Contemporary aesthetics transitions towards everyday life

Author:Jian Shengyu Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-02-16

Since the “baptism” of human society by the post-industrial civilization in the second half of the 20th century, it has been difficult for traditional aesthetics, historically confined to the “ivory tower,” to respond to new issues that keep arising. The concepts on which traditional aesthetics depend, such as the “grand narrative” have grown partly or entirely invalid. Therefore, scholars have proposed that compared with other disciplines, aesthetics needs to return to “life” for its reconstruction.

The need to transition towards life

The theoretical aesthetics of the academic school represented by Immanuel Kant, based on the concept of “aesthetic disinterestedness,” tries to exclude such factors as sensory desires, ethics, and cognition from aesthetic activities. This leads to the disconnection of internal relations between aesthetic activities and daily life. Such theoretical aesthetics of the elite school have always had critical limitations. The most obvious limitation exists with respect to research topics. Research objects with the flavor of life, such as thehustle and bustle of the city, or worldly normal life are all regarded as non-pure, or secondary. As a result, these research objects tend to be limited to those works of art and architecture that are recognized by the upper class.

This aesthetic is branded with strong marks of elitism, implying a set of hierarchical ideas which distinguish different groups of people and their values. Life is regarded below art, and ordinary people are inferior to the elites; sensory perception is worse than aesthetic judgment. Even among the senses, the visual and auditory senses are considered to be entirely without impurities, while the senses of touch and the gustative sense are impure and full of desire. This kind of self-restriction pushes the previous aesthetics into a narrow scope, making it more and more difficult to respond to increasingly complex and rich contemporary aesthetic issues. In the end, the study must transition towards life.

Aesthetics have become ubiquitous

Today, the emerging aesthetic trends and schools of thought are mostly related with such transitioning. Either it is the refinement and extension of the trends, such as aesthetic research of craft making, the aesthetics of atmosphere, fashion aesthetics, leisure aesthetics, or other branches that are internally related with the trends, such as cultural studies, body aesthetics, environmental aesthetics, and new technology aesthetics.

Social demand is no doubt the external impetus that motivates the transition towards life. Clothing, food, shelter, transportation—these sectors that have not previously drawn attention since academic aesthetics began to take the stage at the frontier. Since aesthetics have become ubiquitous, the academia is thus expected to introduce corresponding interpretive theories in the face of the complicated aesthetic phenomena in daily life. Therefore, under the background of such a transition, the emergence of life aesthetics is natural.

Balancing aesthetics and daily life

The “turn towards life” of contemporary aesthetics should also be alert to the problem of “aesthetic generalization.” Daily life provides aesthetics with a much richer and broader space of extension than what the field of pure art can provide, and more profound realistic source materials for research. However, daily life itself also implies various risks that may lead to aesthetic alienation and spiritual destruction. Aestheticization of daily life also tends to bring many objects and phenomena that do not possess aesthetic qualities into the scope of aesthetics, resulting in the problem of “aesthetic generalization.”

Aesthetics has multiple facets in real life, including both “profound aesthetics” that carry sufficient aesthetic attributes and “shallow aesthetics” which are mixed with many quasi-aesthetic and non-aesthetic factors. For example, classics reading, as a type of “profound aesthetics” activity, enables participants to experience both the aesthetic pleasure and pain which are intertwined with each other in the process of exploring the rich and complex spiritual world of human beings. The ultimate aim is to gradually achieve sublimation of the soul and elevation of one’s mental state. In contrast, “shallow aesthetics,” such as watching online dramas and listening to pop music, mainly function to provide entertainment. The main problem caused by “aesthetic generalization” is that it ignores the nuances between different levels of aesthetic appreciation, and erases the core differences between the two.

In fact, although the two overlap and intersect with each other, they possess different functions and are responsible for different sectors. Appreciation activities in daily life are not directly equal to aesthetic activities. Although some appreciation activities targeted at specific objects have similar outwear with aesthetics, they do not actually embody sufficient aesthetic factors. For example, in some consumerism-oriented activities of luxury goods appreciation, although the object of appreciation has aesthetic factors, the aesthetics is only an appendage and foil throughout the whole process.

In short, we need to maintain a delicate balance between aesthetics and daily life. While embracing life in an aesthetic manner, we should also be critical about the negative factors implied in daily life.


Jian Shengyu is a professor from the College of Fine Arts and Design at Yangzhou University.


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