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.