Saturday, November 21, 2015

Burke's Sublime as an aesthetic concept useful for radical environmentalism, unlike Kant's

Burke's concept of the sublime is necessarily connected with a certain concept of religion, a certain concept of politics and a certain concept of human flourishing.  What fascinates me first about Burke's conception of the sublime is the close connection he makes between it and the Book of Job as well as certain passages in the Psalms that describe God's power.  But why are the things described by God in his dialogue with Job considered to be sublime by Burke?  This is where things get interesting.  For Burke, only wild animals are sublime. Reading these things from the perspective of our own time, for example a time in which thousands of species are going extinct in the Amazon, we find here a delight in a fiercely independent wild animals.  It is, Burke (mis)quoting from the Bible, the horse who "swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage" that is sublime: it is the "gloomy forest" and the "howling wilderness" and the lions and tigers within that are sublime.  The useful horse is not sublime. Nothing natural employed for our benefit and pleasure are sublime. The things that are subject to our will are not sublime.  The contrast between Burke's concept of the sublime and that of Kant could not be greater here.  Kant believes that what is truly sublime is the recognition of our own power as against that of nature.  Burke is almost the opposite: it is recognition of nature's power as against our effort to control it.  I am reminded here of Stan Godlovitch's approach to the aesthetic of the natural environment.  It is said that Burke is misquoting the Bible, I suppose the King James version. Here are the King James passages Burke misquotes on the wild ass and the unicorn.  God here is speaking to Job and reminding him of what he cannot do, how powerless he is in relation to God.  However, I do not think that the differences between the original and Burke's version is important for our purpose since we are speaking now of Burke's concept of the sublime, not that of early Hebrew writers.  Here is the passage from Burke:

"The description of the wild ass, in Job, is worked up into no small sublimity, merely by insisting on his freedom, and his setting mankind at defiance; otherwise the description of such an animal could have had nothing noble in it. Who hath loosed (says he) the bands of the wild ass? whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the voice of the driver. The range of the mountains is his pasture. The magnificent description of the unicorn and of leviathan, in the same book, is full of the same heightening circumstances: Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee? canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? wilt thou trust him because his strength is great?—Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?—will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? In short, wheresoever we find strength, and in what light soever we look upon power we shall all along observe the sublime the concomitant of terror, and contempt the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious."

The key is not that we have God telling Job how powerful He is but how the wild ass insists on his freedom and is defiant of mankind. The unicorn and the leviathan also are unwilling to serve mankind. (God seems to represent this intense anti-human big for animal freedom.) The point is that the Burkean concept of the sublime, unlike the Kantian one could be an aesthetic idea or ideal useful for the radical environmentalist.  The radical environmentalist could say that they want not merely to preserve the beauties of nature but even more the Burkean sublime qualities of nature.  In a sense Burke gives (by way of his misquotes from the Bible) wild animals a voice against human dominance. 

This may also lead us to a different approach to Burke on God as well. Regardless of what Burke himself may have believed, the 18th century reader of his book could easily have been a deist, someone who believes in God, but not of the Christian sort, but rather a God roughly equivalent to nature itself.  Burke stresses violent natural phenomena in reference to our awe of God, for example by way of a quote from the Psalms:  "The earth shook (says the psalmist) the heavens also dropped at the presence of the Lord."  He thinks it interesting that even when God is using his power for good in turning rock into standing water we still experience awe. This event of turning rock into water is much like the natural event of an erupting volcano, except for it being for our benefit and being miraculous.   If God were nature and nature God then we find that both the natural and the miraculous in nature are sublime.  Is there then an equivalence between the power of the untamed ass and the power of nature itself?  Burke sees our awe in God/Nature as the high point of the sublime, speaking of a ladder of the sublime:  "we have traced power through its several gradations into the highest of all, where our imagination is finally lost; and we find terror quite throughout the progress, its inseparable companion, and growing along with it, as far as we can possibly trace it."  Of course this is also coupled, for Burke, with delight, perhaps also increasing as does the terror, leading to a kind of ecstasy of the sublime. 

A second point is that all of this could be seen as a deception or illusion and nonetheless powerful.  Burke writes of infinity that it is "the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime" and yet "there are scarce any things which can become the objects of our senses that are really, and in their own nature infinite."  He then says, "But the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so."  He goes on to discuss how the parts of some large object can continue indefinitely and hence can deceive us since the imagination has no check.  One does not have to be a Theist to benefit from Burke's idea of the sublime.

I also want to make one comment about Stonehenge and its rudeness.  This may in a way be connected to the previous comment.  It is not the disposition or ornament of Stonehenge that impresses us, says Burke.  It is our sense of the immense labor that it took to erect such a monument, and also the very rudeness of the stonework, which he believes to increase the sense of grandeur insofar as it "excludes the idea of art, and contrivance."  One could say that the sublime quality of Stonehenge is based, for Burke, on the very thing we find in the wild ass and the untamed unicorn: power, independence, artlessness.  Writing at roughly the same time as Rousseau, Burke is giving the name of an aesthetic quality, the sublime, itself associated ultimately with God and Nature and with "the infinite," to something totally other than what humanity produces with civilization.  This is not to deny that the creators of Stonehenge created a civilization of their own, but perhaps theirs was more respectful, even in awe of, the fierce independence of nature, than we post-Kantians.        

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kant's Mathematical Sublime

I am working now with the Pluhar translation of the Analytic of the Sublime from Kant's Critique of Judgment, found in Korsmeyer's textbook Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  This is an extremely difficult bit of material, and it is abridged too!  My focus is on the sentence "If the human mind is nonetheless to be able even to think the given infinite without contradiction, it must have within itself a power that is supersensible, whose idea of a noumenon cannot be intuited but can yet be regarded as the substrate underlying what is mere appearance, namely, our intuition of the world." So, to start off, I do not think that the mathematical sublime has much to do with mathematics and actually has a lot to do with the aesthetics of nature as well as the aesthetic experience of great works of art.  It mainly is concerned with a particular kind of experience, one that is aptly illustrated by the example of the Egyptian pyramid.  Kant makes a distinction between apprehension and comprehension, and by the first he simply means the progressive adding of units or numbers.   Apprehension is associated with mathematics.  It is the second concept, comprehension, that is interesting, and it is illustrated by the example of the pyramid.  There is a sweet spot in our appreciation of an Egyptian pyramid: we cannot be too far away or we will not be able to appreciate the individual units of which it is made, but we cannot be too close as then we will not be able to include all of those units in one intuited whole  I like to think of this in relation to appreciation of another great work of art known for another kind of complexity, The Night Watch by Rembrandt.  The point is to try to hold the entire experience of such a work in one's mind, to contemplate it in such a way as to try to intuit it as a whole.  This might be a matter of how one positions oneself spatially before it, although perhaps more important is the amount of time one spends contemplating it: again, not too much or too little.  Although The Night Watch is not as enormous as an Egyptian pyramid, it is great in its complexity, and the number of its parts or appreciable aspects can be seen as, if not infinite, at least indeterminately large. Absolute magnitude, which, Kant believes, aesthetic experience of the sublime gives us, is just a matter of taking the whole thing with its indefinitely large number of appreciable parts in with one intuition. The problem with being too close to the pyramid is that, as one looks at the stones, the earlier parts of the experience are "extinguished."  So, again, this is a temporal as well as a spatial matter.  

Another factor in the experience of the mathematical sublime for Kant is that the judgment of the sublime only happens when the imagination is unable to exhibit the concept of the magnitude. This idea seems to conflict with the main theme of the preceding paragraph.  Our intuition is supposed to grasp the object as a whole, in comprehension, and yet our imagination is not up to the task.  I suspect that by "imagination" here, Kant is not referring to creative imagination but simply to apprehension (associative imagination), i.e. to the ability to put things together in an associative and relatively mechanical way.  So, when the imagination in this mechanical sense gives out, then we have an intuition that hooks us up to something grander.  I take it that this grander thing is much like Aristotle's notion of an organic whole.  Aristotle brings in his concept of the organic whole in the Poetics when he discusses beauty.  As with Kant, and perhaps Kant was thinking of Aristotle when discussing mathematical sublime, he sees magnitude as something valuable, although he associates it with beauty.  He also associates it with the mind's ability to intuit something as a whole. A play is more beautiful if it has magnitude and is still comprehensible, that is, can be apprehended as an organic whole.  

Kant goes on to argue that, unlike mathematics operating under the relatively mechanical concept of apprehension, when the mind listens to what he calls "reason" (Kant's notion of "reason" seems to bear little relation to what we mean by reason and does not for example have anything to do with logic or giving good reasons or arguing well) it demands "totality" even of magnitudes that we never can apprehend completely.  It "demands comprehension in one intuition" and it requires that we experience the infinite in its entirety.  But since the infinite is so large, everything else in relation to it is incredibly small, and to be able to think such an infinite one must go beyond imagination, which is based ultimately on sensation.  There is, here, no determinate relation between things expressible in terms of numbers.  

Again, this is not about mathematics but about the limits of mathematics, even of the mathematical concept of infinity. Although Kant never mentions the phrase, I find myself thinking of that old saying:  "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." The experience of the sublime is a matter of experiencing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Kant speaks of the limitations of ordinary intuitions in terms of following standards of sense.  So what is this mental power that goes beyond the standard of sense? It is the capacity to perceive totality.  Kant explains this in one fascinating sentence quoted above, and quoted again here:  "If the human mind is nonetheless to be able even to think the given infinite without contradiction, it must have within itself a power that is supersensible, whose idea of a noumenon cannot be intuited but can yet be regarded as the substrate underlying what is mere appearance, namely our intuition of the world."   The substrate of our world of appearance is the idea of a noumenon, of a world of things in themselves.  So the substrate that underlies appearance is the intuition of the world, i.e. the background thought that everything that happens happens in the world.  This ability is something that goes beyond mere sensation or imagination or even imagination combined with the understanding to point at the noumenal realm, i.e. the realm of God, immortality and the soul, which is to say the realm referred to by religion. 

Bear in mind that belief in God is not necessary for this all to work. Belief in an indeterminate whole that subsumes experience and that also makes wholes greater than the sums of their parts may be sufficient.

Mathematical estimation of magnitude, using numerical concepts only, would not allow us to think infinity in its entirety.  So transcending mere mathematical estimation is actually the solution to the problem that Kant originally posed at the beginning of the Critique of Judgment, how to find a bridge between the realm of experience and the noumenal  realm.  His answer is that the mind can expand itself beyond the barrier of sensible experience as long as it has a practical, i.e. a moral, aim, as opposed to one that is focused on cognition.  So nature is sublime insofar as the idea of infinity is combined with these its intuition.  The introduction of the idea of morality into this discussion seems gratuitous and must have to do with other projects and worries of Kant.

What we are describing is a view of the aesthetics of nature quite contrary to that of those contemporary aestheticians who believe that the proper appreciation of nature is cognitive in a science-like way. Such cognition is bound by its inability to, as Kant would put it, comprehend the infinite.  John Muir, as I have argued in earlier posts, manages to go beyond this relatively narrow perspective.  If Kant and Muir are right than the cyclical view of nature appreciation I have recently advocated may require an addendum, that although cycles are important, there are also high points in the appreciation of nature, or of anything great, even in art, and these occur when the intuition has within it the idea of totality or something infinite, and the attendant pleasure.

So, the relatively mechanical imagination can't truly judge the magnitude of an object, since a true judgment would be one that would give us the experience of the sublime.  So, when the imagination tries to comprehend in a way that surpasses its own ability to encompass all of this in an holistic intuition then we have the experience of the sublime, since at this point reason takes over, as it were, and with it the idea of something that underlies all of our experience, i.e. the intuition of ourselves as experiencing things within an entire world, i.e. the whole of nature.  Kant writes that the "basic measure of nature is the absolute whole of nature, which in the case of nature as appearance, is infinity comprehended."  

But then it turns out that this basic measure is contradictory, even on Kant's account.  There cannot be absolute totality of a progression that is endless.  Does Kant realize that he is deconstructing or at least undercutting himself here?  He seems to be implying that the experience of the sublime is based on an illusion or an illusory experience.  I have no problem with this Nietzschean idea, although it is surprising to find it in Kant.  So, when the imagination tries fruitlessly to comprehend the magnitude of some natural thing, this contradiction leads us to think of a supersensible substrate underlying both nature and our ability to think, one that we must judge as sublime.  (Why need we think this?) What is sublime in this case, Kant argues anthropocentrically, is not nature itself but the attunement within our minds when we judge such an object, the imagination then being referred to reason in such a way as to harmonize with its ideas, i.e. the indeterminate ideas of the noumenal realm.  Kant naively thinks this will be attuned with moral judgments and the influence of moral demands on feeling.  I can't follow him here.

So he finds true sublimity in the mind of the person who has this mental attunement of imagination and reason, and not in nature at all!  This leads him to the rather counter-intuitive claim that "we would not want to call sublime such things as shapeless mountain masses piled on one another in wild disarray." Rather, in this case, what is happening is that the mind "feels elevated in judgment of itself" because it can contemplate these things without thinking about their form.  Instead it can revel in its own imagination and its harmonious connection with reason in its attempt to arrive at noumenal things, although the imagination is inadequate to such ideas.  Some harmony!  Why would he even think that the experience of shapeless mountains and the sublime pleasure we get from this could be connected with the harmony of the defeated imagination in the face of reason's demand for unity even of the infinite? 

Now one important aspect of reason, on Kant's account, is that it demands unity.  So, as Kant puts it, "the idea of comprehending every appearance that may be given us in the intuition of a whole is an idea enjoined on us by a law of reason," which depends on the absolute whole as its measure, a measure that is valid for everyone. So the imagination, in trying to obey this law, fails.  The feeling for the sublime is respect for our vocation in the sense that what humans can do best is to have the feeling of the sublime that comes from this failure.   In having sublime experience we are respecting the idea of humanity in ourselves and not really the magnitude of the volcano or waterfall that we find sublime.  This is just what Kant calls a "subreption."  We realize then that the "rational vocation of our cognitive powers" is superior to the greatest power of sensibility, i.e. of our imagination even in conjunction with the understanding.  So we feel displeasure because our imagination fails in its estimate of magnitude, i.e. of infinity or absolute totality, which reason poses to it, and yet feel pleasure insofar as we realize that such inadequate power is at least harmonious with reason in trying to do this impossible thing.  (I see no reason why pleasure should win out over pain in this instance.)  So we estimate large objects in nature, for example the galaxy seen through the Milky Way, as small in relation to absolute totality, and more important, in relation to the ideas of reason, for example the idea of God. What arouses in us a feeling of our human vocation is in harmony with this law.      

What is valuable in all of this?  I am not sure.  I feel attracted to certain ideas, the idea that there is a high point in the aesthetics of nature, that this cannot be tied in any simple way with mathematical or scientific forms of cognition, that this also ties to our appreciation of works of art like not only the pyramid but more interestingly The Night Watch, that that background idea of the world as totality is somehow combined with or tied to our experience of things as wholes, and finally that there is something tragic and painful as well as pleasurable about the failure of our mechanical imagination to capture the sublime, which work needs the supplement of the creative imagination or what Kant calls "reason" or the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dewey on the pervasive whole and the media of art

In his Art as Experience, specifically in his chapters on "Substance and Form" and "The Common Substance of the Arts" Dewey addresses the issues of medium and media.  In a way, this is a key to Dewey's way of thinking.  The medium is the material which is transformed in the creative process.  A good way to understand Dewey is in terms of the relationship between the public world, the creative process of the artist, the product, and the creative process of the audience.  The creative process can be seen as taking materials from the public realm translating them through the individual and then presenting the transformed product to the public again.  All of these things are organically connected.  For instance, Dewey tells us that "the work of art is complete only as it works in the experience of others." The audience's experience is required for the work to happen.  Dewey speaks specifically of the triad:  "the speaker, the things said, and the one spoken to" or the external object object, the artist and the audience.  In the creative process the artist acts as though she were the audience, and she responds to the emerging work as though spoken to by what she perceives, treating the work as if it were a new child to be understood, i.e. in order to grasp its meaning.  

Dewey suggests that matter does not come first in search of a form to embody it, but rather the creative effort of the artist is to form material so that it will be "the authentic substance of a work of art." We do not separate the aesthetic value of sense materials from that of the form that makes them expressive.  Beauty is not then seen as some transcendent essence in the mode of Plato that descends on matter from without, but as "the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive."  Form, contrary to someone like Clive Bell, is something that emerges "whenever an experience gains complete development."  That is, it is a function of this three-way interaction.

We should not see the art product as a mere self-expression where the self is "self-contained in isolation" for, then, substance would be different from form.  But substance and form ultimately, and ideally, are one.  The self-revelation of the artist cannot be something external to what is expressed.  Self-expression is required nonetheless.  The reason for this is that the free play of individuality and any freshness or originality the work may have comes with this.  

Again, Dewey wants to give credit both to the public realm and to the individuality of the creative artist.  The material of the work of art comes from the common world. but self-expression exists because "the self assimilates...material in a distinctive way" a way that makes old material new, fresh and vital.  The self then also puts that material back out into the public world in the form of a created object.  If those who perceive this object also reconstruct this in their own novel experiences the result will be appropriately called "universal." The material cannot be private:  that would be solipsistic and the true solipsist would be considered mad.  It is rather the way that the common material is assimilated that is individual. 

So a work of art is only actually such when it "lives in some individualized experience," and is recreated every time it is experienced aesthetically.  Dewey uses the Parthenon as his example.  You cannot ask what its creator really meant and get anything of value since, first, he would have found different meanings in the work himself at different times in the creative process and even after completion of the work, and second, because artists generally mean by a work whatever the audience member gets out of it in virtue of his or her own vital experience.  The Parthenon continues to inspire new personal experiences and only this makes it universal.  Moreover, one could never experience it in the way a contemporary Athenian would have.  The work, or what Dewey calls the "substance," is formed in such a way that it can "enter into the experiences of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own."  As opposed to Clive Bell, the work as form/substance is "a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it....becomes material for the construction of adequate experience" in the audience.  We just saw Dewey use the word form and the word substance, but in fact as can be seen here, he does not really distinguish the two.  His ontology of the artwork is simply this: "the work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance."  The critic or the theorist or the artist might distinguish between form and substance in terms of "the how" and "the what" of what is produced, yet the act is what it is because of how it is:  manner and content are integrated.

But what binds these things together?  It is the "pervasive quality" that makes the work of art. or any example of "an experience." a unified whole.  If a part does not have that quality it does not belong.  Again Dewey describes this in terms of sanity and the relation between the individual and the public realm.  An immediate sense of "an extensive and underlying whole is the context of every experience and it is the essence of sanity."  The insane is that which is "torn from the common context" and thus appears in a world totally other than our own.  All material requires setting to be coherent.  

It is here that Dewey seems to violate the principles of pragmatism itself since the work of art not only accents the quality of its being a whole but also the quality of belonging to a larger whole, which Dewey calls"the universe in which we live."  The "in which we live" is important here. Dewey is not speaking of the physical universe so much as of our lived universe, our world.  Each sentence of the paragraph in which this passage appears needs to be explained in detail.  The quality of unity which exists at these two levels explains "the feeling of exquisite intelligibility and clarity we have in the presence of an object that is experienced with aesthetic intensity."  It is more clear and intelligible, and perhaps even more intense, because of its harmonious situation within a larger unity. And this in turn explains why religious feeling accompanies such aesthetic intensity. 

This need not be a dropping off point for an atheist since Dewey is by not means positing a God.  He is simply pointing out the source of religious feeling and an aesthetic intensity accompanied by a sense of greater clarity when encountering great art or magnificent nature:  it is the background sense of a larger unity that is somehow harmoniously one with the pervasive quality of the work.  Oddly, the pervasive quality would not even be present without the background unity since the intensity of the pervasive quality depends on it.  Dewey speaks of us being introduced to "a world beyond this world" which on first reading might be seen as the transcendent realm.  But he makes clear this world is really just "the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences." We always live in a world.  We always experience things against a background which can be a larger whole or not. Dewey believes the "sense of an enveloping undefined whole" that accompanies every experience is clarified and deepened by the work of art, or rather, I suspect, by the great work of art. 

He speaks of this experience moreover as finding ourselves and as "an expansion of ourselves" insofar as satisfying aesthetic experience gives the world meaning that goes beyond mere egotism.  In this experience we become citizens of a vast world, and get a "satisfying sense of unity in itself and with ourselves."

Further, this sense of a "qualitative pervasive whole" is carried by the medium of the work of art insofar as a specialized organ, e.g. sight or hearing, touches the world.  A painting touches the world portrayed without the impurities of ordinary perception in which the other senses are involved.  And now color alone must "carry the qualifies of movement, touch, sound, etc.," that were present in ordinary vision.  This enhances both the expressiveness and the energy of color.      

Friday, October 23, 2015

More on Korsmeyer on Food as Fine Art

I have posted previously on Korsmeyer on food as art but am not sure I have done full justice to her position.  I think that one of reasons Korsmeyer rejects food as fine art is that efforts in previous centuries to treat it as such were often based largely on piggy-backing on other art forms.  So, for example, she includes an illustration from the 17th century of decorative carved fruits and from the 19th century of elaborate decorative concoctions by Careme, and writes, "we may also note an objection to decorative food that points to an adventitious element to the representational capacities of food:  the examples of symbolic function in food [discussed in her book] are largely the result of visual manipulation" (126) where the artist treats the food in the same way a sculptor would treat marble. Korsmeyer notes that this objection comes from Larry Shiner and that she herself does not think this shows "poverty of symbolic possibility for food." It simply shows that eating involves more than one sense.  But the "objection" nonetheless may be a motivating factor in her rejecting food as fine art.  I think the problem is little different from problems in other media, for example in film, where early forms often imitated other art forms, whereas as the medium developed it came to have forms that were more its own.  If we look at the visual appearance of dishes in contemporary high-end restaurants we find that they are no longer crudely representational or imitative of architecture, sculpture or other art forms, although they may have some affinities with these.  The idea is that the form, color and texture of the presentation should combine with the various tastes to present an experience overall.  As John Dewey would say, it is the experience that is the work of art, not the physical object taken alone and isolated from context.  I also think that, as I have argued previously, the gastronomical experience includes a multiplicity of elements including the place of dining, the service and even the background sounds and smells. These various elements are hierarchically arranged, so that the center of the experience is the food on the plate, and the peripheries, such as the architectural setting, are intended to enhance that experience.  (This can go either way, of course.  An architecture enthusiast might go to the restaurant mainly for the architecture, the food serving mainly as an enhancing periphery.) Even the clothes fashions of the other diners can be part of the overall aesthetic experiences (that one is for you, Karen), although this is much less under the control of the artist (i.e. the chef or the restaurateur) and would not be included in the judgment of the performance.  I say "performance" since I think of the art of food presentation as a performance art where it is the event that is to be judged in the end, not just the individual object that is consumed.  

Although Korsmeyer thinks that food can meet some of Goodman's "symptoms of the aesthetic" including "exemplification" and "relative repleteness" she thinks that there are important differences between food and the fine arts, that the concept of art as fine art is "a poor category to capture the nature of foods and their consumption." (141) There is some confusion here, however.  She lists fine arts as "paintings, sculptures, poems and symphonies." Let's take painting.  This is a vast category including much that is not fine art.  Painting refers to paint on some support such as canvas or wall.  It can include graffiti art, children's murals, kitsch seascapes in Carmel, works by Thomas Kinkade, and painted works by David Hockney.  Painting is a somewhat different kind of concept than "sculpture" which seems to be limited to three-d constructions that are works of art, although there are many three-d art works that are arguably not sculptures. Moreover, there are a vast number of three-d figures, for example in religious shops or in tourist galleries, that could be seen as sculptures but not as fine art. The concept of fine art does not capture of nature of foods and their consumption because not all food is fine art just as not all painting and not all things called sculpture are fine art.  

Korsmeyer makes the interesting point that food and art do not have parallel histories.  I have perhaps not taken this point seriously enough in the past.  It certainly is true, and no one will contest it, that food and art have different histories.  The art books appear together in one part of our libraries, the food books in another part. But history has a way of bringing things together that were previously apart and vice versa.  Gardens were once considered to be fine art and then began to lose that status in the 19th century, becoming a kind of adjunct to architecture.  Then, in the second half of the 20th century some gardens began to gain the status of fine art again, often when the garden was designed by someone well known as a sculptor, for example Robert Irwin's garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.  Although I agree with Korsmeyer that food has its own history, I also believe that food has been converging with painting, sculpture and performance art in recent years, particularly in high-end restaurants, so that some food productions can now partake in and draw from those traditions, although again, only if this is done with care and not as a form of inauthentic piggy-backing.  Something similar has happened in fashion design.  

I think that Korsmeyer's inability to see great restaurant food as fine art is partly because of her focus on other kinds of food presentation, ones associated with festival aesthetics.  She says:  "I hope that the examples of ritual and ceremonial eating and the complex situations in which foods and tastes exemplify metaphorical properties lay to rest the idea that tasting and eating are to be appreciated only for sensuous enjoyment. The uses of foods and rink for religious and commemorative purposes clearly foster, even force, reflection on the meaning of the event taking place....unlike music or other fine art, however, this sort of not a mark of greatness for food as food."  (142) What is left out is that great restaurant food exemplifies metaphorical properties in complex ways (often drawing on many of the meanings associated with food in these other contexts) and fuses these with sensuous enjoyment.   It might be thought that fine restaurant food is just for sensuous enjoyment, and it is true that sensuous enjoyment is the main focus of the dining experience, but this enjoyment is enhanced significantly by the various other properties metaphorically exemplified and the various other stories told.  The concept of "food as food" can be distorting of the issue insofar as it isolates food from its complex meaning content, flattens it out, as it were.  It would be like those who say that art should only be addressed in terms of the isolated object, art as art, and not in terms of any contextual considerations which may enhance its meaning.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dewey's version of expression theory, or his definition of art

Too much has perhaps been said about Dewey's theory of art as experience insofar as this focus has directed readers away from Dewey's central views on the nature of art itself.   Just as Dewey observed that great works of art can hide fundamental facts of aesthetics, Dewey's great idea of "an experience" can hide facts about his even richer view of the nature of art.  It might be helpful then to skip over those passages and think about what makes something artistic for Dewey.  This material comes at the end of his chapter on "Having and Experience" in Art as Experience.  I am working now with the selection found in Stephen David Ross's Art and its Significance.   Before going on, I should note a significant mistake in the Ross edition.  The selection from "Substance and Form" actually goes to page 213 bottom, and the selection from "The Common Substance of the Arts" begins with "The undefined pervasive quality" on the bottom of that page, not halfway down page 214 where the title appears in this selection.  Actually "unit in itself and with ourselves" is continuous with "every work of art" on that page.  So, in short, the heading "The Common Substance of the Arts" should be moved to the bottom of page 213.

To have a theory of art you need a definition of art, and there is a definition of art implicit in Dewey, a definition which sees art as expression.   This expression has to do with a dynamic relationship between the artist and his or her audience.  In this respect Dewey is carrying on in the tradition of Tolstoy.  Also striking here is that for Dewey art is an activity:  in defining art we are not talking about a way of determining whether or not something is a work of art.  "Art denotes a process of doing or making."  It does something with physical material.  As much as Benedetto Croce thought that Dewey was simply following him, this is far from an idealist theory of art. Dewey stresses that art is a "skilled action" here in the tradition of John Stuart Mill who described it as "perfection in execution." This idea has not been popular in contemporary aesthetics, although it was picked up again by Dennis Dutton in his The Art Instinct. This is not to say that Dewey is unaware of the other side of art, that of the consumer.  Instead he stresses both the appreciative side and the skillful side of art.  The two are to be distinguished but not separated, this because the object is produced for the consumer and its value is to found in its consumption.  Dewey is similar to Tolstoy to this extent:  he thinks that the good artist, far from simply being good at technique or highly realistic, "has an experience of his own that he was concerned to have those share who look at his products." 

This leads to a kind of definition of "artistic" if not of art:  "to be truly artistic, a work must also be esthetic - that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception."  That is, to be art it must be both a making and a making that is esthetic, and this is understood in terms of the relationship between the artist and his or her audience. The perception of the artist should be aesthetic also in the sense that it is not merely mechanical.

So, we are not to understand art simply as an experience, but rather as a kind of "an experience" one that is mutual between artist and audience:  "Art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing an undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience to be an experience."  But in this case, the doing and undergoing are applied to the artist and the audience in their dynamic relation.  What Dewey calls "esthetic art" eliminates whatever is not conducive to the mutual organization of the active and receptive aspects of art experience, the making and the consumption:  "the doing or making is artistic when the perceived result is of such a nature that its qualities as perceived have controlled the question of production."  The artist selects those traits that are conducive to such "interpenetration" of his action and the audience's reception.  In short, the definition of art for Dewey is essentially dynamic in the interaction between artist and receiver.  

This idea of art is elaborated on in the next chapter on "The Expressive Object."  Whereas other theorists may just want to define art in terms of the result, Dewey is equally concerned with "action and its result."  We should not view the object in isolation from the process which produced it.  The process, as he often observes, comes from the interaction between a live creature (the artist in this case) and his or her environment, and as we shall see, that environment is very much the public realm.  It is a mistake, Dewey believes, both to "ignore the individual contribution" of the artist and to isolate the process of expression from the "expressiveness possessed by the object."  We should not see expression as a mere "discharging of personal emotion."  So, to put it another way:  a work of art presents material "passed through the alembic of personal experience" and yet the material comes from "the public world."  Dewey insists that the "oppositions of individual and universal, of subjective and objective, of freedom and order...have no place in the work of art" for expression as personal and as objective are "organically connected."  

So a work of art is representative not in the sense of being a literal reproduction.  For it has a uniqueness "due to the personal medium through which scenes and events have passed," i.e. the above-mentioned alembic.  At the same time, the artist also "tells something to those who enjoy it about the nature of their own experience of the world" insofar as the artwork "presents the world in a new experience which they undergo."  Art is about the public world, the world of everyday life.   

Dewey observes that there are some who deny that works of art have meaning.  Works of art certainly do not have meaning in the way that signboards have meaning, or in the way that scientific propositions have meaning.  The meaning of art is unique.  At the same time we do not want to insist that the meaning is "so unique that it is without community or connection with the contents of other modes of experience than the esthetic."  That would make art merely esoteric, which Dewey rejects.  Rather, the unique quality of the work of art is "that of clarifying and concentrating meanings contained in scattered and weakened ways in the material of other experiences."  That, in short, sums up Dewey's definition of art.  The aesthetics of art is based on the aesthetics of life.  Art, as opposed to science, expresses "the inner nature of things" by which he means that it does not lead to experience in the way that a scientific claim can be confirmed by an experiment, but rather "constitutes" experience in the way that it can give us meaning of a certain sort. The two examples Dewey focuses on to explain this are the way that Tintern Abbey "expressed itself to Wordsworth in and through his poem," and our experience of the meaning of a city which, he suggests, may "try to express itself in a celebration attended with pageantry" that would "render its history and spirit perceptible."   It is interesting that Dewey chooses here not just to focus on the expressive qualities of a poem but also on the way in which a pageant can operate as a kind of artwork that expresses a city. He goes on that   the visitor who "permits himself to participate" in this city celebration has "an expressive object" which is similar in some ways to the poem:  neither is a "correct descriptive statement.   (A peculiarity of his use of Wordsworth's poem is that the poem never mentions the abbey except in the title.  It actually describes a scene a few miles upriver from the abbey.  It has been said that Wordsworth intended the reference to the abbey to add to his tendency to spiritualize nature.  Based on reading the poem it is difficult to see how Tintern Abbey could have expressed itself in Wordsworth's poem.) 

Dewey's definition of art then shows art to be necessarily interconnected with the creative process and the process of reception as well as with the public world which forms the material of expression.  Philosophy of art for Dewey must be based on the aesthetics of everyday life which includes also the aesthetics of the creative process of the artist and the aesthetic of the receptive process of the viewer.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Women Aestheticians

There has been much discussion in the media recently about how philosophy tends to be a male-dominated field.   This is perhaps not as true in aesthetics (although I know of one classroom anthology that only has one female writer).  Here is a list of some of my female heroes in aesthetics, along with one of their publications. (I make not claim that the listed publication is the author's most important).  I will add to this list from time to time.  When I started this project I forgot that Christy Mag Uidhir had already done one on his blog here which is more extensive than mine.  It is organized towards producing more gender appropriate anthologies.  So let's just say this is my personal list.

Sally Banes. Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage.  1998. 

Annette Barnes.  On Interpretation. 1988.

Emily Brady.  Aesthetics and the Natural Environment.  2003.

Peggy Brand.  "Disinterestedness and Political Art."  in Carolyn Korsmeyer  Aesthetics:  The Big Questions. 1998.

Amy Coplan.  co-editor.  Empathy:  Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. 2014.  

Eva Dadlez. What's Hecuba to Him?: Fictional Events and Actual Emotions (Literature and Philosophy) 1997.  

Ellen Dissanayake.  Homo Aestheticus:  Where Art Comes From and Why.  1995.  

Jane Duran.  Women, Literature and Philosophy. 2007.

Marcia Mueldor Eaton.  Aesthetics and the Good Life.  1989.

Catherine Z. Elgin.   with Nelson Goodman.  Reconceptions in Philosophy:  and Other Arts and Sciences.  1988.

Susan Feagin.  Reading with Feeling:  The Aesthetics of Appreciation.  1996.

Jane Forsey.  The Aesthetics of Design.  2013.

Cynthia Freeland.  But is it art?  2002.

Lydia Goehr.  The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works.  2007.

Karen Hanson.  "Dressing Down Dressing Up."  1990.

Jean Gabbert Harrell. Profundity:  A Universal Value.  1995. 

Hilde Hein.  Public Art:  Thinking Museums Differently. 2006. Hilde was an early mentor of mine.  We co-edited the newsletter for the American Society for Aesthetics for many years. 

Kathleen Higgins.  The Music of Our Lives.  1991.

Sherri Irvin. "Scratching and Itch."  Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  66: 1.  2008.  

Jennifer Judkins.  Jennifer has published a number of articles in the major aesthetics journals.

Deborah Knight.  "Aesthetics and Cultural Studies."  2003.

Carolyn Korsmeyer.  Gender and Aesthetics:  An Introduction. 2004.

Suzanne Langer.  Feeling and Form.  1977.

Sheila Lintott.   "Toward Eco-Friendly Aesthetics."  2006.

Sandra Rudnick Luft.  Vico's Uncanny Humanism.  2003.  Luft was my adviser for my M.A. in Humanities from SFSU.  

Sally Markowitz.  "Guilty pleasures:  aesthetic meta-response and fiction."  Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism 50:4 (1992) 307-316.  

Mara Miller.  The Garden as an Art.  1993.

Iris Murdoch.  The Sovereignty of Good.   1991.

Katya Mandoki.  Everyday Aesthetics.  2007.

Mary Mothersill.  Beauty Restored.  1986.  

Martha Nussbaum.  Love's Knowledge:  Essays on Philosophy and Literature.  

Monique Roelofs.  The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic.  2014.  

Jenefer Robinson.  Deeper than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art.  2005. 

Stephanie Ross.  What Gardens Mean.  2001.  

Cynthia Rostankowski.  "Motivating Aesthetics,"  Journal of Aesthetic Education, 2003.  Rostankowski has been my aesthetics colleague at San Jose State for many years.

Barbara Sandrisser.  "On Elegance in Japan."  in Aesthetics in Perspective ed. Kathleen Higgins.  1996.  

Yuriko Saito.  Everyday Aesthetics. 2007.

Elaine Scarry. On Beauty and Being Just. 2001.

Barbara Savedoff.  Transforming Images: How Photography Complicates the Picture.  2000.

Anita Silvers. "The Story of Art Is The Test Of Time." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer, 1991. Silvers wrote a number of great articles for this journal.  She was also my first aesthetics teacher and basically inspired me to pursue the field.

Ellen Handler Spitz.  Inside Picture Books.  1999.

Mary Bittner Wiseman.  The Ecstasies of Roland Barthes. 1989.

Julie van Camp.   John Dewey's Notion of Qualitative Thought. 2014.  Van Camp is currently Secretary/Treasurer for the American Society for Aesthetics.

Rachel Zuckert, Kant on Beauty and Biology: An Interpretation of the Critique of Judgment. 2007.

Some hard to answer student comments and questions about Clive Bell

One of my students, Oscar, asks: if a form moves us by its preciseness can this not equally well give us an aesthetic emotion? Another student, Edgar, similarly asks whether the very existence of detail in a work like Paddington Station could not have a similar effect to that of significant relations of lines and colors.  (Isn't detail of some sort a special kind of relation of lines and colors?)  I am just not sure that Bell has a good reply to either of these points. Precision and detailed quality are not in themselves merely associations or suggestions of everyday emotions.  So they cannot be excluded for that reason.  Bell obviously wants to oppose an imitation theory of art, especially one that counts highly detailed realist art the best sort of art.  He favors the Post-impressionists over such realists.  But why? 

It is an interesting peculiarity of Bell's theory that it is both subjective in one respect and objective in another.  It is subjective in that different people can experience significant form in different things.  It is objective in that it gives us an objective definition of art.  But this objective definition would not allow us to sort things that have significant form from things that do not because of the subjective dimension.  Isn't this a paradox?  After all, we expect something more of what is objective.  I owe this thought to something Stephanny said. Makayla similarly says that she feels Bell contradicts himself "with the idea that descriptive paintings are not art" while also claiming that you cannot argue about taste.  I think that we associate the issue of "what is art?" with the issue of taste so closely that it is hard to follow Bell in saying that something is not art and that this has nothing to do with taste.

Laki wonders "how does someone say that art is subjective, but condemn a particular work of art?"  and "you do not recognize the aesthetic opinions of people who enjoy a storyline in their art." Laki goes on to say that "When someone puts a story to the art or sees in in context, there is a certain satisfaction that is achieved like that of finding the right piece of the puzzle that was missing before."  This may be similar to the first point I raised.  How is enjoying relations of lines and colors in a rapturous way, which we get from significant form, all that different from the rapture of finding the right piece in a puzzle?

Tracey raises a problem with Cezanne as an exemplar of significant form.  The problem is that students do not initially enjoy these relations of lines and colors.  Cezanne is just not easy to enjoy at first.  Bell stresses so much that different people experience different things as having significant form and yet he sets up Cezanne as an exemplar.  Let's say that all people do not have the ability to develop of love of Cezanne.  Is this problematic for Bell's theory?  Of course one important reason Bell prefers Cezanne is that he deliberately does not make his painting realistic looking and so he inhibits ordinary everyday emotional responses.  

One student, Jenny, asked what response Bell would have to minimalism.  This is an interesting question.  Take an all-red painting.  It would seem not to have relations of lines and colors since it only has one color and no lines.  And yet it does have lines: the four edges of the painting are lines.  We do not normally notice these, but in minimalist art we do.  Also, many minimalist pieces actually have very subtle differences in shadings of single color:  so in fact there are relations of colors and lines here.  In the end I think Bell would be very keen on minimalist art.

Carlos asks "could a political cartoon achieve its purpose of getting the message to the audience and the artist still provide and implement significant form..."  Bell thinks that a descriptive painting can have significant form, but Carlos raises the question of whether some things are not impossible to see as anything other than illustrations.  At the same time, there are some political cartoons, for example the work of Daumier, which do move us not only as clever or politically apt but also as examples of powerful form.  In this case perhaps the form simply enhances the political message.  

Shawn asks whether it takes a Humean good judge to decide whether a piece of art is emotional in the sense of presenting us the aesthetic emotion.  This is an interesting issue:  Bell explains significant form by offering us a group of art works that have it, and they include Giotto, Cezanne, Poussin, as well as some non-western art.  It would seem that one would need a lot of training, what Hume called practice and comparison, to be able to see significant form in such a wide range of things.  Also, Bell does think that a good critic can lead us to see significant form in something.  So it does seem that he presupposes a Humean good judge, and yet he says, perhaps in a contradictory way, that there is no disputing about taste.  Related to this, Terry says "isn't there some prior knowledge for the interaction of lines and colors" to give us this special aesthetic emotion, or is it innate?  If prior knowledge is needed we have the return of the good judge.