed devoid of the power to excite an aesthetic response." "Everyday" can mean both "daily" and "ordinary," and while the two definitions often coincide in practice, there's no necessary connection: we can conceive the "daily" as remarkable, and the "ordinary" may not be a regular occurrence. If we focus on the aesthetics of the "daily," we might wonder which particular daily occurrences we can be properly said to experience aesthetically and if this means some reassessment of the category of "aesthetic objects" is required, given that "daily" is so often associated with the mundane, the nonaesthetic. Alternatively, if we conceive an aesthetics of the "ordinary" (with agreement on this classification of certain events and objects), then our notion of the "aesthetic" now seems vulnerable on either of two counts: (1) to claims of incoherence, given any agreement that exemplary aesthetic experience, at least, is fundamentally not of the "ordinary" (and never of the "ugly," of the stained, damp, cracked, and so on, in our domestic lives) but of an extraordinary class of events and objects called "art"; (2) to claims of cognitive and moral triviality (to amorality too, perhaps, that it's possible then, after Thomas de Quincy, to appreciate the way a murder is done), so that the aesthetic response is understood as merely a subjective, noncritical "look and feel" response to (almost) everything. It should be evident, then, that the notion of everyday aesthetics needs clarification before it can be of value to those interested in instructing or helping people to live aesthetic lives, and that such work of clarification gets to the very heart of philosophical aesthetics: answers to questions about what constitutes the "aesthetic" in life will inform all aspects of aesthetic inquiry, education, and practice, including the making and appreciating of artworks.

Rightly, then, The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (hereafter AEL) devotes the first of its three sections to essays "theorising the aesthetics of the everyday." Tom Leddy ("The Nature of Everyday Aesthetics") suggests that there is a language of everyday aesthetic experience indicating a realm different from that marked by the language of art criticism and the appreciation of nature. He believes this is a fruitful way to understand the concept of "everyday aesthetics" (EA). [End Page 116] This aesthetic has its own aesthetic objects—everyday objects like the daily commute, the workplace, the shopping center, and places of amusement. This is also a realm traditionally viewed as outside the scope of philosophical aesthetics. The terms used in everyday aesthetic discourse are terms like "neat," "clean," "messy," "right," "nice," and "big"; and experiences of this kind are daily and ordinary (dis)-pleasures. Extraordinary experiences do, it's acknowledged, exist and as such leave the everyday domain.

Two key problems are left unanswered by Leddy: What is correct everyday appreciation, and what marks high/extraordinary from low/ordinary aesthetic value and experience? There's no answer because no account is supplied of what makes an experience aesthetic; all that is supplied, in addition to the terms stipulated as indicating everyday aesthetic responses, are the author's references to personal "aesthetic experiences" (the sight of a pile of grass cuttings, for example) and, by extension, all our own equivalent experiences. This leaves the account open to the "trivialization" claim (further evidenced, by the way, by claims that kitsch products exploit everyday aesthetic qualities like "cuteness" and "cuddliness"). And when a class of extraordinary aesthetic experiences is admitted to the account but left unexplained (except that they have their own terms and objects), the problem of incoherence noted above is raised.

Arnold Berleant's contributions to an EA are incidentally and too quickly dismissed by...


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pp. 116-121
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