introduction
WHAT IS SOCIAL AESTHETICS?
Georgina Born, Eric Lewis, and Will Straw
Although the social sciences directed their attention toward the produc-
tion, circulation, and consumption of art from at least the early twentieth
century, the dominant academic discourse on art and aesthetics for a long
time has been, and in some quarters continues to be, an expression of neo-
Kantian and neo- Humean philosophies. While the details and the value of
both Kant’s and Hume’s aesthetics continue to be debated, it is fair to say
that both theories, in different yet related ways, have neglected the ways in
which one’s location and embeddedness in a particular culture and social
milieu affect one’s aesthetic judgments, the role that such social location
might play in aesthetics, and questions of whether and how social experi-
ence might itself be immanent in aesthetic experience.1 Instead, both tradi-
tions have looked to what they consider to be universal human capacities
and cross- cultural generalities to elucidate the sources of aesthetic pleasure
and judgment. Such a focus on the perceptual and cognitive aspects of aes-
thetic experience and belief—and, in particular, the attempt to treat them
as human capabilities that transcend culture, time, and place—has led to a
focus on such issues as the existence or nature of aesthetic connoisseurship
and the possible objectivity of aesthetic evaluation, as well as to attempts to
isolate a distinctive aesthetic attitude and even a distinctive aesthetic mode
of perception. In this respect, such aesthetic theories are atomic in that they
elevate individual agents and their mental beliefs and perceptual capacities
as the primary concern.2
The result is that the historical roots of aesthetics as a distinct field of
inquiry has precluded any potential development of a social aesthetics,
and this has occurred for two broad reasons. First, the Kantian claims that
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