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Aesthetics, Feminist Theory, and Feminist Aesthetics
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Sheila Lintott
Bucknell University

Feminist aesthetics is now a bona fide area of specialization within analytic philosophy of art and aesthetics with the stretch marks and wrinkles (including smile lines!) to show for it. Despite undeniable progress, we should wonder why it has taken philosophical aestheticians longer to take feminist theory seriously than it has taken other philosophical fields, especially those fields also concerned with value such as ethics and social and political theory. This lagging behind of aesthetics is of particular concern given that philosophy itself is relatively slow to embrace new topics, especially those that smack of real world relevance. Aesthetics, in other words, has been slow to seriously consider topics of concern to feminists even within the context of philosophy, a discipline that itself has been embarrassingly slow to accept and investigate feminist theory. Why? We can speculate that some of the lag is attributable to some, somewhat understandable, reluctance among feminist philosophers to devote their intellectual energies to stereotypically "female" subjects, such as beauty, art, and decoration. On the other side, a similar resistance may have made philosophers of art and aesthetics hesitant to embrace feminist theory and investigate feminist issues, given that the field of aesthetics is often closely associated the stereotypically "feminine." In other words, conscious and unconscious biases have likely added to the drag that has slowed the progress of feminist thought within aesthetics. In addition, aesthetics' apparent lethargy regarding feminism is due to other contributing factors as well, including hiring trends in philosophy and the rarity of graduate programs with strong offerings in both feminism and aesthetics.
Although progress has been slow and irregular, feminist aesthetics has developed from a niche and contained field with a small number of (mostly woman-identified) practitioners into what is today a broad, interdisciplinary, and intersectional enterprise. Feminist aesthetics enjoys a legitimacy today that was quite distant from it even a decade ago. For example, philosophical aestheticians are now usually expected to be conversant with feminist philosophy and feminist aesthetics in particular. This might not seem like much, but it's a great improvement over the previous state of affairs when a cheap way for a philosopher to gain credence was by expressing a dismissive attitude toward feminism. To put this another way, today, ignorance of feminist theory is more likely to be a point of embarrassment than one of pride for philosophers of art.
Moreover, methods, topics, and insights from feminist aesthetics have been taken up, admittedly not always with due recognition, in more traditional areas of philosophy of art and in other fields of philosophy. Here we might think of how feminist aesthetics theory has informed philosophy of emotion, or debates in ethics, or in other explicitly critical areas of philosophy, such as disability studies and philosophy of race. Feminist aesthetics, and feminist theory generally, lend themselves well to such open-platform research. Points of convergence and shared resources have enabled productive dialogue among scholars in a range of fields that otherwise would not likely be in direct conversation. Of course, feminist aesthetics has not only contributed to but has also benefitted from this intra and interdisciplinarity.
Given the evolution of feminist aesthetics and its place within philosophical aesthetics today, it is now especially important for feminist aesthetics to work to maintain its identity and pursue its trajectory. At this moment, two unappealing possible futures threaten feminist aesthetics. (1) Feminist aesthetics may be absorbed into other fields of philosophy or (2) feminist aesthetics may be recognized as a legitimate subfield but with emphasis on sub, confining the field to primarily supporting roles in debates recognized as central to feminist philosophy or philosophical aesthetics. The former route risks erasure, the latter, servitude. Neither option is appealing and, notably, neither is very feminist. Moving forward, to avoid losing its identity or being constrained to supporting roles feminist aesthetics may benefit from articulating its own unique identity and remembering its own history.
Considered in the realm of aesthetics, feminist aesthetics highlights the fact that feminists aim to understand the world, not for the sake of knowledge itself, but in order to create change. Just as feminists strive to give voice to oppressed persons and open spaces for the disruption of unjust power dynamics, so too are feminist aestheticians critically and practically motivated. This makes feminist aesthetics quite unlike more traditional fields of aesthetics that aim to understand but not necessarily alter the nature and structure of their objects of study, be they objects, events, values, practices, concepts, or applications. This practical bent does not make feminist aesthetics stand out within the realm of feminist theory. All feminists strive to give voice to oppressed persons and open spaces for dialogue and power disruption; all feminist are critically and practically motivated. Moreover, just as no agreed upon theory, practice, method or set of topics unites all feminist theory, the same is true of feminist aesthetics.
Feminist aestheticians are distinct among feminists, however, in their confidence in and focus on the power of art and aesthetics. This, of course, is a difference of degree, not kind. Feminism has shown us that 'the personal is political' and feminist aesthetics shows how often the personal concerns aesthetic matters concerning issues such as the status of craft vs. art, prescriptions for bodily comportment, and standards of beauty. Although the idea that the personal is political is accepted among feminists, work remains for feminist aestheticians to make salient the oft overlooked point that aesthetics too is both personal and political. Feminist theory, for example, has embraced the topic of the body as one that is in need of feminist analysis for its many political and aesthetic aspects. However, feminist theorists tend not to do the work of investigating the aesthetic concepts and aesthetic theories that bolster various norms and practices of aesthetic taste, work that is particularly well-suited for feminist aestheticians.
In sum, feminist aesthetics stands out as distinctly feminist in the realm of aesthetics, and as distinctively aesthetic in the realm of feminism. Seeing how feminist aesthetics is distinct within philosophical aesthetics and within feminism as well, in its interests, methods, and most strikingly, its aims, reminds us of what is at stake as feminist aesthetics takes on its future.

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