Defending Everyday Aesthetics and the Concept of 'Pretty'
Abstract The paper defends everyday
aesthetics against critiques inspired by Kant’s distinction between the
agreeable and the beautiful, such as that of Christopher Dowling. It does this by focusing on analysis of the
concept of the pretty. Following Carolyn
Korsmeyer and A. C. Bradley, I posit a continuum for the aesthetic, from the
pretty to the beautiful and finally to the sublime. After giving a history of the concept of 'pretty,'
I consider its largely gendered nature and the feminist issues this
raises. I conclude by arguing that
limiting aesthetics to art or to art plus nature ignores the continuity between
everyday life and the arts first emphasized by John Dewey, and ignores the
importance of aesthetic value in the parts of our lives not devoted to
everyday aesthetics, feminist aesthetics, prettiness, pretty
My wife, Karen, and I stand
in front of our California
bungalow looking at our garden. Karen
says, “The garden looks really pretty today.”
I say, “Yes. What are those blue
flowers? They look nice.” She: “Those
are irises. Yes they look nice.” Were we
talking about aesthetic qualities? I
think so. However, 'pretty' is seldom
mentioned as an aesthetic quality, and 'nice' and 'looks nice' are hardly ever. Note that there was nothing purely personal
or subjective about our attributions.
Karen expected me to agree with her when she proclaimed the garden
pretty. I expected her to agree with me
when I said the irises were nice. We
also probably hoped that at least some others would agree. Still, we would not be surprised if some
disagreed, too. There is not only
disagreement but also sometimes argument.
That is, in cases like this, there is
some disputing about taste. For example,
if we heard that someone thought our garden was ugly, we would probably say to
each other, “What’s wrong with her?”
1. Problems with Kant-based criticisms of everyday
What I have said so far
should sound both plausible and natural.
But if so, this shows that Kant’s distinction between the agreeable and
the beautiful is not very useful. Kant
associates delight in the agreeable with interest in the existence of the
object, the gratification we get from it and, in its most intense form, the
enjoyment. He further states that, whereas the agreeable
is that which gratifies, the beautiful is that which “simply pleases.” The distinction between gratification and “simply
pleases” is not very helpful, however.
Our word 'gratify' means 'pleases' although it is often associated with
showing gratitude or giving some award.
Nor is it clear that we are any more interested in the existence of what
we find agreeable than in what we find beautiful.
So what is the distinction? Kant thinks both humans and animals can
experience the agreeable, but only humans can experience the beautiful. This is based on the notion that we humans
are distinctly rational and animals are not.
Yet as contemporary biology has shown, the distinction between humans
and other animals is much more subtle and complex than that. Kant further thinks that instead of saying
Canary wine is agreeable we should say it is agreeable to me, whereas we
shouldn’t say that something is beautiful to me. Yet when we say a wine is agreeable, we expect
others to value it, as well. Moreover, we
commonly say that something is “beautiful to me,” and Kant provides no real
reasons why we should stop doing this.
Also, when we say that something is beautiful, we do not, in opposition
to Kant, demand that everyone agree with us, although we might expect many to
agree. We put both the agreeable and the
beautiful on a pedestal, although the agreeable probably less so.
Kant says that the judgment
of the agreeable is restricted to me. It
is true that, if I say, “I like this, this is pleasing to me,” then I am
restricting the reference to myself. But
this is not a judgment. By contrast, the
sentence, “Violin music is agreeable,” is a judgment and, when I make it, I am
not restricting it to me. For Kant, when
I say that a glass of wine is good, I wish to simply express a private
feeling. Yet “Violin music is agreeable,”
refers to violin music, which is something others can hear and which others can
judge to be agreeable or not. When I say,
“Violin music is agreeable,” I expect at least some people to agree, and if I
say “This dog is beautiful,” I will not be surprised if some disagree. If we want to make the claim seem more
subjective, we add “to me,” as in “Well, it looks pretty to me.” The problem isn’t that there is no distinction
at all, but that the distinction is not clear-cut, and certainly not as black
and white as Kant makes it out to be. Recent
attacks on everyday aesthetics have assumed a distinction very similar to Kant’s
and, I argue, this is where they go wrong.
Someone influenced by Kant
might say that, although one person might like garlic and another might not, there
is no disputing about this. On this
view, your hatred of garlic is purely personal, idiosyncratic, and subjective. However, although we may not contest that you
hate garlic, we may contest that you do so on good grounds. The issue isn’t one of love and hate but one
of whether or not garlic is good. A
young person might say, “Garlic is disgusting. … It is too strong,” and someone
older might reply, “Well, it is an acquired taste.” Although we sometimes let the issue lie, we
don’t always. Everyday arguments,
especially between parents and children, often go like this: “Let’s put some garlic in the salad dressing.”
“No, it’s disgusting.” “You’re wrong about that….Try it. It gives the dressing a certain zing.” The claim that garlic is good in salad
dressings is not fully subjective. To
think so is to be hypnotized by Kant into not recognizing what happens every day.
The problem of the agreeable
vs. the beautiful is paralleled by the problem of distinguishing two kinds of
pleasure, aesthetic and non-aesthetic.
We intuitively feel that there are a lot of experiences and pleasures
that are not aesthetic. But how do we
know? We cannot tell simply from the
object referred to, for it is arguable that anything can be experienced
aesthetically when framed in the right way.
Nor can we simply tell whether something is aesthetic by the words used
in describing it: there are many terms
that can be used either aesthetically or not.
So what makes a pleasure, an experience, or a property aesthetic?
Bear in mind that the word 'aesthetic'
is hardly a natural kind word like water.
As with other philosophical terms 'aesthetic' is, to use W. B. Gallie’s
term, “essentially contested.” Since the eighteenth century, different
philosophers have given different definitions of 'aesthetic,' and each of these
is in competition with the others. These
definitions have been intended to satisfy competing overall pictures of diverse
but overlapping sets of phenomena. The
better theories have succeeded in satisfying a variety of needs, at least for
some people for some time. However, new
definitions are needed to satisfy new needs. I find inspiration in Robert Venturi’s discussion of the definition of
architecture. He claims that every architect works with a
definition of architecture in mind, that every generation of architects has
its own definitions, and that his firm has a current definition, which he then
proceeds to explicate (i.e. architecture is shelter with symbols on it.) Moreover, his definition was powerful, contributing
as it did to the founding of a major movement in architecture (postmodern
architecture). This is how we should
approach essentially contested concepts.
Definitions are needed, but no definition is final. The worse definitions have been
forgotten. The strongest ones are still
advocated by some, or serve as inspiration for newer definitions in the same
mode. So, when philosophers like
Christopher Dowling, a recent critic of everyday aesthetics, worry about “losing
the core concept of the aesthetic,” a natural reply is that there is no core concept, or at least that there
is no absolute and unchanging core concept.  Rather, with respect to words like 'aesthetic,'
we choose to see certain things as
core and others not, and this choice works to some degree: it is true or not in
the pragmatic sense of 'true.' Dowling,
for example, chooses critical disagreement (in the form that we find in art
criticism) as the core concept of aesthetics. He thinks that art fits that model well, but
that very little in everyday life does. On this view, the aesthetic experiences of art
are paradigmatic of aesthetic experience in general, and for an everyday
experience to be aesthetic, it must be significantly art-like. But why should art be the center of
Certainly the most
paradigmatic aesthetic term, 'beautiful,' can be applied to a range of objects
that goes well beyond art. We have
beautiful friendships, football passes, springs, babies, outfits, and meals just
as much as beautiful works of art. It is
plausible that whenever we experience something as beautiful we have an
aesthetic experience. There are many other
aesthetic terms, such as 'pretty,' 'graceful,' and 'elegant,' all of which refer to
aesthetic qualities. So it is also
plausible that whenever we experience something as having an aesthetic quality,
we are having an aesthetic experience, and that whenever we have such an
experience with pleasure we are
having an aesthetic pleasure. If an
experience of something as beautiful, graceful, elegant, or pretty, is an
aesthetic experience then aesthetic experience extends well beyond the domain
of art and there are many things that have aesthetic properties that are not
It is not clear why critical
disagreement is so central to Dowling’s understanding of the aesthetic. Surely one can have an aesthetic experience
without it. For example, one can walk
into a museum and look at a painting and experience it aesthetically without
paying any attention to the critical discussions that traditionally might have surrounded it. Perhaps he means that
something is aesthetic if one could disagree critically about it. On this view, one
could have critical disagreement about a Rembrandt but not about a scoop of
chocolate ice cream. But why insist that
everyday matters lack critical disagreement?
Kevin Melchionne, in his otherwise critical response to Dowling, concedes
that “our cooking, wardrobe choices, and décor are rarely the subject of
argument and intersubjective engagement.” Yet I wonder whether he hasn’t conceded too
much here. What about all those
arguments I have with my wife about cooking, wardrobe choices, and décor (for
example, whether or not a table we found at a second-hand store would look good
in our living room)? Do they not count
as critical disagreement?
Perhaps Dowling wishes to
exclude this kind of conversation and only include discussions that occur
within a community of connoisseurs. Yet
is it wrong to use the word 'beautiful' if there is no community of
connoisseurs, or for someone to use it outside that community? We certainly do not want to hold that only a
good judge in Hume’s sense can actually gain aesthetic pleasure from
something. Children who have no
expertise can still see something as beautiful in a way that is not purely
Maybe all Dowling is saying
is that works of art are subject to critical reviews in newspapers and art
journals and that we do not see similar reviews of everyday aesthetic
phenomena. It is true that such phenomena
are seldom reviewed in this way. Yet we
do see reviews of designers and design trends.
For example, Adolf Loos argued that ornament is crime and that therefore
we should reject the work of the Vienna Secession designers. Moreover, individual products are reviewed in
consumer guides and by customers on-line.
Also, everyday aesthetic choices can be a source of great debate in non-institutional contexts, as witnessed
in cross-generational disagreements over body-piercings.
One plausible theory about
what distinguishes aesthetic from non-aesthetic pleasure is contextual
meaning. On this view, what makes
scratching an itch aesthetic and not just a sensuous pleasure is having
contextual meaning. An alternative approach is offered by
Kant. His idea is that aesthetic
pleasures come when judgment is disinterested and based on reflective
Dowling invokes Kant with
his notion of the essential quality of critical discourse. I do not think critical discourse is
required, but perhaps contemplative judgment is, although whether the judgment
needs to be explicit or conscious is another matter. Yet if judgment is simply a matter of applying
a predicate, then saying that something (for example, a car or a dress) is
pretty or nice is as much a judgment as saying that it is beautiful. So does the contemplation condition exclude
this kind of judgment? Contemplation
does attend many aesthetic experiences.
However, if contemplation were required for judgments of beauty (or of
prettiness, for that matter) then there could never be ones that came all at
once. Yet this clearly happens, as when we
suddenly perceive a stunning landscape or a pretty lane. Perhaps one can only say that judgments of
beauty are more often (or much more often) the result of contemplation than
judgments of prettiness. However, this
does not make the latter non-aesthetic.
A final way to understand
Dowling’s criticism is to say that critical communication is communication in
which there are norms. The complaint may
be that whereas the aesthetics of art has norms, and the aesthetics of nature
is quickly gaining norms (for example through the work of scientific cognitivists),
the aesthetics of everyday life has none.
Carlson and Parson’s book Functional
Beauty could be seen as one way to make the aesthetics of everyday life, or
at least some parts of it, normative. Functional objects, they argue, cannot look
beautiful or have other aesthetically positive qualities if they do not look
fit for their function. Yuriko Saito also
brings in a normative dimension when she argues that green lawns are
unattractive because they are bad for the environment. Nor is the normative limited to these kinds
of cases if we allow for norms that are not universal, ones that are perhaps
accepted only by a narrow community and that may not be explicitly stated.
The question is whether
there can be norms for judgments like “this is agreeable” or “this is
pretty.” One can have standards of
prettiness just as one has standards of beauty.
One can believe that certain things attempt to be pretty and fail. There can even be competing constituencies,
one group believing a class of things is pretty (say a type of decorative
garden) whereas others see it as horrible kitsch. This repeats debates that appear at the level
of beauty, one group seeing the work of Bouguereau as beautiful, another as
kitsch. And even when everyday
aesthetics appears to lack norms, as
when someone appreciates the play of shadows on a wall, this does not imply
that they have none. Having norms in
this case is simply a matter of being able to give plausible reasons for why
one appreciates these things.
However, maybe neither
contextual meaning, nor reflective contemplation, nor norms is necessary for an
aesthetic experience. Perhaps all that
is needed to distinguish aesthetic from non-aesthetic pleasure is some form of
complexity, richness, or depth. On this
view, contextual meaning, reflective contemplation and application of norms are
only ways of providing the requisite complexity. The pleasure of a warm bath by itself would
not be aesthetic, but if, as Sheri Irvin suggests, the pleasure is richly
evocative or seems to sum up all that is good in life, we could then say that
it is. So the question with respect to 'pretty' and
similar terms is whether the qualities they refer to are not complex or rich
enough (in particular uses) to warrant being called aesthetic. I cannot go into this here, but have argued elsewhere
that they must have an aura of heightened significance. On this view, 'pretty' and similar terms can beaesthetic qualities, although they are not always. Moreover, they are often used aesthetically.
When they are, they refer to an experience that includes an aura of
heightened significance but at a lower intensity than found in the beautiful,
and a much lower level than found in the sublime.
Dowling insists that an aesthetic
claim is either trivial or universally valid.
This is a false dichotomy. Nothing
is trivial in every respect and in every light, and nothing is universal in
every respect and in every light …. at least not in aesthetics. At the very least there is a continuum between the ultimately trivial and the
ultimately universal. Most things are
in-between. The worry here is that
calling everyday experiences aesthetic trivializes grand aesthetic
experience. There is no doubt that the experience
of a Rembrandt can be much richer and more complex than that of a lovely front
yard. Nonetheless, it still makes sense
to say that they are both aesthetic.
A final worry is that philosophers
will take aesthetics less seriously if it includes the pretty and the
nice. Do philosophers take morality less
seriously when it deals with the question of stealing an apple from a
neighbor’s tree as well as with questions surrounding torture or murder? Isn’t it, rather, a sign of seriousness that
one deals with the minor as well as the major issues in a field? It is arguable that once the intimate
connections between aesthetic and other pleasures is made clear, once
aesthetics is no longer isolated in the realm of fine art or art plus nature,
it will be taken more seriously by philosophers who had previously neglected
I mention above that the
pretty is seldom discussed in aesthetics.
I want to stress the strangeness of that here. 'Pretty' appears in the indexes of no
encyclopedias, companions, guidebooks, or textbooks of aesthetics I know of. There are no articles devoted to it and this
is, as far as I know, the first to discuss it at length. This makes it in stark contrast to the
beautiful and the sublime. Why is this?
The English word 'pretty'
goes back to Old English for tricky or crafty.
It later came to mean clever or artful.
In Middle English it referred to a person who is excellent or admirable in
appearance or manners. It is not until
the mid-sixteenth century that it came to mean a thing that is fine, pleasing,
nice, agreeable or proper. At this time
it also came to refer to a person (especially a woman or child) that is
attractive and pleasing in appearance, or beautiful in a delicate way. This continues to be its main meaning,
although it has other uses.
it is worthwhile to take the history of the concept back before the English
word. It could be argued that Plato was
opposed to the pretty as he spoke against cosmetics in the Gorgias and makes fun of Hippias’ superficial notion of beauty in
the Greater Hippias as well as Ion’s
in the Ion.  For Plato, cosmetics is a mere knack, the
purpose of which is to produce gratification or pleasure. It is contrasted to gymnastics, which he
considers a true art and productive of the good. Perhaps Plato was not entirely opposed to the
pretty, since he commonly refers to pretty girls or boys without
disapproval. Nonetheless, he certainly
thought that the beautiful was far more important. In the Symposium
he portrays Diotima putting forth a theory of beauty in which the lover of
beauty goes up steps in a ladder of love.
The first step, in which the lover enjoys the beauty of a boy, can be
said to exist at the level of the pretty. In the final stage, apprehension of Beauty itself can be seen as taking a position similar to the level of the sublime in eighteenth century aesthetics,
although it does not have the fearful properties associated with that
concept. Plato’s image of beauty as a
continuum between the pretty and Beauty itself contains an important insight that was picked up again by A. C. Bradley and Carolyn Korsmeyer and will be
adapted in this paper.
Moving to the Enlightenment
era, we find that most philosophers only discussed prettiness in order to
distinguish it from beauty, usually (in line with Plato) to the detriment of
the former. In the seventeenth century,
Dominique Bouhours said that “We sometimes call a thought beautiful which is in
fact only pretty (joli), thus confusing beauty with that which we find
pleasing.” This is similar to Kant’s later distinction
between the agreeable and the beautiful discussed above. Although eighteenth century British
aestheticians seldom mention the pretty, Edmund Burke’s treatment of beauty in
terms of what is small, delicate, curved, and contained, reads very much like a
discussion of the pretty. As Santayana wrote, “By beautiful [Burke]
means pretty and charming; agreeable as opposed to impressive.” Santayana thought that by doing so, Burke only exaggerated the opposition between the
beautiful and the sublime. By making room for the pretty Santayana opened
a path towards everyday aesthetics.
Gender issues concerning the
pretty rose to importance in the eighteenth century. Kant, in his early Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime made
a distinction between a woman who is pretty and one who is beautiful, the
former providing only non-moral pleasantness. Mary Wollstonecraft contrasted “a pretty
woman, as an object of desire” with “a fine woman who inspires more sublime
emotions by displaying intellectual beauty.” She wanted to direct men away from the “sensual homage paid to beauty…of features”
which is associated with the pretty. Gender
differences were also found in taste itself.
Carolyn Korsmeyer has observed that the eighteenth century saw feminine taste
as being for the pretty and charming, while masculine taste was for the
profound and difficult. This division of expected taste was extended
to a division of the arts. Flower
painting in the eighteenth century was characterized as pretty and was associated
with women. Whether prettiness is politically suspect is
a common contemporary theme as well, with second-wave feminists attacking it as
masculinist and some self-described third-wave feminists giving it new value as
an affirmation of femininity.
The early twentieth century
saw further developments of the concept of 'pretty' in the work of A. C.
Bradley and Clive Bell. Bradley, writing
in 1909, distinguished between two senses of the word 'beauty:' the one more
general, in which Philosophy of Beauty and Aesthetics are equivalent, and the
other more specific. The more specific meaning allows us to say
that something is pretty but not beautiful.
He then places five “modes of beauty” side by side. These are, in sequence: sublime, grand, “beautiful” (in the more
specific sense), graceful, and pretty.
He notes that the first two seem allied, as do the last two, while
beauty holds a neutral position, or inclines more to grace. Sublime and pretty, in this scheme, are “the
most widely removed.”
a leading denigrator of the pretty, both as subject matter and as an aesthetic
quality within art. In his criticism of 'beautiful'
as an aesthetic term, he describes the philistine as someone who believes that “[a]
beautiful picture is a photograph of a pretty girl…” He says of Frith’s Paddington Station that, although the “picture contains several
pretty passages of color, and is by no means badly painted,” it is not a work
of art because it is merely descriptive.
Later in the historical section of his book Art,
Bell criticized officials of the Byzantine Empire for choosing pretty patterns over
significant design, thirteenth century Gothic buildings for being “stuck all
over” with pretty things,
and eighteenth century artists for being happy to copy whatever is pretty. He complained that by the mid-nineteenth century
“art” had come to mean the imitation of objects, “preferably pretty or
interesting ones.” He even criticized some art of his own time
for juxtaposing pretty patches of color without considering formal relations.
In the mid-twentieth century
Frank Sibley included pretty as one of his aesthetic concepts (along with
beautiful, dainty and graceful), seeing it, along with lovely, as a term that
people with only moderate aesthetic ability can use. Such terms are different from ones which can
be used only by those few who can make more subtle distinctions. Francis Sparshott thought of the pretty as
applicable to feminine things and pets, and saw it as part of a trio that also
includes the sublime and the beautiful.  He gave a kitty and a thatched house as
examples of things that are pretty. The
pretty on his view is what does not demand serious attention, arouses stock
responses, and is trivial.
3. The Continuum
I turn now to a recent
approach to the pretty which, rather than simply being negative, situates it in
a continuum with beauty. In her article, “Terrible Beauties,” which
explicates the concept of difficult beauty, Carolyn Korsmeyer observed that “[i]n
certain respects pretty and beautiful can be considered points on a continuum
of aesthetically pleasing appearance,” and that “considering what goes into
assigning an object (or a face or body) its place on this continuum illuminates
something of the role of the difficult in the formation of beauty.” Further, when discussing a passage from
Matisse on his creative process, Korsmeyer captured something of the dynamic
nature of this continuum, how something can exist at one level and yet be moved
to another. When Matisse deepened
appreciation of his lines and shapes by making them less immediately pleasant,
he illuminated a transition between what is merely pretty and what may perhaps
be called beautiful, a transition that requires making appreciation more
strenuous and less seductive. So we can speak of the beautiful emerging out
of the pretty by way of what she calls “intensification of experience.” This can happen, for example, by taking on “implicit
moral or existential weight.”
In short, the sweet, the pretty, and the charming move towards the beautiful,
not only in art but in everyday life (as in appreciation of faces) as they
become more difficult.
idea of a continuum (in this case a developmental one) can also be found in the
work of the early environmentalist philosopher Aldo Leopold when he says, “[o]ur ability to perceive
quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through
successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” 
Korsmeyer refers to
prettiness as a less important value than beauty. Here I disagree somewhat. In a way she is right, for the pretty is lower
on the hierarchy of beauty, is the focus of less thought, and gives experiences
that are less rich. However, it is also
more pervasive, and plays a quantitatively larger role in our lives. It is rare to find something beautiful or to
have an experience of beauty, but seeing things as pretty, cute, or nice is an
everyday experience. This is also true
for the aesthetic negatives: true
ugliness is rare, but dull, unpleasant, and plain things are common. This pervasiveness makes for something that
is immensely important.
4. Some preliminary issues
I am arguing that everyday
aesthetics extends beyond the narrow domain Dowling wishes to limit it to, and
I am using the importance of the pretty (as holding its own place in the
continuum of aesthetics) to show this. However,
I do not intend to praise or promote prettiness in the sense of getting people
to care more about pretty things. I am
not opposed to promoting more aesthetic experience in everyday life, but I
suspect that people notice prettiness and pretty things as much as they need
to. Nor would I like to promote
appreciation of the pretty over appreciation of difficult beauties. People need no encouragement or training to
appreciate things as pretty, but they need both to appreciate difficult
beauties. However, with Robert Solomon,
I think there is nothing wrong with enjoying the sweet sentiments, of which
pleasure in the pretty is one, as long as no one is harmed.
Nor do I believe promoting
experiences of the pretty would entail promoting the arts. It is arguable that in order to do serious
art, or maybe even art at all, one has to combat the seductions of the pretty. It is not for nothing that there have been so
many attacks on the pretty. Prettiness
is notoriously superficial. It often
masks human suffering with an illusion of pleasantness. Nietzsche sometimes treated the Apollonian
artist as promoting this way of looking at the world. No wonder he referred to such artists as
naïve. I agree that great art requires
overcoming the seductiveness of superficial pleasures. The pretty can play a role in art, but only
as part of a more complex structure of experience. Art cannot ignore the pretty any more than it
can ignore the cute, the entertaining, or the pleasing. However, in attending to the pretty, it must
dig beneath the surface. Art, moreover,
has to combat the philistine who thinks that art only has to do with pretty
things. The philistine reduces art to
beauty, reduces beauty to the pretty, despises the pretty, and so rejects
beauty and then art. The answer to the
philistine is not to banish the pretty from aesthetics but to block the
To say a work of art is
pretty is generally a put-down, at least in the fine arts. However, the concept does have a role in fine
art, for example in referring to a pretty passage in paint or music, or when
art references the pretty, as in some feminist and gay art. It is even quite commonly taken to be a
positive aesthetic quality in the decorative arts. On
Antiques Roadshow I have seen an expert refer to an eighteenth century
French porcelain vase as “very prettily painted.” This was obviously considered to be a
5. Feminist objections
As we saw in the historical
section, the pretty is a heavily gendered concept. It is not only more frequently applied to
females; it is also more frequently applied to things in what is traditionally
considered the female realm, for example to children, kitchenware, rooms and
dresses. Of course it is also an
evolving concept. Part of what is
involved in its ongoing evolution is changing attitudes concerning women’s
rights and, more generally, what it is to be a woman.
Some feminists may criticize
the aesthetics of everyday life for discussing the concept of the pretty. Yet discussing a concept is not the same as
promoting its current uses. Moreover, the
aesthetics of everyday life has close affinities with feminist aesthetics. The
aesthetics of everyday life has only recently emerged within the discipline of
philosophical aesthetics, and this may be largely because it often deals with
aspects of life associated with females.
The concept of the pretty seems innocuous. It is pleasant, after all, to experience a
garden, house, or girl as pretty. And it
doesn’t actually hurt anyone, except when you say that the garden, house, or
girl is merely pretty. There are, however, situations in which being
called pretty may be problematic. Two
examples are (1) a heterosexual male may take offence to being called pretty,
and (2) a woman might take offence if she is referred to as pretty in a
professional context where reference to her looks would be inappropriate. Feminist critics are right to suggest that attributions
of prettiness to women should be approached with caution, at least in such
contexts. Even so, this worry need not
extend to all attributions of
prettiness, for example to streams or mountains. (It is hard to see how saying that a stream
is pretty contributes to the oppression of women, for example.) To throw out the concept of 'pretty' because
of feminist issues might be to lose some very valuable uses.
Still, it might be argued
that these gender problems extend beyond application of the term to women,
maybe not in the case of streams and mountains, but in how we see such things
as pots and ties. There are certainly
differences in the ways we speak. A man
might be more hesitant to call a pot pretty, although he might accede to its
being graceful or elegant. A woman might
say a man’s tie is pretty, but none of his male friends would. It might, then, be argued that we should suspect
the very concept of the pretty because women are not only seen as its objects
(in a way that makes men take them less seriously) but also are expected to find
things pretty more often or in different circumstances than men. The thought here is that many uses of the
concept are infected by those uses that directly take agency away from women.
However, as we analyze the
pretty we should not just reflect on current usage but participate in forward-thinking
changes. As pro-feminists, we want the
future to be egalitarian. Such a future
would be one in which the pretty is not as gender-weighted as it is today, at
least not in such a way as to harm women.
We want a future in which the concept is not used to make women less
free. In short, the attachment between
the pretty and the oppression of women might be historical and contingent: the word could evolve in a way that is
consistent with egalitarianism without losing its ability to tie down the lower
end of the aesthetics continuum.
6. A problem with the continuum hypothesis
It is admittedly difficult
to place individual aesthetic terms on a continuum. For one thing, terms take on different
meanings in different contexts.
Aesthetic terms may be used for all sorts of purposes, and even 'pretty'
could be used as a term of praise in
a fine art context (as when an eccentric teacher uses it as his or her highest
form of praise). Another problem with
the continuum hypothesis is whether we can find a way to distinguish between
the lowest level of the continuum and that which falls below that level. I have already suggested that some sort of
richness, some aura of heightened significance is needed, and that this may be
achieved through contemplation. However,
contemplation may not be required since many of our experiences of something as
pretty are immediate. I see some
mountains lighted by the morning sun through an airplane window and say to my travel
companion “look at those mountains, aren’t they pretty.” On my view an aura of heightened significance
is both necessary and sufficient for something to be aesthetic. In any case, my motive in bringing in the
continuum hypothesis was not to set up a stable and exact hierarchy of
aesthetic terms but rather to deconstruct a strict dividing line between the
purely subjective realm of the agreeable and the objective realm of critical
discourse, a distinction that is often used by those who would attack everyday
aesthetics from a Kantian angle.
'Pretty,' 'nice' and similar
terms are often used to refer to aesthetic qualities. However, often, at least for 'pretty' in the
fine arts, the quality is negative. We
have to turn to everyday aesthetics (and perhaps to the popular arts) to find 'pretty'
and 'nice' used in a generally positive way, for example in referring to a
pretty (or nice) house, dress, garden, girl, boy, thought, card, table-setting,
plant, flower, walk, photograph, song, dance, town, baby, or voice.
Following Bradley, Korsmeyer,
and ultimately Plato, I argued that pretty and nice are at the low end of a continuum
that constitutes beauty in its most general sense. The continuum situates 'beauty' in the narrow
sense of the term in the middle and 'sublime' at the high end. Kant’s concept of the agreeable is not
helpful here since he failed to recognize that as soon as we find something
agreeable we have judged it, thus taking it out of the realm of merely sensuous
pleasure. He confuses what is merely felt
as agreeable or liked with what is called
agreeable, likable, pleasant or pretty.
These concepts are aesthetic every bit as much as beautiful and sublime. Kant’s concept of 'the agreeable' covers
whatever we like without making a judgment and without a contemplative or
reflective dimension to that liking. So
it is not to be dismissed. However, as
soon as we say that something is
agreeable or even likeable we are making a statement about something outside of
ourselves, are making assumptions about what others will value, and are raising
the experience to the level of beauty (in the general sense of that term),
hence to aesthetics. The object then
obtains a low-level aura of significance. So when we say that something is pretty, we are making a kind of aesthetic claim, and this frees everyday
aesthetics from the kinds of objections raised by Dowling and others influenced
Aesthetics is a vast sea,
and the aesthetics of fine art is a little island in that sea. Limiting aesthetics to art or to art plus
nature has various disadvantages. It
ignores the continuity between everyday life and the arts first emphasized by John
and more recently promoted by everyday aestheticians and aestheticians inspired
by evolutionary theory. It ignores the
importance of aesthetic value in the parts of our lives not devoted to art. It fails to recognize the dynamic relation
between art and everyday life. Moreover,
recognizing the importance of such qualities as "pretty" and "nice" in no way
trivializes or diminishes the importance of such qualities as "beautiful" or
"sublime" or such things as art and nature.
Thomas Leddy teaches
Philosophy at San Jose
and specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. He has recently published The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The
Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Peterborough,
Ontario: Broadview Press, 2012).
Published on August 27, 2012.
discuss “nice” in The Extraordinary in
the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday
Life (Peterborough, Ontario:
Broadview Press, 2012).
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment tr. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952) #3, pp. 44-45.
B. Gallie, “Art as an Essentially Contested Concept,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplement 56 (1955-56), 169-198.
Robert Venturi, “Architecture as Decorated Shelter,” in Aesthetics: A Reader in
Philosophy of the Arts, ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Prentice
Hall, 2011), pp. 130-131.
Christopher Dowling, “The Aesthetics of Daily Life,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 50, 1 (2010), 225-242.
 He concedes that, when a door looks like it
fits right, we are having an aesthetic experience, p. 230.
 Kevin Melchionne, “Aesthetic Experience in
Everyday Life: A Reply to Dowling,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 51, 4
(2011), 437-442, ref. on 439.
Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime,” in Goldblatt and Brown, pp. 123-129.
a discussion of this, see Sherri Irvin, “The Pervasiveness of the Aesthetic in
Ordinary Experience,” British Journal of
Aesthetics, 48, 1 (2008), 29-44, and “Scratching an Itch,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
66, 1 (2008), 25-35.
Allen Carlson and Glenn Parsons, Functional
Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University
Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2010).
 However, I have an article in the forthcoming second edition of The Encyclopedia of
Aesthetics on this topic. In the article I
go into the history of the concepts of 'pretty' and 'prettiness' in more
 Kenneth Dorter, “The Ion: Plato”s Characterization of Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
32, 1 (1973), 65-78, ref. on 76.
 Dominique Bouhours, quoted in Wladyslaw
Tatarkiewicz, The History of Aesthetics
Vol. III (Continuum with Polish Scientific Publishers,
2005), p. 393.
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry
into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
Carolyn Korsmeyer also observed that for Burke, beauty is “diminished and
retreats back to something close to pretty.” “Terrible Beauties,” Contemporary
Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art ed. Matthew Kieren (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing:
2006), pp. 51-63, ref. on p. 57.
 Kant, Observations
on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, tr. John T. Goldthwait (University of California Press, 2004), p. 87.
 Mary Wolstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and
Moral Subjects (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2010), p. 49.
Carolyn Korsmeyer, Gender and Aesthetics:
An Introduction (London:
Routledge, 2004), p. 47.
Rozika Parker and Griselda Pollock, “Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the
Arts” in Carolyn Korsmeyer, Aesthetics: The Big Questions (Malden, Mass.:
Wiley-Blackwell, 1998), p. 45.
 Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, “Feminism in the
Classroom: Teaching Towards The Third Wave,” in Feminism in Popular Culture eds. Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley(New York:Berg Publishers, 2006), p. 64. Of course, the very concept of “third-wave
feminists” is contested.
 A. C.
Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965).
Frank Sibley, “Objectivity in Aesthetics,” in Approach to Aesthetics:
Collected Papers on Philosophical Aesthetics, (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2006), p. 82.
Francis Sparshott, The Structure of
Aesthetics (Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1963), pp. 72-75.
 Earlier I referred to a continuum between the
ultimately trivial and the ultimately universal. This continuum is different in that nothing
within it considered ultimately trivial or ultimately universal. This is, rather, a continuum between
low-level aesthetic qualities such as “pretty” and high-level ones such as
“sublime” with “beauty” falling someplace in between.
“Terrible Beauties,” op. cit. She draws on Bernard
Bosanquet, Three Lectures on
Aesthetic (London: Macmillan, 1915).
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: And
Sketches Here and There (Outdoor Essays & Reflections) (Oxford
University Press, 1989),
p. 96. Thanks to Yuriko Saito for this
reference. I would also like to take
this occasion to thank Prof. Saito for her many other helpful comments on
earlier versions of this paper.