Aesthetics of atmospheres sets new research trends

BY DUAN DANJIE | 09-30-2022
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Photo taken on Sept. 30 shows Jianguomennei Street in Dongcheng District, Beijing, is decorated with a festive atmosphere to embrace the National Day, which falls on Oct. 1. Photo: Zhu Gaolei/CSST

HANGZHOU—As the economy and technology continue to develop, aesthetics is no longer limited to literature, painting, sculpture, music, and other works of art. An aesthetic “atmosphere” can be seen in urban architecture, the green environment, drama, film and television, clothing and beauty, and even food and catering. On Sept. 16–17, the International Conference on the Aesthetics of Atmospheres from a Cross-Cultural Perspective was convened in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Participants gathered online and in person to discuss the philosophical connotations, theoretical origins, and academic value of the aesthetics of atmospheres.

Updating aesthetic notions, practices

Since the 1990s, “atmosphere” has emerged as an aesthetic concept beyond the field of physical meteorology. Based on the concept of atmosphere in the new phenomenology, German philosopher and aesthetician Gernot Böhme put forward the aesthetics of atmospheres, which has been widely used in aesthetic research of architecture, landscape design, drama, music, fine art, film, and daily life.

The atmosphere is a ubiquitous phenomenon with certain emotional qualities. Rodrigo Duarte, president of the International Association for Aesthetics (IAA), said that we all feel an atmosphere in each of our life experiences. From a philosophical perspective, we can better feel and experience the aesthetic meaning brought by an atmosphere. Experiencing an atmosphere involves aesthetic practices based on blending physical perceptions, emotions, and the mind. Rooted in different temporal-spatial, geographical, environmental, historical, ethical, and religious frameworks, an atmosphere exudes certain cultural origins and identities, respectively, Duarte said.

Atmospheres form the basis of life experiences, and we always live, perceive, think, and act within a specific atmosphere. Gao Jianping, president of the Chinese Aesthetics Society, noted that there are many words related to atmosphere in traditional Chinese culture, such as qi (vital force), yun (rhyme/charm), qixi (breath/smell), and qichang (aura). In the history of aesthetics, these concepts have been widely discussed in different fields such as Chinese literature, painting, calligraphy, and music, thus linking modern aesthetics with traditional Chinese aesthetic thoughts.

Wei Lu, director of the College of Media and International Culture (CMIC) at Zhejiang University, said that in contemporary cultural construction and development of aesthetics, the aesthetics of atmospheres fuses with phenomenology, environmental aesthetics, and media aesthetics, and has multiple cultural orientations. Philosophy, aesthetics, the environment, gardening, architecture, and many other fields break down disciplinary barriers, innovate research ideas, and observe people’s perceptual experiences, setting the academic trend in the development of contemporary aesthetics.

From nature to life

The aesthetics of atmospheres, founded by Böhme, represents a development of environmental aesthetics or ecological aesthetics, but it has gradually extended from natural life to humanistic, social, and cultural life. Li Yongyin, a professor from the School of Humanities at Zhejiang University, believes that in the construction of the order of existence, natural order is the basis for imagining human existence’s free order. The aesthetics of atmospheres constructs an order of human existence, creating a new tendency to freely practice a brand-new, life-based “relationship between man and nature.” 

Zhuofei Wang, a professor of philosophy from the University of Hildesheim in Germany and the IAA’s assistant secretary general, pointed out the feasibility to advance research on the aesthetics of atmospheres along a cross-cultural track. At present, the field focuses on such topics as nature, the environment, art, and life. As a highly interdisciplinary theory, the aesthetics of atmospheres can further extend its reach to other fields of human life, and strengthen cooperation with other disciplines.

The conference was co-organized by the CMIC and the School of Philosophy at Zhejiang University, the School of Literature at Guangxi Minzu University, and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hildesheim.