Thursday, May 4, 2017

Why Goodman’s exemplification theory of art is not enough, and neither is Danto’s artworld theory, why they need to be combined and also enhanced by the Confucian concept of li. And by the way, you will also find my current definition of art here.

This may seem really antique to some.  But I still teach this stuff from the 60s and the 70s.  And I do think that Danto’s and Goodman’s theories from this period can provide a jumping off point for theoretical advance.   I will promote here something like Goodman’s exemplification and Danto’s is of artistic identification, but in both cases, I believe there needs to be an enhancement.  The basic question to ask is “why should anyone care whether something has the is of artistic identification and why should anyone care that something exemplifies in an artistic way?”  Why should we seek to see something through the atmosphere of artistic theory?  What is the point of seeing a Franz Klein expressionist work in such a way that we can place it in Danto’s style matrix, for example?  And, in response to Goodman, why should we care to focus on properties of line, color, texture, size, etc. of an intransparent work of art made out of a common rock displayed in a museum?   It could be said in both cases that this is your big chance to notice these properties.  But we could notice them outside the museum and in completely non-art contexts (at least the properties Goodman is stressing, maybe not the ones Danto stresses).  Maybe what is happening is that the properties have become subjects of entertainment once the object entered the museum.  There is something strangely Plato-like in Goodman’s theory.  Sure, he rejects Platonism strictly speaking, but, like Plato, the focus is on words, or rather concepts, and so when we see an red abstract painting, on his view, we are aware of the ways in which the redness of red is exemplified, which means that there is indirect reference to all other things that are red.  But classifying things under the term “red” is not really of any interest unless you are some sort of obsessive collector of red thing.
Here is my suggested solution to the problem, one that Goodman would not be happy with, but Danto might be.   The idea is inspired by Crispin Sartwell’s book Six Names of Beauty.  Sartwell, in his last chapter reminds us of the way in which the philosophy of Confucius evolved through Chu Hsi and Wang-Yang-Ming to stress the importance of li, which, when found in the Analects, is generally translated as “ritual.” (143-146) Later in Chinese philosophy it is taken to mean the essence of things, not simply their Platonic essence but the way in which they partake in the community and the cosmos.  Then, with Wang Yang-Ming, a pragmatist tendency intervenes so that “li” comes to depend on the interaction of the live creature, as Dewey would put it, with the environment.   Want Yang Ming also introduces a love element to this theory, which both Sartwell and I like largely because we are both enamored by Plato’s theory of beauty and love in the Symposium. 
So let’s hypothesize, in a comparative philosophy way, that the reason why we care about arthood in Danto’s sense or in Goodman’s sense, or, better, in a combination of Goodman and Danto (since Goodman covers the cognitive dimension of our bodily encounter with exemplification, and Danto covers the cultural/historical aspect, each complementing the other, Goodman covering the way in which art involves certain ways the world is and Danto ways in which art and artworld interact) is that what emerges is “li” or, if we want to put it this way, the ritual-emergent essence, ritual being the way in which a complex whole is imbued with meaning that has reference to individual, community and cosmos, all together.   Art ultimately gets as essences in the way ritual does.  Art is our contemporary way of doing ritual (or maybe just one contemporary way). 
We who love art care about art because of something that normal people with normal vision cannot see.  Something emerges because of atmosphere, but not just the atmosphere of the artworld, or simply because there are a lot of predicates missing from the style matrix (and we are somehow aware of all of these missing things, e.g. the non-imitation and non-expression of purist art) on Danto’s account. 
Something emerges, something is there which is exhibited only to those who know how to see, and what is exhibited is the li.   Now the li is socially-historically constructed:  I am not using this term to indicate anything that science can discover or describe.  Li is complex multi-layered aura of significance; an aura of possibility, but also an actual aura as-experienced.  This aura is emergent upon relations with self, community, culture, world and universe.  (Again, we are not positing the relation to the actual universe but rather to the universe as a concept, as something experienced, as something that is part of our consciousness, as even what Kant would call an a priori concept.) 
What Danto misses is that blob of paint we see as Icarus in the Bruegel painting is not just something imagined as Icarus but rather something with heightened significance based on its relations with every other aspect of the painting: and it is also perceived as a window, in a way, to the culture at large, to our own inner selves and also to our world as much as to the world of 16th century Flanders.  It is not the atmosphere of theory or even art history so much as all of that plus all of the other appropriate atmospheres, the atmosphere of European history for example, and more.  See it through the atmosphere of what it is to be human, and of course the atmosphere of the theory of what it is to be human, as it evolves in our culture, too. 
And, speaking of Goodman, it is not that we need to simply notice all of the syntactic and semantic density of the work as symbol plus its repleteness, exemplification and complexity.  Take the print by Hokusai as his reference.  Rather there musts be something much more, something which would include not only what the Dantoian aesthete would see, but also a recognition that the curved line in the Hokusai would not have any meaning at all without its organic relations to the entire painting, and then pushing beyond that to the various organic relations that can emerge in study or contemplation between this work, self, world, etc.  It is only when the Hokusai line emerges with the aura of li that we get it, i.e. that we appreciate the painting is the best and fullest way.  Otherwise, the difference between perceiving a Hokusai and perceiving a cure in a stock market chart (when it goes up it is good for us financially) is just a matter of degree.  I think that Goodman was moving in this direction when he included a sixth symptom of the aesthetic. 
Sartwell’s thought that in loving beauty we love the entire world can be translated into the notion that the beauty of a Hokusai connects to the world not simply in terms of multiple reference (Goodman in the end is just too mechanical:  multiple reference just means more labels applied, whether metaphorically or not…and the issue is not one of application of labels). 

Something is art if it has Danto’s “is” of artistic identification, exhibits some of Goodman’s symptoms, and expresses “li.”  (This may be the first time I have ever attempted a definition of art!)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Saito's Everyday Aesthetics revisited: call for the in-between

So it has been ten years since Yuriko Saito's Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2007) came out, a seminal work in the burgeoning new field of everyday aesthetics.  She will be having a new book on the topic coming out soon.  But perhaps now is a time to revisit some of the issues raised especially in the first chapter of Everyday Aesthetics with the understanding that this is not necessarily her current position.  The chapter is titled "Neglect of Everyday Aesthetics."  It is available here.  Most of what Saito says in this chapter I agree with and it should be understood that the purpose of this post is simply to use her piece as a jumping off point for reflection, as I have in the past.  Saito makes a strong distinction between two kinds of experience in everyday aesthetics. One kind is the "stand out" experience, roughly similar to Dewey's idea of "an experience."  The second is another set of reactions we might and often do have to sensuous and/or design qualities of objects.  These would include the reaction of seeing an object as dirty and wishing to clean it up.

I accept Saito's expansion of the concept of the aesthetic to include these kinds of responses.  There is a dialogue going on here since Saito may have been partly inspired in this by an early article of mine on neatness and messiness as aesthetic qualities. “Everyday Surface Aesthetic Qualities:  'Neat,' 'Messy,' 'Clean,' 'Dirty',” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53:3 (1995) 259-268.  Reprinted in The Aesthetics of Human Environments  ed Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant (Ontario:  Broadview Press, 2007).  What I currently want to push is an in-between dimension of aesthetic experience, something between the two extremes Saito posits:  a domain that I believe is fundamentally important not only for everyday aesthetics but for aesthetics in general.  In the tradition of Karl Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts and John Dewey in Art as Experience, but also of Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness, I want to call for expansion of this in-between domain, one that overcomes the alienation (usually based on exploitation as Marx would put it, or inadequate social arrangements as Dewey would put it) that characterizes experience at the low or "practical" end of the aesthetic spectrum.  I also see the three levels of aesthetic experience,  (1) the practical, (3) what I will call, after Buddhist thought, the mindful, and (4) the special/extraordinary, as dynamically inter-related.   So, whereas Saito favors a dichotomy between spectator-like experiences and experiences that "prompt us toward actions, such as cleaning, discarding, purchasing..."  I posit this, the middle "mindfulness," realm.  Following Nhat Hanh in his discussion of washing dishes with mindfulness and Marx in his notion of non-alienated labor, I think that there is a problem at the lowest level of the aesthetic:  a problem if the cleaning or discarding is not mindful, the purchasing is based on false consciousness in a society of consumerism (as critical theorist followers of Marx argued), and so on.  Low level activities of the sort that happen when one cleans for entirely functional purposes or purchases clothes just for comfort, usefulness, or getting ahead, become enhanced when they are are mindful of aesthetic qualities. This means that I favor a notion of low-level contemplation, for example contemplative as opposed to mindless shopping. Whereas Saito associates the idea of contemplation only with the high level experience of fine art experience or contemplation of natural beauty, I think that mindful washing of dishes, for example, is contemplative in its own way.  

One difficulty here is that Saito associates contemplation and disinterestedness with rejection of the proximal senses of taste, smell, and touch.  This is not my approach:  I see contemplation as applicable to multi-sensory experience.  Contemplative aesthetic experience of sexual intimacy for example is the preferred mode. Thus, on my view, one can take an aesthetic attitude towards everyday phenomena, and that this can be a more valuable, actually is generally a more valuable, way to approach such phenomena, as long as it does not interfere with getting the job done.

Actually, then, I disagree with the notion that actions such as cleaning, discarding, and purchasing without any contemplative dimension are "typically the way in which aesthetics functions in everyday life."  They may in fact be typically the way in Western alienated capitalist society.  But they may not be in other societies, for example in Denmark or Bhutan.  Moreover, a better society would be one in which the contemplative or disinterested dimension of aesthetic experience of the everyday would be enhanced.  So, to put the point in another way, when Saito says that she wants to include not only aesthetic experiences of art, however broadly defined, but also "those responses that propel us toward everyday decisions and actions without any accompanying contemplative appreciation" (11) I would count this domain as, yes, aesthetic, but only at the very lowest level, and not something to be encouraged.  It is at the mid-level, where responses such as cleaning and choosing are not "almost automatic" as Saito puts it, but are mindful and at least minimally examples of contemplative appreciation because mindful of aesthetic qualities, that a happy life is constituted.  (I also think that other things that Saito says in her first chapter are actually more in accord with this position.) 

I understand the motive behind Saito's dichotomy: the need to move away from the hierarchy in which everything is seen in terms of Western fine art.  Saito eloquently demolishes that position. What I am offering is hopefully the dialectical next stage.  As with Saito, I also think my approach being more in accord with a multi-cultural, global viewpoint.  But this is because I think that in most traditional or tribal cultures, and in many other non-Western cultures, the middle, mindful, aesthetic domain, plays a more important role in life.  I agree with those people who believe that we should be more like the Navajo or the Bali people in their approaches to aesthetic experience, as much as we can given the Western-based world that surrounds us.  It is the Western mindset that promotes the dichotomy of humdrum practical vs. high art aesthetic.  I think that ultimately both Saito and I wish to undercut this dichotomy.

I also agree with Saito in attacking the tendency to see the aesthetic either as "highly specialized and isolated from our daily concerns, namely art, or else something trivial and frivolous, not essential to our lives, such as beautification and decoration" (12) and I agree that the low-level experiences that we are both interested in are important for practical purposes.  

However, although we both want to "restore aesthetics to its proper place in our everyday life" (12) and reclaim its status in shaping the world, I wish to do so by encouraging and enhancing mindful and contemplative approaches to the everyday, whereas Saito is concerned that these approaches are too associated with an art-centered approach to aesthetics.  I agree that art-centered aesthetics can "compromise the rich diversity of out aesthetic life" but am not convinced that it always does.  Nor am I convinced that what she calls "experience-oriented aesthetics" (12) is detrimental to a sound everyday aesthetics as long as "experience" is not just understood in such a way as to privilege the distal senses or extreme forms of disinterested approaches to aesthetic objects. 

I also agree with Saito that "art is almost always regarded [in Western aesthetic theory] as the quintessential model for an aesthetic object" (13) and I believe that she is absolutely right to pursue this line.  (This makes me consistent with her quote from my 1995 article in support of her position, thank goodness.)  Saito presents an excellent discussion of the problems of art-centered aesthetics in the section with that name.  

My only caveat would be a response to Korsmeyer's approach to the aesthetics of food. Saito quotes Korsmeyer with approval as saying "the addition of taste and food to the domain of established aesthetic theory presents problems:  both inevitably come off as distinctly second rate, trailing the distance senses and fine art."  I just cannot agree that it is never right to understand food in terms of fine art:  my own view that something like the El Bulli dining experience is at the same level of high art as the best example of Japanese tea ceremony, and for the same reasons.  We must not turn our Western prejudices against the proximal senses into a determination of what makes fine art:  i.e. that fine art must use the distant senses. 

Nor do we have to see all food preparation as fine art in order to concede that some really is.  Those who see the highest level Michelin star type dining experiences as somehow second-rate in relation to fine art painting for example are missing the point.   Saito further quotes Korsmeyer that "the concept of art, dominated as it is today by the idea of fine art, is a poor category to capture the nature of foods and their consumption." (17)  This just seems a category mistake since food as a category is broad like photography as a category.  Most photography is not art, and even less is fine art, and yet this does not mean that photography cannot be fine art. Similarly if we want to broadly capture the nature of foods and their consumption it would be best to focus not on El Bulli but on the vast number of practices involving food.  I would venture to say that virtually any social practice:  dance, food, music, video games, advertising, religious ritual, etc., can have a fine art manifestation (can be a product of genius, in Kant's sense).  But most dance, food, music, etc. is not fine art.  In any case, I would not want to, as Korsmeyer puts it, "divert attention from the interesting ways in which the aesthetic importance of foods diverges from parallel values in art." (18)  Of course one of the things that food as fine art does is focus our attention on such "interesting ways" just as dance as fine art focuses our attention on features of dance that differentiate it from other art forms.       

Saito further quotes Wolfgang Welsh as holding that sport, for example, "cannot substitute for Schonberg, Pollock, or Goddard" which, in my view, is just plain silly, since (1) no one is calling for substitution, and (2) the correct comparison class is master artists. It is not sports against Pollock, but Pollock compared to the El Bulli master chef, Adria. 

Saito is also excellent in his list of various things that are associated with the paradigms of classical Western art and which do not apply to everyday aesthetics.  Putting the point negatively, she says that there are various features that make certain everyday aesthetic phenomena non-art, like "absence of definite and identifiable object-hood and authorship, our literal engagement, transience and impermanence of the object, and the primacy of practical values of the object" (17) although I am somewhat concerned about the notion of "primacy of practical values" which can be interpreted in different ways.  

Saito's discussion of frames as unique to art as opposed to everyday aesthetics is of particular interest.  Ronald Hepburn had once noted that non-art objects are frame-less and that we then become the creator of the aesthetic object:  the frameless character can, as Saito puts it, "be compensated by exercising our imagination and creativity in constituting the aesthetic object as we see fit." (19)  I agree with this, but then I also think that this means that we are then virtually framing the object and thereby treating it as if it were a work of art at least in respect to being something that is now unified and has an imaginative/creative dimension, although this time introduced to some extent by ourselves as viewers.  This is why I say in my book that artists are the greatest experts in the aesthetics of everyday life.  They are constantly seeing landscapes for example as if they were works of art by framing them and exercising their imaginations in the process.  It is interesting in this regard that Saito's examples of such framing (a baseball game, the streets of New York, and drinking tea) read like a poet's appreciation of these things.  She has a fine poetic sensibility.  But poetry is an art form.  Moreover, when she says "in appreciating the smell and taste of green tea, I may incorporate the visual and tactile sensation of the tea bowl, as well as the sound of slurping" I note that this is exactly how one ought to appreciate tea in the setting of the Japanese tea ceremony, which Saito elsewhere recognizes to be an art form. (15)  

Saito admits that "In constructing the object of our aesthetic experience in these cases, we do select and specifically attend to certain ingredients in our perceptual field, just as we do when we appreciate art as art." (19)  The difference in her mind is that, in art, we determine this based on social convention and "institutional agreement" not on the basis of "our personal preference, taste, and inclination."  And she is right at least in that there is some greater degree of institutional agreement in the realm of art, but it strikes me that this is only a matter of degree and that there certainly a lot of relying on "our own imagination, judgment, and aesthetic taste as our guide" in art as much as in everyday life. Moreover, as Saito herself has described, there are some everyday practices that involve a lot of institutional agreement, for example sports and cat beauty contests.

So I agree with Saito when she says "We can appreciate the aesthetic value of a chair, an apple, a landscape, and rain as if the were a sculptural piece...[etc.] by becoming a pure spectator/listener.  However, more often than not, we experience a chair not only by inspecting its shape and color, but also by touching its fabric, sitting in it, learning against it, and moving it, to get the feel for its texture, comfort, and stability." (20) I just think that this just is what aesthetically contemplating what a chair is, what it is to be a "pure spectator" and that seeing it as if it were art must also take into account that in looking at a painting, for example, we, as Dewey observed, are subliminally aware of all of the other senses, and that the intensity of the color is that all of that other information is in some way contained in the color, and then seeing it as it functions in life, is also part of the background information subtly contained in great art.  It is just that, here, that stuff is no longer backgrounded.  One of the most poetical and best said passages in Saito's book is her description of eating an apple, except that she starts wrongly by saying that it is "our typical experience of an apple."  It is not your typical experience in alienated Western perception.   Here is what happens to Saito:  it is perceptual experience of eating an apple that is mindful:  "starts by beholding its perfect round shape and delicate colors ranging from red to green and holding it in our hand to feel its substantial weight and smooth skin.  Then we proceed to engage all of our senses and enjoy the crunching sound when we first bite into it, the contrast between the firmness of its contents and the sweet juice flowing from it, and, of course, its smell and taste."  This is the approach to an apple that a great chef would take, as well as a great poet.  It is an approach consonant with the tea ceremony approach to drinking tea.  It is a deeply contemplative approach to eating an apple very unlike the ordinary way we just consume food.

There is also the issue of conventions.  It is not as though there are no conventions in the experience of non-art.  Saito experiences three ways of appreciating raindrops.  One of them is "we may experience rain by sitting under the hanging roof of a Zen temple, looking out on its attached rock garden, attending to the way in which the surface of each rock glistens with wetness and nothing the elegant movement of raindrops..."  She stresses that, of the three way of appreciating rain, one the "singing in the rain" approach, and the third being that of John Muir in Yosemite, all are legitimate.  I agree, and yet each is a convention, and the one associated with the Zen temple is very immersed in the entire Zen aesthetic and even in a certain architectural aesthetic interestingly similar to what Heidegger speaks of when he describes a Greek temple experienced aesthetically.  So, it is wrong to say that "in all these examples, there is no institutional or conventional agreement" and that the only guide is what is more rewarding:  this sort of business is not as individualistic.  Finally, it is also just plain false that "experiencing a chair or an apple as a piece of sculpture likely to be less interesting and satisfying than more normal ways of experiencing them" since all of the power of an Edward Weston photograph is based on the way in which doing so can be very interesting and satisfying, and, again, largely because he manages to capture, using only visual means, what it is to touch and eat the vegetable he photographs.  Again, although Saito is right that it does not matter when or under what light I observe a painting by Cezanne of Mt. Sainte-Victoire and it does matter when I view the actual Mt. Sainte-Victorie, I know this especially now because i have spent a lot of time looking at Cezanne.  Cezannes's painting of the mountain would not make any sense if it were not the case that he could paint it over and over again because it has different aesthetic qualities at different times.  (25)  Again, it is the dynamic relationship between the aesthetics of the everyday and the aesthetics of art that is most evident here.  

But where our area of disagreement comes up the most is exemplified when Saito says "We clean our kitchen and bathroom for hygiene, cook and eat food for sustenance, and pick our clothes for protection and comfort." (26)  Maybe the word "for" is ambiguous here, but my immediate reaction is that this is just false. I spend a lot of time doing all of these thing and I can only think of hygiene, sustenance, protection and comfort and some of the functions served by these activities...often not the most important ones.  I clean my kitchen mainly for the pleasure of getting it clean, and because I have been influenced by Nhat Hanh, secondarily for the pleasure in the rhythm of the process and the attendant aesthetic qualities, then thirdly because I want my wife to be happy with the results, and maybe fourthly for hygiene -  sure, of course, you want to eliminate the germs that might give you food poisoning....this is in the category of unimportant precisely because so obvious.  

So now to Kant.  I don't want to get deep into Kant interpretation here, and there is a lot of room for disagreement, but it strikes me that Saito's disapproval of his notion of the disinterested attitude in application to everyday aesthetics seems based largely on her understanding of what Kant means by "pure."  She thinks that Kant means that pure or "free beauty" is "more legitimate" than dependent beauty.  And yet Kant does not say so.  We Americans have associations with "pure" that Kant may not have had with the German word it translates.  Saito admits that Kant also has a concept of dependent beauty but thinks that he requires us to "surgically remove" functional value in order to appreciate the everyday.  But this is not how he treats architecture, or any of the arts, all of which he sees as examples of dependent beauty, with the possible exception of music without words.  Although I wholly agree with Saito that "in our everyday, normal interaction with a utilitarian object, the aesthetic and the practical are experienced as fully integrated" I am not convinced that Kant would have held otherwise.  (26)   Going beyond Kant, I think it would be better to say that in approaching the everyday aesthetic object we need to bracket practical considerations to see it as purposeless, to capture the "pure" aspect of the experience in free play, but that we need also to toggle between that and the other, dependent, aspect of the aesthetic object when it is an artifact and not a free beauty of nature. (How we ought to appreciate nature is not under consideration here.)  

Kant however was notoriously disregarding of the near senses, color (which he called mere "charm") and of the pleasures in practical activity.   Dewey, however, with his anti-dualist stance, would not have disregarded these things.  So this is why I join Saito against Kant when she says "the aesthetic value of a knife consists not only of its visual qualities, but also of its feeling in my hand, determined by its texture, weight and balance, but also of its feeling in my hand, determined by its surface texture, weight, and balance, but most importantly by how smoothly and effortlessly I can cut an object because of the material, shape, length, texture, and weight of the blade and handle."  (27)  Saito here stresses not the fact that the knife functions well but "the way in which all the sensuous aspects converge and work together to facilitate his use."  (27)  All of this, and the entire paragraph in which it appears, is, I think, a major contribution.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Victor Cartagena’s Sugar Face at the San Jose Museum of Art guest post by Pablo Almazan

This post is on a series of twelve faces cast from sugar and water, works of art inspired by Cartagena’s relationship with the United Farm Workers Foundation in his earlier life and the brutal story of sugar beet farming in California. Prior to Cesar Chavez’ labor rights movement, laborers had little to no rights or recognition. They were the invisible figures that no one took account of when consuming food or produce. The workers often chewed on sugar beets to acquire enough energy to get through a day of picking the cash crop. The maltreatment and neglect of these workers led Cartagena to collaborate with Maurilio Maravilla, a Mexican immigrant who worked alongside Chavez during the fight for labor rights. Cartagena cast a mold of Maravilla’s face with sugar, the cash crop he worked so hard to harvest. He created twelve molds of Maravilla’s face to represent the Last Supper. This reference is meant to create a relation between farm-workers and the fact that they are the ones who put food on the table. In the work, Cartagena purposefully uses sugar to refer to the struggle in the sugar beet harvest. He also used it to create the molds because eventually the sugar molds will melt away because of the heat lamp pointed at each one. The works will essentially become non-existent because of this process. The eventual non-existence of these works symbolizes the farm workers who, at one point, were also invisible and non-existent to their employers and to consumers.

The story behind Sugar Face evoked strong emotion in me because I have family members who are farm laborers who experienced the struggle of having few rights. They relate to the pain and inhumanity felt when they were made invisible by employers and consumers alike.  The story Cartagena tells in these works is resoundingly similar to the stories I have heard my aunts and uncles recount of the times they worked in the fields. Experiencing works of art that I could relate to on such a personal level unlocked a sensation that brought ease and tranquility but at the same time evoked pain and anger. Looking at the molds of Maurilio Maravilla’s face was similar to a face to face interaction because the molds were so realistic. I could make out the creases in Maravilla’s skin and his sagged features. His face revealed a life of pain due to unfair treatment in the agricultural labor force. This is the aspect of the work that evoked pain and anger in me. I felt the pain and anger that Maravilla experienced while simultaneously feeling the pain my family endured in the farms. The life-like busts made the connection even more intense because I felt like I was experiencing a genuine human interaction. I felt as if Maravilla was one of my own family members. Overall, I was moved emotionally by the realistic features and the story behind Sugar Face.
Sugar Face has a unique story and appearance in comparison to similar works such as those of ancient Greek masks. The works evoked such a strong emotion in me, compared to similar works, because the features in these works were so life-like. I had never felt a deeper connection to a similar work because I never understood the symbolism of past works I experienced. I also valued the aesthetic experience and the aesthetic emotion that these works uniquely evoked in me. Time stood still as I observed the melting sugar drip down the sad, droopy face of Maravilla. The raw emotions expressed in his face encouraged me to be raw in the moment and allow my emotions to be honest and genuine. I felt overwhelmed as I came face to face with the bust of another human. This work was effective in provoking my aesthetic emotion by the dark color scheme created with the mixture of sugar and water. Its realistic features and animistic emotions also sparked unique emotion in me.

Getting to know and understand the symbolism behind the twelve busts of Maravilla and the story they tell played a role in my feeling such a strong emotion toward the works. Sugar Face taught me about pain and sacrifice; it taught me the importance of leading a humble life. The works at first glance seemed basic and uninteresting, but as I delved deeper into the faces and their creases I discovered beauty in the struggle and wise life advice. As humans, we all experience such emotions and feelings as pain and suffering.  Cartagena does a flawless job of incorporating these emotions into his work in an attempt to appeal to the  emotions of any person who views his work. This appeal to emotion simultaneously works as an appeal to human consciousness and makes us aware of the agonizing labor process we take for granted in order to have food on the table.

Overall, I experienced a true aesthetic emotion toward Sugar Face, but not the aesthetic emotion defined by Clive Bell in his book, Art. These works convey information and purposefully encourage an emotion of sympathy toward the hard-working laborers. For this reason, Bell would most likely have labelled this work as a descriptive painting, although it consists of facial molds not paintings. His description of aesthetic emotion also states that one should not attempt to enter the mind of the artist and view the work through their eyes; he says one should experience one's own subjective reaction and create one's own interpretation of a work. 

I did not make attempts to interpret Sugar Face through the perspective of Victor Cartagena, but I did feel a deeper connection with and understanding for the work after reading the description and story behind the creation that Cartagena wrote. My initial aesthetic emotion was not altered by the story behind the work though. At first glance a strong aesthetic emotion was evoked within me as I scanned over the precise facial features of an old man who was alive in the sense of the cast’s animated qualities. Bell denies that aesthetic emotion can exist when experiencing a descriptive painting, but this is simply not the case.[1] The face of Maurilio Maravilla unintentionally tells a story, a face carefully sculpted through the genetics of his parents and through his life experience. A human face is independently considered aesthetic with its symmetrical qualities and gentle features. Clive Bell’s hypothesis is wrong to imply that an aesthetically pleasing human face cannot evoke aesthetic emotion because the face simultaneously tells a story through its twinkling eyes, skin creases, and scars. Bell says that the purpose of art is, “to transport the viewer into a purely artistic world, cut off from real life” [2] (McLaughlin, 434). In Sugar Face, Bell’s claim of the purpose of art is impossible. Victor Cartagena found a way to intertwine the artistic world and real life by displaying the cast of twelve faces as art and using their aesthetic qualities to promote a story of pain and sorrow.

[1] Clive Bell, "Art," in Ross, Stephen, ed. Art and its Significance. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
[2] Thomas M. McLaughlin, "Clive Bell's Aesthetic: Tradition and Significant Form," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35, no. 4 (1977): 433-43. 

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