Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Plotinus and everyday aesthetics (and architecture)

For Plotinus (Ennead I.6, On Beauty, MacKenna translation) the beauty of the sensuous realm is hardly the most important kind of beauty.  Yet he has something valuable to say about it.  He begins his discussion of beauty by noting that there is both beauty of sight and of hearing (which includes music) in the sensuous world, as also a beauty of the realm above sense, including the beauty of human virtues.  He will quickly turn to focus on this non-bodily realm.  Still, he at least asks what makes material forms and certain sounds beautiful.  His larger issue is whether there is One Principle for both kinds of beauty, the embodied and the bodiless, only the later being beautiful in itself.  Since not all bodies are beautiful, he asks, what is it that "attracts the eyes" in a beautiful object, giving us joy at the sight of it?  Most previous thinkers identified this with symmetry of parts, along with "a certain charm of color."  We find this idea for example in the Pythagoreans, in Aristotle, and also in the Stoics.  On this view, "only a compound can be beautiful," and the parts only have beauty "as working together to give a comely total."  Yet, he argues, "beauty in an aggregate demands beauty in details."  A beautiful whole cannot be made out of ugly parts.  Moreover, there are things that are beautiful, for example, individual colors, the light of the sun, gold, lightning by night, and the stars, whose beauty cannot be understood in terms of symmetry.  Similarly in a beautiful musical composition the individual tones are delicious in themselves.  Moreover, things that are symmetrical are only sometimes beautiful.  So it follows that symmetry "owes its beauty to a remoter principle."  We also find that beautiful things perceived by the intellect, like noble conduct, excellent laws and abstract ideas also cannot be explained in terms of symmetry.  Note that, by attacking symmetry as that which defines beauty, Plotinus is attacking the notion that beauty can be objective in a science-like way.  The "golden mean" would similarly be rejected as the source of beauty, on his account.  Instead, he focuses on something more mysterious, a certain aura, one might say, that is exemplified by such things as the light of the sun, the shimmering quality of beautiful colors, and so forth.  (I discuss and update this concept in my book.)

What then is the Principle that makes material things beautiful?  Plotinus sees this Principle as something which the soul can perceive immediately, name, recognize, welcome, and, most importantly, enter "into unison with it."  The opposite of this happens when the soul falls "in with the Ugly" and denies and even resents the Principle.  The point is best made in this quote:  "the soul - by the very truth of its nature, by its affiliation to the noblest Existents in the hierarchy of Being," when it sees anything like such Existents (the Forms), "thrills with an immediate delight" because it senses its own nature as having this affinity.  To the question, "what is there common between beauty in this world and beauty in the bodiless world?" the answer is: "all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form."  Ugly things, by contrast, have not "been entirely mastered by pattern, that is, by Reason."  Beauty happens when Matter yields "in all respects to Ideal-Form."  Further, the Ideal-Form enters by grouping and coordinating "what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity," and thus yields a "harmonious coherence."  Here, "Beauty enthrones itself, giving itself to the parts as to the sum," as for example, when an architect confers beauty on "a house with all its parts," those parts including single stones which also may be given their beauty by "some natural quality." (One thinks of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water.)  The concluding idea of this chapter of his book is that the "material thing becomes beautiful...by communicating in the thought that flows from the Divine."  But in more practical contemporary (and atheistic) terms we might interpret this to mean that the beauty of a house is a function not just of the ordering of the parts but of the way that a non-mathematics-based aura can be found not only in the whole but in each of the parts, as if there were a divine presence giving these things their unity.  

Architecture is a leading idea in Plotinus's account of beauty.  and thus in Chapter 3 he asks, "On what principle does the architect, when he finds the house standing before him correspondent with his inner ideal of a house, pronounce it beautiful?  Is it not that the house before him, the stones apart, is the inner idea stamped upon the mass of exterior matter, the indivisible exhibited in diversity."  This passage is an interesting combination of Plato, Aristotle and something else harder to describe.  The description of the architect is just like Plato's description of a carpenter in relation to a bed in Book X of the Republic, where the carpenter look to the ideal bed in the world of Forms to create his own bed.  Aristotle would insist that creation of an artifact involves both a material cause and the formal cause, the form being imposed on the matter.  The notion "the indivisible" exhibited or expressed in diversity is unique to Plotinus at this stage (although in the eighteenth century we have the idea of beauty as unity in diversity in Hogarth, for example).  The phrase "the stones apart" seems, however, to contradict what he has previously said about stones.  Instead, one would think that the beauty of the individual stones contribute to the beauty of the whole, they being what he refers to as the diversity that is expressive of an imposed unity.  

Perhaps the most interested passage is the following:  "
So with the perceptive faculty:  discerning in certain objects the Ideal-Form which has bound and controlled the shapeless matter, opposed in nature to Idea, seeing further stamped upon the common shapes some shape excellent above the common, it gathers into unity what still remains fragmentary, catches it up and carries it within, no longer a thing of parts, and presents it to the Ideal-Principle as something concordant and congenial, a natural friend:  the joy here is like that of a good man who discerns in a youth the early signs of a virtue consonant with the achieved perfection within his own soul."

Consider "the perceptive faculty" to be what is later called the faculty of taste.  What this faculty does is mapped out in a sequence of stages:  (1) find a Platonic Form exemplified or expressed in the object (for example, Architecture within a building), (2) gather what remains fragmentary into a unity (by a kind of mental synthesis in perception), (3) internalize that unity within the mind, thus (4) erasing the division of the objects into parts (all parts are now seen as integrated aspects of an organic whole), and (5) posit the unity as congenial to the relevant Form, e.g. Architecture, from which (6) arises a joy in the soul of the critic (i.e. that part of the critic with greatest affinity with the world of Forms). 

The next passage is also quite extraordinary.  We had already learned that, on his anti-symmetry view, individual colors can be beautiful.  We now will see that this beauty is a function of the presence of the Form within the object perceived as beautiful and as a diversity unified:  "The beauty of color is also the outcome of a unification:  it derives from shape, from the conquest of darkness inherent in Matter by the pouring-in of light, the unembodied, which is a Rational-Principle of an Ideal-Form." (Color is not here a matter of mere charm is previously suggested or as found in Kant, but more like color as found in its use in stained glass windows in Gothic churches.)  The description of light as pouring in from the world of the Forms is reminiscent of Plato's explication of the metaphor of light as truth in the Allegory of the Cave.  However, here we see that this beauty, which is not, again, based on symmetry, is a function of the overcoming of darkness and of the equivalent notion of unformed matter, where the presence of the Ideal-Form is not found in the mere Platonic relation of imitation (as when a drawn circle imitates the Form Circle) but rather in a suffusion of light/color.  Fire is stressed in the next paragraph as being the body closest to the unembodied, as having "color primally," other bodies taking the Form of color from it, thus giving its light a particular splendour, "the splendour that belongs to the Idea."

This might on the face of it seem to be the end of the discussion of everyday aesthetics and Plotinus, as Plotinus in Chapter 4, leaves the realm of sense and images, the world in which beauty enters into matter to "ravish us." Instead, he focuses on "loftier beauties" of the soul unrelated to the sense organs, these beauties including noble conduct and learning, as well as the Forms of Justice and Moral Wisdom, themselves more beautiful than a beautiful sunset or dawn (something admired by Plotinus for its non-symmetry-based beauty based on light and its attendant color.)  Yet, from a modern secular perspective, the beauties of personal virtue are also beauties of everyday life (and not completely divorced from what the senses can perceive if we include within this the way that perception can be infused with meaning to the extent that we can see, for example, the nobility in a person we know to be noble).  Thus Plotinus asks:  "What do you feel in presence of the grace you discern in actions, in manners, in sound morality, in all the works and fruits of virtue, in the beauty of souls [and the beauty of yourselves within]?" Isn't this too a matter of everyday aesthetics, perhaps a necessary feature of it?  Is there not also a moral dimension to our perception of beauty in the people and people-produced artifacts and events around us?  Here, too, there is a kind of aura, or as Plotinus puts it in his overly-metaphysical way:  "shining down upon all [these moral virtues and their manifestations], the light of god-like Intellection." For Plotinus, it is that these things have reality of Being that makes them "really beautiful."  Again, the metaphor of light is invoked here as within the realm of physical beauty:  "this grace, this splendour as of Light, resting upon all the virtues."  I am not going to discuss Plotinus's Puritan-like fulminations against ugliness in the realm of bodily sensation:  this clearly opposed to one aspect of the aesthetics of everyday life, the aspect that includes the the very "pleasures of the body" that Plotinus despises.  Suffice it to say that in Chapter 6 Plotinus adds one point about the everyday:  "The beauty in things of a lower order - actions and pursuits for instance - comes by operation of the shaping Soul which is also the author of the beauty found in the world of sense.  For the Soul, a divine thing, a fragment as it were of the Primal Beauty, makes beautiful to the fulness of their capacity all things whatsoever that it grasps and moulds."  As with Plato, Plotinus has the soul conclude its upward path by rejecting beauties of this world:  it "can never again feel the old delight in the comeliness of material forms."  Moreover, he calls on the spiritual adept to "withdraw into himself, foregoing all that is known by the eyes, turning away for ever from the material beauty that once mad his joy." Too bad for him, I say. 

One final comment may be made about Plotinus's vision of an aesthetics of personal self-improvement.  This can be read in a Pragmatist vein (for example in line with the writings of Richard Shusterman) which in fact would subvert his Plotinus' overall purpose.  We are able to see the virtuous soul and its loveliness by looking within:  "And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful:  he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely fact has grown upon his work. So do you also:  cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine."  


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Plato: Enemy of Everyday Aesthetics in the Phaedo

The idea presented at the beginning of the Phaedo (64c), that death is separation of the soul from the body, is explicitly stated in terms of enmity against "such so-called pleasures as those of food and drink" and "the pleasures of sex."  Moreover, added to these are "pleasures concerned with the service of the body" in which are included "the acquisition of distinguished clothes and shoes and the other bodily ornaments."  The philosopher is said to despise these things except when he cannot do without them.  So "the body" is associated with the everyday pleasures of life, although not including intellectual or moral pleasures.  Socrates' is an odd notion of "pleasures of the body" since it includes not only bodily pleasures but also pleasures associated with bodily decoration.  Still, at the very least, a very large part of the aesthetics of everyday life is explicitly rejected by Socrates.  He goes on and attribute to "the majority" the belief that anyone who finds no pleasure in these things does not deserve to live and is close to death. 

For Socrates, the body does not even contribute to the acquisition of knowledge since the physical senses are not accurate, and therefore are always deceptive (a strange inference!).  Moreover, the soul reasons best when it is not disturbed by the senses or by pleasure or pain.  So Socrates lumps pleasure and pain in with the senses as bodily.  Yet aesthetics usually deals with pleasurable and painful sensation (leaving open the possibility of aesthetic experience that is purely mental).  So, the entire region of aesthetics associated with the senses is disregarded.  It might as well be all of aesthetics since the term originated with Baumgarten's appropriation of the Greek word aesthesis, for "sense perception" and saw aesthetics as dealing with a kind of perceptual knowledge associated with the concepts of beauty and fine art. Socrates is famous in the Republic for throwing the arts out of the ideal society:  but here he is attacking sensuous aesthetic experience itself.  

Socrates says "the soul of the philosopher most disdains the body."  One thinks however of Richard Shusterman and the notion of somaesthetics, where there is a philosophical discipline that honors the body.  Can there be any resolution of this impasse?  Is the Pragmatist and the Platonist totally at odds even in the definition of philosophy?  At this point in the dialogue (65d) Socrates immediately introduces the Forms:  the Just itself, the Beautiful and the Good, all things that cannot be seen with the bodily senses.  (If Aesthetics were identified solely with the Beautiful, it could be saved in this way, although at a great loss.) These Forms are described as "the reality of all other things, that which each of them essentially is."  Grasping the thing itself through thought alone comes closest to knowledge of it.  

The Forms are only currently popular amongst mathematicians, and few would accept Plato's premise about the Just itself or Beauty itself. We could, however, salvage the Forms denying the literal nature of the story and saying that it is possible to contemplate the Forms in sensuous experience only if we treat them as if they were eternal and unchanging.  They become, on this view, a fiction necessary for creative contemplation.  This would of course involve denying that the philosopher will accurately grasp the thing itself "most perfectly" if he "approaches the object with thought alone, without associating any sight with his thought, or dragging in any sense perception with his reasoning..."  Instead of freeing himself from the body, the Pragmatist Platonist (a living paradox?) would search out essences by approaching the object (the thing itself) through thoughtful perception and not through mere association of thought with any perceived thing.  Mere association would be too arbitrary!  Perhaps the true philosopher despises the pleasures of everyday life only to the extent that they are not part of a deeper project of contemplation in which the goal is to reach the essences of things (those essences now recognized as only "as if" eternal and unchanging.) 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What is Beauty? Aristotle's contribution: tragic beauty


Although Aristotle states a theory of beauty in the Metaphysics: “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree” (The Complete Works of Aristotle Barnes ed.,  volume 2 1705, 1078a36), the theory he offers in the Poetics is quite different, and quite a bit more original.  The comment is preceded by a statement that the mathematical sciences say a great deal about beauty.  The Metaphysics theory can be found as far back as the fragments and lore of Pythagoras.  Pythagoras gave us the terms "harmony" and "symmetry" both of which seem to be central to his (or the Pythagoreans') theory of beauty.  The reference to mathematics also connects both the Pythagorean and the Platonic notions of beauty.  Aristotle, by contrast to Plato, was generally more inspired by biology than mathematics, and this comes out in his discussion of beauty in the Poetics.  

It is also noteworthy that in The Organon Topics Book 3 Part 3 Aristotle says,  "Also, if one thing be desirable for itself, and the other for the look of it, the former is more desirable, as (e.g.) health than beauty. A thing is defined as being desired for the look of it if, supposing no one knew of it, you would not care to have it. Also, it is more desirable both for itself and for the look of it, while the other thing is desirable on the one ground alone. Also, whichever is the more precious for itself, is also better and more desirable. A thing may be taken to be more precious in itself which we choose rather for itself, without anything else being likely to come of it." [taken from R. B. Jones
 

But as I have said, the most interesting contribution to a theory of beauty is to be found in his Poetics.  There, he develops the notion of beauty as related to organic wholes.  Yet, his initial discussion of beauty does not actually mention the term.  It is in Chapter 3.  There, he talks about how imitation is natural to man, how we are the most imitative creatures, and how we delight in works of imitation. (I am working here with The Oxford Translation of Aristotle edited by W. D. Ross and appearing in Art in its Significance by Stephen David Ross, 3rd. ed., 1994).  It seems that this delight is an aesthetic delight.  He observes that we even delight in realistic representations of "the lowest animals" and of dead bodies.  (This sort of thing is accounted for by some 20th century philosophers in terms of "taking an aesthetic attitude." See, for example, Paul Ziff  "Anything Viewed.")  He further observes that we delight in a picture because we learn from it at the same time, for example we learn that a man falls into a certain category. Even  things we have not seen before can, when represented, give us  delight in the execution or coloring.  We know he is thinking of beauty here since he also mentions that harmony and rhythm are natural to us.

When Aristotle gets around to defining tragedy in Chapter 6 of Poetics he doesn't explicitly mention beauty and, since the purpose of tragedy is catharsis of pity and fear, it seams that beauty is not central to tragedy.  But I think that there are two reasons to question this conclusion.  First, one could say that there is a kind of beauty in that which causes catharsis.   Second, his account of beauty is essential to evaluating tragedy.  I will discuss that later.Note also that tragedy is often full of depictions of painful things...and these were recently mentioned in the section on the value of imitation.  In the definition of tragedy he does explicitly mention "language with pleasurable accessories" by which he means "with rhythm and harmony superadded."  This may imply that the these things provide a kind of beauty, although perhaps only as an add-on to the core experience of catharsis.  So the key issue is whether the play in its central purpose can be understood in terms of beauty.

The central discussion of beauty comes in the second part of Chapter 6 when Aristotle talks about the proper construction of a Plot.  We find that a tragedy is an "imitation of an action complete in itself, a whole of some magnitude" and that the whole should have a beginning, middle and end, the beginning and end being non-arbitrary.  I take it that "magnitude" does not just mean "size" but rather "appropriate size," and maybe even more than that, i.e. "appropriate size to be considered beautiful."  For then he says "Again:  to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangements of parts, but also a certain definite magnitude."  The analogy to the living creature will be picked up later as he expands on the notion of an organic whole.  Clearly it is not enough for something to be beautiful to be made up of ordered parts, but that the parts need to be arranged in a way similar to the way they appear in an organism.  Seemingly reverting to the Pythagorean view, Aristotle follows this by saying that "Beauty is a matter of size and order,"  Still, he understands "order" now in a different way because of the animal analogy. 

But, before we go into the animal analogy, we we need to consider his idea that beauty is impossible in a minute creature, or in one of vast size.  In the first case, the creature is not beautiful because it is indistinct, and in the second case it is not beautiful because it cannot be seen "all at once" and "the unity and wholeness ... is lost to the beholder."  So beauty has something to do not only with harmony, symmetry and order but also with clarity, unity and wholeness.  

When Aristotle applies this idea to poetry, he introduces a psychological dimension.  The beauty of a poem depends on our memory's ability to take it all in, much like the beauty of a large object depending on our perceptual ability to do so.  So, he holds, the longer a story is the more beautiful it is based on its magnitude.  Here, he is taking magnitude to mean "the right size."  However, he then gives another account of magnitude.  It is a length that "by a series of probable or necessary stages [the hero passes] from misfortune to happiness or from happiness to misfortune."  He says that this "may suffice as a limit for the magnitude of the story."  That is, the story has good magnitude if it has the right length for this series of probable or necessary stages to be worked through, i.e. making a good plot (and thus bringing catharsis to the audience.)  

Note that in the very next sentence, but the first sentence of Chapter 9, he also uses the phrase "probable or necessary," although in this case referring to the function of the poet, which is to describe "not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary."  So, part of what is meant by "magnitude" is the sense of probable or necessary movement within the poem with respect to the plot. This is the very thing that distinguishes poetry from history, which is only concerned with what "has been," not with what "might be."  Thus, Aristotle's defense of poetry's cognitive power against Plato, follows from his theory of beauty as magnitude, where magnitude is seen as a quality of an organic whole in which the parts are intimately related. 

The key quote in this is to be found in Chapter 8, which is mainly about the unity of a plot (unity being necessary for beauty).  That a plot is about one man is not enough to make it unified:  there must be one story. So here is the quote:  "so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole.  For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole."  So, the organic whole is like the body of an organism:  if you take away an organ you will severely diminish the capacity for the organism to function.  Similarly the parts of the beautiful play are closely intertwined that if you take away one you will destroy the beauty of it.  This is Aristotle's original idea about beauty.

There is one qualification to this.  Aristotle also holds that  something can be made more beautiful if it goes beyond just imitating an organic whole.  The painter or poet can make something true-to-life and yet make it more beautiful, by preserving the type and yet also making it more noble:  "Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level, the example of good portrait painters should be followed.  They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful.  So too the poet, in representing men...[who have] defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it."  (Chapter 15)

It may not be that all forms of beauty need to meet Aristotle's standard as set forth here.  At the same time, it is arguable that organic beauty is a particularly impressive form of beauty, and may be distinguished from that which, although called beautiful, may be a simple beauty, or even merely charming or pretty.  The concept of "necessity" may be of value here:  there is a kind of necessity (not mathematical or causal) which reveals a compelling dynamic energy, that, coupled with such things as order, harmony and symmetry, gives us beauty in this sense.  Thus it would make sense to apply the term beauty paradigmatically to a great tragic play despite the painfulness of the events portrayed.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Plato's Take on Inspiration: The Ion

Socrates claims that Ion does not have art, but merely inspiration.  But what is inspiration?  Plato's Ion is often read in conjunction with Book X of the Republic, particularly in aesthetics classes.  There are some remarkable similarities and differences.  In both writings, the poet (and also the inspired interpreters of the poet, including the rhapsode, the critic and the actor) does not really know anything, and certainly does not know what he claims that he knows.  In both writings we have a series that starts and moves away from God.  In the Republic, God is the creator of the ideal bed, the carpenter is the maker of the bed in the world of appearances, and the painter is of maker the painted bed:  the painter is the imitator.  (The whole account of the three beds is there to define the true imitator.  Once we know how the painter, as well as the actor who pretends on stage to be, for example, a general, is to be distinguished from the creator and the true maker, then we have the "imitator" defined.  "Imitator" does not mean anyone who imitates but rather someone who merely captures the surface appearance of something.  Someone who holds a mirror to the world is also at this level.) 

In the Ion, the God (or the Muse) is the first magnet, which then gives its power to the poet, who is the second magnet, who, in turn, inspires the rhapsode (or the actor) as well as other artists (for example dancers and stage-designers) involved in performing his work.  The audience is at the fourth remove from the Muse.  The remarkable difference between the Republic account of the three beds and this is that in the Ion the poet is only two removes from reality, i.e. is in direct communication with God, and therefore takes the same place as the craftsman in the Republic.  I am not going to worry, here, about which work was written first by Plato, although I should mention that the Republic is generally considered a middle dialogue and the Ion an early dialogue, which would make any change of mind on Plato's part taking place after the Ion and before the Republic. 

There are some differences between the actions involved in the two sequences as well:  in the Republic the carpenter's bed is a copy of the ideal bed, and it in turn is imitated by the painter's bed.  In the Ion, there are not two processes, but just one:  inspiration, which is passed down from one magnet to the next.  It is more dynamic in this way.   Also, inspiration is just different from imitation.  One can imitate with skill, whereas no skill is involved in inspiration qua inspiration.  Inspiration is more magical:  the inspired person participates in the source of inspiration, they are as if one with the source. The experience of inspiration is closer to a religious experience, whereas the act of imitation could be secular, mechanical, and solely for entertainment purposes.  Imitation can involve more detachment, where only the surface form of the original is captured. Inspiration, by contrast, seems to pass on its inner essence:  the poet passing his inspiration from God on to the the rhapsode, and the rhapsode doing this for the audience.  Historically, artists have found more support in Plato's theory of inspiration than in his theory of imitation.  It is also interesting (and possibly contradictory for Plato) that  Socrates saw himself as inspired in some way.  In the Apology he often refers to a personal daemon, and there is a passage in the Symposium that implies that he is occasionally possessed by this inner spirit.  Also, he praises wisdom in the Apology and says that he has no real knowledge.  So, perhaps he is like Ion in being inspired by a God and in having no knowledge. (Someone who finds the Ion attractive as a theory of artistic creation might combine it in some way with the account of the Socratic way of life in the Apology.)  However, Socrates also asserts in the Ion that, although the poets and Ion may have wisdom, he does not have wisdom and is only interested in truth and knowledge.  This would be inconsistent with his position in the Apology that he has no knowledge, although not inconsistent with his commitment there to truthI cannot resolve this, although perhaps scholars who know the Greek already have.  

Another interesting difference between the two series (of beds and magnets) is that possession by the Gods in the Ion involves a highly imaginative experience.  Ion, for example, is ecstatic in the sense that he almost believes he is in ancient Troy as he recites Homers poetry.  This personal out-of-body imaginative experience is not described in the Republic account of the imitator.  Many, in reading these passages in the Ion, have felt that Socrates is, here, more sympathetic to the imitative artist than he shows himself to be in the Republic.

What I would like to do, here, however (and for those of you who have read so far, this is the meat of my comment), is note the very specific quality of being "out of one's mind" described in Ion.  Bear in mind that there are many ways in which one can be "out of one's mind," ranging from the relatively innocent moment of being so engaged with an aesthetic object as to forget oneself, to the more scary experiences of being deluded, obsessed, crazy, mad, or, in contemporary terms, entering into a manic-depressive or schizophrenic state.  So what does Socrates mean by "out of one's mind"?  He speaks of it in terms of Bacchic possession, a very specific kind of religious experience associated with intoxication, death and rebirth:  "like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind."  (I am working here from the Jowett translation at it appears in Art and Its Significance ed. David Ross, 3rd. ed., 1994, 48-9) 

So, what is it to "draw milk and honey from the rivers"?  I take it that this involves a kind of positive ecstatic experience when water takes on a quality that is metaphorically intensified.  This is similar to the description Edward Bullough famously offered, in explicating his concept of psychic distance, of the fog at sea which I discussed in my book (245-247).  He speaks of the fog as "a veil surrounding you with an opaqueness as of transparent milk, blurring the outline of things and distorting their shapes.." (759).  The Bacchic maidens, in short, are "out of their minds" in the sense that they engage in a radical form of imaginative seeing of the sort described by Bullough when he describes what he calls "psychical distance."  

Socrates goes further:  "the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses;  they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower."  (49). Socrates goes on to endorse this view of the poet, even referring to him (her) as "a light and winged and holy thing" like such a bee.  Such a poet is active in the sense that he or she goes from one source of inspiration to the next (the sources here, notably, being natural and not explicitly divine) and yet holy in being able to find the divine in everyday life.  So, the poet, positively understood by Socrates, is someone who is able to take a radical aesthetic approach to nature, being inspired by nature in an active way, i.e. in bringing songs from fountains and other natural phenomena which he experiences in an intensified imaginative/sensuous way (symbolized by the term "honeyed.")  Thus, contra Neitzsche, it turns out that Socrates has a Dionysian theory both of the creative process and quite possibly also of aesthetic experience.  Nietzsche, of course, must have known this.  He is inspired by one aspect of Socrates' theory when attacking the other.  Don't forget that the surface logic of the Ion is simply that  poets and rhapsodes are deceivers in pretending to have knowledge and self-knowledge, whereas they only have inspiration, a kind of second-best sort of wisdom (true wisdom would, of course, involve having true self-knowledge) that can only be held up if one seriously believes in God, something that Socrates makes rather unnecessary in some of his other arguments. It is only at another level of reading (focusing on the milk and honey text) that Socrates becomes an advocate of Dionysian forms of of experience, ones that also involve a form of active engagement that is highly imaginative, that e.g. involves encountering nature in an intoxicated or intoxicated-like way, seeing it with heightened significance, i.e. as having what, in my book, I called "aura."  Moreover, this experience of water as milk and honey is a kind of entering into another world, as when Ion seems to enter into the world of Homer:  a kind of magical transfer of the self.  (A similar view of the creative process can be found in Lu Chi's the Wen Fu as I have argued in an unpublished paper posted on my web page.) This, by the way, is not the same as another well-founded reading of Ion in which the inspired person simply becomes a spokesperson of the God, as like a medium in a seance.  I think that this reading is intended by Plato but is only on the surface level of the story.      


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Does the object of art ever disappear? I don't think so.

It has been argued by some philosophers, notable Arnold Berleant in his classic "The Historicity of Aesthetics"  which appeared in two parts in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Part 1  26:2 (1986) 101-111 and Part 2  26: 3 (1986) 195-203.  The discussion of the disappearing object appears in Part 2.  Berleant insists that there are three dogmas or axioms accepted by traditional aesthetics, dogmas which he intends to refute by way of showing that they have been refuted by contemporary art practice.  These are "that art consists primarily of objects, that art objects possess a special status, and that such objects must be regarded in a unique way."  (195)  I do not think that any of these view have been generally held as dogmas, but I do not think that Berleant has some interesting things to say about them.  My position, in short, is that (1) the first "dogma" is false, and yet the object has not, contra Berleant, disappeared, (2) the second is true and that Berleant's examples from avant garde art intended to refute it actually support the point, and that (3) that the "unique way" of regard to which Berleant refers, the aesthetic attitude, is, contra Berleant, required for any aesthetic perception, not just perception of works of art, and that this way is misconceived when seen as simply a matter of attending to a thing in a passive way:  the aesthetic attitude, on my view, is an imaginative attitude which perceives objects as having aura. I would also, however, like to strongly affirm Berleant's idea of what he calls the "aesthetic field."  Berleant says that "art does not consist of objects but of situations in which experiences occur and that frequently but not invariably include identifiable objects." I agree with the idea of situations as being more primary than objects but would modify his claim in a small way to say that such experiences do invariably include objects, although the objects are not always easily identifiable. He goes on in his discussion of the aesthetic field to say "This situation is a unified field of interacting forces involving perceivers, objects or events, creative initiative, and performance or activation of some sort.  These four factors - appreciative, independent, creative, and performative ones - serve to delineate the constitutive components of an integrated and unified experience.  To single out any one of them as the locus of art, then, is to misrepresent the whole of the aesthetic field by a part."  (201)  I think this is exactly right and also has not, unfortunately, been recognized as true or even as a valid option within contemporary aesthetics.  But he follows this with "Art objects are not necessarily different from other objects" which I have a bit more trouble with.  Art objects not only exist in their own worlds (artworlds) but also create their own worlds, worlds other than the world of ordinary life.  In this respect they are like the objects and practices of religion, and I suppose they are also like the objects and practices of politics, which also creates its own world, its own reality, relatively isolated from the rest of the world (although this point is subtler, and expressly not mentioned or even thought about by politicians themselves).  Van Gogh's painting of Arles presents us with an Arles other than the one we may walk in, although related to it.  So, I do not disagree with Berleant's claim that "aesthetic experience is ...a mode of experience that has connections with other modes of experiences, such as practical, social, religious experience, but which combines in a distrinctive and identifiable fashion." (201).

Now, for the dogmas of aesthetics.  Berleant holds that the object has often receded in importance as in Duchamp's "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors."  It is true that appreciating this work requires not only apprehending the object (which I have never seen....but in the photos it is endlessly fascinating) and in reading the author's written material surrounding the work (most notably the collection of notes called The Green Box published in 1934), including looking at the work in terms of its title, the most important piece of writing associated with it.  The importance of the title and other background information is nothing new in art, however.  And this does nothing to lessen the importance and centrality of the physical object:  titles and interpretations are meant to influence how we see the object.  The physical object in "The Bride" was important even to Duchamp since he used careful craftsmanship in making it and also found it interesting and valuable to leave the cracking the glass that happened by accident.  I cannot therefore accept that in Duchamp there is, as Berleant puts it, a "metamorphosis of the exhausted art object into the realm of meaning."  (197)  What is this "realm of meaning"?  Is it something like the realm of Platonic Forms separate in some way from material reality?   The object is not exhausted and replaced by meaning but is enhanced by meaning.

The myth that the object disappears has been encouraged by Conceptual art.  Conceptual art certainly plays with the concept of the art object disappearing.  Yet the object never does disappear, even in Conceptual art.  (You cannot make something true simply by saying it!)  To be sure, the object of art is placed differently in Conceptual Art, and we look at it in a different way.  Sol Lewitt's "Six Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty-five Lines" is mentioned by Berleant as an example of a disappearing object, something that "devolves into trivial gestures."  Yet it is something to look at, and I wonder whether it is even respectful of the work to refer to the lines as "trivial gestures" that reverse evolution in some way.  The appropriate way to look at Lewitt's work, by the way, is, as I argued in the last post, disinterested contemplation.   More interesting are works like Richard Fleishner's "Sited Works."  But all one has to do is look at the images that come up with a google search of Richard Fleishner and one sees that his work is not about the disappearance of the object.  Berleant describes a work by Fleishner which involves photographs of striking objects placed on various sites in which the viewer is supposed to "reconstruct their presence imaginatively."  Surely here, he would say, the object has disappeared.  I cannot find any other references to this work but I assume that, like other conceptual pieces, this one involves a written text.  We look at the text and then imagine something.  Yet there is still an object:  the text and the thing imagined.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Is it Disinterestedness OR Engagement? Short answer No

Arnold Berleant is one of my heroes.  His contribution to aesthetics has been amazing.  In rereading the first two chapters of his Art and Engagement (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1991) I re-encounter a brilliant mind addressing aesthetics from a new perspective strongly informed not only by the spirit of John Dewey and such phenomenologists as Merleau-Ponty, but also by a keen interest in, and excitement about, movements in contemporary and avant-garde art, particularly those of the 1960s and 70s when artists in all the arts were constantly testing boundaries.  Berleant's main point in this book was to counter what he called "traditional aesthetics."  (He has continued to write books in aesthetics and, since his position on most issues has not changed significantly, I will henceforth speak of these views in the present tense.)  Unfortunately his notion of "traditional aesthetics" is something of a caricature since it essentializes something (aesthetic theory) that has evolved constantly over centuries.  Indeed, his own version of aesthetics is just another iteration of that long tradition.  When someone uses a term like "traditional aesthetics" it seems to be just a stand-in for the aesthetic theory he/she doesn't like and that he/she thinks that most of his/her elders, or perhaps most everyone in the field, holds to.  (Caricature is not necessarily a bad thing, and it serves an important rhetorical purpose in Berleant's intervention.  But one should also be able to step back from such things.)  What he means by "traditional aesthetics" seems to mean mainly the aspects of Kant's thought which were most strongly advocated during his, Berleant's, youth and early career.  "Traditional aesthetics" mainly refers to belief that the aesthetic perceiver should be disinterested or  distanced.  On this view, the perceiver should, in observing art and other aesthetic objects, take the aesthetic attitude.   The object itself should be seen as autonomous or in isolation from the rest of life; in particular, from practical matters.  Berleant's alternative is what he refers to as an aesthetics of engagement.  Again, I think that his intervention was brilliant.  It served to cast a bright light on the importance of engagement at all levels, breaking boundaries, and continuities between art and life.  

However, I prefer to see the confrontation between Berleant and "traditional aesthetics" as a moment in the dialectical history of aesthetics calling for, as such moments always do, a new synthesis.  Berleant's working assumption is that there is a very clear choice:  either aesthetics based on disinterestedness or aesthetics based on engagement.  I say, why not both?  Granting most of what Berleant says about the value of engagement, and even most of what he says about the value of various avant-garde productions, something should also be said, at this point in the debate, about the moment of distancing in the process of creating and appreciating art, nature and everyday life.  In short, Berleant has thrown out the baby with the bathwater.  (Too extend the metaphor:  wash the dirt off of the concept of disinterestedness and you find something worth keeping.) He thinks that the older ideas are "refuted" and "obsolete," and yet, in philosophy old ideas are never wholly refuted and never wholly become obsolete.

Berleant is of course right in attacking certain aspects of Kant's notion of disinterestedness.  Kant thought that the experience of beauty should be separated from sensory pleasure and even from ordinary emotions.  I just do not see how this can be done.  If I experience a flower as beautiful my experience of the color and smell of the flower is as important as the abstract design:  the design cannot be separated from the color since every shape and line is a colored shape or line.  So I agree with Berleant, against Kant, that the aesthetic experience is grounded in somatic activity.   At the same time experience of a thing as sensuously beautiful is enhanced through contemplation (another term that meets Berleant's disapproval).  In the process of appreciation, one inevitably isolates the object of aesthetic appreciation, whether it be a physical thing, an event, a situation, an experience or a thought.  This is not to say that the moment of distanced appreciation is the only moment in any aesthetic experience.  One can, and should, toggle back and forth, for example, between a disinterested or distanced appreciation and one that pulls in surrounding contextual considerations.  As shown by Peggy Brand and Ted Gracyk in various writings, there are advantages to look at a painting or listening to a piece of music without knowing or thinking about its context of origin, but just focusing on what is present, as long as one is also open to enriching that experience through another moment, one that allows bringing in these contextual considerations.  

Berleant's either/or approach is exemplified in the following quote:  "In the effort to keep them distinct from other activities and objects in human culture, our aesthetic encounters are usually channeled along a carefully paved course through official cultural institutions - galleries, museums, concert halls, theaters."  This is true.  But it is not a bad thing.  Lovers of the arts gain most of their best experiences in such places.  However, this true sentence is followed by another which it is supposed to imply: "Such confinement not only often restricts the force of the arts; it conspires to erect obstructions that inhibit our openness to artistic modes that do not conform to those requirements."  This is a mysterious inference.  That "usually channeled" implies "confinement" or a set of "requirements" is doubtful.   Even though many have thought that the existence of galleries and museums (with their respective gate-keepers) restricts non-gallery, non-museum art in some way, it is not at all clear that it does.  Graffiti artists, for example, are not kept down due to the existence of galleries in Chelsea.  Sometimes they are even offered shows in such galleries.  Berleant implies that "traditional aesthetics" only considers art that is accepted into such institutions as "acceptable."  But if traditional aesthetics is the aesthetic theory that stresses disinterestedness and contemplation there is nothing to keep appreciators of graffiti art to disinterestedly contemplate such art as a moment in their experience.  I am all with Berleant in opening up the range of legitimate aesthetic experience even to include things commonly considered to be kitsch.  I love St. Thomas More Church in San Francisco, which has gardens surrounding it filled with cute and humorous decorative statuary.  This is out of museum and gallery art and it no doubt has a religious purpose.  Nonetheless, one can bracket that purpose and just enjoy the playfulness and humor of it, i.e. in a disinterested fashion.  

Earlier I said that "traditional aesthetics" is something of a caricature in Berleant's work.  As an instance, he says that "Traditional aesthetics is uncomfortable with sharply new materials such as plastics, electronic sounds, and found words and objects." (18)  It is not only caricatured but turned into a person who can have feelings of comfort or discomfort.  It may be that Berleant is confusing traditional aesthetics with traditionalists in the arts in the mid 20th century.  Art traditionalists were indeed uncomfortable with these materials.  Traditional aesthetics, however, says nothing about materials and has no feelings about anything. 

In short, we cannot really have a meaningful discussion about "traditional aesthetics" unless the term is tied down to mean something specific.  If it simply means the predominant non-Deweyan non-phenomenological aesthetic theories of the mid-20th century, perhaps associated with such writers as Jerome Stolnitz (one of Berleant's opponents) then we at least know what we are talking about.  But I can't recall Stolnitz having a special problem with new materials based on his advocacy of disinterestedness.  Perhaps he did, but if you are disinterested, materials should not even matter.  Berleant thinks that traditional aesthetics has trouble "accounting for artist developments such as process art, where the product is secondary to the activity of producing it, and in explaining artistic activities that have purely ephemeral objects or no identifiable objects at all." (19)  I agree that an aesthetic theory that has problems accounting for these things is problematic.  However there is no reason why process art or the activity that produces it cannot be contemplated in a disinterested fashion.  Even conceptual art in which there is no identifiable object beyond a written statement that calls on us to do or imagine doing something is open to aesthetic appreciation from a disinterested standpoint.  Indeed, one has to isolate this object of appreciation in conceptual art from the practical perspective that would instantly reject it --- one has to do this in order to even get started on aesthetically appreciating it.  

Again, Berleant insists that with the rejection of traditional aesthetics "aesthetic experience ...becomes rather an emphasis on intrinsic qualities and lived experience than a shift in attitude."  (26)  I wonder how one focuses on intrinsic qualities or even takes certain qualities as intrinsic without bracketing the object and experiencing it as relatively isolated, i.e. by taking a special attitude towards the object.  The special attitude constitutes the intrinsic qualities as intrinsic.  Berleant's reference to "lived experience" is to the idea that "one need not dissociate oneself from practice and use in order to take something on its own terms, as disinterestedness would have us do."  (26)  In a way, I agree:  there is no absolute "on its own terms."  As a consequence, taking something "on its own terms" is situational and relative:  we treat things as if they had terms of their own.  Disinterestedness requires bracketing:  however, interestingly, this bracketing (taking certain relations as irrelevant...backgrounding them) involves drawing lines that can be drawn at different points, even so as to include practice and use in some of their dimensions.  One can focus on the practice of flute-playing in appreciating a flute performance while bracketing out the practice of concert production, the practice of arts financing, and the practice of bourgeois self-legitimation, all of which have all sorts of ties to any particular performance.  One can, similarly, have a disinterested appreciation of a church without bracketing out its usefulness as a church, but still bracketing out one's own views about religion.  Maybe this should be called "relatively disinterested" perception as opposed to absolute disinterested perception:  but, then, absolute disinterested perception would be impossible anyway. 

Nietzsche saw art as a duality involving both Apollonian (read "disinterested") and Dionysian (read "engaged") aspects.  In his eagerness to stress the Dionysian, Berleant forgets the importance of the Apollonian dream-world.  Berleant makes his allegiance to a one-sided Dionysian approach explicit when he refers positively to "Dionysian acstasy, which the contemplative tradition from classical times on has always viewed with suspicion and hostility."  His Dionysianism leads to talk positively about mysticism and an "inexpressible merging of person and place, of human and the universe."  Nietzsche himself, unlike Berleant, saw this merging as an illusion every bit as much as the illusion of the Apollonian dream-world.  What is certain is that we often feel as if one with the object of appreciation, or as Berleant observes, with the people we love.  This fictional experience is immensely important to the arts.  When Berleant speaks of "an essential reciprocity [which] binds object and appreciator as they act on and respond to each other through an invisible interplay of forces" (43) I can only agree -- if we can throw "as if" in there somewhere.  This also goes for  when he says "aesthetic engagement...joins perceiver and object into a perceptual unity."  (46)   At the same time, the Apollonian gives us the stage on which this occurs.

Berleant makes much of how contemporary theater in the round merges audience and actors.  Audience and actors are merged in the Dionysian experience, but as Nietzsche has shown in his analysis of the origins of tragedy, the distancing of what happens on stage is inevitable.  Experiences of theater "in the round" are not be notably different from traditional theater.  The audience is still contemplating another realm, a dream world created for us on which stage the Dionysian illusion of redemption and rebirth is performed.  And this is where I think Berleant makes another mistake:  he thinks that the detachment of a separate world is unique to the enlightenment era whereas it goes back in human history as far as ritual goes.  Art is an extension and development of primitive ritual:  tribal societies usually have places, people and things that are somehow detached from our world, that one could call distanced.  When you enter into ritual you must take a special attitude.  
 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Plato Books II of The Republic On Censorship

Books II and III of the Republic are notoriously difficult to teach.  It seems like it is mainly Plato complaining about Homer and Hesiod, coupled with some very strict views on censorship in the ideal State.  Socrates does not seem very attractive in these sections.  The issue in Book II is the education of the guardians, an inquiry that is supposed to shed light on the larger question of how "justice and injustice grow up in States," which can be roughly translated into a concern for how to make a state (such as Athens) more just.  So the question is whether educational reform that specifically involves greater censorship can make a people or a society more just.  As an American and a political liberal I am not keen on censorship and I am particularly not sympathetic to Plato on this issue.  Of course Plato does make a couple sensible (or at least defensible) points about selection of literature for children.  When dealing with fictional literature he insists that we should not carelessly allow children to "hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons."  This is at least a point that can be defended in a contemporary context.  An interesting recent case is that of Tomi Ungerer, whose children's books were widely censored in the 1970s largely because, as an illustrator, he had another body of work that was pornographic.  Although his children's books contained no pornography they often depicted a scary aspect of life.  For instance, in one, robbers are shown with a blood-red ax and frightened children in one corner.  In an article I wrote many years ago (“Aesthetics and Children’s Picture Books,” Journal of Aesthetic Education  36:4 (2002): 43-54) I defended a more liberal approach to children's illustrated books than is commonly advocated.  So I would disagree with Plato to some extent.  But, at the same time, it is hard to argue against the idea that parents and teachers should select children's books partly in order to teach moral lessons.   Still, that is not the same issue, as one can chose works to teach moral lessons that others would reject for moral reasons.  I would probably select Ungerer's books because they encourage children to deal with their fears and to think for themselves.  Others may not value these books because they value these character traits less than I do. 

More shocking, Plato moves on to attack the great classics of his time, in particular Homer and Hesiod. He attacks them for telling lies.  It turns out that a lie is a story about God, a god or a hero that makes either out to be somewhat less than perfect.  So, proper theology trumps good story-telling.  In effect the premise that a god is, by definition, perfect determines the rest of Socrates' argument.  So Uranus cannot do to Cronos what he did in Hesiod's tales, and so too Cronos to Uranus.  If the story must be told, it can only be told to a select few, and even these must sacrifice a huge and unprocurable pig before doing so.  The principle is that a child or even a young men should never be able to use a story from mythology to justify an action like chastising his own father.  Also, stories about the gods quarreling cannot be repeated, since you do not want to encourage quarreling among citizens (and, again, the gods are perfect, so Homer must lie about their quarrels).  To say that the stories have allegorical meaning is not helpful, Socrates argues, since young persons are not good at judging whether or not something is allegorical or how it should be interpreted if it is.  Socrates goes so far as to claim that since the gods are good they cannot be the cause of anything evil, and so any poetic statement that implies that gods (or God) dispenses evil things as well as good things must be wrong.  He even argues from this that God could not be the author of all things, but only of those things that are good.  Nor can God be seen as being the author of the misery of those whom he punishes.  Rather, we should see those who have been punished by God as benefiting from that.  Really, I find all of this insufferable.  To add to this, the gods cannot be represented as changing their shapes or appearing as mortals.  If you are perfect you cannot change since any change would be for the worse.  More interesting, the gods cannot even deceive us into thinking that they appear in human form, since "no one is willingly deceived in that which  is the truest and highest part of himself, or about the truest and highest matters."  If God deceived us about the highest reality then this would be harmful to us, wicked, and therefore impossible for God.  This would be a "true lie" since it would entail "ignorance in the soul" of the person deceived.  A true lie is far worse than a mere "lie in words" which itself is a mere imitation of the true lie.  The notion of a "true lie" is interesting with respect to Plato's metaphysics, since elsewhere he does not allow for negative Forms (for example in Parmenides) but now he seems to be talking about the Form of the lie.

The upshot of all of this is that God is "perfectly simple and true both in word and deed;  he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision" and if Homer or anyone portrays God or the gods as doing any of these things then they should be censored.  I suppose one could admire Plato's desire to clean up theology by making it more logical, and then tying this to making the State more rational and thus better for the citizens.  But none of this appears to be enough of an argument for censorship at the level Plato recommends.