Our Aesthetic Categories
by Sianne Ngai
The Shape of Green
by Lance Hosey
Aesthetics is a strange double branch of philosophy. Now understood mainly as the study of art and beauty, the discipline didn’t actually take up beauty as an object of investigation until the mid-eighteenth century, and the beauty of art in particular until even later. But the major aesthetic categories we have inherited, the sublime and the beautiful, come from a time when viewing art was understood to be a transcendent, sacred, theological experience, entirely separate from and elevated above everyday life. Since then, art and aesthetics have been firmly and persistently decoupled from morality by philosophy and criticism (not to mention art itself); philosophers, deconstructivists, and media theorists have torn down the mystical framework of the sublime and the beautiful in art, but without creating new aesthetic categories in their place.
If two very different theoretical books are to be believed, we ought to start taking seriously the contemporary role of one seemingly trivial aesthetic category: the cute. English professor and literary theorist Sianne Ngai implicates it as central to current problems in our contemporary politics of aesthetics; architect and designer Lance Hosey hopes it can save the planet. In both of their arguments, the role of the cute, and its appeal to our instincts toward consumption and caring, helps answer the question of art’s potential role now that it has left the realm of the sacred and become part of everyday life.
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