Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How important is positive aesthetic value in making photography art?

Louise Lawler Monogram -- Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Termaine, New York City
Sherri Irvin says it is not very important. She admits (in "Artwork and Document in the Photography of Louise Lawler" Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70:1 Winter 2012 79-90) that it was crucial to photography's gaining acceptance as an art form:  the photographs of Julia Cameron being "formally stunning."  Irvin denies however that "aesthetic value is necessary" for photographs to be art.  Although I do not know whether positive aesthetic value is necessary, I was somewhat surprised (actually, rather stunned) by Irvin's key example for her case, Louise Lawler's photography of artworks by famous artists in various contexts (i.e. in collections, storage spaces, etc.).  She says "a number of Lawler's photographs do not even tempt us to think that they might be art by virtue of their formal or aesthetic features.  Some of her photographs of artworks in corporate or auction settings are, in my judgment, aesthetically ordinary, even drab or depressing.  An example is Who Says Who Shows Who Counts (1989), which shows Warhol's Wicked Witch on the wall of a boardroom... This is not a criticism of Lawler's photographs as artworks: they are designed to make us attend to and reflect on the institutional framework within which artworks circulate, and sometimes that institutional framework is a very drab and ordinary one."  (86)  You can see a good image of this work here.  What struck me when looking at Lawler's photograph was that it has strong aesthetic qualities.  The terms "visually powerful" and "striking" come to mind.  "Aesthetically ordinary" seems, in my judgment, to be way out of place.  Of course if I walked into the boardroom portrayed I would probably think it was drab (but for the prominent Warhol).  But this photograph strikes me as rich in meaning in a way that the boardroom itself could not be (for example:  the single marker pen standing up on the table seems to reverberate with the Wicked Witch theme.)  So I would opt out of the "us" in Irvin's phrase "do not even tempt us."  Perhaps Irvin and I have very different understandings of the term "aesthetic."  By her combining it with "formal" one gets the sense that she believes that the only aesthetic values are formal values, for example harmony or symmetry (I am never quite sure what falls into the category of formal values.)

Irvin goes on to give a second reason why positive aesthetic qualities are not important in making Lawler's photographs art: :  "even when her photographs clearly do traffic in positive aesthetic value, as many do, very often it is the kind of aesthetic value that creates an association with nonartistic forms of professional photography" for example evoking interior design photography.  The example she gives for this is  Monogram -- Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Termaine, New York City 1984I could not find an internet copy of the black and white version of this work, the one that  Irvin gives in her essay.  This is a shame since that version is much better than the color version I got from above. Although the colored version given above does look almost indistinguishable from something in an interior design magazine, the black and white version shows the hanging ropes above and the air duct grating also above the artwork (which is a Jasper Johns flag painting).  Those elements make the work far more interesting formally, especially in juxtaposition with the bed below.  In neither photograph is the aesthetic value of the work the same as the aesthetic value one would find in a very similar looking design magazine photograph.  The aesthetic value of the illustrated version for example is influenced by the title as well as by its presentation to the world as art.  Irvin thinks that the important thing that makes art art is what brings it into the institution:  "when a set of objects was created by a person who is clearly aware of and engaged with the artworld, that engagement should be the focus of our inquiry"....presumably our inquiry into how it comes to be art.  So Irvin's conclusion is "at least with regard to works of our contemporaries, positive aesthetic value is not normally a key criterion in determining that they are art."  (86)  I should also add that Irvin has no problem with outsider art being entered into the realm of art because of positive aesthetic qualities, but only as a last resort if there is nothing that connects such art to an artworld institutional context.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is Perception Necessary for Aesthetic Experience?

Amir Konigsberg has published an article, "The Acquaintance Principle, Aesthetic Autonomy, and Aesthetic Appreciation"  British Journal of Aesthetics 52:2 (2012) 153-168  in which he argues that perception is not necessary for aesthetic experience.  This is not a controversial view when it comes to aesthetic properties of scientific laws or mathematical theorems.  However Konigsberg's interest focuses on conceptual art.  Part of the issue is whether we can trust the testimony of others with respect to aesthetic qualities.  Here, I would agree with Konigsberg that if someone I respect tells me that a movie or a work of visual art is aesthetically good then I will have some reason to believe it is aesthetically good.  If the film critics on the Rotten Tomatoes web site tell me I should see a particular film, I will take them seriously.  I will assume they know what they are talking about and will therefore assume that it is probably a good film.  Since I tend to like the same sorts of films film critics like then I'll probably like this one too.

However Konigsberg also argues that "in some domains the perception of the aesthetic object appears to be inconsequential to its aesthetic appreciation" and he believes that Conceptual Art is such a domain.  He starts with Robert Rauschenberg's "Erased De Kooning" (1953) (and I will limit my comments to this example) in which Rauschenberg spent a month erasing a work by the famous painter De Kooning and then presented the result as his own work.  The canvas, as Konigsberg observes, is almost white with faint traces of ink and crayon.  I have observed this work, which is owned by the San Francisco Museum of Art.  I should note that the work is also recognizable as a De Kooning. (You might just be able to see this if you look at the highest resolution reproduction available on the internet.)  Konigsberg thinks that we do not have to see this work to properly appreciate it.  It only needs to be described.  I feel uncomfortable with this position.  I do think that having a work of conceptual art described to me can induce in me an appreciation of the thought behind the work.  However, I am hesitant to say that I could really appreciate the work as a work of visual art without actually seeing it.  Konigsberg thinks the entire content of "Erased de Kooning" is non-perceptual.  It is true that in order to appreciate "Erased de Kooning" properly I need to know something about it.  It is also true that as I learn more about this work it comes to look different to me.  But this is true for a Rembrandt as well.  The fact is that whenever I experience a work of art the perceptual aspect of my experience is going to be influenced by what I know about it as well as what I am prompted by it to imagine.  So I do not understand Konigsberg's idea that one inquires into background knowledge to get the "non-perceptual meaning...of the perceptual object."  The background information informs the perceptual meaning of the object.  Moreover, it is a perceptual to say that it has "non-perceptual meaning" does not make much sense.  So I wonder whether it is true that "there are aesthetic experiences [of works of art] in which perception is unimportant."  Konigsberg thinks that "no important information about Rauschenberg's piece is presented in the way it looks..."  But it seems to me that getting information about the piece is not the same as appreciating it.  It is important to see the piece because the way it looks (including how it looks to us when we have a lot of knowledge about its origins) is essential to the piece.  I suspect that Konigsberg has not even seen this piece since he does not mention, for example, that it looks like an erased de Kooning.  He probably thinks there is no point in actually seeing the piece.  But isn't this a problem?  I say you cannot appreciate "Erased de Kooning" until you have seen it:  just having it described to you provides nothing more than appreciation of the thought behind it.  Here is where our intuitions (Konigsberg's and mine) diverge radically.  Whereas Konigsberg thinks it would be "bizarre" to "come up close and appreciate" this work, I think it would be bizarre not to do this:  if you are really going to apprehend the artwork you need to actually spend some time looking at it...and since it is a small work, and the effects are subtle, then coming up close is necessary in this case.  That's at least what I did when I saw the work.  Konigsberg thinks it is a matter of choice between "considering the patterns left over" after the erasure and "appreciating the painting's absence."  He chooses the latter.  However, I believe it is not a choice at all:  you should consider the erasure of the original painting by de Kooning as your look at and consider the patterns left over after Rauschenberg's act of erasure.  Konigsberg thinks I am "missing the point" but in fact he is missing the point.  "Erased de Kooning" is, after all, a work of art put on display in a museum. It is related intimately to a body of work of Rauschenberg all of which is made with the intention that people perceptually contemplated it.  Such works are intended to be looked at, not just thought about.  Konigsberg says "if there is aesthetic value to de Kooning's piece, it resides in the background knowledge we have about it, not in what we see in it."  (164)  This strikes me as doubly bizarre:  first, this is not de Kooning's piece, but Rauschenberg's piece, a piece based on a former piece by de Kooning. (I suspect that this is just an editorial mistake...but it is one that reveals a lot.)  Second, if the aesthetic value would just be in the background knowledge then reading about the piece, say in Konigsberg's article, would be sufficient... but it is not.  Konigsberg asks his readers to say whether what he has said about the piece elicits an aesthetic experience of the piece and whether the aesthetic experience would be the same kind as they would get through perceptual experience of the piece.  Perhaps there would be an aesthetic experience (we can find thoughts beautiful for example) but it would not be the same kind of experience since it would not be an experience of a visual work of art.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Can an ordinary good conversation be an aesthetic experience?

Noel Carroll in "Recent Approaches to Aesthetic Experience" just published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70:2 (Spring 2012) 165-177 puts pretty serious limits on appreciating conversations aesthetically.  In an argument against Gary Iseminger, who stresses that experiencing something aesthetically is appreciating it for its own sake, Carroll argues Iseminger would hold the following type of convivial conversation between friends would be aesthetic: "Perhaps it is a conversation about some event in the past; maybe it is about the time when they all toured Frankfurt together on their senior year abroad in college.  Suppose the conversation moves smoothly.  Suppose everyone has something interesting to recall.  Suppose that the spirit or feeling of their adolescent companionship is rekindled in the retelling of these youthful adventures, although not because they are artfully narrated, but only because they are honestly spoken." (p. 167). He thinks this is not an aesthetic experience on his "ordinary construal" of that idea.  This seems obvious to Carroll, but not to me.  From the quote Carroll seems to assume that for the conversation to produce an aesthetic experience it must be "artfully narrated."  Or at least, being artfully narrated would do the trick. Although I am not a big fan of the phrase "for its own sake" I do think that a conversation does not need to be artful in any way to be aesthetic.  The conversation Carroll suggests has many aesthetic properties.  Moreover, it fits Dewey's concept of "an experience" as described in Art as Experience.  This seems like another example of separating the aesthetics of everyday life from the aesthetics of art, or subordinating one to the other.