Abstract ‘Artification’ is a term
recently coined and developed in Finnish aesthetic theory and proposed by Ossi
Naukkarinen in this volume as the process of treating non-art objects as
art. In this paper, I distinguish between a superficial sort of
artification and a deep sort. The superficial sort is the one we need to
worry about. In Part I, I consider various issues surrounding the
definition of artification. In the
process, I situate artification within the larger question of aestheticization. I understand
aestheticization in terms of recent psychological work on supernormal stimuli
and Virginia Postrel’s defense of style and surface in the commercial world. I conclude the first part with remarks
on how the debate goes back to Plato’s rejection of arts in the Republic. Part II addresses the issues of artification
and aestheticization within aquariums. I
argue against scientific cognitivism and in favor of aesthetic pluralism in
relation to appreciating natural environments.
This pluralism allows for valuing artification and aestheticization, and
hence for aquarium displays that show marine
animals alongside works of art. However,
I reject the shallow form of artification that can be found in the kitsch
products sold in aquarium museum stores.
I conclude with a reflection on ideals of artification and the role of
the professional philosopher of art and aesthetics in contemporary life.
Two phenomena have been of
much interest to aestheticians and philosophers of art in recent times. They have been called aestheticization and
artification. Aestheticization is
commonly understood as simply “to make aesthetic” but can also mean treating
something as aesthetic that really ought not to be, perhaps for moral or
practical reasons, as in the aestheticization of war. Actually there is nothing wrong with applying
aesthetic properties to war, for example saying that this battle was “ugly” or
this stratagem was “beautiful.” The
problem appears when some, like the Italian Futurists
in the early twentieth century or some contemporary computer gamers today,
treat even the most horrifying elements of war as beautiful, for example the
way metal rips into flesh. Sometimes the
charge of aestheticization implies a broad critique of culture. Ossi Naukkarinen, for example, defines aestheticization
as “the notion that more and more things get absorbed into the aesthetic
sphere, and that aesthetic matters are becoming increasingly important in our
daily li[ves].” The
question of whether the aesthetic realm is becoming wider and more important is
sociological, but behind it is a worry that this may not be a good thing,
somewhat like the worry about the aestheticization of war.
As we shall see, there is
considerable overlap between issues of aestheticization and of artification. Artification is defined, also by Naukkarinen,
as “using art-based ways of thinking and acting outside the traditional,
institutional boundaries of art and making non-art things into something
art-like or art-affected, even if not necessarily turning them into art proper
in the institutional sense of the word.” For the purpose of this paper I will assume
this definition. I will be discussing
artification mainly, but aestheticization will also be relevant. I should note that,
although aesthetic values and properties are immensely important to the various
arts, many other values and properties are important as well. Therefore, treating something as art-like is
not the same as looking at it from an aesthetic perspective.
Naukkarinen’s definition of
artification seems at first to include all processes involved in making works
of art, for whenever one makes a work of art one is taking things that are not
art and turning them into art. One
automatically thinks of such works as Duchamp’s Fountain, in which a non-art object, a urinal, was transformed into
a work of art by placing it on a pedestal in an art show. However, the same could be said for collages
or even for painting in general, since paint in the tube is a non-art substance
that is then made into something art-like—actually, into art—by the painter. Still, Naukkarinen’s reference to “even if not
necessarily turning them into art proper” shows that he is really concerned
with objects that are not turned into
art proper. So I think we can safely
assume that the term ‘artification’ is not intended to refer to the process of
making a work of art. Where, then, does
artification happen, and how important is it?
Before we go on, it is
worthwhile to observe that, although ‘artify’ and ‘artification’ appear in no
standard dictionary, a non-standard dictionary available online
(UrbanDictionary.com) has defined these terms. It states that to artify is to apply artistic
techniques to something. The first
example given is, “The wall was artified with graffiti.” It further says that ‘artify’ can mean “improve
the environment and life with and through art” and “expand experience and
enrich the world through artistic actions.”
It speaks of parents planning to “artify their home by placing a local
artist's work in their garden” and a company deciding to “to artify corporate
gifts through more creative ways of making donations, like giving away family
passes to museums and concerts.” The garden example lies somewhat outside Naukkarinen’s
definition. He did not explicitly
include adding art to a place as a method of making art-like. However, the graffiti case is artification in
his sense. The graffiti was art-like and made the wall more art-like. On the other hand, the
corporate gifts example seems to confuse an act that promotes access to the
arts with acts that make something art-like. Nothing is made more art-like here.
The meaning of ‘artify’
given in this dictionary makes it similar to ‘beautify.’ Webster’s
defines ‘beautify’ as “to make beautiful or add beauty to” as in “We beautified
the room by adding fresh flowers.” The
parallel is not exact, however. We might
say “He artified the garden by adding art,” but not “He beautified the garden
by adding beauty.” Rather, we say that
he beautified it by adding beautiful flowers, beautiful decorations, or
beautiful works of art.
also gives a definition for ‘prettify’ which means “to make pretty.” Examples of usage include “The city is trying
to prettify its
downtown.” and “The movie prettified what was in
reality a very bloody battle.” The
O.E.D. adds “spec. make pretty in an affected or superficial way.” If ‘artify’ is derived from, or closely
related to, ’prettify,’ then it will imply superficiality and will mean “to
make art-like in a superficial way.” One
can stipulate that it not have this negative connotation but I suspect that it
will lurk in the background anyway. I
prefer distinguishing between deeper and shallower forms of artification, the
deeper drawing from the most culturally and humanly meaningful aspects of the
arts and the shallower drawing from the more superficial or at least more surface-oriented
aspects of the arts. In this paper, I
suggest that the deep artification is probably a good thing, whereas the second
is more problematic, although not always bad.
So where does artification
happen and what is its significance? One
area would be when a form of popular entertainment outside the traditional
institutional boundaries of art is increasingly treated as art-like, or even as
a new art form itself. Graffiti started
off as a popular non-art activity but could be said to have become more
art-like over the years and, in fact, has become an art form of its own. This use of ‘artify’ should be distinguished
from one graffiti practitioner complaining that another was trying to artify
graffiti in the sense of superficially making it seem more art-like, perhaps
even violating its authentic nature. This
would be another sense of ‘artify.’
However, although we can
understand graffiti (or a type of graffiti) as literally becoming an art form,
it is another thing to treat something as art-like without its actually
becoming an art. One could say that sports is artified when it is treated more
and more like an art form, perhaps by emphasizing the aesthetic qualities of
the sports experience or by seeing practitioners as primarily expressing their
own emotions. This could be true even
though we still do not see it as an art form. Whether or not this is actually
happening, and whether it is good for sports, can be left to sports theorists.
I mentioned earlier the
worry of the graffiti practitioner that artification could erase authenticity. One could also speak of religion as suffering
from artification when it loses its authentic nature and is seen as just
aesthetically interesting. This might
happen when the individual rituals of the church are treated as if they were
works of performance art. Other uses of
the term ‘artification’ include treating festive decorations as a way to make
an event more art-like and treating certain business or scientific practices as
art-like, perhaps as a way of increasing creativity. In short, ‘artification’ is a highly diverse
concept, hard to pin down.
Still, it might be
worthwhile to ask whether artification is a common thing and whether there is
more of it (for example, in the major societal institutions) than
previously. For example, the urban
landscape is increasingly dominated by advertising (consider the recent
introduction of advertisements on the floors of grocery stores), and
advertising could be considered a popular art form. Perhaps this increase in advertising means an increase
in artification. Alternatively, someone
might see advertising as precisely not
art or the antithesis of art, and so
the increasing presence of advertising would not entail artification. From this perspective, adding advertising to
the environment would not make it art-like.
One could even go so far as to claim that taking
a cityscape, as happened recently in São
Paolo, where all billboards on walls and storefronts were eliminated, would
make it more
art-like. (Some at least found that it had new aesthetic qualities:
“serene” and “clean.”) The
best person to answer the question of whether our world is increasingly
dominated by advertising would be a sociologist. However, the questions of whether this is
generally a bad thing, and whether this is actually an example of artification,
might be better answered by a philosopher.
Imagine that religion pulled
away from its authentic object and came to be treated more and more in the ways
that we treat art. Of course, this would
have different meanings at different times depending on how we treat art. The artification
of religion might be a worse thing in a period in which art itself is treated
in a superficial way than in a time in which it is understood as revealing
underlying metaphysical truths or as serving deep human needs. As a thought experiment, assume that art is
becoming increasingly superficial in the twenty-first century. (This has been argued by some.) Assume also that our conception of art has
also become increasingly superficial, so that as something becomes more
art-like, it becomes more like the superficial art of the twenty-first century. Under these assumptions, the artification of
religion would also be seen as taking it in the direction of
superficiality. There may be people,
however, who believe that religion can be improved through artification. If so, they would be appealing to another
sense of art, perhaps related to how art was before the twenty-first century,
or perhaps to art today that is not superficial. From this perspective and for some people, artification
of religion might not be so bad. For
example, what for an atheist is basically a collection of falsehoods can become
fascinating and valuable if artified in this sense, that is, by treating it as
literature or performance art.
Consider an area in which
artification may be reasonably considered a good thing. Fashion seems to have become increasingly art-like
in recent years. (It has also been argued that art has become
increasingly fashion-like, a different, although not unrelated point.) It is arguable that this actually improves it. It is not uncommon for members of the
fashion-world to associate their pieces with the history of art, treating their
designers as fine artists with genius, presenting their best work in art museum
shows, and so forth. All of this is a sign
Yet there remain important
differences between fashion and art. For
example, as Diana Crane has observed, branding may be essential to the fashion
industry, whereas copyrighting is more important in the arts and, although
forgery is a constant concern in the arts, especially in painting and
sculpture, the existence of fakes in the fashion-world just seems part of the
system. Still, one could argue that there are also
important differences between the various art forms, between, for example,
painting and poetry, and that the differences between fashion and painting or
poetry are really no greater. One could
also argue that the artification of fashion is just a matter of trying to
increase the prestige of fashion by associating it with something nobler. Again, one could reply that there are two
forms of artification of fashion: a
superficial form that simply adds to fashion the trappings of the art world,
and a deeper form that incorporates some of the most important values of art.
I probably wouldn’t have
much more to say about artification if it was not for my interest in the
parallel issue of aestheticization. This
comes out of my interest in and advocacy of a new sub-discipline of philosophical
aesthetics called the ‘aesthetics of everyday life.’ Briefly, there is a debate within this
subdiscipline between those who believe that everyday aesthetic appreciation is
importantly like and importantly connected to art appreciation, which is my
position, and those who believe that this approach is wrong, since it ignores
the everydayness of the everyday, a position held by Yuriko Saito, for example. The latter might accuse the former of the artification
of everyday life, here taking “artification” as being something quite negative. From this perspective, there is nothing wrong
with treating the Japanese tea ceremony as art, but an everyday drinking of tea
can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities without necessarily treating it
as art, and indeed treating it as art would be to lose some of its most
important features, those associated with its everydayness.
In addressing this issue,
keep in mind that artification needs to be seen in the light of the wider,
older notion of aestheticization.
Aestheticization is generally considered to be something negative. I have already mentioned aestheticization of
war and the worry about the increasing presence of advertising in our lives. (As I write this paper on an airplane, a video
screen in front of me constantly asks me to purchase a movie, and I can’t turn
it off!) Most critics of
aestheticization, however, only focus on certain, relatively shallow aesthetic
qualities, for example “cute,” “attractive” or “pretty.” “Tragic” is usually not mentioned as an aesthetic
quality relevant to aestheticization. This
is significant, since fewer thinkers would complain of the aestheticization of
war if that meant the recognition of the tragic dimension of war. For example, is Homer guilty of aestheticizing
war? The answer is not obvious but it is
at least worth discussing. Usually,
aestheticization is associated with prettification, which is obviously
shallow. And although beauty is taken
more seriously than prettiness, “beautification” too can have a negative
meaning and can be used with a sneer. Nonetheless, just as there can be a deeper and
nobler form of artification, so too can there be for aestheticization. One positive form of aestheticization would
be when we see everyday objects as taking on enhanced meaning after we have
seen their representations in great works of art.
Critics of aestheticization
observe that our lives are increasingly bombarded both by advertisements and by
the display of the products they are selling.
Both the advertisements and the products feature aesthetic qualities
designed to encourage us to purchase things that are not necessarily good for
us. The obesity epidemic has been attributed both to increased advertising, particularly
directed to children, and increased use of fats and sugars as superstimuli that
cause a kind of addiction. “Supernormal
stimulus” is a term coined by Niko Tinbergen to describe what happens when
instincts are disconnected from their natural origins. For example, an exaggerated imitation of
something can influence animals, including humans, more strongly than the real
thing. Deirdre Barrett described how
birds that lay small blue and gray-speckled eggs will prefer to sit on very
large bright blue balls with black spots. In her book, Supernormal Stimuli, Barrett applies the notion of supernormal stimuli
to problems in contemporary culture. In
addition to the obesity epidemic, she discussed ways in which men can become
addicted to pornography at the expense of real relationships, and how
television can capture us by appealing to the very instincts that helped us
survive in prehistoric plains. Barrett’s
main point is that we should resist the power of supernormal stimuli. This could be interpreted as a very strong
concern about increasing aestheticization.
Although Barrett attacks many
things that are harmful to our society, she also directs her barrage against
many things that are relatively harmless and some things that are quite
beneficial. In a brief section of her
book, she appears to attack art itself by claiming that artists generate
supernormal stimuli. For example,
musicians use their instruments to refine and amplify tones that signal health
and friendliness, thus, on Barrett’s account, distracting us from true health
and friendliness. Could it be that many of our finest pleasures
and most valuable experiences are based on supernormal stimuli?
At first it seems that if
the effect of supernormal stimuli is the paradigm of aestheticization, then it
is a very bad thing for our society.
Obesity is clearly something to avoid.
However, gourmet cooking, which may be seen as a kind of artification of
cooking, also depends on supernormal stimuli.
So should we throw out the baby with the bathwater? Barrett encourages us to give up supernormal
stimuli, devoting our lives to healthy practices in eating and exercise at the
expense of everything else. Her approach
is reminiscent of Plato’s outlawing of the arts in The Republic and is open to many of the same objections. Indeed, the debate over aestheticization and
artification is an old one. It is
essentially the debate between those who favor a completely ethical/healthful
approach to life and those who, while not denying the value of ethics and
healthy activity, favor the aesthetic and the artistic as equally essential to
the good life.
Aestheticization need not be
limited to that which is harmful and superficial. In fact, aesthetics is traditionally
associated with reflective and complex handling of sense pleasures, especially
as found in the arts. Based on this, one
could argue that the epidemic of obesity has nothing to do with
aestheticization of the best sort. This
relates to the issue of artification. As
mentioned above, if advertising is seen as a kind of popular art form, then the
increase of advertising’s presence and power in our lives can be seen as an
increase of artification. On the other
hand, one could say that since advertising and other modes of focusing on superstimuli
take us away from the values traditionally associated with paradigmatic works
of art, then this trend would be more a matter of de-artification than of
artification. It could be that these
forms of representation are drawing on certain superficial aspects of art and
are art-like only in this way. In the
process, they drop the values that have been most important for art. If, for example, art is seen as being involved
with the self-expression that comes from self-understanding, then this follows
a very different direction from advertising.
Similarly, if art is seen as disinterested or distanced, then this, too,
moves in a different direction. So, is
aestheticization a good thing or a bad thing?
The answer is that it depends on what aesthetic qualities are attended
to and how this is done.
the opposite side of the fence from Barrett is Virginia Postrel. Her book, The
Substance of Style, puts the rise of aesthetic value in our everyday lives
in a much more positive light. Her view is that aesthetics, by which she means
the surface aesthetic qualities associated with decoration, adornment, and
styling, is becoming increasingly important in our lives. Artification enters in her
example of the rise of expensive restaurant stoves in private homes. Contrary to other social scientists who see
the purchase of these items as a search for status, Postrel argues that
aesthetic reasons are primary, and that the purchaser sees this luxury object
as a work of art, much like a painting.
Postrel believes that the purchaser finds combined in the stove a
“vision of an ideal life of home cooking with the immediate pleasures of beauty
Postrel’s book is a good counter to the assumption that the aesthetics of
everyday life has more to do with functionality than with the pleasure we take
in style and surface, yet she seems too accepting of the world of commodified
pleasure that has come to increasingly dominate our lives.
In short, the entire issue
of aestheticization, as well as of artification, goes back to the ancient
debate over how one ought to live one’s life.
Those who complain about aestheticization are usually committed to an
ethicist or even moralist approach to life.
They generally believe that focusing on aesthetic qualities keeps one
from realizing other more important virtues.
They wish to block the ascendency of aesthetic over moral values
characterized by such figures as Oscar Wilde and, to some extent, formalists
like Clive Bell. They believe that
aesthetic values need to be subordinated to moral values. Peg Brand has argued for such a position from
a feminist perspective, for example. On the other hand, many aestheticists would
argue that moral values are just a special kind of aesthetic value, and that
life, as Nietzsche suggested, is only really justified aesthetically. From this viewpoint, when interpreted from
the perspective of art, a person’s life is a work of art, a person is an artist
of his or her own life, the values that great art promotes should be primary,
and the best experiences we have in life are art or art-like experiences.
II: Aesthetics of Nature: Problems with Scientific Cognitivism
There is a parallel debate
in the aesthetics of nature. The
standard view today is that it is patently wrong to appreciate natural
phenomena as if they were art or in an art-like way. It is thought that one should not appreciate
a landscape as if it were a landscape painting, or a piece of driftwood as if
it were a piece of found art. On this
view, called “scientific cognitivism,” and also called “the Natural Environmental
Model for appreciation of nature,” only appreciation of nature from a
science-based perspective is acceptable. Scientific cognitivism is a kind of
monism. A monist holds that there is
only one right way to appreciate nature.
Pluralists, by contrast, hold that many ways of appreciating nature are
appropriate. Pluralists believe that
scientific knowledge can be of great value in nature appreciation but reject
the view that it is the only appropriate method.
Aesthetic pluralists are
like situation ethicists, the greatest advocate of which was pragmatist John
Dewey, who wrote "reflective morality demands observation of particular
situations, rather than fixed adherence to a priori principles." Pluralists hold that whether a particular
method of nature appreciation is appropriate depends on the situation. They ask, “Is it the right method for that
particular time or place?” Whereas
scientific cognitivists think it is never right to appreciate nature as though
it were a work of art, i.e. according
to “the art model of appreciation,” pluralists believe that this can be just
the right thing. Assuming that the art
model is a form of artification, pluralists believe that artification is
sometimes appropriate, whereas scientific cognitivists reject it. Pluralists also find virtue in the other
models rejected by scientific cognitivists, for example, formalism and the
aesthetics of engagement, as long as claims of exclusivity are dropped. Let me give a concrete example.
Aquariums are places people
can go to appreciate nature. They pose a
problem for scientific cognitivists, however, since aquariums are artificial
environments. From the scientific cognitivist perspective,
the best place to appreciate ocean flora and fauna is in their original ecological
context. One might argue that putting
flora and fauna on display in a science museum is treating them as though they
were works of art. This would explain
why the words ‘display,’ ‘exhibit,’ and ‘museum’ are shared between science and
art museums. On this view, a science
museum display could be seen as an example of artification. It can be replied, however, that aquariums, such
as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, are primarily learning centers and are devoted to
teaching science. So, if one holds the
scientific cognitivist model of nature appreciation, then one might argue that
aquariums provide the opportunity to increase the appropriate appreciation of
natural phenomena through providing significant background knowledge that might
well be unavailable if one were a scientifically ignorant person diving in the
ocean. Moreover, ocean diving is a sport
limited to a small number, and thus nature appreciation is more available to
the rest of us by display in such museums.
However, for this approach to work, it may be argued, viewers should be
discouraged from seeing objects displayed in aquariums from an art-like
perspective. In this context,
artification is a danger for aquariums.
Also, one of the
characteristic ways we look at works of art is to focus on aesthetic
qualities. One of the most
highly-regarded of such qualities is beauty, and visitors to aquariums often
find what they see amazingly beautiful.
Scientific cognitivists might think there is danger in appreciating the
species found in aquariums from the standpoint of such aesthetic qualities as
beauty, especially if the qualities picked out by the manner of display are
ones that are commonly stressed by works of art. For instance, it is sometimes argued that all
species are of equal value, that aquariums should be teaching this truth, and
so aquariums should not focus their displays on species that humans typically
find beautiful at the expense of species that they do not. It could be argued that even species that are
not widely regarded as beautiful are still equally beautiful in their own way
or if seen with the right background knowledge.
This could be called the “equality of beauty thesis.”
The idea that each
individual is beautiful regardless of any deformity seems like a contradiction.
However, there is something to be said
for the equality of beauty thesis if we are talking not about individuals but
about species. That is, although one
could talk about a particular individual as ugly because of poor health or
deformity, one also has to recognize that there is an ideal of beauty within
each species, and that sexual selection would not even happen if there were not
some at least proto-aesthetic response to potential mates on the part of the
species members themselves. Something similar
could be said about an ideal of cuteness for infants, which, of course, would
not be a matter of sexual selection. An
argument could be made that each species is equally beautiful and each infant
of each species equally cute, even if we humans can’t see this.
Yet aquariums do not really
work this way. At best, the notion of
treating all species, and all sexually or cutely attractive members within each
species, as equally beautiful or cute can only be treated as an ideal. But is it worthwhile even as an ideal? I recently visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium,
and it was evident that the main emphasis of the museum was on species that
were striking and even beautiful from the perspective of the average
human. No concern was given to whether
they were beautiful from the perspective of the species itself, or from that of
other non-human species, for that matter.
Humans, sometimes universally, and sometimes relative to culture and
time, just happen to be more attracted to some species than to others. Although aquariums may have other goals, they
cannot exist without their attractions.
Bay Aquarium exhibits
In particular, the Monterey
Bay Aquarium has a very popular exhibit of jelly-fish that is, to me,
mind-boggling in its beauty. This is
also true for the exhibits of sea-horses and sea-dragons, and also of sea anemones. Not everything that attracts viewers is
necessarily beautiful. Although some
might find a great white shark beautiful, others might consider it too scary or
ugly. However, we have another term to
describe the positive aesthetic effect of the great white shark, which is “sublime.”
It terrifies and astounds and yet also delights us, if we are not in
danger. These are exactly the terms that
Edmund Burke first used to describe the sublime.
If it were not for the
jelly-fish, the sea horses, the sharks, and other aesthetically interesting
species, I would frankly not think it worth my time and money to visit this
aquarium. Nor am I alone in this; others
flock to the most aesthetically striking exhibits. So it appears that despite all the talk about
appreciation according to science, or even seeing every species as equally
beautiful, the fact is that certain species are striking to us humans in their
beauty, and we gain particular pleasure in visiting aquariums because of their
beauty. I am not denying that some sea
cucumber specialist might find great beauty in these creatures and rush past
the jelly-fish to catch a glimpse of them.
There is a great variety in taste. It is just that for the average viewer, what
is most striking about this kind of museum is the display of aesthetic
qualities that are loved by most humans, like the iridescent colors and
graceful languid moves of the jelly-fish.
It might be said that this
way of talking amounts to an aestheticization of nature. It might even be said that, since such
qualities are often featured in art, this amounts to the artification of
nature. If so, I do not think
aestheticization or artification in these cases is bad. It would only be bad if it produced overall
bad consequences, for example, if it led in some way to widespread species
elimination or the rejection of scientific knowledge. It is even arguable that artification and
aestheticization are, in general, good for environmentalism. The argument would be based on the idea that
these practices have evolutionary roots based on the human need for a sense of
community with nature. This view could
be derived from Jennifer McMahon’s recent claim that “aesthetic experience,
through the evocation of aesthetic ideas, fuels a sense of continuity with
nature and community,” and that aesthetic experiences “bring us into contact
with an evolutionary imperative – the need to feel continuous with nature
rather than alienated from it and to feel continuous with community.” 
3. The philosophy of aquarium display
A particular location of the
debate over aestheticization and artification is over philosophies of museum
display. Cognitivists would insist that
displays should focus on teaching us how creatures and ecologies function, and
that aesthetic experience should only derive from this. However, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has
sometimes designed exhibits in ways that closely relate to art. For example, one exhibit I saw during my last
visit shows small fish swimming in a column-shaped pool. The exhibit is strikingly beautiful, and it
gives one a good up-close view of the fish.
However, it does not feature scientific information. I could imagine that this exhibit was
designed by an artist or by someone very aware of practices in contemporary
More interesting in relation
to this debate are exhibits in which art works are juxtaposed against displays
of certain species. This was done
recently with the jelly-fish at an exhibit titled “Jellies: Living Art,” which
appeared in 2008. The exhibit featured a juxtaposition of works
of art and works of nature. One art work
at the entrance to the exhibit was a large glass display by Dale Chihuly. This style of exhibit does not just treat
natural objects as art but recognizes the interaction of artists and their
natural sources of inspiration. The
blurb for the show asked us to observe how the marine environment has inspired
artists. It stressed both the graceful qualities
of the jellies and the experience of innovative art work. Chihuly’s installation, which was called
“Seaform,” filled a large case at the entrance of the exhibit. It was intended, as the exhibit web site put
it, to immediately immerse visitors in a way that cued them to “the different
or unexpected nature” of the exhibit. The curator probably wanted to get us to see
how viewing the art works and jellies together may benefit our experience of
each. Scientific cognitivists would
complain that this exhibit encourages us to perceive the properties of the
jellies through categories that are not those to which they in fact belong,
that is, art-related categories. This
would be a case of artification of nature.
But is seeing something in
terms of a category to which it does not belong necessarily a bad thing? Although this is assumed to be true by most
scientific cognitivists, the thesis limits creativity. When we creatively see something, whether in
art or in science, we see it in terms of a category to which it does not
literally belong. We can call such
seeing “metaphorical perception.” To say
“Man is a wolf to man.” is to see man in terms of a category to which he does
not belong. Nonetheless, when
elaborated, this metaphor presents a possibly valuable thesis concerning the
nature of man. Many studies in the
philosophy of science, the philosophy of art, and linguistics show that
metaphorical perception plays an important role in cognition. Should we exclude such perception from
appreciation of the natural environment?
Even if we assume that something absolutely belongs in a specific
category, which is open to question, since it assumes that categories are not
human constructions, it is not clear that it has to always be seen in terms of
Another complaint against
exhibits in which flora and fauna are portrayed like works of art is that they
encourage the observer to passive appreciation.
It is often argued that contemplation, aesthetic attitude, and
disinterestedness theories assume a passive approach, and that these are the
approaches most commonly taken to works of art.
I do not think any philosopher has ever favored contemplation as being
passive, certainly not Kant or Bell, both of whom have been accused of this. Maybe what is meant is that some philosophers
wrongly favor physically passive
contemplation of aesthetic objects.
Although this may be true, it should be noted that aquarium visitors who
follow the scientific cognitivist model are likely to be just as physically
passive as ones who appreciate the objects as like works of art.
It is commonly argued that
only the scientific cognitivist model treats its objects seriously, whereas
looking at natural objects from an art perspective is to trivialize them.
First, it is not clear that we should always treat things seriously in order to
appreciate their aesthetic qualities. In
fact, too much seriousness would probably hinder at least some types of
aesthetic appreciation. Second, the
opposite of serious attention is not necessarily trivial attention. Humorous things are not serious, but neither
are they always trivial. Third, and most
importantly, if someone follows the art model in appreciating a marine animal,
and if the resultant experience is profound (as in the case of Melville’s
appreciation of whales), then it is not trivial. Scientific cognitivists who insist that their
approach is the only serious one and that all others are trivial seem
narrow-minded. As opposed to scientific
cognitivism, I prefer the view that one can use any method of appreciation that
gives good results, and this includes art-related in addition to scientific
cognitivist methods, or aesthetic pluralism.
Aesthetic pluralism allows for the distinction between more or less
serious forms of appreciation but does not see the mark of seriousness as
equivalent to having scientific knowledge of the object being appreciated.
Scientific cognitivism is
attractive in that it encourages aesthetic experiences that are in accord not
only with the values of modern science but with the ethical demands of the
environmentalist movement. Since these
values and demands are admirable, the value of the scientific cognition, as a
limited component of aesthetic pluralism, should not be downplayed. However, although the natural sciences may now
seem to be deeply allied with environmentalism, there is no necessary
connection between the two. Science
cannot really tell us which ecosystems should be given our highest priority in
conservation efforts. It can only tell
us that if you want this, then you will also need to have that; that is, if you
want to preserve whales, you will also need to preserve what they eat.
Also, although scientific
cognitivists claim to avoid anthropocentrism in a way that art-related models
fail to do, it is not clear that this is so.
Scientific cognitivism relies on a product of humanity, that is, on
science, as much as art-related models rely on art. Isn’t it a deeper form of anthropocentrism to
assume that the objective view of scientifically-trained humans is independent
of its creation by humans? Doing so
projects a human-centered way of seeing things, as though it were un-human or
transcending the human, a particularly
clever strategy for this species.
After looking at Chihuly’s
work one might well see the jelly-fish in the exhibit differently. One might focus visually on certain iridescent
colors, for example. This is a prime
example of the aestheticization of
nature based on artification. It makes a
non-art object, the jelly-fish, into something art-like or art-affected. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. It might be bad if every exhibit began with
the view of an art object. However, this
has not happened and is unlikely to happen. Indeed, when I viewed the jelly-fish recently
there were no art works present. What I
insist on is that certain aspects of the jelly-fish might well be noticed only
after viewing the Chihuly artwork. Unlike the scientific cognitivist, who believes
that there is only one right way to appreciate jelly-fish, and that way must be
science-determined, I believe that human-centered aestheticization, even the artification
of jelly-fish, can be valuable.
4. The souvenir shop
But let us turn now to
another part of the aquarium, the souvenir
store. Here, images of various species
are reproduced in a variety of formats: glass, ceramics, t-shirts, towels,
toys, and so on. Many of these artifacts
are clearly kitsch; they play on
sentimentality and discourage serious reflection. The animals depicted are chosen not simply
for their beauty but for their cuteness. This might be considered another sort of
artification. It would be a form of
artification if kitsch is seen as a kind of art. It is artification in the sense that non-art
things, for example fish and sea-horses, are turned into something art-like
through the medium of artistic representation.
From a cognitivist
perspective, this is an intrusion of art into a learning center that is
supposed to provide context for the appropriate appreciation of nature. Unlike the scientific cognitivist, my problem
with the museum store is not with artification as such but with artification
that focuses on making things art-like on the level of kitsch. It is crass when people are encouraged to reduce
their experience of a seal to a furry purchasable item. This is a superficial form of
artification. I do not deny that some
rare items in such gift stores might rise to the level of art proper, for
instance, a particularly elegant vase.
Even then, however, it is arguable that this artification reduces
aesthetic experience of nature to pleasure in a mere commodity. Moreover, the placement of a genuine art
object in a world of kitsch commodities reduces its art-like aesthetic impact.
5. Surface vs. deep artification
So what is the distinction
between surface and deep artification?
Surface artification includes “aesthetics” in the sense that Postrel
gives it. It treats things as art but
only with reference to surface features of art.
Thus, it focuses on sensuous qualities, the decorative, the ornamental,
and the stylish. It includes (1) many but not all products that act as superstimuli;
(2) the expensive kitchen stove that is never used but is treated like a
painting; (3) the kitsch in the aquarium shop; and (4) examples of
prettification and beautification.
Surface artification is not necessarily a bad thing. As Postrel has argued, it often serves to
shape identity and thus give meaning to lives.
However, in many instances,
focusing on surface artification takes us away from deeper, more meaningful
experience. Deep artification draws on features of art related to meaning,
self-consciousness, reflection on one’s culture, and exploration of the human
condition. Everyday non-art objects, when they artify in a deep way, become
potential art objects. For example, as
graffiti crossed the boundary between surface and deep artification, it became
a candidate for art gallery representation and museum shows, that is, it became
a candidate for art.
I want to conclude by making
a stab at what I think artification should be at its best. (I am going to give this a somewhat personal
slant through reflection on my social role as a philosophy professor). I believe that our society suffers from an
excess of superficiality. This can be
seen, for example, in the way that advertising increasingly dominates our
lives. A recent documentary on
product-placement in movies, Pom
Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011), exemplifies this
transformation of our experience. Even
one of our most important art forms, the cinema, is not only usually an
aestheticized commodity itself but also contains and promotes products that
themselves are aestheticized commodities.
Superstimuli abound in this atmosphere.
There is also evidence that
our attention-spans are shortening as multi-tasking becomes more common in an
internet dominated age. A study of heavy vs. light media multitaskers showed
that “heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly
less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to
concentrate on a task.”  Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has warned
that use of computer games and social networking sites could lead to shorter attention
spans, and may have already done so. Under these conditions, contemplation is
becoming a thing of the past, and various rich skills both in the folk
tradition and in the lives of the cultural elite are gradually
disappearing. We seldom attend to the
deeper meaning of things any more.
Most of my work as a
philosopher and as a teacher is directed against this trend. This carries over into my commitment to the
subdisciplines of aesthetics and the philosophy of art. I explore and teach these fields because I
believe that art at its best has powers similar to philosophy at its best. Art still has the capacity, among other things,
to make us aware of ordinary everyday objects on a different level, even when
those objects are the very commodities that impoverish our lives when
approached non-reflectively. We might
not pay much attention to the play of light in our dining room until one day we
spend some time with a painting by Bonnard.
We might see the typical items found in a garage, like tires, gasoline, and
so on,, differently after seeing a work by Fischli and Weiss. We might understand a brand-new vacuum cleaner
differently after seeing it incorporated into a work by Jeff Koons. And we might appreciate a fish in a new way
after having viewed Winslow Homer’s “Life-Size Black Bass” (1904).
Seeing the world and our
lives in that world in terms of art is a form of artification. If and when artification involves paying
attention to the deeper, richer meanings of things, it is an enhancement of life.
Philosophy, I believe, should teach us
something about the art of living. This
view, promoted by the great Hellenistic philosophers, particularly the Stoics
and the Epicureans, needs revival. If
living life well is an art, then artification, at its best, is actually a
matter of treating life itself and the objects of life as if they are works of
art in the way that such writers as Dewey and Nietzsche suggested. Artification in this sense should be humanity’s
Prof. Leddy has been
teaching in the Department of Philosophy at San Jose State
1983. His book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life has
recently been published by Broadview Press.
Published on April 5, 2012.
of the Unavoidable: Aesthetic Variations in Human Appearance (Helsinki: International Institute of Applied Aesthetics,
1998), p. 203.
 This quote is from the original prompt for
the articles in this issue.
Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Mike Featherstone, Consumer Culture and
Postmodernism (London: Sage Publications, 1991) especially his chapter,
“The Aestheticization of Everyday Life,” pp. 65-82. See also, Wolfgang Welsch, Undoing Aesthetics, tr. Andrew Inkpin (London: Sage, 1997), Chapter
1, “Aestheticization Process.”
Deirdre Barrett, Supernormal Stimuli: How
Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose (New York:
W. W. Norton, 2010).
Postrel, The Substance of Style: How the
Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness (New
York: Harper Collins, 2003) 76.
 Philosophers will
find this use of the term ‘aesthetics’ disorienting, since she does not mean by
it either “A set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty,
esp. in art” or “The branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of
beauty and artistic taste.” See google.com “aesthetics+definition,” accessed
July 8, 2011. However, it is not at all
an unusual usage.
Zeglin Brand, “Feminism in Context,” Contemporary
Philosophy of Art: Readings
in Analytic Aesthetics, eds. John Bender, H. Gene Blocker (New York:
Prentice Hall, 1993), pp. 106-113.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy in Basic
Writings of Nietzsche tr. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), p. 22. What he actually says is that the existence
of the world is only justified aesthetically, a more metaphysical and
anti-Christian point than I want to make here.
 Allen Carlson is a leading advocate of this
view. See his Nature and Landscape (New York: Columbia
 John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics (New York: Henry
Holt and Company, 1922), pp. 365-366.
 Arnold Berleant is the leading advocate of
the aesthetics of engagement. See his Aesthetics
and Environment: Variations on a Theme (Aldershot:
 These comments were originally developed in
response to a paper by Nola Semczyszyn, “Below the Surface: Aesthetic
Appreciation and the Marine Environment” delivered at the American Society for
Aesthetics, Pacific Division Meeting, Asilomar,
California, 2011. Semczyszyn’s paper drew my attention to
issues of aquariums. In her paper she
advocated scientific cognitivism and critiqued art-related aquarium displays
from that position.
should be distinguished from the broader thesis called “positive aesthetics,”
which claims that everything in
nature has significant aesthetic value). See Glenn Parsons, Aesthetics and Nature (London: Continuum,
2008), pp. 57-65.
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry
into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Adam
Philips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
 Jennifer A. McMahon, “Critical Aesthetic
Realism,” Journal of Aesthetic Education
45, 2 (2011), 49-69, ref. on pp. 66-67.
 Monterey Bay Aquarium, the same web site as
 Early Croce is a possible exception. See Merle E. Brown, “Croce's Early
Aesthetics: 1894-1912,” The Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 22, 1 (1963), 29-41. Emily Brady insists, correctly, that Kant’s
disinterestedness thesis is not committed to passive contemplation in her
“Imagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56:2, Special Issue:
139-147, ref. on p. 147.
Parsons discusses this view in his chapter, “Pluralism,” in Aesthetics and Nature.