Thursday, October 24, 2013

When an Art Teacher Says "Your Work is Similar to X."

According to Theodore Gracyk in The Philosophy of Art, the position called ontological contextualism says that "some aspects of an artwork's identity depend on the art-historical context of its time and creation" (Gracyk, 85).  This in itself is not a controversial view.   However it quickly becomes clear that ontological contextualists believe that all aspects of an artwork's identity depend on the art-historical context of the artwork's time of creation up to and ending abruptly at the point of completion of the artwork.  Thus Gracyk observes that ontological contextualists believe that some art historical contingincies are relevant to artwork identity and other ones (that are after the point of completion of the work) are not (86).  In regards to this, he observes, they say that Paul Cezanne's paintings were always proto-cubist.  This is a way of countering the claim of the constructivists (or, more properly, to keep the parallel, constructivist contextualists) that identity is not frozen at the time of creation and that artworks gain properties after creation, the development of Cubist painting giving new significance to Cezanne's work.  So do the paintings remain unchanged?  That is the question.  (Gracyk also has the odd view that "Constructivism is only plausible so long as we regard every artwork as an abstract structure that lacks determinate meaning."  Why would he believe that? I would think that constructivism is only plausible if it holds that artworks are actual things that have various properties including potentialities which may be actualized in various ways later, mainly in the experience of audience members, but also in the various manners of the work's presentation). 
An art student of mind has observed that, in looking that some examples by Cezanne, although they do occasionally have cube-like shapes they are not cubist in the sense of Picasso and Braque.  I actually think that it is hard to tell just by looking at paintings whether ontological contextualism or constructivism is true.  And maybe if that is so then it is just one of those philosophical debates that comes down to nothing but word choice.  Still, it does seem important.  Is context limited to the material leading up to the completion of the work or does it extend to things that happen after its completion?  I favor the second view. 

In addition the student raises an issue about teaching with respect to her recent work and responses to it.  These responses take the form, "Your piece is like X" by which is probably meant something like "your piece is essentially like X" or "your piece is very much like X."  These comments may be intended to get her to become more like X, to learn more from X, or even to react against X and become less similar to X.  In terms of what we were talking about earlier, X could be seen as already having the property "likeness to G [my student]" when it was created.  But that seems strange.  Yet if we are to say that Cezanne already had Cubist properties before Cubism, why not also say that X had Guerin properties before G?  .

G also suggested that comparisons of this sort are "inadequate to describe" her work.  I am not sure that this was your teacher's intention, but her point raises the interesting issue of whether pointing out similarities does not also occlude important differences.  G.'s work was being compared Milton Resnick.  But in looking at slides of her work and Resnick's it looks like G. is much more concerned with three-d texture and also with qualities of realism that can be achieved with texture, all of this related to a contemporary deep interest in environmentalism.
From one perspective it could be argued that Gs work, although superficially similar to X, is essentially different.  If so, then merely pointing out similarities does not help much.  A big question is:  what role do similarities play in teaching and understanding art, and what role should such practices play. 

Does anyone have some thoughts on this?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dewey's Dynamic Concept of "An Experience" as Developed in his Book Art as Experience

Dewey is one of the few philosophers who has provided a truly dynamic account of aesthetic experience (in Art as Experience).  Kant merely talks about aesthetic experience in terms of rather vague relations between the imagination and the understanding giving rise to the experience of beauty.  Hume speaks of the action of the critic as a rather mechanical ticking off of what is good and bad even in the minute particulars of a work of art.  Bell provides us with a little circle in which the good critic experiences the special aesthetic emotion in response to significant form which itself is defined as relations of lines and colors that give rise to the aesthetic emotion (which he sees as rapturous).  But Dewey talks about the experience of art in ways that we had not seen since Aristotle spoke of tragedy.  Although Dewey does not mention it, Aristotle's views on tragedy work as a nice starting point for understanding Dewey's view of aesthetic experience.  For Aristotle a good tragic work of art has a beginning, middle and end and also has magnitude, by which he means a proper length, i.e. one that can be encompassed by our minds, in particular our memory.  Aristotle defines tragedy in such a way as to emphasize plot over the other elements and to stress the catharsis of pity and fear in the audience.  Dewey, too, stresses that an experience has a natural starting and ending point.  Moreover, he sees our lives as a thing of histories, by which he means that we have many stories in our lives, each with its own plot.  He too stresses that his object (in this case aesthetic experience) in a consummation that is emotional in nature, much like Aristotle's catharsis.  So one could say that Dewey extends Aristotle's analysis of tragedy to aesthetic experience generally.  Dewey, moreover, has a similar starting point to that of Aristotle:  the live creature interacting with its environment.  I want to stress two other features of Dewey's approach to "an experience" that relate to its dynamic nature.  The first is the notion of the pervasive quality.  This is a hard one since it is very difficult to see whether Dewey is right that each example of "an experience" does indeed have a pervasive aesthetic quality, a "feel" all of its own.  On one level the pervasive quality can simply be seen as the feeling of rightness or perfection when the fulfillment occurs.  Yet, clearly he means by this not simply a pervasive quality or beauty or sublimity, he is not just talking about a general aesthetic quality, but rather a pervasive quality associated with emotion.  As he puts it, each integral experience has an emotional quality which evolves and develops throughout the experience.  Another way of putting this is his point that emotions themselves are not simple things, for example the simple experience of fear, but aspects of experience that evolve over time and in relation to specific objects.  Emotions, as he observed, are not just things in the mind, but are emergent from the interaction of live creatures.  The emotion of love has this quality:  it is not a thing of a moment or a specific feel, but rather something that (and here again we have a reference to theater) evolves on the stage of life in relation to specific others and even to shared objects and events.  The second point is that Dewey sees "an experience" as dynamic in that as the experience moves forward through its distinct phases it carries the past phases through the present and projects them into the future.  This is particularly evident for example in our experience of music.  But it can also be seen in our experience of works of visual art, for example in looking at Matisse's "Joie de Vivre" one moves from one figure to the next taking in each figure and its relation to the other figures in the scene.  So in sum "an experience" is complete and unified, it is separated from other experiences that are much less organized, having its own clear beginning and end, the end being a consummation rather than a mere cessation, the parts being distinct and yet almost paradoxically flowing from one to the next in a developmental stage, taking place as if it were a story or in some cases as a story, involving a developing "feel" or emotion, and pulling the past into it in such as way as to project forward to the culmination. Dewey's thinking is also deeply humanistic here in that aesthetic experience is not limited to art but rather expanded to life experiences in general including both life experiences that are everyday (for example, solving a problem, playing a game) and ones that are special and dramatic (for example, a fabulous meal, a storm that sums up all a storm can be, the breakup of a friendship.)  Moreover, these experiences are understood, as I said above, on the model of a form of art, Greek tragedy (and this is not, by the way, explicit) so that the dimension of conflict and suffering plays an equally important role.  Dewey stresses that "an experience" may involve suffering, but that this may be overcome in the final consummation (read, catharsis.)  What Dewey perhaps fails to do in discussing "an experience" is to more explicitly call for improvements in society that encourage richer living, i.e. more experiences that are integral, whether that be in the realm of the arts, the practical world, or in the intellectual world of philosophy and science.   That is, the notion of perceiving things as dynamic  this way is one that should be promoting as an educational goal.  Here is where, for example, our current view of critical thinking is lacking:  Dewey's logic insists that thinking is only real when it constitutes "an experience" and where the conclusion is not just the result of some mechanical connection of premises but may indeed come before the premises temporally.  In Dewey's view, thinking at its best is a dynamic activity in which an emotion or a "feel" evolves to a point of culmination.  It is not hard to show the profound rightness of Dewey's aesthetic theory for art, but perhaps more important to show it for critical thinking itself.  Dewey's thinking is related of course to everyday life not only in that he appreciates certain life phenomena as constituting aesthetic experiences but also as recognizing that these life experiences take the form of a drama, that, for example, we can speak of life situations as tragic or comic, as being moving, as beautiful or sublime.  Art is a kind of intensification of life, and life, therefore is a prelude to art.  Art and life are dynamically interrelated, enhancing each other as they go.  To paraphrase one of my student's comments:  having experiences is the way of life and integral experiences form an important part of living itself. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Aesthetic Atheism

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy is an excellent starting point and stimulus for aesthetic atheism.   Rather than simply go for the Socratic/scientific perspective advocated by such traditional atheists as Richard Dawkins, Nietzsche takes the religious impulse quite seriously.  (See  "Affirmations After God:  Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins on Atheism," by J. Thomas Howe, Zygon, 47:1 (March 2012) for an interesting discussion). As Nietzsche would put it:  religion exists for man because not everything that happens is explainable to us by way of natural science.  There comes a moment when our "unshakable confidence" in the principle of sufficient reason and in the principium individuationis (which is the same thing, really) and of the Apollonian dream-world, suspends itself:  i.e. we can't find the explanation, at least not in terms of any principles of science.  I am not talking here about miracles but rather about stuff that we want to explain, like what is the meaning of life or the basis for morality, and why is there so much suffering ... and which science can tell us nothing about.  Human existence involves a great deal of suffering, and there must be some way to deal with this.  Traditional religion tells us that there is a God to look over us and that we have a soul that can go to some other realm, for example Heaven, when we die.  Nietzsche offers an alternative, but rather than attacking religion as illusion he argues that illusion is sometimes good for us.  The Greeks were aware that, as the Silenus figure put it, the best thing for man is never to have been born, and if born, to die soon, and yet they made life worthwhile by creating a world of illusion, the Apollonian world of the Olympian deities.  The Greeks created their religion to make it possible for them to live life.  (Nietzsche believed that this religion was better than the Christian one because it was not given to asceticism, which is just another word for denial of life.) And then the Greeks created another religion, the Dionysian religion, which involves, like Christianity, ritual, death, resurrection and redemption, but in a different key.  The Dionysian religion is another illusion, but it is an illusion that gives life meaning in a deeper way even than the Apollonian religion.  In this respect Nietzsche is the opposite of Plato.  Although, like Plato, he believes in the value of truth (what he teaches us as a philosopher is, after all, true in his eyes), he also, unlike Plato, sees the value of illusion, if addressed in the right way.  Plato asks us to leave the cave.  Nietzsche asks us to do that too, but then insists that this is not enough...and even that the Socratic quest holds within itself its own illusions (Apollonian illusions).  Leaving the cave is one part of the story.  The other part is diving deeper into the cave.  The Apollonian illusion seems to have taken us out of the cave but is in fact just another illusion:  when Plato's philosopher king thinks he has gotten out of the world into the world of reality he fails to see that he has gotten into another layer of illusion, the dreamworld of Apollo.  Recognizing this is one step.  But deeper than that is the overcoming of the veil of maya put up by the Apollonian illusion.  Once we do that, the even deeper illusion of oneness with the "primordial one" emerges.  Nietzsche could be read at this point in his intellectual career as holding that the "primordial one" is God, that God seeks to redeem himself through creation of a world of illusion.  This would be wrong.  Nietzsche, I believe, already is thinking that "God is dead."  And the "primordial one" is just another word for what he later calls "will to power."   It is a word for something deep within ourselves, a potential that we can actualize.  The primordial one which is the will to power which is the will to creative self-actualization on a grand scale (on the level of true greatness) is his answer to Schopenhauer's idea of the underlying irrational will.  But in contrast to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche's primordial one is the will as seeking power through creativity, through creation of great art, and through creation of oneself as a work of art.  So, the best manifestation of the will to power for Nietzsche is (and this comes out in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) the creation of oneself as a great work of art:  this is what is meant by "saying yes to life" and also what is meant by saying yes to eternal recurrence.  It is important that Nietzsche does not say that the veil of Maya is in fact shattered in the Dionysian experience.  Rather it is "as though the veil of Maya had been torn apart and there remained only shreds floating before the vision of mystical Oneness."  The Dionysian illusion of a vision of mystical Oneness is an even greater and more powerful illusion than the Apollonian, especially when combined with the Apollonian in the form of great art (which was in the form of tragic drama for the ancient Greeks and the tragic opera of Wagner, thought Nietzsche at that time).  So when Nietzsche says "Each of his [the Dionysian reveler's] gestures betokens enchantment; through him sounds a supernatural power, the same power which makes the animals speak and the earth render up milk and honey" he does not mean that the Dionysian dancer manifests something actually supernatural but rather that the world takes on an enchantment:  the ordinary becomes extraordinary, as if the animals could speak, etc.  The dream illusion of the Dionysian is in part the great aesthetic accomplishment of every great redemptive religion.  So, what happens to the individual here?  "He feels himself to be godlike and strides with the same elation and ecstasy as the gods he has seen in his dreams."  The gods were created by man spontaneously (in dreams) to give life some sense, but the deeper level of illusion is the one in which one begins to see oneself as godlike, and not just as an artist, but as a work of art created by oneself.  So when Nietzsche says "The productive power of the whole universe is now manifest in his transport" he means the productive power of the will to power is now manifested in the ecstatic experience of the self-productive Dionysian artist.  The sublime aesthetic experience found not only in great art but in great religion, such as that of the ancient Greeks (and perhaps even that of Christianity, although Nietzsche himself would deny it), and also in the great self-creation of the "tragic man" is something based on the true value of a special kind of deep illusion.  Oddly, great religion is what great art strives to achieve except without the belief, without the conviction that religion speaks truth. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hegel's Aesthetics and Aesthetic Atheism

Hegel's lectures on aesthetics can provide useful stimulus and some intellectual support for aesthetic atheism.  What I will have to say about Hegel is not intended to be a contribution to Hegel scholarship, nor do I intend here to produce something that is consistent with an overall Hegelian position.  I just want to use him (and specifically "Chapter 1: The Range of Aesthetic Defined..." I will quote from Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, the Penguin edition, translated by Bosanquet, 1993) got inspiration.

Hegel is already in the right ball-park as far as aesthetic atheism is concerned insofar as he rejects traditional religious belief and replaces God with "the Absolute."  One does not have to go so far as to believe in the Absolute as some entity that evolves through history to find Hegel useful here.  The very idea that the physical world has a spiritual aspect manifested in art, religion, philosophy and science may be sufficient ("spiritual aspect" to be defined in a way that does not allow dualism or a separate spiritual realm or set of entities).  Aesthetic atheism, unlike physicalist atheism of the sort we find in Dawkins, finds deep value in these great manifestations of the human spirit, even including religion.  Like Hegel, the aesthetic atheist may find Rembrandt's The Night Watch thrilling because it manifests the spirit of the Dutch people and indeed Europe in general at a particular stage in history, as also Van Eyk's Ghent Altarpiece at another stage in history.  So when Hegel says "In the origination, as in the contemplation, of its creations we appear to escape wholly from the fetters of rule and regularity" (7) we can see the point as similar to Kant's comment about the creation of new rules by the genius artist, except in this case the emphasis is on the freedom of the artist's imagination, or the "freedom of the productive and plastic energy" of the art itself.  Hegel's reference to free art as expressing "cheerful vigorous reality" as opposed to mere abstract thought reminds me here of Nietzsche's comments on the healthy spirit.  And Hegel's "Not only has art at command the whole wealth of natural forms in the brilliant variety of their appearance, but also the creative imagination has power to expatiate inexhaustively beyond their [the natural forms'] limit in products of its own" allows that the arts flesh out meaning in the world of ideas, including those provided by science.  

In connection with this line of thinking, this passage is striking:

"Fine art is not real art till it is in this sense free [i.e. self-determined, as science is when it rises to the level of free search for the truth], and only achieves its highest task when it has taken its place in the same sphere with religion and philosophy, and has become simply a mode of revealing to consciousness and bringing to utterance the Divine Nature, the deepest interests of humanity, and the most comprehensive truths of the mind.  It is in works of art that nations have deposited the profoundest intuitions and ideas of their hearts; and fine art is frequently the the understanding of their wisdom and their religion."

The aesthetic atheist agrees, except that "the Divine Nature" is deleted or transformed into something more like "the deepest interests of humanity."  Note that the very idea of the Divine Nature is identified in this paragraph with the way in which nations have profound intuitions.  So we already have a way of putting this in atheistic or humanistic terms.  Nor need we accept some sort of Platonistic view of nations as clearly separate and distinct, but rather we may talk about various possible units larger than the individual:  civilizations, cultures, sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures, all of which can participate in the process of self-expression Hegel describes in which individual self-expression becomes an expression of that larger-than-individual unit (perhaps even progressively so, through a series of larger units reaching to the species and genus).  Nor need we go along with all of Hegel's absolutist talk of "highest," "only," "deepest" and "profoundest" to find inspiration in this idea that the spiritual aspect of Being is precisely in the world-as-we-experience-it, a physical world with a spiritual aspect.     

Except that of course, the aesthetic atheist story is one that reverses Hegel's hierarchy, and the aesthetic becomes prominent in this case.  So when Hegel says, "This is an attribute which art shares with religion and philosophy, only in this peculiar mode, that it represents even the highest ideas in sensuous forms, thereby bringing them nearer to the character of natural phenomena, to the sense, and to feeling" we take this to be the paradigm of the aesthetic and also of the religious, unlike Hegel.  And when Hegel says "The world, into whose depths thought penetrates, is a supra-sensuous world, which is thus, to begin with, erected as a beyond over against immediate consciousness...." this is precisely what Kant rightly thought as going beyond the limits of reason and into illusion.  At most, the suprasensuous realm can only be an abstract and empty idea that represents what Hegel then calls "the power which thus rescues itself from the here" of "actuality and finiteness of sense." There is nothing wrong with the rescue insofar as moving away from the sensuous and immediate is a necessary part of the dialectic of knowledge (going back and forth being required) but only with the thought that cognition cannot do this by escaping the sense world entirely:  it can only seem as if doing so, and can only be useful insofar as this is a useful fiction.   To have any real nature these ideas need to be fleshed out by imagination, which takes us back to sensuous immediacy.  Contra Hegel, then, there is no reason to believe in an "infinite freedom of the reason that comprehends."  (10)  Rather than "breaking through to the idea," which Hegel thinks is the purpose of fine art, the products of fine art (and also religion and philosophy) break through to what Kant called "the aesthetic ideas" of which the idea in Hegel's sense is only the abstract and empty marker, at best.  So when Hegel says,  "...we must...bear in mind...that art is not, either in content or in form, the supreme and absolute mode of bringing the mind's genuine interests into consciousness"  the aesthetic atheist replies: sure! and neither is anything else, least of all philosophy or religion.   

Friday, October 11, 2013

Nature Aesthetics and the Feeling of Happiness

As I walk on a path beside the Stanislaus River, passing by patches of bear clover, areas strewn with pine cones, earth of different colors, and arrangements of interestingly shaped granite rocks, a feeling of happiness rises up.  My friends and I find another path down to the river, leading to a spot that we hadn’t ever visited before.  Although the river itself has dangerous currents, this area has shallows in which one can wade.  My happiness increases as I take off my hiking boots, roll up my pants and slowly work my way through the water across stones and past miniature falls, facing the rushing river on the other side and the dramatic cliff that forms the far bank.  The happiness I describe is a response to the situation in hand, particularly the aesthetic features of the surrounding environment, but also to other aspects of the situation.  I am there with my wife and friends in harmonious friendship.  We are together and responding to nature, this specific nature, i.e. this place by a river that has rich personal meaning going back, in my case, more than fifty years.  For me, at least, any adequate theory of the aesthetics of the natural environment must be measured against this experience.  To be sure, there are many other ways that things can be experienced in nature as beautiful, or as having some other aesthetic quality (for example, grace, elegance, or magnificence), and many other kinds of things that can be experienced aesthetically, but if a theory cannot handle this experience or this type of experience then, in my view, it is a non-starter.  This is to me not only a high point in the aesthetic experience of nature but also a high point in life.  I write this essay in the hope (and expectation) that you will have a similar experience to which you can refer as you read it. 

Two leading theories of the natural environment are the engagement theory of Arnold Berleant and the scientific cognitivist theory first promoted by Allen Carlson and defended more recently by Glenn Parsons.  I will make some brief comments about both in what follows.  Begin with scientific cognitivism as presented by Parsons.  This view, which is intended to provide a basis for objectivity in aesthetic judgments of the natural environment, holds that knowledge of the natural sciences is necessary to ground appropriate appreciation.  Geology, biology and natural history can, on this view, correctly describe a natural object and show how aesthetic views inconsistent with science (for example Medieval religious views) are false.[1]  Yet scientific knowledge, although it can contribute to aesthetically positive experience, is neither necessary nor sufficient to have the appreciation of the natural environment I have experienced on the Stanislaus.  I myself have very little scientific knowledge of the river and cannot detect its presence in my appreciative experience.  (That I can name a couple plants and rocks as I did above hardly counts as scientific knowledge.)  Moreover, although my experience will of course be influenced (perhaps unconsciously) by whatever knowledge I have, this has little bearing on its value.  Also, scientific knowledge is not sufficient for aesthetic experience of nature:  one could imagine someone with a great deal of such knowledge having an experience of the river with no aesthetic component at all.

I am more sympathetic to Berleant’s view.  Berleant and I both begin with analysis of experience, i.e. with phenomenology, we both emphasize sensuous experience more than the scientific cognitivist, and we agree on the centrality of engagement (i.e. sensory immersion and “living in” as participants rather than mere observers).   The rest of this article will be devoted to noting differences between our positions.  To provide a context for my discussion I turn to a recent debate between Carlson and Berleant.  In a review of one of Berleant’s books Carlson argues that he fails to define aesthetic experience, that his theory is too subjective in that if fails to provide a basis for objective evaluation, and that it does not account for the distinction between difficult/serious and easy/superficial beauty.[2]  In a follow-up article, Berleant cogently replies that he does not accept the model of philosophy in which the goal is to provide a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (an essentialism he associates with Aristotle), that he does not accept the notion of a deep objective/subjective split (is objectivity really independent of subjectivity? …at the very least, they form a continuum), and that although scientific cognition of the natural environment can add to our appreciation, it is not necessary. [3]  Also, whereas Carlson distinguishes serious from superficial beauty on the basis of scientific knowledge, Berleant characterizes it as involving a “high degree of intensity, complexity, and perceptual engagement.”  He thinks the best we can have in terms of objectivity is a Humean good judge which renders not a universal or absolute judgment but one that is good enough.  Berleant’s reply to Carlson fits my own experience of the Stanislaus River.   So where do we differ? 

One point of disagreement is on disinterestedness.  Berleant first proposed the idea of engagement in opposition to the Kantian idea that aesthetics is characterized by disinterestedness.  Yet I cannot really tell, when looking into my river experience, whether it is a matter of engagement or a matter of disinterestedness.  Am I engaged?  I certainly am focused on the world around me.  I look at the river, I smell the forest air, I feel the cool of the water, and so forth.  Am I disinterested?  Traditionally, to be disinterested, one needs only be disconnected from practical matters.  Perhaps one component of my intense happiness is that I am “on vacation” in every sense of the word:  I am not worrying about work or (for the moment at least) about my relations with other people.  I do not intend to use this river for any other purpose than pleasure.  So it seems that I am engaged and disinterested, and even engaged because I am disinterested.

Also unlike Berleant, I do not see much room for Hume’s idea of connoisseurship here.  Hume believed that objectivity in taste could be tied to the determinations of a good judge:  the good judge is distinguished by having “delicacy of sentiment” which is the capacity to analyze the work into discrete elements and evaluate it by way of evaluating those elements.  To have delicacy of sentiment the good judge must have had practice in observing objects in the category under consideration (for example, landscape paintings) and in comparing these.  He or she must also have good sense and lack prejudice.  Hume’s idea of the good judge is an admirable, though much-debated, solution to the problem of taste in art.  Does it work as well in the appreciation of nature?  I am not so sure.  I cannot imagine my acceding to someone who came along, for example, and said that my experience on the Stanislaus was incorrect or of low value in comparison with another, even if that person has had a lot of practice in appreciating nature, and had the other virtues of a Humean good judge (although whether delicacy of sentiment is possible here is open to question when there is no traditional set of evaluative criteria).  This doesn’t mean that comparative judgments can never be made:  I might say that this spot on the river is more beautiful than another.  However, that judgment does not play a significant role in my experience.  Nor is it clear how practice and comparison or even delicacy of sentiment would improve my experience.  I am not here noticing fine distinctions in the way I would when appreciating the subtle taste of fine wine. 

It could be argued, however, that I do focus on particular aspects of the surrounding environment.  Perhaps this is a matter of discrimination.  I have a camera with me and I take pictures of features that particularly move me (they illustrate this essay).  Taking pictures is part of the experience:  a way of noticing.  Are my choices (where to point the camera) the result of practice and comparison or some fine discrimination that comes from that?  It’s hard to say.  Even if I did have increased discriminative capacity based on a long experience of aesthetically appreciating this river, the point of my experience is not in the judging or in the capacity to condemn the judgments of others.  So, it is not even clear that the idea of “objectively correct judgment” is important in this case, and I wonder how important it is to the aesthetics of nature in general.   

Also, whereas Berleant rejects the view that there is a “single, unique feature” to the aesthetic, I believe that there is such a feature, and this is a quality which I have elsewhere called “aura.” [4]  The Stanislaus River in this spot at this time (and for me) has the quality of aura, as do many of the components of that environment on which I am focused.  I have described this quality as one in which the object, event or environment under consideration has heightened significance.  It is experienced as more valuable by way of, and through, its sensuous nature.  It seems more than itself, more real, more alive.  During my experience on that day at the Stanislaus everything around me, the rocks, the river, the sky seemed more intense, the perceptual features more meaningful, and even though I am an atheist, it is an experience of the world as if it pervaded by something divine or numinous.  A note about this: like other atheists I accept science as providing the best explanation we have for natural phenomena.  However I do not think science can tell us much about values or about the nature of experience.  Religious experience should be taken seriously even by atheists.  Only religion (not science, philosophy, or even art) portrays the world as full of meaning.  For atheists like myself, aesthetic experiences of the sort I have described are somewhat like religion but without dogma, or even belief.   

A unique feature of my discussion is the presence of the concept of happiness.  When I am talking about happiness here I am not speaking of a state of general satisfaction or overall success in life, but rather the feeling of happiness.  Philosophers, for example Aristotle, have often argued that happiness is the goal of life.  How happiness is to be defined is not my concern here, but rather the connection between the happiness and aesthetic experience.   More specifically, I am interested in the connection between aesthetics and the feeling of happiness when that feeling comes specifically out of sensuous experience in, and related to, a place and time.

Happiness is not much discussed in aesthetics.  The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics does not have an entry for happiness, nor does it appear in the index.  Yet surely one of the reasons we pursue the arts and one of the main reasons we contemplate nature is that doing so makes us happy.  Aesthetic pleasure is discussed in the literature, and at great length, but although the feeling of happiness is pleasurable, there are many other sorts of pleasure.  Perhaps the close relationship between natural beauty and the feeling of happiness is not discussed because it is considered too obvious, or perhaps it seems too personal to deserve presence in the world of theory.  I do not know. 

Haig Khatchadourian is one of the very few philosophers to have discussed aesthetics, and specifically the aesthetics of nature, in terms of happiness: for him the aesthetic life is one of ways to achieve happiness.[5]  He speaks the aesthetic life as a full savoring of a variety of natural beauties.  He further observes that life in isolation from nature’s charms cannot be aesthetically complete.  Khatchadourian seems to agree with Berleant when he says that the aesthetic life requires involvement and should not be purely spectatorial.  At the same time, like me, he believes that this can be consistent with a positive view of the idea of disinterestedness as represented in his case by Edward Bullough’s metaphor of distancing.  

Another recent figure who has recognized the importance of happiness in relation to aesthetic  experience is Alexander Nehamas, although, unlike Khatchadourian, he does not connect it with the experience of nature.[6]  Yet Nehamas believes that beauty issues the promise of happiness whereas I would say, especially in the case of appreciation of natural beauty, it is the objective side of the experience of which the subjective side is the feeling of happiness.  So in a sense, rather than happiness delayed, beauty and happiness are one.  Nehamas may be right about those sorts of beauty associated with desire:  but sometimes beauty and happiness are just there together. 

I want to end with a brief discussion of the scene itself, illustrated in these photographs.  It might be thought that the images picked out show a strong interest in formalism, influenced in part by modern art’s fascination with relations of forms and colors and by postmodernism’s interest in process and change (as found for example in video art).  This is to some extent true, however there is something probably more primordial to my strongly emotional response to the sparkling flow of water over rocks, the contrast of the strength of the river’s current against the calm of the shallows, the dramatic placement of trees on the face of the cliff, the languid positioning of my friend on a rock.  Clive Bell, the classic formalist, saw formal relations in terms of a special aesthetic emotion to which they give rise, that emotion quite distinct from the emotions of everyday life.  Yet, happiness is an emotion of everyday life, the one we most seek and cherish.  Photographs that feature formal relations and textural qualities have their own value but as a record of an aesthetic experience of nature (and nature as experienced with friend) they are poor:  they capture only a memory of something infused with meaning, of a whole environment unbounded by rectangular frames and limitation to one sense, of the dynamic of the live creature interacting in a fulfilling way with its environment (as John Dewey would put it), all giving rise to a feeling of happiness that cannot ultimately be separated.  As Berleant would put it, the subjective and the objective are fused in aesthetic experience.[7]

Thomas Leddy, Department of Philosophy, San Jose State University

[1] Glenn Parsons, “Freedom and Objectivity in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,” British Journal of Aesthetics 46:1 (2006): 17-37.
[2] Allen Carlson, “Critical Notice:  Aesthetics and Environment,” British Journal of Aesthetics 46:4 (2006): 416-427.  Berleant’s book was The Aesthetics of Environment (Philadelphia:  Temple U.P., 1992).
[3] Arnold Berleant, “Aesthetics and Environment Reconsidered:  Reply to Carlson,” British Journal of Aesthetics 47:3 (2007): 315-318.  
[4] Thomas Leddy.  The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (Broadview Press, 2012).
[5] Haig Katchadourian, “Natural Beauty and the Art of Living,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 16:1 (1982): 95-98. 
[6] Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness:  The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton University Press, 2007).
[7]   John Dewey. Art as Experience (New York:  Minton, Balch & Company, 1934) I took a somewhat different approach to these issues in “A Defense of Arts-Based Appreciation of Nature,” Environmental Ethics 27 (2005): 299-315. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Aesthetic Atheism

Although Richard Dawkins seems to sometimes have bad taste in his defense of atheism I do think he is basically right in most things.  I particularly like it when he says "any creative intelligence, of
sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only
as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in
the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it."  (The God Delusion, pg. 52) There are many excellent arguments against the existence of God (my favorite ones presented by my old teacher from Boston University, Michael Martin, in his book Atheism:  A Philosophical Justification, Temple University, 1992), but this is certainly a lynchpin for a science-based atheism.  

However we still feel wonder at certain things in nature:  the natural world seems as-if designed.  Moreover, the great works of man and woman, including works of art, philosophy, science, and even, yes, religion, often leave us in wonder.  In a recent post I proposed something that I will now call aesthetic atheism.  Aesthetic atheism is not opposed to scientific or science-based atheism, as I just indicated.  However, it attempts to take religious experience more seriously than most contemporary atheists.  

My jumping off point here is Kant's idea of "aesthetic ideas" which he believes great works of art basically are.  Aesthetic ideas are the products of artistic genius.  They cause the appropriately receptive mind to have its faculties of imagination and understanding go into a free play that seems unending, sublime.  There are also, although Kant did not see it, geniuses in the appreciation of nature.  (Kant thought that appreciation of nature required taste alone, and that genius was limited to fine art.)  Allen Carlson, following George Santayana, has argued that the appreciation of nature requires that one compose it.  Emily Brady has added that in the appreciation of nature the use of imagination is often a key element.  Putting Carlson's and Brady's points together we get the notion of the appreciator of nature who, although not perhaps intentionally attempting to appreciate nature as if it were a work of art, nonetheless does, and in an active way, i.e. in the process of composing the object of appreciation.  I have no problem, by the way, with that composition taking as its ground a cognitive scientific perspective, although I also think that this needs to be bracketed at some point in the process, as Kant had suggested.  Kant failed to see that nature itself can provide us with aesthetic ideas, even though he talks about the design-like qualities of nature at length in the Critique of Judgment.  Kant also failed to see that such "ideas of reason," e.g. God, Soul, and Heaven, are themselves really aesthetic ideas, or at least they are when they are fleshed out by way of the imagination in its harmonious interplay with the understanding.  As ideas of reason alone, they are simply cyphers...holding places for possible aesthetic experience.  Religion on this view, then, can best be seen as a kind of ultimate art form, something on the model of Wagner's idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk.  As a total art work (although not known as such to itself) it incorporates within it many other art works and aesthetic phenomena.  Like opera, also, religion incorporates within itself both the idea of the beautiful and the idea of the sublime.  It contains also the important elements of tragedy (first worked out in its aesthetic dimensions by Aristotle in his Poetics) and redemption (first understood in an active way by Nietzsche through his idea of the Dionysian).  

Recognition of religion as an art of genius (perhaps the greatest one) is something that characterizes aesthetic atheism as opposed to traditional atheism.  (On a personal note, recognition of the aesthetic power of the catholic church was one of the main motives for the conversion of my Scottish ancestors to Catholicism.  I feel a certain affinity with them on this point.)  Aesthetic atheist also has some affinity with the small number of religious practitioners who do not believe in the tenets of their religions, but remain in the church, mosque, temple, in order to retain the benefits of seeing the world under the light of a vast, although fictional, drama.  

Aesthetic atheism denies the existence of God (based on the failure of proofs of God's existence and also based on the ways in which religious belief leads to various distortions, as Nietzsche saw) but at the same time affirms experiences of transcendence.  In this respect aesthetic atheism has a certain affinity also with Zen Buddhism insofar as it stresses a highly aesthetic organization of life for the achievement of enlightenment without necessarily positing a creative God. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Florence M. Hetzler on the Aesthetics of Ruins

Florence M. Hetzler in "The Aesthetics of Ruins: A New Category of Being," Journal of Aesthetic Education , Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1982), pp. 105-108 says "A ruin can be defined as the disjunctive product of the intrusion of nature without loss of the unity that man produced. This product must be semiotically different from that of the man-made work when it was first made."  Yet I do not see much presence of nature in a ruin.  If you want to see some nature, go to a place that has minimal human presence.  Ruins are full of humanity.  I suppose the idea is that the decay is "intrusion of nature" although, interestingly, we do not see the disintegration of a natural bridge as "intrusion of nature."  Hetzler goes on "We must free ourselves from history to be sure that we are looking at the ruin as a ruin. It may be massive; it may show human power; it may show the interplay with nature. We do not have here only natural beauty or only artistic beauty, but we have a third kind of beauty: a ruin beauty, which is a new category of being. In it we come closer to the sublime, the ineffable, and the indescribable than we do in natural beauty or in artistic beauty only."  I must disagree again.  I don't like being told that I must do something when that thing is quite the opposite of what I would do (unless of course what I would do goes against some reasonable rule).  I don't free myself from history when viewing a ruin.  Part of what I do is immerse myself in history, as least some of the time.  The ruin comes alive for me as manifesting history.  Hetzler is partially right on this point:  it does not give us the beauty we would see, for example, in the monument in its state of recent completion.  But incomplete or partially ruined works of art can still be beautiful as works of art.  The Coliseum is a ruin but still beautiful as architecture.  Imagination can fill in many of the missing parts.  What you can see of natural beauty in the Coliseum is minimal at best.  As for sublimity, it is true that the ruin adds to monumentality (which in itself is sublime) the idea of death and decay.  So, using Burke's idea of sublimity, part of the sublime aspect of the ruin is that it can lead our thoughts to these ideas.  But that it would give us something more of the ineffable or the indescribable in this sense than great art or scenes of natural beauty is hard to believe.  Don't overrate the ruin.  Hetzler, however, makes her idea of the importance of nature in ruins more cogent when she says  "Nature gives it a shape, and it gives nature a shape. A ruin needs, for example, the smoothed, bleached stone of Corinth; the growing grass of Macchu Picchu..."  and gives many other examples.  One wonders:  is nature simply that which ruins the ruin, or is it something that adds new features, for example the way that roots of trees can intermingle with stones to produce aesthetically interesting combinations.  Hetzler interestingly writes "Because a ruin is a unique combination of man and nature; because it has its own sound, light, and smells, a reconstruction of the man-made
part of the ruin would not be so interesting as the original. It would not have its own environment that constitutes the world that it was."  It might be as interesting, but it certainly would be interesting in the same way.  An odd thing about ruins is that we would we miss their aesthetic quality as ruins if time were reversed suddenly and we were face to face with what-was-ruined.  Whether or not there is something greater about ruins than art or nature because it combines the two is an interesting question and I hope to think about it some more.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On Terry Eagleton talk at Santa Clara and Kant's Theory of Aesthetic Ideas

This one is more like a journal entry or a philosophical diary.  Karen and I went to see Terry Eagleton last night (Oct. 9, 2013) at Santa Clara University.  The talk was titled "Why is God for Christians Good for Nothing."  The blurb for the talk said "Atheists tend to claim that God is entirely pointless, and so does the doctrine of Creation. Here, at least, is some common ground between Richard Dawkins and Pope Francis.  This talk will try among other things to spell out why God is pointless and why this is the whole point about God. It will also seek to remind us that when we claim that God is good, we have very little clue as to what we are talking about."  As a long-time atheist who was once a Christian and who had also read a couple of Eagleton's books when he was a Marxist (that's a bit unfair since he recently wrote a book about why Marx was right...but during this talk, aside from a brief mention of Marx, one would never know it) I thought this would be interesting.  It was, although what I got out of it was probably not what Eagleton intended.  I had given a lecture earlier in the day on Kant and it struck me that what I had to say about Kant's aesthetics resonated with Eagleton's comments. As I see it the main purpose of the Critique of Judgment was to find a bridge between the noumenal and phenomenal realms, between the world of faith and the world of science.  Moreover, that is still our main problem today.  Eagleton had a problem with atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins as he believed they were taking a rather shallow approach to the question, simply presenting a crude version of enlightenment philosophy in which the progress of science played the prominent role.  His thought was that, after 9/11, postmodernism lost its footing and grand narratives came back, in this case in the form of the grand story that science is progressing to the final truth without any need for religion.  (Eagleton seems not to have realized that his own reversion to a form of Christianity also has this return to grand narrative flavor.)  I am also not entirely satisfied with the Hitchens/Dawkins version of atheism, but my different direction will be fleshed out below.  As I found during the lecture, Eagleton's idea that god is "good for nothing" turns out simply to be the idea that God should be seen as like the autonomist's view of art, i.e. that it does not serve any actual purpose, that it is only good-in-itself.  So the point is that God is only good-in-itself, although we have no idea what "good" means here.  It seems odd that someone who turns to Christianity would not do so for some of the proposed benefits, i.e. that God will answer one's prayers, reward one in heaven, punish one's enemies, etc., but that is apparently Eagleton's position.  Actually his God seems to do nothing else than create the universe and enjoy life (and be "good" in some weird non-understandable way that allows much evil to persist).  I am inclined to agree with Feuerbach that there is something real here (i.e. that people are talking about real experience when talking about religious experience, that there is something that has to be handled by any serious atheist), but mainly a projection of something that is innate to human experience onto the world as a hypothesized creator of that world beyond that world.  Eagleton almost got to Feuerbach's point by stressing the parallel between religion and art.  Whereas Eagleton's point is that God for Christians should be like great art, my point would be that great art is, for atheists, like God (but does the job better).   I think that most of the insights of religion can be recovered by atheists by way of a kind of revisionary notion of spirituality that is "bottom-up" rather than "top-down" or, better yet, that is dialectical between bottom and top, the bottom being everyday life and the top being the highest achievements of life.  The function of art, and particularly of great art, is the transformation of life.  When we experience art as it should be we experience life differently.  Art acts as a window to life in such a way that it transforms life and gives it meaning.  Eagleton looks for the source of morality in life and in the abundance of life which he connects somehow with God.  I think he is looking in the right direction for the source of morality but slips off to mythology when he thinks this can all be tied into a myth about some mental intelligent being who existed before the big bang.  Aquinas thought the business of theology was to be found in analogies and in the aesthetic experience of claritas, which I think is exactly right except that the claritas is to be found in the way that that the world undergoes transformation through the work of artistic genius, and through the analogies that accomplish this.  (It is also equally found through the work of the genius of appreciation of nature and the genius of appreciation of everyday life.) I suppose my parallel talk to Eagleton's would be something like "Why is "Good for Nothing" God for Atheists?"  Kant helps us here, but beware that the Kant I will be discussing is much transformed through my own lens. 

Kant says that "Fine art is the art of genius" and of course genius is a talent that gives a rule to art.  Further, genius is the capacity for producing aesthetic ideas which place the mind into a free play of the imagination and understanding, which, unlike the case of mere beauty, is unending.  It is the existence of aesthetic ideas that gives art the capacity of bridging the gap between the world of experience and the noumenal realm.  The genius is like God himself insofar as he/she (it is ridiculous to make a big deal of the fact that Kant was not a feminist and did not mention that a woman could be a genius...his idea of genius can easily apply to women) creates his own world using the productive imagination.  This world creates a lens through which we can see our own world transformed, no longer simply the object of scientific knowledge, but now full of a new meaning.  Fine art then does what religion used to do: it provides us with a mediation between the world as understandable by science and the world full of meaning in the sense of being suffused by a sense of transcendence.   This is what I have referred to elsewhere as the experience of the extraordinary in the ordinary.  

One can be an atheist and go along with Kant here.  However it is not simply the need to act as if the transcendent realm exists (as if god and the soul exists). Rather, the necessity of transcendent experience is the matter of a judgment of the sublime applied whether to art or to the natural world where the faculties and cognition are free in the strongest sense.  Kant encourages the use of various methods that block off our usual self-based concerns in order to experience objects with a special view to not only their look of purposiveness (where only beauty is concerned) but to their look of divine purpose (where the sublime is now at issue.)

The place to look in Kant's Critique of Judgment is in #49, which I take to be the key to the living importance of Kant's philosophy.  Soul, in the aesthetic sense, is the animating principle of the mind.  I would say that there is no other sense of "soul" whereas Kant would say that the soul in the metaphysical sense would be one of the ideas of Reason.  I agree that we need ideas of Reason, but that they are great and necessary myths with no correlates in reality.  Eagleton almost agrees as he thinks that God, what Kant considered the most important idea of Reason, is not even appropriately thought of as existing.  As an atheist, I don't mind that since I take it to be sound that God does not exist.  At the same time, and unlike Kant here, I am willing to see the idea of God as something like the transcendental ego, a transcendental (not a transcendent) necessity.  

Back to section #49, we we find that a poem that goes beyond being merely pretty and elegant but has soul is one that presents what Kant calls aesthetic ideas.  Kant writes "by an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination which induces much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite thought whatever, i.e. concept, being adequate to it."  Kant thinks that the aesthetic ideas are counterparts to and actually best tied to rational ideas, of which God and Soul are two.  Remember that for Kant there is no proof that there is a God or Soul and that we can only believe in them based on faith, although we should act as if they were real.  My view is just the reverse of Kant's, i.e. that the rational ideas are just counterparts or pendants to the aesthetic ideas.  The aesthetic ideas are the thingthey are what we experience.  They are the ground of meaning in human existence.  The rational ideas are nothing but ideals, perhaps necessary for any experience, and hence perhaps transcendental, but not more than that...things unfleshed-out and of no worth beyond what they gain from the aesthetic ideas.  Kant further says that "The imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is a powerful agent for creating, as it were, a second nature out of the material supplied to it by actual nature."  It is the human genius who creates a world, not God, who has had projected upon him by people like Eagleton what humans can do.  Kant adds: "It affords us entertainment where experience proves too commonplace; and we even use it to remodel experience, always following, no doubt, laws that are based on analogy, but still also following principles which have a higher seat in reason..."  Here is where Kant enters the pantheon of heroes of everyday aesthetics despite many other places where he would oppose such a project.  The dialectic of art and the everyday is such that art transforms the commonplace so that it is no longer too commonplace, and remodels experience itself by way of using analogies and metaphors, i.e. violations of well-established categories.  "By this means we get a sense of our freedom from the law of association (which attaches to the empirical employment of the imagination)" --- which I take to mean that, by these means (and with no need for an actual metaphysical soul, since the aesthetic soul, or soul in the aesthetic sense, does the trick) we are able to be free with the attendant sense that we are no longer compelled by association.  But how does this happen?  It happens, at the start, by way of Kant's great but often misunderstood idea of disinterestedness.  Disinterestedness is simply a methodology (somewhat like Husserl's epoche) by which we can block various associations between phenomena and such practical daily considerations as those connected with morality and science, thereby allowing the imagination to go into a free play, although one that maintains a harmony with the other cognitive faculty, the understanding.  This free play, when taken to its highest point, goes beyond the mere experience of beauty to give us the experience of something sublime.  The result of this free play in the artist is the aesthetic ideas, which, when we apprehend them appropriately, also send us into a free play that is even more dramatic.  I like to refer to this moment as one in which the blockage of the everydayness of the everyday allows a transformation of experience in which we rocket out of the ordinary and experience the world as if transcendent.  Transcendence emerges as an aura attendant to the world-as-experienced.  Religious experience in this respect is not different from the highest aesthetic experience except that it misrepresents its conclusions, i.e. by positing a God who explains everything, refuting science, and making the world ultimately good (as if!).  Kant almost seems to realize the point made here when he says, "Such representations of the imagination may be termed ideas.  This is partly because they at least strain after something lying out beyond the confines of experience, and so seek to approximate to a presentation of rational concepts (i.e. intellectual ideas), thus giving to these concepts the semblance of an objective reality."  The last point is exactly right...the rational ideas (God, Soul) can only have a semblance of objective reality.  They are not real because they correspond to nothing.  But they do act as necessary posits to hang the real stuff, the aesthetic ideas, on.  Yes, the aesthetic ideas strain beyond the confines of experience, but by transforming experience itself.  Kant almost gets it again when he slips away from talking about the entire mythology of "invisible beings, the kingdom of the blessed, hell, eternity, creation, etc." and talks instead of "things of which examples occur in experience" i.e. "death, envy, and all vices, as also love, fame, and the like" and he says of the poet that he "transgressing the limits of experience ...attempts with the aid of an imagination which emulates the display of reason in its attainment of a maximum, to body them forth to sense with a completeness of which nature affords no parallel."  Thus the work of the fine art, the genius, the poet, the great architect, etc. provides a basic for meaning in life, the only meaning we can have (when art is understood so broadly that includes any and all intensely creative human activities and not just the traditional list of arts).  That's my thought. 

For further discussion see my other posts on aesthetic atheism in October, 2013).