Thursday, April 23, 2020
A question that has often exercised me is something like "what is the highest calling for everyday aesthetics?" I think that the Kierkegaard quote speaks to this, and it is psychologically helpful for me that I find it in a work by Adorno, who, although like Kierkegaard, influenced strongly by Hegel, is no ally to orthodox religious thinking. I also find interesting the idea of "the only miracle" since I take this to mean that no miracle produced by any religious hero goes beyond this. This is as metaphysical as it gets. Also, one would think (might well think, falsely) that the everyday aesthetician would be committed to what Kierkegaard believed to be the lowest kind of life, the sensuous. But then it turns out the the highest form of life, the life of "the knight of faith," is a matter of bringing the extraordinary down to the ordinary, to "express the sublime in the pedestrian." I think that everyday aesthetics can serve many purposes, but the most important of these is to find a new home for religious sentiments, a home for atheists and agnostics during a time of crisis.
So this connects with another question which is how does one find meaning in life during the time of the Covid epidemic. For those who still believe in God the path may well be similar, but I will only address it for the non-believer. To put it simply, to find meaning one must every day find meaning in what is experienced every day. This takes on a special potency in a time in which the significant moments of our days are associated with the daily walks, working in the garden, cooking at home, and so on. The daily walk is of particular interest here. I have been reading Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. Solnit treats walking as a kind of secular meditation, as, one could say, did Thoreau. Kierkegaard's point, for me, is to try to experience what I see, hear, and smell as I walk (the last requires taking my mask off for a bit when no one is around) in such a way as to experience the extraordinary, the sublime, in the ordinary, in the, literally, pedestrian.
Wednesday, April 8, 2020
Essences are models, or model-like (in that the perceived thing becomes a model, a paradigm), and they are real and true to the extent that they work. And they are manifested both in enhanced creative activity and in the experience of aura. So, as indicated above, they are and are not seen. In effect, to see something in essentiality is to truly see it. Essences are only not seen in the sense of being unavailable outside the activity of philosophical or other similar dialectic of the spirit (as in the arts).
Thus, the world of essences is, unlike the world of Forms, just an aspect of our dynamic phenomenological space that emergences from out interaction with the environment as living beings trying to solve problems and live life. It can be seen as a special realm since one can seem as if in a special transcendent realm when perceiving the world in terms of essences
The word “imagination” may not always be helpful here. It is not as though there were a separate faculty of the mind called “imagination.” Rather, essences are perceived with the same faculties that we use to perceive things in more practical contexts. But essences emerge in a special kind of perception.
Plato, again, is oddly right that entering this state of being is like entering another realm, especially insofar as these things are as if unchanging. And it is also as if we were eternal and unchanging, as if we were perceiving all of these with eternal unchanging souls. Soul emerges as essences emerge: they emerge in tandem. But whereas Plato saw this as escaping the world of the senses, of perception, the current view is that in essences perception is intensified, as words, through dialectic, interact with things seen. In a sense it could be said, perhaps Vico saw this, that essences are created by the imagination: again, this just means that we, as fully embodied beings, interact with the world in such a way that aura and essentiality emerge together.
Perhaps all of this is what Plato was pointing towards when he spoke of a method that was hypothetical, the hypotheses being the Forms. Essences are hypotheses taken as first principles, and tested. But unlike Plato, the proof is in the effectiveness of this emergence, in what is generated.
It could be argued that Plato even saw this too when he spoke of the proof of grasping of the Form of the Good being in terms of the creative products that emerge.
Much of the value of art comes from the way its form and content resonates with moments in these other dialectics.
There are canonical definitions, canonical works, and canonical debates (with competing positions accepted as at least viable or living) at any particular time in history…place too. The search for essences takes place within the background of these.
Philosophy of art is primarily philosophy. It is concerned with meeting the needs of the philosophical side of our culture (i.e. by way of answering the central or burning questions of philosophy, which themselves are grounded on the burning questions of the culture and of current humanity). Thus philosophy of art (allied with its close associate, aesthetics) it is in competition and dialectical tension with the so-called or current "core" areas of philosophy, for example metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. As we shall see, philosophy of art/aesthetics poses some significant challenges to these core areas.
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
These comments were originally intended to be given at the American Society for Aesthetics Pacific Division meeting in Berkeley that was to meet last week but was cancelled due to the current pandemic. I rewrote them somewhat after seeing Bob's intended reply. All references are to Intersections of Value: Art, Nature and the Everyday by Robert Stecker, Oxford University Press, 2019.
However, I like resolving what Carlson and Parsons called the problem of indeterminacy (how to determine the right function for evaluation) in Bob’s way more than in their way. That is, it is not a matter of eliminating all functions but one, the proper function, but a matter of considering all functions. Looking at the Plaza Major one should consider both the original and the current function in order to get a better, richer, appreciation of it. This goes along not only with pluralism but with the idea of combining different perspectives…a matter already discussed with respect to appreciation of nature.
Bob says “to make an adequate overall judgment one must weigh up all these considerations.” (149) I would go a bit further: one must not only weigh considerations but synthesize approaches. Bob considers the Zaha Hadid designed museum at Michigan State. Here, it is clear that he is concerned with the fact that some functions do not work well together, for he says that “an evaluation of the overall aesthetic effectiveness of the museum should consider this defect [that it would work better in its own space] and weigh it against the building’s virtues.” I am just not surely that weighing here is as important as synthesis, but I am not sure this is a point of real disagreement between us.
Monday, February 10, 2020
Something is telling about Johnson's focus on contrast. Contrast between qualities is interesting, and one may think about the contrast between two qualities of leaves in different seasons. But this is not the "stuff of our lives." The stuff of our lives is the quality of the leaves we experience now (say, in the Spring) and it is only really stuff of our lives, only really important for us, if it is experienced as beautiful. After giving a poem by William Stafford, Johnson writes (by way of summarizing the point of the poem), "The air, the water, the memories---all cool and refreshing. And while it lasts, there you are, too, present, just present, taking it in, feeling the morning and the world and peace. And that is the meaning of it all." (227) Well, you might think that a particular intense aesthetic experience is the meaning of it all, but again it is not the qualities alone by themselves. The qualities have a quality: and it is that quality, commonly called beauty, that gives life meaning.
Johnson may be right that this is essentially Dewey. As he puts it "Dewey's claim about the primordial qualitativeness of our lives would seem almost trivial, were it not for that fact that it is hard to think of a philosophy that does justice to this insight" i.e. that qualities are the "stuff of meaningful experience." (227) Johnson stresses the idea of the prevasive unifying quality in Dewey. He refers to this as "Dewey's big idea." And there is reason to think it is!
But notice this passage from Johnson, which refers to our ability to immediately recognize a Picasso in a museum: "there is a pervasive unifying quality of this particular work you are now engaging....[a]nd the meaning of that particular work is realized, as a horizon of possibilities for meaning, in and through its qualitative unity" (231). Johnson then quotes from Dewey. But what I wish to stress here, and I will give the quote from Dewey to show this, is that the quote agrees with me and not with Johnson. The quote does not support the position that Johnson is trying to support...i.e. that it is all about meaning.
Here is the quote from Dewey: "The total overwhelming impression comes first, perhaps in a seizure by a sudden glory of the landscape, or by the effect upon us of entrance into a cathedral when dim light, incense, stained glass and majestic proportions fuse in one indistinguishable whole. We say with truth that a painting strikes us. There is an impact that precedes all definite recognition of what it is about." (Dewey, 1987, 150) (Johnson, 231). The point is that this impact precedes meaning, precedes "what it is about." Focus on the term "sudden glory." The pervasive unifying quality is precisely the profound beauty or perhaps sublimity of the object. (Or at least it is completely bound up with that beauty.)
So it is missing something to say that, for Dewey, "art reveals, through immediate presentation of qualities unified in a comprehensive whole, the meaning and significance of some aspect of the world." (232) This is true but it is not meaning alone that makes experience meaningful. Beauty, "the glory of it," is what counts, and without that, art, and any aesthetic experience, would be almost pointless, and certainly incomplete.
Another quote from Dewey, also quoted by Johnson regarding the qualitative unity is: "There is no name to be given it. As it enlivens and animates, it is the spirit of the world of art." (Dewey, 1987, 193) The animation, the making it so that we feel the work as something highly real: this is what we mean when we say that it has an aesthetic aura (the term I prefer somewhat to "beauty").
Finally, at the end of his chapter on "Dewey's Big Idea for Aesthetics," Johnson makes clear what his problem is, that he thinks aesthetic theory fetishizes "the aesthetic." It is quite possible that he would think that this is what I am doing here. (240) But his path is perhaps more dangerous: he has reduced the aesthetic to the meaningful. He is worried that the aesthetic road will separate art from life "as if ordinary living was not an aesthetic undertaking" ---and I agree that this would be bad.
He has an additional worry. He says, "It is perfectly acceptable to speak, as Dewey sometimes does, of 'aesthetic experience' when we are trying to observe that certain experiences are marked out as meaningful unities....But what is not acceptable is to treat 'the aesthetic' as some quality or feature that descends ....upon a certain select set of experiences." (240) I get the worry. But it is equally not acceptable to reduce the aesthetic to merely meaningful unities...unless, of course, the word "meaningful" packs within it the idea of aesthetic experience. The quality of the aesthetic does not "descend": it is those experiences in their (usually highly pleasurable) intensity.
But Johnson's final paragraph begins with a sentence with which I fully agree: "Dewey's entire philosophical orientation is founded on his insight that all experience, perception, understanding, imagining, thinking, valuing, and acting begins and ends in the aesthetic dimensions of human experience." (241) And I will end on that positive note.
Friday, November 15, 2019
The issue of everyday aesthetics for Marxists is pretty straightforward. In capitalist conditions everyday life is alienated. This alienation is based, of course, on exploitation both in the workplace and via manipulation of needs through advertising and marketing. Everyday life, especially for the working class, is aesthetically deprived. In an ideal, communist, society everyone would produce in a non-alienated way according to "laws of beauty" as Marx put it in the 1844 Manuscripts.
For Lukács the issue of the everyday comes up in two contexts, first in reference to life in a capitalist society and second in relation to Freud's notion of the psychopathology of everyday life. Although he is mainly interested in criticizing a certain type of novel he is also interested in the main problems of Marxism, i.e. in how to explain the world in materialist terms and how to promote socialist revolution, and he situates his critique within that other interest.
So the modernist text is based, he argues, on an ideology that stresses a static notion of human nature over a dynamic one. It does not allow for a portrayal of human development in conditions of a dialectic between the subjective self and objective conditions. In particular, Modernism (the name I will use here for the ideology of modernist literature) argues, implicitly, that humans have an unchanging human nature, and this human nature is that which is described as thrownness or being "thrown-into-being" by Heidegger. It is the experience of being ontologically alone: our essential and existential solitariness. Of course the view is not only that one is alone in relation to others but also that one is abandoned by God (since there is no God). (I would note that although I often enjoy modernist literature and find Heidegger intriguing, I join Lukács in rejecting this view of human nature.)
This view is also combined with a view of the nature of possibility. For the Modernist, possibility is only abstract: it is never concrete. But the realist novelist (and also Lukács) wishes to stress the need for both abstract possibility and concrete possibility. Concrete possibility is based on the historical conditions of our being. Abstract possibility seems infinite, concrete possibility much more limited. So, for the Realist (we will use this term here as referring to the theory that competes with the Modernist: interestingly, the Realist does not have to be a Marxist), man and human culture are both historically situated. The realist novel then stresses not subjective time alone (unlike the Modernist) but a dialectic of subjective and objective time. Similarly the Realist stresses a dialectic of the subjective and the objective in general. We should avoid the mistake, a form of vulgar Marxism, that would reduce the subjective to the objective. Retaining subjectivity allows for the possibility of human choice: Lukács is no determinist.
One of the problems Lukács finds with Modernism is that it offers as a solution to alienation a retreat into psychopathology. Psychopathology is no solution to the problems posed by capitalist society. For a Modernist like Musil, if you do not "run with the pack," i.e. join in the capitalist rat race, your only alternative is becoming a neurotic. Modernism, Lukács thinks, naturally leads to naturalism, i.e. a literary style that stresses sordid details of everyday life. As Alfred Kerr put it, "what is poetic in everyday life? Neurotic aberration, escape from life's dreary routing." And, as Lukács observes, this implies "the poetic necessity of the pathological [deriving] from the prosaic quality of life under capitalism." Lukács sees a continuity between this older naturalism and contemporary modernism: "Kerr's description suggests that in naturalism the interest in psychopathology sprang from an esthetic need, it was an attempt to escape from the dreariness of life under capitalism." (227) Lukács sees this as evolving from "merely decorative function, bringing color into the greyness of reality" into a "moral protest of capitalism." (227)
The second point of contact with the everyday comes up a couple paragraphs later. There, Lukács turns to Freud, whose psychoanalysis he sees as an obvious expression of this obsession with the pathological. He sees Modernism and psychoanalysis as essentially the same. And Freud's starting point was 'everyday life.' Freud explains slips of the tongue, daydreams (and dreams as well) in terms of psychopathology. Lukács thinks rather that one should see mental abnormality as a "deviation from a norm."
So, on his view, "this is not strictly a scientific or literary-critical problem. It is an ideological problem, deriving from the ontological dogma of the solitariness of man." (228) Lukács contrasts Modernism to Realism which is based on Aristotle's idea of man as a political animal, and which produces a new typology of humans "for each new phase in the evolution of society." The value of Realism is that it sees contradictions both within society and within the individual in terms of dialectic. In the realist literature of Shakespeare, Balzac, and Stendhal "the average man is simply a dimmer reflection of the contradictions always existing in man and society." (228) And this is made impossible if you believe man is thrown into Being.
In talking about traditional realists Lukács is not necessarily talking about the kind of novel he would like to see today or the kind of ideology he most favors. (Isn't it odd that someone who considers himself part of the wave of the future is going to hold up much older writers as his ideal? Wouldn't those writers, from a Marxist perspective, reflect Bourgeois ideology of their own time?) Indeed he sees these writers as producing an "abstract polarity of the eccentric and the socially average" and he believes that this "leads in modernism to a fascination with morbid eccentricity" which becomes "the necessary complement of the average." Further, this polarity "is held to exhaust human potentiality," which of course he would reject. What is puzzling is how a realism he favors can lead into the modernism he does not.
Another issue is one of competing approaches to sensuous details. Although, in discussing naturalism, Lukács tends to focus on the ugly details of daily life under capitalism (especially for the worker), the naturalist can also be concerned about the aesthetics of everyday life in a positive way. Tom Huhn quotes from Zola's Nana in connection with this issue: "The company went upstairs to take coffee in the little drawing room, where a couple of lamps shed a soft glow over the pink hangings and the lacquer and old gold of the knick-knacks. At that hour of the evening the light played discreetly over coffers, bronzes and china..." and so forth. Huhn, Tom (2000), "A Modern Critique of Modernism: Lukács, Greenberg, and Ideology." Constellations, 7: 178-196.
Huhn suggests that for Lukács what is absent is cohesion, whicyh is compensated by a "surfeit of stimulation...a smorgasbord of sensation" (Huhn's essay is excellent on Lukács's Hegelianism: I cannot do justice to that here.) Huhn interprets Lukács as seeing naturalism in terms of mere sensation as opposed to rich experience. But it seems to me that there is something redemptive in a positive everyday aesthetic as found in this naturalist description.
At the end of his essay Lukács says of Kafka (as paradigmatic modernist) that "He has emptied everyday life of meaning by using the allegorical method; he has allowed detail to be annihilated by his transcendental nothingness" and this "prevents him from investing observed detail with typical significance." In short, Kafka cannot "achieve that fusion of the particular and the general which is the essence of realistic art" since his aim is to raise the individual detail to the level of abstraction. (234)
What are the implications of this for an aesthetics of everyday life. Consider Modernism and Realism as competing approaches to that aesthetics (and not just towards the aesthetic valuation of novels that portray life). Much of what Lukács says is true and yet one cannot follow him in outright condemning Modernist approaches to the everyday. Modernism does seem to shed light on experience by focusing even more on the details of the everyday (only thinking in terms of the "typical" can blind us to the sensuousness of the particular). If, as Huhn suggests, Lukács would reject the passage from Zola, it is because he would reject an approach to everyday life that is sometimes light, sometimes legitimately concerned with sensuous surfaces.
Ultimately Lukács distinction between abstract and concrete possibility hides something more fundamental. Lukács is, finally, a moralist and a moralist requires that the concrete possibility be understood in a moralist way, and thus label any other approach to concrete possibility as "abstract." There is a sense in Lukács that a novel cannot be good unless it in some way promotes a socialist revolution, and this seems severely limiting to the novel. Similarly, he would no doubt require that we approach everyday life in a moralistic way as well. I cannot join him there.
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
A key issue is the role of "the god." Here is my admittedly crude take on this. For the world/earth dynamic to work a god must be projected. The god provides a center for the holy precinct. But the god does not have to be an ancient Greek god. The god is whatever makes Being shine. I hypothesize that the god in the Van Gogh shoes example is the peasant woman, although a case could be made for the shoes as belonging to a peasant woman. "The god" on this account is very much like what Kant calls an "aesthetic idea." The shoes in Van Gogh's painting are an aesthetic idea. The god also plays a similar role to Nietzsche's description of Dionysus on stage in ancient Greek tragedy.
Something like this can happen in everyday life. In everyday life sometimes a thing makes the surrounding world uncanny. If that happens, the thing is "the god."
This happens in thinking too. A concept that symbolizes everything and seems to focus one's ideas: that can be the god for a thinker.
Of course this analysis is not inconsistent with atheism. "God" can be replaced by some other term and does not imply literal belief. If you are somewhat successful in finding "the god" you make the world shine again in the same way that the surroundings of the temple when it is set up takes on Being. When Heidegger says we have not been listening to Being.
Note how also Heidegger and Danto are opposed. Danto's Artworld is cut off from the world. The main disadvantage of that is that there is no earth/world dynamic. There is no wonder that beauty is lost since beauty arises along with Truth and Being in the earth/world dynamic. I side with Heidegger on this one.