Tom Leddy’s Everyday Surface Aesthetics

Tom Leddy, in his article ” “Everyday Surface Aesthetic Qualities: ‘Neat,’ ‘Messy,’ ‘Clean,’ ‘Dirty’” (Published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 53 (3), 259-268), attempts to position everyday notions of organization and cleanliness within the discourse of aesthetic consideration.

He begins by laying out a series of terms which he sees as notably absent from the literature on aesthetic criticism, despite their direct applicability to such discussions.  His (admittedly incomplete) list includes the opposed pairs neat/messy, clean/dirty, ordered/disordered, cluttered/uncluttered, cleared/not cleared, blemished/unblemished, and attractive/unattractive.  Leddy suggests that while these terms are generally applied in everyday settings considered outside the purview of aesthetics, many of them are used frequently to describe traditional art objects.  As Leddy points out:

In the visual arts, for example, we speak of clean lines, clean edges, muddy color, neat construction, and cluttered space. Of course, the lines in a visual work are not literally clean: literal cleanliness has to do with the features of the work qua physical object. A painting is literally clean if it is free of dirt, dust, food particles, and such. (260-261)

It is easy to see that, when we speak of ‘clean lines’ in a painting, we are being rather metaphorical in our use of the term, transferring a term from everyday situations in order to speak of aesthetic qualities.  However, when we borrow such terms for new applications, we also inevitably borrow a larger part of the original concept, no matter how metaphorical we are intending to be.  And as Leddy points out, there is no clear place to draw our distinction between what is a literal use of a word like ‘clean’ and what is finally metaphorical.  The term ‘clean’ itself is always relative, so that its object inevitably falls onto a sliding scale of application.  A clean room might be one in which all visible dirt has been removed and things have been put back in their right place.  We would not be happy with this same definition applied to a fork in a restaurant.  A clean fork is one that is thoroughly sanitized.  So it could be said that the term ‘clean’ as applied to the room is far more metaphorical than the same term applied to a fork.  Likewise, even our qualifications for the cleanliness of a fork may look rather metaphorical when compared to those we require of a syringe or scalpel.

Leddy suggests that we call those qualities listed above, whether we are locating them in an artwork or a bedroom, “Everyday Surface Aesthetic Qualities,”  and goes on to argue that, while we might like to draw a line between their use in aesthetics and everyday life, that line would inevitably be arbitrary and subject to continual debate: a certain ‘messiness’ injecting itself even into our definitions of ‘messy’.  Furthermore, Leddy points out, “we learn the concept of cleanness [and other everyday surface aesthetic concepts] as children,” which “gives the perceptual meaning of ‘clean’ a certain developmental primacy” (261). This last point seems to suggest what we must assume is true: that aesthetic sensibilities are built up over time on top of those general sensibilities that we early develop regarding our immediate surroundings.

Indeed, it seems as though Leddy’s list is rather too restrictive, as many of those terms which we associate with high-cultural aesthetic critique (even some of those which appear frequently in the aesthetic literature) are more or less metaphorical reapplications of terms used to describe everyday perception.  For example, we might speak of a film or a piece of music being ‘light’ or ‘dark’, of a fine wine or cheese as being ‘chocolatey’, of a painting being ‘forceful’ or a poem’s rhythm as being ‘loose’.  All of these words are taken from general descriptive use and reapplied as aesthetic categories.  Perhaps aesthetic sensibility in general requires not so much the attainment of new critical categories but the transference of more generalized critical categories into the realm of high-culture critique.  The layperson struggling to describe an aesthetic experience is not so much searching for the right word as searching for the correct metaphorical application of a more generalized descriptor.  This also raises a question as to the ‘naturalness’ of such metaphorical applications.  An aesthete would likely employ metaphorical aesthetic descriptor, such as ‘dynamic’ or ‘forceful’, and when pressed for the reasons behind such a usage point to certain similarities between the metaphorical application and the more literal one.  But I wonder how naturally such metaphorical applications arise.  Would a layperson, if pressed for a description of aesthetic qualities, arrive at similar terminology?

Leddy does not address such concerns because he is primarily interested in those aesthetic qualities that are used to describe surfaces.  He compares his categories to those that Göran Hermerén (in The Nature of Aesthetic Qualities) calls gestalt qualities.  Hermerén’s gestalt qualities are those structural qualities which lend an object its aesthetic value.  In this view, Leddy suggests, a building’s aesthetic value arises from the contributions of the architect and the interior decorator, “not the neatener or the cleaner” (262).  “But,” Leddy continues:

this does not mean that ‘neatness’ and ‘cleanness’ are inapplicable to what architects and interior decorators do. As I have indicated, the architect and interior decorator are responsible for another domain or ontological layer to which the terms ‘neat’ and ‘clean’ may be applied….It is arguable that neatening and cleaning contribute to a room being more balanced, harmonious, and integrated. Perhaps this happens not simply through revealing these properties by through clarifying them.” (262)

Leddy grants his Everyday Surface Aesthetic Qualities rather little in the way of complexity, but allows that they assist in the appreciation of what he seems to see as the deeper aesthetic qualities of a work.  An old oil painting, therefore, benefits from a literal cleaning in large part because that cleaning reveals and clarifies those more complex aesthetic qualities which are of most interest to an aesthetic evaluation of the work.

I am not so ready to cede the complexity of everyday surface aesthetics.  I am suspicious that when Leddy classifies such qualities as lacking in complexity, he is taking for granted the socially constructed field of high-culture aesthetic qualifications which his study seems at first interested in calling into question.  Leddy gives the lie to his assumptions when he asserts that “[i]t is because of this complexity that we have professional critics in art and not in room neatness” (263). Bourdieu suggests that aesthetic complexity itself is socially constructed, so that calling any one aesthetic quality ‘complex’ and another ‘simple’ or ‘straightforward’ is as much (or more) an assertion of one’s cultural capital as it is a statement of any phenomenon inherent to the object itself. If anything, that such aesthetic qualities as Leddy is interested in exploring are so ingrained into our everyday consciousness as to seem straightforward or easily taken for granted suggests a deeper social significance.

Leddy touches on this possibility when he suggests that, as we early learn concepts of everyday surface aesthetics, that education “seems to privilege ‘neat’ and ‘clean’ over ‘messy’ and ‘dirty’” (261). He goes on to point out that a sensibility which values a certain degree of messiness or disorder is often associated with avant-garde artistic movements, such as Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism, part of the attraction of which “may be due to this tension between surface messiness and underlying neatness” (260).  To what degree might this type of resistance be seen as ideological opposition to an aesthetic power-block which values cleanliness and order?

Walter Benjamin, discussing the aesthetic sensibility of Germany under National Socialism, warns against a “concept of beauty” which shows “the same devotion to the licked-clean which the carnivore displays toward its prey” (“Review of Sternberger’s Panorama”, in The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008, p. 160).  It seems as though a whole range of artists are interested in subverting the cleanliness of their aesthetic objects. Modernist and postmodernist novels calls into question notions of ‘clean’ narrative voice and character development; avant-garde music subverts the notion of ‘clean’ melody; jazz and rock and roll music undermines notions of ‘clean’ instrumentation.  The resistance to such notions of ‘cleanliness’ and ‘order’ in artistic fields is enough to call into question the ideological ground for considering ‘cleanliness’ as superior to ‘messiness’.


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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2 Responses to Tom Leddy’s Everyday Surface Aesthetics

  1. Tom Leddy says:

    Very nice discussion of my article. I look forward to reading more pieces by you on everyday aesthetics.

    Tom Leddy

    • noahbrewer says:

      Thanks, Tom! I appreciate your comment (and your readership). I’m just glad I didn’t say anything embarrassing. I tend to assume that I’m writing into the void.

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