Everyday Aesthetics and Photography

Thomas Leddy

Everyday aesthetics as a new subdiscipline within aesthetics benefits by constantly going back to and borrowing from earlier theorists, even those who were primarily concerned with the aesthetics of art. To that end, I will begin my discussion of everyday aesthetics and photography with a look at that classic formalist aesthetician from the beginning of the 20th century, Clive Bell(1958). Bell was notoriously very negative about photography. He basically saw photographs as mechanical imitations of reality.He also famously criticized illustrative or descriptive painting for doing what photography can do better. One of the problems he had with people who have no taste is that they read into art facts for which they can feel emotions of ordinary life, i.e. any emotion that is not the aesthetic emotion.

These people, when confronted by a painting, instinctively refer back to the world of ordinary life.They treat created form as though it were imitated form, a painting as though it were a photograph. Instead of «going out on the stream of art into a new world of aesthetic experience, they turn a sharp corner and come straight home to the world of human interests»(Bell [1958]:29).This is using art «as a means to the emotions of life»(ibid.) not as a means to aesthetic emotion. Similarly, photography takes people away from aesthetic interest into the world of human interest.Although I reject Bell’s dualism (why does aesthetic emotion have to be separated from human emotion?), I agree that photography, particularly amateur photography, is usually concerned with the world of human interests, i.e. with that aspect of our world in which such everyday emotions as love and sorrow are appropriate. The average person pays more attention to the associations a picture of grandma might bring than to the relations of lines and colors that might be found in such a picture.But does this take us away from aesthetic interest?More specifically, is aesthetic interest impossible when combined with human interest?As a paper assignment, I sometimes ask students to discuss something aesthetic in their homes.

Often they will write about the photographs that have meaning for them, including photographs of relatives, pets and friends, and the fond memories they evoke. They tend to place a high value both on such photographs and on the experiences they generate. If Bell is right that aesthetic experience is limited to experience with objects that have «significant form» then these experiences would have little or nothing to do with aesthetics. However, Bell’s aesthetic theory has not been popular in recent years and most philosophers would agree that expressive properties are as important as formal ones when it comes to aesthetic experience. If something has the expressive property of sadness, for example, this relates to the emotions of everyday life.Moreover, talking about such photographs often involves using aesthetic predicates: for ex-­‐ample, we might say “in this picture Aunt Mabel looks graceful” or “that’s a beautiful picture of your cousin”.

So, even though these photographs may not count as art, and do not give the special aesthetic emotion Bell required for an experience of significant form, we can still speak of them in aesthetic terms and look at them as aesthetic objects.A similar point could be made in relation to other well-­‐known aesthetic theories. For example, a family snapshot may not generate what John Dewey called«an experience»(Dewey [1989]).Yet, it still maybe considered aesthetic simply because it involves attribution of aesthetic properties.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.13128/Aisthesis-14610

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/aisthesis/article/view/830

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