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The Utility of the Aesthetic and the Aesthetics of Life

James I. Porter

This paper will challenge the distinction that is made in some quarters, but not in all, between use value and aesthetic value in literature and elsewhere, a view that restricts the realm of art and the aesthetic to a minor, often diversionary role in human activity. This view derives from the presumption that art is an autonomous activity set off from other activities and released from moral, utilitarian, religious, and other entanglements: it directs the mind to the idea of “art as such.” Such a divorce is, of course, an impossibility. No art and no theory of art ever conformed, or possibly could conform, to this standard. All art and art theory bleeds into the social realm, is contaminated with ideology, carries out moral agendas (however secretively), performs utilitarian functions of innumerable kinds, and hence can never be isolated from these enabling frameworks. Art and aesthetics can be aspectually isolated from morals and the rest at any point in time, and they have been so isolated from antiquity to the present. But there is no necessary reason to make this kind of separation. And there are further, possibly deeper reasons not to do so.

            Consider Collingwood, who in Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (1925), argues for “the primitiveness of art,” by which he means the primary place and function of art “in life as a whole.” Collingwood radically situates art in the primary processes of the mind: “As thinking presupposes imagining, all those activities whose theoretical aspect takes the form of thought presuppose art; and art is the basis of science, history, ‘common sense,’ and so forth. Art is the primary and fundamental activity of the mind, the original soil out of which all other activities grow.” I believe that Collingwood’s view is perfectly congruent with ancient views of art, mind, and human activity, as examples from Aristotle, Epicureans, the Hellenistic critics, and Longinus can easily show. It is also congruent with Kant’s aesthetics, which has wrongly been used to underwrite the modern concept of the autonomy of art.

            The aesthetic, on the view I wish to sketch out, has a fundamental and irrefragable utility. It expresses a basic interest in existence, not distance and disinterestedness, and in the vitality of life. And there is surely nothing more useful than that. On this alternative approach, art and the aesthetic can be read as being aesthetically valuable per se, but they can also presuppose, and reinforce, the basic rationality of the human mind, as spectators go about making logical identifications and inferences (Aristotle); they can heighten our irrational perceptual faculties (Aristotle, the Hellenistic critics, and others); they can enlarge our sense of reality (Longinus); they can animate our “feeling of life” (Kant); and they can be tied to an essentially affirmative posture towards the world. But to put things like this still doesn’t go far enough. It’s not that the aesthetic can enlarge our sense of reality or strengthen our attachments to life. The aesthetic just is the feeling you have whenever your reality is enlarged, whenever your pulse creates a rhythm, and whenever you form passionate attachments to objects in the world. On this alternative view, the value of the aesthetic cannot be captured by the conventional language of aesthetic appreciation—be this beauty, harmony, or sublimity, etc. In their place, terms like intensity, focus, awareness, attention, and engagement come to the fore. On a revised view of aesthetics as “the aesthetics of life,” both art and utility would have to be recalibrated such that art’s deepest value is not a matter of its being autotelic, and utility’s value does not lie in its being instrumental. Both art and utility can be used and abused—but only “for life.” The best sources for this alternative aesthetics may well turn out to be not treatises on poetics or aesthetics but treatises in the arts of living, biology, and science.

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Presidential Panel - Ancient Perspectives on the Value of Literature: Utilitarian versus Aesthetic

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