Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Heidegger on everyday aesthetics

Heidegger's "Origin of the Work of Art" is normally seen as a discussion of the nature of art, and this is certainly one of its main themes.  But remember that it is centrally concerned also with the equipmental nature of equipment, with the focus being a pair of shoes.  The conclusion about art (great art) is that Van Gogh's painting of shoes allows truth about the equipmental nature of the equipment to come into unconcealment.  But what is that about?  In order to see why this is important one must see that the equipmental nature of equipment is going to be quite a bit different for Heidegger than what we would expect.  He begins his essay by discussing what it is for a thing to be a thing.  He is critical of the idea that the thingly nature of thing is to be understood in terms of  Aristotle's conception of imposition of form on matter, but exemplified today in the factory process of making objects for purchase.  One could understand shoes in the traditional western manner as imposing form on matter to create something that serves a certain function.  It could be said that the equipmental quality of equipment consists in its usefulness...but that would not be enough, we need to look at the object in its use. The problem with just looking at usefulness or the object in its functionality is that it does not take into account the meaning of the shoes as they are experienced.  Heidegger's imagined example is that the shoes Van Gogh paints belong to a peasant woman.  Whether or not this is true of these depicted shoes does not matter.  One could tell a different story if the shoes, as some have suggested, were Van Gogh's own shoes.  (He sometimes lived and dressed like a peasant, and certainly trudged in the fields as a plein aire painter.)  It would be a story about the life of an artist, the lived experience of an artist.  Heidegger probably chose the peasant woman because she is "close to the earth" and, in this, the existential situation which all humans share is made more clear then it might be if we took a modern urbanite as our example (with all the superficial overlays that might distract us).  The shoes are only "what they are" when experienced as used in the fields. The point is that the shoes are experienced as connected to everything else (directly or indirectly) in the life of the wearer.  For the peasant woman, this means that they are directly connected to slowly trudging in the fields, indirectly connected to the frustration when the fields refuse to nurture the crop, and more indirectly connected with other aspects of her life, including her fear of death during in child-birthing.  This is part of what phenomenological existentialism is all about:  we give an account of the structure of experience (all of the layers of experience associated with experience of the shoes) and this includes things in our lives (our existence) which are deeply important to us.  Think of this as like Freud's insistence that the unconscious is always present even in slips of the tongue, and the unconscious deals with matters that are of intense emotional importance to us.  So, the existential facts of life are the ones that have this deep emotional significance and they loom large in experience as a kind of intense background of which we are not entirely aware.  (There is a paradox here:  this background is both central to experience and also not experienced in the sense of being consciously experienced.  The theory of psychoanalysis is all about this paradox.) 

So how are the shoes experienced?  Heidegger talks about this in terms of what he calls "reliability."  There is something deceptive about this term, which means something quite a bit different from what we mean by "reliability."  For Heidegger, the term refers to the way in which the shoes can have a richer, deeper significance than is found in the mere notion of their functionality.  We do not immediately see this reliability.  Rather, we see something that has a certain function.  It is getting away from the functionalist approach to everyday aesthetics that reveals "reliability."  Van Gogh's painting reveals the inner existential reliability of the shoes in a way that we might not get just by looking at the shoes. 

It is useful to contrast this with Plato.  Both Plato and Heidegger would agree that the shoes, qua objects in the realm of appearance, are not the true shoes -- that there is an inner essence to the shoes.  However, for Plato, the inner essence is the way that the shoes participate in the eternal Form of shoe, whereas for Heidegger, it is to be found in the existential significance of the shoe, the way that it exhibits our human existence, that we are thrown into this world of care and anxiety.  So there is something more disturbing and less reassuring in the Heideggerian vision of "essence" than in Plato's.  Whereas Plato symbolizes the relationship between the Good (the highest of the Forms) and the Forms by the light of the sun, which he also calls "truth," so too Heidegger symbolizes the presence of "reliability" by the way in which something seems to shine or have an aura.  The shining of the shoes in experience shows that their existential essence is shining forth, which is the same as saying that their truth is shining, and Heidegger calls truth "unconcealment." Another feature of the shoes that Heidegger observes is that they have a certain life in experience:  the usefulness can gradually disappear (partly because of old age and brokenness) and they can become merely usual.  This refers to a major aspect of everyday life, when everyday life is boring.  It is through art that we can be reintroduced to the unconcealment of Being in the world of everyday objects and in which the entropy of the boredom of the everyday is overcome.  

There is a disagreement between myself and some Heidegger-influenced authors interested in everyday aesthetics.  For instance, Arto Haapala believes that one ought to focus on the ordinariness of everyday aesthetic experience and set aside that which is strange.  As I see it, the approach I have taken is more in tune with Heidegger which, of course, does not mean that it is better because of that (one would not want to be "in tune with" Heidegger's Nazi beliefs evident at the time he wrote this essay!)  The essence of the everyday aesthetic experience is when truth shines forth, when we get "reliability" and not merely boring usualness, when we manage to break beyond the western emphasis on the notion of informing form on matter, when we actually break down the form/matter dichotomy so that the thingly nature of the thing comes forth as something essential to it and not something that merely is imposed upon by its formal nature.  The point, however, in favor of Haapala's interpretation is when Heidegger says that only when the peasant woman wears the shoes in the field are they what they are and "they are all the more genuinely so, the less the peasant woman thinks about the shoes while she is at work, or looks at them at all, or is even aware of them."  But I do not see how this can be made consistent with the idea that "in the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth."  There must be some experiential dimension to the shoes that is understood in the shining forth of truth that is so important to Heidegger.  Heidegger himself helps us when he says "if only this simple wearing [of the shoes by the peasant woman] were so simple":  she knows about the complex existential laying of significance "without noticing or reflecting."  So the usefulness of the shoes is not what we call usefulness, but rather "rests in the abundance of an essential being of the equipment" which he calls "reliability."  It is by this reliability that she can know "the silent call of the earth."  It is by this that she can also be "sure of her world" by which is meant the world of a peasant woman. 

For me, a central neglected passage is when Heidegger says that usefulness depends on reliability, which is to say that the primarily thing is the dynamic way in which the shoes fit into an entire way of life.  You would not have usefulness if you did not have things things that underlie it.  This is what is meant by "the former vibrates in the other."  So, what about the large portion of things in our world that are tired and boring?  Heidegger covers this when he says "A single piece of equipment is worn out and used up; but at the same time the use itself [the reliability] also falls into disuse, wears away, and becomes usual.  Thus equipmentality wastes away, sinks into mere stuff.  In such wasting, reliability vanishes.  This dwindling, however, to which use-things owe their boringly obtrusive usualness, is only one more testimony to the original nature of equipmental being."  Heidegger's philosophy is directly not only to the western forgetting of Being (to be found in the production of objects for mere use, and their reification as fetish objects in a world of mass consumption and death of spirit) but also in the "boringly obtrusive usualness" of the the loss of the shining aura of Being which is found in the ordinariness of the ordinary.  We tend to think of everyday objects in terms of "worn-out usualness":  we then to think of this as "their sole mode of being."  It is only through great art and through seeing the world as an artist would that we can recover this other mode of being. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Can you burn a poem? Danto's stupendous discovery!

I try not to dabble in philosophical ontology.  It all seems too abstract and disconnected from reality.  But sometimes a claim just gets to me.  Danto (The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 33-34) seriously considers the claim that one cannot burn a poem:  one can only burn a copy.  So, on this view, the poem is like a Platonic eternal Form. 

Yes, burning a copy is not burning the poem.  But burn all the copies and you come pretty close to eliminating the poem too, the only things left being whatever remains in the memories of those who had read or heard it.  I cannot go along with the idea that the poem continues to exist even after those memories are erased too.  Burn the planet to a crisp and all the poems (except for those that were put on space ships) are burned as well.  The end of the universe eliminates any survivors.  Poems are not eternal forms. They are no less valuable for that.

Turning to the chapter in which this passage occurs, "Content and Causation" we find Danto's discussion of the famous imagined case of two fragments one of a text of Don Quixote by Cervantes, and one of a text also called Don Quixote and identical to the first, but by a 20th century writer named Menard.  The second text has a very different meaning since, for example, it would be absurd for Menard to satirize chivalry, and so on. What is interesting about this story is that it is completely ridiculous.  One should no more believe that such a thing is possible than believe in miracles.  That it is ridiculous makes it a good story by Borges, from whom it originally comes, but not good philosophy.  Danto pulls off taking it seriously by using it as a premise for an argument in which the conclusion, in my view, is entirely true, i.e. that "works are in part constituted by their location in the history of literature as well as by their relationships to their cannot isolate these factors from the work since they penetrate, so to speak, the essence of the work." (36)  That is, as Danto intended, the "Intentional Fallacy" of Monroe Beardsley (arguably the leading aesthetician of the previous generation) is no fallacy at all.  The conclusion is fine, and a nice innovation.  But here's the trick.  Danto uses the truth of this conclusion and the dubious way he arrives at it (through this absurd thought experiment) to support an even more dubious theory about the nature of philosophy (and of art) in which indiscernible counterparts play the central role.  Thus on his view "Borges contribution to the ontology of art is stupendous" which makes Danto's own recognition of it to be stupendous as well.  Stupendous.  Really.

Of course Danto's argument hangs on an implied slippery slope argument.  We can all grant that short passages may appear in works from vastly different times or hands.  For example the phrase "the past is prelude" appears in 236,00 places on Google.  So, the argument goes, there are probably longer identical passages that not only come from different hands but also are independent of each other (one author not knowing about the other's work).  So why not a page of Don Quixote (or at least a paragraph) that is identical to a work by a 20th century author who is, perhaps, not even aware of Cervantes' work, and means something entirely different?  But it isn't going to happen any more than that famous collection of Shakespeare's plays written by monkeys.  So why base an argument on it?  Well, my interlocutor responds, it is a "thought" experiment:  you are supposed to imagine the instance and then follow Danto's logic proving that Beardsley was wrong.  Well, that is nonsense.  We just have a claim to "stupendous" ontology based on a string of witticisms tied to a clever story.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Shusterman on Popular Music

Richard Shusterman's "Form and Funk:  The Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art" was published originally in 1991 in the British Journal of Aesthetics.  My current textbook edited by Goldblatt and Brown has a selection from it titled "In Defense of Popular Arts."  One difficulty with teaching it is that no one I know, and certainly none of my students, thinks that the popular arts, particularly popular music, needs to be defended.  If anything it is classical or "high art" music that needs this.  Still, I do have some comments to make about Shusterman's arguments.  Shusterman and I share a commitment to pragmatism and hence to Dewey's idea that humans are live creatures interacting with their environments.  Pragmatism calls on us to recognize that humans are animals with bodies (and in Dewey's atheist form of pragmatism, no immaterial souls).  So, like Nietzsche, the pragmatist encourages us to say "yes" to our embodied existence.  Shusterman sets up the debate over popular music in terms of the age old debate between dualists and materialists (although he does not mention this.)  His opponent is Plato and Plato's attack against the popular arts of his time.  Allen Bloom and Pierre Bourdieu (both of whom attack popular music) are just descendants of Plato (and Kant).

There is much that I agree with in his approach but I wonder whether something can't be said for the other side or for dissolving the very dichotomy he uses to replace dualism.  Shusterman himself favors talking in wider terms about the aesthetics of life, the art of living, and the implosion of the high art/popular art distinction.  I think this is the right direction to take.  I like the idea that the ancient Athenians are an ideal because they integrated art and everyday life.  I increasingly have a problem with the notion that everyday aesthetics is autonomous from art aesthetics since this would encourage the ongoing radical distinction between art and life which popular music seeks to overcome.  

However, at times Shusterman seems to be saying that high art is itself problematic, and this of course is in relation to an attack on a certain kind of aesthetics, that of Kant with his emphasis on disinterestedness.  Shusterman observes that philosophers both on the political left and on the political right have attacked the popular arts.  His own teacher, Bourdieu, who is famous for having argued that taste is a matter entirely of class, thus reducing the normative to the descriptive, nonetheless does not believe that popular art deserves to be called aesthetic.  On his view, it is not sufficiently reflective or complex.  Theodor Adorno has also famously criticized popular music for being regressive and for ultimately promoting the capitalist system by way of false consciousness:  it is not sufficiently critical of society.  Adorno goes on to defend autonomous avant-garde music as being truly revolutionary, a move that Bourdieu would probably not make.  In any case, the general argument from the political left is that popular art is too passive.  The argument from the right, for example from Bloom, who by the way was a translator of Plato, is that it is too sensuous...too sexy even.  Bloom seems to be worried that the popular arts encourage the rule of the self by pleasure and pain and not by intellect.

Shusterman's response to the passivity argument is to try to turn the tables, to argue that art designed to be appreciated in a disinterested or distanced manner, as classical music is, encourages far more passivity than popular music.  By contrast, when we turn to popular music, particularly the music inspired by African-American culture, we find something more active, although active on the physical level insofar as we are talking about the kind of active engagement that might include wild dancing.  (Could it be more active on some other levels too, for example on an emotional level?)  Shusterman contrasts the opera-goer who goes to sleep (my condition, frequently, I confess) to the dancer at a rock concert who works up a sweat (hence the reference to the "funky").  This seems unfair to classical music since true classical music lovers seem to be not only entranced (which, after all, is a physical condition) but also sometimes given to pretty active foot-tapping and hand-conducting. Consider the recent 60 Minutes episode which featured a central African orchestra created in a war-torn country (Democratic Republic of Congo) in which the members seem to have found a mode of resistance that is also a mode of escape through, strangely enough, classical music.  Shusterman also says that classical music is "justifiably cherished," so perhaps he is not being serious when he downgrades it in comparison to rock. Shusterman is certainly right however if he simply wants to maintain that popular music can have most of the features we value in classical music, for instance the presence of artistic genius, the possibility of reflection, the presence of cultural or political resistance, a satisfaction that is enduring, and the development of a critical tradition of commentators and historians. 

Whether all of this is a refutation of the idea that aesthetic listening is disinterested is another matter.  One could argue that there must at least be a disinterested moment in the overall aesthetic experience for popular music to rise to the level of the best classical music.  Can something be aesthetic if there is no reflective element at all, if the experience seems to bypass the intellectual side of ourselves entirely?  I just don't know.  The issue also comes up in everyday aesthetics.  We might gain a lot of pleasure from a wonderful shower, but it is not clear that this is aesthetic pleasure since it might just bypass the intellect completely.  Shusterman is correct that the terms of aesthetics are often used with respect to non-art phenomena:  this recognition is the basis for much of my own work in everyday aesthetics.  But one wonders which side we should come down on here:  to keep aesthetics tied to something where there is a reflective/contemplative dimension, or open it to include pleasures that fail to reach that level.  Does the latter trivialize aesthetics?  Perhaps popular music that is mere entertainment, that has no reflective/contemplative dimension, is not quite up to the language of aesthetics...and this would be true for some classical compositions as well.

For me, the take-away is that art is a part of life, that there is an art of living in which the popular arts, fine arts, and everyday aesthetics all play a role, that we should cheer on the implosion of art into life, that we cannot continue with a radical distinction between art and life, and that an aesthetics of life would include not only the aesthetics of everyday life but also the aesthetics of holidays, the aesthetics of popular art, and the aesthetics of fine art.  I agree with Shusterman that just because popular music may serve a function does not imply that it is artistically illegitimate. But this does not mean we must defenestrate the concept of autonomy. We just have to be modest about it.  If we are going to talk about autonomy with respect to art (including popular art) we can at best talk about a moment or aspect of autonomy, or relative autonomy, enough autonomy to carve out a special place, a place of freedom. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Plant intelligence and plant aesthetics

This is a followup on my last post on plant aesthetics. Michael Pollan's New Yorker article "The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora" here lends support to the idea that plants may have aesthetic experiences.  Pollan begins his article with a mention of a book from the 1970s called The Secret Life of Plants which was intriguing at the time but also not very scientific.  Recent work in plant behavior and plant "intelligence" has been much more impressive and interesting.  Assuming that intelligence is an emergent capacity, it is arguable that perception of aesthetic qualities or the having of aesthetic experiences is also possible for plants.  I use the word "possible" advisedly here: we do not as yet have any strong reason to believe that plants can have aesthetic experiences.  But the idea is intriguing.  The claim being made by a group of six contemporary biologists (in an article from 2006 supporting a new field called plant neurobiology) is that (to quote from Pollan) "the sophisticated behaviors observed in plants cannot at present be completely explained by familiar genetic and biochemical mechanisms. Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coördinate a plant’s behavioral response.."  and "electrical and chemical signalling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals."  The usual claim by opponents to plant intelligence (and thus plant aesthetics) is that plants have no nervous system and hence cannot be intelligent, conscious or have aesthetic experiences.  But isn't this just an a priori argument?  It assumes that intelligence requires a nervous system and then automatically exclude plants because they have no nervous system, even though we can talk about plants communicating and behaving in many other animal-like ways.  If you have behavior that "looks very much like learning, memory, decision-making, and intelligence" then why not behavior that looks very much like the experience of beauty? 

To be sure, Pollan also observed that no one he spoke to who supported plant intelligence supports the idea of plant emotions.  One could say that although intelligence may be there, aesthetics is a matter of emotional response and hence is beyond the realm of plants.  However, supporters of plant intelligence have also argued to the idea that plants can experience something like pain and that they can behave in ways that favor their own relatives over others.  So, if plant intelligence is conceivable, so too may be plant emotions.

The problem is that we may have just been looking for brains in individual plants:  and there are none.  However, it might be that both intelligence and aesthetic experience emerges at a level above that of the individual:  "intelligence in plants resembles that exhibited in insect colonies, where it is thought to be an emergent property of a great many mindless individuals organized in a network."  Perhaps, as Pollan suggests, there are ways of getting brainy behavior without actual brains.

Of course you do not have aesthetics is you have no senses, but the claim made by scientists like Stefano Mancuso is, as Pollan puts it "Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root “knows” when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound."  Pollan notes that Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist, found in a recent experiment that a recording of a caterpillar eating a leaf can prime a plant to produce defensive chemicals.  Moreover, "the tips of plant roots, in addition to sensing gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. Roots about to encounter an impenetrable obstacle or a toxic substance change course before they make contact with it."

Aesthetics also requires choice (this wine is better than that, and so I choose the better one), but do plants choose?  Mancuso argues that they do.  Pollan writes "A dodder vine will 'choose' among several potential hosts, assessing, by scent, which offers the best potential nourishment. Having selected a target, the vine then performs a kind of cost-benefit calculation before deciding exactly how many coils it should invest—the more nutrients in the victim, the more coils it deploys. I asked Mancuso whether he was being literal or metaphorical in attributing intention to plants."  His answer implied that he did.

Again, to have aesthetic experience one must be conscious.  If, by consciousness, one means "the state of being awake and aware of one’s environment" then Mancuso and František Baluška argue that plants can be conscious: “The bean knows exactly what is in the environment around it,” Mancuso said. “We don’t know how. But this is one of the features of consciousness: You know your position in the world. A stone does not.”  Pollan writes further, "in support of their contention that plants are conscious of their environment, Mancuso and Baluška point out that plants can be rendered unconscious by the same anesthetics that put animals out: drugs can induce in plants an unresponsive state resembling sleep. (A snoozing Venus flytrap won’t notice an insect crossing its threshold.)" 

But again, in order to have aesthetic experience you must be able to feel pleasure and pain.  Can plants feel pain?  Mancuso and Baluska argue yes, although they carefully call it "plant specific pain perception."  If plants can experience pain then why not pleasure as was argued by Fechner?

What about the arguments against plant intelligence?  Lincoln Taiz, a plant physiologist at U.C. Santa Cruz said to Pollan that “the mechanisms are quite different from those of true nervous systems” and that plant neurobiologists suffer from “over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing, and wild speculations.” He thinks plant behavior will ultimately be explained by "the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to “animism.”"  Yet it is granted already that the mechanisms are quite different from animal nervous systems.  Moreover, when Taiz makes his reductionist assumptions he is philosophizing and speculating every bit as much as his opponents.  Moreover, it has long been argued by reductionist materialists that this is true for humans as well: and so Taiz's argument seems too strong for its purpose, "too strong" in the sense of too general.  That is, his argument just is the same argument materialists have used traditionally to attempt to reduce human consciousness.  Perhaps this will turn out to be the correct position and aesthetics itself will be reduced to chemistry, but this is no special argument against plant aesthetics.  If Taiz thinks that "animism" is the sin of applying the correct notion of the human soul to animals he is just inconsistent.

So, given that arguments set forth in my previous post and the additional work done by scientists like Mancuso I would argue that it is quite possible that there is such a thing as plant aesthetics.  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Can plants have aesthetic experiences?

I have always wondered whether aesthetic experience was sui generis.  It is well known that we humans are given to anthropocentrism.  Dualism is hard to eradicate.  We see our natural way of being, our consciousness, as unique in the universe.  We do not look kindly on the suggestion that we could share certain traits with our animal relatives, much less so with our more distant plant relatives.  I have even known philosophers strongly committed to evolutionary theory who also insisted that only humans can have aesthetic experiences.  The issue of whether animals can perceive beauty is fascinating, but even more interesting, in a way, is the question of whether plants can.  Of course this would come under the broader question of whether plants can have any experiences at all!  If they can have none then there is no plant aesthetics.  (I will use "plant aesthetics" here to refer not to the aesthetic experiences we have of plants but to the aesthetic experiences plants themselves might have.)  The most famous, and perhaps the only, advocate of plant aesthetics is Gustav Fechner.  His book Nanna:  On the Soul Life of Plants (1848) is available in German, but unfortunately I do not read German.  However I recently discovered a wonderful translation of part of it by Sebastian Olma, called "Teleological Grounds" to be found in Vital Beauty:  Reclaiming Aesthetics in the Tangle of Technology and Nature ed. Joke Bouwer, Arjen Mulder, and Lars Spuybrock (Rotterdam:  V2 Publishing, 2012): 170-191.  Vital Beauty itself is a fascinating volume. I should note that one of the reasons I find this interesting has to do with thinking about Yuriko Saito's wonderful book Everyday Aesthetics and her well-known essays in the aesthetics of nature where she places a strong emphasis on the concept of empathy.  

Fechner begins by asking whether a water lily could experience the sun shining on it and the water in which it was bathing.  He fancies that "nature had made [the flower] thus so that a creature would exist that could enjoy to the fullest all the pleasure that could be derived from bathing at once in sunlight and in water."  This does seem pretty fanciful and, as a science-minded atheist, I could hardly go along with the idea that nature is a god-like entity that designs things for this purpose.  But we could take this as a metaphor and a stimulus for a series of questions.  Could there be a pleasure analogue for the water-lilly?   There is no evidence for it, but is it impossible?  Is it entirely unlikely?   Most would say that the lack of a nervous system makes any sort of experience impossible:  but could this be a circular argument based merely on definition, privileging nervous-system based experience over every other possible kind of experience?  Fechner asks the question whether flowers do not find satisfaction in their offshoots and buddings or in "the enjoyment of dew, air and sun, each in its particular way?" (172)  That is, the plant would enjoy (reader: if this is hard on you, just consider this as a science fiction story or a fairy-tale for now!) that which is in accord with its adaptation.  An alpine plant will enjoy the "freshness and purity of the mountain air."  Moreover, when there are many different species in the same ecological area, each  "according to its different adaptations and reactions, derives different feelings and impulses from the same element."  (172)  We tend to see nature from a zoo-centric perspective, but Fechner tells a nice story of the relationship between butterfly and flower that allows us to think in a somewhat different way.  We talk a lot about the importance and intensity of interactions between species in ecological niches, but isn't it interesting that we allow, at most, some perceptual element in the moving species, and none in the plant species.  "The fact that the plant is confronted by a butterfly and the butterfly by a plant places them differently in nature and renders different sensations possible for each:  the butterfly enjoying nectar from the flowers cannot experience the same sensations as they do."  (173)  Fechner basically asks us to see things from the perspective of plants for once.  We animals (humans, mice, etc.) spend our time moving about, but plants stay at home clinging to the soil.  The animal "runs fleetingly over the soil where the plant is deeply rooted; it breaks in, as it were, only once, in the direction of a single radius, into the circle that the plant fills completely."  (176)  Of course, as my readers are well aware, there are no arguments here, or at least there is no real proof that plants can experience, much less experience such aesthetic properties as beauty and elegance.  But, one wonders, are flowers simply beautiful for bees and humans?  (or are they simply beautiful for humans, as some would argue? extreme of anthropocentrism).  I admit that some of Fechner's arguments are not too convincing as they are based on religious belief.  He asks, for example, whether "we truly believe nature to be such a wasteland [as not to have souls in plants] - nature, through which God's breath blows?"  This assumes that one can make some sense of "God's breath." (177)  He even talks about God enjoying the sensations of all his creatures.  Let's just set that aside.  If it is superstitious to think that humans have souls it is equally so to think that plants do.  But then again, if we can allow a spiritual aspect for the human (given an overall science-based view of the world) then why not plants too?   More convincingly, Fechner describes the life cycle of the plant and then remarks on "how it opens up in the morning and closes in the evening or before a rain; how it turns toward the light."  For him, it is very difficult to "dismiss such a rich life cycle with all its rising and swelling and perpetual change as vain, bleak and empty of sensation."  (178)  He also observes that we often speak of plants as having feelings:  we say of a plant suffering in a drought that it looks sad or that it is thirsty:  "and why do we not equally say of an artificial flower that it smiles at us, as much it [sic] as it might resemble a living one?  Why else if not for our intuition of a proper smiling soul in the living plant?"  (179)  

Many would argue that this is just poetry or projection.  Fechner has a nice response:  "Does [the flower] unwrap its petals from the bud in such a different way than that in which the butterfly unfolds its wings from the cocoon?  Can one truly think that nature endowed the opening eye [of an animal] and the emerging butterfly with real sensation but the opening flower merely with external signs of it, so that it is we who poetically put feeling into the flower?  As if nature were not mightier and richer and deeper than we when it comes to poetic power;  as if we could give her anything she did not already carry deeply inside herself..."  (179)  

Again, one could come to Fechner from the standpoint of a strong commitment to an ecological non-anthropocentric and Darwinian evolution- based view of the world.  Fechner stresses the many relationships between flowers and insects a "strange simultaneity of counterpart and complement."  (180)  "The flower [in the process of flowering] surpasses its previous state of development while keeping it as its very basis, whereas the butterfly sheds it [in its transformation from a caterpillar], or, more accurately, dissolves it in its new state of development.  The soul of the plant builds its body as a ladder whose top is the flower, while the lower stages remain intact; the butterfly carries along the lower stages, thus rendering high what previously was low....Only taken together do butterfly and plant complete the cycle of life."  

My good friend Alfred Jan has commented on this post, and this is my reply.   

Hi Alfred:

Thanks for the comment.  I do not want to assume that Venus Flytraps have gustatory values or make gustatory choices but do want to consider the possibility.  So now to the question of verification.  Trying to stay within the realm of philosophy away from pure fantasy, we want to base the claim on good reasons.  Probably we won't in our lifetimes ever be able to prove that plants do have this ability, but also we are not able to prove they do not.  However, there are some interesting developments in the direction of supporting the idea that they do.  I would particularly recommend Michael Pollan's article in the December issue of the New Yorker.  here  If there are analogues to intelligent behavior (and even to consciousness) in plants then plant aesthetics is also possible.  There was also a recent episode of Nature which supports the idea of plant communication and even, dare we say it, plant "caring."  See it here


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Edmund Burke Feldman's move beyond Clive Bell's formalism

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Edmund Burke Feldman's first book, Varieties of Visual Experience came out in 1967. [However I have only seen the 1992 edition and it may be that some of this material was reworked from the 1967 version.]   Formalism was still a very live force in 1967.  For example, my high school teachers in that year taught us how to do formal analysis of literary works and of paintings.  However, Feldman's book (at least in this edition) represents some internal tensions in formalism, and probably the beginnings of a move away from formalism.  One can see here the rise in the importance of interpretation which led eventually to the fall of formalism and its replacement by contextualism.  The selection I am going to discuss  is from Goldblatt and Brown's Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts.  The selection is titled "A Formal Analysis" and comes right after the selection from Bell.  This is a bit deceptive since, although formal analysis plays a role in Feldman's thinking, his dominate idea here is the centrality of interpretation in criticism.  

Feldman begins with a careful analysis of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).  If he was a strict follower of Bell one would expect an analysis simply of relations of lines and colors.  There is some of that, but most of his discussion refers to the figures represented in the painting.  And very soon Feldman begins to talk about specific reactions by the viewer to what is happening to the figures rather than simply about the work's lines and colors or about feelings of ecstasy the viewer might have in response to the work as Bell would require.  In particular, there is one figure (the second from the left) that seems to be off-balance, or even falling.  Feldman observes that we can make "inferences about form" and that "certain physical and biological assumptions about man are shared by artist and viewer."  Our expecting the figure to fall is part of our experience of the work.  He also begins to talk about the figures in the painting in terms of a sequence of perception.  Talking about the heads of the figures, he begins with the one on the left, then moves to the upper right figure, and ends the the figure on the lower right.  So, in sum, "the idea of the viewer's expectation is very important in formal analysis."  (22)  Moreover, the artist is aware of this.  For example, Picasso, aware that we expect a deep space based on Western perspective, deliberately violates these expectations, producing a tension in the viewer. 

The formal analysis "accumulates evidence" for the interpretation and the judgment of the work. (Feldman sees criticism as a three-stage process.)  But interpretation is already happening in the very puzzlement that arises from the progressive distortions of the abstract figures of women and the construction of an unrealistically shallow space.  Feldman stresses that Picasso is making the viewer move (maybe not literally, although empirical studies show that our eyes do actually move in a sequence, focusing on one area of the painting and then on another) so that one feels one has to adjust position to make sense of the profile views of noses.  Moreover, one is forced to move imaginatively from left to right as the story develops in the figures, and as the falling figure also pushes us in that direction.  The increasing violations of convention leads us to the point where we will accept the joining of body parts in a continuous form in the figure on the lower right, and even focus on the negative spaces formed by the limbs. 

Feldman writes:  "Our formal analysis has begun to move from an objective description of forms to statements about the way we perceive them."  He insists that he has been extremely objective in his discussion up to this point:  "we have tried not to overlook evidence, and we have endeavored to make assertions which would not in themselves be the subject of disagreement."  This is not quite right, first because there is already a lot of interpretation to be found in his talk of falling figures and imaginative moving, and second because there is one rather glaring mistake in his descriptive analysis.  He writes that, "at the extreme left position of the canvas is a brown area which seems to be a closeup of a female figure, employing forms typical of African art...[it] seems to be an echo of a woman's back carried out in the brown color of carved wooden sculpture." (21)  Here, imagination has gotten the better of Feldman.  Try as I might, I cannot see a back or any hint of a figure on the far left, or any suggestion of African sculpture.  Moreover, if one looks at the various studies Picasso made before completing the painting, it is obvious that the prostitute on the left is holding onto a curtain with her raised hand.  The entire series of brown planes on the left, which Feldman identified as a woman's back, is just a curtain. A strict formalist, of course, would object to looking at earlier studies to illuminate something in the final product.  But what if the change simply takes something easy to recognize in the study and abstracts it in such a way that it is not so easy to recognize until one sees it in the study? 

Now we turn to the central moment in Feldman's account.  Throughout his discussion, he has been talking about the experience of art as something that happens to a viewer over time.  This is quite other than Bell's way of approaching art.  Feldman talks about the viewer trying to find a "principle of organization" (and this, by the way, may be why he was tempted to over-interpretation of the "figure" on the far left -  he sees it as possibly announcing the leitmotif of the painting!).  So, on his view, we accumulate information until we can no longer defer the project of interpretation, whereas, in fact, his own interpretation was already influencing his description from the start:  it is not so easy to ground art criticism in objectivity.

Interpretation, which is the process of "expressing the meanings of a work the critic has analyzed" (22) is, for Feldman, "the most important part of the critical enterprise."  Evaluation can even be omitted if we have done a complete interpretation.  In interpretation, we do not simply discover meanings but also state "the relevance of these meanings to our lives and to the human situation in general." (22) This is another point at which Feldman departs from Bell who would have us use art to escape life.  Feldman's position may also be contrasted to that of Hume who talks about delicacy of sentiment as correctly judging each subtle part of the work of art in a matter similar to the judgment made by the wine critic in which it is determined that the wine is good but for some small defect (e.g. a slight taste of leather.)  For Hume, judgment comes first, and interpretation is of little importance.  For Feldman, interpretation comes first, even (contrary perhaps to his intentions) during the so-called moment of pure formal analysis.  Moreover, Feldman recognizes that art as a human product is influenced by the value system of the artist and is a "vehicle of ideas."  He agrees with Bell only that one need not determine what the artist's actual views were or whether the ideas found expressed by the work are faithful to those views.  We need to still recognize that the artwork is "charged with ideas," however unconscious they are, and it is the critic's function to discover them.  Here is a blatant statement of the rise of interpretation as the dominant in criticism. 

Oddly, in the last two paragraphs of the selection, Feldman backs off from his revolutionary departures from Bell's formalism, insisting that we are talking about "sensuous and formal qualities of the art object," although he adds (unlike Bell) that this involves examining "their impact upon our vision."  Following this, he insists that we are not directing the viewers attention to words. (Isn't he being too defensive here, as though he had stressed interpretation too much for his formalist colleagues to accept?).  His solution to the problem is to refer once again to the unity that the viewer organizes:  "As we perceive the work, its qualities seem to organize themselves into a kind of unity, and it is this unity which becomes the meaning of the work..."  (23)   The meaning of the work, then, arises through the interaction between viewer and work, and not through any process of revealing the intentions of the artist.

Unfortunately, the selection leaves off here.  However, Feldman continues his interpretation in the book in a way that is quite striking and quite beyond anything that could have been acceptable to Bell-type formalists.  In essence, he argues that the painting expresses the fall of Western ethnocentrism and even, perhaps, a new positive attitude concerning the assertive power of women (this last, an interpretive stretch.)   I will quote this material here.

Feldman first observes that Picasso's use of white lines to delineate one of the figures is something we might have seen "in ancient Greek vase painting." He then continues: "The faces of the two central figures also have the expressionless stare which is characteristic of archaic Greek female images. … [They] embody the classical ideal of female beauty developed in the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world; they belong to Picasso’s own tradition (indeed, they look like Picasso!). By contrast, the other standing figures are derived from non-Western sources—African or Pre-Columbian.  Picasso has intentionally juxtaposed Western and non-Western racial types to express the fall of Western ethnocentrism. First, the classical beauty symbolized by the central figures is contrasted with the angular forms of the other standing figures; then they are synthesized in the hybrid figure at the lower right. … In the 'fall' of the classical figures we see the decline of a culture in which beauty is the object of serene contemplation. The ideal of female passivity is displaced by ideals of female activity and magical aliveness.” (Feldman, 1992, pp. 496­-497).

So, in the end of his analysis, Feldman returns to his interpretation of the unstable stance of the second figure from the left, this time making grand claims about Picasso's, possibly unconscious, intentions. This interpretation may be widely debated, but it does bring the painting alive again for me, and provides that unity of understanding that Feldman sought.  

By the way, one could go further here, claiming that Picasso has made a painting that represents (and perhaps exemplifies) the Nietzschean ideal of the Apollonian/Dionysian synthesis in "tragic" art, where the figures on the left represent the Apollonian and the ones on the right the Dionysian with its recognition of the tortured substratum of human existence and the possibility of redemption through ecstatic union with the Primal One.  1907 was a period of high interest in Nietzsche, so it would stand to reason.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Some Neglected Aspects of Clive Bell's Aesthetic Theory

It is typical in introduction to aesthetics classes to read a selection from Clive Bell's Art.   Selections of this sort are inevitably frustrating for the teacher since much that is important (at least to him or her) is left out.  For example, the Goldblatt and Brown text Aesthetics leaves out Bell's famous discussion of Frith's Paddington Station as merely descriptive art, as well as his discussion of Feldes' The Doctor which he treats as sentimental and self-indulgent. (Bells critique of The Doctor basically labels it as "kitsch," before this term ever came into use.) Other things, although present, are sometimes neglected because of placement.  (This, by the way, is inevitable...editors of textbooks must select.) 

A fundamental feature of Bell's aesthetics is his subjectivism.  He deliberately attacks the very idea of objective taste.  He only allows the critic to point out certain features which give him the special aesthetic emotion.  At this stage he seems a bit like Hume.  However, he goes after the Humean conception of taste dramatically in the chapter called "Society and Art."  (And this leads us to re-evaluate what he says in the first chapter of the book.) There, he goes so far as to argue against "cultivation" (what Hume would probably think is the result of practice and comparison).  After encouraging parents not to cultivate their children, he insists that doing so will hinder children from experiencing genuine emotion.  He then writes: "Standards of taste are the essence of culture.  That is why the cultured have ever been defenders of the antique.  There grows up in the art of the past a traditional classification under standard masterpieces by means of which even those who have no native sensibility can discriminate between works of art.  That is just what culture wants; so it insists on the veneration of standards and frowns on anything that cannot be justified with reference to them."  (Art, Capricorn Books, 1958, 177) We, one hundred years after the publication of Bell's book, are so caught up in the current dislike for formalism (and acceptance of contextualism) that we cannot see the challenging and interesting aspects of his thinking here.  It is a weakness of the Humean perspective on taste that it cannot handle that which is  radically novel, i.e. something that does not fit any of previously accepted principles of taste.  Bell was trying to introduce the Postimpressionist painters to England and had to explain their novelty.  It is the strength of his subjectivism that he can handle radical novelty, and this would suggest that any solution to the problem of taste should supplement Hume with Bell, or at least try to provide a synthesis in response to this antithesis. Ironically, Bell insists that the new works he is advocating are not novel at all, but provide "significant form" in the same way as did the great Byzantine artists and as did Giotto, both of whom he admires as greatly as he admires Cezanne. 
Another thing neglected in studies of Bell becomes apparent in the third chapter of Art, "The Metaphysical Hypothesis."  There, he asserts that art "expresses the emotion of the creator," that the lines and colors are intended to convey something the artist felt.  This is why, for Bell, material beauty (the beauty of a butterfly for example) does not move us as art does.  Something is "significant" form because it expresses emotion.  However, contemplation of natural beauty might be the cause of the artist's emotion, material beauty becoming significant for the artist.  The artist might experience the objects in a room, for example, as "pure forms in certain relations to each other" -- as "ends in themselves."  We, too, can sometimes have this experience:  to see such objects as "pure forms" is to see them "with the eye of an artist." (45)  For Bell, seeing this requires stripping the object of all associations.  What provokes emotion in this respect is the thing-in-itself or "ultimate reality."  So, the significance of the work of art is, on this view, that it is inspired by a vision of "Reality."  We are moved by certain combinations of lines and colors because the artist has used these to express an emotion felt for ultimate reality.

Bell suggests that pure form is not required for the artist to be inspired to produce significant form, that the emotion could come from apprehension of ultimate reality in some other way "mysteriously unaided by externals" (47)  What the artist felt (and not what he actually saw) conditions the artist's design.  The object of the emotion is, in a sense, irrelevant, and thus the form "bears no memorial of any external form that may have provoked it."  It does not matter whether the road to reality is through appearance, recollection or imagination.  The advantage Bell sees in the metaphysical hypothesis is that the critic will then be able to say what gives form its significance. 

His example in support of this is both strange and interesting.  He averts that it is impossible to exactly copy a work of art because "the actual lines and colors and spaces in a work of art are caused by something in the mind of the artist"  which are not in the imitator's mind. (49)  This is why the difference between copy and original are felt immediately, even if they are minute. The copier does not possess the "mysterious emotion" which inspired the original.  Good copies exist (if they possess the mysterious emotion) but are not exact imitations. This is not however to define art as expression of emotion (emotion in response to Reality):  "the characteristic of a work of art is its power of provoking aesthetic emotion" whereas "the expression of emotion is possibly what gives it that power."  But one should not go to galleries looking for expression of emotion, even though rightness of form results from rightness of emotion.  Wrong forms may, however, result from things other that the wrong state of mind.  In the end I think Bell's formalism is best seen as part of the process of creative appreciation rather than the end product or the whole thing.  The dialectic of formalism and contextualism has yet to be resolved into a new synthesis, but this has been partly because we have become so besotted by contextualism we have forgotten the power of formalism.  

Bell insists that "few artists, if any, can sit down...just to create nothing more definite than significant form, or express nothing more definite than a sense of reality."  He further writes that "Artists must canalize their emotion, they must concentrate their energies on some definite problem" which is why artistic conventions are necessary and why it is easier to write good rhymed poetry than good free verse.  Limits concentrate energies.  Similarly, an artist should not just try to create something beautiful.  The main problem, instead, is making the work "right" in the sense of expressing the emotion or "provoking aesthetic emotion in others." (52)  Another way he puts it is that, for the artist, a work is "right" if it is "the complete realization of a conception, the perfect solution of a problem." (52)  The problems of art are infinite in type but, to be artistic problems, they must focus on the emotion felt for reality. 

Surprisingly, Bell insists that the nature of the problem is immaterial, and all problems are equally good, except that two types of problem will "tend to turn out badly," one being "accurate representation," and the other being the attempt to create significant form or beauty directly.  Bell gives examples of problems including the artist desire to "express himself within a balance certain harmonies, to reconcile certain dissonances, to achieve certain rhythms, or to conquer certain difficulties of medium."  He admits that "to catch a likeness" is one such problem, but it does not work well partly because it is too easy to catch a likeness.  Doing so "will never bring into play the highest emotional and intellectual powers of the artist." (53)  Otherwise, however, the artist can chose the problem and use it focus the artistic emotions he wants to express.  Bell then says, somewhat contradictorily, that the problem in a picture "is generally the subject."

So, for the art viewer, the problem is of no importance, but for the artist it is a test for "rightness."  For some artists the emotion they express comes from the "formal significance of material things" which comes in turn from taking that thing as an "end in itself."  That something has greater significance means that it moves us more profoundly.  We then become aware of the object's essential reality, "of the God in everything, of the universal in the particular, of the all-pervading rhythm."  (Bell does not care which of these things we call it.)  It is simply "that which lies behind the appearance of all things" (54) and gives things their significance.  He also calls it the "thing in itself" and "ultimate reality."  He also allows that some artists may have this strange emotion and are inspired by it without it having a source in material objects. 

Bell admits that this metaphysical hypothesis is open to question, although he insists on his prior aesthetic hypothesis. He also insists that aesthetic ecstasy comes from freeing oneself "from the arrogance of humanity."  Treating things as ends in themselves is the only way one can get from that thing (the subject of art) "the best that it can give."  We need, in the end, to escape the "chatter and tumult of material existence" or hear it as part of a "more ultimate harmony." 

As much as Bell wants to escape the human (very much as a kind of Platonist - note the equivalence he finds between art and mathematics) he does bring up this pesky notion of the "the problem" the artist is trying to solve, i.e. the problem as variable subject-matter.  If multiple problems can inspire the artist then shouldn't we say that the ultimate source of the significant form is human?  This is why the artist cannot just sit down with the intention to create significant form.  The thing-in-itself (in Bell's metaphysics) is not some amorphous God-like ultimate reality but rather the object itself (for example, that tree) treated humbly, without the overlay of human arrogance.  Oddly, in the end Bell reminds me of Yuriko Saito's discussion of the Japanese aesthetic (in her book Everyday Aesthetics) and the search for quintessence of the object.  Saito would be surprised since Bell is so associated with formalism, but the parallel is strong.  Of course, Bell is still an enemy of everyday aesthetics, seeing art as escape from ordinary life, but "the problem" ameliorates this to some extent. 

Bell says that when a real artist looks at objects, for example the contents of a room, "he perceives them as pure forms in certain relations to each other, and feels emotion for them as such."  They then inspire him to express.  He does not feel the emotion for the object as a means but as an end in itself.  To get more specific he does not see it as "a means to physical well-being, nor as an object associated with the intimate life of a family, nor as the place where someone sat saying things unforgettable..."  (44) The artist drops the associations to see the chair as "pure form." 

I think that this is good as a distancing strategy, but that it is also worthwhile (and even required) to toggle back to the rich experience we have of the chair which is sedimented phenomenologically in all of these ways (what he calls, negatively, "mere association.").  A rich artistic experience does not neglect the second half of the experience, but also does not neglect the formalist half.  I think that it is more humbling to do both, since there is a kind of arrogance in the belief that one can totally escape the human or that one can achieve a god-like stance above humanity.  The aesthetic experience, as I argued in my book, is "not to be understood as necessarily focusing on formal properties.  One may also focus on the symbolic or content-oriented aspects of the object perceived insofar as they give an experience of aura." (The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, 132).