Saturday, August 31, 2013

Can a poem be paraphrased?

At first sight, it would seem obvious that poems can be paraphrased.  After all, one can show that one understands a poem by giving a description of what it means in other words.  In one sense "paraphrase" just means "interpretation."  And yet some have argued that poetry cannot be paraphrased.  The word "paraphrase" simply means "tell in other words" and the OED defines it as an expression in other words that is "usually fuller and clearer, of the sense of a written or spoken passage or text."  The usual object of paraphrasing is clarification of meaning.  A. C. Bradley famously argued in "Poetry for Poetry's Sake" that one cannot paraphrase good or "pure" poetry.  For instance, of a line in Virgil, he says that "if we insist on asking for the meaning of such a poem, we can only be answered 'It means itself.'"  Some other words cannot express the meaning of the poem.  Peter Kivy in his book Philosophies of Arts (1997) and again in Once-Told Tales (2012) argues against Bradley.  He thinks that, although there are some rare poems that cannot be paraphrased, this is only because they have no meaning or content at all.  The poem by Lewis Carroll that starts "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves" does not make sense and cannot be paraphrased.  Kivy also suggests, strangely, that perhaps haiku poems cannot be paraphrased.  (If haiku poems can have content and yet cannot be paraphrased then doesn't this undercut his entire thesis?) Bradley says that Byron's poem Mazeppa cannot be paraphrased since the line "Bring forth the horse!" The horse was brought; In truth it was a noble steed!" would be paraphrased by replacing the word "steed" with "horse" and the word "horse" with "steed" (since they mean the same thing according to the dictionary), and yet this would lose the meaning of the poem.  Kivy thinks that if the poem is replaced by "Bring forth the steed!" The steed was brought; Indeed it was a noble horse" the meaning has not, contra Bradley, changed, although he admits that the aesthetic character has changed.  (Once, 168).  Kivy insists that a paraphrase is not intended as a substitute for a poem, just as an explication or representation of its meaning. 

Kivy seems right in insisting that most poems can be paraphrased.  But is there no truth or insight in what Bradley was trying to say?  Is the form of a poem sufficiently distinct from its content that one can present the content without the form?  Or are the content and form so closely intertwined that more than just the aesthetic feel is lost when one gives an explanation of a poem's meaning?  Kivy thinks one can separate the meaning of a poem from its form, i.e. the way the meaning is expressed.  I wonder whether this is possible.  Note that Kivy is not saying that a poem's meaning may ever be completely paraphrased.  

Still, the question remains whether there is some insight in Bradley's insistence that the poem expresses what it intends to express in its own words and that the paraphrase is inevitably a distortion of that. Kivy says that the content of a poem is its "propositional content" and he observes that there are three kinds of propositional content:  the content of sentences in poems that describe, the content of sentences in poems that narrate events and actions, and the propositions that the poem might express in the way of philosophical or moral theses, and, on Kivy's view it is self-evident that "if a linguistic instrument of any kind has meaning, which is to say, propositional content, including poetry, it is paraphraseable; its meaning, its propositional content, can be expressed in other words."  (171) 

Why does this make me nervous?  It does seem that Kivy is telling us that poetry has no autonomous domain of meaning, and that it can be pretty much replaced by philosophy or science, as far as significant content goes.  Remember that a paraphrase gives the meaning more clearly.  Isn't this a salvo in the battle between poetry and philosophy going back to Plato, Kivy being on Plato's side in attacking poetry as, for the most part, worthless?  What does poetry give us, on Kivy's view, other than a less clear version of what a good prose paraphrase would give us better?  The decorative element, which Kivy refers to as the aesthetic or "form" dimension, looks to be not only superfluous but also productive only of un-clarity.  Note that it is never even considered that the paraphrase could be in other poetic words!  Propositional content, on this view, is only properly presented if it has the clarity of a piece of analytic philosophy. 

Kivy directs his views against Kant's idea that a poem of genius will gives us not only statable content but also a huge collection of  "aesthetic ideas" which is, as Kivy puts it "the true aesthetic content of the poem."  Kivy has a problem with Kant's idea that the true aesthetic content is "ineffable."  It becomes clear in reading Philosophies of Arts that Kivy wants to bring down what I consider to be Kant's greatest insight into aesthetics.  Kivy correctly reads Kant as stressing that the feeling of ineffability enlivens our "cognitive powers and connects language, which should otherwise be mere letters, with spirit" and further that this material happens in such a way as to connect us with the realm of idea, or what Kant calls the supersensible realm (and what ordinary people would call the realm of God).  Taking way the metaphysics I find implausible (I don't believe in God) this means that ineffability gives us a feeling of transcendence that gives meaning to our existence.  I think this makes Kivy uncomfortable (perhaps he thinks it will bring God in through the back door...there is a lot of nervousness about this amongst analytic philosophers who are atheists) and is the source of his denial of Bradley's thesis that poetry cannot be paraphrased. Kivy thinks that Kant's idea of "aesthetic ideas" leads to Bradley's "conflation" of form and content.  I follow Kivy's reasoning but in a different (the opposite?) direction, i.e. that uncovering the inner truth of Bradley's otherwise implausible thesis brings us back to Kant's discovery of the importance of the ineffability of poetic meaning, which Kivy ultimately wishes to undercut (partly because he is a nervous atheist, and partly because, as an analytic philosopher, he wishes to always assure that distinctions between concepts, as for example, between form and content, are general the motive behind this is a worry that without rigid conceptual distinctions humanity will descend into is noteworthy in this respect that the worst thing an analytic philosopher can say about someone is that they have conflated two concepts).      

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Are Aesthetic Properties Mostly Irrelevant to Reading Novels?

Peter Kivy argues that they are in his book Once-Told Tales:  An Essay on Literary Aesthetics.  A typical kind of claim he makes is "the structure of novels can be and sometimes is the bearer of aesthetic properties. the normal experience of novel-reading, whatever aesthetic properties novelistic structure may possess are seldom the direct object of the normal reader's aesthetic attention.  Furthermore, whatever influence they may have is in the background, although in certain circumstances, to be sure, they can be foregrounded by a certain kind of reader."  (73)  I continue to find this wildly implausible, and am currently just trying to figure out why he would believe such a thing.  There is no question that Kivy is an immensely sophisticated listener to music.  He is perhaps the foremost musical aesthetician of our time.  In line with this, he notes that it a common experience for him to listen to music for its underlying structure.   Perhaps he thinks that in comparison to his experiences of music his experiences of reading novels is aesthetically thin.   (This would go the other way for me:  I find it extremely difficult to listen to music in the way Kivy does and can only admire him for his accomplishment there.  On the other hand, I seem to have less trouble than he does in reading novels aesthetically.) The title of his book tells us a lot:  he avers that normal reading of novels is one-time only, that people usually read novels for the story, and so reading any of a novel for a second time is a waste of time unless one has forgotten the way the story goes.  He admits that some people do this, but only certain specialists, perhaps teachers or critics.  It strikes me that Kivy is keen on comparing extremely sophisticated music listening (the type he engages in) with very unsophisticated novel-reading, and then discovering that the later comes up short when it comes to aesthetic experience.  This just seems unfair to the novel.

A big feature in Kivy's distinction between listening to what he calls "absolute music" (music without words) and reading a novel is that we treat gaps in the experience differently.  In reading the novel, gaps are important (on his view) since during this time we think about the content of the novel. By contrast, he believes there is no content to absolute music, and so there is no possible enrichment in the gap.  Now what does one do during the gap:  one does something like philosophy, i.e. one ponders the truth (he claims) of certain theses put forth by the author.  This just does not seem right to me.  Pondering theses is something that can happen, but I doubt that considering whether or not certain sentences are true or false is an important part of the experience of a literary work, or if important, it is not necessary.  It is true that in reading mystery novels we often ponder whether the sentence "The butler did it" is true or false.  So, I suppose it is important in this way.   Nor do I deny that reading novels can lead us to philosophical contemplation.  But I think that something richer and deeper goes on in reading and contemplating literary works, something very much unlike doing philosophy. 

Another aspect of my reading experience that does not seem to fit with Kivy's way of talking is that I do in fact attend to the writing style of the writers I read, savoring some styles and finding others distasteful.  Isn't the prominence of good careful, well-honed style what distinguishes good literature from the cheap popular novel?  It seems that Kivy wants to reduce the reading experience to the reading of the cheap novel.   To be sure, Kivy tries to avoid this, saying that the first and only reading of a literary novel "will provide greater readerly satisfaction than the first and only reading of a run-of-the-mill whodunit, at least to the reader qualified to appreciate its superior qualities” (p. 7)  But if he grants this, what happens to his main thesis that aesthetics plays little role in reading novels?

Is it even true that in reading novels, we do not go back and reread parts?  Not in my experience.  I do not consider myself a particularly sophisticated reader.  However, I do belong to a book group.  Before I go into the group I often reread certain passages, as I do sometimes during the meeting (when I disagree with the interpretation of another member, or am just puzzled about something) and then later I will sometimes go over parts of the book, for example by way of reading commentaries on it and then checking or rereading certain passages.  It seems to me that this is all part of reading a novel.  Moreover, at the beginning of our group sessions, someone will retell the story or plot of the novel, and I do listen attentively.  On Kivy's view, this would be a mistake.  He quotes with approval a Homeric poet who asks what could be more tedious than to hear the same tale twice.  (145)  But actually it is not tedious at all. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Can the Content (Especially the Moral Vision) of a Literary Work be Aesthetic?

Peter Kivy in his recent book Once-Told Tales (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) argues that the content of literary works cannot be aesthetic.  Only the form of such works can be aesthetic.  So, on his view, the moral vision of a literary work cannot be aesthetic.  I tend to hold a different view, that literary works are organic wholes in which each of the parts are connected internally to each other part, and that moral vision cannot help but participate in whatever aesthetic properties are to be found in the form of the work and vice versa.  Kivy speaks of narrative content, philosophical content, religious content and political content as well as moral vision.  None of these, he thinks, are aesthetic, although he does hold that they can contribute to the artistic value of the work.  I have no problem with Kivy's overall description of how we experience content in literary works, i.e. that literary works do not generally present arguments for such content but rather stimulate the reader to think about it in between bouts of reading or during the period immediately following the reading.  Is the moral content of an artwork part of its aesthetic character?  Kivy defines aesthetic character in terms of sensuous experience and, on first sight, one might incline to say that this excludes such things as moral beauty or ugliness. Kivy, has a problem with the idea that morally good characters can be judged as beautiful or ugly (these being aesthetic terms).   However, as I read an Alice Munro short story I experience a character, in Train, as morally ugly not simply because of the fact that he does something morally wrong (abandons his friend of many years as she is dying in a hospital he can easily visit) but that I see this action as part of his overall character which is movingly tragic and morally ugly only in this way.  Perhaps part of the reason for my disagreement with Kivy is that he thinks that the thoughts we might have between and after bouts of reading are not part of the aesthetic experience of the novel.  My take on his is based on my experience of reading novels in a book group for almost thirty years.  As I see it, the discussions we have (and the discussions I also have outside the group with my wife, who is also a member of the group) are part of my overall experience of the novel.  Kivy seems to think of moral contemplation as simply a matter of doing something like analytic ethics after one has read the novel.  Thus, on his view, Harriet Beacher Stowe wishes the reader to think that slavery is a horrible moral evil after reading her novel.  This may be true, but my experience of contemplating a moral vision after reading a novel is not of this you-can-drop-the-book-now-and-move-on-to-moral-theory sort, but rather of something still very much connected to and seen through the experience of the novel.  Kivy thinks "our literary appreciation of - our enjoyment of - a novel's ethical content likes in our intellectual satisfaction." (52)  The passage, although seemingly true at first, needs explication and discussion.  Returning to Alice Munro...she tells a story of an adulterous relationship in which a man pretends that he and his lover is being blackmailed by a maid whereas in fact he is pocketing the money himself.  If the thing to be contemplated is just the fact that this is immoral then there is something boring going on here.  What is more interesting is that we are intended to accept the complicity of the woman in the story even after she has found out her lover's deceit. The moral vision that comes out here has a certain color, one might say.  "Moral vision" is not just another word for "moral truth" in the sense some proposition that can be proved by a standard moral theory.  Is the satisfaction I get from themoral vision of the story an intellectual satisfaction, an aesthetic satisfaction, or both?  I would say both.  Kivy would not.  It is a philosopher's prejudice to say, as Kivy does, "We take pleasure in our thinking through the ethical issue raised to a satisfactory conclusion, if indeed that is the result, or, if not, the thinking itself." (52)  Kivy thinks that aesthetic satisfaction should be a kind of "savoring" and that one cannot savor, for example, the moral vision presented by Munro in one of her stories.  But one can!   And I do not think that there is, in the end, any point in reading her stories unless one does.  (Part of the value of my discussion of the book with others is that I end up contemplating their vision or reconstruction of Munro's moral vision.  But my pleasure in her work is my savoring of my reconstruction, or rather of her work through my reconstruction, not of theirs.  Of course I construct my idea of her moral vision in response to their construction of theirs.)  I agree with Kivy that this is not the same as contemplation in the sense of mulling over a proposition or argument in a philosophical treatise, although, unlike Kivy, I think that there can be something aesthetic about that as well. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Further Thoughts on the Ritual Theory of Art, or How Some Contemporary Art Meets a Nietzschean Understanding of Tragic Art, Combining the Apollonian and the Dionysian

As I said in my last post, Cynthia Freeland (2001) poses what she calls "the ritual theory of art."  I considered various ways to interpret the idea.  Certainly it comes out of thinking about the relationship between tribal rituals and what we today call fine art.  There are many similarities and differences between these two kinds of practice, and these pretty much track important differences between our societies and tribal societies.  But there has also been a revival of interest in ritual, especially in the art world since the 1970s.  So let's say that there are people who hold that art is ritual and mean by that that contemporary art, at its best, gets us back in some way to tribal ritual.  For example, many feminist artists have been interested in ritual and have used ritual-like actions in their art, and favor this as the way to go in art today.  Performance art was important for feminists in the 70s and certainly the performances in performance-art were often ritual-like.  Also, a concern for ritual themes in art might be associated with a desire to overcome dichotomies between the tribal and the civilized, to make us more aware of and understanding of the "other" and to give us a deeper understanding of civilization's roots in the tribal.  At the same time, even in performance art, there are marked differences between the ritual-like or ritual-inspired behavior of artists and actual rituals. As Freeland suggests, the blood in modern art does not mean the same sort of thing as it does in "primitive" ritual.  In ritual, she argues, symbols have meaning based on a shared belief system.   The Mayan king who pierces his own penis in a public ritual thinks he is connecting himself with another spiritual reality.  This sort of shared belief system is not required for contemporary art contexts, and probably is even excluded.  It seems that appeals to ritual in contemporary art involve a kind of play-acting, although serious matters are still implicated.  As Freeland puts it, "some artists seek to recreate a similar sense of art as ritual." (2)   This sentence, however, is not entirely clear.   The Mayan king may have no sense of art as ritual since he may have no sense of art as something distinct from ritual.  So nothing of that sort can be recreated in contemporary art.  Rather, the modern artist who is inspired by ritual seeks to see art as metaphorically identified with ritual in this tribal sense.  The artist cannot and probably would not even want to recreate the very experience of Mayan ritual itself.  Rather he or she wants to use the metaphor "art is ritual" to gain a deeper form of art, one that perhaps addresses some of the same human needs addressed by Mayan ritual.  Freeland mentions the existence of blood symbolically drunk in Holy Communion as similar. However, it is noteworthy that there is already some distancing occurring here, i.e. at the stage of history called the rise of Christianity:    The Holy Communion involves no actual blood,  although of course theologians claim that it does in some strange way, i.e. through transubstantiation.  Still, it doesn't smell, taste, or test as blood.  Rather, the wine becomes a symbol of blood which is in turn is here a symbol of animal (and human) sacrifice and all the things associated with the rituals surrounding that.  Contemporary art that refers to ritual seeks to invoke some of this rich symbolism without the attendant belief.

 It is interesting that it is not all that easy to come up with the theory of art that excludes ritual from the realm of art.   Of course one can give a definition of art that requires presence of an artworld, and this would in fact exclude ritual.  But this seems ad hoc.  Freeland, herself, prefers Richard Anderson's definition of art as "culturally significant meaning, skilfully encoded in an affecting sensuous meaning."  (77).  This definition does have certain advantages over the institutional theory of art in that it does not rely on an exclusivist notion of art being tied to an artworld.  However it is also extremely broad and would not, for example, exclude a "day of the dead" altarpiece.  Expression theories of art would also not exclude rituals since they are certainly intended to convey and invoke feelings.

It is open to debate whether Dennis Dutton's recent cluster theory of art (found in his book The Art Instinct) would exclude ritual from art.   He gives twelve criteria none of which are necessary and a certain unspecified number of which would be sufficient.  It could be argued that rituals are not generally valued for giving immediate experiential pleasure, for displaying creativity or for being the objects of critical discussion, thus not meeting three conditions, and yet could be seen to meet all of the other conditions if they are interpreted generously.  That should be a problem for cluster theorists since, as Freeland observes, there really are important differences between rituals and art. 

Although I expected Freeland to draw some close connections between ritual and contemporary art that uses ritual, she in fact goes in another direction in the conclusion of her discussion (in Chapter 1 of her book).  She writes "The theory of art as communal ritual fails to account for the value and effects of much contemporary art.  The experience of walking into a spacious, well-lit, and air-conditioned gallery or a modern concert hall may have its own ritualistic aspects, but ones completely unlike those achieved by the sober participants with shared transcendent values at occasions like...[the] Mayan or Australian Aboriginal gathering.  It seems unlikely we are seeking to contact the gods and higher reality, or appease spirits of our ancestors."   The last statement is true, although understated.    So, one thing one could say here is that one would be wrong to think that a general theory of art as ritual could equally and easily cover both tribal ritual and contemporary ritual-inspired art.  But two puzzling things are to be found in the quote.  First, the gallery and concert hall experiences described are both intended to encourage an attitude of distance or disinterestedness.  So perhaps there is a ritual of disinterestedness.  Freeland seeks to separate ritual from disinterestedness, but her own example may go against this.   Second, to speak of the activity of the Mayan king and the Australian Aborigine as "sober" seems odd. Nietzsche who was perhaps the first to think seriously about the relationship between art and ritual would have seen both as Dionysian and far from sober.  In general, Freeland's discussion of blood reminds me of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, her juxtaposition of theory of art as ritual against theory of art as disinterested makes me think of the Dionysian and the Apollonian in Nietzsche, except that Nietzsche saw these two deities as symbolically representing two different aspects of art, rather than as offering us with two competing theories of art. One of the artists Freeland discusses as poorly understood under either theory is Robert Mapplethorpe.  But perhaps he could be understood under a theory that combines both, i.e. a theory like Nietzsche's.  One could easily say that  Mapplethorpe's compositions are misunderstood if seen simply in an Apollonian or formalist way, where beauty and good taste are the goals.  They also challenge us with references to something more Dionysian.  Freeland mentions the importance of content in the work of Damien Hirst (an artist she puts in the same boat as Mapplethorpe), but it is interesting that the content remark refers to a title of one of this pieces, a dead shark suspended in a box.  This piece is titled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," which itself refers to a deep existential truth, one that is only handled by the Dionysian side of the art equation, the presentation of the shark being very Apollonian.  Freeland ends by saying that art includes both works of taste and beauty and works that are ugly and disturbing, and isn't this to say that there is both Apollonian and Dionysian art?

Monday, August 19, 2013

What is the relation between ritual and art?

In her introductory book But is it Art?  Cynthia Freeland suggests that there is a theory of art called the ritual theory of art.  She even lists it along with such better-recognized theories as the expression theory and the imitation theory. This is quite surprising since one does not come upon this phrase regularly.  Indeed, a google search comes up with only eight uses of the term "ritual theory of art" and Freeland accounts for two of those.  She attributes the theory to Thomas McEvilley in his Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (New York:  Allworth Press, 1999).  I have looked through McEvilley's book and can see no mention of a ritual theory or definition of art, or any definition of art at all.  McEvilley does talk about some artworks that reference ritual, including feminist art and performance art, however, and this is probably the source of Freeland's comment.  Another surprising fact is the Freeland devotes part of the first chapter of her book, which is probably the most popular introduction to the philosophy of art going, to discussing the ritual theory.  That this is surprising is no reason to dismiss it:  there might be something valuable and new (and unrecognized) going on here.

So what is the theory, and what might it be?  Freeland's imagined proponent probably does not intend to hold that all works of art are rituals or parts of rituals.  Probably the claim would be something like this:  "There is a continuity between art and ritual.  Ritual and art are essentially connected, and art plays a similar function today to that which ritual played in the past."  Also it might mean that the best way to understand the nature of art is to understand its connections to ritual.  These, by implication, are more important than art's connection to, say, self-expression.   For there to be a ritual theory of art it has to be trying to do what previous theories tried to do.  For there to be a viable ritual theory of art it has to do those things better, or at least in a way more appropriate to our own time.  Another possibility is that Freeland thinks of the ritual theory of art as being the implicit theory held by most societies prior to the imitation theory.  It is not that such societies really had a concept of art, but they had certain ritual practices, and whatever explained these practices would also explain the successor-concept which we now call art.  (This view, though, would not explain the relation between ritual theory of art and contemporary performance-art practices that are ritual like -  a relationship that interests Freeland, although she rejects their identity).

It is plausible that Freeland (or perhaps McEvilley, since Freeland herself does not advocate the ritual theory) believes that contemporary performance art insofar as it seems ritualistic has captured something about the essence of art.  Perhaps as the essence of art evolved in the 1990s (when Freeland wrote this book) [I believe that essences change over time] it seemed that the best thing one could say about the inner nature of art was that it was closely connected to ritual, or that it should be.

Certainly there are many differences between what we ordinarily call art and what we ordinarily call ritual.  Even when they share the same materials, these are handled quite differently.  Although blood may be involved both in Catholic holy communion (symbolically) and in Shakespeare's tragedies (as many bodies pile up on stage), the role blood in each really seems quite different.  So too, the literal presence of blood in some works of art is not quite the same as its literal presence in certain religious rituals, say of the Maya.  Still, one could argue that what people were trying to do with rituals in ancient times (when such rituals were taken more seriously than today, at least in the secular world) bears some important similarity to what artists are trying to do when they use, for example, blood as a medium today. 

Sure, as Freeland observes, ritual is supposed to reinforce the community's proper relation to God, and the ritualized or ritual-like performances of contemporary art are not intended to do this.  But it may not be the case that the contemporary artists who use body fluids in their art just want to shock the audience with blood-spattered art.  Maybe they want to dig down into something more primordial, something that goes back before civilization as we know it.  Maybe what is so disturbing about Hirst, Serrano and Mapplethorpe in their use of body fluids in a ritual-like way is that they are muscling into the territory so long handled by religion.  Perhaps art is in competition with religion when it comes to ritual, and this is what is shocking about shocking art.  As Freeland says, "It is no accident that this controversial work was about religion as well as body fluids."  (7) 

The issue may ultimately have to do with whether or not Kantian notions of disinterestedness works for work like that of Hirst.  Freeland: even if we find Hirst's work beautiful "its startling content demands consideration." 

I have more to say about this here and most recently here

Saturday, August 17, 2013

What is it to appreciate?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a sense of appreciate which is "v.t. Estimate rightly; perceive the full force of; understand; recognize that; be sensible or sensitive to; esteem adequately; recognize as valuable or excellent; be grateful for." But these are several different meanings.  In particular, one can estimate something rightly and not recognize it as valuable or excellent.  When we say that we appreciate something we generally mean that we value it positively in some way.  However, there is an older meaning having to do with the origins of the word, related to pricing something, which implies that one is simply evaluating it.  If a critic writes up a negative or neutral evaluation of a work of art, this might be said (in a rather archaic or odd way) to be an appreciation of the work.  Ted Gracyk in The Philosophy of Art argues for the primacy of this older sense, as the critic is genuinely engaging in art appreciation when she evaluates a painting negatively.  Gracyk's view leads to his saying "Appreciating can include a belief that an experience has negative value when considered as valuable for its own sake."  (178) How can something be considered valuable for its own sake and have negative value?  Don't you always value something positively when you value it for its own sake?  I can estimate that someone is a criminal but if I value him for his own sake I am not valuing him as a criminal and my estimation of him as a criminal is not a valuing of him for his own stake.

Gracyk's odd proposal also leads to his endorsing statements like, "I appreciate the pie you baked for me, but I found the taste of the rhubarb overpowering and could not eat it." (179)   I doubt that anyone will take up this recommended change in the way we speak.  (Talk about a backhanded insult!  You start by implying that you value the pie and then you rip it apart....good idea for family get-togethers!  )

Gracyk also seems to endorse the claim that "Appreciating is evaluating the experiencing of a state of affairs [a thing's having a particular property] as valuable in itself." (The idea is a modification of an earlier one presented by Gary Iseminger.)  This is a mouthful.  In advocating this, he seems at first to have dropped the idea that appreciation can be negative or neutral.  But remember that he does not think that appreciating something as valuable in itself requires that one see it as having positive value.  (He has this odd notion of negative value in itself)   Isn't it overly long-winded for example to say that appreciating the beauty of a vase is a matter of experiencing that it has the property of  beauty as valuable in itself?  

Let's set aside the issue of Gracyk recommendations for linguistic change and simply consider the endorsed sentence with its normal meaning.  I might say that I appreciate the orange tree in my back yard.  That is, in the normal contemporary sense of "appreciate," I value it positively.  The normal sense also implies that I appreciate it accurately or least in an appropriate way.  So, let's say that I do not only value it positively but I value it appropriately.  (I doubt one can be accurate about such things.)  I value it for the sweet oranges it provides, for its look in my backyard, and so forth.  Now do I also have to look at the experience I have when I experience it having the property of bearing sweet oranges in order to appreciate it?  That is, does appreciation require also looking into my own mind?  It doesn't seem so.  I can appreciate my orange tree without thinking about how I appreciate it.  So I wonder why Gracyk favors this kind of understanding of appreciation.  Is it because he wants appreciation to be tied more to things that we reflect on:  i.e. push it more in the direction of  "critical appreciation"? It's a philosopher's prejudice in favor of reflection that leads some philosophers to think that experiences are only valuable if they have a reflective dimension.  The overall issue here is whether an experience needs to be evaluated (or evaluated for its own sake) to be considered aesthetic.  Gracyk thinks so, but I wonder.   . 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What is Defining Art About?

Although philosophical definitions can be used for a variety of different things I like to think of them as ideally concerned with arriving at some understanding of the essence of a thing.  For example, the definition of art attempts to understand the essence of art.  The idea of  “essence” is not too popular these days, but it deserves revival with some revisions. There are a number of reasons not to accept eternal unchanging essences, especially of such socially constructed phenomena as art.  (Perhaps there are eternal unchanging essences of mathematical entities, such as triangles…I have no views on this.)  Yet the search for essences seems to be part of human nature.  As I see it, essences exist, but they change historically.  One can see them as patterns in or aspects of the experienced world.   Essences exist as potentials than can be actualized in various ways.  There are various concepts that can be debated over and that have essences.  These are called essentially contested concepts.  Most concepts debated over by philosophers fall into this category.  Essences change over history.  The essence of art is one thing at one time and another at another.  Moreover, an insight into an essence, for example the essence of art, also contributes to this development.  Essences are possibilities which may be actualized in better or worse ways at different times and in different ways.  The evolution of the essence of art also closely parallels the evolution of the concept of art, although “concept” focuses on how people think of a thing and “essence” focuses on how it is.  For something like art, the concept and the essence are similar since how art is is largely a function of how people think about it -- but they are not necessarily the same.  Rather than seeing debates over the essence of art as attempts to resolve debates over classification of controversial cases I see such debates as ones over how one should ideally see art.  Such debates involve competing visions of what art is, where it should go, and how it relates and should relate to every other aspect of life.  (A debate over an essence is never over what simply is, but also over what it should be.  A description of an essence presents an ideal.) Definitions of art provide descriptions of the essence of art.  These descriptions are often metaphors or metaphor-like.  They should therefore be distinguished from mere classification.  If one says that “art is imitation” one is not simply classifying art as a kind of imitation.  Rather, to say that art is imitation is to say that the concept of imitation is the key to understanding the essence of art.  Definitions of art, I argue, are honorific in the sense that they give us that key. Thus imitations that are not art are not really counterexamples to the claim.  Leading current definitions of art offered by philosophers miss the boat because they assume the wrong meta-theory about the purpose of defining art.  Previous definitions of art were only wrong insofar as they did not recognize that the essence described is not eternal and unchanging.  They did not recognize that they are honorific definitions of art.  Rather than provide honorific definitions of art that will fit into the great series of honorific definitions that actually forwarded the history of art, contemporary definitions of art try to stand outside of that history and define as though it had an essence that was eternal and unchanging.  I like to think of the question “what is art?” as closely related to the question “who am I, such that I am an artist?”  The idea goes back to Plato, who has Socrates asking questions about essences that ultimately lead back to exploration of the self.  So the question “what is art?” for the artist (and for the art lover) is much the same as “what is my vision of art?” or “what is my philosophy of art?”  And this question is one that, it is hoped, can be answered by way of providing a concept (under a specific understanding or interpretation) that can operate as a key to understanding the essence.  Bear in mind that whatever concept (or group of concepts arranged in a sentence) that is so offered will itself be understood in context in terms of a larger elaborated vision.  That is, different people can mean different things by saying that “art is imitation” or “art is expression.”  The second term in the definition will inevitably have quite a complex meaning if it is to be a key to an entire theory or way of seeing things.  A definition of art that fits my meta-theory of defining art is Robert Venturi’s definition of architecture as “decorated shed.”  Taken by itself, “architecture is decorated sheds” is not impressive.  It only takes on the form of a vision of architecture when we understand what Venturi means by the term “decorated shed.”  Moreover, this definition was a powerful one, providing the basis for a revolution in architecture that is still being worked out today.  Venturi himself realized however that it was not an eternal and unchanging definition of architecture.   (It is arguable that newer definitions of architecture do a better job of defining the essence of architecture now.  Other contenders include Eisenman’s deconstructivist definition of architecture as having to do with that which is “between.”)  

It is important to realize that this strategy for defining art is not the same as functionalism.  A definition of art that gives the essence (or should we say, the emerging essence) of art may well incorporate into it the function of art qua art.  It will not incorporate other functions art might serve.  Most of the classic definitions of art have been seen, of course, as giving us the function of art.  For example the definition of art as mimesis says that the function of art qua art is to imitate.  One of the interesting features of proper philosophical definitions of art is that insofar as they present a vision of art they often both exclude certain things from the category of art once previously considered in that category as well as including things not previously included.  This is often seen as a drawback of such theories, but it isn’t really.  Another thing that happens is that works that might have been seen as on the periphery of art become central, whereas works that were central might become peripheral as part of the new definition of art.  The value of this is that it allows for creativity, and for radical readjustment not only of art but of other aspects of culture. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Does a Work of Art Always Express the Emotions of the Artist?

Does a work of art always express the emotions of the artist?

Ted Gracyk thinks that the answer to this question is “no.” (By contrast, I would say "yes.")  His objections are based on some credible examples.[1]  First, Muddy Waters denied that his songs were autobiographical or that he accepted the superstitions encountered there.  This counterexample would seem to work against a theory like Leo Tolstoy’s about the value of self-expression, i.e. that for self-expression to be good it must be a sincere expression of emotions one has felt in one’s own life.  However, let’s back up a bit.  Few people not bewitched by assumptions of contemporary philosophy would think that this would show that Muddy Waters was not expressing himself.   Artists express themselves:  that is what they do (this is the common sense position, and one never really refuted by philosophers).  Maybe Muddy Waters was not expressing himself sincerely (although I  reject this view, as will become clear below), but he was creating a representation that in some sense represented his own way of seeing things, including his own emotions.  One does not have to have a one-to-one correlation between a felt emotion and an emotion found in a work for that work to be a self-expression of the artist.  Self-expression can be, and usually is, much more subtle than this.  Consider Gracyk’s second example against the thesis that art involves self-expression of one’s emotions.  He notes that a novel such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings involves several characters, and asks “Is it plausible that Tolkien was always expressing his own emotional experiences in the emotions displayed” by such diverse characters.  The answer is that Tolkien was certainly expressing something about his emotional attitudes towards each one of these characters.  There is perhaps an ambiguity here.  Gracyk thinks that expressing one’s own emotional experiences requires that one have the character feel a feeling that one has directly felt oneself.  However, an artist can put him or herself into the mind of another, and a feeling can be one that has little to do with his or her own life, and still be an expression, even a sincere one.  Similarly, Gracyk denies that actors and actresses are engaged in self-expression, since clearly the emotions of the characters they portray have different life-stories than their own.  But, again, this goes against common sense.  Actors constantly talk about how they are expressing themselves on stage or in a film by way, for example, of their identification with the character they portray.  Again, art as a form of self-expression is not a one-to-one matter.  Self-expression for an actor involves creation of a character, and this involves a kind of fusion of the emotional life of the artist (in this case the actor) and the character.  For example, there is nothing in the script that says that the character must have the physical features of the actor who portrays him.  And yet the actor uses his “instrument,” i.e. his body and his repertoire of gestures and speech intonation to accomplish this.  This is what self-expression amounts to for an actor.  It is helpful to see self-expression of this sort as a fusion of the self with a fictional other.  Gracyk is right that the great actor Lawrence Olivier is not engaged in self expression of his own emotions when he plays Hamlet but only in the sense that he is not engaged in portraying prominent emotions associated with his own life-story when he is an actor on stage portraying a particular character (with his own life story).  Instead, however, he is expressing himself by way of using his instrument to express the emotions of the character in his (Olivier’s) unique way:  and this is a form of creative self-expression.  This is why acting can be rewarding:  people find it satisfying to express themselves, even in ways not directly related to their personal lives.  However, this is not to say that referring to one’s own life is irrelevant:  indeed, many actors try to find some part of their personal lives that relates to the experience of the character in order to effect a better fusion, a better self-expression.  Sincerity can come in here as well.  It would be silly to accuse Shakespeare of insincerity in providing us with a fascinating character such as Othello without ever having experienced such an extreme of jealousy.  Shakespeare’s sincerity is a function of how honest he is in his portrayal of Othello:  for example, whether he panders to the audience (which he definitely does not do.)  Tolstoy’s problem of course is that he believed that self-expression should be a one-to-one between a directly felt emotion of the artist and the emotion felt by the audience.  He thinks that   the boy who tells a story about his encounter with a wolf should give his audience exactly the feeling he had, if he is to sincerely express his emotions.   And I agree that if the boy achieves this infection then this is a powerful and valuable thing.  However, if he never encountered the wolf but is still able to express himself through telling a story (i.e. use his own emotions, for example emotions of sympathy for another boy who had this wolf encounter, or for a fictional boy imagined by him to have such an encounter) to infect his audience then this is sufficient for the experience to be one of art.  This slight revision of Tolstoy saves us from the danger that the great works of art in history fail to be art:  they transmit emotion and they express emotion, but the emotions felt by the audience need not be the same as those that are expressed by the artist, and the emotions expressed by the artist need not be the ones hypothetically experienced by the characters in the play or figures in the painting.  Also, sincere expression of emotion is possible in music.  And most music is expression of emotion of some sort.  Beethoven need not have been sad when producing a sad musical work, but his experience of creating such a work is nonetheless emotionally expressive.  The artist must express emotion since one cannot do anything without expressing emotion.  As Dewey observed, every experience (including the experience of creating), has an emotional quality that gives it a pervading sense.  We cannot escape self-expression, although sincere self-expression is difficult to achieve.

[1] Theodore Gracyk.  The Philosophy of Art (Polity, 2012) 25-28.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Is There an Aesthetics of Human Existence?

It is tempting to see aesthetics as something much broader than dealing with art and nature.  I have elsewhere argued for an aesthetic of everyday life.  There are limitations to this notion, however, since an aesthetic of everyday life might be seen as positing everyday life as distinct from non-everyday life, and a new emphasis on the everyday might shortchange the non-everyday.  Perhaps there is a problem with seeing the everyday as a separate domain in the sense that the aesthetics of art or the aesthetics of nature is.  The division everyday and non-everyday might, rather, be seen as cutting across distinctions between such things as art, nature and design.  It could be argued that there are everyday art experiences, everyday experiences of design, and everyday experiences of nature.  Then there are also unusual or non-everyday experiences of all of these.  For example, an everyday experience of art is noticing and enjoying a work of art by a friend that graces one of the walls in my home.  The work may be highly valued by me, but it is not hitting me for the first time.  An unusual non-everyday experience of art would include one I had of visiting Colmar and seeing the Grünewald Isenheim altarpiece.  The later experience was unique, powerful, and maybe even life-changing.  Still, for the leprosy patients who experience Grunewald’s piece every day of their lives back in the 16th century, this would be literally an everyday experience.  Of course the non-everyday can include experiences that are truly horrifying as well as those that are incredibly uplifting.  Would these be considered aesthetic in a sense?   Moreover, if we collect certain kinds of aesthetic experiences under the non-everyday, let’s say just the positive ones, how are we to distinguish these from experiences of religious enlightenment or from experiences of scientific discovery?  Thomas Alexander, whom I am reading right now as I write this, thinks that a religious world view in which the world is experienced as holy is to be seen as one in which “people experience the world as aesthetically profound relationships that connect them with vital meanings.”  Here, the holy is associated with the aesthetic and the meaningful (and probably not with either of these alone).  This seems right for me, and can even be made consistent with atheism, although not of the reductivist materialist sort.

Keeping these difficulties in mind, it is worthwhile to talk about another broader concept, i.e. the aesthetics of life or the aesthetics of human existence.  Such an aesthetic view would include all of the other subdisciplines of aesthetics under a larger rubric.   Alexander thinks that aesthetics “should be understood first and foremost as ‘aesthetics of human existence.’” [1] So what would the aesthetics of human existence be, and how would it be distinguished from ethics, the other major value domain under which we see human existence….or should it be distinguished as all?  It might consist in (following the language of early American philosopher Jonathan Edwards) seeing the excellency of things, i.e. seeing the world as beautiful (Edwards was deeply religious…so for him it was a matter of seeing the world as God sees it).  On the surface, this may just be problematic since if you did achieve this, as a kind of ideal, you might well be transfixed by the beauty of slavery or some other deeply unethical thing.  Or you might jut not want to improve things or work hard since everything needed for the good life is already present.  Well, the notion of an aesthetic of life probably doesn’t mean seeing absolutely everyday as beautiful, but rather as looking for beauty in every realm of being, and seeing the achievement of beauty and beauty-experience as a kind of life ideal.  Some would see this as a matter of escaping the everyday, but it might be seen rather as a matter of seeing something in the everyday, something special.  It is also tempting to see the aesthetic to be most manifest in the realm of possibility.  I have argued that to see something aesthetically is to see it as having an aura of significance.  Could this be true whenever you see something as containing a future within it?  Well, if one did, this would pose the initial problem that aesthetics is associated with pleasure, and, again, we do not see possibility as always associated with pleasure…often it is associated with dread.  One debate that often occurs in the field of everyday aesthetics is between those who would find continuity between everyday aesthetics and the aesthetics of art and those who want the everyday to have its own distinct quite separate realm.  I have argued for the continuity thesis.  However, this has sometimes been interpreted as giving primacy to art and to the aesthetics of art within the domain of aesthetics.  Shouldn’t the primacy go, following Alexander’s comment, to the aesthetics of life, under which art experiences, both everyday and extraordinary, will count as no less or more important than experiences of beauty, for example, in an individual or a designed object such as a wonderfully designed chair, or the moving experience we might have of a wooded dell.    

Alexander also writes “With the rise of modernity, the holiness of the world as an aesthetic home has been fading away.”  This seems right, but what approach should we take to it?  Let’s say that the word “holy” just is associated with belief in God, and the rise of modernity correlates with the death of God.  But what of the notion of the world as “an aesthetic home”? 

[1]  Thomas M. Alexander.  The Human Eros:  Eco-Ontology and the Aesthetics of Existence. (Fordham University Press, 1913)  "Chinese an American Philosophy:  The Aesthetics of Living." 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

How should “everyday aesthetics” be defined?

How should “everyday aesthetics” be defined?

Kevin Melchionne addresses the issue of defining everyday aesthetics.[1]  He rightly has a problem with my own negative approach to this definition.  I had said that everyday aesthetics covers everything that is not art or nature.  That was a mistake on my part since it should also exclude aesthetics of mathematics, science, and perhaps even sports.  However Melchionne’s own effort at defining everyday aesthetics may have its own problems.  He wishes to distinguish the everyday in the sense of what is recurring and ongoing (for example in cleaning and other daily activities) from activities that are more rarely done, such as interior decoration or preparation for a festival.  The distinction is a useful one but should not be used to limit the field of everyday aesthetics.  That is, we should not be overly limited by the literal meaning of the phrase “every day”:  everyday aesthetics should not be literally limited to that which occurs every day.  The reason for this is that a general field of aesthetics not covered by art aesthetics or by nature aesthetics is needed.  That is, we need a field that covers both daily cleaning and preparation for a wedding.  It is true that many minor arts are involved in the later (for example, fashion and cake-decoration):  and so perhaps they are covered by the notion of “art” broadly conceived.  But it is not clear that this has been done, i.e. that the aesthetics of weddings has been generally included in discussions of art even when the minor arts are included.  Moreover, there are various activities that are not daily in nature, for example “putting on one’s Sunday best” or “taking a Sunday drive” that can be analyzed in terms of aesthetics but which do not literally happen every day.

Melchionne also insists that “the daily finger exercises of the pianist are not relevant to everyday aesthetic theory.”  This, he argues, is because few of us are pianists:  it is a specialized practice.  But should specialized practices be excluded from everyday aesthetics?  The issue is mainly a matter of terminological choice.  I prefer to think of specialized practices as a branch of everyday aesthetics, while the common practices mentioned by Melchionne are another branch.  Art aesthetics is not normally going to include the finger exercises of pianists, or at least it has not yet done so.  Of course these exercises may play an important role in the creative process of the pianist.  So it is hard to see how they may be totally excluded from art aesthetics.  Perhaps we should say that they fall someplace between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics, or within both domains depending on how you look at it.  I would say that finger exercises form part of the aesthetics of everyday life for the pianist.

On the other hand I would agree with Melchionne and Saito that the Japanese tea ceremony is not part of everyday aesthetics:  it is, after all, an art form of its own.  The relationship between the tea ceremony and everyday life is nicely captured by Melchionne’s comment: “After participating in a ceremony, if I return to my daily food preparation with a deeper appreciation of the utensils, the heating and pouring of water, the aroma, then the tea ceremony has improved my everyday aesthetic life.” 

Another example of Melchionne’s overemphasis placed on the idea of daily practice is his idea that “a window with a view of a landscape has no everyday aesthetic value if the room is rarely occupied or the blind always drawn.”  This is an interesting case that has wider ramifications in relation to the aesthetics of nature.  A window with a view of a landscape is in itself neither art nor nature, and yet looking out of the window at the landscape is a matter of appreciating nature.  Allen Carlson and his followers would argue that it is inappropriate to appreciate nature in this way since in doing so one is not appreciating nature as nature.   Moreover, this would be an instance of using the landscape model for aesthetic appreciation of nature, and Carlson disapproves of this model.  Carlson would find particularly problematic the way that the window frames nature as if nature were a painting.  One should not, on his view, appreciate nature as though it were a painting.  I see this as a telling counterexample to Carlson’s theory.  It is perfectly acceptable to appreciate nature as framed by a window.   Indeed, this is one of the many wonderful ways that we do appreciate nature.   The aesthetics of nature should be broad enough to handle this kind of appreciation of nature.  But does this imply that I would exclude this experience from everyday aesthetics?  No. If awareness of the window is an important feature of one’s appreciation of the landscape, then this experience is also part of everyday aesthetics.  One might for example be appreciating the natural scene as picked out by the architect through placement and sizing of the window.  This is also, then, an aspect of art appreciation: of appreciation of the art of the architect.  What conclusion should we draw?  It should be that the everyday, the natural and the artistic are often closely intertwined.  Architecture is the art form that is closest to everyday aesthetics since our everyday experiences are so often governed by the designs of the buildings in which they take place.

But what about the distinction between daily experiences in the room and ones that are quite rare?  Contra Melchionne, this distinction is of little importance.  I agree that “if the light, the view, and the bench beside it contribute to the aesthetic character of some daily moment, then we may speak of the window in terms of everyday aesthetics”: but this would also be the case if it contributes to the aesthetic character of a  once-a-year moment.  At the same time Melchionne is right to draw our attention to the special kind of experience which is daily:  his notion that certain experiences are aesthetically important because pervasive is an important contribution to everyday aesthetics.  It is just not so important as to require limiting everyday aesthetics to pervasiveness that is daily.

Now I wish to speak briefly about Melchionne’s comment on taking out the trash.  One of my favorite comic strips Rose is Rose frequently has one of the lead characters, the husband “Jimbo,” experiencing what he calls his “garbage moment.”  When he takes out the garbage he contemplates the stars, the universe, and life.  For him, taking out the garbage seems to have a profound aesthetic character every time.  Melchionne says  “taking out the trash is an everyday activity for nearly every one, but it is not typically an aesthetic activity. It would be bizarre to embellish it with ceremony.  Of course, it is possible to conceive of taking the trash out aesthetically.  But what matters is not the logical possibility of a quality but, instead, its typicality.   Agreed:  taking out the trash is not typically considered an aesthetic activity, except for Jimbo (and for me, actually).  The comic strip has resonance, and others on the web have referred to their “garbage moment.”  I also agree that it would be bizarre to embellish it with ceremony.  But then what counts as such embellishment?  It isn’t bizarre to, for example, always stop, look into the sky, and think about one’s role in the larger nature of things when one takes out the garbage….just a little odd.  Part of this experience can include the irony that this involves something as lowly and disgusting as garbage.  After all, Rose is Rose is a comic strip, and it is somewhat funny that Jimbo has garbage moments.  Still, humor does not exclude the aesthetic.  Moreover, it is not clear that seeing taking out the garbage as aesthetic is any more odd than seeing ordinary everyday cooking as aesthetics.   Melchionne follows the above quote by saying,An everyday practice is not rendered aesthetic by some counter-intuitive transfiguration, leap of creative re-invention, such as an artist’s ready-made.”  Fine, but is a counter-intuitive transfiguration or creative re-invention of the sort Duchamp engaged in when he put up Fountain as a work of art really needed to have a “garbage moment”?  I don’t think so.  Melchionne concludes “the typicality and conventionality of the activity fosters and gives shape to the aesthetic.”  Admittedly, Jimbo and I are not typical in our garbage moments, and what we do is not considered “conventional.”  Should our experience then be excluded from the aesthetic? 

In conclusion, I have questioned Melchionne restriction of everyday aesthetics to “the aspects of our lives marked by widely shared, daily routines or patterns to which we tend to impart an aesthetic character.”  Things that are not so widely shared and not so daily, may also fall under the domain of everyday aesthetics.  Rather, Melchionne may have marked out a sub-domain of everyday aesthetics, one worth considering on its own.    

[1] “The Definition of Everyday Aesthetics” Contemporary Aesthetics (Vol. 11, 2013)