Automobile Aesthetics: Humean Perspectives and Problems

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Human relationships with cars are multifaceted and morally fraught. Cars serve multiple functions, and generate experiences characteristic of both fine art and everyday aesthetic experience – but they’re also the roots of dire eco-social ills. Recent theories tend to undermine the aesthetic aspects of human-automobile relationships in order to emphasize cars’ ethically problematic effects. But cars’ shameful consequences need not cancel out their beauty or their relevance to aesthetic theories. I suggest that David Hume’s aesthetic tenets demonstrate how and why cars are beautiful, foregrounding considerations that automobile aesthetics can’t afford to ignore but that risk being obscured by cars’ positively and negatively charged status. For instance, Hume underscores rational choice as an element of aesthetic experience: we can choose how and when to experience cars’ beauty or ugliness. According to Hume, utility tends to inspire sentiments of beauty; and what is ethically good is most useful to humanity at large. But tension arises from this principle, as Hume finds that even socially harmful phenomena are yet aesthetically interesting. This provocative tension is at the heart of the aesthetic appreciation of cars, and is part of what makes such appreciation worthwhile. Hume paves the way to a realistic aesthetics of automobiles that can account for their problematic effects while refusing to downplay their aesthetic potential. This paper was presented at the 2011 Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in Tampa, Florida.
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