Saturday, November 24, 2012

Reply to Donald Keefer on the Aesthetics of Everyday Life

Reply to Don Keefer [see last post for Keefer's comments on my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life]

This is an experiment in posting a paper and reply from a conference.  Philosophers often write pieces for conferences that are never published.  But why not?  At least it may be worthwhile to do so on a blog. This is not however to preclude us from publishing our comments elsewhere.

Don Keefer and I share strong sympathies with Deweyan pragmatism.  Not surprisingly, then, I find myself in agreement with the four Deweyan points he makes at the beginning of his comments.  I do have trouble with the distinction between truly appreciable objects and ones that are not, but this is simply because I think any object can be appreciated in some context, with suitable framing.  I do not think this is a big issue, however:  as far as I can see it, those who disagree with me on this point are just not exercising their imaginations enough.  More important, I think, is Don’s point that proper appreciation requires the possibility of giving reasons and of building a community of appreciators.  Don is right that “success in coming to see aesthetic properties that are the source of satisfaction is a significant socio-cultural event” that “creates and expands the community of aesthetic appreciators.”  I have already suggested that aesthetic properties can be intersubjective or “objective” in a relativized way.  However, I think that philosophers tend to overemphasize the role that giving reasons plays in the growth of aesthetic communities, especially in the domain of everyday aesthetics.  How often do we really change our minds about appreciating something based on reasons someone has given?  Reasons play an essential role in argumentation, but argumentation plays a relatively minor role in determining a shared community of appreciators.  If I say to you “I want you to listen to this cut!” or “Don’t you think Joan Mitchell is a powerful painter!?” or, in relation to everyday aesthetics, “The dinner was just great!”  I am not using reasons but I am inviting you to join my community of appreciation.  Sibley and Isenberg I think did a good job of showing how little a role reasons really play in aesthetics.  Philosophers are also good at making up implicit reasons to fill in the gaps where there really are no reasons.  We could argue about cases all day. 

Whether or not a particular object is appreciated in an arbitrary manner is another issue, and this brings me back to the case of LSD.   This relates Don’s suggestion that an aesthetic object should be perpetually available for future engagement.  I just don’t see why perpetual availability would be necessary:  something can be aesthetically valuable for one individual or a small group for a short time (for example a particular cloud configuration or shadows on a wall) and then become unavailable shortly afterwards.  I do not see that the unavailability of the LSD experience afterwards (or of the aesthetic qualities in the object after the drug as warn off) is prejudicial to the experience being aesthetic.   I don’t want to rule out the possibility, by the way, that an aesthetic experience under LSD is shareable by two people who have taken LSD or even by one person who has taken it and one who has not but who is relatively open-minded to novel aesthetic experiences.  Anyway, share-ability does not imply actual sharing, and so the condition is easily met. 
The key issue however is that what seems bland to the average viewer of the ceiling looks marvelous to the person under LSD.  This may be due to adding colors or to heightened sensitivity to the aesthetic qualities that are actually there.  If something is just added (as though for example one had taken colored pens to the ceiling) then it seems that the object of appreciation is different.  However in the second case it is not.  Also, bear in mind that even in the first case the appreciator can describe his experience or even create a work of art that reproduces it for the viewer.  

Why does Don think that LSD experiences are limited to bah-hurrah reports?  Aren’t there lengthy and elaborate reports of such experiences?  Similarly, discussion of food goes far beyond “yummy” in some circles.  I do not buy into the idea that non-audio or visual experiences are especially interior.  This kind of thinking is reminiscent of the kind of dualism that Dewey opposed in so many other areas:  the audio and visual standing in for mind and the more bodily senses standing in for the body.  In general, humans have much more elaborate processing centers for aural and visual information than for taste and touch.  This may be the reason for prejudice against these senses.  However, there is no reason there could not be an intelligent species with dog-like smell capacity who would equally question our focus on sight or hearing.  You work with what you have, as far as senses go.  On a personal level, I suspect that my sense of smell is more open to complex aesthetic experiences than my sense of hearing:  I enjoy music but my enjoyment never seems to rise very high when compared to that of colleagues as ASA meetings.  Having played in a band, I found that lots of practice and comparison didn’t make much difference.

I have some trouble with identification of what Dewey calls integral experience or “an experience” with doings aesthetically appreciated.  In one sense, Don is right, since for Dewey all experience is a matter of doing (as it is, also, a matter of undergoing).  So, there is a doing element in all experience.  So every integral experience has a doing element.   But then this does not mark out a special category of things called “doings” to set down alongside physical objects as objects of aesthetic experience.   As far as Dewey is concerned appreciation of a painting is as much a doing as appreciating a fine dinner or appreciating the making of a fine dinner.   They all involve doing and undergoing.  They all happen over a span of time.  

Don has fun with Irvin’s almost Proustian savoring of a cup of coffee, an experience she enhances by writing it up.  Well, the ordinary cup of coffee experience is not going to be an integral experience of the Deweyan sort, but it can be so enhanced, partly by way of writing and other art-based mediations.  Part of what it means to be interactive with the world is that the things we confront are not just a set of properties or sense data.  They do not just exist independently of our interactions with them but are in dynamic relation to those interactions.  Experiencing something is not just undergoing but also doing.

Dewey stresses that experiences are not private things.  Integral experiences are not intrapersonal in the sense of belonging entirely to private worlds.   Irvin shares her experiences with us by describing them, as did Proust.  We enter into their private worlds by building up something similar from our own experiences.  Sometimes there are blockages to sharing:  as I noted earlier, I always find it difficult to enter into the emotional world of great music… I never quite to get it.  Entering Irvin’s world of taste is a bit easier for me, but perhaps less so for Don.  It may all be just a matter of how we are wired.

There are lots of examples of having a good time that fall into the category of "an experience" for Dewey, but there are some cases of having "an experience" that might not be best described as simply having a good time, for example breaking up an old relationship and going through a major storm.  Dewey also mentions several other criteria for “an experience” including an end that is a culmination, not a sensation, and the presence of a pervasive quality.  One could have a good time without these.  But in my book I argued that aesthetic experience goes beyond Dewey’s “an experience” and that one might better see such experience as an aesthetic ideal.  I am inclined to think that having a good time is usually just a more conventional and less academic way of referring to having an everyday aesthetic experience.  We philosophers often use high-fallutin terms for simple things, but the simpler terms are often better.  For example in my book I referred to “looks good” as an aesthetic quality.   

Don thinks that rushing his perfectly smooth béchamel sauce to his wife to collect her admiration is nothing like appreciating a turn of phrase, or the latest model of VW Golf in that it is a purely private affair.   His reasoning here is that his experience is not something you can appreciate.  Yet I wonder how appreciating the sauce is different from appreciating the car.  In both cases one might be appreciating the aesthetic quality of “smoothness.”  There are connoisseurs both of cars and of cooking.  The only difference I can see is that the aesthetic qualities of the car might be more complicated, and the venue for the sauce appreciation in this instance is more private.   We may never see the smoothness of this béchamel sauce again, but the Golf can be seen by many.   I can see Don’s point that one does not appreciate the experiences of others or even one's own experience:  one appreciates the object within experience.  But I am not yet convinced that there is a big difference between the objects here.  

Don raises challenging questions concerning the need for the concept of “aura.” My phrase "description of an object's aura" was unfortunate if we see description as a point by point portrayal of something.  The dictionary says that to describe is to give a verbal account of something and to tell about it in detail.  Obviously, aesthetic property terms cannot tell us about aura, and certainly not in detail.  I should have said that they indicate the presence of aura.  But perhaps the question remains why we need to talk about aura when we can talk about grace, elegance, or a number of other properties.  My response is that there must be something that these properties have in common.  I am also thinking about other terms that are not usually seen as aesthetic but which are used to indicate something aesthetic or are used aesthetically.  These too must refer to something shared with aesthetic terms.  Elegance, grace, prettiness, and so forth, on my view are all specific types of aura. 

This leads to perhaps the most serious problem for aura theory, one kindly not mentioned by any of my commentators, but I might as well bring it up myself.  The objection is that there is a perfectly good, although equally vague, term for what I am talking about, and that term is "beauty," at least when taken in the most general sense.  You could say that beauty in this sense is indicated by the various aesthetic property terms when they are used aesthetically.  Another word, more technical, but familiar to all of us, is "aesthetic."  On this view, what all the properties have in common is that they are aesthetic.   So someone could say, “if you want a vague term to do this work, why not use either ‘beauty’ or ‘aesthetic’:  why use an even vaguer term such as your ‘aura’ to illuminate terms already famous for their vagueness, but at least better known.”  I might reply that one only makes progress in understanding such things by working with a new metaphor that sheds light on them, and that "aura" brings with it associations not commonly found in "aesthetic" and "beautiful" while at that same time leaving behind some associations with those terms that may hinder us.  In particular "beautiful" has associations with its more specific meanings, where the beautiful, for instance, is contrasted to the pretty.  Aura avoids that.  I also thought it might avoid commitment to the objective/subjective dichotomy, although it turns out that both Don and Glenn Parsons, who also delivered comments on my book at the St. Louis ASA meeting,  interpret aura theory as subjectivistic, which was not my intention (since I really am a good Deweyan).  In my book I give a series of what I consider virtues of aura theory in contrast to other theories of aesthetics and aesthetic experience, and I will stick with those.  My theory that philosophical theories are basically metaphors is explained in other of my writings.  For now, I would just say that the value of the theory might be found simply in what one can do with it.  Here is an example, in teaching Schopenhauer’s aesthetics the other day, it struck me that all one had to do is substitute the Platonic Forms with “aura” and the theory would make a lot of sense, and that further this helps to explicate my idea of aura.  When the someone perceives the world with the eyes of an artist (something I commend in the book) then certain objects (often subjects of future artworks) take on aura insofar as they are more than themselves, imply that they are in another world, are as if exemplifying the essential nature of their species, and so forth.  Erasing the metaphysics from Schopenhauer leaves aura theory.  

Donald Keefer "Aestheticians without borders"

Aestheticians without borders[1]
thoughts arising from The Aesthetics of Everyday Life
Donald Keefer  Rhode Island Institute of Design

Thanks to Don Keefer for contributing his comments on my book, comments that were delivered at the American Society for Aesthetics national conference in St. Louis this October.
For a reply to Donald Keefer by Tom Leddy, see here.
If there are skeptics of everyday aesthetics (EDA) out there, Tom Leddy’s new book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (XO), should allay their doubts.  And, for the most part, few of the dominant debates in philosophy of fine arts are not relevant to questions that naturally arise in the aesthetics of the everyday.  The philosophical exploration of our aesthetic experiences of objects close to home (the created-environment and the self), Leddy rightly notes, will make a significant contribution to a general aesthetics.  It should.
The nature of aesthetic experience; the definition of the aesthetic attitude and aesthetic object; determining the domain and nature of possible objects of aesthetic attention; and a general theory of aesthetic value, mark the salient perennial problems Leddy explores in the book.  I can’t hope to do justice to Leddy’s work in the time we have.  Like Borges imaginary map that needs to be the same size as its territory, to do justice to Leddy’s book would seem to require an equal number of pages.  I’ll respond to some of his most provocative theories and hope that my observations, if off base, will provide an opportunity for his clarification. 
Under General Aesthesia:  The Aesthetic [Point of View or Attitude, Experience, Object, Properties, Value and Pleasure]
All of the above are essential concepts of any general aesthetics.  Almost always, they are defined or explained in terms of each other.  Either the definition and explanation of these concepts fail to break out of their circle or the theories turn out to be rooted in ground that cannot sustain them.  Tom Leddy’s view is that the aesthetic experience can be best understood as a function of its aura.  Whether or not Leddy’s aura passes through these Straits of Scylla and Charybdis, I won’t address.  I discern a fellow pragmatist in Leddy.  I want to see how this works in practice; in situ.  I am not sure he would agree with the following, but I’ll hypothesize that Leddy would accept the following are virtues of his theory.
·         It recognizes that aesthetic affect is not epiphenomenal to, not part of a parallel humanistic universe we live in when not preoccupied with more practical matters, nor  is it like a vacation from our practical lives.  On the contrary, aesthetic affect is fully integrated in our engagement with the world.  The weight of one or the other varies with need, but neither the cognitive and conative, nor the affective, are ever absent in experience.[2] 

·         It accepts the view that, to a significant degree, aesthetic value is based more on the affect of the experience than anything cognitive.  [I take this to be a virtue of Leddy’s aura-theory.]

·         It accepts and promotes the apparent liberties we exercise when engaging aesthetically with the world.  Such liberty is evident in our variability of our viewpoints; they reveal flexibility and creativity in how (and when) we engage aesthetically (and affectively) with the world.

·         Finally, it embraces and promotes the idea that enhancing aesthetic engagement is part of a more fulfilling life.
These are virtues in the Aristotelian sense.  They represent a mid-point between possible extremes.  Neither radical operationalism, nor aestheticism; neither rigid objectivism nor solipsistic subjectivism.  And so on.  Such a rubric may provide a useful way of determining whether Leddy is striking the mean or has gone in the direction of either excess.
Domain of Experiences that can be Aesthetic Ones
Before confronting Leddy’s core aesthetic theory, I want to briefly consider the borders of the aesthetic experience—are there any criteria for an object to be experienced aesthetically?  In Leddy’s world, any object, event, process, doing is a member of the land of aesthetic pleasure (LAP) when it is an object of an aesthetic experience.  According to Leddy, aesthetic experiences are by definition pleasurable.  The result is that there is no object that cannot be experienced.  This radical openness seems wrong to me for several reasons.
There are objects and experiences that call into question such openness.  There are three different sorts of objects that intuitively we might exclude from the objects that we appreciate aesthetically.
1.     Unlikely Objects seemingly impossible to appreciate.  Obviously, there are objects that our ethical commitments will (or should) rule out of an aesthetic perspective.  We would expect that learning a canvas was created from victims of the Holocaust would negate any provisional aesthetic pleasure we might have otherwise taken in the painting.  Still, even when morality is not an overriding factor, it would seem that are some experiences of objects or situations that cause extreme disgust, confusion, pain, dissmell, shame, humiliation, whether self-regarding or in sympathy with another that most normal individuals could not find a source of aesthetic pleasure.  [Some claim that there are smells, such as vomit and rotting flesh which are universally repulsive; electric shocks of nearly any intensity seem to carry a negative charge affectively.[3]]
2.    Non-audio/non-visual sensory experiences:  smells, tastes, somaesthetics.  AV experiences form a subset of our experiences which have objects that are (as far as common sense goes) are open to intersubjective comparison.  While I can’t experience the affective experience of another, I certainly may be able to see and possibly feel for myself what they are talking about.  This is not so for massages, meditation, runner’s highs.  The aesthetics of smell and taste is a bit more complicated, because we have established associations with ingredients.  Intersubjective comparability appears to be a crucial component of what may count towards, I’ll provocatively call a “true aesthetic experience.”[4]
3.    Doings and undergoings—we engage in many pursuits and enjoy events that go through.[5]  Cooking, smooth landings, scratching an itch, even the rush of a drug experience can be pleasurable.  What makes these peculiarly aesthetic seems problematical.  These appear almost entirely interior to the subject.  I think Leddy’s observations provide key reasons why these are aesthetically problematic.
The Unlikely Object
Leddy denies that there are objects incapable of being experienced aesthetically.  That is, there is no object that we couldn’t find a basis to enjoy.  Barring any conflict with moral standards, given sufficient background, contextualizing, and theory, any object can be provided with a pretext for appreciation.  For Leddy, if anyone finds an object aesthetically pleasing, the object cannot be ruled out as an AO (aesthetic object). 
[Added reflection:  This raises fairly common philosophical and existential puzzles.  Whatever is not ruled out by logic is possible in “some possible world.”  Its non-actuality or physical impossibility of its existence is irrelevant to the modal status of the claim such as:  something is something else.  In some possible world, there may be someone whose aesthetic life is one of great intensity resulting from a repeated experience of being dunked in a pool of vomit and given non-lethal electric shocks.  Does this make the event a potential object of pleasure?
We are using possibility according to common sense.  There is a possible world where I am elected president of the US by write-in vote in the next election.  Common-sense-wise, only a severe break with reality would facilitate entertaining its real possibility.  (If so, no matter.  I am not seeking, nor will I accept, the role of president of the US.)
But suppose, we take Leddy as speaking of this more common sense, existential sense of possibility, though most of his cases are imaginary.  A lone para-aesthete might actually enjoy the experience of donning a sweat suit equipped with devices that imitate a swarm of angry hornets.  I’m not sure we should agree an aesthetic perversion means we must take seriously this “Yellow Jacket Jacket,” as an AO.
Of course, I must acknowledge that, if the para-aesthete is having an aesthetic experience, the jacket is an AO.  After all, I have no qualms about accepting an acid-trip to be aesthetically pleasing.  However, the taste for yellow jackets may fit my category of objects or experiences that are problematic in social ways I have tried to develop here.]
Perhaps, Leddy is right in theory, but I think we should be weary of accepting this at any operative level.
For one, this appears to conflate the conditions of artistic enfranchisement with those of aesthetic reception.  This is common-place in the art world; we are expected to understand how the work could be considered art.  But grounds for being an artwork and those of being an AO, at least as Leddy requires are different.  The link between the provision of reasons for appreciation and actual appreciation are contingent.  Leddy believes given adequate background knowledge, context, etc, one can appreciate the work.  Perhaps, in the case of some objects, it is extremely unlikely.  And if it does?  The reasons given may have nothing to do with our appreciation of the work.  I don’t want to downplay the role of giving reasons in our aesthetic encounters however.
Secondly, with a truly appreciable object, providing aesthetic reasons can provide us with a model for appreciation.  The acceptance of those reasons and success in coming to see aesthetic properties that are the source of satisfaction is a significant socio-cultural event:  it creates and expands the community of aesthetic appreciators.[6]  An ad hoc (or arbitrary) justification of an unlikely (unacceptable) object for aesthetic appreciation undermines the community that cares about aesthetic objects.
There are a few key points to be made in light of this:  Authentic appreciation of an object often entails desires that the object be perpetually available for future engagement—to put a twist on Kant moral theory, I will that the object exists as a permanently possible source of aesthetic satisfaction.[7]  Clearly, one would want a source of pleasure to be available for future pleasures.  This may be one way of understanding Stendhal’s much cited claim, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.”  The permanent possibility of future aesthetic enjoyments provides the possibility of sharing the objects pleasure with others.  For example, out appreciation reveals a recognition that appreciation is often influenced by the model of a respected fellow member of the aesthetic community.  Often that is a teacher.  To borrow from Kant again, the judgment of beauty gives rise to subjective universal judgments.  Thus, it’s not simply that I like it, I think you should like it.  Or to put it closer to home:  “Try it, you’ll like it.”  Similarly, the publicly accessible sharable nature of such aesthetic experiences is that the objects can bear some range of aesthetic predicates.  There is some sort of existing thing that we are able to talk about.
Thirdly, imagined appreciation resulting from ad hoc justification is a bit like aesthetic caprice.  The result is what might be called, aesthetic solipsism.  By its nature, it disconnects the experience from the object and whatever role aesthetic appreciation might play on an interpersonal level.   The chief defect of aesthetic solipsism is that it has really nothing to say except report on one’s personal engagement.[8] 
Thus while we may not be able to determine where the line would be, having no border to separate what can be a source of aesthetic appreciation is too anarchistic and violates important aspects of our community of appreciators. 
If this public nature of sharability is critical to the aesthetic, it may provide a better way to think about aesthetic experience.  Perhaps it can help illuminate the “LSD problem.”  Monroe Beardsley denied it was possible to have an aesthetic experience while on LSD.  For Beardsley, my appreciation of my hallucinations, say, the dancing patterns on the ceiling, will be false, because the ceiling is in really unchanging white.   Leddy has no problem accepting that a LSD trip can be an aesthetic experience.  That the aesthetic properties experienced are a figment of the acid-soaked brain, and are false doesn’t alter the fact that the tripper experienced aesthetic pleasure.  The real problem is that no matter how glorious the trip was, I am reduced to expressing my responses and reporting on my experiences. 
[Added clarification:  Some accounts of acid trips are as vivid as anything reported in Proust’s Swann’s Way.  It is the representation of the experiences that the reader gets pleasure from, not the experience itself.  Let me tell you:  When I was hospitalized, with high fevers and on heavy opiates, I saw a parade of Loony Toon characters marching around the room just under the ceiling.  I could tell you how they marched.  I enjoyed it.  But that is my full report.  I strongly doubt you’ve enjoyed it as I did.] 
Must we say anything?  Many of us can be dumbstruck by a powerful aesthetic experience.  What is there to say looking at an extraordinary natural wonder?  However, as potential conversants in the community, we are susceptible to the way others appreciate the object.  Someone knowledgeable of geology, nature, history might share with us their background knowledge, thus model their appreciation for us.  In so doing, they open another door of perception and appreciation of the vista.  Sir Kenneth Clark didn’t just give a personal view, as he said he did, in his series, Civilization.  For me, he provided a model of appreciation.  It was infectious.[9] 
It appears that domain of objects that can be appreciated aesthetically really demarcates experiences that are sharable, susceptible to the fresh ways of engaging (of other), that may be interpersonally interesting and those that are not.  It is not an Iron Curtain between the artificial solipsistic aesthetic experience and sharable ones.  In fact, artists and imaginative interpreters can get us to look at the world differently. 
[Added:   For example, I’ve been look at the knobs on outdoor spigots as if they were blossoms.  I’ve tried to translate this framing of my experience into photos, but so far unsuccessfully.  When I look at these spigots, I see flowers, is a personal report.  It is especially uninteresting to anyone and it would be especially unhelpful in helping them frame the experience to provide aesthetic satisfaction in some of the spigots around the world.  This is what is missing in aesthetic solipsism.
I don’t dismiss the value of the completely private aesthetic experiences that make up aesthetic solipsism.  I can see these as aesthetic experiments where I see to what extent I may appreciate unlikely objects.  Some I may try to objectify, others not.  Some may bring me pleasure that doesn’t rise to any level that I’d wish to go further.  The important point is that these experiments may be incubators of future art or design.  Leddy’s frequent exploration of the dialectic between art and everyday experience illustrates just this point.]
Non-AV Pleasure
The second challenge is the enjoyment of sensory experiences such as smell, taste, as well as touch and proprioception.  I agree with Carlson and Parson view that such pleasure are “too localized in the body,” to be full aesthetic experiences.  The problem is not unlike the LSD problem where I seem to be limited to bah-hurrah statements and reports.  “I like the smell of brown sugar.”  “Yummy.”  On the other hand, most sensory experiences can take a range of aesthetic predicates.  The interiority of non-av pleasures makes them much less susceptible to modification by knowing about the experiences and judgments of others. 
[Added:  These considerations need to be sorted out.  There are in fact practices of taste regarding food, drink, and scents.  They have well-developed languages for descriptive and evaluative judgments.  Whether or not this makes a difference analogous to aesthetic infectiousness needs to be explored.  I suspect that learning the history of Channel perfume, or the ingredients favored and singled out by those who enjoy will much change my olfactory antipathies towards its No. 5.  No reasons for enjoying blue cheese are likely to move in that direction.  But these may not be critical to whether or not pleasures (or pains) of the tongue or nose are of an aesthetic sort.  I will leave this for now.]
Finally, Doings:  Tom Leddy joins with other contemporary aestheticians who consider doings such a cooking, cleaning, stroking a cat, and even scratching an itch to be aesthetic experiences.  Certainly enjoyable, but aesthetic?  The “aesthetics” of processes and activities comes straight out of John Dewey’s Art as Experience. 
For “an Experience” call John Dewey
The psychological acuity of John Dewey in mapping the dynamics of our psychic life as it reacts, endures, pushes, resists, feels, interprets, values throughout our waking hours is unparalleled.  Out of the flow of experiences, with so many of its sentences interrupted and left dangling or troths of inattention, there occasionally comes an experience that has a wholeness, completeness, resoluteness and order that makes it maximally satisfying.  One of the first such experiences Dewey considers is of a delightful dinner with someone.  His description serves as a model for looking at our own doings.  Because Dewey’s term, “an experience” is so awkward, and impossible to make plural, I’ll call these “Dewey-eyed doings and engagements.”
Leddy highlights the grandiosity that Dewey requires of an experience.  Our experiences are far more modest. Leddy observes that Dewey-eyed experiences are made up of “experiencing things as having aesthetic qualities,” or moments of aesthetic enjoyment.  Moreover, there are aesthetic experiences and satisfactions that are fulfilling yet not strung together into “an experience.”  At best, Leddy sees Dewey-eyed engagements may be “an important kind of aesthetic event, perhaps even an ideal.”  I think this is correct, but it raises the question of whether or not Dewey-eyed doings are just a fancy term for a good time.  [Perhaps a good time.]
Sherry Irvin’s almost Proustian account of drinking a cup of coffee is taken as fulfilling the Dewey ideal experience without the inflation of his master narrative.  I would parse the event into smaller bits:  Irvin savors and enjoys a cup of coffee, and I imagine she recalls other savorings in her past and famous accounts of savor such as Proust or of Japanese Tea Ceremony.  At this point, she has a model or template for how to experience her coffee.  Such a model can go all the way down to feeling our self move as the narrator does.  [I would locate other deeper memories in the countless coffee commercials I am sure she watched in her childhood.]  Her experience is then transformed by writing into a kind of Proustian intensity.  My next coffee, I could trigger a fresh cup of experience by filtering my experiences through the model of Proust[10] and Irvin. 
It should be clear that the Dewey-eyed approach produces a heightened self-awareness of the person aesthetically monitoring their doing.  It is a rare talent to take that and turn it into art.  Short of such a transformation, Dewey-eyed doings suffer the same faults of other primarily intrapersonal events. 
I remain very puzzled by the idea of aesthetic pleasure of an activity such cleaning, cooking, building a timber frame house.  I understand what it is to enjoy an activity, especially when there is the satisfaction of having accomplished something challenging.  After carefully and lovingly whipping my white sauce into a perfectly smooth, texture, I have produced an aesthetic object.  I want to rush my béchamel sauce to collect her admiration to add to my self-congratulations.  We appreciate the result of all that stirring.  I may have been stirred, but not her.  It is a purely private affair however. 
[Added:  Consider another example.  As a punster, I enjoy playing with words.  Sometimes that play results in something potentially humorous to someone other than myself.  However, much as I may have a good time concocting a pun, the enjoyment of the pun is the focus of the peculiarly “aesthetic” part].

Essential to Leddy’s notion of the AE is the “aura” of an object when judged to have aesthetic properties.  An aura is something extra-ordinary in the experience of, or in, the object which “intensifies the thing or its qualities.”  Aura is not in the object, as such.  Aura is a phenomenological concept concerning an aspect of experience of seeing or feeling in the object.  “Aura is what aesthetic properties have in common,” Leddy writes. (135)  All aesthetic descriptions (the aesthetic properties of an object) are “descriptions of aura.” (136) 
I don’t fully grasp the role of aura.  If all aesthetic properties are descriptions of an object’s aura, I’m not sure why we need aura. 
I’d ask if his intention was to create a concept that could seem to be a natural part of an object, one that could be triggered to view the object aesthetically, or one that we could adopt at will to engage aesthetically.  Thus, a photograph of peeling paint could trigger our attention towards aesthetic properties when normally we focus on the need for a paint job; and we are generally at liberty to adopt an aesthetic point of view of the peeling paint.  Aura is essentially affective, but to play the variable role I describe, it must have cognitive component, frame, which guide us in the experience.  Thus, one learns to read Renaissance paintings by directing our attention to perspectival features of the work.  Haydn’s music sparkles when we are able to hear its structural organization.  It’s all neat; everything in its place.  Tidy.
Real (estate) Aesthetics
For the last year, my wife and I have looked at houses for sale.  Internet sites provide information and pictures to study.  We’ve been to untold open houses.  It has taken me into the heart of everyday aesthetics.  I earlier associated finding something aesthetically valuable, pleasurable, or beautiful with a desire to perpetuate the existence of the object of beauty.  In the everyday world I’ve seen that one measure of beauty is whether I would will to live in such a space.  And in this sense, aesthetics literally reconnects with the promise of happiness.
EDA has the potential to enliven our experience—to adjust our aesthetic feelers to get more aesthetic pleasure out of the world.  But I look for a different outcome:  I’d like for an EDA to help us create a more aesthetically pleasing environment.  We should be less tolerant of properties that are ugly instead of looking for creative ways to find them attractive.  To do this I believe requires that EDA recognize the existence of aesthetic pain.  In the world of general aesthetics, there is either pleasure or the experiences are not aesthetic.  I know of no general theory of ugliness or aesthetic pain.  Yet it seems absolutely essential.  To find something aesthetically displeasing is the negation of the aesthetic pleasure:  an object that has aesthetic disvalue is one in which we desire that the object not exist as any further possible source of experience.  Unfortunately, our environments are far more aesthetically aversive than they are attractive.  With the compendious coverage of everyday aesthetics in XO, I believe I know how to carry on.

For a reply to Donald Keefer by Tom Leddy, see here.

[1] A version of this was given at American Society for Aesthetics, National Meeting, October 26, 2012. 
[2] I take this to be the essence of John Dewey’s pragmatic psychology of art in Art as Experience, in “Having an Experience.”
[3] What of idiopathic sexual fetishization of such disgusting objects and/or painful experiences?  Perhaps an interesting angle for exploring the world of object-shifted sexual “perversions,” might be to consider the aesthetic components.  Depending on one’s theory of aesthetic value, it may shed some light on the mysteries of the fetish. 

[4] Provocative, to say the least.  It is not an apt way to put it and I try to find better language ahead.  My arguments lead to a reframing which is actually at odds with such a conceit as “true” aesthetic experience.  A philosopher’s use of such a designation is really an invitation to say, “Kick me.”
[5] The recognition of these are primary sources and examples of aesthetic experience is straight out of Dewey’s Art as Experience.  This point is developed ahead.
[6] The community of aesthetes should echo the epistemological construct, community of enquirers, used by CS Peirce to provide a non-foundational basis for the justification of knowledge:  Truth is that which will in the long run be agreed on by the community of enquirers (or body of experts).  My construction need not entail actual aesthetic value, but that an object can be taken to be valuable by such a community.  This accords with Danto, in his article, “The Artworld,” and Hume on the “Standard of Taste.”

[7] This takes us into a compound controversy concerning Kant.  For one, Kant’s “aesthetic,” by his lights, is takes no interest in the existence of the object, but merely delights in the free play of the imagination responding to the object.  Kant is either confused, or his statement is incoherent.  That’s another paper.  Some version of distinterest makes sense, but not as Kant puts it.  My statement springs not from his aesthetics, but from his theory of teleological judgment and his ethical theory.  What may I hope for?  Can I hope for happiness?  Can I hope social harmony?  These are only possible to the extent that I can act towards their realization.  We can’t always act, but we can still will that such a world exists.  Thus, to find some objects to be sources of pleasure would be to desire that they be available to us in the future. 
     In the Q&A, was challenged on this.  Aren’t some objects all the more valued because of their ephemerality?  What accounts for their value is not that they are short and one time only.  The more desire we have than an object be permanently available, the more we regret the knowledge that it cannot be so.  If we didn’t wish it to be a possible experience in the future, we’d really have little care that it is a bright but momentary blip on the radar screen of our consciousness. 
     That the object does not, or cannot actually exist, is irrelevant to the idea that this object provides the sort of pleasure I would will that it be perpetually possible for future experience. 
[8] What is meant by limitations regarding what one has to report in a merely personal experience is not simply a report of pleasure or displeasure—bah-hurrah. 
[9] Alas, a great deal of art theory and politico-centric art history closed that door to Clark’s mind
[10] Were Proust alive today, Remembrances of Things Past would be a blog. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rancière on everyday aesthetics

I am trying to get a grasp what Rancière has to say for everyday aesthetics.  To this end I have been reading Ben Highmore's book Ordinary Lives:  Studies in the Everyday.  Highmore shares with me an interest in "whittling a quotidian aesthetics out of the forest of philosophical aesthetics." (44) and he finds inspiration in
Rancière.  I find Rancière obscure and confusing, so I am looking for help here, especially because he seems to be, as Highmore puts it, the "theorist of choice" amongst many contemporary artists.  Highmore talks about Rancière being alive to "the production and necessary confusion between aesthetics as a general field describing the realm of sensate perception, and the more limited meaning relevant to the field of art."  This seems to be connected with the last two hundred rears of art as it moved from romanticism to realism, impressionism, abstraction, etc., and which recognized the ordinary. This corresponds to my own thinking, for example in the section of The Extraordinary in the Ordinary called "Everyday aesthetics in the various art traditions."  (I suppose I should have incorporated  Rancière into my can only do so much.)  I am enough a child of the Anglo-American tradition to prefer clarity to confusion, and so do not much like privileging the word "confusion."  However we could interpret this as a matter of breaking down some of the rigid boundaries between art aesthetics and everyday aesthetics, which is precisely  what I advocate in my book. 

Rancière calls the more general economy of the aesthetic the "distribution of the sensible" a distribution that is managed, in his view, by various "policing" activities which determine what is visible and what not.  So his thinking is that there can be activities, whether aesthetic or political, that disrupt this policing.  I am still trying to figure out what this really means beyond the fact that in any society some people are in position to control at least some of what gets displayed and what does not both in the artworld and in everyday life.  However one thing that is helpful is his reference in Aesthetics and its Discontents (2009) to an example from the novelist Stendahl who speaks of how noises from his childhood, the ringing church bells, a water pump, etc., the water pump being "potentially glorious noise."  This corresponds to my idea of "the extraordinary in the ordinary" especially as expressed in the last chapter of my book.  Rancière then speaks of a "new education of the senses informed by the insignificant noises and events of ordinary life" (6).  Like me,  Rancière stresses the dynamic interaction between art and everyday life, where art, in describing the sensorial realm, constitutes the forms of common life.  As Highmore puts it, art during this period (the last 200 years), makes what was insignificant significant:  this is by way of "aesthetic and political disruptions performed in the name of democracy."  (Highmore, 46) 

Highmore observes that in Rancière's doctoral thesis The Nights of Labor:  The Worker's Dream in Nineteenth-Century France(1981,1989 Engl. tr.) he speaks of how the workers of France did not unite in demanding dignity of labor (as Marx would have expected) so much as focus on living a bohemian life of freedom (through writing poetry, painting, etc.) in their off-work hours. So, for  Rancière, this is true politics, which is a disruption of expected distributions of space, time and sense (the sensible). ("True politics" is on his view a politics of radical democracy, what we would call "progressive" politics.)  So, as Highmore puts it "When Stendhal hears the noise of the water pump as significant he is not simply adding 'water pumps' to the list of things worth listening to.  The redistribution of the sensible inaugurates (continuously) the possibility of everything and anything being significant..."  (48)  (This parallels the claim of Paul Ziff that anything can be the proper object of aesthetic perception, as discussed in my book.)  This moment is one of "subjectification" which  Rancière describes as "the opening up of a subject space where anyone can be counted since it is the space where those of no account are counted." (Rancière, 1999).  

Highmore further stresses that for  Rancière the "aesthetic regime of art" downplays the distinction between abstract and realist art.  Just as paintings of cooks allow that anything can be the subject of art, so too abstract paintings.  Rancière calls this "the ruin of the whole hierarchical conception of art which places ...history painting above genre painting, etc." (Rancière, 2005) Again Rancière writes that (as always, here, I am quoting from Highmore's book) "According to the logic of the esthetic regime of art, in order for photography or the cinema to belong to art, their subjects first had to belong to art.  Everything that could be taken in by a glance had to have been already susceptible to being something artistic;  the insignificant had in itself to be potentially art.  The rupture of the system of representation was first brought about by what was so ineptly called 'realism';  this 'realism' held that not only was everything that was represented equal, but also there there was an inherent splendour to the insignificant." Rancière, "Cinematograpic Image, Democracy, and the 'Splendor of the Insignificant'" interview, Sites, 4:2 (2000) 18-23.  As Highmore observes, when the arts do this to the insignificant this is a "training ground, sensitizing us to the textures and tempos the daily." (51)

In the end however, I wonder whether paying attention the the everyday is such a strike for democracy.  Although I am deeply sympathetic to democracy (and political progressivism) one might also note that whereas the high art that focuses on these things is usually the product of the interests of the educated elite, the working class interest (at least in our time) is focused on popular art and advertisement-driven consumption of mass-produced products.  Some would say that the working class mainly notices what some people have spent a lot of money to assure that they do notice:  is this a move in the direction of democracy?  This may not be entirely fair to the working class, however, since working class people seem focused equally on aesthetic phenomena that are centered on family life or on the spontaneous cultural products of small groups of peers.  Nonetheless, "the aesthetic regime of art" that Rancière describes is not a primary interest of theirs.  They are not readers of Art Forum, which devoted a special section to the thought of  Rancière in March 2007.