Saturday, April 22, 2017

Crispin Sartwell on everyday aesthetics and wabi-sabi

Crispin Sartwell's fascinating, but also sometimes frustrating, book Six Names of Beauty (Routledge, 2004) is the subject up for discussion here.  I have long thought of Sartwell as one of the originators of the new sub-discipline of everyday aesthetics, but have kind of short-changed him on the theoretical side.  Six Names is very well-written in an essayist style.  But it is also frustrating, as one picks up the book thinking one will learn a lot about six approaches to beauty in six cultures, whereas instead there are often so many side-trips that that fundamentals are lost in the shuffle.  Perhaps the side-trips are the whole point anyway.  The tendency gets really extreme in the second chapter titled "Yapha Hebrew, glow, bloom," which, although it seems at first to be a chapter on Hebrew aesthetics, actually only discusses the Hebrew culture for about three pages, spending most of the time on the beauty of flowers, jewels, water, the sky, perfume, and fireworks! However, once the reader gets used to the idea, the results are well worth the effort.

My comments today, however, will be on the chapter "Wabi-Sabi Japanese humility, perfection." As with the Yapha chapter, this one begins with something seemingly irrelevant to Japanese culture: Sartwell's youthful experience of learning how to play the harmonica.  Although the story is charming and it does capture the interplay of spontaneity, discipline and joy the goes along with learning this instrument, it is hard to see the connection with Wabi-Sabi.  The reader is supposed to say something like this, I suppose: oh yes, this is an art in the West that has these qualities of the lonely, rustic, poverty-related, and impermanent that are also associated with Wabi-Sabi in Japan.  

I am not going to go into detail on Sartwell's take on Wabi-Sabi: suffice it to say it is associated with "withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthy, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral" beauties (114), and also with stillness, solitude, extreme economy of means, imperfection, asymmetry, and humility. 

The essay gets going when Sartwell begins to discuss an account of Soetsu Yanaga of the famous Kizaemon Tea Bowl.  The issue here is the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary in everyday aesthetics.  

Yanegi describes the bowl as "made by a poor man; an article without flavor or personality; used carelessly by its owner; bought without pride.." (115) and the issue then is: how can such a thing be the object of aesthetic delight?  And what does it mean to take aesthetic delight in such a thing?  Sartwell notes that Rikyu, one of the great founders of the Wabi-Sabi form of Teaism, was influenced by Zen and the idea that enlightenment can be found in the ordinary.  Rikyu stressed the ordinariness of the tea ceremony.... and yet he was a connoisseur.  There's a paradox here.

Sartwell sees the paradox and notes that "As an arbitrary emblem of the ordinary, in some sense any ordinary bowl would do.  The very imperfections of the Kizaemon bowl are its aesthetic strengths or the source of its beauty:  it is more ordinary than an ordinary bowl. And yet there is something graceful ...something perfect or right about its form, that is all the more striking for being artless.  The Kizaemon tea bowl achieves beauty without self-consciousness, merely in the engagement of practical concerns."  (116)

Still, there is a paradox in its being singled out, since it is, after all, supposed to be ordinary, and yet at the same time it is kept in five boxes and is shown only to experts.  Sartwell asks: how can the idea of quieting self-consciousness, characteristic of Zen, be reconciled with the self-consciousness of the connoisseur?  It seems that "placing it in five boxes and exalting it beyond price destroys the ordinariness of which it is an emblem."  (117)  

Similarly in the history of Wabi-Sabi you get extraordinary craftsmen trying to imitate the ordinary, and is this much different, Sartwell suggests, than the artificially distressed jeans young people pay big prices for today?  He writes: "it's hard to see how the everyday can resist becoming a mannerism once the connoisseurs get at it."  (117).  The spontaneous comes to be replaced by following the rules.  Thus, one worries: "Wabi-Sabi is a kind of trap, an over-intensifying consciousness of the need for a lapse of consciousness, an ever-broadening exaltation of the ordinary in which the ordinary loses its ordinariness."  (117)

In my book the Extraordinary in the Ordinary I opposed those everyday aestheticians who stressed the ordinariness of the ordinary and who wanted everyday aesthetics to be autonomous or even entirely separated from art aesthetics.  I saw a dynamic relation and a continuity between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics.  But perhaps I did not take into account enough the issues raised by such things as connoisseurship of Wabi-Sabi.  I had Sartwell's book on my shelf and wanted to read it but did not see its relevance to my topic.  So I am regretful than I am only now, several years later, seriously reading Six Names.  Allen Carlson, who's views on the dilemma of everyday aesthetics, I have discussed in a previous post, picked up on this problem, this paradox, without mentioning Sartwell, but based on thinking about something Yuriko Saito said at the end of her book Everyday Aesthetics about tension to be found in the domain of everyday aesthetics.   But Carlson's solution to what he calls the dilemma of everyday aesthetics is simply to reject arts-based approaches (which he associates with Clive Bell's formalism) to the everyday and to stress the ordinariness of the ordinary, which he sees in terms of functionality.  I have argued against this elsewhere. 

But my question here is, what is Sartwell's solution? Perhaps it can be found in the next quote:  "But though wabi-sabi has a contradiction at its heart, it is also a way to transcend the paradox by immersion in it. At its deepest, broadest reach, wabi-sabi is a form of beauty that overcomes the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness, even as it overcomes the dichotomy of ordinary and extraordinary."  (117) Was I perhaps still steeped in that dichotomy even as I wished to talk about the extraordinary in the ordinary?  I will hold off on answering that, but am open to Sartwell's answer, if he has one.  What I think is Sartwell's solution goes on like this: "once one starts to see mud or the blues as beautiful, one is pursuing an affirmation that can lead to the thought that all things are beautiful, that all things can be exalted."  And of course that would be a Zen state, one which will see "ugliness itself as a variety of beauty."  (118)  It is also, I think, what happens when you get to the highest rung of the ladder of love in Plato's Symposium.

Sartwell connects this thought with reflection on the meaning of representation for the Japanese, representation as "encapsulating or crystallizing."  (119) It is not seen as deceptive in Plato's sense because it is not a matter of creating something new but in finding something, as for example in the practice of suiseki, where small stones are placed to form a miniature landscape, or ikebana, which is similar, where "the practice of composition becomes an immersion in or meditation on nature."  (121).  The point, also in bonsai, is to "heighten the sense of the beauty of the world to a point of utmost poignancy, until one sees everything as art, and art as non-art, but as spontaneous nature."  (122.)  OK, that is not far from what I was trying to get at in The Extraordinary.

Sartwell then flies off into another aside, this time on Wolfgang Laib, the artist famous for slaps of marble with milk, and his pieces that collect pollen.   I grant that Laib is an extraordinary artist and that he at least captures the sabi element of solitude in his art, and maybe even the wabi element in that there is no display of skill. (123)  But we have lost sight of the argument, or perhaps a certain tension exists, since Laib clearly is one of those who takes something ordinary and makes it extraordinary, thus abandoning the ordinariness of the ordinary. 

Sartwell of course is suggesting that we take a more Zen approach to our ordinary lives.  So, when he talks about the sound of gravel, he observes that "patina of symbolism," the associations with the rural, the evocation of past experience, the fact that these sounds are common and unmusical, and yet when attended to can have their own beauty.  This is the kind of thing John Cage tried to teach us.  As Sartwell puts it:  this is " our ability to be moved unexpectedly, to find the greatest beauties in the least expected places."  (126)

What appears to be another detour, this time on the concept of patina, may actually be a further attempt to answer, or at least deepen his answer, one that is very unlike Carlson's, concerning the way to approach the ordinary and the everyday.   He talks at length and poetically about a stoneware crock he has which is plain and from the mid 19th century:  "it is now almost black, and the glaze has silvered and deepened into something that makes the surface of this humble object mysterious.  It seems to have a swirling depth floating under the brownish glaze that is not something that could simply be painted on."  It was glazed carelessly and "was never intended to be an aesthetic object."  So what does it mean?  (127) 
Perhaps the point is that only with certain ordinary objects does something extraordinary emerge, some beauty that does something different even than what artists might be able to achieve.  "The surface of the crock has become deep in a plain way."  (127) Perhaps "patina" is an example, even a symbol, of what the ordinary can achieve.  In the case of patina there is a sedimented meaning:  "it shows the traces of what touches it."  To gain patina is to express what one has experienced on the surface and to become more intensely oneself.  (128)

The chapter ends with a discussion of William Carlos Williams as an artist of the everyday.  Williams walks in his neighborhood and, no longer the young man who wants to make something of himself, appreciates the "a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors" to be found on the fences and outhouses of his run-down neighborhood.  I know what he is talking about!  And then Williams says, to end the poem, "No one will believe this of vast import to the nation."  Sartwell sees this poem, "Pastoral," as performing "the entire cycle of Zen" where Williams achieves mindfulness:  "Our lives, in fact, consist largely of the mundane:  most lives are lived in the sort of squalor...that Williams describes."  Williams takes us back to the earth.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Some Reflections on Indian Aesthetics

The field of Indian aesthetics is vast and it is notoriously difficult for Western readers to get even a minimal grasp of what might be going on in Indian texts on art and beauty.  I have been teaching a course on World Aesthetics and have recently been lecturing on Indian aesthetics.  My main source has been the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 2nd edition edited by Michael Kelly.  Our university has electronic access to this encyclopedia, which makes it convenient. There are several articles in there on Indian aesthetics.  

The thing that fascinates me the most about Indian aesthetics is the possible overlap and dialogue with Western aesthetics. Indeed, any area of controversy, even if it goes back to the 11th century, can intrigue a contemporary philosopher.  Abhinavagupta is of particular interest, perhaps because, unlike the earlier rasa aesthetician, Bharata, he does not limit himself to technical discussion of an individual art form, but develops a broad aesthetic theory in the context of an overall philosophical position.  

Looking at V. K. Chari's article on him in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics I am struck by Abhinavagupta's synthesis of ideas of aesthetics with the metaphysics and epistemology of Saivism [I apologize for not using the diacritical marks in this post.]   The notions that, as Chari puts it, "rasa a form of recognition of what one already knows" and that "rasa experience is, in the final analysis, a tasting of one's own consciousness" is intriguing.  There is a way in which aesthetic experience, when powerful and apt, is a kind of rediscovery of something one already knows.   

Chari is wary of Abhinavagupta's metaphysical speculation, as I am.  But, at the same time, Abhinavagupta seems to free Western readers up a bit insofar as he posits aesthetic experience at its highest and most intense as something remarkably close to enlightenment experience.  Chari makes clear that there is still a distinction between rasa and enlightenment experience since the latter has no interest in objects, whereas there is an intense object-directedness in aesthetic experience.  The idea of certain aesthetic experiences being close to enlightenment experience suggests that there may be something of value here even for an atheist like myself.  Whereas the idea of enlightenment may require the existence of a God or a separate metaphysically transcendent realm, the idea of aesthetic experience does not. 

It also might be of value to Western aestheticians to think of ways in which rasa experience can be "supramundane...transcending the empirical modes of cognition such as sense perception, inference and recollection"  and that the experience "completely negates all distinctions of person, place, and time, which obstruct our enjoyment of emotions in real life."  Again, it is not that I would want to affirm this theory, but find that it makes a nice balance against the overemphasis we often see these days on cognitivist approaches to aesthetics.  I would prefer to say that aesthetic experience can involve a perceptual experience that goes beyond what is ordinarily associated with empiricist methodologies insofar as it is as if all of these features are negated.  In addition the idea that distinction Abhinavagupta holds between life emotions (bhavas) and the rasas recognizes that rasas take from life but do not strictly imitate life, not at least in a copying way.  This allows, as Chari observes, for the importance of disinterestedness in aesthetic experience of art in particular and explains why we can experience things that are otherwise negative in an aesthetically positive way when decontextualized and placed within an artistic context.  

Chari has a number of criticisms of Abhinavagupta.  I have already mentioned his problem with the "metaphysical scaffolding" of the theory.  He thinks that the "difference between art experience and life experience may be allowed under the conditions he specifies" without appealing to the metaphysical.  He also questions whether rasa perception is cognitively privileged since he notes that all cognitive functions including perception, inference, and association, are involved in aesthetic appreciation:  "his attempt to focus on the pure moment of the ecstasy of relish to the exclusion of all other accompanying mental processes can be of interest only to the mystic, not the aesthetician."  This may not be entirely fair in my view if the pure moment of ecstasy incorporates or draws into itself all of these other mental processes rather than excluding them.  Chari's next objection is that "the rhapsodic description of aesthetic delight that he gives can apply equally to any sensual ecstasy."  This seems unfair again since other sensual ecstasies are not directed to an artificial world, or if they are, then it might well be argued that they too are directed towards art.  

The most interesting objection is that raised against the idea that the reader's rasa experience is radically different from the emotion presented in the work.  On Chari's view, there is no qualitative difference between the fear that King Lear feels and the fear that we the reader feels.  But I think Abhnivagupta is right on this one, that there is a distinctive difference, and that the fear we feel is tinged with delight, whereas the fear felt by Lear is not.  There may be more differences as well.  Thus when Chari rejects the view that all rasas are pleasant we can agree, but we can also agree that they are all positively tinged.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Aztec Aesthetics and Nietzsche

My purpose in these notes will not be to give an accurate account of Aztec aesthetics but rather to see what can be said about aesthetics as a whole by way of looking carefully at Aztec aesthetics.  At the same time I am interested in what this exploration can contribute to the larger issues of philosophy and even those of the place of humans in the world.  This is not quite the same as Comparative Aesthetics:  the point at issue here is not to simply find similarities and differences between Western and Aztec aesthetics but to see what can come of a dialogue between us and the Aztecs by way of their most profound poetry.   

We know Aztec aesthetics mainly through the codices and in particular the poetry that now counts as the basis for an understanding of Aztec philosophy.  It is prominent that Aztec philosophy gives a much greater position to aesthetics than does Western philosophy.   

In looking at Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel León-Portilla (1963), a major source for these comments, I first looked to the index under “aesthetics” and found no entries at all.  I then looked under "art" and found a few pages devoted to the concept of art, a few of those same pages to the artist, and a few to objects of art.  But this turns out to be the mere surface of Aztec aesthetics since there are multiple entries under the central concept of “Flower and Song” which itself refers to the arts very broadly speaking as well as to everything beautiful.

Very helpful in this regard is the discussion of Aztec aesthetics in a chapter of that name in Richard L. Anderson’s Calliope’s Sisters:  A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art. (1990)  There, drawing mainly on later works by León-Portilla Anderson even describes a philosophical dialogue between several of the Aztec wise men, called thlamatinime (sing. thlamatini).  

Here, I am going to quote some lines from the poetry produced by the thlamatinime and make some comments.  The main tenor of my comments will be this;  that their general position, or the upshot of it in my view, is that there is an underlying divine or spiritual aspect to reality; that we must focus on the “now” of experience to make life meaningful in a world that is otherwise ephemeral; that whatever eternity is possible for humans is to be found not in an afterlife but in “flower and song,” which is to say in this dual-natured thing that combines natural beauty and the beauty of art; and that this view of human existence, which is deeply and fundamentally aesthetic, is not very far from the view offered by Nietzsche in the culminating moments of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his greatest philosophical work, a work that, actually, goes beyond philosophy, and is, in an important sense, deeper than philosophy.  
So, what I look for, or seem to find (the extent to which I project this instead of finding it, or perhaps that León-Portilla  and/or Anderson do so first, and I just follow them in doing so, can never really be known by me) in Aztec philosophy is a deeply aesthetic philosophy that challenges not only Western aesthetics but also Western philosophy to the extent that it provides an aesthetic answer to the deepest skeptical questions we have.  Here are the passages in quote marks.

“Hence, I weep,
for you are weary,
oh God.
Jade shatters,
the quetzal feather tears apart.
Oh God, you mock us.
Perhaps we really do not exist.
Perchance we are nothing to you.”

This is followed in Anderson’s text by the idea that perhaps life :

“…is just a dream
And here no one speaks the truth.”

To this skepticism the answer is:

“Here man lives on earth!
Here there are lords, there is power
there is nobility….
There is ardor, there is life, there is struggle,
the search for a woman, the search for a man.”  (Anderson pp 148-9)

That is, our world might just be a dream, or our lives dreams in the eyes of God, or an illusion on some level, and yet we have our lives on this earth (even if I dream, my dream-world  is the world in which I live, i.e. as a live creature interacting with my environment), and we have the possibility of nobility and great accomplishment, and, probably more importantly, the chance of to love someone, a man or a woman, in the midst of all our struggle.  The things of beauty, jade and quetzal feather, fall apart and fade with time, and yet “flower and song” (which Anderson understands as art broadly speaking, all that is symbolic, and all that has meaningful beauty) remain and have a certain eternity, as can be seen in these passages:

“’Finally, my heart understands it:  I hear a song
I see a flower,
Behold, they will not wither!”


“They will not end, my flowers,
they will not cease, my songs…
Even when the flowers wither and grow yellow,
they will be carried thither,
to the interior of the house
of the bird with the golden plumes”

The house I take it is the house of Being, the essence of beauty, what Plato called Beauty itself.

And from the above-mentioned dialogue we get this clarification:

“From the interior of heaven come
the beautiful flower, the beautiful songs.
Our desire deforms them,
Our inventiveness mars them…
Must I depart like the flowers that perish?
Will nothing of my fame remain here on the earth?
At least my flowers, at least my songs.”  (181)

(Actually, this is also very close to what Diotima is saying in the Symposium…see my post on that.) 

We are inspired by the inner essence of things to express ourselves in flower and song, something that can be marred by merely human desire or inventiveness (e.g. by egoism), and yet if we create these works of art then something of our being, our essence, will remain, which is in the “as if” eternal nature of whatever about these works of art is truly deep. 

It is this commitment to depth that we have somehow lost sight of, at least in professional philosophy:  or perhaps it is just our secret story that many of us philosophers never tell others?  But it is the same story that Nietzsche tells when he speaks of his love of life, at the end of TSZ, where he says that we must be willing to say “yes” to life and be able to will our entire past lives again and again for eternity, as a love of eternity, the eternity he finds not in an afterlife but in “being true to the earth.”  Nietzsche’s new religion of the overman, then, correctly understood, is the same as the new religion of the thlamatinime, i.e. in response to the popular religion of the Aztecs. 

Another telling quote that shows the dynamic relationship between the aesthetics of nature, the aesthetics of art, and “religious” experience is:  [“religious is in quotes since, as an atheist, I reject theism, i.e. the belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God who created the universe:  that’s a myth, and yet it is a myth that hides a meaning captured in part by Heidegger’s idea that we have stopped listening to Being….there is a dimension, to or aspect of, human existence/human experience which is essential and deep and which is only captured mythically by the concept of a God.  This is my view anyway.]

“The Flowers sprout, they are fresh, they grow;
   they open their blossoms, and from within emerge the
   flowers of songs; among men
You scatter them,
You send them.
You are the singer!”  (152)

Of course on a literal level, this tells a story more similar to the one Socrates tells in the Ion than the one I tell:  the idea being that there is a God and He/She (the Aztecs believed in a sexual duality in God) speaks through us in our greatest art.  But if Nature (I am suggesting a kind of Spinozistic position in which Nature has two aspects:  material and spiritual) replaces God (as in Deism or in Transcendentalism) then we have something a bit more plausible, i.e. the “You” just being an anthropomorphic projection of Nature itself and our interactions with it.  This can be consistently read into the poem, for example, “The Flowers sprout….and from within emerge the flowers of songs…” captures this nicely.

And, as Anderson also observes, this happens only for those who “converse with their hearts” i.e. for those who seek out their own innermost nature. 

“The artist:  discipline, abundant, multiple, restless.
The true artist, capable, practicing, skillful,
maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his
    mind.”  (153)


“The good painter is wise.
God is in his heart
He puts divinity into things;
he converses with his own heart.”  (154)

We can only talk about “God” as a symbol of the capacity of the insightful artist to put divinity into the things he or she creates. 
There is, of course, also danger everywhere in philosophy, and not less when we try to seek out Being:  we have to always be aware of Heidegger’s self-seduction into Nazi ideology as well as the Aztec mass executions as evidenced by skulls in piles the Spanish found numbering in the 100,000s.  The search for “flower and song” is meaningless without an ethics based on empathy to shore up a social world in which it can authentically take place.

Monday, February 13, 2017

“Living dangerously,” Janet Norris at Far Out Gallery, San Francisco

Martha, I still Love You.    by Janet Norris

 “Living dangerously,” Janet Norris at Far Out Gallery 3004 Taraval @ 40th Avenue   This show opened on February 4 and will be up until Saturday, February 25, 2017.  The gallery is open Thursday - Saturday 12 - 6 pm, or by appointment.

It is not enough just to live.  One must also take risks, like becoming something of a Surrealist after years of work that was more in the conceptual art/modernist mode.  I thought I might get your attention with the word “Surrealist” since Surrealism and Dadaism seem very much back in fashion: for example, the current show at the Cantor Museum at Stanford University.  And Norris definitely has surprising juxtapositions of objects:  housing interiors and woodsy scenes, to name one frequent type.  Magritte is the appropriate reference for a painting like “I go there,” which features an early 20th century chair in the middle of a birch tree woods.  But that was then (1920s-40s), and this is now. Norris is really dealing with the way we live now, in an increasingly dangerous world….but living still.  In this show, for example, there are a few paintings dealing with one very contemporary issue related to our world:  the plight of refuges.  The dominant images in each of these are taken from the many shots in newspapers and on the web of people from Syria, Iraq and many other countries, trying to find refuge.  My favorite of these is “The Refuges #1,” where a small group furtively moves forward against a simple, but strongly laid-out, landscape, perhaps in the early morning.   [Dates of painting are not listed, but most of the paintings in this show are from the last three years.]

Somewhat more characteristic of her recent work, but still with reference to modern day terrors, is “Homs Lullaby.”  Norris often divides up her paintings so that there is a panel on the right painted in a different style and space from the rest of the painting.  The right panel comments on the rest.  In this case, 4/5ths of the painting is a bucolic river scene with an empty row-boat in the center.  Dynamic brush strokes render the trees a little hairy though, almost Rastafarian.  The scene at the right might well be an abstraction of the rubble that remains of cities in Syria.  The calm scene on the left can be a kind of balm for the horror.  Or the scene of destruction on the right can be seen as a corrective for our desire to escape present reality. 

Nature and humanity’s relation to it is a frequent subject of Norris’s acrylics.  Often there is reference to environmental destruction.  A simple yet disturbing painting is “Waiting in The Wild,” which depicts a horse, standing forlorn in the shallows of a vast sea.  (Many of Norris’s paintings are vaguely symbolic:  is the horse us?)  Another painting, “Come from Far,” features a horse again, this time in a windowed room, although also standing in a field, and haunted by human figures and watching and waiting.  One thinks here of Edvard Munch or Peter Doig, influences she mentions in her artist’s statement.  At other times, the presence of nature is simply meant to be evocative of an Edenic world other than our own: for example in “A River Comes In.” [I think this last one was not in the show, however.] 

A favorite of mine is “Fear of Fire.”  It features three wolves facing a small river, in the woods, in greens and blue, and yet hovering above everything turns red and yellow – firelike.  In the right panel is a two storied building, not in the same space but somewhere else:  a figure seems comfortably moving about behind a window.   I like it mostly because of the harmonies and balances: for example the balance between Norris’s Fauvist handling of trees and the Ashcan School look of the urban part on the right. “Martha, I Still Love You, After a Tom Waits Song,” references fire as well, this time a literal blaze on the horizon, and this time posed against a panel on the right which contains a romantic dancing couple. 

Another painting, “Losing It,” features a realistically rendered bed (I love Norris’s furniture).  The bed is half nestled in woods of birch trees and half in a bedroom with a picture on the wall; and also juxtaposed against a mirror which windows onto a woman doing something outside, possibly chopping wood.  This painting re-asserts Norris’s interest in domestic life, in the manner of Bonnard, and nature together.  Speaking of taking risks (successfully), notice the strange circular patterns in the rug, and the gash of orange for a curtain. 

“Once Was” also takes risks with hues, reminding me a bit of Vlaminck.  I like the contrasts between the reds on the left, the purples in the upper skies, the orange-ish yellow above the horizon line, and the slash of blue for a tree in the foreground…again with a panel on the right representing a rickety house in its own space.  “Remembering Past Times” is another part-nostalgic look at nature with two small white figures on the right that remind of Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de Vivre.”   But what dominates the space is the radical transforming of trees from color to stark blacks and whites in their upper halves…it is all nature, but a bit post-apocalypse. 
This relates to another painting, “The Mother’s Mother,” in which leafless trees are rendered in ghostly browns over another rapidly-moving stream.  The right panel almost in the same space, but containing a more human scene of a wrapped older woman facing us.

I also very much like “The Ancient Empire.”  This time the leafless trees (the foreground ones topped as well) with emaciated gashes on the canvas set against a bleak background remind me of Anselm Kiefer and Clifford Still.  The much smaller right panel is a strong contrast since it is teaming with life.       

As we have seen, Norris, who originally came from Iowa, constantly revisits her past while exploring her present.  Over the last couple years she has showed widely in the North Bay Area at such galleries as GearBox Gallery in Oakland and Mythos Gallery in Berkeley.  She first started exhibiting in 1976 after receiving a BA and Master of Arts at San Jose State. One of her well-known teachers was Tony May.  She was also a founding member of Works Gallery in San Jose.  We look forward to many such future shows.

You can see images of many of these paintings at the gallery and also art

Monday, January 23, 2017

Is there a Rationalist contribution to aesthetics? continued

The German Rationalists thought aesthetic ideas were confused representations of that which is really perfect, and which can be seen clearly and distinctly by reason.  But, more likely, aesthetic ideas are ideas of something that can never be perfect in itself but which are experienced as if perfect.  Perfection is really two things, perfection as experienced and perfection in reality.   It is the wonderful con-fusion of the particular and the universal in the aesthetic idea that actually constitutes perfection as we experience it.   The particular by itself can never be perfect, and the universal by itself is never really experienced.  Perfection as idea is prior to its experience.  Perfection is an ideal, not the object of what Kant would call an Idea of Reason.  So we must distinguish between kinds of confusion, a good sort and a bad sort, although the good sort should probably not be called confusion, since “confusion” has such a negative connotation.   Let’s call it the fusion of the particular and the universal.  It is in sensual perception of the particular as also universal that perfection is manifest.   

In order to fully understand the notion of perfection however we need to understand the role of the sublime in aesthetics.  Actually, we need to go further and revise our notion of beauty.  Beauty should be subsumed under the sublime.  This is the opposite of the Rationalist tendency to subsume the sublime under the beautiful in the sense of the merely proportionate or harmonious.  Also it is in opposition to those who would see the beautiful and the sublime as very different.  Actually understanding one in terms of the other is very illuminating.  Both have what I called, in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, “aura.”  So how is beauty so subsumed?   It is a mistake to see beauty just in terms of harmonious surface, or even in terms of a specific harmonious whole that is right in front of us.  Beauty is only beauty if it fits, and is harmonious with, something much broader than the object just in front of us.  So beauty too, like the sublime, has an unendingness to it.  When we fall in love and see our beloved as beautiful there is something sublime here as well.  Beauty partakes of the sublime.  Just as there is a pain aspect of the sublime, so too with beauty.   Beauty would not be beautiful without the potential of its loss.   The aura of the sublime is that which is behind beauty.   The sublime has an element of horror, but so too does beauty, i.e. as something in the background, something we are vaguely aware of.  In the 20th century we came to see the beautiful more and more in terms of the sublime, i.e. in terms of the mysterious and the wonderful.

Both the sublime and the beautiful have aura.   Aura unifies aesthetics: the sublime, the beautiful and the merely pretty.  This is all connected with Dewey’s idea of pervasive quality and infinite background to be discussed later.

In explaining the Rationalist position of Mendelssohn, Beiser writes, “We take pleasure in the sublime because it is immeasurable and unfathomable, but perfection is by its very nature measurable and fathomable, the structure by which we grasp an object as a whole.” (218)  But perfection is neither measurable nor fully fathomable, even though it is the structure by which we grasp an object as a whole, what the Rationalists called unity in diversity.    Beiser continues: “The aesthetics of perfection, as Baumgarten first defined it and as Mendelssohn later endorsed it, claims that all aesthetic pleasure consists in the intuition of such a structure, in its confused sensible representation.”  (218)  The problem for the Rationalists is that this cannot explain the sublime.  But it can, if we recognize the continuity between the sublime and the beautiful, and that perfection itself has been misconceived.  Of course to have unity you need to be able to grasp the object as a whole, and yet unity is constituted in the perception.  The object extends beyond the immediate unity, the organic whole of which it is immediately a part.  In having unity one could say that it participates in the larger unity of which it is part.  Organic wholes can be seen as self-contained and immediate organic wholes or as not self-contained and as parts of larger organic wholes. An important element of the properly beautiful object is not simply that it is an organic whole but that it is in harmony with other larger organic wholes of which it is a part.  “The problem with the sublime is that by its very nature it transcends the limits of beauty.  The pleasure of the sublime seems to arise precisely from our incapacity to grasp the object as a whole; it stirs out admiration just because it is immeasurable, unfathomable, and infinite.”  (219)  But this is true of beauty too, although in a different way. 

So, Beiser says, “All sensible pleasure is for [Mendelssohn] the intuition of perfection, which consists in unity-in-multiplicity.  He want all sensible pleasures, of which the sublime is only a species, to be the confused perception of the forms of reason, the sensible analogues of the purely rational pleasures we would have if we were completely rational beings.”  (220)  The last part is an unrealizable myth:  we are not and should not want to be completely rational beings.  Sensible pleasure is indeed intuition of perfection, of a unity in multiplicity, but this unity is an ideal, not an idea of reason. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Is there a German Rationalist contribution to aesthetics?

It seems strange to find myself sympathetic to some of the things the German Rationalists (I capitalize Rationalists since the reference is not just to people who value reason but to a specific philosophical school of thought) held in the 18th century, for example in their thoughts about aesthetics.  However I have been reading Frederick Beiser’s Diotima’s Children:  German Aesthetic Rationalism from Leibniz to Lessing (Oxford University Press, 2009) and I must say that the whole thing has given me some pause.  The Rationalists, for Beiser, are Leibniz, Wolff, Gottshed, Baumgarten, Wincklemann, Mendelssohn and Lessing.  Kant is not included, and, in fact, much of his Critique of Judgment is seen as a systematic attack on the aesthetic Rationalists.  (Beiser sees Kant as largely misunderstanding the Rationalists, particularly in assuming that the concept associated with perfection must be a concept of purpose.)  Baumgarten is important for aesthetics in that he invented the term "aesthetics." He is also important for everyday aesthetics in that Richard Shusterman has recently argued for revival of some of his ideas.  Winklemann is important as the father of Art History.  

My theme here will simply be Beiser’s list of the fundamental propositions held by the rationalists.    They are

1.    “The central concept, and subject matter, of aesthetics is beauty.
2.       Beauty consists in the perception of perfection.
3.       Perfection consists in harmony, which is unity in variety.
4.       Aesthetic criticism and production is governed by rules, which it is the aim of the philosopher to discover, and reduce to first principles.
5.       Truth, beauty, and goodness are one, different facets of one basic value, which is perfection.”  

There are ways in which I can see all of these as true, although interpreted in a manner way different from that of the Rationalists.  

(1)  I take the central concept of aesthetics to be “aura” (as described in my book  The Extraordinary in the Ordinary) and I take this to be the replacement concept for “beauty” which itself is still a paradigm of aura.  I would, however, not want to limit aura to things that are harmonious. There are many more things that have aura that are not particularly harmonious.  For example, something can be "new" in an aesthetic sense, and thus have aura, and yet lack any obvious harmony...for example the early works of a revolutionary rock band.     

(2)  I was not, at first, inclined to think of beauty as perception of perfection.  For one thing, perfection seems incredibly rare in this world.  However, when I think of the word "perfection" I think of something like a perfectly straight line, i.e. one in which no mathematical point deviates from straightness.  Such perfection is not even available in our world: only in the world of mathematics and logic.  

Yet this may be an overly narrow view of perfection and there may be other sorts of perfection.   Or, to put it differently, one should not necessarily reject everything associated with a word, such as the word "perfection," given that it may be used to do many sorts of things.  

Think of the experience of perfection on drinking a really great cup of coffee.   You take the first sip and say "Perfect!" “Exactly right” may be part of the experience, but the perfection of the cup of coffee is more than that.  Perhaps it is just ineffable.  In any case, it is very unlike the perfection of a perfectly straight line.  It it more like a perfectly aligned door or perfectly placed piece of furniture. Of course what we are talking about here may have a larger subjective element than what we find in mathematics:  "looks perfect" is perhaps the aesthetic quality we are really looking for here.    

(3)  The idea that perfection is "unity in variety" really surprised me.  Although I would agree that there is unity in variety in experiences and works of art that are organic wholes, one of the main problems with this phrase is that it seems to allow too many things to be beautiful.  It cannot be that every unity is beautiful. That would mean basically that every thing is beautiful, which is implausible.  The phrase "unity in variety" even seems redundant, since to have unity you must already have many different things that are unified.  What exactly is the force of adding the "variety" part?  This may be our clue to resolving the problem of limiting unity in variety.   Perhaps what is suggested is that beauty comes when there is unity of parts that are more different from each other than one would normally expect.  Here is another solution.  Websters says that unity in variety is "a principle that aesthetic value or beauty in art depends on the fusion of various elements into an organic whole which produces a single impression." Perhaps beauty is apprehension of unity in variety in objects that are not just unified but are also organic wholes.  This would still be too broad, however, since it is arguable that almost all works of art are organize wholes, and yet only some can be judged as beautiful. If, as another option, we add that there must be a feeling of perfection then we lose the economy of identifying perfection with unity in variety.   All of these parts of the conceptual field must fit together for the idea to work, but I do not know how.

Yet it strikes me that there is a lot in common between the early German rationalists and my hero, John Dewey.  His idea of a pervasive quality that dominates our experience of something in “an experience” seems to fit the idea of "unity in variety."  Sure, there can be beauty in imperfection, as the Japanese followers of wabi-sabi insist.  But is there beauty without the pervasive quality?   Perhaps the perfection referenced here is consistent with the Japanese notion of imperfection.   

Some everyday aestheticians have criticized Dewey for stressing the harmony of "an experience" too much.  I agree that there should be some things that count as "an experience" that are lacking in harmony, and that there are some things that should count as "aesthetic" that are not examples of "an experience."   So, harmony, unity in variety, and perfection, are not required for the aesthetic. But perhaps they still indicate an ideal.   

(4)  Of course both aesthetic criticism and production are governed by rules, e.g. when they are academic or when they exhibit a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation.  And yet they are also, it seems, not governed by rules, i.e. in the ways they are creative.  So, in one aspect or way they are, and in one aspect or way they are not, governed by rules.  Yet, Kant, who agreed that rules are important in fine art, also asserted that in fine art the genius gives the rule to art.  So, for Kant, the creative genius is someone who makes her own rules.  This would not be inconsistent then with the fourth principle.  Perhaps we can have rules that are not explicit. Another acceptable possibility would be that we do have rules but they are quite general and vague, for example "A work of art should have some sort of unity."  The existence of such rules would be no great constraint on creativity.  

(5)  One of the things I have never been happy with about Kant is his radical separation of truth, beauty and goodness.  This is one of the things that gives rise to his famous idea that art is autonomous.   There is something to the notion that truth, goodness and beauty are one, although I am not sure how that plays out. The idea goes back to Plato, particularly in his Symposium, although it might have first been explicitly stated by the Renaissance philosophy Ficino.  A similar idea, that Unity, Truth, and Good are one was promoted by Aquinas.  See this Wikipedia article on transcendentals.,  

Here, the Rationalists are followers of Plato, but also seem to be in line with the Pragmatists!   Dewey would not radically separate truth, beauty and goodness.  Sure, you can say that not all truths are beautiful, or even pretty, and not all beautiful things purvey or encourage the truth.  Sure, you can say that not all good things are beautiful or even pretty and also that not all beautiful things promote the good.  But the idea here is that there is a deep inner connection between the three.  I think there is, although it would be awfully hard to express.   

What if judgments of beauty that disagree with the good and judgments of the good that disagree with beauty are just problematic?  What if we could just assume that there is something wrong happening when beauty, good and true disconnect?  What if intuition of essences gives an experience of beauty which is here, also, truth?  What if intuition of essences gives us the good in a thing too?  My intuition is that there could be an identification of beauty, good and truth.  

With regards to Pragmatism, isn't it interesting that there is a quote from Peirce that goes "Logic follows Ethics and both follow Aesthetics." Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. Hartshorne C. and Weiss P. (Harvard University Press, 1931), Vol. 1, p. 311  [I owe this reference to the above cited Wikipedia article.]  If we took that quote seriously, wouldn't that upset the entire apple-cart of philosophy?  
Here are some other ideas from Beiser or from the philosophers he discusses and my thoughts about them.

Here is Beiser on Baumgarten:

"Following Wolff, Baumgarten's central thesis is that beauty consists in the intuition of perfection.  Much careful thought went into that definition.  Every feature of it is strategic, accounting for some aspect of aesthetic experience or some desideratum of aesthetic judgment.  Such a thesis attempt to explain both the subjective and objective aspects of beauty.  In making perfection essential to beauty, it makes beauty partially objective.  If there were no unity-in-variety in the object, there would be no beauty. But in making intuition also crucial to beauty, it also makes beauty subjective.  If there were no sensible perception of perfection, there also would be no beauty.  The advantage of the objective component of beauty is that it is possible to justify aesthetic judgment, to give some reasons for it, where these reasons point to some features of the object itself, chiefly features of its formal structure." (145)  He also observes that Baumgarten recognizes that "we cannot precisely identify and determine what it is that makes an object so pleasing or appealing."  (145) So, for Baumgarten, "As a direct awareness of a particular, intuition has an extensive clarity and liveliness that cannot be fully elaborated or explained by concepts."  (146)  That seems about right. 

See my follow-up on this here.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Further thoughts on Liu Yuedi

I have previously posted on Liu Yuedi here but have new motivation to look at his ideas especially as expressed in his  "'Living Aesthetics' From the Perspective of the Intercultural Turn." [see previous post for reference] Part of the motivation is that I plan to teach my Philosophy of Art class this semester as a World Philosophy class.  The title in itself is interesting.  I am not entirely happy with the term "Living Aesthetics," because in English this would imply a distinction between living and dead aesthetics, and I am not sure of the value of that or that it meets Yuedi's intention.  A better title for his project might be "The Aesthetics of Life."  I think I have used this phrase before myself. 

Although mainly I have been writing in the field called "the aesthetics of everyday life" the appeal of "the aesthetics of life" is that it is broader and will definitely include the aesthetics of parties and ritual as well as more strictly everyday life phenomena.  

The other aspect of the title is also intriguing:  we have had "the linguistic turn" and then also I think "the pragmatist turn."  Is there, or has there been, an intercultural turn?   Perhaps there is one in the offing and if my decision to teach a course in world aesthetics is any indication then perhaps we have a trend, but who is to say.  In any case, it is at least interesting that Yuedi elaborates this thought in terms of the notion that the closely related fields of environmental aesthetics and art aesthetics are now gaining a sort of prominence that puts them up there with the philosophy of art as central to aesthetic theory in general. Rereading Yuedi's essay suggests that thinking in terms of world trends has its attractions. Some of the historical context he gives is familiar to me and some not:  isn't it fascinating to look at the rising field of everyday aesthetics from a very different perspective, i.e. from the standpoint in this case of Chinese aesthetics and contemporary art theory?   Yuedi says that "the dialogues between West and the East....are bound to be more frequent" and I hope that this is the case.

Yuedi says "with the boundaries between art and everyday life being dismissed by contemporary art and the environment turning into the environment of human life; contemporary philosophy of art and environmental aesthetics have taken on a tendency to fuse into aesthetics of living."  (14-15)  Yes, maybe.  Contemporary art does sometimes dismiss such boundaries, although to be frank, I seldom have trouble distinguishing between an object of contemporary art and an object of everyday aesthetic interest.  I usually find contemporary art in galleries, whereas I find everyday objects outside of galleries, for example.  Contemporary art is certainly interested in everyday life.  

The other claim about fusion of philosophy of art and environmental aesthetics into another broader field, an aesthetics of living, is intriguing.  Dewey long argued against separation of art and life.  Current debates in everyday aesthetics often center around whether we should understand it in terms of traditional categories of art aesthetics or in terms of something very distinct from art aesthetics.  Yuedi's solution is admirably to try to overcome the dualism between art and life implied in such debates.

Yuedi writes that "The aesthetic is acknowledged to be the 'profound standard' for the quality of human life and development of the environment and lifeworld."  If that were true then the aesthetic would be immensely important, far more important than philosophers in the U.S., at least, take it to be.  The word "the" here also seem to imply that the profound standard would no longer be religion or ethics, and that would be momentous.

"there is a deep-routed tradition of aestheticizing everyday life in Chinese culture and art." (15)  This seems to be so, and if part of the goal of the aesthetics of everyday life is to actually promote this, then the West has a lot to learn from China.  Yuedi uses this also to make the aesthetics of everyday life into a bridge between Chinese and Western aesthetics.  

Yuedi also observes different motives in the move to "living aesthetics" from the East and the West, where the move from the East is more a matter of appropriating what is already theirs, and the move from the West is to react against fine art-centric ways of looking at aesthetics that go back to Hegel, at least. (I would argue that the problem is even deeper historically, that it goes back to the dominance of dualism and rationalism and can be found in the Cartesian and even the Platonic violence against aesthetics, especially against aesthetics of everyday life, a violence which is often, however, deeply ambiguous and hence open to deconstruction.)

In another related paper Yuedi discusses what he calls Neo-Chineseness.  This is "Chinese Contemporary Art: From De-Chin eseness to Re-Chineseness" in Mary B. Wiseman and Liu Yuedi eds.  Subversive Strategies in Contemporary Chinese Art:  Western Criticism and Chinese Aesthetics (Leiden and Boston:  Bill Academic Publishers, 2011)  There he discusses the issue of natural or cultural identity in relation to matters of aesthetics and philosophy of art.  The specific danger for him is the Chinese art, as contemporary art, is "in danger of losing its identity" and must pass through a phase of "Re-Chineseness" as a necessary step to a "neo-Chineseness" based on the general principle that "The more ethnic features art reflects, the more universally acceptable it becomes." Back to the Living Aesthetics article, this move towards Neo-Chineseness is, in his view, "making important contributions to the two-way expansion of Chinese and Western aesthetics."  (15)  He calls for a "new pattern of development of world aesthetics" that goes beyond merely encountering and understanding "the Other."  

For Yuedi,  "art," "environment," and "lifeworld" are the "main trends of contemporary global aesthetics."  If so, this would mark a major shift in which concern for aesthetics of environment and aesthetics of life or lifeworld become much more important than they currently seem to be, at least in the West.  It is my view that some of the troubles of the marginalization that Aesthetics currently suffers from within philosophy is that (1) it is pushed aside by Ethics (why should Ethics eat up most of the realm of value?) and (2) it is ghettoized into the realm of high art, at least in the minds of other philosophers.  Contemporary philosophy just fails to recognize the centrality of aesthetics to any adequate philosophy of the person, philosophy of life, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, or even to and adequate epistemology or metaphysics.  The problem is mainly one of institutional structures, which is also related to the history of the discipline.  Any discipline that begins with an anti aesthetic anti-art bias will never be good to aesthetics.  The dominance within mainstream philosophy of a form of rationalism that gives priority to standard forms of logic over sensuous experience and intuition, the very problem that prompted Baumgarten to introduce the term "aesthetics" in the 18th century, continues today in this marginalization.  Chinese aesthetics, and perhaps world aesthetics, does not have this problem.

"aesthetics of everyday life is formed in breaking free of the confinement of art and returning to life."  (17)  Of course art is not always confining, but this sentence might be usefully rewritten to stress the confinement to fine art by a logic-centered rationalist philosophical orthodoxy and a returning to the aesthetics of life from that.

Yuedi has an interesting take on the evolution of aesthetics in relation to Danto's idea of the artworld, thinking that the end of art allows for a liberation which actually opens up to and is suggestive of an aesthetics of the everyday, and further, that defining art in terms of the artworld turns our attention once again to the world of human interactions (although, albeit, only one small part of it), the move to artworld being preliminary to the move to the lifeworld by way of the end of art.  Yuedi associates "the end of art" with specific artistic movements, e.g. conceptual art, performance art and land art, i.e. a continuation in which art does not really end but rather opens up to the lifeworld where art returns to body and nature, at least the second two instances, maybe becomes philosophy in the first, although Yuedi sees it as returning to "the concepts of real life." (19)

"These branches of aesthetics [conceptualism, somaesthetics, and natural aesthetics] further correspond to the conceptualism of the Chinese traditional Zen Buddhism, the syntheticism of Confucianism, and the natural aesthetics of Taoism."  (19)

Yuedi posits an important element of shift in the move within environmental aesthetics from the aesthetics of nature exclusively to a new concern for human environments, there being a radical change "in terms of the object of study."  I wouldn't say that this actually happened:  it was more that environmental aesthetics expanded to include human environments.  But I do like the his claim that "[w]hile aesthetics of everyday life is regarded by many as a part or a branch of environmental aesthetics, the inverse is also true.  That is, environmental aesthetics can also be considered a part of living aesthetics, in that we all 'live' in the environment." 

Yuedi himself favors the idea that "the environment is centered on human life" although he recognizes that this leads to the charge of anthropocentrism.  But without the human, he says, "who cares whether the environment exists or not?" and "The environment is always the environment for the human."  (21) However, I agree with those who would say that the environment is not always for the human, and that it is worthwhile for us sometimes to try to think outside of anthropocentrism.  Even though, as Yuedi has observed, our environment has been "humanized" over the last few thousand years, it still exists, for example, for the cat, when it comes to cat consciousness, and for the whale, when it comes to the whale.  Still, a recognition that we cannot ever entirely escape the human perspective does lead to the idea of environmental aesthetics fusing into the aesthetics of living.  Or as Yuedi also says, environmental aesthetics, ecological aesthetics (insofar as it also includes cultural ecology) and social aesthetics all lead to living aesthetics.  

"The Euro-American countries need living aesthetics because they want to go beyond analytic aesthetics, while China needs living aesthetics because it tries to rediscover the tradition of Confucianism, Taoism and Zenism."  Both seek to "underline the necessity of appreciating asrt by way of living aesthetics, and looking at everyday life by way of art."  (23)

Why?  "profound changes have taking place in contemporary culture and art, such that living aesthetics rises as a direct reaction against them" and "in an age of globalization, three is a two-way, pan-aesthetic movement sweeping the world" but "life as art" and "art as life" (the later happening when art loses its "aura" in Benjamin's sense).  This all is directed against "aesthetic disinterestedness" and "autonomy of art" so central to classical aesthetics, the former idea actually challenged by "the aestheticization of everyday life."  

"Chinese classical aesthetics is in essence a real living aesthetics, and provides an ideal of human life."  Confucianism for example centers on the concept of "qing" meaning emotion/feeling, the essence of Confucianism being a unity of li (rituals) and yue (music) the harmony of these being perfect beauty and goodness.