Friday, October 31, 2008

Hegel on Dutch Painters

Hegel speaks of Dutch painters as being able to produce works that display a “pure shining and appearing of objects as something produced by the spirit which transforms in its inmost being the external and sensuous side of” such material as “velvet, metallic luster, light, horses, servants, old women, peasants blowing smoke from cutty pipes, the glitter of wine in a transparent glass, chaps in dirty jackets playing with old cards.” I take it that he means that the external sensuous side of these objects becomes transformed when represented in the work of art. But also he suggests that the objects themselves have a “pure shining and appearing” which is then actualized by the artist. For, in the list, the first four items shine already, as can also be said for the glitter of wine. Even the smoke of pipes in these paintings is typically represented as luminous. Hegel of course is not here commending us to aesthetic experience of these things which we “scarcely bother about in our daily life” but rather to their replacements in works of art where we see only colors and surface. However he also says that “we get the same impression which reality affords,” which seems to imply reference back to the ordinary objects. Hegel is no hero of everyday aesthetics when he says: “In contrast to the prosaic reality confronting us, this pure appearance produced by the spirit is therefore the marvel of ideality.” He thinks that this marvel of ideality even mocks external nature. For he thinks it is really hard to produce a beautiful effect in metal, whereas imagination, which is the material of art, is quite easy to work with, as here, one simply draws from inner being. Strange that he does not consider how paintings are made out of paint! What he refers to as the “existent and fleeting appearance of nature” is there in the external world (the world as we experience it), but it is also “generated afresh” when represented by the artist. The paradox here involves a temporary erasure of the distinction between the subjective and the objective.

Once again drawing on materials that sparkle and shine as the opening items of the list, Hegel observes that “precious stones, gold, plants, animals, etc., have in themselves only this bounded existence” i.e. an existence which requires hard work to bring to luminous presence? The artist, Hegel asserts, steals material from nature, and then “freely disgorges” this accumulated treasure. The imagination collects that which sparkles and shines, treasure-like, but is able to do more with it. A paradox ensues: art “furnishes us with the things themselves", but it does so "out of the inner life of mind.” One wonders how it can give us something "out" of something that is quite contrary to the thing given. He says that art confines our interest to ideal appearances of these objects which can serve for contemplation, and in doing this “art exalts these otherwise worthless objects.” In fact, although its content is “insignificant” art is able to fix these objects and make them “ends in themselves.” And then we attend to things we would otherwise not notice, presumably both in the painting and in the world.

Art also, Hegel observes, manages to fix certain aspects of everyday life that are also of note, e.g. “a quickly vanishing smile, a sudden roguish expression in the mouth, a glance, a fleeting ray of light…” (In this case, the luminous element comes at the end of the list.) Art fixes these things, and yet why fix them unless we have an interest in nature itself? And what if that interest is in the very temporariness of these natural phenomena? Hegel speaks of this activity as art conquering nature, although it is not clear in what sense this is a conquest. He wants to keep the luminous subject-matter in second place to art and so he says that “it is not the subject-matter which principally makes a claim on us but the satisfaction which comes from what the spirit has produced.” The spirit of the artist has produced (in all its freedom) a certain satisfaction based on this rather lowly subject-matter the fleeting nature of which it has captured, has conquered. Indeed he sees artistic making as more than conquering: it is the "extinction" of the sensuous external material. And yet everything he has said prior to this indicates that it is more a matter of bringing that sensuous material to life, or manifesting its inner nature.

Returning to the Dutch painters, we find that they actualize their own present “once more through art.” When we understand their art we must understand it in terms of their history, their will to freedom, and even their “painstaking as well as cleanly and neat well-being” and especially their joy in having achieved this, which is “the general content of their pictures.” So perhaps then the sparkle and shine of Dutch painting is not just the work of a free-floating imagination, but something situated historically, which, after all, is what we should expect of Hegel. Rembrandt’s Night Watch, he thinks, is “fired” by this “sense of vigorous nationality.” That is, the luminosity of the painting exists because the Dutch spirit is infused into it. So the Dutch spirit, which is everyday, is brought back into the painting through the spirit of the artist. But how is this the annihilation of the everyday? It is, in particular, the feeling of "freedom and gaity” which he takes to animate Dutch genre scenes, and also, once again, the life of the Dutch portrayed. He calls this feeling a “spiritual cheerfulness in a justified pleasure.”

All of this gets quite mystical when he says much the same thing about Murillo’s beggar boys and then indicates that in them also “shines forth…[a] complete absence of care and concern” that is comparable to that of the Dervish (known today for the whirling Dervishes). There is a mystical element in everyday life when it achieves what he finds in the representation of these boys as exhibiting “the full feeling of their well being and delight in life.” He sees them as like Olympian gods in that "they do nothing" (which makes them really more like Taoists, a philosophy Hegel had recently enountered), and Nietzschean ("they are people all of one piece without any surliness or discontent" from whom anything may come!). How odd it seems when he says that this freedom is “what the Concept of the Ideal requires.”

Earlier in the book Hegel says that man is “for himself” insofar as he “represents himself to himself” and that, only insofar as he does this, is he spirit. In addition to doing this theoretically, i.e. inwardly, man also does this through practical activity since he feels compelled to produce himself in what is presented to him externally and to recognize himself in that. He does this by “altering external things” in such as way as to impress upon them his inner being. After he does this, he then finds his own characteristics there. In doing this he strips the external world “of its inflexible foreignness.” Now this is what we tend to mean by the phrase “expressing oneself.” The example he gives is of a child who throws stones into water and then marvels at the circles he has produced. The example is interesting since the child has not shaped those circles and they are certainly not in themselves an expression of the child’s inner nature. What must be happening here is that the child perceives the circles as beautiful and as also a reflection of his internal essence, although manifested in nature. The point is phenomenological. Hegel thinks of this as a preliminary expression of human need which is eventually manifested in “that mode of self-production in external things which is present in the work of art.”

Monday, October 27, 2008

Emerson, Another Hero of Everyday Aesthetics

Emerson is another hero of everyday aesthetics. In “The American Scholar” he says: “One of these [auspicious] signs [of coming days] is the fact, that the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. That, which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts. The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign, — is it not? of new vigor, when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; — show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.

This idea has inspired the genius of Goldsmith, Burns, Cowper, and, in a newer time, of Goethe, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. This idea they have differently followed and with various success. In contrast with their writing, the style of Pope, of Johnson, of Gibbon, looks cold and pedantic. This writing is blood-warm. Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote. The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean. A man is related to all nature. This perception of the worth of the vulgar is fruitful in discoveries.”

This is mainly, as is clear, praise for the avant-garde poetry of his time. (We would call this poetry Romantic…but then Emerson reserves that term for something remote, like Arabia.) He praises this poetry for what it studies: the near, the low, and the common. The poetry was concerned with everyday life, e.g. the “feelings of the child” and “the meaning of household life.” Philosophers however are rare today who would agree that “things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote.” Now of course, even if Emerson were right it would not necessarily follow that the things themselves, i.e. household life, are aesthetic. You can write poetry about feelings of a child or the meaning of household life without finding them beautiful. But one feels that he does find them beautiful: otherwise why go beyond the poets to speak directly about embracing the common and the vulgar.

It might be argued that Emerson is not concerned with aesthetics but with meaning. He wants to see the meaning of “[t]he meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body.” But, certainly all of these things can be experienced aesthetically. Moreover, discovering the meaning of something is not contrary to discovering it aesthetically. The next line makes clear what the meaning is, for Emerson. He finds “the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature.” The suburbs and extremities are these vulgar phenomena, the phenomena of everyday life. So God lurks in the vulgar things of everyday life. As Emerson puts it, “one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.” I don't go in for the idea of some sublime lurking spirit, ultimate reasons or a single designer (did I mention I was an atheist?), but I do for the notion of trifles being ripe with meaning, for embracing the common, for finding that things near are no less beautiful than things remote, and even for the idea that this is somehow especially an American task (as implied by the title of his essay, although he mentions only British and German writers)...think of Warhol and Rauschenberg.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Walter Pater's Call to Aesthetic Experience

Consider how Walter Pater’s 1868 conclusion to The Renaissance might have something to say to us. The following quotation is taken from the “Conclusion” in Kathleen Higgins, Aesthetics in Perspective (Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996). Pater begins with what he calls our physical life. Here we must “fix upon it in one of its most exquisite intervals.” The exquisite interval he chooses is “the moment…of delicious recoil from the flood of water in summer heat.” (161) Already we are in the domain of everyday aesthetics: the delicious pleasure of being splashed with water on a hot summer day. Pater then talks about this event in terms of what he refers to as moment-to-moment concurrence of forces that go beyond us. The language is old-fashioned but we understand the thrust of it. He then moves to what he calls “the inward world of thought an feeling” where he observes that “the whirlpool is still more rapid, the flame more eager and devouring” than in the physical realm. Here, “when reflexion begins to play upon [external] objects,” and their “cohesive force seems suspended like some trick of magic.... each object is loosed into a group of impressions – colour, dour, texture- in the mind of the observe.” Thus, he describes what Monet was doing in painting in the same year in his La Riviere. The purpose of philosophy, Pater thinks, is to "startle" the human spirit to a life of observation in which “[e]very moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest…for that moment only.” The point is that “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” Why? Because “[a] counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life.” (162) We want, then, to be “present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy.” (163) Pater writes, further, that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." He encourages us to have any experience that "seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment." This includes "any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend.” That is, we should focus on the strange and curious phenomena in our everyday lives. He encourages us to have a “sense of splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch. The reason is that "our one chance [to find meaning in life] lies in …. getting as many pulsations as possible into the” time allotted us. (163). Pater is known for advocating art for art’s sake, but he really only values art because it provides us the highest quality of experiences for our moments and “for those moments' sake.” In this respect Pater is a hero of the aesthetics of everyday life.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is magic a function of art?

Joshua C. Taylor in a well-known article of 1974 in which he discussed Haida relief-carved chests and bowls argued that magic is a function not only of this art but of art today. I have always been intrigued by this thought and what it might mean. Although I don’t believe that we can control events through paranormal or mystical means I think that there must be something to this idea. Perhaps art does something that is analogical to magic, and it does so even if magic itself does not actually exist. But Taylor seems to mean different things by magic at different times in his article. One account he gives is that the Northwest Indian view of things allows for the possibility of combining static appreciation of forms with rhythmic experience. This seems like a combining of Clive Bell’s and John Dewey’s ways of seeing things. (It would make sense that neither theorist had it completely right and that they could supplement each other.) On another account, the Haida bowl is magical because it is animate (seems like a living thing, for example in having form that seems volitional) and because it is seen as both bird and bowl at the same time. (But how is this different from what Wollheim calls twofoldness and which is everywhere in the Western tradition?) Alternatively, one might think that Taylor is pushing in the direction of simply calling on us to pay attention to ritual background, in the way that Bell would have rejected, but that contemporary curators would praise. But oddly, he says nothing about ritual background after the one mention, and even suggests that we can appreciate the works without knowledge of the specific mythological background. Instead he focuses on formal features of the Haida artifacts, encouraging anthropologists and art historians to use the methods of analysis made available by contemporary developments in the arts when looking at these works. In this, he could be seen as transitional between Bell and contemporary contextualists. His starting point is certainly formalist, i.e. he begins with Worringer, an early 20th century art historian who thought that there were two principles of art in Western design: proportional relationship of clearly defined forms and continuity of the flow from one shape into the next. Taylor thinks that Haida design uses both principles which we should combine in perceiving them, allowing, as he puts it, being and becoming to live together. Of course this has been a goal in the West already, going all of the way back to Plato and culminating perhaps in Nietzsche who suggests a similar dualism and overcoming of dualism in his notion of the Apollonian and the Dionysian and their combination in Greek tragedy and Wagnerian music. But surely something new is present here. Taylor does add another element to the process: the frustration of moving from one form to the next gives rise to what he calls a hypnotic power. This is where he begins to speak of such things as magic and mystery. It also turns out that we are not just talking about dynamic vs. static but about formal vs. empathetic. Part of the magic of this art is that in this “hypnotic” experience one seems united with the object being perceived (a kind of Schopenhauerian moment). It is here that Taylor begins to talk about the artifact as being animate, or at the same time animate and inanimate, and of its undercutting assumptions about scientific and science-like distinctions that pervade our Western experience. Understanding of the rhythmic lines of Haida design is a matter of experience, of following them, and not of the categorization under concepts and figures more typical of the West. Taylor goes to great pains to distinguish this concept of design from any Western one, including the early 20th century one of denying the validity of decoration itself. In advocating learning from this art he seeks to undercut the distinctness of the very concepts of utility, decoration and aesthetic structure. These concepts are just too pragmatic, too analytical, on his view. Instead the Northwest Indian carver overcomes mind-body dualism and opens the gates to mystery. If we could just incorporate this way of seeing, he thinks, we could overcome some of our alienation and malaise. We could even feel a bond of sympathy with these artists. (It was 1974 and this was a very Hippie moment.)

I wonder whether Taylor might not pose an interesting opposition to Allen Carlson. Whereas Carlson believes the only proper way to appreciate nature is under the categories of science and common sense, Taylor allows that the perceiving of nature that is exemplified in the very construction and appropriate perception of these objects refuses to accept these categories and indeed introduces the ideas of magic and mystery which are unacceptable for our science and common sense. If we had to choose between Carlson and the Haida artist, is the answer obvious? Surely the Haida approach to nature would not be one of simply treating it as a work of art (in our sense of art). Nor would it be a matter of total engagement, as it does include this formalist element rejected by such engagement theorists as Arnold Berleant.

Joshua C. Tyalor. Art and Ethnological Artifact. in Aesthetics ed. Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard (Oxford U. Press, 1997) orig. "Two Visual Excursions," Critical Inquiry 1:1 (1974) 91-7.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What does Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy offer the Artist?

This is just an experiment. The Birth of Tragedy, although apparently short, is an enormous unwieldy book for the serious reader. I ask myself what value it can have for our own time, especially for artists and for other creative types. I have long thought of Nietzsche as someone who can speak to those atheists who still have religious tendencies. (Read this as a belief that something like eternity, redemption is needed, despite the truth of evolution and the literal falsehood of religious mythology, for example in a "living Jesus" or a loving God.) His attack on what he calls the Socratic is really an attack on tendencies to see everything, even morality, as amenable to reason. I think of my liberal friends who believe that if we all just got behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance we would recognize that we ought to vote for Obama. I think we ought to vote for Obama but, with Nietzsche, I cannot accept this optimism. There is no behind the veil of ignorance, and even if there were, there would be no agreement there. It is an interesting phenomenon that watching Justice Scalia in an interview on 60 Minutes: one does not see an evil man. From the liberal perspective he has to be not only evil but unintelligent. I oppose his policies (e.g. his rejection of the living Constitution and of the right to privacy) but I cannot say he is unintelligent. That our worldviews are incommensurable is tragic. There is no explanation beyond stories about our different upbringings and genetic makeup. (The same would go for Nietzsche’s own insensitivity to the exploitation and alienation of the working classes.)

Nietzsche helps us recognize the tragic dimension of existence: that the Socratic point of view (really the Platonic point of view) comes up against a wall at some point. I do not think we need to take literally his idea (stronger than that: we just shouldn't) that there is an underlying primal being that seeks redemption through us and through our dreams and art. What he does teach us is that the religious impulse needs to be satisfied in some way, and that there is something that artists and other creative types refer to when they say that they have tapped into a source of creativity. Religion used to address this issue, and then it began to think of itself as science: hence the fundamentalist attack on evolutionary theory. Many liberal theologians on the other hand are actually pretty close to the track Nietzsche was following, often under his influence. In the 20th century the action moved to the arts, although frankly I think that this tendency has almost been exhausted, as can be seen in the rise of fundamentalist religion and the decline of sheer excitement about art (no one is going to riot in the streets over the latest works of Cindy Sherman, as thought-provoking as they might be). Where is art to go if Nietzsche is basically right, i.e. right if understood for our own time? I think it pretty fundamental that art goes nowhere if it is thought that the Apollonian or the Socratic or the Alexandrian are sufficient in themselves for art or for man. Art is, at its best, tragic art, and this means that it combines the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The trick is to tease out what this means from Nietzsche's writings. Nietzsche believed that art expressed the Dionysian wisdom. The Dionysian wisdom, as I see it, is three-sided. First, it is the recognition of suffering. It is so easy for us to ignore it, and yet it exists all around us. Second, it is the belief in the possibility of redemption through a moment of identification with the eternal. Third, and most important, is recognition that this identification, although needed, is an illusion, that there is no eternal outside this life, that, indeed the first two realities had led us into accepting the falsehood of an afterlife or of some good Guy who will make things OK in the end (optimism).

The idea that there are necessarily illusions is the one truly major hurdle for contemporary philosophy in appropriating Nietzsche. (I don’t think any Nietzsche scholar or follower has ever really faced it.) This is not a rejection of truth: rather it is a recognition that small t truths can be sacrificed for big T truth, which is pretty much the opposite of the position of Rorty (who I much admire in other ways nonetheless). A Nietzschean form of atheism is one that can say yes to life in a deeply religious way that rejects the existence of God, at least of a god who cares for us or makes things right in the universe (redemption is not so easy as that.) The artist who seeks to deal with the underlying suffering and the need for redemption needs to steer clear of the twin illusions of science and conventional (read, “almost all”) religion. “Music” for Nietzsche signified the moment in artistic or aesthetic experience when one feels "as if" eternal. If that moment is a culmination, part of a larger organic whole, and communicable in the sense of socially-sharable, and not merely idiosyncratic or drug-induced, then that’s it, that’s the best there is.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Is Purity an Aesthetic or a Moral Quality?

Whether “pure” and “purity” are best associated with the aesthetic or the moral is open to question. In a recent article, Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund have listed the purity/sanctity as one of five evolutionary foundations of ethics.[i] They include the concept of “cleanliness” under the concept of pure/impure. Purity is one of what they refer to as an “innate moral nodules.” The other four nodules are clearly non-aesthetic, i.e. harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, and authority/respect. (Of course all of these elements could have an aesthetic side or be mixed in some way with aesthetics. For example authority could be gained or exhibited through a certain style of clothing.) Sanctity also seems to be outside the domain of aesthetics. We do not say that something is holy or sacred and mean by that that it has an aesthetic property. (Again, the look of sanctity might however be aesthetically pleasing.)

So, is purity basically a moral matter and not an aesthetic one? Haidt and Bjorklund recognize that the issue is controversial as they note that liberal moral theorists often see these as matters of social convention or of prejudice and not as matters of morality. Still, such moral theorists would probably not see purity as a matter of aesthetics. I think that Haidt and Bjorklund are right that matters of purity are “legitimate parts of the moral domain.”[ii] For example, if one takes pride in the “purity” of one’s blood-line, there doesn’t seem to be anything aesthetic involved, and even though I, as a liberal, do not approve of the morality involved, I can see how others might see this as a moral matter. This does not mean however that purity is never a matter of aesthetics. The Japanese emphasis on the value of purity would seem to be aesthetic. The “aesthetic of purity” is a common theme for their culture.[iii]

By contrast, most mentions of “purity” in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism have to do with whether or not there are such things as pure art forms and whether or not there is a pure aesthetic attitude. Clive Bell and Clement Greenberg are commonly referred to as people who favor purity in the appreciation of art. Purity is commonly associated with formalism.

But the question of whether purity is itself an aesthetic quality is seldom addressed. If the pleasurable response to purity is directed to the perceptual features of the object qua perceptual then the experience would seem to be aesthetic. Thus there is reason to believe that “pure” can be an aesthetic quality.

[i] Haidt, J., & Bjorklund, F. “Social intuitionists answer six questions about morality” in W. Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.), Moral psychology, Vol. 2: The cognitive science of morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007) pp. 181-217.

[ii] Pg. 203

[iii] Kenneth G. Henshall. Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins and Mainstream (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999) pg. 179. Henshall notes that the Japanese concept of purity can also include notions of perfection and normalcy. He observes that in Japan the adult male who fails to gain a job is considered aesthetically impure.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Oscar Wilde and the Creation of London Fog

Selections from Oscar Wilde’s “Decay of Lying” have been a recent feature in aesthetics textbooks. This may be largely because his claim that “the whole of Japan is a pure invention” seems very much like a postmodernist statement. Much of what Wilde says (or rather, has his character Vivian say….it is just easier to write as though Vivian’s statements usually represent Wilde himself) in these selections is exaggerated and not of much use in contemporary contexts. Take for example his claim that “Art never expresses anything but itself” (F44). Who now would hold to this view? However the paragraph that follows makes clear that for Wilde art often seems out of touch with its times, either by returning to an earlier age or by anticipating a new one. If “the spirit of the times” is taken to include these moves then this point at least should be right. I am inclined to agree when he says that “in no case does [Art] reproduce its age” for the simple reason that art is seldom meant just to reproduce, and it is not clear how one could reproduce something as complex as an age. Also, as before, this all depends on how one delimits an age: if an age includes its own memories and anticipations, then the more Hegelian claim that art expresses the spirit of the age can still be true.

More problematic is the claim that “all bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature and elevating them to ideals.” (F44) Such universal claims hardly ever work. Again, the paragraph that follows this sentence moderates the original extreme thesis. His view comes down to the ideas that art must use Life and Nature as raw materials and that it should not surrender its imaginative nature, neither of which is objectionable. On the negative side, Wilde's claim that “every artist should avoid…modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter” would seem to have already been refuted in his own time by Monet’s Gare St. Lazare.

Wilde’s most interesting claim, of course, is that “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates Life.” Once again, this is an exaggeration. As many of my students have observed, it would be better to say that they equally imitate each other. The idea that “the aim of Life is to find expression” is hard to countenance, as it is hard to assume that life has any one aim, although if this were true, and this were the aim, then art would be a good way to, as he puts it, “realize this energy.”

I like the idea that “the wonderful brown fogs” of London are due to the Impressionists. Wilde is saying that the things of everyday life, as having aesthetic qualities, did not exist until those qualities were expressed by artists. When he says that nature is “our creation” what he means is that nature insofar as she is experienced aesthetically (quickened to life) is our creation. When he says that “one does not see anything until one sees its beauty” he means that there are two kinds of seeing, one associated with practical concerns, but another having to do with things seen as essentially alive and vibrant. Thus, for Wilde, something only comes into existence when it is seen in this way. This is not to say that the thing did not exist prior to being perceived in the more conventional sense of "exist." This position raises a serious challenge to someone like Allen Carlson who believes that nature ought not to be appreciated in terms of art. Carlson specifically rejects what he calls the Landscape or Scenery Model (LSM), perceiving nature as if it were a landscape painting. Wilde is saying that perceiving nature in this way is inevitable. If this is true then Carlson's recommendation could not even be carried out.

Oscar Wilde. "The New Aesthetics" in Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard. Aesthetics. (Oxford University Press, 1997) from "The Decay of Lying" Intentions (New York: The Notingham Society, 1909) and originally published in 1891. There is a web version at

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Object of Art Model for Appreciation of Nature

Allen Carlson famously opposes the "object of art model" for appreciating nature. He agrees with Santayana’s suggestion that when appreciation is directed to objects that have determinate form in nature “we no longer have genuine aesthetic appreciation of nature.” He thinks that in doing so we must remove the object from its surroundings in reality or imaginatively. Then, he thinks, we will be treating it like a work of art, perhaps as a "readymade," but not as it is in itself. There seems to be a confusion here about how we appreciate art. When we appreciate art we seldom really remove it from its surroundings, even imaginatively. As Paul Ziff has observed, we are, when appreciating a painting, at least subliminally aware of the frame and the gallery walls. And, except for the strictest formalists, we confront the work in the context of information we may have about the processes and context of its creation. This is why we pay attention to the label on the wall. Carlson is simply mistaken that art works are “self-contained aesthetic units such that neither their environment of creation nor their environment of display is aesthetically relevant.” Even when we know nothing of these matters we have a tendency to view the work in terms of how it was probably created: we try to reconstruct its context. Carlson says that “natural objects are a part of and have been formed within their environments” as though works of art were not formed within their own environments or are not part of the environments in which they are displayed! I would like to argue that focusing on determinate objects in nature, for example a specific rock, pine cone, or flower, is a legitimate form of appreciation of nature. This can happen when these items are found in nature or even when they are taken home and put on a mantelpiece. In doing so we may have the very kind of background knowledge and awareness of the original background of creation that we bring to a work of art.

I am not denying that natural objects can take on different qualities when moved from their environment of creation to another environment of display (e.g. the mantelpiece). This is also true for works of art. Whether this is a negative is another matter. To be sure, natural rocks when incorporated into the wall of a work of architecture take on different aesthetic qualities than they would have had in their original location. (It is doubtful, by the way, that they would have had any aesthetic qualities at all if they were underground and invisible in their original location.) They do not lose their historical context: that context is simply placed in the background so that we are only vaguely aware that, for example, these rocks were collected locally. Carlson speaks as though the highlighting of those features of such objects that are not related to the context of origin makes their appreciation “limited” in the sense that something has been lost. But in fact much has been gained. The incorporation of the rocks into the piece of architecture enhances our own experience of the building as a whole and brings us close to nature in ways that, although different from those of the naturalist, are not necessarily worse.

I have just been looking at a spider in its web in sunlight: what a thing of beauty! But when appreciating this beauty I did not think much about the surrounding garden or about the evolution of spiders. I just focused on the web and the spider, on how they looked at that moment. On Carlson's view, this would be wrong: I would not be treating the web as it is in itself. I just don't buy it.

Allen Carlson, "Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment," in Aesthetics ed. Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard. (Oxford U. Press, 1997) 30-40.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


“Cute” is a term of great importance in everyday aesthetics, although it is also usually considered to be negative in fine art contexts. Back in 1991 John Morreall argued that since it is not important for the arts, and is a second-class aesthetic property, it is nonetheless important for humans. [i] Drawing from work by Konrad Lorenz, he asserted that cuteness is an evolutionary response to the need for mammalian infants, and in particular, human babies, to be protected by adults. Cute dolls exaggerate features (for example “round protruding cheeks”) that have evolved in this way in order to get adults to admire and purchase them. [ii] Morreall and Loy (his co-writer in the second article cited) associated cuteness with kitsch, and insisted that there is something objectionable about a painting of a girl with eyes much larger than usual. As they put it “Kitsch is perfectly suited to most people's passivity, short attention span, and shallow understanding, for it promises them immediate gratification requiring no special background knowledge or activity. It offers itself as instant art.”[iii] It sounds like they are pretty down on kitsch. Robert Solomon, by contrast, also writing in 1991, defended cuteness, even in art, denying that it makes much sense to speak of an excess of the emotion.[iv] However, Ruth Lorand opposes the cute to the beautiful, associating the former with insignificance. She argues that “[a]n insignificant object cannot be beautiful. Great works of art are works that touch and illuminate important and basic issues in human life … An insignificant, well-organized object is often cute, pretty, lovely, or decorative, but not startlingly beautiful.”[v]

I don't doubt Morreal's theory about the origins and imortance of cuteness, although the Lorenz citation is pretty old. It is interesting that no one has really said anything else about the topic since that time. It is also too bad there was never a debate between Morreal and Solomon. Morreal thinks sentimentality is problematic, Solomon does not. Since 1991 it seems that cuteness has become less "objectionable in the arts." Still I can be sympathetic with Morreall when he says that "I ...want more than simple autonomatic emotions from my experiences of art works. I want emotions that are complex..." (47). But what proves that the the cuteness reaction "could never be the stuff of great art"?

[i] See John Morreal, “Cuteness,” British Journal of Aesthetics 31:1 (1991) 39-47.
[ii] John Morreal and Jessica Loy, “Kitsch and Aesthetic Education,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 2:4 (1989) 63-73.
[iii] Pg. 68.
[iv] Robert C. Solomon, “On Kitsch and Sentimentality,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 49: 1 (1991) 1-14
[v] Ruth Lorand, “Beauty and Its Opposites.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52: 4 (1994) 399- 406. pg. 404.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Does attending to everyday experience aesthetically make us more moral?

Many philosophers, including Sherri Irwin, argue that if we attended more (in an aesthetic way) to everyday experience then we would have richer lives. I think the truth of this is fairly obvious. However, Irwin also holds that doing so will make us more moral. This seems more problematic. First, drawing from Richard Shusterman, she argues that attending to everyday phenomena will contribute to self-knowledge. This seems true enough, although we need to still distinguish between kinds of self-knowledge and determine the value of these kinds in relation to other values. Second, she believes our ability to appreciate these ordinary pleasures should not be dismissed as insignificant: for doing so would involve us in a kind of philosophical or ascetic renunciation. This seems right to me, but seems unrelated to the issue of morality. Third, and more cogently, Irwin argues that people are often dissatisfied in our consumerist society since gaining the products they want only gives short-term and partial satisfaction followed by an escalating need for something bigger and newer, which leads to the destruction of the natural environment and to many other ills of our time. She then suggests that this focus on consumer satisfaction involves a denial of the aesthetic. In response, she believes we should “focus on moments that do not involve Humvees or iPods or designer jeans” i.e. on aesthetic experiences “already available to us.” Doing so, she argues, might give us time to help others, which would then provide an even greater source of satisfaction. This seems more problematic since all of these consumer products are appreciated aesthetically: for example one might see the designer jeans as "cool" or even "beautiful." Thus it is not clear that turning to consumer products is a turn away from the aesthetic. And making do with what we already have will, in our society, involve making do with consumer products anyway. Admittedly, they will be older ones and hence making do with them will be more environmentally sensitive. But even granting this, it is not clear that a pared down hedonism that makes do with what we already have will necessarily contribute to our helping others. Tending ones own garden can be just that. Fourth, Irwin also thinks that attending to everyday aesthetic phenomena will “contribute to our ability to sustain projects undertaken in the pursuit of moral and other values.” Of course the development of any skill might contribute to the ability to sustain certain sorts of projects. The question is whether there is anything moral to this call to attend aesthetically to the everyday phenomena that are not consumerist- oriented. Irwin’s point is that if, for instance, one wants to become a vegetarian for moral reasons it is best not to see this as giving something up, and one can take this approach if one focuses on the aesthetic pleasures of a vegetarian life, or “by finding different ways to indulge the tastes that were once satisfied by meat consumption.” This last point seems sound to me: moral agency can be helped out by including an aesthetic element in our shifting behavior. Still, it seems to me that one could focus more on, for example, the pleasures of shifting air on one's skin, and not become the slightest bit more moral.

Sherri Irvin. "The Pervasiveness of the Aesthetic in Ordinary Experience," British Journal of Aesthetics, 48:1 (2008) 29-44.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Objects of Wonder

Most people would see the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson as a model of someone who maximizes everyday aesthetic experience. Referring to Cartier-Bresson however, Arto Haapala writes that, “in the context of art the everyday loses its everydayness; it becomes something extraordinary.” He believes, therefore, that Cartier-Bresson’s photography contributes “to the neglect of the aesthetics of everyday” for “[w]hen taken out of the context of day-to-day living and put into an artistic context, a picture such as Cartier-Bresson’s A Bank Executive and His Secretary (1960) becomes an object of wonder.” On his view, to be an object of wonder is to be taken out of the realm of the familiar and hence of the everyday.

Did Cartier-Bresson’s act of photographing the scene cause harm to everyday aesthetics? It seems not, for the scene must have been an object of wonder, or at least of interest, to the photographer even before he snapped the shot. Otherwise he would not have taken the picture. This is not to say that the wonder or interest he felt in looking at the scene was the same, or of the same intensity, as what he might have felt when looking at the completed photograph. Still, the two are not unrelated. If the business of everyday aesthetics were to encourage us to see everyday scenes as lacking in wonder, then Haapala would be right. But why should anyone do this?

"On the Aesthetics of the Everyday: Familiarity, Strangeness, and the Meaning of Place," The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, ed. Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005) 39-55.