Ambients, Houses, and Other Popular Environments: Aesthetics of Popular Culture as Environmental Aesthetics

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

During the last decades many fields of knowledge have been refreshed by connecting them either with environmental questions or popular culture, or with both. This has happened also in philosophical aesthetics. What has not usually been done, in aesthetics or elsewhere, is to combine these two areas; environmental aesthetics has not been interested in popular culture, nor have scholars of the popular culture been very active in dealing with environmental questions. The leading idea of this article, however, is that aesthetic phenomena of popular culture should be approached precisely from the environmental point of view. This move would open up some relevant perspectives that are omitted by those who approach popular culture through concepts and points of view taken from the high-art discourse, where they were accentuated especially in the heyday of modernism but also contested there ever since. In what follows the new vistas will be dealt with through the concepts of borderlessness, flux, multisensuousness and participation.

But first of all, some words of warning. My intention is not to define popular culture or popular phenomena in any strict sense and I am not going to say anything about the tricky borderline cases. I am dealing with cases that are, as far as I can see, paradigmatic for the field. By "popular phenomena" I mean, broadly speaking, ones that are typically favoured and consumed by fairly many or at least strive to be so, that are distributed and marketed mainly through mass media and whose reception is often-even if not always and necessarily-rather simple and unsurprising. Thus, in my model pop phenomena are close to the field Noel Carroll calls "mass art" in his book A Philosophy of Mass Art, and examples of such phenomena in the early 21st century could be Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Star Wars, NHL ice hockey, The Bold and the Beautiful, Formula 1 races, much of techno or house music, Disney comics, and MTV. When talking about the aesthetics of these kinds of phenomena terms like "low art," "mass art," "lowbrow art," "popular art," and also "entertainment" are often used. The frequent use of the term "art" is symptomatic in a way I wish to pinpoint later on.

The characteristics mentioned do not capture all popular phenomena equally well, and they can be found also outside the area called popular culture. For example, many music groups like Pan Sonic that are often-perhaps without good grounds-included in the category of "pop" do not even want to please the largest possible audience and their music cannot be called easy in any sense, and The Three Tenors, who are normally considered to represent "high art," if one wishes to maintain the complicated distinction between popular culture and high culture, are actually very "pop" by these standards.1 Still, the characteristics mentioned include features that are essential for very many paradigmatic pop phenomena and they are sufficient for the purposes of this article at this point. Of course, they are not the only important traits and more descriptions are given below.

In what follows, my foremost attempt is to offer a point of view with the help of which the aesthetics of popular culture can be, I believe, discussed in a fruitful way. I am not analysing the ontology of the popular but my approach is closer to epistemology. As a matter of fact, I accept that anything can be approached from the environmental point of view, but here my point is to underline that at least in the popular world this approach is fruitful.2

Aesthetics of popular culture have recently been analysed and developed by many philosophers, not to mention the even more numerous sociologists, anthropologists, cultural studies scholars, and the like.3 The best-known theorists with an aesthetic-philosophical point of view include Noel Carroll, Theodor Gracyk, David Novitz, and Richard Shusterman, although other relevant writers such as Sung-Bong Park, whose book An Aesthetics of the Popular Arts received only little attention when published in 1993, could also be mentioned. …