31st March 2021

Book in Focus: Aesthetics of Presence: Philosophical and Practical Reconsiderations

Aesthetics of Presence

By Willmar Sauter

Everybody can remember moments of extraordinary experiences in their own life. A person, a thing, an event—someone or something that made such an unforgettable impression upon us that it will always stick in our mind. Some of these experiences might only have lasted a moment, while others expanded over longer periods. Not all experiences are necessarily aesthetic ones. A wedding might be a deeply personal experience for those who married, sentimental for the relatives, and beautiful for onlookers. To what extent a funeral procession can be described as an aesthetic experience might, again, depend on the relation one had to the person in the coffin. In other words, aesthetic experiences seem to relate more to the person who responds to an appearance than the appearance or the object itself.

In the book Aesthetics of Presence, the key concept of aesthetics is traced back to the eighteenth century when philosophical discourses defined sensory experiences, such as the notion of beauty, as equally qualified sources of knowledge as the logic of the intellect. The important point in this regard is that the beholder decides whether an appearance is of immediate interest, deserves to be contemplated, and will be worthy of being remembered. We have the capacity to “think beautifully” as one philosopher stated. We should ask ourselves: under what circumstances do we experience such an important aesthetic moment that its imprint lasts forever? This book offers a bundle of concrete conditions, ordered in the form of a rhomb and all beginning with the letter P: perceiving, performing, playing, and placing. Each corner of the rhomb asks, in turn, a number of questions. Now, I invite the readers to imagine one of their great aesthetic moments—an experience made with their own senses—and try to answer the following queries:

  • In what mood were you when you had this unusual experience? Were you in some way prepared for it, or did it come as a total surprise? Was the encounter something entirely new or did it tie in with earlier experiences? Did you find it beautiful or just pleasant, or did it evoke mixed feelings?
  • What exactly was it that provoked this experience? Was it an object, a thing, an event or maybe a landscape or cityscape? If you found ‘it’ beautiful or ugly, how would you describe its appearance in aesthetic terms?
  • In which way was this experience different from everyday experiences? Could you sense an element of game or play in this situation, something that distinguished the encounter in question from the quotidian? What gave it an aesthetic dimension?
  • Finally: where did it all happen? Was the place itself part of the experience? Even if the experience you think of could have happened anywhere, it did happen somewhere—what did the specific place add to the sensory perception of the thing, the person, or the event?

Aesthetics of Presence answers these questions in the form of some personal situations that I present: an outdoor radio theatre performance of Antigone, Bloomsday in Dublin as a celebration of the imaginary, hiking in Lapland beyond roads and the internet, and an art installation with a controversial mode of creating the visual materials. In the Prologue, I describe one of my absolute most stunning theatre experiences and my confrontation with Ötzi’s coat from the Stone Age, which I return to a hundred pages later and analyse in the Epilogue. However, one question remained: how can all this be expressed in an appealing cover image? Since the publishers were generously inviting suggestions for the cover, I experimented with various ideas.

At the top of this page one can easily see what I decided upon: a contemplating woman watching a sky that appears both beautiful and threatening. However, there were other options to express this mixture of attraction and repulsion that very often emanates from aesthetic experiences. Instead of looking for pictures on the internet, my wife Sylvia and I were leafing through our own photographs from various travel experiences. Here are two alternatives:

                                   

A volcanic crater in the Andes, Chile (2019)

 

The stage of Carmen in Bregenz, Austria (2018)

In case we had chosen the edge of the volcano in Chile, the colour of the cover would have been reddish just like the petrified lava stones. The view was marvellous, but the crater was deep not an immediate danger for the two small figures hiking along, but nevertheless an uncanny risk. The stage on which the opera Carmen was about to begin, hovered over the waters of Lake Constance. The spectacular hands held up cards as the podium where the singer would perform. There is a further detail that cannot be seen on the picture: a duck with a handful of her ducklings appeared out of the water and entered the podium and was about to steal the show. The colour of the book with this spectacular image would have been a dark, intense blue.

Why did I suggest the contemplative grey cover rather than the risky red or the spectacular blue one? I wish I could offer a rational argument with a convincing conclusion. However, the aesthetics of great moments in our lives remains in the sphere of emotions, affects, and sensitivity. We can contemplate these impressions, understand the circumstances, and analyse the images, but aesthetic experiences are the results of complex encounters or stunning confrontations, or silently enter our mind, creating strong remembrances. Aesthetics of Presence offers both philosophical discourses on the beholder’s aesthetic involvement and practical tools for the analysis of the experience of presence. The text meanders through eighteenth-century thoughts regarding the beautiful, ugliness, and mixed feelings, and invites the reader to some events that illustrate how moments and memories are internalized and made accessible to oneself and to others.


Willmar Sauter is Emeritus Professor of Theatre Studies at Stockholm University. He has published numerous books and articles on national and international theatre histories, from Bronze Age rock carvings to analyses of digitally animated performances. His research interest has grown broader over time to include all kinds of performative historical and contemporary events. Over many years, he has studied audiences and their behaviour in theatres, opera houses, museum halls and other public venues. He is well-known for his contributions to performance theory, including his books on The Theatrical Event (2000) and Eventness (2008). His most recent historical book is The Theatre of Drottningholm – Then and Now (with David Wiles, 2014). He has also served as President of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR), and as Dean of the Humanities and Head of the Research School of Aesthetics of Stockholm University.


Aesthetics of Presence: Philosophical and Practical Reconsiderations is available now in Hardback. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.