The Spectator and Everyday Aesthetics[Notice]

  • Brian Michael Norton

…plus d’informations

  • Brian Michael Norton
    California State University, Fullerton

It is generally acknowledged that our concepts of both art and the aesthetic are products of the Enlightenment. But the precise relation between these two concepts is less obvious than we may assume. The earliest aesthetic theorists—Shaftesbury, Joseph Addison, Francis Hutcheson—understood their subject to include more than just the newly grouped “fine arts,” taking it to encompass aesthetic experience in the world at large as well as in the world of art. This capacious view of the aesthetic would prevail throughout the eighteenth century, up to and including Kant’s third Critique (1790). There is broad agreement on these points. Nevertheless, we speak of aesthetic experience outside of art as if it were inherently derivative, secondary to the real aesthetic experience of artworks. This is true even of the most astute and insightful of commentators. Martin Jay, for example, in an essay subtitled “The Separation of Aesthetic Experience from the Work of Art,” warns against this kind of “promiscuous aestheticization,” characterizing it as an “indiscriminate leveling” of “artwork and lifeworld” through the “projection of qualities of the former onto the latter.” Jay takes it for granted here that experiencing an object aesthetically means experiencing it as if it were an art object. We find something similar with David Marshall, another perceptive critic of the blurred boundaries of the aesthetic. “Once aesthetics is defined by a way of looking,” Marshall writes, “the work of art becomes reinscribed in the world.” Marshall implies that with an aesthetic perspective we do not view our world aesthetically so much as we view it as art. While this certainly can be a component of everyday aesthetic experience, it does not define the experience as such. Passages like these grant art a primacy it did not possess in eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. This essay decouples the aesthetic from the artwork to ponder the nature and significance of aesthetic experience in the world at large. My primary text is Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator, long recognized as a fountainhead of modern aesthetic thought. My methodology, however, will differ somewhat from typical accounts of the origins of aesthetics: rather than focusing exclusively on Addison, I will also be looking at the comparatively understudied figure of Steele; and rather than concentrating on essays devoted explicitly to literary and aesthetic themes, I will also be sifting those that deal with Mr. Spectator’s experiences in and reflections on his natural and urban environments. Addison and Steele, I suggest, played a central, perhaps unrivalled role in developing and disseminating a way of looking that we would now identify as “aesthetic.” This perspective is characterized by both a disengaged attitude toward the world and a heightened responsiveness to its beauty and wonder, allowing Mr. Spectator to find value and satisfaction in the otherwise ordinary experiences of everyday life—a distinctly modern and affective conception of happiness that continues to resonate today. In its earliest phases, then, aesthetics did not designate a realm separate—or “autonomous”—from ordinary experience so much as it identified a mode of perception capable of enriching and enhancing that experience. Nevertheless, as this essay will also show, Addison and Steele’s aesthetics was predicated on a kind of spectatorial distance or detachment that from the beginning was at odds with its own enhancive aims. In other words, even as aesthetic attention intensified ordinary experience, the logic of spectatorship also seemed to push the world away, a phenomenon to which Steele was particularly sensitive. What we have come to think of as the quintessentially modern aesthetic perspective—detached, disinterested, non-purposive—finds its fullest early expression not in any philosophical treatise on art or aesthetics but …

Parties annexes