Aesthetic experiences in the everyday
In the 2006 article ‘Aesthetic experience in everyday worlds’, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht ‘reclaims the utopian motif’ that aesthetic experiences may occur in the everyday. The article builds on the ideas presented in his own book The Production of Presence (2004), as well as on Kant’s description of aesthetic experience as ‘disinterested pleasure’ – disinterested because it is independent of purpose and function, which we otherwise tend to pursue (as per his definition of beauty as ‘purposefulness without a purpose’) – ; on Heidegger’s dual concepts of ‘earth’ and ‘world’ (which, to be honest, I don’t quite get, but it’s something to do with objects, as we are experiencing them, being at the same time conditioned by and concealing their ‘primordial givenness’, and yet historically specific, erm…); and finally on philosopher Martin Seel’s idea that aesthetic experiences, or, in Seel’s terminology, the effect of appearance, is conditioned by a decontextualisation of the object and its related conceptualisation from its original context (Gumbrect 2006:305). From this complex of ideas, which all, as Gumbrecht points out, focus on the subjective experience rather than on the ontology of the object of experience, Gumbrecht proposes four concepts contained in aesthetic experiences: the content of aesthetic experience (i.e. the feelings & impressions experienced); the objects of aesthetic experience (i.e. that which triggers these emotions); the conditions of aesthetic experience; and finally the effects of aesthetic experience (that is, the consequences or transformations produced by the experience).
The condition of decontextualisation is characteristic of museum objects (not only due to the physical museum context, but also to the practical and symbolic process of musealisation, cf. Desvallées & Mairesse 2010), but both Seel and Gumbrecht hold that, in principle, any object or concept is capable of becoming decontexualised, and therefore that effects of appearance or aesthetic experiences may occur also in the context of the everyday. In fact, Gumbrecht asks, ‘[h]ow much longer will the visitors of museums be bored to near-death with the self-accusatory truism that museums (inadvertently or not) give a certain aura even to the most banal objects?’ (2006:315), when ‘straighforward pleasures'(ibid.:316) of the everyday may provide more intense or enjoyable aesthetic experiences?
The question that remains, however, is what triggers these experiences, this decontextualisation? And perhaps, from an institutional perspective one might want to ask if such experiences can be triggered, if it is possible to set the frame for an aesthetic view of the everyday:
‘remember some of those moments in which what we consider to a thoroughly normal everyday experience all of a sudden appears in a new, exceptional light, in the light of aesthetic experience. These are moments that make sudden changes happen through a switch in the situational frames within which we experience certain objects. We suddenly think of food as “artsy food”, we suddenly see clothes as “fashion”, we suddenly begin to appreciate an “elegance” in the solution of a mathematical problem, or we are suddenly surprised to hear a rhyme that we have inadvertently produced while speaking. Under which specific conditions do such switches occur, and how do we return from them, if ever, to the more pragmatic everyday attitudes?’ (Gumbrecht 2006:302)
Having just finished Gumbrecht’s article, I came upon a short series of tweets from @DRKunstklub showing a collection of dead frogs, which added another perspective to the notion of everyday aesthetic epiphanies. The fascinating story behind the collection is told also on DR Kunstklub – a division under the culture and arts section of the Danish Broaccasting company – ‘s website and Facebook page as well as on the independent website I Do Art. Here Lone, the collector, says of her motivation for her unusual collecting interest that ‘I collect in order to create philosophical questions and contemplate things’ like life, death and destiny, and later explains how, in the case of this particular group of dead frogs, found on a road, it was the aesthetics that suddenly spoke to her, and inspired contemplations about beauty.
It seems to me that Lone’s description not only reflects the potential for finding aesthetic experiences in even the most mundane details of our everyday surroundings, but also illustrates one of the the central concepts in Gumbrecht’s The Production of Presence, that is, the oscillation between ‘meaning effects’ and ‘presence effects’ that is central to aesthetic experience. To be elaborated…
Desvallées, A. & Mairesse, F. (eds.) (2010): Key Concepts of Museology, ICOM & Armand Colin, available for download from the ICOM website, http://icom.museum/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Key_Concepts_of_Museology/Museologie_Anglais_BD.pdf
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2004), Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey, Stanford, CA: Standford University Press
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2006), ‘Aesthetic experiences in everyday worlds: Reclaiming a utopian motif’ in New Literary History, 37:2, 299-318
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