Friday, November 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ Everyday Aesthetics by Yuriko Saito

In one of my previous diary blogs I wrote of some reflections I'd had concerning 'the present moment' whilst I was on retreat. That there was a quality of listening with all of ones senses to become fully aware of the present moment. To be this aware is to be appreciative and absorbed in the broad sensory scenario that arises with each moment, and that this experience is primarily an aesthetic one. It is therefore a good practice to learn more about appreciating ordinary everyday occurrences just as they are, unadorned by our internal interpretive commentary.

I wanted to explore this area further, which prompted me to pick up this book Everyday Aesthetics by Yuriko Saito from the Cambridge Central Library. It has at times the feel of a book originally written as a dissertation, no stone being left unturned in its remorseless thoroughness. It appears also to have a few personal hobbyhorses of Saito's that clomp through it, sometimes creating more noise than perhaps they justify. One might say it was academic in tone, but it is actually quite an easy read, if a little plodding and tending to drag its heals a bit. For me it lost engagement and momentum early on when it went into a rather detailed discussion of 'green aesthetics'. This was to an extent illustrative, but it took the discussion away from establishing the basic principles on firmer ground, and on to the application of those principles far too soon. She never fully states what her overarching purpose is in wishing to explore everyday aesthetics, is it in search for greater meaning or purpose, or just for better more humane focused design? Due to it floating in some sort of non commital academic hinterland, it is emotionally neutral and has a curious lack of warmth and humanity.

It does present the broad range of what aesthetics of the everyday is, isn't, or might be. Establishing her major points in the first chapter, all subsequent chapters then ruminate upon them, sometimes quite flatulently. Her explanations are illustrated by well chosen examples, occasionally these do misfire entirely and one loses grasp of any finer point she's attempting to elucidate. Her own interest in design ( she teaches design theory) can take the discussion into areas that seem only tenuously connected with everyday aesthetics. She often admits as such, 'well' one is left to think 'what's your point in bringing it up then'  Unless it was purely to get her overall word count up.

These criticisms on the books structural weaknesses aside, I did gain from reading and reflecting on the content of this book. Though it was perhaps not quite what I originally thought it might be, which was mostly analytically rather than experientially based. It nevertheless brought unexpected insights into the perils and pitfalls of dwelling on aesthetics in the everyday. Her strongest arguments are around the relationship of art-based aesthetics to everyday aesthetics. Traditionally aesthetics is placed solely within an art-based framework, where it has an elevated function to point towards the sublime, to challenge our perceptions, to uplift or enlighten us. The making of Art is essentially a self-conscious activity, whilst everyday aesthetics is perceived as the antithesis of this and suffers from neglect because of it.

Attempts to broaden the boundaries of what falls within an art-based aesthetic runs the risk of turning the ordinariness of everyday aesthetics into something extraordinary and hence paradoxically making it more, not less remote. Becoming aware of everyday aesthetics is then, not about raising everything up so they become extraordinary or lowering everything down so they become ordinary, but appreciating things deeply in their essence, simply as they are. Traditional Art-based aesthetics exploits the intellectual/perceptual sensory qualities of sight and sound in order to engage us, but is neglectful or discouraging of the more earthy/embodied senses of smell or touch. Everyday aesthetics is however sensorially all inclusive. In appreciating art based aesthetics some experiential distance is required, if not demanded, whereas everyday aesthetics occupies entirely the sphere of being open to whatever is present in the immediate experience.

Being originally from Japan she uses a number of examples from her culture, which has Buddhist ideas of transience, no-self and non attachment woven through it, One aspect of the Japanese approach to aesthetics is that any object, place or ritual has its own essential character that the artist's creative role is purely to bring this out. This view, incidently, influenced the aesthetic principles of the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain. The artist becomes less of an active innovator and more a receptive facilitator. Its not about the imposition of an artist's ego onto a material, but the sensual sensitivity they have towards what the material is or wishes to be. This concept is still widely manifested in Japanese culture, ancient and modern, through Zen gardens, wabi sabi, tea ceremonies, even packaging and product design. Tellingly she points out that what was originally an aesthetic way of looking at objects and a sense of place, became distorted for social, political ends by nationalists trying to distinguish Japan from the West, which ultimately contributed to its tyrannical behaviour in WW2.

To more closely appreciate everyday aesthetics requires conscious effort. To break out of our perceptual blinkers, as if we are putting on a different set of spectacles. The objects we use and the places we occupy all possess a functional aesthetic, in how you use them, how they are to use,stimulating subliminal or strong aesthetic responses.  The imaginative care and attention to detail present in a buildings design can be aesthetically pleasing. The way a present is packaged can be a delightful experience for those who are wrapping it and those who are unwrapping it. The way one moves, or is moved through a Japanese garden has its own spatial aesthetic of expectation and delight in the concealing and revealing of a landscape.

Obviously the lack of such imaginative care and attention also has its own aesthetic feel, in the ugly, dirty, messy, trashfilled, abandoned or barren places. Saito is particularly good at highlighting how context and culturally dependent such prejudicial aesthetic judgements can be. The differences we make between productive and unproductive land, scenic and unscenic landscapes, flashy new developments and urban wastelands. The way that old ruins were once seen as 'eyesores' until the romantic movement changed our perceptions of them. Graffiti on an art gallery wall being viewed more favourably than graffiti on a wall in the street. Whether we approve of wind farms depending on if they're placed close to home or out at sea.

These days there is often a 'tyranical aesthetic of design' which we feel is being imposed upon us, in the many things which surround, annoy and alienate us. No matter how aesthetically pleasing a product maybe, our view of it may shift were we to discover it was less or more ethical, environmentally beneficial or damaging, made by hand or machine, or by people who are well paid or on poverty wages. Everyday aesthetics has no perceptual absolutes, its highly suggestible to subjective views, instincts and habits.

This draws out that fundamentally everyday aesthetic judgements have moral values underpinning them, which people, objects and environments can support or offend against. When we are presented with an object or a building that doesn't show sufficient respect for our humanity then we are existentially hurt by it.  She puts her case well for how everyday aesthetic judgements are not as trivial or insignificant as we might assume, they are what makes the human world we inhabit what it is. If we find we live in an ugly, inhuman heartless environment, then this is reflecting back how much our civilisation has lost its human scale and values.

The aesthetic feeling for the everyday moment is so embedded into our way of being, we are rarely fully conscious of the judgements we are making. The next time I pick up a kitchen knife, I'll try to respond to it not just from a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, but pay closer attention to the aesthetics of its design, how it looks, how it feels in my hand, how its functionality feels as it cuts through vegetables, the sounds it makes, the smells that arise, the affect this has upon me and in what way I respond. Do I find this experience aesthetically pleasurable, unpleasurable, or am I a little bit unmoved by it all?

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