Monday, October 12, 2015

The Virtue of Confusion

This is a comment on philosophy and confusion and it will be very short.  The standard view is that we need to always work through confusion to achieve clarity.  The standard view is that clarity is the goal for the rational person.  I don't know.  Actually, I disagree on some level.   What I will say now is totally unorthodox and should get my philosophy membership card torn-up.  My idea is, let's try to think of philosophy and knowledge differently.  Let's think of it as an unending process.  We can think of confusion as the beginning point of philosophy, or the end point, or the middle point.  Usually we think of it as a beginning point.  Philosophy begins with wonder, a kind of confusion.  Philosophers are well known for finding things confusing that no one else does.  Training in philosophy is learning how to question what seems to be clear and obvious.  Is that a real object in front of me?  No one would question this but a philosopher.  Descartes begins with confusion but ends with clarity.  This is supposed to be what philosophers do.   Analytic philosophy, for example, always prides itself in having the goal of clarity.  But, I want to suggest, any clarity one gets should be another point of confusion.  Shouldn't philosophy be seen more as a process, i.e. from confusion to clarity to confusion to clarity, and on and on.  There is a yin and yang of philosophy:  confusion and clarity.  There is an Apollonian and Dionysian of philosophy:  confusion and clarity.  There are a lot of people out there arguing that confusion is not always a bad thing.  May I suggest one more step, i.e. that confusion is as necessary, as useful, as valuable, as clarity.  (One could take the arguments from the "not always a bad thing" people and use some of them in support of the position I am advocating.)  Another related point:  what makes great philosophers great for me is not only their moments of great clarity but equally their moments of great confusion.  One of the reasons why encyclopedia articles in philosophy are inevitably deeply boring (including my own entries I imagine) is that everything is done to make it seem that everything is clear:  the confusion of the philosopher in question is seemingly erased.  Reading the great texts of philosophy is quite a different experience than reading the explanation.  Don't get me wrong:  I have a deep interest in clarity.  I am just beginning to realize that I have an equally deep interest in confusion, and not just because I want to uncover it or clean it up.  Part of my interest in clarity is that what is clear from one angle or at one time can, under philosophical investigation, become quite confusing. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

More on Bourdieu art and everyday aesthetics

Bourdieu's book Distinction provides an important source for everyday aesthetics.  I have already commented on it here.
But here is some more.  Sociology as Bourdieu understands it is a bit complicated...more like a combination of science and philosophy than science alone.  He insists that in order to truly understand the conditions of production and appreciation of objects of taste we need to bring culture in the normative sense back into culture in the anthropological sense.  On one level this would seem to be simply saying that we need to just give up on philosophy of art and do a kind of anthropology of taste.  But he sees this as reconnecting elaborated taste for refined objects with elementary tastes such as the taste for food flavors.  This sounds more like the kind of thing Dewey advocated:  i.e. a reformative approach not only to philosophy but also to social practices.  This appears to also be part of what Bourdieu means by "sociology."  I suppose that this is obvious to people in Sociology or at least to followers of Bourdieu.  So, sorry if I am stating the obvious.  

Bourdieu makes an interesting distinction between two ways of acquiring culture, one being in terms of educational level and one in terms of social origin:  the scholastic vs. the domestic.  And yet, he observes, the classroom also favors "those who have had early access to legitimate culture, in a cultured household, outside of scholastic disciplines."  He even notes that within the classroom there is a certain devaluing of "scholarly knowledge and interpretation" as scholastic.  Privileged, rather, is "direct experience and simple delight" which, presumably, comes to those who are cultured at home.  

The pedantic or scholarly approach, he argues, involves "mastery of a cipher or code" which gives us the "capacity to see."  That capacity is based on a certain kind of knowledge.  This is similar to Danto's theory of artistic identification where identifying something as a work of art requires an atmosphere of knowledge (but we will see later that the similarity is weak).  Here, it is perception that requires such knowledge.  Without knowledge of the code, the appreciator is lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms.  Instead, he only perceives "sensible properties," for example that this lace-work is delicate, and cannot move to the level of the "secondary meanings."  For that, he needs the appropriate concepts.  He would need such concepts, for example, to identify "the specifically stylistic properties of the work."  The encounter here is what Bourdieu calls an "act of empathy" based on cognition, i.e. decoding. 

This idea of culture, again, is in opposition to that which sees it as a matter of "insensible familiarization within the family circle," where the "enchanted experience of culture" forgets the process of concept acquisition.  Here, what is considered is "form rather than function."  It is accepted in this context, and by the formalist (whom, after all, is the referent here), that artistic seeing can be applied to anything.  In the practice of art, for example in Post-impressionism, this implies that the mode of representation is more important than its object. The distinction is virtually the same as that of Danto vs. Stolnitz, for example.  (But again, we will see that this is simplistic and that from Bourdieu's perspective Danto and Stolnitz are one.)

The artist who follows the second path intends to be autonomous, to be "master of his product."  Such an artist rejects both the a priori programs of scholars but also their a posteriori interpretations of his work.  The method is to proclaim that his work has many meanings, that it is open.  Again, what gets primacy is what the artist is master of:  form and style and not referent and function.  Necessity here is limited to the discipline itself:  there is a shift from that which imitates nature to that which imitates art, the history of art itself being the source of its experiments.

But, oddly and paradoxically, I now find Danto here!  "An art which ever increasingly contains reference to its own history demands to be perceived historically; it asks to be the universe of past and present works of art."  Such historical perception refers to that which deviates from previous art and thus makes up a new style.  This is a mastery, Bourdieu insists, that comes through "implicit learning" i.e. from "contact with works of art."   One does not, for example, have to be able to explicitly distinguish the features that makes something original in order to make or appreciate art in this mode.  

The so-called "pure gaze" of the formalist then is really one based on historical knowledge.  Bourdieu identifies it with something in Ortega y Gassett, i.e. the idea that the human or that which is associated with the passions of ordinary lives is to be rejected by the modernist artists and appreciators.  It is the aesthetic, as opposed to the ordinary, attitude.  The ordinary attitude is associated with what is called "popular aesthetic" which affirms continuity between art and life and subordinates form to function. The "popular aesthetic" is that of the working class insofar as they reject formal experimentation and any the unconventional.  The popular aesthetic requires full identification between the spectators and the characters, as in Brecht's plays.  This, then, is contrasted against Kant's notion of disinterestedness (which is now associated with y Gassett).  Formal experimentalism rejects the vulgar enjoyments of the working class.  The aesthetic, or rather the ethos, of the working class is the opposite of Kant insofar as it does not separate what pleases from what gratifies or from "the interest of reason" or the Good.  Bourdieu seems to join them in this.  

So, popular taste reduces "things of art to the things of life."  Pure taste, by contrast, is opposed to the na├»ve and half playful relationship to the world characteristic of the working class approach to art.  

This leads Bourdieu to discuss what we would call aestheticization or even artification.  Even though art itself allows the greatest scope for purifying vision or "the aesthetic disposition," it is possible to stylize life anywhere, and in doing so we may "confer aesthetic status on objects that are banal or even 'common'." In doing this we are applying aesthetic principles to "everyday choices of everyday life," for example to cooking, clothing and decoration.

So, different ways of "relating to realities and fictions" is a matter of different positions in "social space" which is a matter of the habits of different classes:  "taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier."  Thus the oppositions in cultural practices are also found in eating habits as much as in differences in appreciation of high art.  The taste of "liberty," as opposed to that of "necessity," favors the manner of presenting food over the practical value of food, thus denying function.

So we return to the issue of sociology and the surprising idea that "the science of taste and of cultural consumption begins with a transgression that is in no way aesthetic." In doing so, "it has to abolish the sacred frontier which makes legitimate culture a separate universe" simply in order to find the unity of choices or preferences within certain classes.  For example, if one takes a distanced approach to music one will also do so for food.  Bourdieu recognizes how radical this is when he says that "this barbarous integration of aesthetic consumption into the world of ordinary consumption abolishes the opposition" which is the basis of Kant's aesthetics, i.e. between taste of sense and taste of reflection, the latter only representing, for Kant, the "moral excellence" and "capacity for sublimation" that makes us truly human.  What is opposed is this "magical division" which is "sacred" and a matter of "transubstantiation."  

Danto is defeated (if Bourdieu is right, anyway) and the aesthetics of everyday life is assimilated to the aesthetics of art.  This all explains why art (high art) legitimates social differences.

If Bourdieu is right then there is something problematic about having an aesthetics of the everyday.  What we should have instead is an aesthetics in which the distinction between the everyday and the refined dissolves and the distinctions so dear to Kant and his followers are set aside.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Aesthetic Health

Kevin Melchionne has an idea of aesthetic health as found in an article of his called "Artistic Dropouts," to be found in Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions, a textbook I am using this semester.  The article first came out in 1998.  I did not recognize it previously, but it is one the founding documents of the new sub-discipline of everyday aesthetics.  This should not be surprising since Melchionne's later writings have also consistently addressed this issue. In  this article, Melchionne argues that aesthetic health is like emotional health.  Let us say that emotional health includes the ability to empathize with others, for example, or to control emotions.  In parallel, "an aesthetically healthy person reflects upon the pleasures that she has and seeks to discover their sources."  He further says that aesthetic health "means being open to sources of satisfaction encountered randomly in the world or proposed for our consideration by our friends" or artists through their artistic creations.  This is a matter of "being able to appreciate a decent chunk of what is offered by the world."

I doubt that any of this could be proved or established in the way we establish notions of emotional health, but it seems reasonable as a working idea.  It is interesting to contrast Melchionne's conception of the aesthetically healthy person and Hume's concept of the good judge.  They are not totally different since the good judge is someone who is not "defective" in delicacy of imagination, although it seems a stretch to speak of the good judge as healthier than others.  One difference is that Melchionne's aesthetically healthy person is interested in the sources of his or her pleasures, whereas this does not seem to be an interest of Hume's good judge.  Another difference is Melchionne's inclusion of random sources as well as those proposed by artists and friends.  

An important feature of aesthetic health for Melchionne is that it develops through both expansion and refinement.  He speaks of an aesthetically healthy person as being able to "expand her capacity to appreciate more and more of what the world has to offer."  This is not an idea that you would find in Hume, but does accord with the above-mentioned idea of appreciation of random things.  This person "seeks out new experiences or creates new variations of past successes." This is a glass-half-full type of person, an overall optimist about life.  For example, when she approaches the artworld she is looking at it as a "feast of visions rather than a glut of egos."  The picture Melchionne offers is of someone who is actively seeking out new experiences rather than someone mainly interested in judging. 

What about refinement, though?  Melchionne must have had Hume in mind here because he indicates that the capacity to refine experience allows for "convictions about the aesthetic quality of what she encounters" that allows the aesthetically healthy person to discriminate in the "sea of aesthetic possibilities" and thus avoid nausea...possibly a reference to Sartre.  But, in contrast to Hume, he observes that "without the thirst for new, unforeseeable experiences [the expansive part], her capacity to make these fine distinction would degenerate into the pedantic quibbling of the snob."  In other words, someone who just follows Hume's theory of taste may just be a snob:  we need this openness of expansion to escape this fate.  For Melchionne, the exploration of possibilities is more important than establishing a hierarchy of values.  The snob may be focused only on the superiority of this wine or that cheese.  Thus aesthetic health does not depend on clear judgment alone [or at all?]:  nor are judgments really as clear as is often pretended. 

He goes on to make the even more anti-Humean point that "aesthetic health doesn't depend on our recognizing that one wine is really better than another."  Rather it depends on our capacity "to discover which wine we ourselves enjoy more," as well as understanding the source of that preference.  I cannot agree with the idea that aesthetic health is just a matter of knowing one's own preferences and the sources of those preferences.  How does one come to know one's own preferences better, anyway?  Nor am I willing to throw out the concept of qualitative difference, since with that would go the concept of the good judge itself.  

Like Hume, Melchionne speaks of refinement, but mainly understands this in terms of a development of personal confidence and a coincident development of "a sense of adventure and higher expectations"  Yet, again, although development of such a sense may well be an important part of the journey of taste, what sense can be made of higher expectations if there are no qualitative differences?  

Melchionne's expansiveness leads to his version of the aesthetics of everyday life.  As he puts it, "a finely honed but voracious aesthetic appetite helps us to combat the boredom and banality of everyday life," allowing us to develop "our everyday aesthetic perceptions."  Melchionne believes that these things are "pleasurable in and of themselves."  

This leads him to suggest that "the most valuable art is that which we can do." (Wouldn't it rather be this?  The most valuable art for us is that which we cannot do extremely well but can do fairly well.  Thus, someone might value ball-room dancing because he does it fairly well, while still recognizing that the most valuable form of this it was someone else does extremely well.)  That is, that we can "practice certain arts on a daily basis" makes them valuable.  This leads to his notion that human well-being consists mainly in "the art that surrounds us in our everyday lives," i.e. the "everyday arts."  These arts "are valuable simply because the everyday matters."  Further, "everyday art is the world of immediate experience upon which a good part of our overall satisfaction with life depends." 

He then argues that examining this everyday artworld allows us to see the "artistic dropout" referred to in an earlier part of the paper as dropping "into" something, i.e. "an ordinary life of creative possibilities.:"  These include "decoration and maintenance of the home" and "mundane excursions across town" all of which now, become art because they "arrange our lives for the enhancement of aesthetic experience."  This can, for example, happen in garage bands or auto-customizing.  

For Melchionne the home itself ends up being most people's largest project, with our daily excursions forming perhaps the next largest when those excursions involve appreciation.  The basic pattern of everyday life:  "most of us do most of these things on most days."   

Melchionne concludes that when others "derive aesthetic satisfaction" from these things "we become artists of everyday life." So the concept of art itself is expanded. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Kant on how to be a genius

Kant is usually thought of as too obscure and theoretical to provide practical advice, but I find a lot of practical advice in the Critique of Judgment on the question of how to be, or rather become, a genius.  (I am working with the Bernard translation here).  There are some preliminaries to keep in mind.  First, Kant does not associate genius with high IQ.  If you think that you have to have high IQ to be a genius then you are not talking about Kant's concept of genius.  High IQ is overrated anyway.   It is not necessary or sufficient for creative work.  Before I go into his practical advice about becoming a genius I also want to make clear that Kant is just mistaken about scientists.  He argues that a great scientist cannot be a genius.  This is just a misconception about science.  Science requires creative and original thinking every bit as much as art does. To be sure, creativity works differently in science than in the fine art:  for example you are not supposed to change your data set, and there is perhaps less flexibility than in fine art.  But, for now, let us just assume that everything Kant says about a genius in fine art could also apply to other practices including science, sports, business, religion, and philosophy itself. 

Kant believes that genius is "a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given" and "is not a mere aptitude for what can be learned by a rule."  This would also eliminate the people who are often seen as geniuses simply because they can memorize lots of information, follow certain rules well, or play simplistic games like solitaire with great rapidity.  None of this requires genius.  

The mention of talent may seem to imply that genius must be something one is born with.  However, Kant does not say directly that it is.  He does speak of a pupil "endowed" with a "like proportion of mental powers" but think this means that you need to find  teacher with "like proportion of mental powers" to yours:  i.e. you need the right fit.   Given that Kant believes that genius comes from the use of the faculties of imagination and understanding, and given that he believes that everyone has these faculties, I suggest that on a Kantian view, anyone can be a genius.  Put otherwise, we are all born with genius, an inner capacity to do original cutting edge work. 

How do you know that someone is a genius, then?  Well, simply if that person is original and original in a way that is valuable:  of genius,  "originality must be its first property."  Moreover, Kant clearly indicates that works of genius should not "spring from imitation" but should be "a standard or rule of judgment for others." We will see however, that this later idea is qualified in an important way:  the genius should not be a rule or standard for other geniuses if by this we mean something that can be copied or followed by way of clearly stated formulae. 

Another factor is that the genius "cannot describe or indicate scientifically" how he or she brings about her products.  Instead, the genius creates his or her own rules.  I take this to mean that the genius creates his own definitions of key terms and concepts central to his own project and creates new ways of seeing and doing things.  We shall see that this involves creating a world of his own, one based on the materials of the world we experience.  An excellent example of someone who created his own rules was Van Gogh.  Paintings like Starry Night follow their own rules and not the rules of accurate reproduction.  In creating Starry Night, Van Gogh created an alternate world based on the world as he experienced it.  

Also, like Plato before him in the Ion, Kant believes that the genius is inspired.  That is, he speaks with approval of the origins of the word "genius."  The word originally referred to a "guardian spirit given to the man at birth."  This seems something like the Greek Muse, a source of inspiration, although personal.  Again, I recommend that you not read this as saying that some people get a guardian spirit (or the physiological genetic equivalent) and some do not.  It is quite possible that everyone is given such a guardian spirit at birth.   In other words, everyone on principle could act like a genius, could be a genius.  This does not mean that everyone is capable of being a genius at every thing:  there are certain things you are naturally fitted to do well, and some not. 

So here is the advice so far:  Do not imitate.  Create your own rules. Work towards originality.  Produce models.   Create your own world.  

The next piece of advice is find a genius to be your teacher. Remember that although the genius artist creates his own rules, others can take that persons artworks as models.  The genius artist prescribes his rule to fine art, a rule that cannot be reduced to a formula, but which is, rather, "abstracted from the fact, i.e. from the product, on which others may try their own talent by using it as a model, not to be copied but to be imitated."  So the potential genius must find a genius teacher who should not be merely copied but imitated, not just imitated but "followed," and against which he can test his or her own talent:  "the ideas of the artist excite like ideas in his pupils if nature had endowed them with a like proportion of mental powers."  If you want to be a genius you need to find your match in a great teacher, a great teacher for you

Kant does not require that this be one teacher only.  Nor does he require that the teacher be living.  The works of genius produced in the past can be models, can be the teachers.  Indeed, he writes that "the models of beautiful art are the only means of handing down these ideas to posterity."  A living teacher can teach you by means of his or her own works, but also through modeling his or her artistic practice, for example in the classroom. 

On the other hand we cannot accept Kant's claim that "classical models are only to be had in the old dead languages."  Clearly this is a prejudice of his time.  However, we today are amazingly incapable of treating the dead languages (Latin, Greek, etc.) as sources of inspiration, unlike the Renaissance and Kant's own time.

Kant offers another important piece of advice for being a genius. He observes that there is still a mechanical element in what you do; there are still skills to learn in your practice; there is still something "scholastic" to learn; you still need to follow certain definite rules in order to accomplish the purpose of your art.  So you should not throw away "all the constraint of all rules," or to think that genius can replace "careful investigation by reason" where that is appropriate.  

I want to add one more thing that Kant did not say but I think is consistent with the thrust of his approach.  If you want to be a genius in Kant's sense find the hot spot of creativity in your city or neighborhood, and if there is nothing, move somewhere else where there is something.  It might be a cafe where really interesting people bent on revolutionizing painting go to argue:  that was the hot spot for the Impressionists in Paris in the late part of the 19th century.  It might be a garage where people on the cutting edge in technology collect to pursue their dream.   It might be a great cutting edge company. The hot spot is a place where you can find people who themselves can be models, contemporary models, in your quest for genius.  Genius seems to thrive best in the hot house of interactive work and debate.  What Kant teaches is that genius is not simply an individual trait but rather arises out a creative relationship between student and teacher, mentor and mentee, aspirant and model.  

Finally, paragraph #49 constitutes the deepest thing Kant has to say about genius.  Genius requires what Kant calls "spirit" and what is sometimes also translated as "soul."  Kant calls it an "animating principle of the mind" which is to say that it brings things alive. What this does is put "the mental powers [imagination and understanding] purposively into swing, i.e. into such a play as maintains itself and strengthens the mental powers in their exercise."  Moreover, this principle is "the faculty of presenting aesthetical ideas" i.e. of creating symbols (and works of art can be examples of such symbols), imaginative products which send the mind into much thought, none of it definite or completely intelligible by language.  

It is here that Kant tells us that the imagination, in this productive use, "is very powerful in creating another nature" out of the material of actual nature.  It remolds experience using metaphors and analogies. Such symbols "strive after something which lies beyond the bounds of experience" and try to get as close to possible to present what Kant calls the "concepts of reason" by which he means transcendent things such as God, the soul and immortality, as well as all the most fundamental ideas by which and under which we live, for example death, envy, love, and fame.  In doing this, the imagination "brings the faculty of intellectual ideas (the reason) into movement": i.e. it enlivens these ideas.   In sum the genius is someone who creates things that connect us in this way to what is transcendent but ultimately inexpressible.     

Monday, September 28, 2015

Marcia Eaton on locating the aesthetic

Marcia Muelder Eaton has been one of the philosophers who has opened up the arena of aesthetics to include the possibility of an everyday aesthetics.  One might read her "Locating the Aesthetic" (in Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions) which is a selection from her book 1989 book Aesthetics and the Good Life as simply an attack on formalistic approaches to art and advocacy for paying attention to subject matter. However there is much more going on there.  Eaton does of course advocate bringing in the artist's life, the history of the work of art, and its political repercussions.  She rejects the Beardsleyan notion of the "intentionalist fallacy" and allies herself with John Berger who gained a lot of popularity through his Ways of Seeing TV series and book and who advocated looking at paintings in terms of subject matter.  She quotes with approval his discussion of a Franz Hals painting in terms of how the sitter must have felt about his life, perhaps seeing life as absurd.  (This projection of an existentialist sentiment back to the 17th century, however, seems anachronistic.)  Then she boldly claims that subject matter is itself an aesthetic property.  

I find that to be a bit of a stretch since it seems to me that although subject matter can be important, and seeing something in terms of subject matter can influence the way we see it, there is nothing about subject matter that refers to things like beauty, grace, elegance or to the pleasure we take in sensuous qualities.  Still, I agree with Eaton that different things have been considered an aesthetic property at different times in history.  So, there is flexibility in the concept, and perhaps she sees into the future of the concept or its current state in a way I cannot.

After saying that subject matter is an aesthetic property it is not surprising that Eaton wonders whether "aesthetic" can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  She concludes that it can be, asserting that "what is aesthetic remains constant even though specific features pointed to as aesthetically valuable may change."  Her examples of things the once were aesthetic qualities but may be no longer is fascinating.  One example is taken from Quintilian, the Roman writer, who said of some trumpets, "the louder the concert of their notes, the greater is the glorious supremacy of our arms over all the nations of the earth."  Quintilian valued loudness in the sounds of trumpets, and largely for socio-political reasons.  As Eaton puts it, "being big and loud are a source of delight; and they mattered for Quintilian and his contemporaries aesthetically as well as militarily."  Eaton even goes so far as to argue that "considerable uproar" can be an aesthetic property when taken in the context of standards operative in a medieval wedding feast in Normandy where "performed at his best" indicates that the properties were experienced with pleasure.  The sentence analyzed is:  "Everyone performed at his best and the noise of the instruments and the voices of the narrators made a considerable uproar in the hall." 

Similarly, Veronese saw "sumptuous" as an important positive aesthetic property, at least based on a note on the back of one of his paintings. 

I had not realized it at the time (six years later), but this parallels my own advocacy of neatness and messiness as aesthetic properties under certain circumstances and in certain contexts.  (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 1995, vol. 7, no. 1, 259-268)   In this sense one could say that Eaton was a progenitor of the approach to everyday aesthetics I later championed.  Both Eaton and I opened up the domain of aesthetics to include the everyday, she doing so before I did.

I am less able to agree with her that "shows Christ" and "this room shows my rug" indicates a positive aesthetic quality.   I am uncomfortable when she uses "aesthetic quality" to describe subject matter, i.e. Christ or my rug as opposed to quality, as in loud or sumptuous.  Eaton thinks that they all have something in common:  "we attend to intrinsic features in the belief that this attention will be rewarded by delight."  She concludes that "delight in what resides intrinsically in something is a mark of the aesthetic generally."  Is "shows my rug" something intrinsic about a painting?  Isn't that precisely something extrinsic to the painting qua painting?  It is a relational quality having to do with relations between objects depicted as a singer person's possessions.  So maybe Eaton's definition is a good one, and the example is just weird.

One can agree with Eaton that "discussions of works of art are not limited to manifest or directly observable properties" and may include how a work came to be or admiration of the skills of the artist.  But this may not in itself be enough to warrant extension to subject matter or to the kind of psychological speculation about the sitter favored by Berger and accepted by Eaton.  Eaton interestingly requires that even when skill of the artist is referenced it must be directed "back to features of the object" i.e. to intrinsic properties.  

Another, rather brilliant in my view, extension of the concept of the aesthetic made by Eaton is to the notions both of unifinishedness and finishedness.  The point is that this all  depends on earlier valuations, i.e. of imagination or craftsmanship.   Thus the Cinquecento valued invention over imitation and hence was able to appreciate what was considered artistic ecstasy which was found expressed was or exemplified in works that are unfinished, for example Michelangelo's slaves at the Boboli Gardens.  Similarly we can admire Mondrian's work when told that it is done carefully over months even though it looks like it could have been done quickly.  But we can also admire certain works for being finished.

Where then is the aesthetic located.  There is a certain openness here, which I applaud, whereas I am less comfortable with extension to subject matter, "depicting my rug" being something that could give one viewer pleasure but seems to lack being an actual quality of the object or being "intrinsic" as Eaton puts it. 

What is the aesthetic attitude? Stolnitz revisited.

It is common for readers in a discipline, even sophisticated ones, to dismiss writers and thinkers popular at one time by way of labeling them.  Then when you sit down and actually read something by that person carefully the position turns out often to be much more complex and nuanced than one would expect.  Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions contains a selection from Jerome Stolnitz's Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism, A Critical Introduction (1960) which defends and develops his own version of the aesthetic attitude.  The selection is followed by  Marcia Muelder Eaton's "Locating the Aesthetic," which came from her Aesthetics and the Good Life (1989).  It is easy to dismiss Stolnitz as a formalist uninterested in subject-matter and become an advocate of Eaton's contextualism.  But now, almost a quarter of a century after the contextualist revolution --- now that contextualism is our dominant form of critical practice, and has been for a long time -- it might be worthwhile to reread Stolnitz with a kinder and even more sympathetic eye, if for nothing else but to just gain some perspective.  I already tried to do that in my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (2012) and in my previous article “Practical George and Aesthete Jerome Meet the Aesthetic Object,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 28:1 (1990) 37-53.  In the book I say: 

"One can look at an everyday streetscape from a disinterested perspective, focusing on sensuous and design features, and then switch to a perspective that takes into account history and context. One can follow Stolnitz in isolating the object from the flow of experience and from its interrelations with other things, and then toggle [I adopt this idea from Peggy Brand] to a non-isolated form of perception.  I have been arguing that taking the aesthetic attitude is taking an attitude that allows objects, environments or events to have aura.  Although either disinterestedness or interested perception alone might do this, toggling between interested and disinterested perception is more likely to heighten significance. The toggling approach may be applied to all types of aesthetics:  of art, of nature and of everyday life."  (198)  I still endorse this view.

So what more can we get out of Stolnitz.  Much of the selection in Korsmeyer's book is an attempt both to enrich our notion of what goes on with the aesthetic attitude and also to overcome some prejudice against the notion.  [True scholarship would look at Stolnitz's book as a whole, and also his entire life's writing.  But hey this is a blog.]  Let's assume for the moment that Stolnitz is right that our ordinary practical attitude towards things is such that we only perceive things in a partial way.  After all, it would be "stupid and wasteful to become absorbed in the object itself" under normal circumstances.  There is no value, for example, in absorbing ourselves in the aesthetic features of a stop sign:  we need to just know when to stop or go.  So the perception of things under practical conditions is "limited and fragmented."  It is sufficient just to identify the thing, something we do habitually, as when we choose a pen over a paper clip to write with.  As Stolnitz puts it, we "read the label" rather than look at the thing itself.  But when we pay attention to the thing itself for the sake of enjoying the way it looks or sounds [or...add the other senses] then we are taking the aesthetic attitude. This happens for example in attending to a play or even when we glance aesthetically at our surroundings while on vacation.

Stolnitz's definition of aesthetic attitude is "disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone."  The rest of the selection attempts to explain the concepts in the definition. [Unfortunately Stolnitz does not explain "for its own sake alone":  what exactly is the "sake" of a landscape seen from a car?] 

The key here is that the aesthetic attitude is needed for having an aesthetic experience.  Stolnitz stresses that we are not taking an aesthetic attitude when we have a cognitive interest, as in that taken by a sociologist or a historian, or when our interest is in judging, as in that of an art critic.  This last point is somewhat surprising since Kant, who had also promoted the idea disinterested perception, had associated it strongly with critical judgment.  So, in a sense, Stolnitz's version of disinterestedness is even more purified than Kant's.  He further elaborates that the aesthetic attitude "isolates" the object insofar as it focuses on the look or the sound, and it is not seen, therefore, in the fragmented manner characteristic of practical perception.   The inference seems odd, but the idea is noteworthy:  that aesthetic perception is specifically not fragmented. 

Stolnitz further stresses that the aesthetic experience is not "un-interested" but in fact is "intensely absorbed."  This leads into the notion of "sympathetic" which has to do with preparation for the aesthetic experience.  The aesthetic attitude is sympathetic in that we "prepare ourselves to respond to the object" in order to "relish its individual quality."  He talks about this as accepting the object "on its own terms."  What this means is never made clear, as mentioned above, although he elaborates it in terms of "being receptive" to what the object has to offer perceptually, and inhibiting unsympathetic responses, for example of the sort we would have to a novel that does not accord with our way of thinking. So we are to "follow the lead of the object and respond in concert with it." This seems interestingly in accord with the recent school of object-centered theory that I discussed in a recent post. 

Stolnitz tries to explain this point further by talking of a sonnet by Milton written as a protest, but which now seems remote from us in terms of the "heated questions of religion and politics" involved. To be sympathetic to the work is to "give it a chance" to show what about it would be interesting to perception.   

Stolnitz also warns us that we should not see aesthetic attention is a matter of just looking or of a blank stare but rather something like, or understood in terms of, what happens when we listen to a "rhythmically exciting piece of music" where we are absorbed by the "energy and movement" or when we find ourselves sitting on the edge of our chair:  it is not passive.  

The key notion is "coming alive."  Stolnitz writes:  "In taking the aesthetic attitude, we want to make the value of the object come fully alive in our experience."  This requires that we prepare our selves to respond in terms of imagination and emotion.  It is not just that we attend to the object but how intensely we attend to the object.  We only attend aesthetically when we are wholly absorbed. And this is attended by activity.  An example of this is keeping in time with the music by moving one's foot, or responding in a muscular way sympathetically to a sculpture.  

Arnold Berleant has been a long-time critic of the aesthetic attitude and yet it is therefore ironic that he shares with Stolnitz an interest in this kind of activity:  it is clear that what Berleant attacks is not really what Stolnitz believes, that Stolnitz's notion of the aesthetic attitude is much richer than what we find in traditional attacks on it, for instance in the famous attack by George Dickie.  Like Berleant, Stolnitz stresses that we experience a cathedral actively through walking through it. 

Stolnitz goes further and, drawing from Hume, stresses that in acting in regard to the object we savor it fully only when we focus on its "complex and subtle details."  Like Frank Sibley, he stresses the role of the "able teacher" in being able to make a work of art "vital and engaging" by way of showing us things to which we might have been insensitive.  

This comment is followed in the reading by a sentence that should be a surprise to Stolnitz's critics.  The sentence states that this kind of awareness often requires "knowledge about allusions or symbols which occur in the work" as well as possibly "training in the art form."  So that which is external is not necessarily excluded from attention to the object's intrinsic features, a point he surprisingly shares with Marcia Eaton.  

I mentioned his reliance on Hume.  However this should not be oversimplified.  For Stolnitz, there is a specific purpose for "discriminating attention."  For Hume, that seems just to allow us to reconcile judgments or to condemn others.  But for Stolnitz, the matter is more object-centered:  it is for the work to come alive to us.  Again, he explains this in terms of listening to a symphony where keeping the themes in mind, following the development, appreciating the dynamic of their interrelations, contributes to an experience that has "greater richness and unity."  So it seems that aesthetic attitude is an attitude that has as its end product an experience of greater richness and unity based on understanding structure, among other things.

In conclusion, for Stolnitz the aesthetic attitude is not just a blank or passive stare, but rather is setting oneself in preparation for aesthetic experience (i.e. being fully absorbed in the object of perception), that preparation involving giving the object a chance to reveal its individual quality worthy of appreciation, treating it in a non-fragmentary way, learning about allusions and other background considerations, physically engaging with the object in appropriate ways, and generally doing whatever is necessary to bring the object alive in experience.  His description of listening to a symphony is paradigmatic of what this involves:  one has to attune oneself to dynamic interrelations that give rise to greater richness and unity.  Finally, this attitude can be applied to anything whatever, even a landscape seen from a car.     

Dickie is often said to have definitely refuted Stolnitz, but given my description of Stolnitz's view above, that hardly seem plausible. Dickie's view is that there is only one kind of attention, and either one attends to the properties or not.  My specific criticism of Dickie is to be found in the above-mentioned article, however I might mention here that Dickie's is an overly spare notion of the structure of consciousness.  He thinks that differences in motive simply cause the critic, the philistine and the aesthete to focus on different properties in the aesthetic object.  Properties are treated as static attributes of the thing in question.  I think that there really is a profound difference between the kind of fragmented viewing Stolnitz calls "practical" and the rich and complex form of experience I have just described, an experience that requires some training, some preparation.  If one approaches something with this preparation and has the appropriate aesthetic experience then one can be said to have had the appropriate attitude.  Attending to something in such a way as to give it a chance and to bring it alive is very different from attending to it in such a way as to track its properties:  tracking properties is really just another way to look at something as having certain appropriate labels, which is precisely the form of perception which Stolnitz sought to wean us from. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fashion and Art

Back in 1990 Karen Hanson wrote a fascinating article titled "Dressing Down Dressing Up," on the philosophical fear of fashion.  It was anthologized in Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions where I am reading it for a class I am teaching.  The article was originally for a feminist journal and so it is not surprising the Hanson begins by discussing the issue of feminist response to fashion.  The big issue is how to deal with the "male gaze" particularly if you value fashion.  Feminists have argued that the male gaze objectifies women and hence is an adjunct to sexist culture and patriarchy.  Eliminate the male gaze and you strike against inequality of men and women.  The problem is, as Hanson sees it, that the feminist attack on fashion can be seen as allied with the traditional philosophical attack on fashion based on rejection of the body.  So there is an interesting problem:  if you don't want the body rejected, and you think this is part of the feminist platform, then there must be some way that understands an appropriate "gaze" for fashion.  

The issue of fashion should be of interest to anyone focusing on everyday aesthetics.  Fashion has an everyday dimension in clothes choice, both in store shopping and in daily dress.  Also, as is well known, popular clothing styles are influenced by things that happen at the level of haute couture.  It is hard to categorize high fashion as a type of everyday aesthetics.  It might be categorized more fruitfully with other forms of high design.  The fashion world itself is remarkably similar to what Danto classically called the artworld.  It seems that fashion designers are very like artists, especially like architects insofar as they design things that are both functional and often decorative.   We speak of fashions and changes in the art world, and it seems as though these days the artworld is becoming more like the fashion world and the fashion world is becoming more like the artworld.   The fashion world is not the artworld but interestingly touches it as several points.  Someone can be called in from the artworld to enhance fashion and fashion people often end up with shows in art museums. Similarly, the various activities surrounding the fashion world often remind one of the movie world.  

This leads us inevitably to the question of whether or not fashion is art, a question much like that of whether or not food is art.  We can argue that both fashion and food are like photography and film. While both were excluded from the domain of art in the early part of the 20th century they gradually gained art status.  What this meant was not that all photographs or films are art but rather that these things can count as media for art.  As I have suggested, it is worthwhile to think of an aesthetic hierarchy where, for example, ordinary clothes choice and ordinary cooking are aesthetic but at a low level  (these things are not art).  At a higher aesthetic level some clothes design, making and arrangement can be seen as a minor art (or minor arts), as also some food-making.  The highest aesthetic level is where a small number of costumes and restaurant productions can be seen as high, serious or fine art.  For some people, this is art in the truest sense of the word.  This would work for a lot of other things.  The high fashion or haute couture level of fashion will be more culturally prominent at some times in history than at others.  

Why not call fashion art?  Of course it is an art, but not the same kind of art as painting, sculpture, video art, all of which seem to have a firmer place in the main halls of the art museum than fashion.  The fashion world is in fact distinct from the artworld.

Grant that it is art.  Is it nonetheless less authentic because inevitably shallow and sentimental?  Can one really compare Michelangelo to Coco Chanel?  As lovely and sophisticated high fashion can be, even as expressive of cultural changes, can it touch on deeper truths?  How do we deal with the view that it is ultimately frivolous.  Maybe we should treat it differently from literature, dance, poetry, and the other so-called fine arts: as expressive but not in the same way.  One of my students, Sadie, writes:  "I think fashion can be art all on its own if it is done the way a great painting is done" i.e. if it is done with great care and if the artist knows what she or he is doing.  Another student suggests it can be if it gives us the kind of awe we get from great works of art. 

There are many things that can be said in criticism of fashion (e.g. the way that it establishes class difference), but as Hanson correctly observes, these do not significantly distinguish the fashion business from many other luxury businesses.  The question she poses is why does philosophy hate fashion.  One reason is that fashion is associated with change and even encourages us to change our desire from season to season.  It is seen as superficial.

Philosophy's rejection of change has its problems however.  As Hanson writes:   "The search for lasting truths and enduring values is a noble activity, but it has sometimes engendered a flight from ordinary, common experience, the experience of growth and decay, coming-to-be and passing away."  The question is whether we philosophers need to identify with the traditional rejection of appearance in preference for underlying unchanging truth.  Must we be Platonists?   Or can there be a wisdom that changes with the Fall issue of Vogue?  

Hanson nicely documents many of the attacks on fashion in Plato's dialogues.  One she doesn't mention is Socrates' ironic comment to Ion that he admires him to be able to present himself in fancy costume before the multitudes.  Socrates the bare-footed philosopher clearly does not admire this.  

I am currently reading a novel called The Rosie Project which is about a geneticist who has Asperger's syndrome but does not know it and who gets into all sorts of socially awkward situations because he does not understand the point behind fashion.  At one point he is expected to put on a sports jacket for a fancy restaurant and refuses because he cannot understand why his much more expensive and much more functional jacket will not do.  Are philosophers who reject the aesthetic relevance of fashion just missing the point in much the same way?  One thinks of Thomas More's utopia in which citizens wear the same style and color and jewels have become children's playthings.

Thoreau famously says "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."  So perhaps one should beware of being a news reporter since news reporters on TV never seem to wear the same outfit twice.  But is that a problem, really?

Hanson discusses Baudelaire as an advocate of the ephemeral surface,  Baudelaire as supporter of particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance, which gives us pleasure in the quality of being present and of being in the present.  Unfortunately Baudelaire's advocacy is a mixed blessing for fashion as he adheres to a version of Platonist rejection of the body anyway.  

One thing brought up in my class is the issue of the relation between the clothes and the body.  We seldom see clothes without a body to cover.  The fashion experience should be an experience of a clothed body.  The interaction between the body clothed and the clothes themselves is essential to the totality of the experience.  So the study of fashion is inextricably connected with the study of human beauty.   As my student Kristin puts it, "women wear makeup to accentuate the eyes, the lips, or the cheekbones, and people wear different fashions to accentuate the is as colorful and artful display of a human form." It might be possible to observe human beauty with no connection to fashion, but this is in fact rare.  As the same time I am not convinced that fashion is just a way to display or enhance a human form: it is also an artform that uses human form as a ground or base to accomplish other things, to produce amazing visual effects using such materials as cloth, feathers, leather and so forth.

Hanson has a nice quote from Freud that deals with the issue of the transience of fashion:   "Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment....The beauty of the human form and face vanish forever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lands them a fresh charm.  A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely."  from his "On Transience"  Vol. 5 of his collected papers, 1959.  The point seems closely related to the Japanese fascination with transience in natural beauty.

Hanson's own position seems to be something like this:  self-consciousness is a good thing but should include awareness of and interest in one's own appearance [and also with the appearances of others as well as awareness of one's own standard of taste in this regard?]  The problem for philosophers is that they wish to be thinkers not the thought-about, active not passive, not the object of the cognition of others.  Thus philosophy has antipathy to personal passivity.  Feminism in rejecting traditional dichotomies questions the passive/active distinction as well as the masculine/feminine.  It rejects the female as essentially passive, but does not go over to rejecting the value of passivity in human experience.  There are genuine problems with the male gaze, but not necessarily with being the object of contemplative perception, knowing that one does not want to join with traditional philosophy in devaluing the body:  "if philosophy - with the help of feminism - could be brought to terms with our embodiment, could work to find an appropriate stance on the relation between the individual and social norms, could come to admit that each of us is, in part, an object to others, then philosophy might just change its attitude toward fashionable dress [and to its] appropriate if ephemeral satisfactions."

I am not entirely happy with the emphasis on an innocent and valuable passivity in Hanson's article.  Many of my students talk about everyday fashion from the perspective of choices made both in the purchasing of fashion products and in choosing which ones to wear on any particular day or to any particular event.  This is not a matter of pure passivity.  One presents oneself for the viewing of others, but then the first person who sees the product, often in a full-length mirror, is oneself.  One is shaping one's image for the public.  As my student Mikhail puts it, just as "an artist reflects their mood or personality in the medium of a painting, one may reflect the way they feel through fashion."  Several students also observed that the issue is not just one of being the passive object of an objectifying male gaze, which, when it happens, is just rude or sexist, but being the object of a critical/appreciative gaze by both men and women, sometimes women being more concerned about how they are seen by other women, and also more concerned about how other women are seen, as a component of this critical gaze.   The critical/appreciative but non rude/sexist gaze would be in accord with the core feminist value of treating women as equals to men and with the feminist/Nietzschean critique of traditional religion/philosophy in saying "yes" to the body.