Social Aesthetics and Mental Health

Defining Social Aesthetics

Social aesthetics (Berleant 2005) is an aesthetics of the social situation as it is lived and experienced. Thus as a form of aesthetics that is always contextual, it emerged from the aesthetics of everyday life (Light & Smith 2005), which in turn sees itself as environmental aesthetics (Berleant 1992) or ecological aesthetics (Böhme 2001) and in many areas overlaps with modern phenomenological aesthetics (Sepp & Embree 2010). Interest here is no longer centred on the use and utility of what is given to us in everyday life but rather on the many aspects of the beauty that surrounds us and that is in front of us with all its positive and negative effects on us as human beings ranging from the admirable and the sublime to the despicable and the detestable. Man is perceived as a social being that constitutes and manifests itself in in-being with the Other. As humans we are always and everywhere social beings, so the question no longer arises as to whether we live socially but rather how we live socially. (Musalek & Poltrum 2011). This question of the How – how we experience and structure our life together – determines the core field of work and research in social aesthetics. Within the meaning of aisthesis, social aesthetics research attempts to illuminate and to understand the way in which we live together, the forms and possibilities for organising human cohabitation and the way they impact on our sensorium and on our abilities to aesthetically experience and perceive the world around us. As such it seeks to facilitate the basis for the beneficial development of the individual in our community and the further development of human cohabitation in general.

Defining Mental Health

The WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (WHO 1947). As illness today is generally understood as a dysfunction or functional impairment, mental well-being cannot be reduced solely to the functioning in mental partial areas, which raises the question as to when mental health in the sense of mental well-being is achieved. The WHO (2013) defines mental health as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. In this context Whitbeck (1981) defines health as the ability or capacity to act or participate autonomously in a wide range of activities. This ability to act autonomously is synonymous with what Gernot Böhme (2012) understands by a self-determined life: the individual has the ability to act, respond and to construct their own condition in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Nordenfeldt (1992) goes beyond Whitbeck’s idea of autonomy when he says that it is not about the ability or capability to act but also the ability to set vital goals. For him, these vital goals are all states which are necessary for an individual to achieve a basic level of happiness. It thus becomes clear that we can talk of mental health when a state has been achieved in which the individual is able to live a largely self-determined and autonomous life that is experienced as joyful. (Musalek 2013).

Defining the Institute for Social Aesthetics and Mental Health

Work at the Institute for Social Aesthetics and Mental Health therefore focuses upon all those fields of research and teaching that are located at the interface of social aesthetics and mental health research or areas where these overlap. As an interdisciplinary research institute and university teaching institution, the Institute for Social Aesthetics focuses on all those aesthetic aspects, foundations and dimensions of the health sciences – in particular medicine, psychology and psychotherapy – that constitute an indispensable knowledge base for developing a human-based medicine. The Hows of dealing with life and with our fellow human beings is the main focus of scientific endeavour and teaching activities at the institute. This knowledge about the How of our social coexistence in general and in preventative and curative medicine in particular provides the indispensable social aesthetics foundation for human-based and human-focused therapeutic interventions in which the individual once more becomes the measure of all things and activities.
European intellectual history teaches us that beauty is not just an adornment to life but is also a major source of strength for our life (Musalek & Poltrum 2011). Moreover, the positive aesthetic experience also has healing power. That beauty is a highly effective antidote to life’s suffering, i.e. acts as an anti-depressant, has been documented in the tradition of philosophical aesthetics from Plato to Adorno. Social aesthetics that wishes also to be understood as the science of beauty in interpersonal relationships provides us with knowledge that in medical-therapeutic practice becomes a key pillar of human-centred approaches to prevention and treatment. Subject matter that the institute studies, empirically evaluates, teaches and implements in clinical practice includes, for example cultivating patient contacts and interactions, the deconstruction of the boundaries of interaction, the creation of atmospheres that are free of fear and conducive to health, bringing humanity into empty patient rituals, raising awareness for the perception and experience of beauty and the opening up of aesthetic future perspectives for the healthy as a means of disease prevention and for the sick as a means of supporting treatment.
The chief areas of interest in social aesthetic mental health research in the field of disease prevention and (early) diagnosis are the style of initial contact with the patient, the paraverbality of exploration, the elegance of diagnostics, narratives vs. truth, meanings/myths/stigmata, aspects of the temporality (chronos/kairos) of the disorders, possibilities/impossibilities of the individual (utopos) as well as masks and portraits, etc. and, in the area of treatment, the attractiveness of treatment forms, (social-)aesthetic therapy goals, the attractiveness and beauty of life, attentiveness/mindfulness, autonomy/self-care/self-determination, cosmopoiesis – cosmopoetics, etc.