Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Plato's Apology from an Aesthetic Point of View

Most people who read the Apology think about the ethical issues involved.  However, there are some points relevant for aesthetics that are worth considering.  I will only consider one here.  It comes at the beginning of the dialogue.  Socrates begins by making a big distinction between the way that he will speak in court and the way an orator would.  Presumably, an orator would be an artist of speech.  Socrates insists that he will only speak the truth.  His sayings will not be "expressed in elegant language like theirs [the orators], arranged in fine words and phrases," which style he also refers to as "polished" and "artificial"  (I will be using the Reeve translation as found in Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, Hackett, 2015).  By contrast, he will be speaking "extemporaneously in whatever words come to mind" with a view to what is "just" or true.  Again, he wants his judges not to pay attention to his "manner of speaking" but to what is true.  So he is not claiming just that he has a different style than the orators, but that his style is irrelevant:  only the truth is relevant.  This of course assumes that truth value of a statement is radically other than its style, and that the second feature may be ignored in favor of the first.  It is implied that there is something wrong about elegant language, fine words, the polished and the artificial.  Aesthetically pleasurable language is likely to disguise the truth.  This is not to say that he is opposed to the orator's art:  it is just that that art lies in "telling the truth." 

I am not convinced that Socrates is without style, that his "spontaneous" style is not a style, or that there is such as thing as simply telling the truth in a way that radically separates manner from content.  What we love about Socrates is in part his ironic style.  Can we separate his style from the truth value of what he says?  


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Quality and Aura: Another Deweyan argument for the primacy of aesthetics in philosophy

I am interested here in the relation between what I have called "aura" and what Dewey calls "quality." (These thoughts are inspired by Robert E. Innis's brilliant "The 'quality' of philosophy on the aesthetic matrix of Dewey's Pragmatism," in The Continuing Relevance of John Dewey:  Reflections on Aesthetics, Morality, Science and Society ed. Larry A. Hickman et. al. Rudolpi 2011.) Dewey, following Peirce, speaks of Firstness as "sheer totality and pervading unity of of quality in everything experienced, whether it be odor, the drama of King Lear, or philosophic or scientific systems" experienced.  I am not entirely comfortable with the notion of a unique pervading quality that unifies each thing experienced since this has the slight odor of naive realism. However, consider another take on this, somewhat at angles with Dewey's and Peirce's original idea, but largely in accord with it. That is, (and here I am speaking in my own voice) anything can be perceived as having a pervading quality.  Let's say that this is the same as what I have described in my book as "aura."  Let's say that when something is perceived as having a pervading quality this is a quality that is emotionally charged, filled with a sense of potentiality, and seems to make the object or situation involved go beyond itself, makes the thing seem to be alive, and gives it aesthetic charge (which we humans generally experience as a kind of pleasure).  The point of divergence from Dewey and Peirce is that they would insist (I think) that King Lear has one proper pervading unity, whereas my idea is more relativist, i.e. that there are different possible readings of King Lear that can give rise to a pervasive quality, each one being different.  So whereas their account is of "the given permeating total quality of anything experienced" I speak of the given permeating total quality that anything experienced can have if it is experienced "as" which is to say that the experience of that thing has been heightened or intensified in the way described.  Articulation of such experience is usually in terms of some metaphor, i.e. some one word that takes on a special non-literal meaning insofar as it is what the object or situation experienced is experienced as.  King Lear has its Firstness, but on my account, this would be different for different powerful or good readings/interpretations of that work.  What Dewey refers to as a "total undivided quality" is, on my account, the quality of something experienced as with aura.  I would agree with Innis as to the "primacy of the aesthetic in world-building" but probably in a different sense than his, i.e. that this primacy is a matter of the inception moment of the creative process in science, art, art appreciation/interpretation, religion, philosophy, business, invention, etc. in which the thing or situation seems filled with meaning and possibility, and in which this "feel" guides future developments in the creative process, i.e. in world-making.  (I would allow the feel itself to evolve, perhaps unlike Dewey or Innis).  I agree with Innis that this is not a matter of the quale of primitives such as "red" but rather a "projection of a world." Despite the above-mentioned divergences, my account is completely in accord with Dewey's statement that "considered in itself, quality is that which totally and intimately pervades a phenomenon or experience, rendering it just the one experience which it is" and that this quality is "ineffable."  The only problem I have with Dewey here is that he makes a distinction between the quality as "first, present, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious, and evanescent" and the quality of descriptions of this very quality or the correlated situation that may follow.  The subtle difference I hold to is that the pervasive quality is an aspect the creative process that is not just at the first point but can come and go, and when it is there it certainly has these characteristics, but that this can happen during the process of description too. Thus, on my view there is a continuity between originary and descriptive experience so that descriptive experience is not one removed from the originary but is just one more iteration or mode, i.e. of thinking. That is, the creative process is not just a matter of first the feeling and then the articulation of the feeling. Thus I would strongly disagree with Innis when he says (perhaps agreeing with Langer) that "art, as thematic, is derivative from this prior matrix of qualitative world-building."  (45)  This seems a major error. However,  I certainly agree with Peirce's idea that, as Innis puts it, images, diagrams and metaphors "are all rooted in a shared quality, or firstness..."  A manifestation in short of the object experienced as object with aura is that it is paired with metaphors, images, etc., since it is a way of "seeing as."  This is a matter of seeing what I would call "essences" although such essences are historicised, unlike the Platonic or Aristotelian ones:  thus when Dewey speaks of the sentence "The red Indian is stoical" as a sentence which does not simply attribute a property to the Indian or place him in a class but rather that the Indian is "permeated throughout by a certain quality...he lived, acted, endured, stoically" we are, in my language, speaking of the Indian as being seen as essentially stoical i.e. under the metaphor of the "stoic."  Again, this should be historicized and not essentialized in the traditional Platonic/Aristotelian sense, which would leave us, for example, with a racist (in this case) static understanding of the Indian.  Rather "the red Indian is stoical" would be better seen in this context as a powerful metaphor, if paired with a wide variety of other materials and experiences, that might work well in some context or situation not described here or by Dewey (e.g. as the pervading idea or theme of a novel by James Fenimore Cooper).  

It should also be observed that there is an important relation between the pervasive quality and the notion of an organic whole: as something, for example a painting is seen, effectively, under a metaphor and "as" in this way, it is seen in such a way that each part seems internally related to every other part.  Again, this can happen effectively under different interpretations.  We can then see the pervasive quality as "articulated in the members of the configuration" as Innis puts it.  Note also that this is, as Innis observes, the background to all propositional symbolization.  Noteworthy in this regard is Innis's claim that "Peircean semiotics, for its part, is based on an explosion of the claim of uniqueness and exclusive of propositional - linguocentric symbolization" (48)  If this is true of Peirce then I have misjudged and under-rated Peirce who I have generally seen as a minor character next to Dewey, someone roughly equivalent of the contemporary analytic philosopher of a realist science-centered stamp.   

If, in the end, these findings go far beyond art to discussions for example of thinking in general and if it is right that, as Dewey puts it "existentially, thinking is association as far as the latter is controlled"  association meaning"connection of objects or their elements in a total situation having a qualitative unity" and if qualitative unity is a matter of aesthetics, then it is aesthetics that forms the basis of philosophy, not epistemology or logic in the traditional formalist non-Deweyan sense.  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

In Praise of Shusterman, mostly

What is the purpose of life (i.e. our lives, as humans)?  My current answer is enhancement or enrichment of experience.  I like to go back to ancient Greek approaches to philosophy that emphasize philosophy as a way of live.  The business of philosophy, in this sense of the word (not in our current professionalized sense), is to enhance experience.  Aesthetics takes on a central role here.  By attending to aesthetics we learn how to enhance experience.  Ethics clears the ground for this practice in that it helps us get along with other people, thus maximizing our ability to enhance experience. Ethics then should be subordinate to aesthetics (an unheard of view).  Mathias Girel has recently taught me that Richard Shusterman's philosophy is pretty much in accord with this.  See his "Perfectionism in Practice:  Shusterman's place in Recent Pragmatism" Contemporary Pragmatism 12 (2015) 156-179.   I have followed the development of Shusterman's pragmatist aesthetics over the years and, although I have sometimes been critical, our views are really quite close. This shouldn't be surprising:  we both started in the ordinary language wing of analytic aesthetics influenced by Nelson Goodman and Wittgenstein, both were moved strongly by Rorty's recovery of pragmatism, Margolis's pragmatist aesthetics, and a rediscovery of Dewey's Art as Experience (and in this, of course, I was influenced by Shusterman's own book Pragmatist Aesthetics), and we both then became increasingly fascinated by outlier regions of aesthetics, Shusterman focusing on popular art forms such as Rap, I moving into the aesthetics of everyday life by way of gardens as a marginal art form that could move into the fine art realm once again (I have recently argued for a similar move for fine cuisine).  I was one of the first to think seriously about Shusterman's somaesthetics.   In general I see Shusterman as moving on a parallel path to mine, although of course he is more well-known.  

Before going on to discuss Girel's take on Shusterman I should mention two terms he uses that I find irritating and wish would go away.  The first is "meliorism."  Although I see myself as a pragmatist I do not like this word. defines it as "the doctrine that the world tends to become better or may be made better by human effort." The idea that the world tends to become better is just silly and is, at least, hard to reconcile with history. The idea that it can be made better by human effort is vague at best:  for example, the world (i.e. the planet surface on which we live) could be made better by humans decreasing CO2 output, and human life would be better if we were able to cure major diseases or eliminate slavery...there is nothing controversial about either of these claims. But what more can we get from the label of "meliorism" than that one hopes things will get better and tries to make them so, for example, for one's community.  Is this anything more than an optimistic attitude towards life?  Or perhaps meliorism is just the theory that philosophy should be concerned with the art of life or how to improve our lives, which I have already affirmed.  The other, related, word I don't like is "perfectionism."  I suppose the spirit it represents is in the right place, but since human perfection is impossible, and since we can only ever speak of relative perfection, and since terms like "making better" and "improve" just work better, I think pragmatists should just drop this overly metaphysical and unrealistic-sounding term.

That said, Girel stresses "enhanced experience" in his analysis of Shusterman, and this is where Shusterman and I deeply agree. Girel also observes that Shusterman holds to the "somatic and non propositional dimension of experience," and I agree that this was neglected by overly-language-centered accounts of experience. I have stressed the non-linguistic aspect of experience in my notion of "aura" as developed in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, and I have come to increasingly share with Shusterman an emphasis on the "notion of philosophy as a way of life."  Thus, in the debate between Shusterman and Rorty on this point, I stand with Shusterman.  Girel gives a quote from James that Shusterman has advocated and which I like as well:  "the body is the storm centre, the origin of co-ordinates, the constant place of stress in all that experience-train.  Everything circles round it and is felt from its point of view."  Girel informs us that Robert Brandom's alternative version of pragmatism sees the idea of experience as useless or harmful since it is offered as something that gives "epistemic authority" without entering into the game of giving or asking for reasons.  Neither Dewey, Shusterman nor I would advocate this for experience (although I do think that Brandom gives too much importance to the space of reasons).  Brandom wants to replace the concept of experience with "perceptible facts and reports of them..." but then that erases the aspects of experience that has nothing to do with facts, particularly the aesthetic and ethical aspects.  Moreover, the act of reporting on a fact is just an aspect of someone's experience anyway.  To deny the existence of experience is like putting one's head in the sand.  It reminds me of when Norman Malcolm denied that we have dreams at night:  for him,  we only have a disposition to tell stories in the morning. Experience is just the way we live in the world.  Rejection of experience seems to come from a deification of language, i.e. removing it to a transcendent realm.  I agree with Shusterman that there are non-linguistic understandings, understandings that come prior to language-based interpretations. A better way to put it is that every interpretation has a non-linguistic side, and the development of an interpretation is a dynamic interaction of linguistic and non-linguistic interpretations.  As Shusterman says, non-linguistic understandings are "deeply shared by culture and history" and, therefore, rejecting foundationalism does not entail rejecting non-linguistic understanding.  Girel observes another point of disagreement between Shusterman and Brandom: Brandom's commitment to linguistic pragmatism implies rejection of the continuities Dewey finds between man and nature in his Art as Experience.  Brandom looks here to be just another representative of the Cartesian/Platonic tradition which sees a radical difference between man and nature, a tradition Dewey wisely opposed.  This is the same kind of ideology that has left us in our current state of environmental disaster.  

But the main reason why I have been inspired to write about Girel on Shusterman is the emphasis placed on enhancing experience. Everyday aesthetics, which I have been advocating since the 1990s, and Richard Shusterman's somaesthetics are, in my view, just two different ways to advocate essentially the same program.  Girel quotes Shusterman:  "Philosophy should be transformational. Rather than a metascience for grounding our current cognitive and cultural activities [the Cartesian project], it should be cultural criticism that aims to reconstruct our practices and institutions so as to improve the quality of our lives."  The only point I would disagree with here is this: Shusterman thinks that we need to choose between improved experience and philosophical insight, or what he calls "originary experience."  Unlike Shusterman, I hold that both are the "ultimate philosophical goal."  However, my understanding of philosophical insight is not to be associated with the Cartesian tradition:  I discuss it elsewhere in my writings on metaphor.  My view of philosophical insight is historicized and pragmatic and thus not Platonic in any traditional sense. We enrich and harmonize our experience by way of having philosophical insight.  

Two more comments before I sign off.  First, Shusterman sees improvement of experience almost entirely in terms of what he calls somatic practices.  I am not against these practices.  What I want to stress however is that the practices involved in making works of art are themselves somatic in ways that Shusterman has never fully recognized, as are also practices involved in the everyday aesthetic attentiveness of any person who goes through life with the view of enhancing experience.  Second, when Shusterman says that "philosophy's cultural politics could take the eminently pragmatic form of seeking to benefit life not merely by writing texts but by other forms of concrete praxis in the world...including somatic disciplines that can make a positive difference to the perception, performance, and attitudes of the practitioner" he should have also mentioned the practices of making works of art and the practices involved in appreciating those arts, whether fine or popular.  That is, we need to recognize that with a revision of our conception of philosophy, what artists do actually comes quite close to what philosophers do, perhaps that what great artists do is even closer to what great philosophers do, although much more body-centered, and perhaps for that reason, more effective overall.



Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Margolis vs. Danto: Margolis wins hands down, but I like to reread or rewrite Danto in my own way and perhaps Margolis wouldn't approve

In my view Joseph Margolis and Arthur Danto were the two greatest aestheticians of their generation, and frankly, in my life. Danto is widely recognized, Margolis less so.  But what Margolis lacks in fame he makes up for both in feistiness and plausibility. He is not as much fun to read as Danto, but in the end his position is much more sensible.  I have been reading his "Preparation for a Theory of Interpretation" which appears in the current issue of Contemporary Pragmatism (12, 20014, 11-37).  Danto specialized, one might say, in dazzling defenses of implausible theses:  the indiscernibility thesis, the rejection of deep interpretation, the idea that artist's interpretation constitutes the work of art, and the end of art thesis are examples.  All of this was situated within certain intuitions that he shared with Margolis in opposition to the previous generation:  for example, rejection of reductionist materialism and sympathy for Hegelian stories of historical dialectic.  In this essay however Margolis systematically takes after all of the above-mentioned questionable theses.  It is not an easy essay to read:  Margolis is seldom easy reading.  As a preliminary, here is the abstract:  "This paper points to a more viable theory of interpretation on the basis of opposing the missteps in Arthur Danto's theory. By noting the incongruities in Danto's theories of art and interpretation, a theory of interpretation emerges which unifies its varieties on the basis of the view of the human person as a culturally embodied and enlanguaged primate.  A feature notably absent from Danto's own account."  The abstract is ironic since little of what is mentioned discussed in any detail in the article!  But then, in reading the article and thinking about Margolis's many other writings, it is clear that he intends to support these theses, at least indirectly. The article is in reality, and more simply than the abstract indicates, a concentrated critique of Danto.   It only waives in the direction of Margolis's own emergentist view.  Start with the indiscernibility thesis.  Margolis is right:  Danto's key example of Warhol's Brillo Boxes just doesn't work, since these were never indiscernible from the originals. For one thing, they were made out of plywood.  Second, as Margolis notes, Warhol himself showed delight in the accidental variation of looks in the individual instances of Brillo Box which would be contrary to Danto's whole point that the aesthetic qualities of the work are irrelevant.

I cannot say that I disagree with anything Margolis says in this essay, and neither am I interested in summarizing his arguments.  I am interested in whether anything can be recovered from Danto after Margolis's onslaught.  So consider this quote from Danto:  "I shall think of interpretations as functions which transform material objects into works of art.  Interpretation is in effect the lever with which an object is lifted out of the real world and into the artworld, where it becomes vested in often unexpected raiment."  I agree that all of this is wrong, and I even, to be frank, feel a bit a Nietzschean disgust concerning the blatant Platonism implied here.  But I'll try to rewrite Danto in a way that is truer.  Here goes:  "I shall think of all of the things, including interpretations, that give things aura, that take them beyond the merely ordinary to something extraordinary.  This can happen with non-art objects, since all things can be seen in terms of sedimented as well as novel meaning.  But in art, this process is intensified.  Danto speaks of the 'artworld' and what I interpret this to mean (contrary to Danto himself) is that when something is seen imaginatively it seems as though it is carried out of this world into a world of its own, and that, in the case of art, this 'being carried out of and into' is something that is intensified deliberately, so that art, to use a Heideggerian sounding word, is a place of worlding, of creating worlds, for example the world of 'Starry Night' by Van Gogh.  So it is not that mere material objects are transformed into works of art (there are no mere material objects) but that artworks intensify what happens when material objects are perceived in terms of their aura of meaning/significance.  And when this happens, whether in everyday life or in the world of art, or more specifically, for example, in the concert hall listening to Handel's Messiah, there is an emergence of raiment (although not unexpected in the second place, since we paid big bucks to have that experience and are disappointed if it doesn't happen).  It should be born in mind that, contrary to Danto, interpretation is just one of many ways that intensification of significance which I call 'aura' can occur:  other ways include what Goodman calls exemplification, and also the other 'symptoms of the aesthetic' in his philosophy.  Danto's exclusion of the aesthetic from the process of constitution unduly narrows the richness of constitution of the aesthetic object, whether it be in the world of art or outside it, i.e. in nature or in everyday life."  That's my rewriting of Danto, and it is noteworthy that despite my near total agreement with Margolis I don't think that Margolis could assent to it.  So maybe I have escaped the embarrassment of agreeing too much with another philosopher, as though one did not have a mind of one's own.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Dunlevie, fashion, art and mystery.

Fashion and art.   They seem to move a bit more together every year.  The fashion-world oddly parallels the artworld, and also draws on it to heighten not only its legitimacy but also its charge.   Kathryn Dunlevie’s recent photographic collages are not fashion, they are art.  And yet they are fashion, in a fashion.  The collage elements are from everywhere, but always present is some element from fashion.  I used to do some collage myself and always wondered how to work with fashion magazines.  The images seemed to have too much fashion presence to serve any other purpose.  Dunlevie doesn’t let that worry her, and all for the best.  An individual piece of hers could even be a fashion shot, of a particularly surrealist or innovative sort, one strongly influenced by art.  Yet the fashion shots are just so much material for her art, an art that undercuts the ideology of fashion (“all is fantasy, all mystery is for the sake of glamour”) while still drawing on it ironically.

“Detectives of Fiction and Women of Mystery” is a series in which most of the titles have something to do with detectives, and most also have something to do with mysterious women.  Women who strut like models but are mysterious in more than one way.  Fashion, too, wants to make women mysterious, wants to glamorize the underworld of crime so as to enhance the storyline of the shoot, but there are other ways of mystery that art knows and fashion does not.  When talking about her art, Dunlevie brings up the mystery cults of the ancient world.  Her women may be goddesses or priestesses, or symbols of a world in which goddesses and priestesses really meant something, a world that seems sometimes to hover in the background, chidingly, behind our own.

For example, “Khidr” is a straight fashion shot at first, but then haunts us as the model’s reconstructed green hand disturbs the all-white right half of the work, her face masked by more green, as though she were the revenge of nature itself.  “Archimedes and the Disturbed Circles” appears at first sight to be just a statue of the ancient Greek scientist against a strange background, and then one discovers that he is a she, that his hair is her hair, purple hair, of some fashion model dressed in purple too, perhaps on a boat -- one goes back and forth as in one of those old psychology experiments with the picture that is both old and young woman.  “Inspector Saito’s Seaside Satori” draws the viewer’s attention most to the bright pink hand, the place, perhaps, for the concentration of the satori experience:  mystery in both senses of the word; as enlightenment and as mystery story.  Saito plays an electric guitar but faces a limpid abstract harbor scene where shaky reflected mast-lines seem to correspond to the energy of the hand about to strike a chord.  Similar mast-lines appear in “Terry McCaleb’s Dock,” but this time dripping like elements in an abstract expressionist painting over an aerial photograph of a road-laced seaside community, which gives me the shivers.

My current favorite is “Cinderella,” another goddess and mystery woman, for sure, but also a wild motorcycle girl with a Fragonard head.  This photomontage is packed with formal qualities taken from several seamlessly collaged photographs; the bright red fencing on the right balancing nicely the bright white barriers on the left; the scene is urban, but moment is wistful, romantic, with its character ready to escape.

Dunlevie is an avid mystery reader.  In “The Garden of Sergeant Carlos Tejada” the title refers to an obscure Spanish detective character:  but what we get is a world that is lush, tropical and infected by an invasion of abstract red riots of paisley-like designs, all bisected by a cactus and some fronds.  Almost-disturbing excess is the order of the day.  Dunlevie could easily be co opted by fashion, bought out, incorporated….I could see a spread in Vogue, where each montage introduced a spread:  fantasies for elegant women with a taste for the extravagant and edgy. Case in point: “Rescue” features a model whose head is obscured by a tangle of yellow garden hose.   Carrying chains, she is juxtaposed against a background of car headlights, book spines and other verticals.  Another case: “Ostara." Although covering the model’s face with plant matter leaves us the red lips, her handbag transformed into another chunk of tropical vegetal matter, as though she were on a journey into the jungle, half Amazonian native, half 5th Avenue. 

Some of the works are named after fashionable spots:  places to strut your stuff:  “Ipanema” features the model’s boots, and then a collaged-in languid scene, all topped by a very high neck supporting a head that is a perfect white flower:  a flower head that seems to challenge our human-centeredness.  Similarly, “Ibiza” is a place, and yet also the silhouette of a woman in high-heel shoes incongruously on a beach, with vague tan figures against a tower as her interior world, the squiggly shadow that she leaves in the sand balancing five lines of what could be soul-substance entering or escaping her heart.

I am taken by these flower ladies.  For example, in “Our lady of the Harbor” where the model in a fetching checkerboard outfit has lost her head to a lush red rose that blends perfectly with her halo of auburn hair, and she is holding a leaved branch in a way that makes me think of the followers of Dionysius, the maenads, and the Thyrsus, the Dionysian symbol.  The fashion-world wants women of mystery, but, using their images and transforming them, Dunlevie takes it to another symbolic level.  I can’t help but think that the harbor over which this mystery woman dominates was once an ancient town, perhaps like Rhodes, and she the colossus of Rhodes, this time female:  the angle of her body is the angle of a dancer on a Greek urn. 

“Marlowe’s Mistake” takes us to another place in the harbor where the collaged elements make up a lady who, although named after the great fictional detective from L.A., is once again our wistful Fragonard, this time grasping a phone, and facing an unexplained male shoulder.  The colors, lines, water abstractions, and vagueness of two shoed feet, increase the ominous intensity of the scene. Underwater is the theme of “The  Long Goodbye,” another Marlowe reference, where the model wanders through a forest that also features a fish, and yet the water above is probably a photo of water from above, the object that takes over her head like a 19th century mask worn by sea-divers.

Maybe all of this can be summed up by two of the works with which I will conclude.  “Siri Paiboun’s Bedroom” strikes one with its baroque ferocity, with taking everyday high-end commodities such as pillows and sheeting and placing them with decorative shell motifs in a lush world of green banana plants, so that the bedroom is more an anti-room.  “Escape from the Lab,” which features two creatures, one the model this time transformed into a kind of insect, the man behind her another alien insect whose head is geometrical paralleling the globe in the classroom setting on the left, a strange underground world where the red cross insignia on the bag signifies something 1940s.  Don’t we all want to escape from the lab, our postmodern world made up in equal parts of science and fantasy, and yet remember it too? 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Guest Post: "Kant's Subjectivism Questioned with Reference to Development of Taste in Food" by Christena Phouthong

Kant believed that “The judgement of taste is not a judgement of cognition, and is consequently not logical but aesthetical, by which we understand that whose determining ground can be no other than subjective.” (Stephen David Ross, Art and its Significance, p. 98) Kant’s idea of taste is based on subjective feelings regarding how the object is perceived. Although Kant may believe taste is not a judgement of cognition, I disagree. As I look back into my childhood, I feel that Kant’s ideology of taste is relatable to my life growing up in that, in the beginning, although my taste in foods was purely out of self-interest, it slowly started to change as my knowledge and understanding of certain foods began to flourish. In the end, although some areas of taste may be distinct, there is always a general perception based on cognition that dictates our opinions. 

As an Asian-American, who was the first generation to grow up in the U.S., my taste and appreciation of cultural foods has been constantly changing and has been heavily influenced by changing conditions of my life. At first, I was very open to eating dishes that were commonly found in my parent’s native home of Laos. It didn’t disturb me as a young child because I was so accustomed to eating them; I never deemed them as “unpalatable” or “strange.” But as I got older, I began to acquire a taste for American cuisine and lose taste for Laotian cuisine. I was especially fond of fast-food industry items including burgers, fries all filled with saturated fat, and soft drinks filled with sugar. From middle school through high school, I was easily influenced by my peers and this changed my perception of what foods tasted good. The Lao cuisine I was once accustomed to now seemed odd or unfamiliar. It was not until my college years that I started building my palette for a more diverse range of cultural foods and become more enthusiastic about embracing Southeast Asian food customs.

As I started my next chapter in life by continuing my education after high school graduation, I met many individuals who opened me up to the wide variety of foods this diverse State (California) has to offer.  My taste in foods grew exponentially from two cuisines to over seven, with Indian and Korean as my top two favorites.  It was a new opportunity for me to venture out of the norm and see or as I say “taste” things in a whole new light. As of now I don’t believe I would ever revert to my original perceptions of taste, but I can’t guarantee that various factors won’t come into play. Some factors I believe that change a person’s taste judgments are new experiences, or what I would like to call “opportunities,” that enlighten and provide a whole new outlook. For my generation, travel, having the money to spend, social media, and word of mouth can also be referred to as “opportunities.”

Today, social media has a huge influence on taste, not only in foods but other varieties of art – we will stay with food. Food’s sole purpose is to satisfy our hunger, but is now critiqued based on the components that entice the five senses. From Instagram, to Twitter, to blogs (online journals) and vlogs (video journals), social media platforms have created a huge cyber community of “foodies” that range from the mediocre to creditable professionals.

I guess you can say that Kant’s idea about taste being non-cognitive applies in my life but also is contradicted by it. I do believe a judgement of taste is a judgement of cognition. We as individuals grow to learn and develop taste as a form to define what is acceptable and not acceptable, and we do that based on what we come to know.

Christena Phouthong, Hospitality Management major, San Jose State University

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Guest Post: “The Darkest Color: Lament of the Images by Alfredo Jaar” by Roya Lillie

            Though traditionally art has been confined to the realm of paintings and statues, contemporary art has begun to move away from these restrictive forms. Experience-based art, art which seeks to simulate experiences or emotions through a more palpable medium of expression, has become increasingly popular because it forces the viewer to feel, regardless of his or her artistic background. When visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, I happened upon one such piece of art, Lament of the Images by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. This art piece was unlike anything I’d ever experienced; after reading three texts, one about Bill Gate’s archiving of photographs in an abandoned quarry, one about Nelson Mandela’s near blindness from imprisonment within a limestone quarry, and one about the U.S.’s decision to purchase all satellite images after a bombing in Afghanistan (each of which was printed in illuminated white text on a black background), I walked through a winding black hallway which ended facing an bright white light that was the size of the entire gallery wall. While museums such as MoMA have devoted multiple floors to the exploration of this kind of contemporary art, many people are hesitant to classify exhibitions such as this as a legitimate form of art, so I will describe, analyze, and critique “Lament of the Images” to ascertain whether or not this unconventional piece is indeed worthy to be classified as “art.”
            Though unconventional, this piece of art produces strong reactions from its viewers, and my experience was no exception. When I turned the first corner, the brightness of this piece caused me to instinctually turn my head and body away from the light. Even though I had read a sign that cautioned viewers about the strength of the light, I did not anticipate the light to be quite so strong. After overcoming my initial shock, I was able to weakly gaze into the light, and I felt an overwhelming sadness; because the light overpowered me, I felt like I had been stripped of my humanity and any sense of relevance. I also felt a sense of unity with the three other people in the exhibit with me because we were all struggling to appreciate the piece. This exhibit continued to affect me after I left; as I wandered out of the winding black hallway and back into the heart of the museum, I had a dazed expression on my face and a heavy feeling in my heart. Though the piece absolutely has an intellectual component through the inclusion of posters, I was primarily affected by the emotions that the light instilled in me; however, these emotions would not have manifested themselves if the intellectual component, the three pieces of text, had not been present to stimulate certain thoughts.
It is the combination of these two features, emotion and intellect, that has earned Alfredo Jaar quite the reputation in the contemporary art community. Though he has previously created pieces that discuss genocide and the horrors of war, Lament of the Images plays with the viewer’s anticipation of art to reveal the ways in which the powerless are blinded by the actions of the powerful. He does this not only through his piece of art but by manipulating the viewer’s experience leading up to the viewing of the piece. Each of the selected texts serves a purpose; each highlights some aspect of blindness. In the case of the archival of photographs, people are blinded by their loss of knowledge, in the case of the South African limestone quarry, people are nearly blinded by the brightness of the rock, and in the case of the U.S.’s purchasing of images, people are blinded and put in the dark about the actualities of war. By connecting the element of blindness in these texts, it is easy to understand the function of the light within the culmination of the piece; it serves to literally blind the viewer and force them to recognize their plight and powerlessness. In an interview with Patricia Phillips, Jaar states, “I wanted to complete the piece by offering a final ‘blinding’ experience to the audience. So the next space offered a large illuminated screen that simply contained light without images, but a very powerful light that left the audience temporarily out of sight and shocked into blindness.”[1] Jaar’s creation of blindness is intended to reveal a harsh juxtaposition: though we as a society may have access to a seemingly infinite amount of images, we should be “suspicious and disillusioned about the uses and misuses of photography in the art world, the press, and the world of entertainment”[2] and realize that images to not reflect knowledge. In this piece, the complete lack of images represents the “inadequacy of the image to represent contemporary experience.”[3] Much like many mythological tales, Jaar wants the viewer to understand that though we can “see,” we are truly blind.
            Because it incorporates blindingly bright light and harsh contrast, this piece does not have the aesthetically pleasing qualities that are traditionally attributed to pieces of art. On the contrary, this piece is anything but aesthetically pleasing; it assaults the viewer by cloaking them in darkness and then incapacitating them with light. This sharp, harsh contrast is done not through intricate craftsmanship but rough construction, and this means that there are no fine details or nuances that suggest a significant investment of time or money on the part of the artist. It is not complex, like more traditional mediums, and it only consists of five recognizable parts: light, dark, and the three informative texts. It is this “barebones” composition and its poor aesthetic qualities that would cause some philosophers such as David Hume to question the quality of this “art.” Hume would argue that this piece is not something that falls into the realm of “good taste” because of its crude physical construction. For Hume, fine details and delicacies are what distinguish pieces of good art from bad, and because this piece consists of five large pieces, it lacks details “of a very tender and delicate nature.”[4] Hume further asserts that the presence of refined elements “is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments,”[5] and because this piece lacks refined elements, it cannot be considered “fine art.” Though Hume created his Standard of Taste to provide guidelines with which art should be judged, the ideal critic has a sense for fine details, and because this piece of art does not provide the critic with details to study and savor, this piece is simplistic and (possibly) crude; to say the least, it is not worthy of the title “work of art.”
            However, other philosophers argue that it is this simple, immense, and overwhelming harshness that makes this piece truly great. Because this piece features stark contrast on a grand scale, Burke would argue that viewing this piece is a sublime experience, one which could only be created by a true work of art. Because the light is present in an obscure and dark environment, the light takes control and shocks the viewer, and this makes it impossible for the viewer to attempt to fathom anything other than the art piece. Burke describes this sublime experience as a case where the “mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” [6] In this way, this piece is sublime because it creates a completely immersive and engaging experience by uniting the mind and body in contemplation of the art piece. Burke argues that this piece is also sublime because it instills feelings of delight and terror. Initially, the piece startles and instills terror, but after the viewers finds themselves able to stare into the light, they experience delight at such a profound and incredible light; however, it is the immensity of size of the light that maintains an element of “astonishment,”[7] a feature that can interpreted as an aspect of terror. Though the intellectual components of this piece are intriguing, it is the presence of the sublime through the inclusion of light that makes this piece “without comparison greater.”[8] Though the sublime is something often found in nature, the initial and resounding terror of the brightness of the light combined with the delight in the ability to stare at the light makes this piece truly a man-made sublime experience.
            Still other philosophers agree that this piece is “good art,” but disagree as to the reasoning explaining why it is “good.” Leo Tolstoy would argue that it is not the sublime necessarily that makes this piece of art good but rather the feelings that the piece intentionally instills. Tolstoy states that a piece can be considered art only if “the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt.”[9] This piece fulfills this requirement because, upon viewing it, I was filled with the same sense of powerlessness that Jaar felt as he witnessed the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.[10] Furthermore, Tolstoy states that this piece is art because it is the result of an activity where a person “consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to other feelings he has lived through.”[11] Again, because Jaar seeks to instill his own feelings in others, the piece is highly artistic. While the emotions that contributed to the creation of this piece clearly make this a work of art, the degree to which the emotions appear further clarifies the quality of the work. Tolstoy notes that though “the feelings with which the artist infects other may be most various,”[12] the degree of infectiousness, and therefore, the quality of the work, depends the most upon the “degree of sincerity in the artist,”[13] and it is Jaar’s earnest approach to spreading awareness through the emotions in his work that makes this piece sincere, and therefore, a high quality work of art.
This piece, though not physically complex, is incredibly emotionally powerful, and this is what distinguishes it as an excellent piece of art. The simplicity of this piece causes strong emotions in multiple formats, including the delight and terror of the sublime as well as sadness and nothingness that comes from erasure, and its ability to do so in such a minimal way suggests a great deal of skill on the part of the artist. Though this piece does not conform to traditional aesthetics, it is nonetheless effective in its ability to create a significant emotional experience. Furthermore, it is this untraditional approach that forces the viewer to engage with the work, something that traditional mediums are not able to do; it is absolutely possible to view the Mona Lisa and have an apathetic response, but it is impossible to walk through the dark hallways and view this piece without having either a physical or emotional reaction because this piece’s engaging properties “encourage people to take time, to stop, to read” [14] and have an immersive experience with art. Jaar notes that he “can’t force people to see, but [he] can provide conditions for people to slow down so that the work can engage them in a dialogue,”[15] and it is this dedication to increasing art appreciation within a culture that increasingly devalues art that makes this piece truly genius.
Though it is impossible to compare this piece with traditional mediums such as statues or paintings, this piece is significantly more powerful when compared to similar contemporary experience-based art found in MoMA because it alters the mood of the viewer for prolonged periods of time and seeks to engage the viewer in a much more profound and meaningful way. Though the piece does not manifest itself as physically complex, it is intellectually complex and multifaceted, and it encourages the mind to ponder the emotional significance of global issues.  In this way it makes fine art accessible and engaging for people of all ages; it reaches across socio-economic and racial barriers and forces its readers to engage regardless of their prior art education history.

Burke, Edmund. "The Sublime," in Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, 3rd. ed., ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 404-5.

Hume, David.  "Of the Standard of Taste," in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press,  1994), 78-94.

Phillips, Patricia C. “The aesthetics of witnessing: A conversation with Alfredo Jaar,” Art Journal 64.3 (2005): 6-27.

Tolstoy, Leo. “What is Art?,” in Art and Its Significance: an 
Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David
Ross (Albany:State University of New York Press, 1994), 178-181.

Walker, Sydney R. “Artmaking and the Sinthome.” Visual Arts
Research 36.2 (2010): 75-82.


Roya Lillie is an English major at San Jose State University,

[1] Patricia C. Phillips, “The aesthetics of witnessing: a conversation with Alfredo Jaar.” Art Journal 64.3 (2005): 21.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Sydney R. Walker, “Artmaking and the Sinthome.” Visual Arts Research 36.2 (2010): 76.
[4] David Hume. "Of the Standard of Taste," in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 81.
[5] Ibid., 84.
[6] Edmund Burke. "The Sublime," in Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, 3rd. ed., ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 404.
[7] Burke, op. cit., 405.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Leo Tolstoy, “What is Art?,” in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 179.
[10] Phillips, op. cit., 21.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 180.
[14] Phillips, op. cit., 21.
[15] Ibid.