Charles Sanders Peirce’s view on aesthetics

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In 1903, it was arranged for philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to speak at Harvard on the meaning of Pragmatism. For Peirce, there are three normative disciplines: logic, ethics and aesthetics, of which aesthetics was the most fundamental. He believed that logic is founded on ethics which, in the same manner, rest on aesthetics (Danto, 2013), and that the word aesthetics should be replaced with the word “axiagastics” (Danto, 2013: 152) which is the science that examines that which is worthy of adoration.

In one of his lectures, Peirce says: “I should say that an object, to be aesthetically good, must have a multitude of parts so related to one another as to impart a positive simple immediate quality to their totality; and whatever does this is, in so far, aesthetically good, no matter what the particular quality of the total may be. If that quality be such as to nauseate us, to scare us, or otherwise to disturb us to the point of throwing us out of the mood of aesthetic enjoyment, out of the mood of simply contemplating the embodiment of the quality, […] then the object remains nonetheless aesthetically good, although people in our condition are incapacitated from a calm aesthetic contemplation of it” (Parret, 1994). Most importantly, it is possible to deduce that aesthetics do not necessarily rest on appreciation.

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We could relate this theory to designer Alexander McQueen’s most controversial legendary fashion show The Highland Rape of Autumn/Winter 1995: inspired by a violent time in British history in the mid-18th century, McQueen sent battered, bruised half naked models down the runway wearing torn and stained clothing. His choice was highly controversial and did not necessarily please the general public. The show was deemed repulsive and misogynistic and McQueen was accused of treating women as objects.

What the viewers failed to understand was that he was trying to portray how society still sees women, not how he sees them. Even though the show was very different from what society was used to, and did not receive a great response, it brought him to the world’s attention, introducing his famous bumster which went on to become a fashion statement. The power of the show was and still is undeniable (Thescene.com, 2015) and it did not rest on appreciation.

Peirce derives that there is no positive aesthetic badness, but various aesthetic qualities, which in turn, bring us to the idea that a mood, a personality and a time will set positive aesthetics. This liberates aesthetics from its traditional preoccupation with beauty and its traditional limitation to detachment, and at the same time places beauty as a prime component of the ontology of being human. Indeed, there is something poetic about vintage clothing as it comes with a history.

Beauty cannot be thought, no one can tell another being what they are supposed to believe as true. Art does not have to be beautiful to everyone. Much of contemporary art is hardly aesthetic, but it holds the power of meaning and the possibility of truth, and depends mostly on interpretation. There should be a focus on what a work of art means, and what it evokes in each individual.

This relates to Hegel’s discussion of the end of art, when he says: “Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place” (Danto, 1999). Hegel provides a rather pessimistic view on the art of his time and in turn the art of today. However he also understood the power and importance of art, aesthetics, creation and ideas in our society: “The universal need for art is man’s rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognises again his own self” (Danto, 1999). And that is art’s ultimate calling.

Watch the full catwalk show here:

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