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.  

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