Transforming Social Aesthetics, with Noel Carroll

The impact of COVID-19 on art and aesthetic entertainment

“We have art in order not to die of the truth.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

As the Coronavirus fervently wraps itself around our globe, we’ve responded by suspending a number of socially-rich events and activities that, as close to our hearts as they may be, we’ve unanimously declared to be too much of an inherent risk to engage with.

Amidst the suspension of sporting leagues and events (most recently, the Olympics have been rescheduled to 2021), we’ve also seen a complete interruption on many venues, demonstrations, concerts and exhibits.

While sensible and necessary, never before have the iconic works of Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci stood and hung without an endless stream of spectators. Never before has our contemporary culture experienced such a silencing of music, a closing of galleries or a curtain-drawing on theatre.

Fortunately, the decisions to close and silence, to cancel and postpone had been made easier by the fact that we have something no preceding generation has ever had: the internet.

Performers of all kinds have taken to live streaming their comedic acts or their musical sessions, intent on rekindling some measure of normalcy into their followers' lives.

But is it enough?

As the pandemic has only just begun to infiltrate the West, no end has presented itself in sight. Even in the East, which offers several months’ worth of preamble to what may be expected elsewhere around the world, there is no current interest to allow for crowd-based activities anytime soon.

Italy — where many would consider to be the global epicenter of art — remains hardest hit by the virus, almost fortifying the strange realization that we are ways away from allowing live visits to some of the world's most renowned and revered artworks.

So what? Is it that much of a necessity for our culture to be deprived of something that, ostensibly, may not be very necessary at all? Is art, the practice and purpose and philosophy of it, expendable or transmutable in such a way that we can consume it through digitized screens or speakers?

To find out, and to get an idea for what we could expect to see going forward, I figured to ask American Philosopher, Noel Carroll, a leading figure in the contemporary philosophy of art.

“I would emphasize that art does not satisfy a single purpose — like a desire for aesthetic pleasure — but contributes to culture in a multitude of ways: shaping our emotions and feeling, training perception, organizing experience, advancing themes and theses, (political and personal, spiritual and practical), preserving our cultural heritage, but also reshaping it.”

— N.C.

Professor Carroll isn’t the only one who would be quick to underline the purpose of art in modern society; after all, we can see its importance throughout our history.

Like it or not, we’re a very emotional and sensitive species that places a tremendous amount of value on the intangible side of life—and we rely on our perception more than anything else as we can’t help but view and prioritize our reality through aesthetic levels of understanding.

We inherently tie ethics and morality into aesthetics; we value our sensory experience so much that we devote entire industries to innumerable forms of art. Our music, our fashion, our cars, our architecture — our reality is designed with an intrinsic sense of aestheticism that goes well beyond our sole appreciation for it.

“Art is a currency for cultural discourse, supplementing language with images and melodies for feelings and phenomena for which we do not yet have words.”

— N.C.

As Noel nods at, our understanding can only go so far, and those limits themselves are drastically restrained by our limited senses of perception. In other words, as Immanuel Kant argued, our minds contextualize and limit our reality, rendering us unable to ever transcend these boundaries of interpretation.

Art, however, helps us transcend those boundaries to some degree — perhaps this is part of the reason why we find ourselves so enamored with it.

Maybe not in a calculable sense, but art makes us more human. It inspires us, it teaches us, it affords to us a certain magic as it breathes life into our world while simultaneously taking our breath away. We need art, and while some of us may not be quick to acknowledge that sentiment, we all yearn for it in one form or another.

So how does the ongoing pandemic change things? Can it interrupt or harm our relationship with art in any way, even with the internet there to allow us instant access to any particular painting or concerto, live stream or recording?

“Perhaps the most obvious consequence of the pandemic for the arts is its impact on the art forms that are designed for audience experiences of the third kind, i.e., in the flesh, face-to-face arts including the museum/gallery arts, theater, and live music, including movies in theaters. All that aesthetic experience is now in lock-down for the duration.”

— N.C.

Observably, the initial impact will fall on the live performances, the in-person attendance, the intimate experiences. At risk, however, may be more than just a lull in ticket sales or admission fees.

What about our long-term interest in such art - in actually attending, hearing live, seeing in-person? Surely, this experience must count for more than can be gleamed through screens or speakers.

“It is, of course, impossible to predict long term effects of the pandemic on the arts. But there are some possible unfortunate consequences worth mentioning.

As people become more and more accustomed to accessing their art online, they may come to accept that as a “good enough” alternative. As museums, galleries, air fairs, biennials and the like put their treasures online and as the online representation improves, Walter Benjamin’s observations about the disappearance of the aura may be finally fully fulfilled.

Likewise, if live theater goes onscreen or online, actors will lose the immediate feedback from the audience which is so crucial to molding their performances.”

— N.C.

While there are logistical actualities to consider behind the loss of in-person art consumption, more important may be the long-term intangible sentiments that are at risk. The feeling of seeing a live performance, the awe of being in the presence of something so culturally valuable — the aura, as Walter Benjamin would call it.

Perhaps more significantly, the intricate networks underlying the art community as a whole can see a disruption to its collective understanding and established fundamental frameworks regarding judgement, truth, or morality — to it’s structural chemistry. Numerous concepts tied to social aesthetics can be jeopardized — methods of interpretation, community connections, cultural underpinnings or trends.

To reference Immanuel Kant a second time, he had written about the power of judgement in 1790 — helping to shape modern aesthetic theory. According to Kant’s definition, what makes certain aesthetic experiences of beauty special is that they have a potentially communicable universal validity — how will this be either hindered or perhaps even liberated under the next context we find ourselves in?

Social aesthetics, rooted in the philosophy of our culture and to ontological or metaphysical lines of thought, do play a role in our lives regardless of whether or not we choose to acknowledge this. And so to relegate all forms of artful perception through virtual or technological lenses may be to significantly alter these social aesthetics as our own structures begin to shift to a remote context.

Ultimately, there are as many things to be lost as there are unknowns and it may be too soon to believe that the magic of art can be lost the second it’s filtered through bandwidth. For the time being, it’s not necessarily a conversation that will be at the forefront of pressing discussion, but it will be a conversation to be had eventually.

Is it nonsensical to bypass social distancing and continue meandering around art galleries or sitting in sold out theatres? Obviously. But we should not let the new normal swallow our appreciation (and methods of appreciation or methods of communicating our appreciation) for art itself — as this burns eternal within our souls and our collective sense of humanity itself.

Read more of Professor Carroll's work here.

Photo courtesy Manos Gkikas