Maes’ proposal on existential aesthetics, which appeared in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 2022, has the potential to be extended in myriad manners. Here, the attempt is to confer a material or tangible extension to his proposal. Material existential aesthetics provides scope for dialogues between artists, philosophers, historians and architects. Through their endeavours, viewers can expect to access a tangible platform for addressing existential concerns. Simultaneously, materialisation of existential aesthetics provides an avenue for researchers to examine how material forms, that include cemeteries and memorials, may help salvage people’s existential fears. As the gap between the material and existential aesthetics narrows further, the world may witness new forms of memorials that have the potential to be appreciated for both their utilitarian and artistic values.
Keywords: Collective Memory, War Memorials, Arts, Conflict, Cross-National Differences
Hans Maes published a prominent paper, “Existential aesthetics” this year in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Existential aesthetics is not a thoroughly developed subdomain of aesthetics, as Maes also acknowledges. Therefore, his efforts to engage with existential aesthetics are remarkable. Existential aesthetics – in his description – is akin to philosophical work that is concerned with distinct ways through which aesthetic experience or practice and various types of art can be of existential import. Further, this domain of investigation can be distinguished from ‘aesthetics of art’ and fine arts. Maes elucidates two conditions, under which aesthetic pursuits can appropriate existential significance: (a) by enormously impacting the quality of people’s lives; (b) by addressing people’s existential concerns in an illuminating manner. According to his description, these two conditions frequently co-occur but may also be instantiated independently.
In an attempt to extend and develop the scope of Maes’ proposal, I argue that the materialisation of existential aesthetics – that entails tangibly embodying existential messages or potential existential influence – is essential. Akin to Maes’ emphasis that the domain may develop and evolve in unanticipated yet myriad ways, I vouch that material manifestation is the next anticipated extension for existential aesthetics and label this extension as material existential aesthetics. As existential aesthetics begins to take a material shape, consumers of artworks or onlookers may be tasked with two steps: generating messages that involve conversion of intangible aesthetics pursuits into a tangible or a material format and negotiating the existential import of the generated messages.
In the contemporary world, the visibly available sites of existential aesthetics are physical spaces that serve as repositories of existential meanings. Even though one may decipher that material existential aesthetics is of a recent origin, it is worth mentioning that the gap between materiality and existential aesthetics began to reduce after the First World War in line with the surge of societal movements to commemorate the war dead. The most remarkable post-war endeavours entailed the erection of war memorials in the towns, villages and the cities of participating nations. Existential grief was a predominant theme. As communities and groups grappled to find meaning in the extreme loss of human life, they also searched for avenues to intimate that grief in material forms. The British Arts and Crafts movement that strove for expressing progressive social ideals through built forms, as early as 1916, is a prime example (Malone, 2012).
Whilst Maes would prefer to deliberate about the ways in which art and aesthetic practices can be existentially significant, I prefer to discuss how materiality provides a tangible face to Maes’ proposal more in sync with the objective of the British Arts and Crafts movement.
Moving further beyond the WW1 era, the memorial wave has expanded to include other social and political ideals besides existential grief. However, memorial sites continue to play a key role in awarding a tangible face to existential aesthetics, as several of these are intertwined with warfare and conflicts – situations that are draped with existential concerns. A familiar example is the two-minute silence that was ritualistically observed in the UK between 1919 and 1938 on 11th November, beginning at 11 am. When probed for their thoughts, the British people mentioned that they thought about the men who sacrificed their lives as opposed to victories or the nation during the period of silence (Winter, 2008). Similar sentiments have been reported from the Jallianwala Bagh – an Indian site of cold-blooded murder that happened way back in 1919 in the state of Punjab. These sentiments were conveyed to the author by the local residents of Jallianwala Bagh during a visit to the site in September 2022.
To the extent that visitors and the passers-by make use of the built features and other visibly available motifs – which are a part of the memorials – to interpret or reinterpret the unseen war and conflicts, the memorials become an integral part of their existential reckoning. And, to the extent that memorials preserve and prolong the memories of those who were lost – memorials assist visitors and passers-by to cope with the existential reality of death (see, Kokosalakis, 2020). Examples include ‘Walls of Names’. Two closely associated instantiations include the Shoah Wall of Names Memorial or names of martyrs engraved on a bricked wall in the vicinity of the National War Memorial at New Delhi in India, as pictured by Khetrapal and Karmakar (2022).
Over the course of time and more precisely during the latter part of the 20th century, the aesthetic tastes associated with commemorative expression began to change (e.g, Winter, 2008). Statues and religious symbols (e.g., the Christian cross) were replaced by abstract features that appeared in the form of obelisks, memorial gates and arches. In this manner, the post-modern architectural forms of the latter part of the 20th century could be construed as attempts to democratise societies’ existential grief.
Finally, it is imperative to highlight that material existential aesthetics comes with a life-cycle. The dwindling significance of memorial sites indicates shifts in societal patterns. Time after time, people have congregated at memorial sites to seek existential meanings in past events that are marred by violence, despair and loss. With time, this interdependence between needs and memorial sites is expected to dissolve and is bound to be replaced by other needs, as other events unfold and precipitate a new set of existential concerns. The National War Memorial in Dublin, which was built to commemorate Irish men who sacrificed their lives for Britain, serves as a relevant example here. For decades, this memorial was neglected and pushed under the societal periphery. The loss of several Irish people was not an easy assimilation for Irish history. However, the memorial resurfaced after sectarian violence declined in the latter part of the 20th century. Perhaps, it was easy to cut the overgrown grass when the existential stakes were not debilitating. Moving beyond Europe, it has also been existentially undemanding for Indians to resurrect British cemeteries in a post-independent India, as the pain of colonialism and subjugation gradually diminished (see, Figure 1).
In the future, it may be expected that material existential aesthetics could foster more dialogues between artists, philosophers and architects. This alliance will be fruitful in making the memorial and the monumental as the new aesthetic category in the service of a social goal – providing an accessible platform for existential concerns. By listening to architects and artists alike, who would feel challenged to depict the loss associated with nuclear and mass destruction, we may get close to answering one of the questions that Maes posed about the relation between the existential significance of artworks and their artistic value. Further, it may be assumed that material existential aesthetics could be the driving force behind the construction of utilitarian monuments or socially useful memorials.
Khetrapal, N., & Karmakar, K. (2022). Material forms of memorialisation in pre-and post-independent India. National Identities, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/14608944.2022.2125942.
Kokosalakis, N. (2020). Reflections on death in philosophical/existential context. Society, 57(4), 402-409.
Malone, C. (2012). The Art of Remembrance: The Arts and Crafts Movement and the Commemoration of the British War Dead, 1916–1920. Contemporary British History, 26(1), 1-23.
Maes, H. (2022). Existential aesthetics. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 80(3), 265-275.
Winter, J. (2008). Sites of memory and the shadow of war. In A. Erll & A. Nünning (Eds.), Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (pp. 61–74). Berlin & New York: de Gruyter.
Figure 1: Graves of European soldiers in Karnal (India), that is gradually salvaged by the Indian authorities. Source: Author’s personal picture.
Dr. Neha Khetrapal is an Associate Professor at the Jindal Institute of Behavioural Sciences, OP Jindal Global University, India. She examined language development in children with autism. After earning her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney, she worked and lived in Singapore and Budapest. Through these years, she has gradually moved beyond her work on cognitive development and has become increasingly interested in other allied fields. She takes her inspiration from her passion for travelling. Presently, Neha is involved in investigating the role of collective memory, which is implicated in supporting transitions witnessed in post-conflict societies. Her recent research endeavor, within this domain, elucidates the aesthetics of commemorative practices, as gleaned from built styles of memorials. Here, she takes a cross-cultural approach to highlight how commemoration may take on different “visual” forms in the form of peace and war memorials. Besides research, she is actively engaged with teaching and community outreach efforts.