The Circus as Aesthetic Experience

Normative Judgment and Aesthetics

Suppose you are at a coffee shop and see someone in line being a jerk to the barista for no good reason. You might think to yourself: “that person shouldn’t be such a jerk.” Being social animals who live in communities, we all understand that there are certain standards of behavior, like being courteous and kind to one another, and not being a jerk. When someone violates these standards or norms, we react by having normative judgments: we think that certain things (or people) ought to be different than they are.    

Thinking that things should or shouldn’t be a certain way is a normative judgment.  

Suppose at the same coffee shop you see someone wearing fuchsia and purple polka-dotted overalls and a red and yellow plaid flannel shirt. You might think to yourself: “that person shouldn’t be wearing that” or “no one should leave the house looking like that!” Or, hey, maybe you think: “everyone should wear awesome mismatched patterns like that guy.”

All of these are normative judgments, too. They are all thoughts about how things should or shouldn’t be. But they are also aesthetic judgments – thoughts about how something should or shouldn’t be in order to be more beautiful, artful, fashionable, or tasteful.

So in addition to having normative judgments about how things can be morally better, we can also have normative judgments about how things can be aesthetically better.

Aesthetics is the philosophical study of art and beauty.

Ancient philosophers categorized beauty among the highest virtues, alongside goodness, truth, and justice. It was even argued that one cannot come to know moral virtues such as the good, without also coming to know the beautiful, and the other way around. Ethics and aesthetics were understood as being intricately intertwined.

These days, people tend to think ethics and aesthetics are quite separate, possibly unrelated fields of study. Some of this has to do with a decline in taking the study of beauty seriously.  And some of this decline is due to thinking that beauty is superficial or pointless compared with morality.

Suppose you are trapped on a island with limited resources. Would you rather that you are stuck on the island with someone who is aesthetically beautiful or someone who is morally good? Most people would choose the latter. But why? Because when your life or livelihood are on the line, beauty seems irrelevant. So what if your co-castaway has pretty hair or a symmetrical face! Will he pitch in and help you catch fish and build a fire, or what? 

Here is another question: would you rather that your life is filled with beautiful things or morally good actions? But what is the point of surrounding yourself with beautiful objects if your life is morally corrupt? Literature has taught us well in this case: Dorian Gray chose eternal youth and material beauty over the morally good, to disastrous consequences.

So it not only seems that the beautiful and the good come apart, it also seems that if given the choice between the morally good or the aesthetically beautiful, the wise option is the morally good.

Subjective and Objective Truth

In addition, however, is the thought that aesthetics is too subjective to count as a legitimate field of study. Philosophers who work on aesthetics discuss and debate theories about what makes something beautiful, or what makes something qualify as art. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?

You might think: different things will be beautiful to different people, and it’s really just a matter of taste and perspective.  Whether something is beautiful or not is just like whether something is tasty or delicious: it is just a matter of each person’s own opinion, and there’s no point in arguing about it.

To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter.  –David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste

Underlying this thought is the philosophical distinction between subjective and objective truths. To better understand this distinction, consider the following sentences:

  1. 2 + 2 = 4
  2. There are five trees in the yard.
  3. The Mona Lisa is a work of art.
  4. The Mona Lisa is beautiful.
  5. Pizza is delicious.

Sentences 1 and 2 are verifiable. We can prove that 1 is true by doing some math. We can see whether 2 is true by going outside and taking a look. There is a fact of the matter about whether sentences 1 and 2 are true, and to figure it out, we simply go out in the world and check.  It doesn’t matter if someone believes that 2+2=5, or thinks that there are four trees in the yard instead of five. The world determines whether these sentences are true, and our beliefs about them are irrelevant to whether they are true or not.

This is what is meant by objective truth: something is objectively true if there is a fact of the matter in the world that makes the sentence true, independent of the way anyone thinks about it.

Contrast this with sentence 5. Intuitively, sentence 5 is entirely dependent on each person’s own opinion. Some people think pizza is delicious, others think it isn’t. How could we possibly we determine who is right or wrong? If you take away all the people and all of their opinions of pizza, is there really a fact of the matter out there in the world about whether pizza is delicious? If I think pizza is delicious and you don’t, would there be any point in debating each other? Is there any argument I could give you, a formal proof I could calculate, or some objective thing I could point to out in the world that might convince you that – surprise! – contrary to your belief, you actually find pizza delicious? Probably not.

This is what is meant by subjective truth: something is subjectively true if there is not a fact of the matter in the world that makes the sentence true, independent of each person’s individual opinion about it.

So: on one end we have objectives truths such as 1 and 2, and on the other end we have a subjective truth such as 5. What about sentences 3 and 4? This is where things get tricky.

Some people – like Hume – think that whether something is beautiful or not is a subjective truth like whether pizza is delicious. Others might disagree.

What do you think? Is 4 objective or subjective? What about 3?

It might help to ask yourself: what is the connection between art and beauty? Does all art have to be beautiful? Are all beautiful things works of art?

If you think that art and beauty are aligned, and if you think that beauty is subjective, then you will think that what qualifies as art is subjective as well. But if you are inclined to think that art and beauty come apart, then even if you think that beauty is subjective, you might think that art is not. That is, you may think that whether something is a work of art is an objective fact – something that can be verified and does not rely on mere opinion.

We’ll leave these questions aside for now. But let us keep in mind some of the concepts discussed above, since understanding them can help us better think about the circus as a form of art.

Circus as Art

In our very first discussion, we talked about the difficulties of trying to define “circus” or track the origins of when, exactly, the circus was born. Part of this has to do with what, exactly, we take the circus to be. If lone performers showing off in front of small crowds qualifies as a circus, then circuses have been around since ancient Greek and Roman times, and possibly even earlier. Moreover, this fairly liberal understanding of ‘circus’ might mean that very many forms of entertainment qualify as a circus: anything from several carnivalesque performers in a night club, to elaborate, more recognizable 3-ring extravaganzas, to lone buskers on a street corner, to casual flow artists playing in a park on the weekend.

While defining “circus” in this way may capture something of the playful and creative atmosphere common to many circus-like performances, this definition will probably not incline many of us to think of the circus as art. Entertainment, maybe; art, no.

Alternatively, you might think there needs to be tents, multiple acts, rings, and a menagerie of animals to qualify as a circus, in which case circuses began in the eighteenth century, with Philip Astley. In this case, the circus has not only not been around all that long, but you might also think that it is nearing an end. With the closure of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey on May 21, 2017, and a sharp decline in the public’s appetite for garish spectacles and animal-centered acts, the traditional circus certainly seems to be a passing fad. Even the quintessential features of traditional circus – red-and-white-striped dusty tents, multiple chaotic rings, dopey clowns, a gregarious ringmaster, odd sideshows, sawdust, cotton candy, cheap tickets, and rickety seats – seem outdated and cartoon-ish. Gone are the circuses, you might think, making way for the more sophisticated and modern cirque, such as Cirque du Soleil – which is vastly different form circus.

While defining “circus” in this way may capture some of the more traditional characteristics of circus performances, it also will not incline many of us to think of the circus as art. Pageantry, maybe; art, no.

However, a third option is to reject the idea that the circus is defined by a certain number of performers, doing a certain variety of activities, in a certain location, in front of a certain audience, presented in a particular way. Instead, one might define “circus” as a performance that evokes a certain kind of experience. Perhaps a circus is any kind of performance that attempts the seemingly impossible, and leaves the audience with a certain feeling – maybe they are left feeling awestruck and amazed. Maybe they are left feeling like they have flown.

The company aimed for something simpler than their technically advanced Russian and Mexican counterparts were producing, if also more difficult. They aspired to create works of trapeze that were ‘more like a film or a work of art.’ They aimed to invoke a feeling. ‘We would like you to see the show and, afterward, to feel as though you have flown,’ Laurence told me.  — Duncan Wall, The Ordinary Acrobat

So suppose we understand the circus as follows: a circus is any kind of performance that is produced with the intention of promoting a certain kind of aesthetic experience.

Just what, exactly, this aesthetic experience is will have to be described in more detail. Maybe it’s the feeling of being awestruck and amazed. Maybe it’s the feeling of making the impossible possible. Maybe it’s the feeling of magic.

However we want to flesh out these details, thinking of the circus in this way will make it easier to think of circus as art.  If circus is defined as a performance intended to produce a certain aesthetic experience, then the concept of a circus already has embedded within it the notion of being a form of art. The merits of a particular circus, then, could be measured by the extent to which it succeeded in generating the aesthetic feeling or experience that it intended to produce.

Notice, too, that if we think of circuses in this way, questions about the value or quality of a particular circus performance as a work of art becomes more objective and tractable. Even though the performance may depend on the reaction of each individual in the audience to feel a particular way, there is an objective fact of the matter about whether the experience that the performance intended to produce, was in fact produced.

Some Questions

What do you think? What is the advantage of thinking of the circus as an aesthetic experience, as opposed to thinking of it as, say, a conglomeration of certain acts and features? Does thinking of the circus as an aesthetic experience leave something out that you think is crucial to our usual understanding of what a circus is? Do you think that whether a particular performance qualifies as a circus or not is an objective matter of fact? Do you think that circus is art? Why or why not?


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Got thoughts?

2 thoughts on “The Circus as Aesthetic Experience

  1. Love this one. As a teacher of what is essentially glamed up folk dance. Bellydance has often found a home in circus but the respect and traditions due alter from each persons individual perspective. This often boils down to art vs social dance. The questions you are asking for circus are ones I often wrestle with, objective vs subjective truths and how that defines what I study and teach as an art or simply a means of ancient expression to be done without intellectual breakdowns.

    1. Thanks for the input and insight, Ruric. You’re right that a lot of the above discussion is applicable to other performing arts, including belly dancing. It is no wonder that it is often included in the circus arts. I’m glad you are finding so many connections!