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Rust Belt Ruins

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American political satirist P. J. O’Rourke observes, “Detroit’s industrial ruins are picturesque, like crumbling Rome in an 18th century etching”. I argue that O’Rourke’s claim should be taken literally: the crumbling pockets of urban decay that famously dot major cities in America’s so-called “rust belt” belong to the aesthetic category ‘ruins’. While sites of recent urban devastation have a distinctive aesthetic character, they are nonetheless of an appreciative piece with those iconic structures from ancient times we relish in virtue of their incompleteness and their capacity to incite sustained reflection on things past.

The body of literature in this corner of aesthetics remains unfortunately small, but one shared thesis emerges clearly from extant work in this area, viz., that age-value is central to our aesthetic regard for ruins. Hence, according to the traditional model, sites of contemporary ruination in places like Detroit, Michigan do not count as genuine ruins. They are, at best, ruins in a metaphorical or analogical sense. By considering carefully Carolyn Korsmeyer’s recent account of ruins as objects of aesthetic regard (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Fall 2014), I argue that philosophers of art have overlooked an important appreciative category – that of “rust belt ruins” – and that this category can be subsumed under traditional theories of ruin appreciation.

This talk is part of the British Society of Aesthetics Cambridge Lecture Series series.

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