Monday, September 30, 2013

Roger Scruton on Kitsch

 Burne-Jones angel, 1872  Waterford, Hertfordshire.  Scruton thinks of this as kitsch.  Source:  Wikipedia.

Continuing my exploration of kitsch, consider the arguments against kitsch offered by Roger Scruton in his "Kitsch and the Modern Predicament," City Journal, 1999.  Scruton begins with a discussion of Clement Greenberg's classical article on avant-garde and kitsch, except Scruton believes that even avant-garde art (including abstract art) can be kitsch.  He gives Georgia O'Keefe as an example.  I think that a lot of O'Keefe's work is great art, but some is at least borderline kitsch.  What I am more interested in his Scruton's specific objections to kitsch.  He believes that kitsch comes with modernity, i.e. that there was no kitsch prior to the 19th century.  As with other critics of kitsch he sees it as cheap and sentimental art: "What makes for kitsch is not the attempt to compete with the photograph [as Greenberg believed was true of representational art] but the attempt to have your emotions on the cheap—the attempt to appear sublime without the effort of being so. And this cut-price version of the sublime artistic gesture is there for all to see in Barnett Newman or Frank Stella. When the avant-garde becomes a cliché, then it is impossible to defend yourself from kitsch by being avant-garde."  Scruton is a notoriously conservative art critic and, as we can see here, he fails to see the sublime in Newman or Stella.  Still, it is arguable that the avant-garde is as capable of cliché as representational art, that kitsch is a matter of getting emotions on the cheap, and that appearing to be sublime without any effort might be one example. 

As I mentioned earlier, Scruton thinks that the art of earlier times was never kitsch:   "The artless art of primitive people, the art of the medieval stonemasons and stained-glass makers—all these are naïve and devoid of high pretensions. Yet none is kitsch, nor could it be. This art never prompts that half-physical revulsion—the "yuk!" feeling—that is our spontaneous tribute to kitsch in all its forms."  An interesting feature of this comment is that, unlike Robert Solomon, who famously focused on the "oh how cute" response to kitsch by kitsch-lovers, Scruton stresses the "yuk" response to kitsch by kitsch-haters.  Both are equally important.  Scruton gives us a clearer idea of kitsch when he says "Of course, stained-glass kitsch exists, but it is the work of Pre-Raphaelites and their progeny—the work of sophisticated people, conscious of their loss of innocence. We all admire the craftsmanship of Burne-Jones, but we are also conscious that his figures are not angels, but children dressing up."  Yes, the work of the Pre-Raphaelites often does seem kitsch-like even though these pieces are much more likely to be found in museums than the work of Thomas Kincaid.   Perhaps the kind of artificiality of angels that really look like children dressing up would itself be enough for something to be branded kitsch. 

Scruton observes that the modernists were "keen anthropologists, looking for those "genuine" and unforced expressions of sentiment against which to weigh the empty clichés of the post-romantic art industry" [for example, the work of Bouguereau]  but notes that cultures in previously pre-modern places like Africa quickly succumbed to kitsch in modern times: "today the mere contact of a traditional culture with Western civilization is sufficient to transmit the disease [of kitsch]"  producing a plethora of tourist art which Scruton refers to as fakes. 

One of my favorite Scruton quotes is:   "In all spheres where human beings have attempted to ennoble themselves, to make examples and icons of the heroic and the sublime, we encounter the mass-produced caricature, the sugary pretense, the easy avenue to a dignity destroyed by the very ease of reaching it."  He sees a prime example of kitsch to be the American cemetery Forest Lawn.  Of course this is not art, but might be found under the definition of kitsch as an artifact that is overly sentimental:  "In Forest Lawn Memorial Park, death becomes a rite of passage into Disneyland. The American funerary culture, so cruelly satirized by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One, attempts to prove that this event, too—the end of man's life and his entry into judgment—is in the last analysis unreal. This thing that cannot be faked becomes a fake. The world of kitsch is a world of make-believe, of permanent childhood, in which every day is Christmas. In such a world, death does not really happen."  The idea that kitsch promotes a "permanent childhood" and a fantasy where bad things never happen appears again and again in discussions of kitsch.  Even death becomes something sweeter in works like Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop with the death of Little Nell is presented in a kitsch way, or in Disney's Bambi.  (Is it kitsch when it is presented as children's entertainment, however?) 

But when Scruton also says that "Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game. In real kitsch, what is being faked cannot be faked. Hence the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing. The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication but innocence. Kitsch art is pretending to express something, and you, in accepting it, are pretending to feel" one wonders whether he isn't making kitsch too complicated.  Perhaps there is a kind of kitsch art where a knowing pretension is involved, but normally the enjoyment of kitsch just is lack of sophistication, which is, after all, another word for innocence.  On the other hand, Scruton is right that kitsch involves the avoidance of anything that requires moral energy.

Scruton offers a fascinating theory of the nature of kitsch.  He says

"We are moral beings, who judge one another and ourselves. We live under the burden of reproach and the hope of praise. All our higher feelings are informed by this—and especially by the desire to win favorable regard from those we admire. This ethical vision of human life is a work of criticism and emulation. It is a vision that all religions deliver and all societies need. Unless we judge and are judged, the higher emotions are impossible: pride, loyalty, self-sacrifice, tragic grief, and joyful surrender—all these are artificial things, which exist only so long as, and to the extent that, we fix one another with the eye of judgment. As soon as we let go, as soon as we see one another as animals, parts of the machinery of nature, released from moral imperatives and bound only by natural laws, then the higher emotions desert us. At the same time, these emotions are necessary: they endow life with meaning and form the bond of society. Hence we find ourselves in a dangerous predicament. The emotions that we need cannot be faked; but the vision on which they depend—the vision of human freedom and of mankind as the subject and object of judgment—is constantly fading. And in these circumstances, there arises the temptation to replace the higher life with a charade, a moral conspiracy that obscures the higher life with the steam of the herd."  

So kitsch on his view arises from the need to replace a needed vision that is constantly fading and the temptation to satisfy that need with something that "obscures the higher life" and "higher feelings.  After the decline of religion, Scruton argues, the Enlightenment attempted to solve this problem by seeing human judgment (as found in the great masterpieces of humanity) as giving us this higher value.  But since this vision is not supported by faith, it loses power, and is replaced by the romantics who try to give give human products a religious aura.  Perhaps humans can have the significance of angels.  But then arose kitsch. 

Does Kitsch Evoke Cheap and Easy Emotions?

Kitsch has been defended by Robert Solomon in his famous article "Kitsch" (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Winter 1991) but Solomon's defense is not whole-hearted.  He says that kitsch may be bad art but is not necessarily immoral.  In talking with my students I have never been able to make a convincing case that kitsch is immoral.  The more interesting question is whether it is bad art.  Solomon's definition of kitsch as art "that is deliberately designed to... move us by presenting a well-selected and perhaps much-edited version of some particularly and predictably moving aspect of our shared experience, including...innocent scenes of small children and our favorite pets playing and religious and other sacred icons" is not terribly helpful since there can be works of art on these topics that are not kitsch (Mary Cassatt painting pictures of mothers and children, for example. and no one considers her work to be kitsch), and Greek tragedy presents a well-selected version of experience in such a way as to move us, but it is not kitsch.  I am not going to try to provide a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but a cleaner definition could be provided.  It might just focus on sweet kitsch.  Sweet kitsch is art designed to give us sentimental feelings characterized by exclamations that the subject is pretty or cute.  Many scenes of small children and pets do fall into the category.  Other categories of kitsch include religious and patriotic kitsch.  These forms of art also appeal to our emotions in a way that is intended to evoke quick approval without any attendant reflection.  Another kind of kitsch is kitsch artifacts:  these are not works of art, although they may contain representations.  They include garden gnomes and pink flamingos and also evoke the "how cute or pretty" response. 

Thomas Kinkaid's paintings are generally considered paradigmatic of kitsch art objects in our era.  In many respects Kinkaid was quite talented, and his paintings often were the result of both reflection and skill.  So it cannot be because of lack of thee qualities that his paintings are kitsch. Although his paintings required some skill they were always intended to evoke quick sentimental responses without reflection.  Most of my students agree that kitsch does evoke cheap, easy and superficial emotions, and would agree that Kinkaid's paintings do this.  But many think that this is not a problem.   I feel that it is a problem, but where exactly does the problem lie?  It is certainly not the case that fine art is the only kind of art.  There are decorative arts and popular arts, for example.  Also the question of what sorts of emotions art should evoke goes back to the debate between Aristotle and Plato over the value of Greek tragedies, Plato holding that the evocation of pity and fear gives the emotions rule over the rational part of the soul, whereas Aristotle sees the catharsis of these emotions to be valuable.  Solomon in his defense of kitsch saw it as evoking emotions of sentimentality and other child-like emotions that might be beneficial even in adults.  Superficial sweet emotions are certainly natural and common, so why would art that evokes them be considered bad art or bad for us?  The simplicity of kitsch may be a problem, and yet many good works of art are simple in appearance, and some things called kitsch seem fairly complex.

I have often suspected that kitsch is a problem because it is unrealistic about life:  it presents us what appears to be a perfect world, but this is an illusion...perhaps a comforting one, but certainly not what we would expect from good art.  Kinkaid's paintings present us with a world in which nothing bad can happen.  However, Walter Keane's early paintings of girls with big eyes are clearly kitsch even though the girls exist in the bombed-out world of post-war Europe.  This takes us back to the notion that kitsch is shallow, sentimental and unreflective art.  I personally do not enjoy kitsch and would prefer that my students spend more time on more serious art.  Well, to be honest, I'd prefer that they find kitsch disgusting, as I do.  But they hardly ever do!  They are not going to be challenged by kitsch.

Interestingly, although a painting of a cute puppy would generally be kitsch, an actual cute puppy is not.  Nor would we consider our response of "oh, how cute!" when seeing such a puppy to be kitsch.  Can there be kitsch appreciation of nature?  Allen Carlson attacks appreciation of nature that focuses on landscapes that are scenic or picture-like.  One could say that when the appreciation of nature evokes a shallow sentimental response such as "oh, how pretty" then the response is treating nature as if it were a kitsch picture....and this would be a kitschy appreciation of nature.  Although most people find that kitsch allows them to escape their troubles, most people with some training in the history of art will not find that kitsch does this for them.  Is there something sad or too bad about this?  Is it sad when sophistication makes it impossible to appreciate certain things?  It might be argued that the main problem with kitsch is that it takes time that could better be spent on serious or fine art.  The problem with this is that we do not feel quite the same about genre fiction.  We do not generally feel that reading a mystery novel is bad because it takes away time one could better spend reading Shakespeare or Joyce. 

Although David Hume attacked the equivalent of kitsch in his own time when he criticized a certain species of beauty including coarse paintings and vulgar ballads (the sorts of the things that peasants or American Indians would prefer, on his view) he doesn't really provide a reason for holding that the good judge (which is his standard of good taste) would reject kitsch.  Perhaps the good judge would not like kitsch because such a judge has "good sense" which simply means the capacity to reason about works of art, and that there is little to exercise reason on when it comes to kitsch.

One student said the following (edited a bit for clarity):  "I think it is true that kitsch evokes 'cheap' or 'easy' emotions, but I do not think that this is something that should be considered a problem.  Our reactions and emotions with response to art or situations in life do not always have to be refined, educated or profound.  The sort of relaxed and casual release that kitsch gives can be beneficial as it allows us to be more true to ourselves (for example in highlighting our sentimental side).  Attempting to make everything serious or critical isn't necessary, and allowing ourselves to be more casual when examining some pieces of art is better for us in the long run."  This sums up nicely the pro-kitsch approach in my classes. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Do We Construct Literary Works When We Read Them?

The position that one constructs a literary work when one reads it is commonly called constructivism.  Robert Stecker has defined constructivism in this way:  "the idea that interpretations are not simply instruments for discovering properties already to be found in works, but contribute to the creation of such properties." (96) (Interpretation and Construction:  Art, Speech, and the Law, Blackwell, 2003).  So the question is whether the properties are already there or are interpretations such that they also contribute to the creation of properties (i.e. is the creative process of a work of art such that it continues beyond the completion of the work by the artist...continues, that is, in the process of understanding and interpretation of the work as well as in various responses to the work in various media as for example in different productions of a play).  I have argued elsewhere (in a forthcoming article on literary interpretation) that interpretations actualize properties that exist only as potential and which may be actualized in many ways.  So I suppose that makes me a constructivist. 

Theodore Gracyk in The Philosophy of Art (Polity, 2012) argues against constructivism.  Interestingly, he situates this debate in the context of a discussion of authenticity and cultural origins (Chapter 5 of his book.)  As a result, he sees constructivism as problematic because it leads to culturally inauthentic use of artworks.  Gracyk also bases his attack on constructivism on a distinction between properties of an artwork that are essential and ones that are contingent:  on this view, constructivists take contingent properties and treat them as though they were essential.  The issue, of course, is whether the meaning of a literary or other work of art is frozen in time at the moment of its completion (as ontological contextualists like Gracyk would argue) or whether they change over time, taking on new possibilities and hence new, although often very different, interpretations (all of which have their own value.)  An example of a contingent property would be the name of Velazquez' painting Rokeby Venus:  it was named this way because it was associated with the Rokeby Hall, but could have been named something else if it was associated with another location.  That it is called a Venus however would be essential, for Velazquez surely intended it to represent the goddess Venus.  It is notoriously difficult to determine which properties are essential, for example is it essential to this painting that it was painted by Velazquez?  On the other hand some properties are obviously not essential, for example that Gracyk has seen the painting.  

The question that determines whether a property is essential is traditionally "could one imagine the same object without the property in question?"  This is a peculiar question and it is hard to know how to answer it in many cases since it depends on what one's criteria of sameness is as well as how good one is at imagining.  Although philosophers tend to ask this question as though the answer must be the same for everyone, it never is.  So one suspects that it only tells us what is essential for this person or for this group, rather than what is essential as such.  

Gracyk favors a view called "ontological contextualism."  This view (as initially described) is that "some aspects of an artworks identity depend on the art-historical context of its time of creation."  It seems hard to argue against this.  However, sometimes ontological contextualism really amounts to the view that all aspects of the artworks identity depend on art-historical context of the time of creation.  This is the view that constructivists deny.  It is also the view which Gracyk defends, for he also says that "Ontological contextualists owe constructivists a clear account of why earlier art-historical contingencies are relevant to artwork identity, yet later ones are always irrelevant." (my italics, 86) 

Gracyk also says that "according to constructivism, there are no good reasons to 'freeze' identity at the time of creation...Artworks gain and lose properties after their creation, reflecting the art-historical context of audience appreciation and interpretation."  (85)  This seems basically right to me, but then I am a constructivist.  Gracyk mentions two arguments offered in favor of constructivism:  that later artworks can reorder the importance of properties of earlier artworks, and that meanings of words can change.  The second view need not detain us since it doesn't make sense to interpret a poem that uses the term "gay" in the sense of "colorful" or "happy" to mean "gay" in the sense of "homosexual" when that word did not have that meaning at the time of the creation of the work.  The first point however is telling in support of constructivism.  The claim against this by the ontological constructivist then is based on this sort of assertion:  "Cezanne's painting were always proto-Cubist.  It simply took the emergence of full-blown Cubism to reveal this aspect of Cezanne's style."  On this view, the future is always already in the past.  One wonders, however, how a claim like this could ever be supported.  It must rather be an item of faith!  We see something differently because of new developments and it can inevitably be said that this aspect was always already there every bit as much as Jupiter's moons were always there before the invention of the telescope.  The analogy just doesn't seem plausible.  We know that Jupiter's moons were there before the telescope was invented because of other correlating evidence:  the same cannot be said for the Cubist aspect of Cezanne's paintings! 

Another argument against constructivism offered by Gracyk is that it "is only plausible so long as we regard every artwork as an abstract structure that lacks determinate meaning."  On this view, constructivists believe that the essential properties of a work can change over time as long as one changes the symbol system by which one interprets the work.  But, Gracyk argues, just because we have two texts that are identical we do not necessarily have the same work:  two identical texts can come out of different times and have different meanings.  I am not convinced that a constructivist must view artworks as abstract structures.  Artworks have meanings and interpretation of them is conditioned in various ways:  that they were produced at particular times and by particular persons is important, but this does not mean that they are immune to change:  as Heraclitus taught us, nothing is immune to change.  Artworks are not abstract structures but rather are nests of potentiality which may be actualized into determinate meaning at different times in different ways by different interpreters, and in an historically evolving sequence.  The identical text scenario, then, does not apply to the issue at hand.

Gracyk's most interesting argument for ontological contextualism is in terms of cultural appropriation.  Ontological contextualism holds that "in object appropriation [where a physical object is removed from its cultural provenance, for example Picasso's Guernica to New York MOMA] the essential properties of an object are exactly the same before and after its appropriation."  On the other hand, in the case of design appropriation [when a design originating in one culture is used by another culture]  "the appropriation alters the meaning of what is transferred." (89)  So, on this view, contextualism works as long as one is talking about copies and not originals:  "the lesson of ontological contextualism is that the copy has essential, non-manifest properties that differ from those of the source object or design."  This leads Gracyk to argue that design appropriation is not theft because it does involves alteration of identity.  Does this pose a serious problem for constructionism?  Gracyk agrees that the copy and its use can be understood in terms of constructionism, but not the original.  Is the Picasso the same in New York as it was in Spain or France?  Is it just contingent that it is in New York?  Is its New York presence irrelevant to its interpretation?  Do I actualize it differently when I see it at the MOMA?  Do we have a clear idea of what is contingent here and what is essential?  

Gracyk's most powerful argument against constructivism is moral:  constructivism blurs the distinction between stable, essential properties that depend on provenance and properties that vary with audience perspective" for "it implies that 'outsider' responses to the artifacts and artworks of unfamiliar cultures cannot be dismissed as misinterpretations."  He then insists that the constructivist believes that "properties are imposed rather than discovered during the process of interpretation."  (91)  But there is nothing about the definition of constructivism that insists on this point or on the imposed/discovered dichotomy.  The notion that properties are imposed by interpretation implies a kind of cultural is very negative sounding.  One could better say that the constructivist believes that properties are actualized in different ways rather than simply discovered in the way the moons of Jupiter were discovered.  Note also, that Gracyk had already considered that in the case of copying designs, the outsider response cannot, in this case, be dismissed as a misinterpretation.  Let's just say that outsider responses (and even insider responses) can sometimes be seen as misinterpretations, and even dismissed as really bad misinterpretations, but that this is not always required or  recommended.  

Gracyk thinks that when a non-Navajo imitates a Navajo sand painting and thus strips away the ritual significance of the work then the identity is altered.  But the identity of the original sand paintings is not altered, so what sense can be made of the claim?  One can say that there are ethical problems with such imitations, but it is not clear that constructionism authorizes this activity in a way the ontological contextualism does not.  I agree that many cultural appropriations are offensive, and that we have moral obligations in this regard.  Moreover, Gracyk is certainly right that "the non-Navajo who fantasizes that appropriation of a Navajo design preserves and respects Navajo spirituality is engaged in wishful thinking." (92)  How is this a problem for constructivism?

Gracyk's main point is that "ontological contextualism recognizes that artwork identity is a matter of cultural provenance" and constructivism does not, largely because it confuses issues of identity by dissolving or at least messing with the distinction between essential and accidental properties.  My response is that constructivism need not deny that identity is a matter of cultural provenance, that the very notion of "essential properties" is vague and confusing, and that important properties of works evolve and shift over time often following a historical or even evolutionary path where different valid interpretations are allowable as different contexts emerge, context not limited to a moment frozen in time.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Is There an Art of Philosophy? Sloterdijk and an Alternative

It is a plausible idea that doing philosophy is a practice.  Peter Sloterdijk in his The Art of Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2012) has said that theories would not exist without routines, which include "the reading and writing practiced by persons who do theory..." (12)  He also, interestingly, pushes the origins of this practice back to the tribal worship of idols.  After this point in his book Sloterdijk and I part ways since he is committed to pure thought of the sort advocated by Edmund Husserl, something that can be accomplished through the epoché, whereas my philosophical heroes include Dewey, Nietzsche, Gadamer and Rorty, all philosophers who rejected the very idea of pure thought.  (I have read that Sloterdijk is supposed to be an anti-dualist...but I can't see any evidence of that in this book.)  However, the idea of the importance of contemplation as a practice intrigues me, as I have increasingly come to see philosophy (both as reading and as writing) as tied to contemplation.  The next point will tie this in to aesthetics.

Sloterdijk observes that Husserl had written a letter in response to a lecture by poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1907, a lecture called "The Poet and Our Time" in which Hofmannsthal says of the poet that "He suffers from everything and in suffering he enjoys everything."  Husserl's response, recorded by Sloterdijk, seems like a superficial attempt to associate his own phenomenological method with Hofmannsthal's poetic method.  What interests me, however, is the contrast Sloterdijk makes between Husserl's approach to philosophy and that of Heidegger and the existentialists:  Husserl insisting that one bracket the natural attitude and not take positions (even about existence) while doing phenomenology whereas the existentialists holding that one cannot escape one's being-in-the-world.  Sloterdijk sees this as a choice, but I am not so sure it is.  Sloterdijk himself suggests that the epoché might be temporary.  Why not see it as part of a larger practice that involves both immersion and separation (at appropriate and separate moments or stages)?  Imagine that there is a way to make reading and writing a practice that involves contemplation but not complete monk-like detachment.  All that is required, really, is conviction that the essences of things are not to be found in some separate world but, in a more Aristotelian (and less Platonic) way, in the world itself, and even more specifically, in the world as a world-for-me, i.e. the world in which I am situated.  Contemplation, yes, and even detachment, but only so that one can see the things of one's world in a way that allows their essences-for-now and for-this-situation to emerge.  This would be consistent even with Husserl's idea of going back to the things-themselves, and even with Hofmannsthal's poetic impulse, but not I think with Sloterdijk's practice-dying philosopher.  

In his letter, Husserl said "Perception of a purely aesthetic work of art is achieved by strictly preventing the intellect from taking any existential position and preventing any reaction of feeling and will that presupposes such an existential response.  To put it more clearly, the work of art transfers us (and forces us) to the state of pure aesthetic intuition that excludes taking any position." This seems naive and unrealistic to me.  Nonetheless, questioning the taking of positions makes sense insofar as positions can be taken too seriously.  That is, Husserl is right (in a limited way) to criticize philosophers on taking positions.  Philosophers have often missed important points and valuably different perspectives by taking themselves and their positions too seriously.  Although I cannot accept the idea of "pure aesthetic intuition" I can the idea of an intuition that results from looking at things from a special off-centered way, from seeing them, for example, under a deep, living and innovative metaphor.  So, to make the point in Heideggerian-sounding (and thus a bit pompous) language:  we are speaking of Being emerging from the interstices of being:  truth (again, like Heidegger) happens here.  

This of course implies a different view of phenomenology than that of Sloterdijk.  He believes that "the best phenomenologist would be the most rigorous archivist" as though phenomenology would be simply a matter of collecting images ("mental photographs" he calls them) one apprehends in the state of pure vision.  Collecting is not the business of the philosopher, but rather reading, thinking, contemplating and writing, all organically connected in an ongoing process.  Moreover, the "displacement of the self" admired by Sloterdijk is not the goal, only one of many possible and temporary strategies.  Another strategy, equally useful, is to take a stand, to argue for a doctrine.  This too, should be temporary if a rich philosophical wisdom is to result.  One needs (I think) to be able to dance between skepticism and dogmatism (in the sense of taking a position, not in the sense of being dogmatic about it).  And this does not mean trying to use extreme skepticism to achieve absolute certainty, surely a mistaken approach to thinking advocated by Descartes.  

Here's the review I wrote of Sloterdijk's book for

The best I could say for this book is that it kept my attention to the end. Sloterdijk (in this book) is interesting if you take him to be doing a kind of intellectual history. He has managed to connect up several strands of a philosophical tradition that goes back to Socrates and extends to Husserl and that emphasizes the idea of philosophical detachment. Sloterdijk is especially taken with the idea of epoché  as found in Husserl's writings. I first studied Husserl under Maurice Natanson at UC Santa Cruz. Natanson treated the epoché as a kind of mystical thing: either you got it or you didn't. I had recently rejected Christianity and was not ready to take up another set of beliefs based on faith. Now, many years later, I find that Sloterdijk is presenting something similar. His efforts to recover pure thought and transcendent experience get sort of manic in the last chapter when he talks about various attempts to "assassinate" the neutral observer i.e. the one Husserl tried to create (or revive). The assassins include Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger (although the last one recanted after WWII), and then, get this, the nuclear bomb! I always did enjoy the passage in the Symposium where Socrates was lost in thought, but Sloterdijk makes a big deal of this, as also the idea that philosophy is practicing to die. Frankly, one cannot know what Socrates' contemplative moments gave him, and it is hard to make any sense at all of practicing to die unless you really believe in an afterlife or the possibility of complete detachment from the body. Readers who want to follow the vita contemplativa could get more out of the Zen Buddhist tradition which at least gives one various meditative practices tested over time. Sloterdijk just gives us intellectual history in the form of a series of bon mots and a lot of complaining. Although Sloterdijk insists that the epoché needs to be examined in neutral terms, by the end of the book one doesn't feel that this is the point, but rather that philosophers should detach themselves from life and try to become like angels. You have to be kidding! One is tempted to follow Nietzsche's Zarathustra here and classify this guy as one of the "preachers of death." There is a lot to the ideas of contemplation, philosophy as contemplation, and phenomenology, as long as one does not take this to be a science-like activity that gives up apodictic truths, i.e. as long as one takes it to be something more like an art. This is why I was attracted to this book originally: after all it was called "the art of philosophy." But that turns out to be a misnomer. The translator admits in the opening note that the original title was "Suspended Animation in Thought," which pretty much sums it up.  (One would think that suspended animation is exactly what one does not want in thought.) In my view, a much more effective thinker on the nature of thought is John Dewey, the great American pragmatist. Dewey would have been rightly horrified by a sentence like this: "Thinking creates an artificial autism that isolates the thinker and takes him to a special world of imperatively connected ideas." Autism is good?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Carolyn Korsmeyer's Argument Against Food as Fine Art

Previously in this blog I had discussed Elizabeth Telfer's argument that food, although aesthetically interesting, can only be a minor art form.  In her "The Meaning of Taste and the Taste of Meaning," Carolyn Korsmeyer replies to Telfer, but in the end agrees that food can only be a minor art.  Her reasons are a bit more complicated and are also nicely developed.  But in the end they are unconvincing.  It is arguable that most food preparation does not even rise to the level of aesthetic interest, although even here we often apply aesthetic terms, for example "tastes good," "disgusting," or "yummy."  A fairly large range of food preparation, although somewhat distinguished as compared to ordinary cooking, amounts to no more than a minor art.  The question is whether there exists logical and actual space for food as a major or "fine" art.  That is, could food be fine art in Kant's sense of a product of genius.  I will argue that it can be.  Korsmeyer complains that Telfer's approach is overly-focused on aesthetic experience and "any brief for foods that focuses on the enjoyment of the sensation of tasting alone is going to reach a limit very quickly."  Telfer had argued that food could not be fine art partly because it does not represent anything else.  Korsmeyer thinks that food often does represent something else, and gives many excellent examples (e.g. gummy bears, gingerbread men).  She also provides an excellent basis for arguing that food can be a fine art, but then backs off.  Following Nelson Goodman's taxonomy (from his Languages of Art), she observes that food can not only represent but also exemplify.  Moreover, food can have expressive properties, as in chicken soup being soothing.  It can even, on rare occasions, provide us with a "truth."  In an innovative move, Korsmeyer also observes that food can have an abundance of meaning in ceremonial contexts.  For example, a Thanksgiving meal can exemplify properties both in a literal and a metaphorical way:  "literal exemplified properties such as warmth, flavor, texture, and weight contribute to the metaphoric exemplified properties of comfort, well-being, and plenty."  Of course the meaning of the food depends on the traditions associated with it.  The individual dishes, by themselves, without these associations, would not be rich in meaning.  Here is the crux of the problem.  For Korsmeyer, although food can have the kind of rich meaning we find in fine art, it only has it in special ritual and ceremonial contexts.  Moreover, and this is the key point, this is not where we look usually for aesthetic qualities in food as food.  Instead, we look for that in a fine restaurant where the emphasis is placed not on ceremonial context but on sensuous delights.  So, although food can have both cognitive and sensuous dimensions equal to those of fine art, these are never combined, and therefore, her argument goes, food cannot be fine art or qualify art "in the full sense of the term."  Korsmeyer thinks instead that "art" is a poor concept for capturing the nature of food, for describing food as art distracts us from the ways in which it is different from art.

There are two major problems with Korsmeyer's argument.  (1)  The various fine arts diverge quite radically from each other.  So, to point out a divergence of food from music, for example, is not impressive in itself if there is an equal divergence of music from literature, and both of these from painting.  (2)  When Korsmeyer defines "fine art" she does so in a way that is reminiscent of ways fine art was viewed in the first half of the twentieth century but in a way that does not much relate to fine arts today, and since most theorists today see fine art as tremendously context-dependent (note that this is the case for Danto, who believes that Warhol's Brillo Box is art whereas the warehouse boxes that look just like it are not) then to say that context-dependency of food distinguishes it from art is to go against this now widely accepted view of fine art.  Korsmeyer says that "foods seem to be heavily dependent on either ceremonial context or personal or cultural narrative to attain their cognitive and aesthetic significance" and, from, this she argues that "one may suspect that it is not the food itself that has meaning."  Yet this does not follow any more than that taking Brillo Box out of its artworld context would make us suspect that it in itself has no meaning:  it has meaning because it is not just the physical thing we see.

Let's look at an example.  Korsmeyer argues that "without the tradition of Zen philosophy, displayed equally in the setting, the utensils, and the surroundings of the [tea] ceremony, the cup of tea is only a cup of tea."  Sure, but this is true for everything meaningful, and is certainly true for works of art.  Such things cannot be completely divorced from their contexts and remain themselves.  Her argument should, instead, show us that the Japanese tea ceremony is art, and that food, in this respect, is art.  Her main argument is that unlike art, the sort of reflection we get with food in ceremonial contexts "is not a mark of greatness of food as food"  for "many of the symbolic features of food may be fully present in food that is not particularly tasty" and, again, "for food to be 'great' as food, its sensuous exemplified properties" need to be especially impressive.  As I said above, much of Korsmeyer's argument is based on a certain understanding of fine art as something that is distinct from craft, as being autonomous and as being valuable for its sake alone, so that "the various cognitive and aesthetic qualities of works of art...inhere in the works themselves, free of surrounding context."  This is the way fine art was seen until, roughly, the 1970s.  With the rise of postmodernism and subsequent movements in the artworld, however, this view of art, by 2013, has come to seem distinctly old-fashioned.  So, the idea that food cannot be art is linked to the idea that to be so it would have to fit into a model of art that was basically abandoned by most of the intellectual world almost fifty years ago.  Korsmeyer insists that the aesthetic qualities of food "emerge from practice and art embedded in the festivals and ceremonies and occasions in which they take on their fullest meanings" which seems true, but also seems true not only for art prior to the 19th century but also for art in general when we realize that the ideology of autonomy of art was essentially a mask that made us less aware of the ceremonial contexts in which art gained its meaning even in the area of so-called "autonomous art."   There is, for example, a lot of ceremony and ritual surrounding the placement of art in art galleries.  Moreover, there is a lot of ceremony and ritual (at least in a metaphorical sense) surrounding the creation and presentation of food in the context of fine dining.

Still, even if we were to accept that some food, for example food as presented in the Japanese tea ceremony, is art, it is arguable that food is different from the other arts in that there is a disconnect in food between the presentation of exemplified properties and of its symbolic use.  Korsmeyer, that is, may be right that there is a "lack of symmetry between the features of foods that are comparable to central aesthetic features of art and the measure of the quality of the individual objects under assessment."  It remains, however, to wonder whether the Japanese tea ceremony does not in fact combine these two elements, the sensuous and the symbolic, quite nicely, thus qualifying as a perfect refutation of Korsmeyer's overall claim that food can only be a minor art.  Korsmeyer seeks to separate food that is deeply important from food that is sensuously delightful, and yet one wonders whether the ceremonies associated with a truly fine dinner might not also count to give food significance.

Still, although food can be a fine art, we should not downplay the fact that, for many of the reasons given both by Telfer and Korsmeyer, it is seldom so.  Nor should this particular debate occlude the importance of food as an aesthetic phenomenon in everyday life.  I and my wife are walking to school and I run across an elderly man who is working in his garden, a Mr. Ramirez who came from Mexico to the US originally in 1949.   He gives us guavas from his tree to eat, showing us how to take off the top and eat it whole, even with the seeds.  It is delicious, and has a novel sweet taste somewhat unlike the guavas I know.  Moreover, this eating is part of an overall experience of meeting someone new, learning some history, a shared experience of eating, and seeing the large cacti in his garden in a new light.  Food takes on a meaning here because of an overall context, and it is not required to see it, here, as a minor or a major or fine art.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Ossi Naukkarinen replies to Tom Leddy on Everyday Aesthetics

First, I’d like to thank Tom for the excellent comments and questions. I feel very privileged to have such a sharp and rigorous reader.  [See previous post by Tom Leddy in this blog.]
As you say, we seem to agree on many issues but there are some points that call for further explanation. After that, we may still disagree on some questions – but in a fruitful way, I hope.
You propose that we could perhaps have use for a broader category of “life aesthetics”. That’s a good idea and I agree that my version of everyday aesthetics would cover only a part of that. In fact, the figure I present could be read in the way that in its entirety it would depict the field of “life aesthetics” or even “general aesthetics” whereas the core of it (the somewhat darker area within the inner dotted line) is the field of “everyday” in the sense I tried to describe it. Although, actually, the figure can be understood to depict “everydayness” and its relations to “non-everydayness” also in other contexts, not only in the ones related to aesthetics. The figure does not include the term “aesthetics” for it seeks to say something of everydayness in general.
I also agree that it is sometimes difficult to say exactly how often and regularly we should do something to make it of everyday kind in the sense I describe everydayness. Of course, there are not very many things we do exactly in the same way and literally every day, and I’m not after those cases only. To my mind, this issue can remain somewhat open. There are clear cases of repeated everyday activities such as eating (if we are not talking about very special fine-dine moments), and why not also things we do rather often such as Sunday drives – and equally clear cases of non-everyday events such as getting married or into a car accident; moments that are “wildly” unfamiliar. And border-line cases: holidays, maybe. I can happily accept variability, and try to judge case-by-case whether something is everyday-like or not. I think, as you suggest, that “the everyday is flexible enough to include the nearly every day” if we just remember to use the word “nearly” when needed.
Why did I bring in the word “necessarily” in the sentence you take up? Simply because I wanted to emphasize the self-evident but yet important fact that we cannot, in the end, live anyone else’s life and we must live our own, even if we can, I believe, share things with others. We – yes, we – all have our own perspective on the everyday because of our background, skills, knowledge, etc. and we cannot avoid having that as long as we live. We have limited possibilities for breaking the everyday even if we wanted that, which means that most of us, most of the time, necessarily live the everyday.  But ok, it might not be quite that important to accentuate this and there might be exceptions to the rule as I tried to point out.
How are exceptional events like Sunday drives based on everyday events? I’d say, for example, that also Sunday drives are drives, events where we use very common, normal, regularly used driving skills and do something non-everyday-like with the help of them. Everyday is the normal, non-everyday the exception. Exceptions don’t exist without something they are exceptions from.
I did not want to say that exciting, disturbing, great, interesting, etc. events and objects are not relevant and important for our lives and aesthetics as a philosophical discipline. That is why I state that “Most of us don’t want to have the routine on all the time, to just continue living the everyday.” I am not suggesting a normative approach that we should avoid special, exceptional and interesting things, aesthetic or otherwise. I like them too, and I would not like to lead a life that is only everyday-like and nothing else. Actually, I would hate it! I am, rather, describing an attitude and events that I believe deserve to be called everyday-like, and in its core, at least, I see the everyday as routine, familiar and why not also comfortable and peaceful. I guess I could have been clearer about the difference between the normative and descriptive approach.
The question of doing something automatically and still noticing its aesthetic aspects or properties is interesting. I agree that if you do something completely automatically you don’t really pay attention to this thing at all (breathing, most of the time, if you are not meditating or doing certain kinds of sports) – but it is somewhat different if you do something almost automatically. For example, I can prepare my daily cup of espresso almost automatically, pay attention to the aroma and taste, go through the whole process nearly automatically. There’s nothing special in it while it happens almost every day. It’s comfortable, routine, normal, and to me, the aesthetic quality of such a process, that I still notice very well, is of this kind, too. I just cannot agree on the thought that “the very fact of paying attention raises them out of the ordinary”. If this was the case, almost everything would be “out of the ordinary”. What would be ordinary then? I think we can have different attitudes towards things (coffee, cats, shadows) within the sphere of the everyday and other kinds of attitudes “outside” of it. What is inside and what is outside for whom, varies with time. That’s why I have dotted lines between different spheres, not closed borders. Yes, the “division lines” are not clear in the figure, because I don’t think they are clear in the world we live in.
I’m not quite sure whether I have been able to answer all the sharp questions you posed in your text. In fact, it seems that I would need to write a whole book to develop my points further, and perhaps I will. If I will, your comments will help me a lot. But for now, I just want to thank once more for excellent points – in their excellence they are definitely something quite non-everyday-like! 

Ossi Naukkarinen

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On The Definition of Everyday Aesthetics: Round 2 Initial Response to Naukkarinen

It looks like a lot of people are unhappy with my definition of everyday aesthetics.  I already responded to Kevin Melchionne's objections in an earlier post.  Now the Finnish philosopher Ossi Naukkarinen has weighed in with his "What is 'Everyday' in Everyday Aesthetics?" To start with, it is exciting that anyone would think that "everyday aesthetics" was an essentially contested concept:  it shows how far this new sub-discipline has come.  Naukkarinen, like Melchionne, wants to limit everyday aesthetics to what literally happens every day (although we shall see below that he limits it even further than that, i.e. to what is normal, comforting and easy).  As I suggested in my response to Melchionne, I have little problem with this and am happy to use another term for the broader category of aesthetics I was trying to capture in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary.  Perhaps this broader category could be called "life aesthetics."  Life aesthetics would cover all the aesthetic issues that arise out of reflecting on the way we live our lives.  It would include the things that happen every day, but also special events such as weddings, holidays, science museum trips, Sunday church service, and visiting ruins.  As before, there is no need to include experiences involved in appreciation of the fine or popular arts since these are already covered in their own domains, as is appreciation of a natural creekside, which would be part of the aesthetics of nature.  This may disturb some philosophers since life obviously includes these events too.  But that just means that there is a domain that is broader yet, and this would be called "aesthetics" or "general aesthetics."  "Life aesthetics" just marks out new territory to be explored.  Other branches of aesthetics might include design aesthetics and the aesthetics of science and math.

Naukkarinen says that there are basic precepts for the everyday, first that "every one of us has his or her everyday life; second, it is necessarily his or her own; and third, the contents of it change over time."  He then adds that "[e]veryday life is the unavoidable basis on which everything else is built.  Life without everydayness is practically impossible, and it is difficult to even imagine a life that would be completely non-everyday-like."  This sounds reasonable at first, but I have a few problems with it.  (1)  Although it is true (at least on this planet) that we all have lives divided up into days, what happens in these days is sometimes the same and sometimes varies.  It is true that we all get up at some point, go to bed at some point, and eat at some point --- but just about everything else is variable.  Many of us have very different lives on weekends than on weekdays, for example.  To talk clearly about everyday life we would have to be able to make sense of what does not count as everyday life.  I don't always write philosophy, but today I am doing it, so it would seem that writing philosophy is not part of my everyday life.  But it might be for someone who is really obsessed with philosophy.  Also, it is an important part of my life, and the experience does have certain aesthetic properties.  The aesthetics of scholarship is a possible chapter in the newly titled aesthetics of life.  (2)  I don't see why we need to bring in the word "necessarily" here:  why not just say that my day is my day?  Of course this would ignore the fact that days, like everything else, are often shared with others (a point that Naukkarinen recognizes later in his essay).  I wonder whether  Naukkarinen would allow sentences that begin with, "We started our day..."  (3)  It is not clear what life with or without everydayness means or even what it means to say that everyday life is the basis for everything else.  In what way is a non-everyday event, like taking a Sunday drive, based on an everyday event?  Is it based somehow on the aesthetics of driving, which is more "everyday" for most Californians (for example) than taking a Sunday drive?

But wait, Naukkarinen also says, "Everyday objects, activities, and events, for me and for others, are those with which we spend lots of time, regularly and repeatedly."  That would seem to include weekend events and even once-a-year holidays.  So, which is it?  Is the everyday limited to what happens every day or can it be extended to holidays and weekends?  And what about wedding festivals?  Naukkarinen quotes Melchionne talking about eating, dressing, dwelling and going out as "nearly everyday."  Perhaps the "everyday" is flexible enough to include the nearly every day.  However, as I understand it, Naukkarinen wants to define the everyday in terms of what he calls the everyday attitude, which he describes in this way:

"The everyday attitude is colored with routines, familiarity, continuity, normalcy, habits, the slow process of acclimatization, even superficiality and a sort of half-consciousness  and not with creative experiments, exceptions, constant questioning and change, analyses, and deep reflections.  In our daily lives we aim at control and balance."

This may be the crux of the matter and the point of real disagreement between myself and Naukkarinen.  On his view if I approach every day as a creative experiment or with constant questioning and deep reflection, my everyday experience would not be part of everyday aesthetics.  The deep issue may be one of one's philosophy of everyday life, one's idea of how we ought to approach life (an ethical issue, every bit as much as an aesthetic one.)  

Naukkarinen writes:  "The everyday is the area of our life that we want and typically can trust, the sphere of life that we know very well; or at least believe that we do, which is normally enough to keep us contented."  So, as I take it, everyday aesthetics needs to be limited to materials in daily life that we can trust, that we know well, is normal, and generally keeps us contented.  I do not have any problem with these things as valuable and even as sometimes aesthetically valuable.  I have argued elsewhere that "comfortable" can be taken as an aesthetic property, and maybe there are other similar properties that relate to this realm, for example "makes me happy" or "makes me feel peaceful."  What I do not understand is why these should gain priority over such other concepts as "disturbing," "exciting" and "interesting," which can also be aesthetic properties, and ones that do not have much to do with trust, normality and contentedness although they have a lot to do with life.

Naukkarinen says that everyday life is something we are familiar with.  Does this mean that when we find things unfamiliar that we have left the domain of the everyday?  How unfamiliar does it have to be?  Wildly?  Let's say that I am walking down the street and I see that a house has been gutted for renovation.  I haven't seen this particular house as-gutted before.  I happen to find it visually fascinating.  What domain does this experience fall within?  I see it during part of my daily walk, but it is unfamiliar.  It would seem odd to exclude it from everyday aesthetics. 

Naukkarinen speaks with approval of Melchionne's idea of "easy integration of the aesthetic into routines with amendments" and observes that, for him, this means that he knows his home and his workplace quite well, and that many things he does there are easy and obvious:  "There are lots of things that I don’t have to pay much attention to but can perform almost automatically."  I wouldn't deny that this is the case (not only for him but for anyone), but wonder where aesthetics and aesthetic experience comes into this.  After all, if you do something automatically then you aren't paying attention to it, and if so, then you aren't paying attention to aesthetic properties.  Maybe you are experiencing aesthetic properties unconsciously in such cases.  However, as I have argued elsewhere, even if you pay attention to the ordinariness of ordinary things, the very fact of paying attention to them aesthetically raises them out of the ordinary.

It turns out that, for Naukkarinen, everydayness has even more to do with normalcy, ease, trust and comfort than it does with something that happens every day.  We know this since he argues that someone who is depressed or in crisis does not have everyday experience in his sense: "In such cases one probably cannot say that such people have an everyday life in the same sense as most of us."  I would imagine then that this would also be true for a Buddhist monk who has achieved satori or for someone who is in love with someone who is in love with them (such a person may be in a kind of magical world in which everything is beautiful).  Neither one of these personal types experiences the world primarily in terms of normalcy, ease and comfort.  They have very different attitudes to what I, at least, would call everyday life.  Naukkarinin also says, "whatever is routine and normal can be a part of our everyday, be that play and toys, fixing a car, or sports."  True, but this is different from the idea that only the normal and the routine is part of our everyday.  

What about parties?  Naukarinnin places them outside of the everyday.  As he puts it:  "Parties and festivals are supposed to be breaks in the routine.  They are exceptions, occasions when we do other things than the normal."  He then associates John Dewey and myself with taking these breaks as essential to everyday aesthetics.  Dewey and I "refer to the direction of rather special experiences that rise above the normal stream of daily life, although without being in stark contrast with it." This, Naukkarinen observes, has led Yuriko Saito to stress, by contrast, the everydayness of the everyday.  

It is true that the aesthetics of parties, festivals and holidays can be clumped together, and that these things have different features from, for example, hanging laundry and noticing that it is neat (an example both Saito and I have used of an everyday application of an aesthetic property).  The idea of rising above the normal stream of daily life is ambiguous, however.  Dewey urges us not only to notice the aesthetic properties of a great storm or a marvelous restaurant dinner but also the fire in a fireplace and the aesthetic satisfaction a mechanic takes in a job well done.  In my book I stressed the value of taking an aesthetic attitude towards such ordinary everyday things as shadows of trees on sidewalks.  Sherri Irvin has stressed taking such an attitude towards such things as observing her cat or even the way she sits and breathes.  These latter things do not take us beyond the stream of daily life, but they do involve taking a different attitude towards that stream.  Sometimes I feel that Naukarinnen wants us to take a non-aesthetic attitude to everyday aesthetic phenomena and then, rather perversely, to call this non-aesthetic attitude (what he calls the everyday attitude of trust, etc.) aesthetic. At other times, though, he seems to recognize that routine and boredom are the opposite of the aesthetic.  He observes, rather nicely, that one can try to escape from boredom in slow ways that involve training, for example, in a language or art form:  "This often means a process of developing ourselves, widening our horizons, or learning something new, which can be very demanding."  That would be an area rich in aesthetic possibilities.  He also speaks of de-familiarizing ourselves with the things that are normal to us and says that we then "start to reflect upon and analyze them in a different way."  That would seem to me to be an occasion for aesthetic experience too.  But consider diets (to use an example he gives) which only have long-term impact when they becomes routine.  Yet this (the becoming routine of taking smaller portions at dinner) seems irrelevant to aesthetics.  It might very well be true that our everyday habits have positive power, but that does not mean that they have positive aesthetic power.  

However, the areas of agreement between Naukkarinen and myself are actually quite large.  I agree, for example, with the following:  "I would think that in principle whatever belongs to our everyday can be approached aesthetically or from the aesthetic point of view. It is possible to evaluate anything aesthetically, although it is by no means always necessary.  Often we can choose our point of view.  If we approach something aesthetically, we typically pay attention to such issues as appearance, feel, look, touch, sound, and other perceivable qualities of the things we encounter and interact with: their emotional and sensory aspects."  Also, in response to a debate between Saito and myself, Naukkarinen says "art-related everyday aesthetics is simply another option available for us, not necessarily better or worse as such," and I am happy with that.  He is right that art-relatedness could be an essential part of one person's everyday life and not of another's.  

Perhaps our deepest level of disagreement comes when Naukkarinnen says, "The point of my approach is that should our aesthetic approach really be of an everyday type, we should evaluate and handle things rather routinely, easily and repeatedly, not experimentally, not in atypical and challenging ways, not aiming to broaden our possibilities.  Instead, we should aim at what is normal and non-spectacular to us, at something that does not stick out from the mat of normalcy but supports the routine.  This, in any case, might feel good, safe and satisfying, not simply uninteresting and boring, as Leddy suggests."  I would like to know to what extent this is just descriptive or whether there is something normative going on here.  Is it that Naukkarinen is recommending that we should, generally speaking, evaluate and handle things in this non-experimental way, avoiding the broadening of possibilities?  Is he arguing that, in general, in life, we should aim for the non-spectacular?  Is Leddy more the typical Californian, fascinated with the fascinating, interested in the interesting, always looking for the experimental?  Or is this merely descriptive, merely a matter of setting the most useful boundaries within a new range of aesthetic sub-disciplines?

It is interesting that these division lines are not clear in the complex philosophical diagram Naukkarinen gives to illustrate his position early in his essay.  He puts "My Everyday Now" as a red dot in the center of a field, but the field includes some items that he explicitly excludes from everyday aesthetics.  For instance, the outside circle includes both things to aspire to and things to avoid, and "party" (which, I take it, includes festivals and Sunday drives) is in the "aspire" category even though he explicitly excludes it from everyday aesthetics in the essay.  Moreover, slow development of the sort found in learning a language or instrument, which he also excludes from the everyday in its learning stage, is included when it has become routine.  If the entire chart covers everyday aesthetics then there is little difference between myself and Naukkarinen, except perhaps that I promote moving towards the aspire category and away from the avoid category as essential to everyday aesthetics.

To end these reflections on a positive note, I observe that Naukkarinen says "specialized analyses and critics of, say, restaurants, wines, cars, or fashion are not really examples of everyday aesthetic discourse, even if they have to do with something other than art and natural environments.."  Although the comment was directed against my definition of everyday aesthetics I agree that such analyses are not part of everyday aesthetic discourse.  Everyday aesthetic discourse is the discourse of non-specialists.  On the other hand, such analyses play an important role in the aesthetics of life as well as, in many cases, the aesthetics of design and the aesthetics of the minor arts.  Whether or not the aesthetics of food and wine is necessarily an aesthetics of minor art was discussed in my last post.



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When is Food Art? And Can it Ever be Fine Art?

Philosophical defenders of the aesthetics of food tend to stop short of saying that food can be fine art, although the position that food can be a minor art form is popular.  Elizabeth Telfer ("Food as Art" in Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, ed. Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, Routledge, 2008, 11-29) sees food as art sometimes, at least art in the classifying sense of the term "art."  After all, the creator of a recipe is like a composer in music, and the cook is like a performer.  Moreover, if one believes, as D. W. Prall did, that something that offers an object for sustained aesthetic appreciation is art, and since smells and tastes can do this, then plausibly food could be art.  Some might hold that although food  might sometimes be classified as art it should not be called art in the evaluative sense of that term, but Telfer disagrees.  One cannot exclude food from the domain of art (in this sense) because it is useful:  architecture is useful and yet it is commonly considered an art form.  Telfer notes that someone could argue that it is hard not to think of the usefulness of food when eating (i.e. it makes you less hungry).  Although food is necessary for nourishment, this does not take away from the aesthetic properties it might have in terms of its smell, taste and (Telfer forgets to mention) look.  That we actually touch food but do not touch the medium of the other arts might seem a reason not to allow food as art.  However this ignores the importance of touch for performers in dance and in music.  The aesthetic experience of performers is seldom as distanced as it is for audience members, and one should not forget about this when considering the nature of aesthetics in general.  Moreover, as Telfer observes, it is not clear why directness of physical touch in the case of food should matter.  The idea that contact with the body somehow "taints" aesthetic experience and that we should try to escape the body into a freer realm of mind is hard to credit given that eyes and ears are equally body parts interacting equally with a world of physical things.

The main argument against food as art is that it does not provide sufficiently complex combinations of elements, and hence the observer does not have to make fine distinctions (i.e. that would require good taste).  Sometimes it is also argued that it is hard to remember tastes.  At best, these arguments refer only to the cruder forms of food experience.  A wine taster with considerable experience will have no trouble making fine distinctions or noting the beginning point of his experience in relation to the end point, thus exercising memory (as also he would do in his memory of earlier wine tastings.)  

So far, so good.  But then Telfer argues that food can only be a minor art, and here it is harder to follow her.  Telfer thinks that food is limited in three important ways:  it is transient, it cannot have meaning, and it cannot move us.  Sure, food is transient, but is it more so than music or dance was before we had recording instruments?  In the case of music a certain permanence was achieved early on by passing pieces on from teacher to pupil, and later by the production of scores, but so too in cooking where there is a process of training involving a master chef.  Similarly, the recipe created by a great chef plays a similar role to a musical score.  Telfer thinks that little time is allowed for contemplation.  But if it takes an hour to eat a fine meal and an hour to listen to a fine concerto, where is the difference with respect to this?  The only difference seems to come with the advent of recording technology:  but surely that does not distinguish between art and non-art.  After all, such technology was not available in the early 19th century when the art non-art distinction was very much in use.  Telfer says that to be a great work of art something needs to be able to speak to different generations.  But how does this differentiate dance from food?  That a recipe may "not be able to speak to different generations" also does not distinguish food in any important way from music or dance, where a musical or choreographic score may cease to speak to us or at least to those of us who are not steeped in the appropriate historical background.  Just as we prefer less sugar in our pies these days so too our taste even in classical music has changed over time.  Telfer is left with the argument that we "cannot reliably record the performance of a cook."  Yet I have watched several impressive performances by great chefs like Julia Child on TV.  The only disappointing thing is that I cannt eat the very meal  she has just made on her show: so it is a very partial culinary experience, one that is easily supplemented by using the recipes she provides to make the same dish!  Here's another point.  There are always differences between art forms:  our recording ability is different for music and dance, and it is not even (usually) relevant when it comes to literature and painting. 

Telfer wants to categorize food as a minor art in line with fireworks and flower arranging.  This way of thinking makes me nervous too.  Are these necessarily minor art forms or only accidentally so?  I would think that the key question would be whether or not there could be a genius artist in that particular form.  Flower arranging seems sometimes to reach the level of fine art in the Japanese art of Ikabana, for example.

Telfer also thinks that food cannot be fine art in that it cannot have meaning in the same way that major art forms can.  For example, it cannot represent anything or tell us something about our world.  Of course an art form does not need to be representational to be a major art form, and music is not, but, Telfer argues, music expresses emotion, and food cannot do so.  First, it is not clear that food cannot express emotion. I wonder whether food cannot express emotion in some way, for example by referring to the emotions associated with family and cultural memories.   Moreover, the argument itself is odd in that it seems tailored simply to include representational visual art and music and to exclude food.  One could just as easily say that music is not a major art because it does not represent anything (Peter Kivy goes so far as to say that music without words has no content!) or that anything that does not express emotion, including some types of music, fails to fall into the category of great art. 

Is it impossible to be moved by a great dish or meal?  Telfer says that food cannot move us in the way the major arts can:  "food can elate us, invigorate us, startle us, excite us....but cannot shake us fundamentally" in such a way as to cause tears and even a "sensation almost of fear."  Well, sometimes the major arts can do all of these things, but there are no guarantees here.  And people respond differently to different arts.  I have never been moved to tears or some special fearlike sensation by music.  But this does not give me reason to reject music as a major artform.  After all, there are some people who are moved in that way.  Perhaps there are people who are moved in that way by food too.  When Telfer says "we are not in awe of good food, and we hesitate to ascribe the word 'beauty' to it" I wonder what she is talking about, since I have had meals that have transcended ordinary experience and have left me in as much awe as some of the better works I have experienced in the other art form.  As for "beauty," there are certain social conventions here:  we tend to limit this term to examples of visual and aural beauty, although we do sometimes refer to beautiful character, and as Telfer herself admits, to a "beautiful dish."  So what exactly is the big difference between the beauty in a beautiful dish and the beauty in a beautiful song? 

The key issue, perhaps, is whether food can have an "earth-shaking quality," as Telfer puts it.  I agree with Telfer that not all food is art, not even a minor art, and also that the aesthetic pleasure in food taken in ordinary everyday contexts (including the social aspects of those contexts) might actually be hindered by over attention to the qualities that would make it an art form.  I just do not see any reason to have to come up with reasons to proclaiming that it never reaches the level of a major art form or that the experience of food can never be earth-shaking. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

When Comic Strips are Funny: A Matter for Aesthetics?

Philosophy often starts with something very personal, and then that gets lost in the final version of the paper.  That's not going to happen here. For me, the daily funnies (a.k.a. comic strips) in our local paper (The San Jose Mercury News) have a special personal meaning.  Every morning I call up my mom, who is 87 and has short-term memory problems, and I read her the funnies, not all of them, just the ones I think are funny and I think she will "get."  Her short-term and long-term memory are still good enough that she can follow the story and get the references, unless they are to some current technological fad someone her age wouldn't know about.  Without any real evidence, I think laughing at a few good short stories as presented in the daily comics is a great way for her to start the day and also helps her to retain her cognitive powers.  It is also a good way for me to start my day.  I have been writing on everyday aesthetics over the last few years and yet I have been recently criticized, rightly I think, about not focusing enough on the things that happen every day.  This event. reading comics to my mom, happens every day to me, and it also relates to something that happens every day for others, i.e. reading the comics (usually to oneself, and perhaps, aloud, to one's mate, when one wants to share).  Of course, what happens every day is going to be different for different people, but this is something most readers will relate to easily.  

So, is there something aesthetic about reading and describing a comic strip over the phone to one's mom, finding it funny, and laughing.  It is arguable, at least, that "funny" is an aesthetic property.  Usually in aesthetics we speak of the experience of positive aesthetic properties as being combined with an experience of pleasure, which is certainly the case here.  There is an added aspect of the experience, which is the physiological response to humor, i.e. laughter.  Before we go on I should mention the comics I find most valuable in this exercise:  Peanuts Classics, Pickles, Zits, Blondie, For Better or For Worse, Baby Blues, Adam@Home, Family Circus, Rose is Rose, Mutts, Bizarro, and Rhymes with Orange, pretty much in that order.  I also personally find Dilbert, Doonesbury, Non Sequitur and a few others funny but not good for reading to mom.  I never find Millard Fillmore funny -- perhaps  because I'm politically on the left.  Pardon my Planet may only be funny to people in their 20s who are fed up with the dating scene and Pearls Before Swine, although interesting, hardly ever makes me laugh ---  some of the funnies require a what seems a sick sense of humor and a high tolerance for puns.  Some of the comics are not intended to be funny at all, or at least not most of the time, for example Rex Morgan, which is more like a soap opera.  So, my taste in funnies is on the table, and I am sure everyone will have a different list of favorites.  

One of the things I have noticed in my morning comic readings is that what works has to do usually with the ironies of family life, and that different comics devote themselves to different perspectives in family dynamics.  Zits is the teenager vs. parent comic, Peanuts Classics deals with the child's perspective on life, For Better or for Worse with a parent's perspective on living with pre-teens, Pickles on life with grandpa and grandma, Blondie with a variety of family and work issues, Baby Blues with a parent's perspective on small children, Rhymes with Orange with everyday life generally, Rose is Rose with fantasy life of a young couple in love, their kid and their cat, and Mutts with the inner lives of animals.  Although I read these comics out loud to my mom and she is not looking at them herself, the visual aspect of the experience is important to me (and is usually important to most consumers).  Each comic strip artist has his/her own style (and in this case, Mallard Filmore is not bad), and sometimes the visual dimension plays the primarily role, as for example in Lio.  Perhaps my favorite, visually speaking, is Mutts.  

Philosophers who talk about comics seem to quickly want to talk about comic books and veer away from newspaper comics.  Comic books and newspaper comics overlap a lot, to be sure, as they do with graphic novels and books that collect newspaper comics.  But it is a good thing to just focus on one kind of experience, and in this case, one kind of comic, i.e. the funny kind.

One thing I do not want to spend time on in this short comment is the question of how to define comics.  I simply define comics, for the sake of this discussion, as whatever appears on the comics page in a newspaper.  There are of course comics that appear in other places (for example in newsletters and in blogs) and closely related phenomena, for example New Yorker cartoons.  So I am not offering a definition of comics in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, nor do I think debates over such a definition are particularly interesting (who really cares whether a comic requires more than one panel or speeches in balloons?)  Again, I am also focusing on the comics that I and my mother find funny, and as part of an experience that includes various elements.  Dewey defines "an experience" as having a beginning, middle and end and as being consummatory.  I would say that my experiences of reading comics to my mom fall into that category, although not in the category of a profound event, as when we say "that was an experience!"  This is just an ordinary everyday aesthetic experience (assuming, again, that "funny" is an aesthetic quality).

Noteworthy about this experience is that it has four basic elements, the comic strip in front of me, my reading of it, my mother listening and responding (for example asking for clarification or making remarks), and mutual laughter. Sometimes, there is also a follow-up comment or two in the "isn't that so true" genre. (In a previous post I discussed Kristeva and Irigaray's idea that everyday aesthetic experience requires mutuality and ideally with an element of love...this seems to fit into my thinking here.) It is rather disappointing that philosophers who have talked about comics say very little about the comics that interest me in this context.  David Carrier in The Aesthetics of Comics (2000) does devote a chapter to Krazy Kat, a strip which was indeed both funny and graphically interesting.  As for other philosophers' attempts to talk about comics, Aaron Miskin wrote a paper, "Defining Comics" (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.65:4 2007 369-379)  It is all about the topic mentioned in the title.  Yet there is no mention of laugh, laughter or funniness in the article, and the only mention of humor is about the origins of comics in humor magazines like Punch.  Imagine that Aristotle had talked about tragedy but neglected to mention catharsis of pity and fear!  I do not want to claim that humor is absolutely essential to a comic, but I do think that a large part of what comics are about is humor:  the comics are, usually, comical.  I can only agree with Meskin's concluding words: "We should get on with the business of thinking seriously about comics as art. Let's get beyond the definitional project."  (376)  In a recent article, Henry John Pratt ("Narrative in Comics" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67:1  2009 369-379 stresses the importance in narrative in comics.  He sees this as essential to a phenomenology of comics.  He even mentions all the people who have incorporated narrative into their definitions of comics.  My thought is that certainly narrative is part of my experience of reading comics to my mom, but humor, laughter, and mutual conversational interchange, are also parts of that experience, and equally important.  If we are going to do a phenomenology then we should not be excluding all of those elements.  Pratt, too, never mentions humor, laughter, or any of these other elements.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Do Aesthetic Attributions Require Taste?

Frank N. Sibley's article "Aesthetic Concepts" (originally in The Philosophical Review 68:4 (1959) 421-450, but also widely anthologized) is so famous it almost counts as dogma, as though an appeal to Sibley would make it true.  But there is a something very peculiar in the essay at the very beginning.  Sibley just assumes that there is a list of things called aesthetic concepts and that in order to discern these one must have taste.  He says "we say a poem is tightly knit or deeply moving; that a picture lacks balance, or has a certain serenity and repose, or that the grouping of the figure sets up an exciting tension; that the characters in a novel never really come to life, or that a certain episode strikes a false note." He says that it is natural to say that making such judgments requires taste, although interestingly, he suggests some other things it might require (assuming, I suppose, that all of these are just different ways of saying "taste"), for example sensitivity and aesthetic discrimination.  He defines an aesthetic term or expression as one that requires taste for its application.  He also speaks of aesthetic or taste concepts (but these seem interchangeable with aesthetic terms).  He then goes on to list aesthetic terms:  they include unified, balanced, integrated, lifeless and serene, among others, as well as such more complex predicates as "sets up a tension." Yet it not at all clear why any of the comments in the first set of examples, or terms in the second set, require taste for their application.  You could use any of these terms without having any taste at all.  For the sake of argument let's just assume that taste is the capacity to make subtle distinctions in works of art and other aesthetic objects and to do this in such a way as to appropriately evaluate them.  The OED refers to "aesthetic discernment in art, literature, fashion, etc."  O.K.  that's something to work with.  But someone can say that something is unified or lifeless and make sense without having any particular aesthetic discernment.  That is, it is not required to be a good judge in art or some other aesthetic realm to use these terms.  One might argue of course that for the terms to be used correctly one needs to be a good judge, to have taste in that sense, to be able to discern the good from the bad.  Someone who says that a painting is balanced when it is not (as determined by a good judge in such paintings) is a person with no (or at least, not very good) taste. This is at least a plausible claim.  But to claim that in order to use a term aesthetically one must have taste is just to assume that in each case of aesthetic judgment there is an objectively right answer.  (Those who have taste can see it, and those who do not cannot.)  Sibley is clear that for him "taste"  is an ability to "notice or see or tell that things have certain qualities." Is the objectivity of aesthetic attributions really that secure?  Also, there is a kind of circularity, or at least a tautology, in Sibley's position:  one must have taste in order to correctly say "x is balanced" and in order to correctly say "x is balanced" one must have taste.  You wouldn't be able to determine that someone has taste independently of their being able to make correct aesthetic attributions. Let's say you do not know much about painting and are not able to judge in any knowledgeable way whether a particular painting or its parts or aspects is good (or better) and yet you say that this painting has a certain serenity.  On Sibley's view, you cannot then be using "serenity" in the aesthetic sense of the word.  But this seems absurd.  His position would make it impossible for the expert and the novice to disagree about a painting's serenity, since they would be talking about completely different things!

Things get worse when Sibley extends aesthetic terms to what he calls "everyday discourse."  He says, "we employ terms the use of which requires an exercise of taste not only when discussing the arts but quite liberally throughout discourse in everyday life" which is to say that one has to use such terms even in everyday life in the way a Humean good judge would when talking about an oration, i.e with delicacy of sentiment.  Sibley admits that many of the terms which are used with taste in critical discourse (with respect of art) are often used outside of the arts in a way not connected with taste.  However, at the same time, he believes that terms like graceful, delicate, dainty, and handsome are often used outside of the arts in ways that require taste, and then they are used aesthetically.  Let's take "handsome."  Imagine that a woman says that a man is handsome.  Is it required that she get this objectively right for her to have used the term aesthetically?  Is it required that she be able to make subtle discrimination between different features of handsomeness before she can say someone is handsome?   I think not.   This is an important issue since many who criticize everyday aesthetics argue that it trivializes aesthetics, perhaps for Sibleyan reasons.  They have no problem with application of terms like "serenity" in everyday contexts where this application is like that of a connoisseur in the arts.  They just have a problem with its application in an ordinary everyday way by ordinary people.  If an ordinary person says that a dell is serene that person cannot be using the term aesthetically since that person does not apply the term out of a capacity for subtle discrimination.

Sibley goes on to say, following Hume, that "Taste or sensitivity is somewhat more rare than certain other human capacities" although he thinks almost everyone is able to exercise taste in some area to some degree.  

Sibley also says that "man who failed to realize the nature of taste concepts, or someone who, knowing he lacked sensitivity in aesthetic matters, did not want to reveal this lack might by assiduous application and shrewd observation provide himself with some rules and generalizations; and by inductive procedures and intelligent guessing, he might frequently say the right things. But he could have no great confidence or certainty..."  This does not make any sense on Sibley's view.  If the man has no sensitivity then he couldn't possibly "say the right thing."  If he said that a painting was delicate, on Sibley's view he would not even be using "delicate" as a taste concept, since that would require taste, which he doesn't have.  So how would it be the right thing to say?  Sibley also interestingly thinks that "people often are exercising taste even when they say that glass is very delicate because it is so thin, and know that it would be less so if thicker and more so if thinner." although he thinks such cases are atypical.  Perhaps I am being unfair to Sibley and he simply means by a taste judgment one that cannot be applied by way of conditions or rules.  This is certainly a, or the major point of the paper.  Perhaps Sibley wasn't even thinking of subtle discernment or the Humean good judge at all. It is hard to say. 

I owe a lot to Sibley:  my project of exploring everyday life aesthetics could be seen as a development of his comments in this article about the everyday and of his notion that aesthetic terms (except for the famous ones, like beauty) have been largely neglected.  It is only recently that I have found his requirement that aesthetic terms be only used in connection with taste irritating.