Thursday, September 21, 2017

Is a photograph a mummy? Bazin on ontology..

Andre Bazin's famous "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" argues that the origin of painting and sculpture lies in what he calls "the mummy complex."  The Egyptians armed themselves against the passage of time, thus satisfying a psychological need of man, by preserving bodily appearance, and these by way of preserving the body itself.  Later, bodily appearance was preserved through statues which then become "substitute mummies" - and here life is preserved "by a representation of life."  Once civilization deletes the magical aspect of this we have the portrait painter sublimating our concern for death on a rational level: "No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death."  But of course Bazin himself does not take this position of rejecting ontological identity. What "no one believes" will be thrown into question.  What we have now is "a larger concept [than survival after death] the creation of an ideal work in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny." 

It should be remarked that this ideal world is almost the opposite of Plato's ideal world.  We might even gain some further insight into Plato's rejection of the imitative arts here.  There seems to be a conflict between two ideals.  The imitation provides us with one atemporal ideal, Plato provides another one, one which is more like mathematics.  Plato kind of hides this:  he never complains that this is what imitative art gives us, or pretends to give us.  Yet he wants to substitute his own ideals for these ideals.  

For Bazin, painting would be vain if they did not satisfy a "primitive need the have the last word in the argument with death." Painting does this by producing "a form that endures." Plato has Socrates defeat death by proving that his soul is eternal and that this lies in seeking the eternal unchanging forms which, precisely, are not imitations.  Imitations as Forms: what a sacrilege, a contradiction in terms!

There would be no disagreement between Plato and Bazin however that that the history of plastic art is a story of resemblance "or, if you will, of realism."  But again, isn't it funny that "real" is a word that Platonists would apply to the world of the Forms, whereas realism can also apply to this need to produce something that defeats time and yet at the same time copies something in the physical realm.   Bazin understands this point, for he suggests that in the Renaissance we have a move away from Platonist realism to instead combine spiritual expression "with as complete an imitation as possible of the outside world," all facilitated by the development of perspective and the camera obscura by which a three-d space is reproduced on a two dimensional surface.  

So, on Bazin's view, painting "is torn between two ambitions" one aesthetic "the expression of spiritual reality wherein the symbol transcended the model," and the other "purely psychological, namely the duplication of the world outside."  It would seem at first that Bazin is saying that photography uniquely does the second: but it is more complicated than that.  First, as he observes, the history of art becomes a history of being consumed by this need for duplication, i.e. to satisfy the "appetite for illusion," and second realism is compelled to express movement dramatically, hence the need for Baroque art (e.g. Tintoretto and perhaps Caravaggio).  And yet the figures in baroque art never actually move:  so Bazin speaks of its "tortured immobility."  And then he says that great artists (can we include the Baroque painters here?) combine the two tendencies (which would seem to be impossible, as how can the symbol both transcend the model and be one with it?) Bazin insists that, despite these exceptions, the "need for illusion has not ceased to trouble the heart of painting," and that this need as a "purely mental need, of itself nonaesthetic" -  which is related to our proclivity "towards magic."  I think that this term "magic" is essential to our understanding of Bazin.  

Bazin at this point in the essay does something strange.  He says "the quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological, between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye ....a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearance."  The first part of the sentence is easy enough to understand, but are we to think that the aesthetic is now to be identified with true realism whereas just a few paragraphs back it was identified with the transcendence of the symbol from the model?  Clearly we have a new dialectic or a new phase in the dialectic.  The new conception of the aesthetic is tied now with giving expression of the world "both concretely and its essence."  That is, the new conception of the aesthetic is anti-Platonic but also retains the notion of "essence" as well as "realism":  and it is also in opposition to simple duplication of the world, as before, although this time identified with illusory appearance (the kind of complaint Plato would make).  

Thus Bazin seeks to situate himself on another plane than that of Platonists vs. imitative artists, one that retains the mummy and the magical (in whatever modern sublimated manifestations they might take).  In a footnote, here, he associates this new true realism with Eisenstein but not with Russian Socialist Realism.  He calls Eisenstein the Russian Tintoretto, which is to say that Eisenstein is solving the problem the Baroque failed to solve, the problem of being static and silent.  Medieval art naturally synthesized the realistic and the "highly spiritual," and without crisis, but with the rise of perspective, the synthesis dissolves, only to be brought back together by the origins of photography.  Photography frees the plastic arts "from their obsession with likeness" since photography satisfies "our obsession with realism."  Painting can never escape subjectivity, since the "human hand" will always be present, but our appetite for illusion is completely satisfied by mechanical reproduction in which the human is mainly not involved.

Now it is fairly obvious that Bazin is just wrong the the human is completely absent from photography.  Wrong on one level.  But wrong on all levels?  It is deceptive to focus on Bazin's telling of the tired old story of painters like Picasso being freed from the "resemblance complex" by the existence of photography, and how the painter then abandoned this "to the masses" who then identified resemblance with photography and photograph-like painting.  More interesting, although equally problematic, is the claim that "originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography."  How can the objective (which is also purely mechanical) be original? How can we take seriously the idea  that "between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent" and that the image is formed "without the creative intervention of man."  It is hard to given that Bazin admits the photographer does intervene in his selection of the subject, that he has intentions, and that the photograph reflects his personality...all exceptions pretty much undercutting the point. Still, the point is that only photography gains an advantage from the absence of man.  Bazin goes do far as to see photography as like nature and photographs like flowers whose beauty comes in part form not coming from man.  We could I suppose say that we treat photographs as if their production were automatic.  Maybe the whole point is phenomenological.

But this is all set-up for the interesting and controversial close of the essay.  The very claim that photography is like nature leads in the next paragraph past the idea that photography has the "quality of credibility" not present in other pictures, to how we are forced to accept "as real the existence of the object reproduced....set before us, that is to say, in time and space."  It is this sentence that leads up to the controversial one: "Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction."  And this sentence, which most philosophers would not accept, is footnoted with reference to the psychology of relics which also involve transfer of reality, as also the Shroud of Turin which also has some features of a photograph.  

So, in what sense can the photo give the thing itself:  in what sense is reality transferred form one to the other? This is nothing Plato could have imagined, but it could be imagined by those who believe in relics or magic, that is the vast bulk of humanity for the vast bulk of our history as a species.  But what is this for us science-minded people?  Well, there are different senses of reality. Perhaps the point can be rewritten a bit:  that the oneness of the subject and its photo is phenomenological, that it is "in experience," or psychological?  I am not sure this will capture whatever insight Bazin had here.  I think the key must lie in the notion that the photograph takes its subject out of space and time.  I will discuss this more below.

If we are talking about "likeness" Bazin says, painting does not do the job well, whereas photography "can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, as kind of decal or transfer."   This is followed by the radical but partially explanatory sentence: "The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it."  The Forms exist outside of space and time, and the photograph does too, and yet what has happened here, much like what happened to Warhol's Brillo Box in Arthur Danto's account of it as taken into the artworld, the photograph takes the object out of its own world into another atemporal world, and yet it is still, paradoxically, a physical thing (just as Warhol's Brillo Box is).  My point:  if Danto does weird ontology with a Warhol, why can't Bazin with a photograph?

Even the photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg, which shows shows a man in a crowd...one isn't even sure which one is Lincoln, the "image shares, by virtue of the very process of becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction;  it is the model."  So the photograph of Lincoln is Lincoln.  We see Lincoln in seeing the photograph, but Lincoln transformed.  Well, we do say, when looking the photograph:  "that is Lincoln."  Again, is this in some way like Danto's "is" of artistic identification?   

Bazin thinks this all related to the charm of old family photographs and it is true that unlike paintings we have here "disturbing presence of lives halted at a set moment in their duration, freed from their destiny."  He also observes that whereas art creates eternity, photography "embalms time" because it stops physical corruption.  The photograph of my grandmother shows her always young.

Bazin applies this to cinema in an interesting way since cinema does have its own time:  but in this case cinema takes us away from the frozen-in-time effect we found in both Baroque painting and in photography, and the image of things is now "the image of their duration" so that change itself is mummified.  

It is not that Bazin denies aesthetic quality to photography and cinema.  It has its own aesthetic quality which is to "lay bare the realities."  It is the camera and not the human that is able to bare the reality of the things of everyday life.  (If you are a reader who not only has gotten this far but is actually aware of my work on everyday aesthetics, you will not be surprised by this move.)  It is the camera that "separates off the complex fabric of the objective world." For example, he suggests, in one photograph we have "a reflection on a damp sidewalk" and in another "the gesture of a child."  (One thinks of Bicycle Thieves by de Sica, a favorite of Bazin's.)   

There is something perverse, unbelievable and also interesting in the next sentence:   "Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, is able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love."  How naive, we say.  And yet what he captures is the feeling of innocence and love that might attach itself to such belief.   It might capture something of the love of life so closely associated with attentive perception.  It is cool that he mentions love here.  It is sort of a move in a direction of kitsch. But love is so important to us, not only of our streets in the rain but also of children and their very gestures.  He concludes this paragraph with the idea that nature "imitates the artist" i.e. in its creativity by way of the medium of the camera.  

This leads into the idea that photography can surpass art in creative power.  Again, the difference between photography and art is that the "photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being" as does also a fingerprint on a finger and on a slip of paper. This leads Bazin to go so far as to say that photography adds something to "natural creation" and does not just provide a substitute.  Surrealist photography realizes this thematically where, for the surrealist, the mechanical effect of the image is not apart form the aesthetic purpose, and the imagination/real distinction dissolves.  For the surrealist, "every image is to be seen as an object and every object as an image."    

The essay closes with more talk about freeing Western painting from its obsession with realism, giving it aesthetic autonomy, allowing form to be "swallowed up in color" as in Cezanne, and "there is no longer a question of the illusions of the geometry of perspective."   By contrast, the photograph goes beyond baroque resemblance "to the very identity of the model" and we come to admire "in reproduction something that our eyes alone could not have taught us to love" whereas painting can be admired as "a thing in itself."  

In response to this Katherine Thomson-Jones says "What could Bazin mean here given that we usually have no difficulty distinguishing between a photograph and the thing photographed?  ....Taking the claim literally, after all, would seem to commit us to a doubtful metaphysics - one that allows for the identity of things which are clearly not one and the same; namely, a photograph of something and the thing itself."  (Aesthetics and Film, Continuum, 2008, 20).  I am not sure Bazin actually claims identity given that the object freed from space and time is not going to retain all of its attributes.  

    

Friday, September 8, 2017

Will film eventually stop being capable of art?

Rudolf Arnheim is usually seen as just someone who got it wrong when it comes to film.  Some will admit that he did argue that film is art (in his book Film as Art  1932) and thus raised the status of film.  But he also was unhappy with new technological developments in film, especially the rise of the talkie, and thought that it would be much harder for film with sound to be art than silent film. Although clearly film still has been able to be art after the decline of silent film, it is still arguable that the way in which film is art has changed over time. 

Arnheim, amazingly, was able to predict what we today would call "the virtual reality film," one that is indistinguishable from reality itself. (We haven't got there yet.)  He called this "the complete film."  For Arnheim, the rise of the complete film will make film as art impossible because art requires limitations and requires distance from life.   

(A little cultural background will be useful here:  Wikipedia's article on Arnheim provides this:  "In the fall of 1932, Arnheim had an essay published in the Berliner Tagesblatt. This was about three months before the Nazis came into power, and the essay was published about the nature of Charlie Chaplin’s and Hitler’s mustaches and what it did to the nose in terms of human character. Considering the timing of this essay, and the fact that in 1933 the sale of his book Film as Art was no longer permitted due to the Nazis, some of Arnheim’s friends advised him that he should leave the country and so in August 1933, he moved to Rome.")

Arnheim was mainly worried about the over-emphasis on naturalism which he thought came with the talkies.  He was worried about the "victory of wax museum ideals over creative art." Although he thought that, by accident, sound film really did have "artistic potentialities," these would be destroyed by further technical developments in film (so-called "progress") for example in technicolor and stereoscopic film.  What was great about silent film was its "compositional precision" and its independence from reality.  He admitted that in painting color provides possibilities but insisted that the photographer does not have a "free hand" and must "record mechanically the light values of physical reality."  

Sometimes Arnheim is accused of holding to a medium specificity thesis.  But that is not quite right.  What he argued is that the specific media of the silent film, sound film, and color film are each different and present different potentialities.  This is, I think, correct.  I also think there is something to be said for the idea that film as art should be "divergent from nature."   

One of these divergences can be seen in black and white film. For Arnheim, achromatic film had the artistic advantage of creating a "grey scale" medium.  However, Arnheim argued, similar transformations of colors within color film would not in themselves produce a specific "formative" medium.  He admitted that one can manipulate color by choosing what is to be photographed, and one can do a "montage of colored pictures," but, and here he seems to have anticipated an argument by Roger Scruton, increasingly the artistic part of the work will focus all interest on what was in front of the camera.  This, on his view, would actually relegate the camera to being a "mere mechanical recording machine."   

Arnheim goes further to consider the "three-dimensional film" and wide screen projection.  As the illusion of reality increases "the spectator will not be able to appreciate certain artistic color effects" even though, technically speaking, it would still be possible to artistically and harmoniously arrange colors on the surface.  He observes that with stereoscopic film there will no longer be a plane surface with the compositional qualities that such a surface allows. Film, then, will be reduced to being a kind of theater and not an art form of its own.  Such film-specific techniques as montage and changing camera angle will no longer be useful, and montage will even be problematic since it would take away from the illusion of reality, just as changing the position of the camera would seem to displace reality.  His prediction then: "Scenes will have to be taken in their entire length and with a stationary camera."  And this will entail a regression of film to its beginnings where we only had a fixed camera and an uncut strip.  Now my point here is that although this prediction did not come true, Arnheim may still have a point.  

Arnheim's worry is that although the "striving after likeness to nature" which is ancient in man, can be thrilling, the goal itself is dangerous.  It ignores the counter-tendency to "originate, to interpret, to mold."  Arnheim admires those painters like Paul Klee who have broken with the principle of being "true to nature" but he thinks that the development of film in the direction of this kind of realism indicates how power this idea is.   On his view, it is the very popularity of film that condemns it.  "Since on economic grounds film is much more dependent on the general public than any other form of art, the 'artistic' preferences of the public sweep everything before them."  He does not deny that quality can be "smuggled in" but in the end the "complete film" will fulfill this age-old striving.  At this point the original and copy will be indistinguishable.  When that happens "all formative potentialities which were based on the differences between model and copy are eliminated and only what is inherent in the original in the way of significant form remains to art."    At this point in his argument Arnheim quotes from a writer, H. Baer, whose essay he finds "remarkable" who holds that color film accomplishes tendencies that go far back in graphic art insofar as it has striven for color. The quote from Baer shows Arnheim's alliance with an elitist tendency:
"Uncivilized man is not as a rule satisfied with black-and-white.  Children, peasants, and primitive peoples demand the highest degree of bright-coloring."  The quote goes further to say "it is the primitives of the great cities who congregate before the film screen" and they want bright colors.  It is interesting that Arnheim would go along with this equivalence of the rise of color film with love of the kitsch effects of exclusive interest in bright colors.  


Now Arnheim admits in the end that the complete film need not be catastrophe, as long as silent film, sound film, and colored sound film can all exist side by side.  Complete film is a great way to experience opera and dance, for example.  But only the other forms would be considered by Arnheim "real" film forms.  The existence of complete film might even encourage developments in the real forms.  Sound film can for example work on distinguishing itself clearly as art from the art of the stage.  But he thinks, perhaps pessimistically, that complete film (which he here puts in scare quotes) will "supplant them all" because of its ability to imitate nature.

  

  

Monday, August 7, 2017

what the ordinary person in everyday life sees?

"Pudovkin has said film strives to lead the spectator beyond the sphere of ordinary human conceptions.  For the ordinary person in everyday life, sight is merely a means of finding his bearings in the natural world.  Roughly speaking, he sees only so much of the object surrounding him as is necessary for his purpose.  If a man is standing at the counter of a haberdasher's shop, the salesman will presumably pay less attention to the customer's facial expression than to the kind of tie he is wearing (so as to guess his taste) and to the quality of his clothes...."  (Rudolf Arnheim  Film as Art).   The first sentence seems fine, but the second is false.  The ordinary person in everyday life might use sight just to find his bearings in the natural world:  for example, I am walking in the woods and I want to know where north is, so I look to see where the sun is setting.  But this is not the only ordinary use of sight.   Sight is ordinarily often used just to entertain oneself ...for example in observing the people in a museum during an interval between looking at artworks.  The next sentence may be true, although not only for the ordinary person in everyday life but for everyone at least some of the time: for example, a great pianist may focus just on what is necessary for realizing this work by Beethoven in front of this audience.  Also the mind of the ordinary person often wanders from the purpose is at hand.  The next sentence seems wrong too since the salesman, although clearly focusing on what is necessary for the situation, is in fact focusing on aesthetic qualities. He is simply focusing on aesthetic qualities of the clothes and not on the aesthetic qualities of the face.  So, what does this say about the first sentence?   The film maker could focus on the aesthetic qualities of the face, but could equally well focus on the same aesthetic qualities of the clothes that the salesman would focus on.   The filmmaker could give us the world through the eyes of the salesman.  Yes, films take us beyond the ordinary, but let us not think that the ordinary itself is so mechanical and bland.  As Dewey would say, film as art abstracts and intensifies the aesthetics of everyday life. 

Arnheim is not out of accord with this.  For he also gives an excellent description of how a film maker can make something ordinary extraordinary and, through doing so, can highlight features of the world surrounding us that we do not normally notice.

"If an ordinary picture of some men in a rowing boat appears on the screen, the spectator will perhaps perceive that there is a boat, and nothing further.  But if, for example, the camera is suspended high up, so that the spectator sees the boat and the men from above, the result is a view very seldom seen in real life.  The interest is thereby diverted from the subject to the form.  The spectator notices how strikingly spindle-shaped is the boat and how curiously the bodies of the men swing to and fro.  Things that previously remained unnoticed are the more striking because, the object itself appears strange and unusual.  The spectator is thus brought to see something familiar as something new."  (Arnheim  Film as Art)   

Notice that this transformation is not fully described when it is described as a change from subject to form.  It could better be described as a change from seeing the subject just in terms of conventional labels and noticing other features of the subject through seeing it "as something new."  Seeing something formally is not the same as seeing "as something new"!  

To continue on the same quote:  "At this moment, he becomes capable of true observation.  For it is not only that he is now stimulated to notice whether the natural objects have been rendered characteristically or colorlessly, with originality or obviously, but by stimulating the interest through the unusualness of the aspect the objects themselves become more vivid and therefore more capable of effect.  In watching a good shot of a horse I shall have a much stronger feeling that 'here is an actual horse - a big beast with satiny skin and with such a smell...'  That is to say, therefore, not only form but objective qualities will impose themselves more compellingly."  (Film as Art  43-44)  

Thanks to Noel Carroll  Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory (Princeton U. Press, 1988)  for drawing my attention to these quotes.  

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Shimmering of Being

This is an experiment in exploring the core of my philosophical position.  Although I have always been closely associated with the American Society for Aesthetics, an essentially analytic philosophy institution, I have an even more fundamental equipment to something else, something more metaphysical.  My early article "Sparkle and Shine" began to indicate this tendency.   My chapter on "aura" in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary pushes it further.   My main heroes in philosophy have been Plato, Nietzsche and Dewey, although other figures have of course played a prominent role, for instance Aristotle, Marx, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Goodman.  From Plato I have learned that the philosophical quest leads to grasping of the good which allows us to see the good in things, the axiological dimension, and, in particular, the ways in which things participate in their essences.  Beauty is the most prominent manifestation of this experience.  From Aristotle I have learned that things are greater than the sums of their parts if those things are organic wholes.  From Kant I have learned that works of genius give us aesthetic ideas which provide us with as if unending thought and connect us to the idea of the supersensible.,  From Nietzsche I have learned that to be true to the earth is to learn how to dance.  From Goodman I have learned that there are many ways the world is. From Wittgenstein I have learned that philosophy is not science and that the search for essences is deeply connected with seeing as.  From Dewey I have learned most everything else, that we need to recover the continuity between everyday life and the fine arts.  From Husserl I learned to look for essences in life experience.  From Heidegger I have learned that what we have forgotten is Being.  

What have religion, art, and even philosophy in one of its modes, looked for?  It is the shimmering of Being.  Being shimmers when it goes beyond itself.  This happens by way of the eruption of consciousness.  I think, therefore Being shimmers.  We see Being when we see/grasp the shimmer of Being.  Being becomes evident when the essential nature of things is revealed.  Essences are emergent upon things and practices, especially those practices aimed towards essences.  Essences, as emergent, and change within the field of consciousness.   A somewhat misleading way to search for essences is to try to come up with a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  A better way is to look for a philosophical definition in terms of a key metaphor.  The great definitions of philosophy are the ones that captured a things essential nature in the sense that they were able to light a path to future creation.   Great definitions are evaluative as well as classificatory.  Revelation of essences is worthless without a path to creativity opening up.   Essences are tied to paradigms.  New definitions of essences happen in tandem with new paradigms.  For example Danto's new definition of art was tied to the paradigm of Warhol's Brillo Boxes.   The search for essences is a cultural thing in which philosophy and the arts, for example, work in tandem.  To look at the search for essences just in philosophy is to miss the organic nature of the cultural quest.  Moreover, the essence is not an abstraction:  it is to be found closely associated with the paradigmatic particular.   New revelations of essence are both ideal and real.  The dichotomy of idealism and realism is the great hangup for philosophy.  Plato discovered the shimmering of Being. The point for the philosopher king is not to have a list of definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions but to see how the light of Being reveals things.  The important part of the allegory of the cave comes at the end.  What really is is what shimmers with possibility, or better, with potential.  There is a language game involved with the search for Being:  this is a philosophical language game.  Today we are at a loss for Being.  We are alienated from the quest for Being.  

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Film Aesthetics and the pursuit of knowledge 2001 A Space Odyssey

Most philosophical discussions of whether film can give us knowledge are disappointing to me.   I think this is because they begin with a certain overly narrow notion of knowledge, one that sees knowledge either on a strictly scientific model or as a matter of belief supported by sufficient reasons, the belief expressed in some specific proposition.  Knowledge could be understood in a broader way however.  I like to think of culture in a Hegel-like way as consisting of a number of closely interrelated disciplines that evolve over time.  To see knowledge as somehow isolated, restrained within the domains of science or science plus philosophy, is to deny the depth of these inter-relations.  Philosophers, for example, do not think their thoughts in isolation from every other aspect of the culture.  The films I have seen in my life have played an important role in the ongoing development of my philosophical thoughts and writings.  This must be true for others as well.  There is an overly narrow conception of knowledge which sees is as based on reasoning of a mechanical sort.  Much of this, I believe, quite controversially I know, is based on over-reliance on the syllogism as the main basis for knowledge.  I am not by any means anti-logic, but I am against the primacy of the syllogism.  The syllogism provides us the the idea that two premises can automatically guarantee a conclusion.  If A then B, A, therefore B, is one example.   The reality of reasoning is usually more a matter of trying to get from A to B, and if the inference seems powerful we hypothesize a hypothetical, if A than B.  The real question is what prompts us to see B as necessarily following from A.  Cultural background usually provides the basis for what we consider an obvious inference.  

Turn now to film and its interrelations with philosophy.  When I was in my teens the minister of my church, Episcopalian, gave a sermon based on a movie by Stanley Kubrick that had just come out, 2001: A Space Odyssey .  Father Wilder was convinced that this movie said something deep about our relationship to the universe, something that connected up with his notion of Christianity.  Although I was already beginning to have deep doubts about Christianity and even about the existence of God I was moved not only by the movie but also by the sermon.  I believe that the movie and the sermon had together a profound affect on my belief-system.  

Let's consider knowledge in a different way than it is usually considered.  Knowledge is a matter of belief systems, or, better, a space or field of belief, and the fit between such a field and the world.  I agree with Nelson Goodman that there are many ways the world is:  but there is still "the world."  My Hegelian side adds that these different ways the world is, whether through film or through philosophy, or through a specific philosophy, interact with each other dialectically.  I even think that there are religious ways the world is and that these religious ways also relate dialectically with ways the world is that are more prominent in the mind of an atheist.  Movies do not usually reshape belief space by presenting arguments but rather by making it more likely that we see B as following from A.   2001  implied some things explicitly that, in my own thinking, had no impact, for example that mankind might evolve into something much more profound through contact with mysterious more highly evolved species.  Sure, that might be true, but what was more moving about this movie was, and still is, harder to describe.  It is partly that we should see evolution as having a possible upbeat side and that technology as it advances may contain possibilities that go beyond our expectations.  The opening up of possibilities for thinking rather than actual support for propositions is how movies can contribute to knowledge.  Wikipedia observes that the movie :   "deals with the themes of existentialism, human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial life."  Again, it does not proves points in any of these areas, but it does transform the belief space of receptive audience members concerning these things.  If knowledge is understood not just as justified true belief but as an ability to achieve improved interaction with the world through improved models of that world, then changed belief space falls within the domain of knowledge.  

Wartenberg notes "a number of philosophers have argued that films can have at most a heuristic or pedagogic function in relation to philosophy. Others have asserted that there are clear limits to what films can accomplish philosophically. Both of these types of views regard the narrative character of fiction films as disqualifying them from genuinely being or doing philosophy."   I count myself in the other group of philosophers, the small group that believes that the role of film in relation to philosophy (and even in relation to science) is not heuristic or pedagogic.  I also question whether there are clear limits to what films can accomplish philosophically, but only because I do not see many instances of "clear limits" in this domain.  I do agree that films do not provide arguments.  However I question the dominance of the syllogism as a picture of what we do in argumentation.  Actually, philosophical argumentation is always a form of narrative:  a form of story-telling.  This is true even when everything is done to hide it narrative nature.  The syllogistic form is just distorted story-telling.   The greatness of a great work of philosophy is not the conclusion it proves but the story it tells.  This is why we have philosophical classics, for example Plato's Symposium, and why we go back to them again and again.  I do not want to simply say that philosophy is just another form of literature;  but it does share more in common with literature than most philosophers are willing to admit.  And also with film.  

I have a problem with the typical way that philosophers of film defend the idea that films can give us knowledge.  The idea is that film can do philosophy via giving us thought experiments.  Sure, film can do this and in this way film is much like much of contemporary philosophy.  But film's capacity to give us knowledge should not be limited to paradigms like The Matrix which seems to raise again problems first brought up by Descartes.   The idea of "themes" suggested above by our discussion of 2001 and constantly brought up by high school teachers when discussing literature can perhaps be more helpful here.  By bringing up themes and raising issues film can affect our belief space.  By the way, belief space can be affected by not actually changing beliefs, if by a belief one simply means holding a proposition to be true.  Changing belief space is more like changing an attitude or set of attitudes:  changing what one considers to be important in relation to belief.  A film might not convince me that there is a God but might change my attitude towards what is rationally possible for those who believe in God.  We constantly build and work on belief spaces for beliefs we do not actually hold.  Even though I am no longer an Episcopalian I still have a belief space with regards to Episcopalian belief, about what is possible there and about what follows from what.  



Friday, July 7, 2017

Dewey's advice for studio art education

Dewey wrote a lot about education early in his life, but very little about art education.  Later he wrote Art as Experience which was his most influential writing in aesthetics, and yet this book says little directly about art education.  My experiment here is to imagine a list of practical recommendations for the art studio based on this later work.  I'll try to provide quotes and page references (from the Perigree printing of 2005) to back this up.  I will probably add to this and revise over the next month.  

Advice to Artists

1.     The business of an artist is to create “an experience” for herself and for audience members.  An experience is an organic whole.
2.     The creative process, when authentic, begins with a striking moment followed by development towards completion.
3.     The artist should also attend to how the audience will respond creatively to her work:  the audience members too will undergo development towards conclusion.
4.     Attend always to your medium:  the arts are different based on the exploitation “of the energy that is characteristic of the material used as a medium.”  (253)
5.     Art is a matter of self-expression.
6.     Just as the physical materials change so too  inner materials are progressively reformed in the creative process. (77)  It is through this that the expressive at is built up.
7.     Take materials from the public realm, transmit and intensify the qualities in your medium.  Then put back into the public realm.
8.     Focus on developing rhythm in your work.  “Rhythm is rationality among qualities.” (175)
9.     Rhythm requires both repetition and variation.
10. A work that has rhythm is one in which parts and whole interpret each other.  (177)  Good work allows the distinctive parts to re-enforce each other, building up a complex integrated experience.
11.   Rhythms  “consolidate and organize the energies involved in having an experience” (177)
12.  Art is the organization of energies.  (192)
13.   Rhythm of nature comes before rhythm of art:  artistic form is rooted in these rhythms.  Bring the rhythms of everyday life into the studio.  (153)
14.   The studio artist should also be creative in her appreciation of art.  She should seek to “grasp the phases of objects that specially interest a particular artist.”  (134)
15.   The artist should see her work as drawing from the past into the present and projecting into the future:  “the expressiveness of the object of art is due to the fact that it presents a thorough and complete interpenetration of the materials of undergoing and action.”   (107) 

16.   In good art the means are fused with the ends.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

On Heidegger on the relation between metaphysics and aesthetics.

I am currently reading Heidegger's An Introduction to Metaphysics. Far from being an introduction, this is one of the hardest books I have ever read.  I am attracted to it from the standpoint of thinking about the relationship between aesthetics and metaphysics.  My working hypothesis is that aesthetics has been vastly under-related in its importance to philosophy and to the central problems of philosophy.   Heidegger, it seems to me, is onto something with regards to this topic.  Heidegger seeks for the roots of philosophy in the pre-Socratic philosophers and, in particular, in Heraclitus and Parmenides.  The question at issue is "what is being?"  Heraclitus understands being in terms of "logos."  And of course Heidegger has his own interpretation of "logos" via Heraclitus and Parmenides.  For Heidegger, logos is a gathering and togetherness  (134).  It is also a gathering and togetherness that shines.  Being disclosed itself to the Greeks as physis which Heidegger describes in this way "the realm of emerging and abiding is intrinsically at the same time a shining appearing" as he identifies the root of physis with phainesthai:  "Phyein, self-sufficient emergence, is phainesthai, to flare up, to show itself, to appear." (101)  So this unity this appearing is a shining forth which is also a collection. Further, the gathering we are talking about is not just a heaping but a unity of things that conflict:  "It does not let them fall into haphazard dispersion.   In thus maintaining a bond, the logos has the character of permeating power, of physis."  (134)  There is a uniting of oppositions that also maintains their tension.  

This I propose is the root also of aesthetic experience.  To experience something aesthetically is to experience it as something that shines (metaphorically) due to emergence of a unity that pulls together tensions and opposites. Here is one possible way to interpret this:  Being is not just a bare "is" of identity or predication or even existence but something more like Danto's "is" of artistic identification. Being happens when the essentiality of something shines forth for us as a gathering that overcoming opposition. When this happens we have "aura":  i.e. the intensification of experience associated with the various aesthetic terms, most significantly "beauty."  This is, of course, beyond the dichotomy of subjective/objective.  

Heidegger connects all of this interestingly with the nature of man himself:  "We do not learn who man is by learned definitions;  we learn it only when man contends with the essent, striving to bring it into its being, i.e. into limit and form, that is to say when he projects something new (not yet present), when he creates original poetry, when he builds poetically."  (144)  If that is right then it follows that finding out who man is would be only possible through looking at his artistic creative activity.