Tuesday, September 1, 2015

John Dewey "The Live Creature"

The first chapter of Art as Experience appears in part Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  This is where Dewey tells us that understanding fine art requires a detour into the aesthetics of everyday life.  Most people today who are working on everyday life aesthetics go at it from a different angle, and so it is worthwhile to be reminded that Dewey himself was interested primarily in the dynamic relationship between everyday aesthetic phenomena and the refined experiences of fine art.  He recognizes that he is extending the concept of the aesthetic when he applies it to the experience of someone who is standing before a fire and poking the burning wood, or the experience of the housewife tending to her plants.  But he also believes this is necessary in order to uncover the vast material upon which the refined experiences of fine art are ultimately based.  In a way, he is engaged in a critique of modernity and calling for a partial return to earlier ways of dealing with the world.  When he does talk about something widely regarded as a great work of art, for example the Parthenon, he calls on us to try to re-experience the way in which this building met very specific needs of the people of Athens, needs that did not fit into the compartmentalized notion of art.  He speaks of the role that the Parthenon played in the civic religion of the people of Athens and how they experienced it in terms of that role.  For Dewey, the Parthenon is only aesthetically valuable insofar as it is experienced by human beings.  Theorizing about the republic of art of which the Parthenon is part requires moving beyond personal enjoyment to consideration of the social context of its origin.  But this is not to be seen as a mere sociological inquiry.  Rather, and this is the surprising conclusion of the paragraph, the theorizing critic needs to consider what the Athenians, both creators and appreciators, have in common with us, i.e. with "people in our own homes and on our own streets" i.e. with the average individual in the modern world.  Gadamer would say that this is a matter of fusion of horizons, but again the point is what we can learn from our understanding of the Athenian experience of the Parthenon about how to approach the theory of art.

This reference to people in our homes is the transition to the paragraph in which he talks about the importance of aesthetics "in the raw" i.e. the "sights that hold the crowd."  The Parthenon as "civic commemoration" contrasts quite dramatically with our contemporary fascination with such sights.  We are not engaged in civic commemorations of the sort we find in the Panathenaic procession when we appreciate, as Dewey encourages us, the "human fly climbing the steeple-side."  This, instead, is just the kind of thing that is commemorated in the socially engaged art of Dewey's own time, for example in popular photography of Life magazine.  

So, although we may be engaged in a civic commemoration when we appreciate this kind of thing, it is a very different kind, one that is not connected with a specific ritual, or even with something truly communal.  I said earlier that Dewey is engaged in a critique of modernity, but it is not total.  There is something of the love of modernity in this fascination with the urban world, with, e.g. "the fire engine rushing by" and with the individual's response to this sight.  There is also something democratic in Dewey's inclusion of the "housewife in tending her plants" and the "mechanic engaged in his job" under this expanded conception of the aesthetic.  What we have is a call for a return to satisfactions that would have been made available to us by "earlier craftsmen" insofar as the "conditions of the market" fail to encourage sufficiently the kind of "artistically engaged" action of the "intelligent mechanic."  But we do not have a call for a return to civic religion. 

Another feature in this modified critique of modernity is a certain amount of praise extended to the Athenians for having their various arts be parts of a "significant life of an organized community" in which painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, music and so forth are all organized together to consummate "the meaning of group life."  The opposite of the compartmentalized conception of fine art which we find today is one in which the arts work together, and also in which they work together as part of "group life." 

What Dewey wants to call us back to is the "intimate social connection" that has been "lost in the impersonality of a world market."  What we need in our own time are aesthetic perceptions that "are necessary ingredients of happiness" rather than "compensating transient pleasurable excitations."  Clearly this happiness is closely tied to the notion of intimate social connection.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Ritual Theory of Art

In a previous post I questioned whether there is a ritual theory of art.  Today I want to revisit that question from another angle.  The expression theory of art says that art is expression.  It does not say that all expression is art.  Nor does is really simply categorize art as a form of expression.  It is a metaphor.  "Art is expression" means that metaphorically art is expression.  The same would go for a ritual theory of art.  It would say, metaphorically, that art is ritual. What that means depends on the rest of the theory.  But what interests me about Cynthia Freeland's account of the theory is that it comes under the heading of thinking about various art practices of the 1990s, some of which have continued into our own time, as indicating that art "is" ritual or, as she also puts it, art is "communal ritual."  Freeland's conclusion is that although art can have "its own ritualistic aspects" these aspects are "completely unlike those achieved by the sober participants with shared transcendent values": such as in Mayan ritual.  The reason that they are "completely unlike" is that "it  seems unlikely [that contemporary artists who use blood and such in their art] are seeking to contact the gods and higher reality, or appease spirits of our ancestors."  At the same time she admits that art like that of Damien Hirst, which is "ugly and disturbing" may not fit the kind of theory presented to us by Hume, Kant and such more recent figures as Bell, Bullough and Greenberg.  So perhaps some theory other than disinterestedness theory of Kant is needed to explain the attractiveness of contemporary disturbing art.  I think there is a problem with her use of the phrase "completely unlike."  I suspect that although no one (or hardly anyone) ever outright advocated the view that art is ritual, many people working in the arts in the 1990s would have been attracted to the idea not as a literal claim (yes, people like Andre Serrano and Damien Hirst were probably not literally trying to contact gods) but as metaphorical (these people were trying to do something very much like what the creators of ritual in primitive times were doing, at least from one perspective.) Moreover, I also suspect that those who would have been attracted to the claim that art is ritual (or, if you want to put it this way, should ideally be more like communal rituals of the past) are not unreasonable.  The path to this is by way of Dewey.

I now believe that "art is ritual" theory is best understood in the light of John Dewey's chapter "The Live Creature" in his Art as Experience. Dewey tells us a story of the history of humankind which is a story of fall.  Once there was a time when people did not set art off on a pedestal, in which the various arts were "part of a significant life of an organized community."  Further, as he puts it, "the collective life that was manifested in war, worship, the forum, knew no division between what was characteristic of these places and operations, and the arts that brought color, grace, and dignity, into them."  In particular, "music and song were intimate parts of the rites and ceremonies in which the meaning of group life was consummated."  

Although Dewey is not straightforward about this, I believe he was pointing in the direction of some sort of retrieval of this condition, i.e. of primitive life.  I suspect that he would be comfortable with the definition of art as ritual, not as a description of the role of art in our own society, but of an ideal form of art, something that we could attempt to achieve again in some way.  In this respect, think of Dewey as somewhat like Plato (of course, he is not like Plato in so many other ways, for instance in his rejection of dualism and his advocacy of democracy).  Both imagine an ideal republic, one that also necessarily involves a transformation of aesthetics and our approach to the arts. In Dewey's case the ideal republic is one that does not have the "dislocations and divisions of modern life and thought" that currently hinders art from achieving its true value. Dewey's philosophy in short is a critique of modernity, and one way to express that is to, in a hopeful way, say "art is ritual."  A new theory of this sort would disclose "the way in which [good works of art] idealize qualities found in common experience" and recognize "the normal development of common human activities into matters of artistic value."  Rather than literally assimilating art under the category of ritual this new way of looking at aesthetics achieves many of the things ritual achieved without making any commitments to communicating with or influencing gods.  (See my article on Dewey's aesthetics for my summary of the content of this chapter.)  

Earlier I said that "art is ritual" is a metaphor.  An interesting feature of metaphorical identification is that both sides of the metaphor are conceptually transformed.  We do not simply see art as ritual in some deep or essential way but also that ritual is like art is some deep or essential way, although the second claim is more indirect since to claim that art is ritual is not necessarily to claim that ritual is art.  By the way, Heide Gottner-Abendroth, the feminist aesthetician would probably be attracted to the idea that art is ritual since her matriarchal aesthetics is like Dewey's aesthetics of the live creature in calling for a return, in some way, to premodern times, which she saw to be matriarchal and fundamentally ritualistic.  See my post on her.

To some extent Freeland was just trying to explain why people were shocked by, for example, the Sensation exhibit in Brooklyn.  She says "Symbols of pain and suffering that are central to many religions can be shocking when dislocated from their community. If they mix with more secular symbols, their meaning is threatened. Artwork that uses blood or urine enters into the public sphere without the context of either well-understood ritual significance or artistic redemption through beauty."  (7)  Nice point.  In some ways these works were directed against ritual as it is today, i.e. in established religions.  Freeland observes that Andres Serrano saw himself not as criticizing Christianity but the institutions of Christianity.  The claim that art is ritual is not only a shocking claim about art but a shocking claim about ritual, especially if ritual is mainly understood in terms of the standardized rituals we see in our religious institutions today.  But I also think that these artistic efforts are not just for notoriety.  They also propose a vision and, once again, an ideal. 

It is noteworthy that Freeland writes "Most modern art, in the context of theater, gallery, or concert hall, lacks the background reinforcement of pervasive community belief that provides meaning in terms of catharsis, sacrifice, or initiation" (4) and that is why audience members sometimes feel shocked by such art.  Yes, but isn't that the Deweyan point?  If art is isolated in the theater, gallery and concert hall, and is decontextualized and isolated from any sense of community, then experiences of, for instance, catharsis may be less possible.  The claim that "art is ritual" is (or was) a call to change society by way of changing our relation to art.    


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Food as art, again.

I have previously posted on the question of whether food can be art here and here.  Right now I am preparing a paper that will be given at the American Society for Aesthetics annual meeting in Savannah, Georgia.  So this is an occasion for further thoughts on the topic, somewhat disorganized I'm afraid.  

-  "Food is art" is not too helpful a phrase since not all food is art. The claim seems to be that there can be a unique artform for food just as there is for painting.  Not all painting is art:  most house painting does not fall into the realm of art.  But then if you define "painting" as a "the art of painting," or consider this one of its meanings, perhaps you can do the same for "food."  That is, there might be one sense of "food" that is quite general and another that narrowly refers to food as art.  The problem is that this is not the way the word "food" works in our language.  The OED definition of food as "substances taken into the body to maintain life and growth, nourishment, provisions, victuals"  hardly seems to be a definition of an art form.  Interestingly though, the OED definition of "painting" fails to mention painting as an art form and only defines it as "the result or product of applying paint, coloring, pictorial decoration or representation.  Also, an instance of this, a picture."  On this view, a painted door would be a painting every bit as much as a landscape painting.  So, the dictionary definition should be rewritten to show how we actually do often use the term painting and also to show how we often refer to food (although this would be a revision in language.)

-   There would seem to be little reason to oppose the idea that food can be used as a medium of art, just as paints can be used as a medium for paintings (the paradigmatic medium in this case.).  We have lots of art forms these days often loosely associated under the term "contemporary visual art" which allow for the use of a wide variety of media, from objects found in the street used in collage to various natural objects and substances such as dirt and leaves. Food is by not means excluded.  The claim, however, that food can be used as a medium of art is not the same as the claim that food is an artform.

-   Most food does not count as art.  But this should not exclude food as an artform.  When we are talking about food as an artform we are not talking about food merely used as a medium in what is now called visual art, or even as a medium in performance art.

-  The debate over whether or not food is art often moves to the level of whether it can be more than a minor art.  Can it be, for example, a fine art.  I am inclined to think that any form of making can be refined to the point that instances of it count as fine art.  If some but not all paintings count as fine art then why not also say that some gastronomical presentations, but not all, count?

-  The impulse to count food as fine art sometimes might seem to come from democratic sympathies, but then there are also arguments against this, for example that the finest gastronomical presentations are only available to the truly wealthy.  Food is somewhat different from painting in this respect:  although only the wealthy can afford fine art paintings, it is still possible for a great many people without wealth to observe such paintings in museums. I just cannot afford to eat at elBulli, as much as I would like to. Because of this, some might see the claim that some food is fine art as elitist and exclusionary.  Perhaps it is, and yet this does not make it false that some food is fine art.

-  Since the 1990s, when the issue of food as art was originally raised, we have had some important changes in world culture.  It is perhaps indicative of this that although aestheticians during the 90s could hardly consider food as art, much less fine art, the 2014 edition of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics has an article on "Food" which treats the possibility more positively, having one section titled "Food art, edible art, research cooking, and revolutionary cooking."  At the same time, the author, Jessica Jaques, excludes food as one of the arts when she says "Gustatory aesthetics is to food and cooking as aesthetics is to the arts."  This would not only divide food from the arts, although treating it as something similar, but also would divide gustatory aesthetics from aesthetics proper. Jaques also writes that "research and revolutionary cooking have to do with aesthetic practices that are close to the arts but keep some degree of autonomy."  This again would put the most artlike food productions alongside the arts but not within their domain.  Of particular interest is what is now called "research cooking" and which Jaques defines as "a twenty-first century practice that inherits all the creative impulse and innovation of twentieth-century avant-garde cooking, from nouvelle cuisine to the so-called molecular cooking and techno-emotional cooking."  She points out further that the term is analogous to "artistic research" and points out "increasing intersection between cooking and the arts."  She mentions several features of research cooking but the one of most interest here is the "tendency to artification:  increasing awareness of sharing artistic beliefs."  She argues that it follows that "research cooking understands itself as a mode of communication similar to art, including ways of reference such as imitation, expression, quotation, metaphor, and even humor and paradox."  A this point it seems almost arbitrary to exclude research cooking from the domain of art and thus cooking itself from the domain of fine arts.  In addition to eBulli, Jaques mensions great chefs from several places in the world as involved in research cooking.  Jaques also mentions that a specialized form of research cooking, called "revolutionary cooking" has these additional features:  "involvement in the narrative of its own history and creative process by revealing and inquiring archives, recipes, and critics in order to point out the essential moments of the paradigm shift" and "expansion beyond the restaurant as an institution to reach the public sphere, with books, catalogs, conferences and, especially, through the internet and social networks...."  These two features also make this type of cooking more art-like, particularly in the 21st. century. 

I should also mention the relevance of the concept of "artification" to this.  Check out the special issue of the journal Contemporary Aesthetics on this topic.  See also my article there on artification here.  The idea of artification is present in Jaques' article when she uses the term "artiness" as in:  "Food art, edible art, research cooking, and revolutionary cooking are now topics of deep interest in artistic institutions in their exploration of new fields of artiness."  He example of this is that Documenta XII listed elBulli as a "pavilion" even though hundreds of miles away from the show.

-  In writing my previous posts I had forgotten about Glenn Kuehn's "How can food be art?" which appeared in one of the founding texts of everyday aesthetics, The Aesthetics of Everyday Life ed. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith  2005.  Kuehn takes a similar approach to mine in that he is deeply inspired by the writings of John Dewey, especially Art as Experience.  Dewey certainly brings food withing striking distance of being an artform insofar as he defines art in terms of what he calls "an experience" and also describes a meal in a fine French restaurant as "an experience."  Kuehn is the only writer I know of who attempts to establish food "as a very significant and profound art form."  

-  Some would hold that it is a waste of time to argue that food is "fine art" since this assumes that the very distinctions between fine art and "minor art," "popular art," "folk art" and "decorative art" are ultimately unimportant.  My own take on this is that the particular art medium is not of any great importance:  even though most quilts are only of decorative value, some pieces can be referred to as masterpieces.  Most paintings are not products of genius just as most quilts are not.  Although it goes against conventional meanings of words, there is nothing particularly wrong with saying that quilt-making or car-styling can be a fine art.

-  One of the main arguments against food as art is that an experience of food can never have the self-transcending power of a truly great experience of a truly great work of art, for example the ecstasy of a full experience of The Last Judgment of Michelangelo. Telfer, for example, say that one cannot be moved to awe by a meal.  I do not know why not.  My personal experiences of awe in relation to great works of art are rare.  So too are my personal experiences of awe in response to meals.  I just don't know whether I could get more such experiences if I pursued the matter more, and I do not know that in either the case of painting or in the case of gastronomy.  

-  When, drawing from Dewey, Kuehn says, "all food has the potential to be art because its production, presentation, and matter of appreciation (i.e., eating) necessarily involve one in an interactive engagement with the qualitative tensions that underlie experience" (195) that sounds right to me.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Is object-oriented ontology good for artists?

I have read that many artists are intrigued by Graham Harman's object-oriented ontology or object-oriented metaphysics.  Having just read his The Quadruple Object (Washington, USA:  Zero Books, 2011), I would say they could do better.  Harman's theory is fascinating, but deeply flawed.  Mainly he is inspired by Husserl, Heidegger and Whitehead.  Although he rejects Husserl's idealism, his theory inherits some of the weaknesses of Husserl's phenomenology.  Most importantly it suffers from a lack of the kind of insight a close reading of Dewey would provide.  Harman makes some of the same criticisms of traditional empiricists that Dewey made, and yet finds himself committed to a Cartesian-like dualism.  This is the fatal flaw of the theory.  Some might find Harman attractive simply because his theory is not anthropocentric. But there are other ways to go against anthropocentrism. Sometimes Harman worries that he might be considered a crackpot. Although I take much of what he says quite seriously and admire him for the scope of his thought, there is a crackpot dimension to it. Anyone who claims that he has isolated exactly ten ontological categories and then goes on to explicate the system in terms of the relations of suits a deck of cards, as Harmon does in his ninth chapter, is hard to take seriously.  Or, to put it another way, Harman takes himself way too seriously.  

I was introduced to Harman by an article in the current issue of Art Forum, "Those Objects of Desire" by Andrew Cole (Summer 2015). Cole is critical of Harman although from a different perspective than I am.  He basically thinks that Harman has failed to see how Kantian his theory really is, and that personifying such objects as commodities runs up against criticisms already raised by Marx.  Although Cole makes some good points, my response draws more from the American Pragmatist tradition.
One way to test Harman's theory, which is supposed to cover all sorts of objects, is to see how it works in relation to a work of art. Heidegger himself in "The Origin of the Work of Art" developed his notion of the thingliness of a thing in relation to works of art, famously a painting by Van Gogh of shoes and a Greek Temple. Harman argues that all objects have two sides, one side being the real object, something much like Kant's thing-in-itself, and the other being what he calls the sensual object, i.e. the object-as-experienced. (It is not clear whether the thinks that the sensual dog and the real dog are two sides of the same dog or two completely different things, although usually he talks as though they are completely different things.)  He believes that real things are completely autonomous and do not depend in any way on relations to other things. This raises many concerns.   Use our example of a work of art. It is impossible to understand a painting by Edward Hopper, for example, without understanding something about the context in which it was created.  

I should put my Deweyan assumptions to the fore before going on. (David L. Hildebrand has written an excellent book that explains how Dewey avoids the very dilemmas that Harman finds himself in: Beyond Realism and Antirealism:  John Dewey and the Neopragmatists, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003).   Rather than saying that we should base our metaphysics on isolated or autonomous objects, Dewey would stress experience, although experience understood in his own way.  Dewey is no subjectivist or idealist.  On his account, experience arises out of the interaction between ourselves as live creatures and our environments.  Because Dewey takes a naturalist perspective he does not rank humans as anything special.  Animals and even plants can interact as live creatures with their environments, although the nature of their experience would be quite different from that of humans.  Nonetheless, Dewey is not guilty of a mechanistic worldview typical of previous naturalist philosophers, or of the simplistic approach to empiricism found in Locke and Hume.

For Dewey, and me, the live creature, say a human, confronts an object, say a watch, directly.  Rejecting dualism, Dewey would not accept that the watch that we confront sensuously is to be distinguished from the real watch.  There are, of course, many manifestations of the watch, many ways in which it appears to us. These manifestations are all ways we confront the watch. 

One of the ways in which Harman's philosophy is both anti-art and anti-aesthetic is the way in which he discusses sensuous qualities. Harman likes to talk about these qualities as "gems, glitter, and confetti of extraneous detail" (25).  The aesthetic aspect of experience is to be degraded to the merely pretty.  Following Husserl, he sees sensuous objects as "frosted over with accidental features" irrelevant to their identity.  Again, as he understands Husserl, the objects of our world are "heavily adorned with frivolous decorations and surface-effects."  Whereas Harman sees these sensuous qualities as superfluous, the everyday aesthetics position I advocate, approaches them as rich in meaning.  Moreover, from a pragmatist perspective, these meanings are played out in the activity of the live creature.  The sensuous qualities may be pursued to fulfillment, for example, in "an experience."  

Not to be overly negative, I want to give credit to Harman for stressing one point which he derives from Husserl.  He writes:  "what we encounter in experience are unified objects, not isolated points of quality.  Indeed...the individual qualities of things are already imbued with the style or feel of the thing as a whole.  Even if the exact hue of red in my apple can also be found in a nearby shirt or can of spraypaint, the colors will have a different feel in each of these cases, since they are bonded to the thing to which they belong."  (11)  This seems right, although at the same time one should take into account Goodman's idea that objects can exemplify certain qualities, thereby indirectly referencing all other instances of that quality.

Harman is opposed to something called "correlationism" which holds that "we cannot think of world without humans or humans without world."  He is right to reject this view.  We can certainly think a world unperceived by humans.  However, whatever we think and whatever we experience is, by necessity, thought or experienced by humans.  We cannot expunge that aspect of experience.  We start from out own positions in life and in philosophy.  There is a real world, but the world we experience is one that has us at the center and is experienced in our terms.  For example, any description we make of such a world is a description necessarily in a language of human making, with terms and meanings that carry out contribution.  So, although correlationism is false, it does point to a certain truth that Harman ignores.

Harman is also interested in Husserl's notion of eidetic features of the sensual object, features that make up the eidos of the object. Harman follows Husserl in thinking that real eidetic qualities "can only be the target of intellectual and not sensuous intuition."  The radical division of intellectual and sensuous intuition is the source of yet another problem:  this is another dualism that needs to be undercut.  All intellectual intuition is in part sensual and all sensual intuition is in part intellectual.  I have written about essences elsewhere and will have more to say about them in the future. Suffice it here to say that essences on my view are emergent from the activity of searching for essences.  Essences are not eternal and unchanging but emergent.  Nor are they solely intellectual objects. Moreover, they may be deeply connected to the particular and the accidental.  Some quality in all of its particularity can exemplify.  We can say for example that this particular thing standing for universal, but I think that sometimes it is deeper than that.   When a particular thing stands for a universal it does not do so in such a way as to lose its particular nature. 

Harman's object centered metaphysics is based as much on his interpretation of Heidegger as on his interpretation of Husserl.  In particular he focuses on Heidegger's understanding of a hammer. He also has his own understanding of what Heidegger means by the four-fold, which I will discuss in a future post.  I think that Heidegger's understanding of a hammer in Being and Time is deeply flawed, and this is the basis for many problems I also find in Harman.  Heidegger says that hammers are usually present to us only when they fail.  This idea undercuts (and is in deep opposition to) the entire aesthetics of design.  When I handle a hammer I am aware of its design.  It is satisfying when it feels good in my hand, looks good, and does its job well.  The awareness of the hammer I have when it is broken is different in kind from that:  it is an awareness of a functional ugliness.  But when a hammer works well, looks good, etc. it is a thing of beauty, more so of course for a carpenter than for me.  Heidegger and Harman just exclude from consciousness the aesthetically positive value of the hammer.

Let Vico intrude here.   Here is a quote from wikipedia on Vico:  "Vico is best known for his verum factum principle, first formulated in 1710 as part of his De antiquissima Italorum sapientia, ex linguae latinae originibus eruenda (1710) ("On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians, unearthed from the origins of the Latin language"). The principle states that truth is verified through creation or invention and not, as per Descartes, through observation: “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.”"   Vico and Dewey are on the same page here:  Descartes, Husserl, Heidegger and Harman are on the other page.  We know the hammer through its creation and through using it in the act of creation.  Knowledge is connected with the live creature doing things in the world. Knowledge is an aspect of experience.  The hammer by no means functions behind or beneath experience.  Heidegger should have known better since he is the one who stressed the way in which technology has made us close our ears to Being.  It is technology when treated in a merely mechanical way that causes the hammer to recede.  Things lose the shiny sparkly quality of aliveness in a world which is mechanized.  Heidegger's and Harman's philosophy of the receding hammer is just a sign of the very concept of the thing as mere object of use that Heidegger critiques elsewhere.

Harman's Heideggerian talk of hammers withdrawing into "subterranean background, enacting their reality in the cosmos without appearing in the least" is offensive mystification.  In talking about what lies behind all phenomena, Heidegger and Harman go in the opposite direction of Dewey, since Dewey rejects precisely this dualism, the phenomena/noumena dualism that goes back to Kant, but even further to Descartes and ultimately Plato.  

The sentence "conscious awareness makes up only a tiny portion of our lives" (37) seems innocuous at first, perhaps trivially true, and yet what sense can really be made of it.  Even when engaging in psychoanalysis everything that happens to me is in consciousness: I become conscious of unconscious desires.  Moreover, the other manifestations of those unconscious desires also happen, for example in my Freudian slips, in daily life.  Conscious awareness makes up most of our lives, not a tiny portion...we are the lives we live, the lives we experience, our conscious lives.

Harman and Heidegger say that I usually fail to notice my eyeglasses.  In a way that is true.  If my attention is directed elsewhere from my eyeglasses I do not notice them: they are on the very edge of my consciousness.  However it is easy to redirect my attention to my eyeglasses, and this does not require that they be broken or even maladjusted.  I can attend more or less to my eyeglasses and to their various features, for example how well they work and how good they look.  Although the idea that tools "withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically" just seems implausible when I think about my glasses, Heidegger at least recognizes that tools exist in terms of relations to other pieces of equipment, often in a system of interrelated things, for example ink and inkstand. 

The absurdity of Harman's position has be found in the sentence:  "the world in itself is made of realities withdrawing from all conscious access."  (38)  The realities we encounter in life, for example my glasses, do not withdraw from conscious access.  If I want to have conscious access to my glasses I simply attend to them.  When I lose my glasses I can find them:  that is because they are still available.

Following Heidegger, Harman says "an earthquake calls my attention to the solid ground on which I rely..."  I have been through a major earthquake, the Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California.   I was in my backyard when it happened.   It drew my attention to the way in which the ground, which I formerly saw as solid, could take another form entirely, something more like a wave at sea.  Retroactively I could think of how my assumptions about the earth or the "solid" ground and what it could do were naive.  The solid ground is not always solid.  At the same time, it is easy for me to attend to the solidity of ground in non-earthquake times, for example when I am looking for a good foundation for a ladder.  What does it mean to "silently depend" on the solidity of the ground? 

Harman has a strange way of combining what seems to be common sense with nonsense.  He says "There will always be aspects of these phenomena [for example the solid floor of my home] that elude me; further surprises might always be in store.  No matter how hard I work to become conscious of things, environing conditions still remain of which I never become fully aware.  When I stare at a river, wolf....I do not grasp the whole of their reality."  Who could disagree!  And then "This reality slips from view into a perpetually veiled underworld., leaving me with only the most frivolous simulacra of these entities."  (39)  What sense can possibly be made of this idea?   It must mean something more than the mere truisms that preceded it.  

For Harman there are only two kinds of objects:  "the real object that withdraws from all experience, and the sensual object that exists only in experience."  (49)  The alternative position is that there is only one kind of object, the real object which is also the sensual object, i.e. the object that I sense.  Although we can imagine stuff that never can be experienced we can only deal with the world as experienced, and even the most hypothetical and intellectualized or fantastic objects are experienced in some way, for example unicorns are experienced by way of unicorn pictures even though it would be wrong to say that there are animals rightly called unicorns.  



Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Augustine on God and Aesthetic Atheism

Augustine has an interestingly ambiguous attitude towards aesthetics.  At one point he writes:  "But what do I love, when I love Thee? not beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light, so gladsome to our eyes, nor sweet melodies of varied songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers, and ointments, and spices, not manna and honey, not limbs acceptable to embracements of flesh. None of these I love, when I love my God; and yet I love a kind of light, and melody, and fragrance, and meat, and embracement when I love my God, the light, melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man: where there shineth unto my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not, and there clingeth what satiety divorceth not. This is it which I love when I love my God." The Confessions of Saint Augustine  tr. E. B. Pusey (Edward Bouverie) 

From the perspective the aesthetic atheist, the list of things Augustine gives that he does not love when he loves God is precisely what he projects onto God and what he really, in a way, loves after all, except transformed now --- made extraordinary. The aesthetic life which focuses on such things as varied songs, wonderful food, and positive sexual encounters, provides the preliminary material for this transformation.  These sensuous things are just made internal and unchanging in the imagined transformation.   And this is what is meant by "God": when the ordinary things of aesthetic life become extraordinary..or at least that is a non-traditional way of reading Augustine that works for the aesthetic atheist.  

I ran across this passage recently while reading All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly (Free Press, 2011)  They give another translation:  "When I love [God], it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace, but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self."  (117, R. S. Pine-Coffin translation, 1961) )  Could it be that "inner self," here, really means what is experienced when we experience these things as having another dimension, as having aura?  Could it be that seeing the "inner domain" as something literal is a displacement of seeing the beautifies of voice, perfume, good, embrace and so forth in a way that treats them as if eternal?  Can one, in short, reincorporate the vision of Augustine via this rereading into something post-theological?

Dreyfus and Kelly speak of Augustine as trying unsuccessfully to synthesize the ladder of love in Plato and the vision of Jesus, but perhaps in a way that goes beyond Plato.  They write: "what Augustine loves and longs for is not something abstract and eternal, but something that has a delicious fragrance and that he wishes to eat."  (115)  Augustine, when he is converted to Christianity says to God "You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odor.  I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you."  (115)  That is, as we said above, he interprets his experience of God in sensuous terms.  Dreyfus and Kelly see this as "the kind of sensuous experience of agape love that one would expect from an early Christian, an experience that takes seriously Jesus' incarnation and the importance of His bodily presence in one's salvation."  (115)  Given that, to aesthetic atheists, the notion of bodily presence of a man who once lived but no longer does (Jesus) does not make sense, although his imagined bodily presence does.  The sense that can be made must be that the intense religious experience described here is one based on an intensification and transformation of embodied aesthetic experience fictionalized into the imagined living-again body of Jesus.  This is a powerful aesthetic experience, one that gives meaning to the lives of many, and perhaps to be recommended over Plato's abstract non-embodied "Beauty itself" found at the top of the ladder of love.  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A neglected major insight in aesthetics: Roger Seamon on the Conceptual Dimension of Art

I was recently asked by a friend to serve on a jury to decide the best published articles in aesthetics of the previous year.  I froze. Making these lists is not something I normally do and reading a large number of articles in diverse sub-fields of aesthetics does not seem like a pleasant task.  If I had complied I probably would have just sent in some names of articles by people I admire who are working in fields that currently interest me....hardly objective. Sometimes on the other hand I have a compulsive need to look again at articles written several years ago.  It seems like I understood better what was going on back in 2001 and benefit some from hindsight as well.  This retrospective sort of reading is interesting to me in a self-reflective way as well since my current take on these things is quite different, judging by the nature of the comments I wrote in the margins when I originally read the article. 

I just reread Roger Seamon's "The Conceptual Dimension in Art and the Modern Theory of Artistic Value"  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59:2 (2001) 139-151.  It only has about five citations in Google Scholar and yet it is a fine piece and an excellent answer to the dominant view of the time, Arthur Danto's theory of art.  It seemed then that the implication of Duchamp's readymades and the more current conceptual art movement was that the value of works of art lies in their meanings rather than in their perceptual effect. Seamon's response to conceptual art was, in my view, much more reasonable.  He wrote:  "Conceptual art... does not force us to rethink completely the nature of art.  It can, however, help us to become self-conscious about the presence of a conceptual dimension in traditional works of art" (139-140): he calls this a deflationary proposal.  He also observes that a similar "overreaction and subsequent normalization" occurred before in the history of art when mimetic art lost favor.  

Seamon's approach to the various competing theories in the history of aesthetics is particularly valuable.  He says that  "the mimetic, expressive, and formal theories of art were eventually transformed into...'dimension,' that is, different kinds of aesthetic value rather than competing essentialist conceptions of art."  The conceptual, on his view, does the same.  This leads to his view that there has therefore been "progress toward a consensus in the theory of art." Moreover, he firms up his claim by arguing convincingly that conceptual art cultivates a dimension of art that was already there in previous art, i.e. in allegory.  Her also argues that drawing conceptual implications (through the imagination) contributes to the value of a work of art.  Conceptual art involves this kind of imaginative thinking, although unlike traditional allegory, the implied meanings are often indeterminate.  Duchamp's shovel is a gesture which is "understood to be saying something by implication" this implication being relatively open.  Danto saw all art in terms of the conceptual dimension of art, but his idea of art as essentially metaphorical and metaphor as involving a filling in of a gap by the audience through imaginative inference applies, Seamon thinks, to the mimetic, expressive and formal dimensions of art as well.  So he concludes that "the conceptual must take its place with them in the modern theory of artistic value."  (145)  Seamon also observes that when a work is weak in one of these dimensions we often feel a need to fill in the missing dimension.  He finds that "interpreters normally attach a conceptual dimension to works that are themselves aesthetic, i.e., perceptual, and whose value has been independently established on that ground, thus filling in a missing band in the spectrum of artistic evaluation":  we should follow critics in recognizing the four dimensions of art.

The only thing I would disagree with is his apparent agreement with the view that perceptual features are completely irrelevant in conceptual art.  His "dimension" view should go against this. Binkley had argued that when you look at Duchamp's L. H. O. O. Q.  you learn nothing of artistic consequence that you wouldn't get from the description.  Seamon observes that Tim Binkley was arguing against the validity of the entire aesthetic tradition and, although he does not accept this, agrees that conceptual art is "not grounded in appearances." (Binkley's article was "Piece Contra Aesthetics," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34 (1977) 265-277.  I disagree that simply reading a description of one of Duchamp's readymades is sufficient to get it.  Duchamp made these things and displayed them for a reason!  The conceptual element is dominant, but the perceptual element is not absent!  I do not just want to read about Duchamp's thoughts about his readymades: that does not make him interesting as an artist.  Much more interesting is looking at images of the readymades in a book about them, or seeing them in a show.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

everyday awe

There has been a lot of interest recently among psychologists concerning the concept of awe.  So what is the response of the aesthetician?  One immediately thinks of the concept of the sublime, and it is certainly the case that things that are sublime cause us to experience awe.  However, the sublime, going back to Burke's understanding of it, incorporates not only awe, but also delight.  The dictionary defines "awe" as "overwhelming wonder, admiration, respect, or dread."  There doesn't seem to be a delight component required here, although wonder, admiration and respect might each of them have their own associated positive affects.  I can't imagine dread ever having a positive affect component.  But this may be because of my non-religious nature.  I find in dictionary.com that the "current sense of 'dread mixed with veneration' is due to biblical use with reference to the Supreme Being."  Veneration can have a positive affect component, and any dread that a believer has towards God must be combined with some positive affect, love, for example -- otherwise why "believe in" or worship God?  If awe is defined however as simply a combination of fear and surprise then it could only be part of aesthetics in the way ugliness is.....unless of course the surprise aspect contains within it a delight aspect.  Also, psychologists have observed that when people describe experiences of awe they are usually positive.   
I got started on this because my friend Russell Quacchia told me to read article in the New York Times, "Why do we experience awe?"  by Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, May 24, 2015 Sunday Review.  Piff and Keltner associate awe with goose bumps in the first paragraph, which is a bit puzzling to me since one can experience awe without goose bumps and probably (although I don't have a good example) even goose bumps without awe.  More important however is that they give an evolutionary account of the experience of awe: awe motivates people to do community building things. Their list of community-building things draws the attention of the aesthetician.  They include: "collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship."  All of these communal-type events have strong aesthetic components.  So perhaps awe is one of the important aesthetic phenomena.  (Again, this would situate it as somewhat broader than the sublime.)   Some might balk at this mixture of the aesthetic and the religious. However, in tribal societies the arts (music, dance, etc.) and ritual are not clearly distinguished.  So, the distinction may be relatively recent in human evolution.  I am not happy with making these boundaries more porous.  In earlier posts on aesthetic atheism I have argued for incorporation of religious experience under the aesthetic.  

Another aspect of this of interest to the aesthetician is that the psychologists associate awe with shifting focus from narrow self-interest to community well-being. Evolutionary aestheticians have often seen art as something that brings communities together, thus giving them an adaptive advantage.  Awe, and whatever gives rise to awe, might then be adaptive in this sense.

The actual psychological studies used to support this claim seem somewhat odd:  the authors have found that people who record experiencing awe when looking at blue gum eucalyptus trees are more likely to help a stranger pick up some dropped pens. Apparently there is a correlation between experiences of awe and helping strangers. It is not clear, however, how this is community-building since strangers are, by definition, not part of one's community, although helping a stranger is one way of bringing that person into one's community, at least in a tangential and short-lived way.  But it is not clear how this form of altruism (stranger altruism) could be adaptive. 

But all of this relates to the broader issue of the relation between aesthetics and ethics.  If everyday awe is closely associated with ethics (in its stranger altrusim form) then there is a stronger relation between the two then we have thought.  Well, eighteenth century philosophers, for instance Schiller, thought that sensitivity to beauty made one more moral.  So perhaps this is a continuation of that tradition.  

Piff and Keltner say that in one experiment "participants who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were more generous to" a designated stranger.  Maybe this can be generalized. In more common sense terms, experiences of awe might make one feel more expansive and less driven by satisfy immediate personal needs. 

The last part of Piff and Keltner's article is also of interest.  They suggest that our culture is awe-deprived in that we spend more time working and less time outdoors and with others.  We are missing the camping trips and the starry heavens of our youth.  Kant said that two things impressed him:  the moral law within and the starry heavens above.  Piff and Keltner are arguing that the two are deeply connected, that in experiencing awe while looking at the starry heavens we are more inclined to follow the moral law within.  Kant, of course, thought we should follow the moral law out of duty, not inclination....or at least, that this is more admirable.  Sure, but he also found a connection between beauty and morality in his Critique of Judgment.  

Piff and Keltner then extend their critique of our society to a decline in attendance at arts events.  This one is questionable since I have seen other statistics that indicate increases in museum attendance.  Much of this talk about decline in attendance may be associated more with the decline we are seeing in "high art" venues, for example classical music concerts, classical forms of dance, theater, etc. Popular art forms probably see no such decline.  But, as the authors observed, in the U.S. there has been a decline in funding for arts programs in the schools.  So, maybe all of this is an argument for more camping trips and more school arts funding, and I am all for that.

The authors conclude that "awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift ...over the last 50 years:  People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected with others."  It is hard to measure this, and one would have to be careful in defining the key terms.  It does somewhat fit a characterization I have seen of millennials, that they are autonomous, entitled, imaginative, self-absorbed, defensive, abrasive, myopic, unfocused and indifferent  (Managing the Millennials  by Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, Craig Rusch. 2010 35-36.)  

In any case, the upshot of this, if true, is that aesthetics, including everyday aesthetics, may be a lot more important for our cultural survival then we seem to currently believe.  "To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind or water or the quotidian nobility of others...."   Promoting this might be an important goal for everyday aesthetics.