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Developments in the arts associated with modernism that had begun in the latter half of the nineteenth century with impressionism and moved through a series of stylistic innovations, came to a head in the second half of the twentieth century.  In the 1960s and ‘70s, artistic practices that trespassed conventional boundaries began to proliferate.  Not only were new materials and subject-matters incorporated into the arts, but innovative practices gave rise to new perceptual features, bursting the frame of the canvas and extruding from its flat surface in the visual arts, and intruding on the formerly safe space of the spectator in sculpture, theater, and dance by requiring the viewer’s active involvement in the appreciative process.  Audience participation began to be overt and necessary for the completion and appreciation of art, not only in the visual arts but in theater, fiction, sculpture, and other art forms.  The traditional separation between the sequestered experience of art and the world of ordinary experience was deliberately and persistently breached. 

Aesthetics was in a quandary and for a time became obsessed with the problem of defining art that had far exceeded its customary bounds.  Moreover, traditional ways of characterizing appreciative experience, in particular Kantian disinterestedness and a contemplative, distancing attitude seemed inappropriate and irrelevant to the world that art had become.  This was the context in which some theorists began to shift their attention away from a focus on the art object, which came to be called the ‘artwork,’ and to the appreciative experience of art.  In a series of papers beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing into the ‘70s, the American aesthetician Arnold Berleant gave serious attention to the need for a theoretical account that could accommodate the challenging developments in the contemporary arts and the new world of aesthetic appreciation.  This was needed not only for the appreciation of art but also of nature, for at about the same time a revived interest in the aesthetics of nature began to develop.  This soon led to the emergence of environmental aesthetics as a subject for aesthetic inquiry.  The central concept animating Berleant’s inquiries was the idea of “engagement,” later specified as “aesthetic engagement.”  The concept started to appear in the literature in the 1970s and ‘80s. 

Berleant developed aesthetic engagement as an alternative to the concept of aesthetic disinterestedness that was central to traditional aesthetic theory but inadequate for accommodating these innovative developments.  Unlike the dualism of Kantian aesthetics, which treats experience as subjective, aesthetic engagement emphasizes the contextual character of aesthetic appreciation, involving active participation in the appreciative process, sometimes by overt physical action but always by creative perceptual involvement.  In place of contemplative, psychological distance, engagement stressed the continuity and interpenetration of perceiver and object.  Aesthetics was returned to its etymological origins by emphasizing the primacy of sense perception.  Sensible experience and perception, itself, were reconfigured to recognize the mutual participation of all the sensory modalities, including kinesthetic and somatic sensibility.

The concept of aesthetic engagement thus epitomize a contextual aesthetic.  It rejects the traditional separations between the appreciator and the art object, as well as among  the artist, the performer, and the audience.  It recognizes that all these functions overlap and merge, the customary divisions and oppositions among them disappearing in the continuity of appreciative experience.  This made it no  longer necessary to maintain the usual separations:  artist, object, appreciator, and performer became functional aspects of the aesthetic process rather than separate objects or actions, and the appreciative experience was seen as perceptually direct and intimate.

Understood in this way, aesthetic engagement is an especially useful concept for understanding these recent developments in art and appreciation.  It lends itself particularly well to the increasing interest in environmental aesthetics, where engagement is a more appropriate description of environmental appreciation that had left the distant view from a scenic outlook and descended to tramping a woodland trail or paddling a stream.  Aesthetic engagement is useful, too, for the still more recent interest in everyday aesthetics that the Kantian model of disinterested contemplation cannot accommodate.  Both for its theoretical value in recognizing artistic innovations and for its ability to encompass developments in aesthetic appreciation that extend to ordinary life and activity, aesthetic engagement has proved particularly useful. 

As might be expected, aestheticians have not responded with universal approval.  While some have found aesthetic engagement a valuable concept for illuminating the aesthetic appreciation of art, nature, and ordinary experience, others have found it wanting, particularly in relation to the aesthetics of nature. Typical objections center on claims of its implicit subjectivism.  One presumed difficulty is that engaged appreciative experience is ineffable and does not allow for the kind of objective judgment needed for critical evaluation and, in practical cases, necessary for mustering public support for the preservation of threatened natural areas.  Other objections claim that the subject-object dichotomy is to some extent necessary for aesthetic appreciation, that distance and disinterestedness are likewise necessary, and that engagement requires an unacceptable degree of subjectivity in appreciating art and nature.  Such criticisms reject the theory because it is not another, because it is contextual and not dualistic, rather than taking it on its own terms.  Engagement meets the same embedded misunderstandings of human experience that John Dewey encountered in his work on aesthetics and in his philosophy in general:  the false reduction of experience to subjectivity. To reduce the richness of experience that is embedded in the natural organic and social world to subjective consciousness is simply a failure of understanding.

While aesthetic engagement is the keystone of an alternative to the aesthetics of disinterestedness, it does not in itself speak to the range of concerns that a comprehensive theory must be able to account for.  Aesthetic engagement is rather central to a broader theoretical account that takes the aesthetic field as the context of aesthetic experience and aesthetic sensibility as its perceptual dimension.  Aesthetic engagement is, in fact, indebted to American pragmatism.  It makes more explicit in aesthetic theory Dewey’s emphasis on the continuity of humans in nature and the integration of aesthetic experience into the full course of human life.  Engagement offers a sound basis on which to pursue the course of aesthetic experience as it is manifested in the wider domains of human social life.

                                                                                                ARNOLD BERLEANT


The Aesthetic Field:  A Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (Springfield, Ill.:  C. C. Thomas l970).  Second (electronic) edition, with a new Preface, 2000). (

Berleant, Arnold. Aesthetics and Environment:  Variations on a Theme.  Farnham, UK & Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2005.

Berleant, Arnold.  Aesthetics beyond the Arts.  Farnham, UK & Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2012.

Berleant, Arnold. The Aesthetics of Environment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Berleant, Arnold. Art and Engagement. Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1991.

Berleant, Arnold. Living in the Landscape: Toward an Aesthetics of Environment. Lawrence, KS:  University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Berleant, Arnold. Re-thinking Aesthetics, Rogue Essays on Aesthetics and the Arts (Farnham, UK & Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2004).

Berleant, Arnold.  Sensibility and Sense:  The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World.  Exeter, UK:  Imprint Academic, 2010.

Berleant, Arnold and Hepburn, Ronald.  “An Exchange on Disinterestedness.”  Contemporary Aesthetics  I (2003).

Bourassa, Steven C. The Aesthetics of Landscape. London and New York, 1991.

Brady, Emily. Aesthetics of the Natural Environment.  Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2003.s

Carlson, Allen. Aesthetics and the Environment. New York:  Routledge, 2000.

Carlson, Allen.  Nature and Landscape:  An Introduction to Environmental Aesthetics.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 2009.

Cheng, Xiangzhan. “On the Four Keystones of Ecological Aesthetic Appreciation,” Tianjin Social Sciences, Vol. 5, 2012 (in Chinese), Asian Ecocriticism Reader, ed. Simon C. Estok and Won-Chung Kim (in English), forthcoming.

John Dewey, Art as Experience (Minton, Balch and Co., 1934).


Hepburn, R. W. The Reach of the Aesthetic.  Ashgate, 2001.

Leddy, Thomas.  The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Peterborough, Ont:  Broadview, 2012.

Mandoki, Katya. Everyday Aesthetics: Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities. Ashgate, 2007.

Miller, Mara. The Garden as an Art. Albany, N.Y:  SUNY Press, 1993.

Moore, Ronald.  Natural Beauty:  A Theory of Aesthetics beyond the Arts. Peterborough, Ont:  Broadview, 2008.

Novitz, David.  The Boundaries of Art.  Temple, 1992.

Parsons, Glenn.  Aesthetics and Nature. London & New York:  Continuum, 2008.

Saito, Yuriko.  Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.