Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Matriarchal Aesthetics and Everyday Aesthetics

In my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary I gave credit to feminist aesthetics in contributing to everyday aesthetics.  I did not there mention Heide Gottner-Abendroth, but in reading her "Nine Principles of Matriarchal Aesthetics" in Art and its Significance, Stephen David Ross ed., I find interesting parallels between this version of feminist thought and everyday aesthetics.  Gottner-Abendroth may be dismissed by some because of her perhaps unwarranted claims about the dominance of matriarchal societies in neolithic times.  However her position can be seen more as a reflection on ways in which prehistoric art and mythology and contemporary tribal art can inspire, or stand as a model for, a contemporary feminist art practice, one that involves various deconstructions that contribute to aestheticization of what was previously considered not aesthetic. 

Of all of the philosophers I teach Gottner-Abendroth is closest in spirit to Nietzsche.  Both stress the modern relevance of a total art form of the past, in her case tribal dance, in his case, Greek tragedy.  Both stress the Dionysian ecstatic element in aesthetic experience.  However, Nietzsche  would have rejected feminist aesthetics as he rejected feminism in general.  

Gottner-Abendroth's importance in my view lies in her treatment of aesthetics as not dominated by art aesthetics.  She sees matriarchal art (her ideal art form), in her first principle, as "beyond the fictional" in the sense that it rejects the notion of a separate fictional realm (hence rejecting Apollonian art?).  Art rather should be seen as "magic" which is to say that it has some influence in the real world, as she argues, in both psychic and social reality.  It does this by way of mythology (second principle), which she also interprets as "one of the fundamental categories of the human imagination." This is much like Nietzsche's interpretation of the Apollonian and the Dionysian as fundamental physiological forces.  Matriarchal aesthetics carries out various deconstructions of traditional distinctions, many of these deconstructions also conducive to promoting everyday aesthetics.  For example, in the third principle we learn that the author-text-reader distinction dissolves and that, in not being limited to producing products, matriarchal art expresses the inner structure found in ritual dance, this structure dissolving also the distinction between author and spectator.  The fourth principle of matriarchal aesthetics also dissolves the division between emotion and thought in that "emotional identification, theoretical reflection and symbolic action" all are parts or aspects of aesthetic experience, or to put it another way, "matriarchal art welds together feeling, thinking and doing" in order to "release true ecstasy in the participants."  The Nietzschean Dionysian element is present here, but also there are affinities with Dewey's aesthetics in the notion of a fusion of feeling, thinking and doing.  The fifth principle says that patriarchal art cannot be objectified and is a "dynamic process characterized by ecstasy...with a positive impact on reality." The sixth principle stresses the idea that the paradigm of art, in her case, ritual dance, embraces many genres of art.  It also says that in matriarchal art the division between art and non-art dissolves.  Thus matriarchal art can merge with nonconformist lifestyles and with "changes in the psychic and social sphere" which are subversive to patriarchal society.  Matriarchal aesthetics then becomes an aesthetics of life.  The idea of a breakdown of the art/life barrier is also found in the eighth and ninth principles, where there is a questioning of the division of elitist from popular art resulting in an "aestheticization of the whole of society."  Everyday aesthetics can be associated with such a program. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

When is art? Goodman vs. Danto, and the relation of this to everyday aesthetics

Goodman's famous "When is Art?" appeared in his 1978 book Ways of Worldmaking.  The chapter seems at first to be mainly directed against formalists such as Clive Bell and more importantly, probably, Clement Greenberg, although neither of these are mentioned (he simply refers to a group of theorists and artists which he calls "purists" and sometimes "formalists").  Goodman wants to show that the purists are wrong that the abstract art they favor does not symbolize.  He has a broader notion of "symbolize" such that something can fail to represent or express but could still symbolize if it exemplifies.  All of this main seem to be just a matter of semantics, Goodman having a much broader use of "symbol" than the purists.  A more important target for the essay however is the work of Arthur Danto.  Both Goodman and Danto are trying to account for found art and conceptual art as well as for highly abstract minimalist art.  A useful way to see their distinction and implicit disagreement can show in part how Goodman leads us on a path that is more world-connected than Danto's and perhaps more useful for the project of everyday aesthetics.  Take for example a rock picked up in a driveway (Goodman's example).  Goodman believes that when the rock is in the driveway it has no aesthetic properties (this of course cannot be accepted by everyday aesthetics) but that when it is put on a pedestal in an art gallery it comes to exemplify certain properties (and so, is symbolic even if it does not represent or express).  In doing this it comes to function as art.  Goodman does not define art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but he does talk about what he calls "symptoms of the aesthetic" by which he means symptoms of arthood:  these are syntactic density, semantic density, relative repleteness, exemplification and multiple and complex reference.  There is no need here to go into detail about these, except to mention that relative repleteness means that a line in a Hokusai painting is richer in meaning than a similar line on a Stock exchange chart.  I suspect that all of the symptoms of the aesthetic refer basically to one thing or phenomenon.  It is the same intuition expressed in different ways.  Goodman himself suggests this when he says that all the symptoms "focus attention on rather than, or at least along with, what [the work] refers to."  We cannot simply look through the symbol to its referent as we would in the case of a traffic light or a science text.  We must "attend constantly to the symbol itself."  Danto (I am speaking here just of his view in "The Artworld") would hold that for the art to be art it is not sufficient that it be exhibited in a gallery by an artist, although this can contribute to its arthood.  It must be seen as art by someone with suitable art historical and art theoretical knowledge, i.e. seen under the appropriate concept of art. It must also have some part that is seen with the is of artistic identification.  So whereas Goodman can be seen as expanding the formalist conception of art to include new material (for example texture and the type of material used), Danto can be seen as rejecting it.  Whereas Goodman thinks art calls on us to attend quite carefully to its many exhibited referential features, Danto thinks that we need to attend to things that are not exhibited (at least directly in the work) for example art history, art theory, the intended meaning of the artist, the title.  An interesting feature of Goodman is that art's function is cognitive and, as cognitive, it does relate very much to the world, through various forms of reference.  Danto's approach involves not reference to the world but reference to the artworld.  For Goodman even work that is entirely abstract can exemplify its properties, properties which are shared by objects outside the artwork.  Thus the entire distinction between properties that are intrinsic and ones that are extrinsic seems to dissolve (not entirely though).  Goodman's approach explains why, after seeing a show by a good artist, we tend to see things in the world in terms of the works.  Goodman in a sense captures the dynamic interaction of art and world in a way that Danto does not.  Of course artworld knowledge can enter into that which is expressed or even exemplified by a work of art.  So Goodman could possibly accomodate Danto's insight.   But artworld knowledge does not play such an important role in Goodman as it does in Danto.  Danto stresses the "is of artistic identification" which, as I have argued, seems more like an "is of imaginative identification" or that, plus, seeing the object as art.  Goodman allows for metaphorical exemplification, and hence also for imaginative identification.  However, he has no role for an is of artistic identification where it is required that we see the object as art according to a theory of art. Another important difference between the two concerns what happens when the artwork leaves the art gallery.  For Danto it is still art if it is purchased, taken home and perceived by someone with suitable art historical knowledge.  What is not clear is what happens if the Warhol Brillo Box is taken to a warehouse where it is indistinguishable from the Brillo boxes there:  is it still art?  (Danto at one point imagines the Brillo Box just is an appropriated Brillo box from the factory.  That version of Brillo Box would then be totally indistinguishable from the other Brillo boxes assuming that its history of origin is forgotten, or someone switches it with a Brillo box by accident.) Danto sometimes talks like Dickie:  once art, always art, and therefore it is still art, as though once it has been displayed as art in the art gallery it cannot stop being so...even if it is impossible to locate it amongst its indiscernible counterparts in the warehouse.  Goodman however says that once it ceases to function as art it is no longer art.  Well he hedges on that a bit: he says a Rembrandt may still be a Rembrandt after it has been taken out of the museum and used as a blanket, but the question of when it is art is really more important, for him, than "what is art."  It is art when it functions as art, which does not happen when it functions as a blanket.  So one of Warhol's Brillo Boxes taken to the warehouse no longer functions as art and hence is no longer art for Goodman, which seems right to me.  

So, what is the value of this debate to everyday aesthetics?  It it is not explicit but rather lies in the gradual evaporation of the distinction between that which is intrinsic and that which is extrinsic in formalist art combined with the way in which art is essentially cognitive.  Because art's significance goes beyond representation and expression to exemplification, including both literal and metaphorical exemplification, art draws our attention to aesthetic qualities of everyday life.  The expansion of "formalist" to include not only relations of lines and colors but also texture and material, and perhaps  much more (insofar as the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction does dissolve) encourages us to focus on art features in a much more multi-sensuous way than is allowed by traditional formalism.  Bear in mind that strictly speaking Goodman has to be against the aesthetics of everyday life:  he seems to make no distinction between art and aesthetic, and to reduce the aesthetic to the artistic, so that the aesthetic is only within the realm of art.  Oddly, however, the project allows for any object to become a work of art as long as it functions as such or in the way art functions, i.e. in becoming symbolic in the ways that focus our attention on the object's references including especially (although Goodman doesn't say so) exemplification.  So enhanced formalism of the Goodmanian sort might be an answer to Carlson's objections to a formalist approach to everyday aesthetics (see my last post). 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics

Allen Carlson has written an article titled "The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics" which, one could say, takes off from a passage from one of my writings, arguing that his (and Glen Parsons') solution is the best solution to the dilemma, better than mine anyway, although possibly not quite as good as one that would also incorporate in some way Arnold Berleant's aesthetics of engagement. ("The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics," Aesthetics of Everyday Life:  East and West ed. Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014)  After noting Yuriko Saito's recognition of the dilemma in her Everyday Aesthetics he goes back to my quote, which I repeat here:  

"It would seem that we need to make some sort of distinction between the aesthetics of everyday life ordinarily experienced and the aesthetics of everyday life extraordinarily experienced.  However, any attempt to increase the aesthetic intensity of our ordinary everyday life-experiences will tend to push those experiences in the direction of the extraordinary.  one can only conclude that there is a tension within the very concept of the aesthetics of everyday life."  Leddy "The Nature of Everyday Aesthetics" in Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005).      
Saito's response is to focus on "everyday life ordinarily experienced," although Carlson thinks her examples, including Japanese gardens and special ways of packaging, takes us way from objects of everyday use, which he takes to be the "paradigmatic stuff of everyday life." (51)  He thinks we need to come to "grip with the aesthetic appreciation of truly ordinary stuff experienced in a truly ordinary way."  (51)

I would like to make a little Marxist detour here. (This is one of the nice things about writing a blog:  one does not have to rigidly follow scholarly conventions, like not mixing Marxist and Buddhist reflections with Analytic Aesthetics. My Buddhist detour comes at the end.)   What if the way we experience truly ordinary stuff in an truly ordinary way is the product of conditions of alienation produced the a capitalist system?  What if the oppression we sometimes feel from the ordinariness of ordinary life is a function of late capitalism?  What if liberation from capitalist oppression was a matter of overcoming ordinary ways of perception?  Consider Herbert Marcuse's way of looking at the poetry of Malarme in Marcuse's "The Aesthetic Dimension," where he says "his poems conjure up modes of perception, imagination, gestures - a feast of sensuousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality principle."  (Ross, Art and Its Significance, 555)  Well, of course the response would be that the shattering everyday experience is precisely what we do not want in everyday aesthetics.  When poetry does this, it takes us away from everyday life.  But, again, as Marcuse might say, isn't this just giving in to the capitalist reality principle?  If art has "emancipatory value" wouldn't that be clear in the way it frees us from perceiving everyday life under such a principle?  

Carlson goes on on consider a possible formalist approach to everyday aesthetics noting both the Roger Fry and Clive Bell would generally be opposed to everyday aesthetics but also that some things that Bell, at least, says allows for the possibility.  In particular, Bell observes that one can see a landscape in terms of a "pure formal combination of lines and colors" and that most people have done so, for example in seeing fields and cottages "as lines and colors."  Although Carlson admits that this is a "promising approach," he sees it as ultimately unsatisfactory since "in many instances formal properties depend upon framing." (53)  Moreover, there is something trivial about the approach.  He believes this because he associates it with with postcards and calendar images, things that "promote a misleading and superficial aesthetic appreciation...of everyday life."  Moreover, he believes formalism fails to resolve the dilemma since it "reduces the everyday to a shadow of itself, to a shallow veneer."  (53)  

Carlson is being a bit unfair to Bell's formalism, which, although perhaps misleading, is hardly shallow.  The quote about fields and cottages is taken from Bell's chapter "The Metaphysical Hypothesis" in Art.   Bell also writes there:  "Occasionally when an artist—a real artist—looks at objects (the contents of a room, for instance) he perceives them as pure forms in certain relations to each other, and feels emotion for them as such. These are his moments of inspiration: follows the desire to express what has been felt. The emotion that the artist felt in his moment of inspiration he did not feel for objects seen as means, but for objects seen as pure forms—that is, as ends in themselves."  and   "What is the significance of anything as an end in itself? What is that which is left when we have stripped a thing of all its associations, of all its significance as a means? What is left to provoke our emotion? What but that which philosophers used to call "the thing in itself" and now call "ultimate reality"? Shall I be altogether fantastic in suggesting, what some of the profoundest thinkers have believed, that the significance of the thing in itself is the significance of Reality? Is it possible that the answer to my question, "Why are we so profoundly moved by certain combinations of lines and colours?" should be, "Because artists can express in combinations of lines and colours an emotion felt for reality which reveals itself through line and colour"?"  For Bell, when an artist perceives significant form in a landscape he is seeing it as charged with metaphysical meaning.  This would, of course, be misleading if there no underlying reality connected with the experience of significant form.  Bell is himself very hesitant about the hypothesis.  Still, wouldn't it be obvious that if Bell were right about then then clearly, unlike works by Cezanne or the other great Post-impressionists, kitsch postcards and calendars are precisely the things that fail to get at significant form. Carlson just fails to see that Bell would have as much disgust for this ephemera as he has.  So the key here is whether there is anything to the "metaphysical hypothesis."  If there is then Bell hardly "reduces the everyday to a shadow of itself."  As for frames, I can only say here that there is a certain inevitability to framing, that everyday perception itself engages in framing, and that there is no reason to believe that Bell's artist frames the landscape he observes any more than anyone else, including the cognitivist aesthetician.  

Carlson also believes that ritualization fails to help solve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics:  "since the point of aesthetization processes such as ritualization and artification is to raise the events, activities and objects of everyday life above the humdrum of day-to-day existence, they do not resolve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics" (55) since their goal is not to appreciate the everydayness of the everyday.  The Japanese tea cereomy is given as an example of something that takes mundane things and aestheticizes them through ritualization.  For me, another puzzle is posed here.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist philosopher, calls on us to be mindful in our everyday lives.  He thinks that in washing dishes we should wash dishes for the sake of washing dishes, should slow down and notice every moment of washing dishes.  (See my earlier earlier post on this.)  The dilemma of everyday aesthetics remains in that if we attend to dish-washing in the ritualized way that Hanh suggests then we will perceive the ordinary as something extraordinary, and yet the resolution of the dilemma may simply be that we then realize that this is just the ordinary itself (i.e. as it should be seen by a person who has achieved mindfulness).  The ordinariness of the ordinary would not be see however in its dull, boring nature as an even in our commodified and alienated culture but as something rich and meaningful. 


 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

More on Danto's "The Artworld"

This is another day thinking about Danto's "The Artworld." 

Philosophers sometimes see this essay as somehow dissolving the distinction between art and life.  On close reading this seems far from his intention.  One could even argue that he was mainly interested in making the distinction between art and life even more dramatic, and actually securing it from the tendency of contemporary of art to undercut it.  On this view, Danto was not so much acting in tandem with Warhol but against him insofar as Warhol's work could be interpreted as dissolving that distinction.  As I mentioned in my last post, Danto presents us with an implicit theory of art in this work.  He is shy about giving an actual definition but we do know that it has something to do with the idea that something is art if it can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical knowledge, and it also has something to do with the “is” of artistic identification.  The trouble is that the definition may be too broad, as an artist might be able to see a subject he or she is looking at (or perhaps painting in the studio) in such a way as to see it “as art” (not literally) and to also see it with the “is” of artistic identification.  At one point in his essay Danto worries about whether Warhol is like Midas in turning everything he touches into art.  Well, some artist who was able to see things as art with appropriate art historical knowledge could possibly be like this.  And then the line between art and life would in fact dissolve at least in that anything in life could be brought by such an artist into the artworld.  Moreover, doing so would not even require that it be put into a gallery or set on a pedestal and be declared art.  To put it another way, if mastering the is of artistic identification allows us to constitute certain things as art then doesn't its application always involve such constitution? And if so, then isn't seeing a stick as a horse (as in a child's game), which also involves the is of artistic identification, also a matter of constituting something as art?  This would imply that any imaginative seeing involves constituting an object as art...which of course Danto can't hold.  On his considered view, to constitute something as art this act would have to be imaginative seeing that is also under an artistic theory.  Danto also mentions the 10th Street abstractionist who is able to see No. 7 as art only because of "an atmosphere compounded of artistic theories and the history of recent and remote painting" an atmosphere that acts, seemingly, like a colored lens, or better, like 3 D glasses, enabling him to see the object in a completely different way from Testadura, his identification of the painting depending on the very theory he rejects, so that he says "That black paint is black paint" using the "is" of artistic identification, but in a very different way.  But how can we see black paint imaginatively as black paint?  In what way is seeing black paint as black paint like, or can be like, seeing a stick as a horse?  It looks like we have a case of imaginative seeing where the imaginative dimension simply is whatever raises the object into the realm of art.  Maybe seeing black paint as black paint is seeing it as transfigured into art?  Danto sees this maneuver as somewhat like the Zen adept who after studying Zen for thirty years has gotten to the very substance of the mountains, no longer seeing them as not mountains but now seeing them "once again" as mountains.  But if the point is a Zen point then, again, isn't the difference between art and world dissolving at least for the 10th Street abstractionist and for the Zen adept?  Is the Zen adept seeing the mountain now as art (or at least as transfigured into another realm) because he is seeing it as a mountain with the is of artistic identification?  Perhaps the mountain is now seen as itself metaphorical, as its ideal self, as itself in its inner essence, which is both itself and not itself, and so the itself that it now is seen as is a metaphor for itself?   If "the Brillo box of the artworld" is "just the Brillo box of the real one, separated and united by the is of artistic identification" then is the mountain that is now seen as a mountain a sign that the original Brillo box can actually have the "is of artistic identification" applied to it without even having to journey into a gallery or pass through the hands of an artist?

Right after Danto makes the Midas comment he says "And the whole world consisting of latent artworks waiting like the bread and wine of reality, to be transfigured, through some dark mystery, into the indiscernible flesh and blood of the sacrament?  Never mind that the Brillo box may not be good, much less great art.  The impressive thing is that it is art at all."  What a contrast:  first it looks like the latent artworks are going to be "transfigured" (a term Danto returns to again and again) which means that they are going to be spiritualized in some way, and then we find that this does not even require that they be good, much less great, which seems a pretty major tension in his thought since to spiritualize something is surely to make it great in some way. (And why bring in the religious imagery if it is just a throwaway?)  Heidegger, by contrast would say that Van Gogh has transfigured the shoes into great art through spiritualizing them, i.e. through the unconcealment of being.  (It is kind of fun to mix Danto and Heidegger in this way.)  

Danto tells us that we cannot "separate Brillo cartons from the gallery they are in, any more than we can separate the Rauschenberg bed from the paint upon it" and that "outside the gallery, they are pasteboard cartons" and "scoured clean of paint, Rauschenberg's bed is a bed, just what it was before it was transformed into art."  But surely this is false.  If you take the Brillo box by Warhol out of the gallery (say, after purchasing it!) it is still a work by Warhol.  Perhaps, it brings the presentation of itself in a gallery with it, and this is the way to save Danto's point.  Similarly,   if you scour the Rauschenberg of its paint it does not become what it was before but becomes a largely ruined work by Rauschenberg! Ironically, Rauschenberg himself created a work called "Erased De Kooning" in which we carefully erased a drawing by De Kooning.  This piece now appears to be two things at once:  a ruined De Kooning and an original Rauschenberg (although it is only listed as the second in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.)  

Some of my students have wondered how art theories that are not valid, for example, Imitation Theory and Reality Theory, can have value.  This is an interesting question.  Danto thinks that artistic theories always made the artworld possible.  Clearly he thinks that being able to see something as art under IT was required for art to exist during the reign of IT.  Maybe it still does the trick today for those who hold to IT.  But IT is false, as Danto has shown, as not all mirror images or photographs are art and not all art is imitation.  Can IT make mirror images and all photographs art if it allows us to see these things as art and see them according to the "is of artistic identification"?   Do IT and RT really transfigure things into the realm of art or do they lack the is of artistic identification that would allow this to happen?  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Puzzles about Danto's "The Artworld"

I have been thinking about "The Artworld" Danto's famous essay, which comes at the beginning of his career.  One has to think about it if one is teaching it (as a classic text) and yet it necessarily falls out of thought in the context of academic discussions as it is overlaid by so many other works by Danto on the same topic.  But, for now, let's act as if there were only this one text, cast up perhaps by the sea after a disaster of civilization...something like how we experience the great presocratic texts.  What can we make then of Danto's theory as presented here?  Let's assume also that we know something about what led up to the theory.  And so we have Danto responding to at least two things.  First, he is responding, most obviously, to Weitz's Wittgensteinian attack on the idea that there can be a real definition of art.  Danto, although cagey about it, seems here to be giving us a definition of art, although quite different from what Dickie later saw in it.  Second, and perhaps more obscurely, he is responding to another Wittgensteinian, i.e. William Kennick (whom he quotes without naming.)  His attack on Kennick is on the notion, which he (incorrectly and anachronistically) associates with Socratic dialogue, that one can solve philosophical questions simply by getting getting clear about what we already know, i.e. about the meanings of certain words.  This would seem to allow us to go into a warehouse and sort art from non-art....but in fact it fails to do this. (Danto does not consider that his own theory would also fail to pass the warehouse test, as we would not be able to distinguish between actually warehouse brillo boxes and Warhol's Brillo Boxes especially if Warhol didn't bother to use plywood rather than cardboard...which Danto himself considers unimportant...if the Warhol's were truly indistinguishable from the others then even someone armed with Danto's theory would be unable to tell which was which.)   Danto himself can be seen as Wittgensteinian in some respects, and so this essay can be seen as in some sense internal to the world of Wittgensteinians.  The response to Weitz is in part in accord with Weitz's theory.  Weitz thought that the purpose of art theory was really to come up with honorific definitions which are really redefinitions of art in terms of some preferred quality.  Weitz put this somewhat into a historical context:  each theory is presented in response to previous theories, each theory is attacked and shown insufficient as a real definition of art, and yet, since art is an open concept, the theories actually involve promoting an extension of the concept of art, perhaps by eliminating a necessary condition, or adding a sufficient condition, or setting up "similarity conditions."  Art critics play a special role in Weitz of deciding whether or not to extend the concept of art to cover new cases, for example collage and mobiles.  Danto similarly sees the relationship between the various theories of art as historical.  His version is more spare, however.  First, there is Imitation Theory, which dominates the artworld from the time of Plato, and then, after the assault of Postimpressionist art, there is Reality Theory.  This in turn is followed by Danto's own theory, call it DT or Danto Theory, which is unclear but involves the "is" of artistic identification, art historical knowledge, being able to see something as art, and seeing something under or according to a title.  Imitation theory turns out to be false since it cannot cover the plethora of counterexamples offered by the Postimpressionist and Abstract painters, imitation proving to be neither necessary nor sufficient for art.  Reality Theory is also proved false, given that the new art examples do not really give us something real in the same sense that the carpenter's bed described by Plato is real.  But what is Danto Theory?  As I have suggested, it is not clearly set forth, but seems to be of the following sort:  something is art if it can be seen as art by way of the art appreciator's knowledge of art history insofar as that history leads up to this work and insofar as the appreciator can see it according to the "is" of artistic identification.  The "is" of artistic identification is really an imaginative "is" since it includes not only works of art but also cases in which a child says that "I am the circle and she is the triangle." It indicates imaginative identification in which the first item is a physical object, for instance, this stick "is" a gun for the child.  Now the puzzling thing about Danto's theory of art is that there are two things called theories.  On one level, one can see that the painting called "Newton's First Law" is a work of art since it can be seen as Newton's First Law (as Danto shows in detail) and that the indiscernible "Newton's Second Law" is a work of art since in this case the identical physical object is seen as Newton's Second Law.  So on this level, it is the titles, "Newton's First Law" and "Newton's Second Law," that allow that viewer to "see" the two otherwise indiscernible works with the appropriate imaginative dimension thus transfiguring them into the realm of art.  But this is not enough yet to see either as a work of art.  The title itself is not theory (although Danto sometimes speaks as though it is.)  It is that certain things that happened in the history of art, in particular in the development of abstract painting towards the minimalism of Barnett Newman (mentioned by Danto in this essay) that provides the historical context for seeing both of these imaginary pieces as art.  So "Newton's First Law" is seen as or in terms of Newton's first law, and is also seen as art because of the art viewer's knowledge of art's history up to Newman, just as Newman's Vir Heroica Sublimas 1951 is seen in terms of heroism and the sublime because of the juxtaposition of the title and the work, the title being really a part of the overall work just as the work's presence in a gallery or museum is also part of it...but then is also seen as art only by those who have enough knowledge of the history of art not to see it as just a piece of canvas with painted lines on it.  Testatudura, according to Danto, can't see "Sea and Sky" ("a white painted oblong with a black line painted across it") as art until "he has mastered the is of artistic identification and so constitutes it a work of art."  Is it that he can't do it until he sees it as sea and sky (following the title) or is it that he can't do it until he sees it according to an artistic theory (for example, RT, or perhaps DT?).  Or is it that he can't see it as art until he does both things in combination?  Danto seems to think Testadura's accomplishment would be like that of a child who comes to see sticks as horses, but it must be more than that.  It might be that when we ask a person to see a canvas of this description as sea and sky we are doing something like asking a person to see a stick as a horse, but neither of these are yet asking a person to see this as art.  This may be related to the mistake of calling the "is" in question the "is of artistic identification."  The "is of artistic identification" must be different from the "is of imaginative identification," and it is surprising Danto did not see this.

There are at least two additional puzzles in the "The Artworld."  The first is that Danto believes that theory constitutes art as art, but does not distinguish between true and false theories or, to the same effect, between his own theories and the theories he rejects, for example IT and RT.  It might be that Danto intended to say that IT and RT both help to constitute art as art, although perhaps they were more successful at this during their heyday, and that DT has the advantage of not only including the same works as IT and RT into the realm of art but also including Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art works neither of which types of art fit either IT or RT.  It could be that Danto just thought that DT replaced IT and RT, doing all the work.  Or it could be that he thought IT and RT did the work of entering works into the world of art during their heyday and that DT can do the job from now on.  The second puzzle is, how does one deal with a switcheroo.  For example, let's say that all of Warhol's Brillo Boxes were moved out of the gallery and into the Brillo Box warehouse where they are used to store Brillo Boxes, and the Boxes in the warehouse are moved into the gallery, specifically by Warhol.  Is it now the case that we simply have one group of artworks wrongly housed in a Brillo Box warehouse and another new group of artworks designated as art in the gallery?  Danto implies that once something is art, it always is.  So it seems the the Warhol Brillo Boxes can't stop being art even if they come to be used and seen as things that are not art.  But that seems odd.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The primacy of honorific definitions of art.

In 1956, Morris Weitz wrote a famous article still much discussed in aesthetics classes called “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics”  Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 15: 27–35.)  I say it is much discussed today, although interestingly, the main point of the article is hardly ever mentioned.  Most readers of the essay just focus on its first part.  Weitz is then seen as advocating skepticism with regard to defining art or as holding the view that art can never be defined.  A typical comment about Weitz is that of Thomas Adajian in his article on "The Definition of Art" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in which he describes Weitz's view in this way: "any concept is open if a case can be imagined which would call for some sort of decision on our part to extend the use of the concept to cover it, or to close the concept and invent a new one to deal with the new case; all open concepts are indefinable; and there are cases calling for a decision about whether to extend or close the concept of art. Hence art is indefinable..." 

This is part of the truth about Weitz's article, but in being partly true, it is also a distortion.  Weitz in fact held that art is definable and that the definitions that have been offered in the past are immensely valuable.  His point was that art could not be given a "real" definition.  This means that, unlike "triangle" or "water," art could not be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient properties.  "Art" is a different kind of concept.  "Art" as Adajian correctly observes, is, for Weitz, an "open concept."  However, this does not mean that it cannot be defined.  It has been defined every time a definition has been put forward.  There is just no final definition.  Weitz's point is that all of the great definitions of art in the past are what he calls "honorific definitions."  He sees previous theories as theories of the evaluative use of "Art" and not "true and real definitions of the necessary and sufficient properties of art."  They are "definitions...in which 'Art' has been redefined in terms of chosen criteria."  He also thinks that these definitions are "supremely valuable" because of the "debates over the reasons for changing the criteria of the concept of art which are built into the definitions."  In part, Weitz sees the history of debates over the nature of art as something like one long Socratic dialogue in which each character successively provides us with a definition of the concept under consideration, in this case 'art,' which is in turn debated.  But there is something else going on:  this debate is also sequenced in a historical way.  At each time in history there is a dominant theory of "Art," and the debate is over changing the criteria to be found in that dominant theory, thus replacing it, presumably, with a new dominant theory.  Philosophers coming after, and responding to, Weitz have typically thought that the moral of his story was that one cannot define art.  The moral, rather, is that we need to see previous definitions of art in a larger historical context, one in which the activities of artists, frankly, are either as important or more important than the activities of philosophers.  Hegel has a nice way of looking at this:  it is his concept of the "spirit of the culture" as something that is manifested not only in one area of the culture but in others as well, a zeitgeist.  So the spirit of the culture might be manifest both in philosophy, art, religion and so forth.  So the moral of Weitz's story is that each new definition of art stresses new things to focus on.  This, by the way, is true for theories of art after Weitz as much as it is for those that came before Weitz, even for those theories that claim to have no evaluative component at all.  This is a subtle point but it is noteworthy that the theories of George Dickie and Arthur Danto focused on examples of art that were "hot" during their own time.  Danto especially stresses the impact of seeing Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes in an art gallery.  Although Danto believed that his theory of art was universal (he was something of a Platonist in this regard) he also continuously throughout his career went back to that moment he walked into a gallery and saw Warhol's work.  Clearly the dynamic of the interaction of Warhol and Danto can be described in Weitzian terms as creation of a new honorific definition of art (Danto's and Warhol's) in which certain new elements are stressed and certain older elements essential to older definitions of art are disregarded, downplayed, ignored, refuted, despised, etc.  

Now, although I think Weitz is right about all of this, the view needs amendment.  The reason is that what is considered to be the dominant theory at any one time in history is also open to debate.  Nonetheless, there is usually consensus that there are some top contenders at any one time in history, for example expressionism vs. formalism in 1914, and that certain writings, as well as other cultural phenomena, including most importantly, events in the artworld itself, tended to put certain theories "in the front."  Note that Weitz's view is by not means that art is an open concept in the sense that "anything goes."     

Weitz writes that "the value of each of the theories resides in its attempt to state and to justify certain criteria which are either neglected or distorted by previous theories." so that, for example, the Bell/Fry formalist theory states that "Art is significant form" which is to say that art should be redefined "in terms of the chosen condition of significant form."  Weitz interprets this to mean:  "In an age in which literary and representational elements have been paramount in painting, return to the plastic ones since they are indigenous to painting."  (177)  The claim that art is significant form is really a request or demand that we behave in a different way, that for example, we admire Giotto and Cezanne's use of lines and colors to give us a special aesthetic experience over Frith and other academic painters who were fascinated instead with the stories that could be told when looking at their paintings.  This is essentially right...but it is not to say that one can just replace the theory with a request or demand for certain behavior or a certain kind of valuing since the term "indigenous" indicates that something is being said about the essence of art:  it is just not the kind of thing that can be said by giving a real definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  The way that Weitz puts it is that the "definitional form" is used to "turn our attention" to "the plastic elements in painting."  I think this does not tell the whole story of what happens in the definitional debate, but it does capture an aspect often neglected, and it is consistent with my main point, which is that Weitz was right that so-called real definitions are really honorific definitions in disguise....how "honorific definition" is to be defined is still open to debate.

I mentioned that some modifications are needed.  I think that the point being made by various definers of art cannot always be made in terms of "emphasizing or centering upon some particular feature of art that has been neglected or perverted."  Sometimes it is more a matter of bringing out completely new features, and sometimes the debate has more to do with debates over the nature of humanity, freedom, justice, spirituality, wisdom or some other big philosophical question, than with neglected features.  Weitz did not spread his net widely enough, and it is here that a Hegelian approach might be more appropriate. 

Is fosucing on the pain in the dentist's chair having an aesthetic experience?

Recently, Mary B. Wiseman, in "Damask Napkins and the Train from Sichuan:  Aesthetic Experience and Ordinary Things" Chapter 10 of Aesthetics of Everyday Life:  East and West ed. Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) has argued for using Descartes' idea of "clear and distinct" in relation to aesthetics.  As she puts it:  "[careful] scrutiny makes the experienced object [object of aesthetic value] clear, and de-contextualizing, that is, taking the object of of its frame, makes it distinct."  (136)  Descartes had defined "clear" as "perception which is present and manifest to an attentive mind" and "distinct" as both clear and "separated and delineated from all others" so much so that it contains "absolutely nothing except what is clear."  Wiseman holds the currently unpopular view that aesthetic objects must be considered out of their contexts.   So, contrary to those who would hold that the value of an aesthetic object comes from being part of the life of something larger, Wiseman holds that it "derives from the experience of paying it careful attention."  (138)  I don't quite see how the two positions are in opposition, since paying careful attention to something surely would include paying attention to its relational qualities along with everything else.  However, I also think that, and have argued for the position that, one can usefully toggle between focusing on directly perceivable properties and focusing on relational properties. 

The thing that puzzles me here is the application of Descartes:  as I argued recently in this blog, his way of examining a piece of wax is to eliminate all sensuous perception of the object.  Clear and distinct perception of a piece of wax seems inconsistent with aesthetic perception of such.  But clearly Wiseman is not thinking about Descartes' explication of this notion in terms of the wax example.

Wiseman takes the position that aesthetics is general:  the same sort of thing happens in each of the sub-disciplines of aesthetics:  close attention: "Aesthetic experience consists in paying attention to the experience of tasting, looking, listening, imagining;  these transitive verbs all name experiences whose objects [could be] tea, the pattern in a napkin, a painting, a sonata, an attack, an earthquake, being displaced, being a jade miner.  In the more complex cases you are paying aesthetic attention to imagining what it would be like to do or suffer or be thus and so."  (143-44)  This implies for her that there is no difference between aesthetic experience of art and aesthetic experience of "the world of the everyday."  She explicates this when she says that when we talk of the aesthetics of something we mean "a manner of attending to an object presented to the senses rather than to certain features" the manner being "careful and focused."  The careful scrutiny is directed to "all and only what the senses present and the mind focuses on" (135), although she does allow for imaginative presentation as well.  

There is one problem with this approach.  Perhaps the understanding of aesthetic experience offered to too broad...at least too broad to fit what we normally mean by "aesthetic."  Weiseman says that he characterization is "so broad as to allow any clear and penetrating attention paid to what one senses as counting as aesthetic.  An individual sitting in a dentist's chair focusing only on the pain the drill is causing is having an aesthetic experience." (141)  Her idea is that an aesthetic experience is not required to "please."  Wiseman may be right that being "pleased" is not required.  Are we really just pleased by a sublime experience for example?  But isn't it going too far to say that dental pain is aesthetic if attended to closely?  I have had a lot of pain in the dentist's office and, to be frank, my general approach has been to avoid this as much as possible.  Attending closely to the experience of pain is not usually a good way to get away from that experience.  Better ways include asking for another shot of Novocain, or in the good old days of the 1970s, getting a hit of laughing gas.  Trying to think of something unrelated to the pain and discomfort is usually helpful.  Careful scrutiny of my dental pain has never produced positive results.  Wiseman says that "the person in the dentist's chair can focus so intensely on the pain that they are absorbed into it and no longer feel it."  (141)   Perhaps one can, although this has never been part of my experience, and I suspect that whatever experience Wiseman had is not described correctly.  If it is pain, you feel it:  if you no longer feel it, it is no longer pain.  Pain is necessarily felt.  Moreover, my own experience of pain is that close attention to pain makes the pain more intense.  However, in Wiseman's favor, one could say that decontextualizing pain, stripping it of meaning content, can lessen the painfulness of pain.  This is an old Stoic strategy.  If you can achieve the right attitude then attendant feelings of shame or fear which help to accentuate pain can be reduced, thus reducing the level of pain.