The Aesthetics of Everyday Matter(s)

By Besiana Hadri.

Last weekend I visited my friends who have a gas stove. Trust me, I have a point to make other than being extremely sceptical of this object. We were making Bolognese when the meat suddenly was set on fire. I have never been so scared of a stove. The object suddenly seemed to have more life then me as I saw my own death before my eyes. The object had become an active subject even though it was non-human. I looked at this experience in an ontological way, both the human and non-human have the capacity to be and to act in this world.

In the book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett presents a philosophical project which rejects the idea of matter as passive stuff. The project touches upon the habit to divide matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings). (Bennett, 2010, p. 7) By dividing these two entities we encourage an ignorant perspective on the vitality and lively powers of material formations. In this text I will compare this philosophical project to another philosophical project from a different theorist and time. Art as Experience was written by John Dewey in 1934. Dewey introduces us to aesthetics as experience. Art as Experience is said to be the beginning of everyday aesthetics, which refers to the possibility of having aesthetic experiences of non-art objects and such. Just as John Dewey wanted to develop a theory for aesthetic experience in both art and non-art objects, Jane Bennett in a similar way also presents theories on our relationship to the living and matter. In the Anthropocene, where human interest is in the centre, humans are surrounded by rapid movements and unfulfilled experiences. We are constantly focused on our practical needs and goals, so we forget to be aware of the value of our experiences.

The theory of everyday aesthetics originates from two main facts. The first one is that art emerges from a rage of non-art activities and experiences and the second is that the realm of aesthetics extends far above the realm of what we commonly associate to be the arts. (Sartwell, 2009) Everyday aesthetics presents the possibility of aesthetic experience in non-art object and therefore reflects on the role of art institutions. Dewey has a critical view on the automatic value of art that is presented in art institutions. He says that to understand the meaning of art objects, we must put them aside for a while and focus on the ordinary experiences that are not viewed as aesthetic.

In order to understand how we can change our experiences, we must first know what Dewey defines as an aesthetic experience. Experiences are phenomena that have their own beginning and end. Life does not consist of only one experience but is built up of a long row of stories and moments. Each one of these have an origin. (Dewey, 1934, s. 36) An aesthetic experience differs from our general stream of experiences. To have an aesthetic experience one must be aware of every step in an action, it should not be automatic. A simple example presented in Art as Experience is a rock that is rolling down a road. If the rock is aware of and interested in the road and every obstacle it meets on the way down to its goal, the rock has undergone an experience of aesthetic value. It is driven by other forces than practicalities. (Dewey, 1934, p. 45) Dewey is personifying a rock, intentionally or not, helping to make a great example of the vitality of objects. Because we can’t access a non-humans reality, this may as well be true.

An aesthetic experience has a pattern and structure and doesn’t come down to undergoing or doing something but these two together. Art consists of an act and a creation. (Dewey, 1934, p. 46)The viewer of art should, according to Dewey, relate to the actions the artist has gone through. To undergo an aesthetic experience one should stop looking and acting with stereotypical recognition and start looking for new ways to establish experiences. In the Anthropocene this can especially apply to the term non-human. Taking Vibrant Matter and Jane Bennett into consideration, I want to state that the non-human and human beings have the same agency, it is just that we do not develop similar experiences of these things.

By trying to establish aesthetic experiences not only in art objects but also in daily life, one can look beyond what we usually recognize and value in the Anthropocene. It is simply establishing new and fulfilling experiences of for example our surroundings. By doing so one can create a different perspective on subjects such as climate change and nature. We may have, over the last years, established an undesirable relationship to what is considered aesthetic. Maybe a good way of describing this in short terms is that we should change the way we think to change the way we experience or act.

One important note is that having an aesthetic experience once again goes back to the human being and its experiences. I want to set a critical point of view on the term aesthetic in itself and the agency of the human being compared to its surrounding matters. Although it is a great force to try to change our view on reality by doing it aesthetically, it is also driven by our own pleasure. It was definitely not my human intension to set fire to the kitchen, but maybe the stove had a different say. The experience didn’t seem aesthetic at first, but I tried to look at the experience anew and give the stove the active role it truly deserves. With this I ask these two questions: Is it ironic, that all our actions, for some reason have to have a fulfilling effect on ourselves? Does there always have to be a human intention or can there be a non-human intention?


Bennett, Jane. (2010) Vibrant Matter. Duke University Press

Dewey, John. (1934) Art as Experience. New York: Penguin Group

Sartwell, Crispin. (2009) Aesthetics of the Everyday. Oxford Handbooks Online. Hentet 21.

September 2018 fra