Thursday, February 27, 2014

Are there correct categories for perception of art?

An immensely influential work not only in the aesthetics of art but also in the aesthetics of nature is Kendall Walton's "Categories of Art" Philosophical Review 79 (1970) 334-67.  However the article is based on a fallacy, one that has not been previously discussed of taken account of.  The idea is that some sort of objectivity is available in aesthetics if we assure that the aesthetic object is perceived under its correct category (this often taken to mean the correct name for the school or style under which the artist is working).  This seems initially plausible since seeing a cubist painting as confused might be the result of seeing it under the category of painterly realism.  However what sense can really be made of the notion of "the correct category"?  Correctness in category ascription is a very different idea than that of seeing it under a category that works well.  That would be a more pragmatist way of approaching the question, and much more plausible.  Noel Carroll in "On Being Moved by Nature" is a typical user of Walton's distinction.  (The distinction is very popular in the aesthetics of nature.)  Carroll writes: "logically speaking, if an aesthetic judgment is true (or appropriate), then that is a function of the perceived, nonaesthetic properties of the artwork being comprehended within the context of the correct category of art." (Carlson and Lintott, Nature, Aesthetics and
178) (I have a problem with the notion that contextualizing non-aesthetic properties has importance in the making of aesthetic judgments, but will not discuss that here.) For example, argues Carroll, one must perceive a cubist painting under the category of cubism.  How does one determine the correct category?  Carroll lists two ways.  One is to ask "which category (genre, style, movement) the artist intended for the artwork" and the other is to look at "whether the category in question is a recognized or well-entrenched one."  Although these are not the only ways of fixing categories, Carroll considers them "fairly decisive."  Consider, then, Picasso in 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and consider any visitors to his studio who may have seen it there in 1907.  Neither Picasso nor his visitors would have any notion of the concept of "cubism"!  Picasso, no doubt, would have categorized this painting under other concepts.  Nor was the concept of cubism "recognized or well-entrenched" at the time.  It was not even known.  So it follows, according to Walton's theory, that Picasso and his friends would have misconceived the correct category for the painting and hence could not make any aesthetic judgments about it with any grounding.  This is absurd.  Perhaps you do not accept that this painting is cubist:  sometimes, indeed, it is called "proto-Cubist."  But Picasso would equally have had no idea what "proto-Cubist" meant.  Moreover, the same point can be made about Braque's Houses at L'Estaque, which was said to have been the occasion for Louis Vauxcelles to use the term "bizarreries cubiques." Vauxcelles, too, knew nothing of "cubism" when he made this comment since that term was coined later.  This ignorance of the so-called correct category is not uncommon.  The impressionists did not at first know that they were supposed to be impressionists; the postimpressionists and the fauves ditto.  Movements are constructions created by various events including statements by artists, reviews by critics, major shows, chapters in art history books, etc.  The concept of "cubism," and its boundaries, changes over time.  This is not a "natural kind."  Even Picasso himself, after he started using the term "cubism" or thinking of his art as "cubist," probably meant something different by this in 1914 than in 1910.  So the theory can't be saved simply by observing that Picasso sometimes though of some of the paintings later included by some art historians under the chapter for "cubism" as cubist.  Note that I am not saying that there is no such thing as cubism or that the sentence "Picasso was a cubist" has no truth value.  I am just saying that these things need to be understood as dynamic in a pragmatist way, and that, when they are, the way in which "correct category" guarantees objectivity of aesthetic judgments is pretty much lost.

There is another problem with the Waltonian theory.  Many movements of art share similarities.  Was Jean Metzinger a cubist (as was said in 1912) or a fauvist?   What if one saw one of his paintings as a fauvist, rather than as a cubist painting?  Would this be a category mistake?  But look at his paintings from this period:  they can be seen easily as either.   Similarly, what if someone read Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, no. 2 (1912) as a futurist rather than a cubist work?  Who is to say what the "correct" category is in this case?  Let's take this a bit further.  Although on a multiple-choice exam in an art history class it would be incorrect to call this work a dadaist work since dadaism in the history books is supposed to have started in 1916, might it not be interesting or useful to see it as such?  Walton and his followers might concede this much and yet would refuse to abandon the idea that there is one correct category.  But how valid is multiple-choice-exam-knowledge of this sort anyway?  Isn't the "correct" answer whatever the teacher said the correct answer is?  If you mark "cubist" and the teacher had said "fauve" in the class then you are "wrong," and this even though there may be books defending the idea that the work is cubist.  But this is the way of conceiving knowledge that Walton's idea of "correct category" leads us to. 

Moreover, isn't it interesting that whenever someone has a major insight into the nature of something it is posed not in terms of correct category ascription but in terms of a metaphor that violates category dimensions.  It would appear that deep knowledge of anything is always impossible for correct aesthetic judgment on Walton's view.  In On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche refers to "the rigid regularity of a Roman columbarium" and this is what we have here.  It is worth quoting his sentence:  "Whereas each perceptual metaphor is individual and without equals and is therefore able to elude all classification, the great edifice of concepts displays the rigid regularity of a Roman columbarium..."  But, Nietzsche argues, concepts are merely residues of metaphors.  If so, then concepts have lives:  they begin as metaphors and end as rigid categories that need to be superceded.  The Waltonian approach to objectivity in art judgment (and aesthetic judgment generally) relies on the dying end of the life-span of the concept.          

Is good taste elitist?

Some have said that "taste" is no longer a relevant concept.  It certainly had its heyday in the 18th century.  Moreover, there was a reaction against the idea of taste in the late 20th century.  It is often associated with elitism and is sometimes criticized for being undemocratic.  However we can distinguish between good and bad forms of elitism.  Surely there is nothing wrong with saying that there is an elite group called mathematicians who understand math far better than anyone else in our civilization.  Similarly, there are people who understand Abstract Expressionism better than others because they have studied it.  Although the word "elite" has negative connotations, all it really means is a small group of specialists, and no one denies that there are such things.  Elitism is a problem only when certain groups are told that they cannot belong to the elite because of some innate or cultural characteristics, or are excluded for other reasons that are irrelevant to the skills required to belong to a true elite.  One should not feel bad for being excluded from an elite group one has no business belonging to in the first place.  If we go by Hume's idea of taste, the group of good judges would certainly form an elite, but this would not be an elite in the bad sense of the word.  Bear in mind that I am interpreting Hume's good judges as only being so in certain areas, in particular in those areas in which they have practiced and compared, for example in Reggae music.  So this form of elitism is not based on wealth or ancestry.  It is based on experience, although it also requires that the members have "good sense" (capacity to reason) and be determined to avoid prejudice.  These qualities may be relatively rare when developed, but most people can develop them.  Nor does this form of elitism say anything about who is best able to govern:  we are just talking about aesthetics here.  One dictionary ( gives its first definition of elitism as "practice of or belief in rule by an elite" and this is not of concern here.  A second definition is "consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group."  This too, may not be relevant since the charge of elitism against the idea of taste is usually a charge against the very idea that there exists an elite in some area.  The further act of pride in belonging to an elite may or may not be a good thing.  Again, if one belongs to an elite group because one is a good judge in Hume's sense there seems to be nothing wrong with that, nor even with pride in belonging to such a group.  It is often thought that such elitism is anti-feminist or anti some other group.  Yet although most elite groups of good judges in the past have not included women or some other groups (racial, ethnic, gender, etc.) this should not be a reason for questioning the very idea of such an elite.  Women (etc.) just didn't have the opportunity to pursue the skills that would allow them to belong to these elite groups, or they were excluded even if they had the skills because of prejudice.  (And this is still true today in many places.)  There is nothing about elitism as such that excludes women or other oppressed groups from forming parts of elite groups or even entire elite groups, as for example in the case an elite feminist reading group.  Again, I am not advocating elitism in the traditional sense of that term, since that means advocating social dominance by the particular group:  rather I am simply arguing that basically Humean idea of taste does not entail elitism even though it does indicate a kind of elite and does not preclude pride in belonging to such an elite (assuming that there are no moral problems with such membership).  Belief in taste can be consistent with belief in even fairly radical or progressive forms of democracy.   


An interesting article that develops an idea of elite experience and the elite art that generates this kind of experience is Steven Skaggs and Carl R. Hausman "Toward a New Elitism" Journal of Aesthetic Education 2012 46:3 (83-106).   Skaggs and Hausman, like me above, veer away from the traditional definition of "elitism."   


Monday, February 24, 2014

Is there such a thing as good taste?

This is the big question in aesthetics, but it is surprising how seldom philosophers attempt to answer it.  Like many aestheticians I am attracted both to the approach of David Hume and to that of Sibley.  So it seems to me that Hume is right that the standard of taste cannot be anything totally objective.   Rather than explicate Hume or Sibley here, I am more interested in developing some sort of combination view, at least one that works for me.  I'll start by rejecting any sort of science-based standard of taste.  Although it might be the case that the golden rule or a certain curve tends to produce things that look good there is enough variation in taste to preclude any conclusive objectivist theory of taste.  Taste must be based on something like what Hume called "the good judge."  This would be someone who has practiced and compared a great deal in a particular field of interest, for example Rap music, or perhaps even some narrower field such as West Coast Rap.  If a person with good sense (which is to say, the capacity to think and analyze rationally) and lack of prejudice (or at least relative lack of prejudice, since an absolute absence of prejudice would seem impossible) has practiced and compared a lot (had a lot of experience in this field of interest) then that person will have positive aesthetics experiences when confronting objects of beauty or objects of some other positive aesthetic quality (and negative experiences when confronting objects with negative aesthetic qualities.) However, we want to avoid some of the difficulties in a Humean approach to taste.  Hume says that the standard of taste is the joint verdict of the good judges, but we all know that the people who come closest to what we would call "good judges" often disagree.  So, the best we can do is speak of the ideal good judge and the verdict of such an ideal as being the standard of taste.  Also, Hume's emphasis on what he calls "delicacy of sentiment," which he usually treats as coming from practice and comparison, seems, in the end, too mechanical.  It is just a matter of determining which parts of the object appreciated are good and which parts are not so good.  His key example of the two critics of wine saying that the wine is good but for a piece of leather in one case and the piece of metal inn the other, leads us to believe that a good critic is someone who is able to tick off good and bad parts of an object of taste and then give a summary account in the end.  Yet taste is more holistic than that.  I tend to see objects of taste, including works of art, as organic wholes in which each part has characteristics that partake of the characteristics of the whole.  On this view, although a part may, in isolation, be seen mechanically as bad-making, in reality even such parts probably contribute to the goodness of the whole in some way.  Nonetheless there is some truth in Hume's account of delicacy of sentiment.  Certainly someone who is practiced in a field of art can make distinctions and see things that others cannot:  this is an indicator that someone is likely to have good taste.  But it is here that we might bring in Sibley.  In many respects Sibley's views on taste seem quite similar to Hume's.  However, unlike Hume, Sibley stresses the interrelationship between the good critic and what Hume would call the bad critic, but I would rather call the student.  The good critic (Sibely seems to suggest) is only known as a good critic if he or she is able to get the less tutored one to see an aesthetic quality.  This is a process that requires being present to the work in question.  So let us imagine both the critic and the student as standing before a painting.  The good critic is able to get the student to see that the painting has certain aesthetic qualities, say "grace" and "tragic character" through pointing out various things.  The critic might, for example, point out certain non-aesthetic qualities upon which the aesthetic qualities of the object "depends."  The word "depends" is used oddly here, since none of these qualities serves as either a necessary or a sufficient condition for whether or not the object in question has these qualities (here I would agree with Sibley).  Rather, experience has simply shown us that by making certain statements about the painting (including statements both about aesthetic and about non-aesthetic qualities) or by asking the student to note certain things in the painting, one can eventually get students to experience it as having certain aesthetic qualities.  If one does this, then one is a good judge.  This might cause some problems as it is always possible that someone can get people to have aesthetic quality experiences without these experiences being the ones one wants them to have, or even without actually having had those experiences oneself.  So perhaps we should add the condition that the good critic is one who gets students to experience the aesthetic qualities he and at least some other good critics have had.  In any case, this dynamic teacher/student relationship adds an important element to the Humean base understanding of the nature of good taste.   So, yes, there is good taste, and good taste can be passed on from teacher to student through various strategies, and we know that this happens because students can attest to "getting it" sometimes, i.e. in experiencing the object as positively aesthetic or even as negatively aesthetic in the case of negative criticism.   This does not indicate however that the aesthetic qualities are objectively independent in the object.  Rather they emerge in the processes of interaction between observers and objects and also between observers and observers (i.e. between teachers and students and between experts as well).  Anyway, that's the thought. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Explication of a passage from Gombrich on pictorial realism

Ernst Gombrich can be a lot more difficult than he at first appears.  I gave a quiz in my Introduction to Aesthetics this week in which I asked students to explicate page 11 of the third edition of Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown.  The passage is from a selection by Gombrich called "The Limits of Likeness" which comes from his book Art as Illusion.  Several students found it quite difficult to do this.  So, as an aid, here is my own take on the passage.  First, in order to properly interpret a piece of scholarly prose like this one one should consider it in context.  Look, in particular, at what came before it.  What comes prior to this passage is the most important part of the reading, the last paragraph of page 10.  There, Gombrich defines a "correct view" [for a drawing or other visual representation] in this way:  "those who understand the notation [i.e. the style used in the drawing] will derive no false information from the drawing."  He allows for different styles to be equally correct.  He further gives what I would call his definition of pictorial realism in terms of what he calls a "complete portrayal."  He is tentative about this:  "a complete portrayal might be the one which gives as much correct information about the spot as we would obtain if we looked at it from the very spot where the artist stood."  As can be seen, this is an information-based account of realism.

Now to look at page 11.   He had said earlier that he was interested in the "riddle of styles."  So, here he is continuing with this.  Consider as examples of styles the style of the German students in his story who drew with great precision using hard pencils, and the style of the French students who drew the same scene using broad brushstrokes.  So, styles differ in that they require different "articulations" and they allow the artists to ask different questions (for example the hard pencil user is going to ask questions about how sharp lines can depict shadows, for example, realistically).  Still, Gombrich argues, the information that we get from a scene is so complex that no one picture and no one style will capture it all.  Some would say that variety in style is a matter of subjectivity of vision:  each person having his own way of seeing.  But it is more a matter of there being so much information to choose from.  Now when an artist tries to copy a human product, say a one hundred dollar bill, he can, with much less difficulty [than he would have in copying a scene in nature], produce something that looks just like the original.  It is easy for him here to hide his personality.  Moreover, he doesn't have to be worried about being limited in realism by the style he inherited from his period and country.  In the case of portrayal (as in portraying a landscape) the correct picture is more like a good map than like a forged bill.  The artist achieves accuracy here by partaking of a long tradition both in his discipline and in his own career.  Various schemata are put forth, and then, based on experience, these are corrected.  The stylistic device of Western perspective, for example, has benefited from such a history.  Some believe that a realistic drawing is a "faithful record of a visual experience."  But it is, rather, a good model that shows all the relations accurately, like a map.  So, even though the artist is influenced by his or her own personal vision and also by the conventions of that tradition, he or she can still make such a model (i.e. such a painting or drawing) to as high a degree of accuracy as he or she wishes.  The question then is what degree of accuracy is required.  Images serve different purposes in different societies and the form of the representation should be understood in terms of its purpose.  Although Gombrich holds to an information-based theory of pictorial realism he does allow for cultural differences, for example two paintings being equally realistic even though they are in different styles:  they just give us different relational models that convey different sets of the total information available.  Moreover, different societies may require different degrees of accuracy depending on their needs. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Aldo Leopold and J. Baird Callicott on the Land Aesthetic: Ecology as Mythology

At first, it would seem nearly impossible to pry Aldo Leopold from the cognitivist camp in the appreciation of nature and to ally him with something more like the Muir-inspired synthesis/cycle view which I now advocate (see my previous post on this).  However there is a deep way in which Leopold is really a mythologist who uses imagination in his appreciation of nature much like the way a fine artist does.  A central concept in Leopold's thinking is the distinction between land and country, land having to do with practical and even monetary value, and country having to do with "the personality of the land" and also "the collective harmony of its soil, life, and weather."  Another feature of country is that "its quality may not be apparent at first glance, nor at all times." So, a lakeshore may at first seem boring but then one may find riches hidden within it.  The distinction between land and country is not just one of practical vs. aesthetic attitude:  something can be land and not country, or perhaps the world is divided between land and country environments.  Leopold is no proponent of the view called "positive aesthetics" in which everything in nature is beautiful in some way.  He suggests that the beauty of an environemnt depends a lot on whether or not certain wildlife is present.  For example, he notes that he cannot prove (but certainly believes) that "a thicket without the potential roar of a quail covey" is only a thorny place.  Thus:  wildlife "often represents the difference between rich country and mere land."  Leopold has the usual distaste of naturalists for nature tourists who are herded through scenic places, especially if they would find something like the Kansas plains boring.  But what is it that makes the Kansas plains interesting to Leopold?  To understand this we need to consider what the tourist herd does not see:  "They see the endless corn, but not the heave and grunt of ox teams breaking the prairie."  That is, they do not see the corn under the aspect of and intensification of historical background knowledge, specifically of the somaesthetic knowledge of the first farmer and his team of oxen.  Another example is:  "they look at the low horizon, but they cannot see it, as de Vaca did, under the bellies of buffalo."  So when we are talking about a plain exterior that "conceals hidden riches" we are talking either about the possibility of enhancements through awareness of key wildlife or through awareness of historical background (specifically background about the human/animal interaction within this environment, although I see not reason why one should exclude other historical phenomena, for example the battle between U.S. solders and the Dakota Sioux on this very spot).  Most would see this approach as entirely one of applying scientific cognition to nature.  But how then explain the preference of the place with quail over the one without, and how explain the interruption of imaginings of local natural history?  In fact, Leopold uses imaginative perception to extend the aesthetic in nature beyond the merely scenic (and beyond even the merely scientific).  Of course de Vaca did in fact see vast seas of buffalo on these plains, as we cannot.  However, to look at the plains as if one were de Vaca is not to see nature "as it is" as most aestheticians of nature would require.   Rather, it is to pump up perception through giving the plains themselves a kind of aura, a heightened significance through imaginative perception.  This is a case of seeing nature as it is not.  What I want to argue (but cannot fully develop here) is that imaginative seeing, or seeing something as something that it is not (for example, seeing the brambles as potentially filled with quail although not quail are actually present to perception) is essential to aesthetic experience of nature, and that even the greatest heroes of the aesthetics of nature, people like Leopold, actually engage in this practice.  

J. Baird Callicott in "Leopold's Land Aesthetic" (also in Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism) helps support my point by discussing Leopold's idea of the noumenon.  The idea is inspired by Kant but is used in a different way:  for Leopold a noumenon of the land is an actual, physical thing (usually a species) that constitutes the "essence" of the countryside. (As soon as we see this term "essence" we know we have left the land of science and have entered something more like a Schopenhauerian world in which the genius artist is able to see the Platonic Form of chair in the chair, and is able to capture the essence of the chair...Leopold is like the Schopenhauerean genius in nature.)  The grouse for example is the noumenon of the north woods.  Leopold writes:  "In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre.  Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.  An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost." (114)  He even thinks that any "sober ecologist" would agree.  There is something ironic here, since although this idea may be approved by many ecologists, it is hardly sober.  It is practically Dionysian.  It reeks of something like religious ecstasy.  (And note that Kant's noumenon is something that resides in the transcendent realm, a realm that gives meaning to our lives, but is unapproachable by reason.  I think that Leopold's noumenon actually is more like Kant's "aesthetic idea" which is perceivable unlike the nuomenon but has some of the features of the nuomenon and is essential to our understanding of the genius artist.)  Leopold admits that this notion of ecological death "is inexpressible in terms of contemporary science."  This view, then, is not supportable by scientific cognitivism, not even consistent with it.  Instead, it is a kind of mythology (or religion), perhaps the kind that Thoreau favored in his "Walking" (in the same anthology) in which he says that although English literature fails to capture nature, Greek mythology does not:  "Mythology [Thoreau writes] is the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted, before the fancy and imagination were affected with blight; and which it still bears, wherever its pristine vigor is unabated."  (59)  Thoreau goes on to talk about how the West is preparing is own mythology, perhaps to emerge around great rivers like the Mississippi.  I argue that Leopold's idea of the noumenon is the creation of a Thoreauian mythology, and this explains why he has no trouble seeing nature as what it is not, or as what it once was.  Although Leopold rejects an art-based view of appreciation of nature, he himself creates his own art, an art of seeing, in which the noumenon plays the role of the key actor on stage, the protagonist of the ecological story.  This is not to imply that I disapprove of the idea of the noumenon:  I find it exciting and quite appropriate.  It entails a highly engaged, constructive and interactive way to approach natural aesthetics.  Callicott is eager to tone this down however and so he calls these noumenon "aesthetic indicator species."  He thinks this is more precise although less arresting.  (But, scientifically speaking, why would one species indicate anything more than any other?)  Such species, on his view, supply "the hallmark, the imprimatur, to their respective ecological communities" and this is seen by the fact that if they are absent the ecological community lacks "the rosy glow of perfect health."  This is lovely, but it is also mythology.  Nature does not care which species is dominant, or which one makes an ecological system most meaningful to us humans.  The mystical element here can be found especially in the fact that the follower of this doctrine does not even care if he or she actually sees examples of the noumenon species:  "they need not be seen or heard to grace and enliven their respective habitats."  The presence of their grace is a matter not of actual but of imaginative perception, of a kind of heightened significance brought by the belief that representatives of this species are somewhere about.  This leads of course to certain negative aesthetic judgments, even extreme ones, as well.  So, when Leopold visits the German forests he deeply regrets the absence of the great owl Uhu without whose calls "the winter night becomes mere blackness."  It then surprises me greatly that, after describing Leopold's idea of the noumenon, Callicott ignores the unscientific aspect of this and simply says that Leopold has given us the first natural aesthetic "informed by ecological and evolutionary natural history and thus the only genuinely autonomous natural aesthetic" in the West.  He further observes that it involves a "cultivated natural sensibility."  Yet, no amount of cultivation of sensibility without a heavy dose of imaginative perception can get someone to see the Kansas plains as these were seen by someone four hundred years ago.  The romance of this should be palpable.  The idea of the noumenon involves a special kind of imaginative perception:  one that focuses on a particular species as that which gives the environment life, a kind of minor god or muse, as in mythology.  Callicott admits himself the central role of imagination: "the experience of a marsh or bog is aesthetically satisfying less for what is literally sensed than what is known or schematically imagined of its ecology."  And he actually quotes Leopold to the effect that "the Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries at which he officiates" followed by the observation that perception cannot be purchased with earned degrees.  Hence, in the end, Leopold and Calicott could hardly agree with the scientific cognitivists who insist that one can only appropriately appreciate nature through scientific knowledge.   The scientific mindset does not value mystery as mystery any more than the apprehension of essences.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Synthesis/Cycle View of The Aesthetics of Nature

Working from my last two blogs on John Muir, I want to now argue for what I will call a synthesis/cycle view of the aesthetics of nature.  Muir's manner of appreciation of nature is taken as the ideal in this project.  Muir, as we have seen, manages to synthesize four modes of aesthetic appreciation of nature:  the religious/transcendentalist, the somaesthetic, the cognitive scientific, and the arts-based.  He cycles through all of these, enhancing each mode by way of the others.  An important element in all of this is the imaginative, which is not a separate mode as such but rather a possible (and highly important) dimension of every mode.  The synthesis/cycle model of appreciation is to be distinguished both from relativism and from pluralism.  Relativism (or at least radical relativism) would say that every mode and every theory is equally good.  This leads to obvious contradictions.  Pluralism is superior to relativism, eliminating contradiction by paring off the elements of each theory that would contradict the others (for example, that this theory is exclusively true and useful) while at the same time allowing for the same openness that is the main virtue for relativism.  But pluralism simply allows for a variety of different perspectives, some perhaps ranked higher than others, and all made consistent by leaving out contradicting elements.  The synthesis/cycle theory is an advancement over mere pluralism in that it allows for several perspectives, each one of which is useful and valuable, but also posits an ideal in which all of the perspectives are cycled through in a manner that allows for synthesis.  Muir has achieved, or comes close to achieving, this ideal.  Most aestheticians of nature unfortunately ignore or suppress the arts-based, somaesthetic, transcendentalist and imaginative elements of Muir's manner of appreciating nature.  They simply construct or (mis)understand him as an early example of a scientific cognitivist (sans imaginative element).  Previously I had favored an arts-based view within a larger context of advocating pluralism.  My view was essentially libertarian/pragmatist.  But reading Muir teaches me that an ideal is still needed.  So in the current view  pluralism is only as a step towards the synthesis/cycle view.   The synthesis/cycle view also owes something to the idea of "toggling" between interested and disinterested perception which has been advocated in art contexts by Peggy Brand and Ted Gracyk.  I discuss the value of toggling in my book and will also develop that idea in a future paper on the philosophy of Arnold Berleant.  Toggling still plays a role within the current view, although now it is part of a larger process that also involves cycling through modes of appreciation, and the mutual enrichment of these modes that can be achieved in synthesis.   

Much to my surprise I have discovered that there is one other reader of Muir who takes a very similar approach to his aesthetics of nature.  This is Jeffrey Wattles, "John Muir as a Guide to Education in Environmental Aesthetics."  Journal of Aesthetic Education  47:3 (2013) 56-71.   Wattles even notices the somaesthetic dimension in Muir.  He writes:  "In Muir, perceptual, somaesthetic, scientifc, empathetic, imaginative, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual modes of awareness fused in his  realization of beauty in nature."  Wattles, unlike any of the other commentators on Muir's aesthetics recognizes the value of the religious dimension of his aesthetic experience.  He also allows for the possibility of a secular rereading of this, writing that "[t]hose who reject the concept of God may redescribe his experience." He ends his article with a quote (as an example that the secular reader can accept as a re-description) from Muir on the way that the rays of mountain beauty glow with joy.  I am very sympathetic with that.  The subsections of Wattles' article also remarkably parallel the position that I have been putting forth:  "Wholehearted Engagement of the United Powers of Mind, Soul and Body,"  "Keen Perception," "Scientific Understanding," "Artistically Cultivated Imagination," "A Sense of the Expressiveness of Nature," and "Intellectual Discovery of Harmony," "Philosophical Aesthetic Reflection," and "A Sense of Beauty as Divine."  I will not go further into his article here, but commend it to anyone who wishes to take Muir's contribution to the aesthetics of nature seriously (and not just as a rather confused forerunner to a scientific cognitivist view.) 

So what then is my argument for the synthesis/cycle view?  It is simply that (1) it has none of the failings of any of the other prevailing views, (2) it has all of the virtues of all of the other prevailing views (since it is deliberately designed to incorporate those virtues), and (3) it is manifested wonderfully in the writings of John Muir, a true genius of aesthetic appreciation of the natural environment.  I also think that it is manifested to perhaps a lesser extent in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and even Aldo Leopold.  My next post will be on Leopold. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

More on John Muir and the Aesthetics of Nature

John Muir can be taken as a guide to the aesthetics of nature, one that would point us in a somewhat different direction than is predominant today.  In a Hegelian fashion, I propose Muir as providing a dialectical synthesis between the antithetical positions of an art-centered approach to aesthetics and a science-based approach.  Actually, I would go beyond this artificially triadic way of looking at it an include two other approaches that synthesize well in Muir's thought:  the religious or transcendentalist and the somaesthetic.  In my last post I argued that Muir took an art-based approach to appreciation of nature as often as he took a science-based approach.  Sometimes in the past I have argued for pluralism in this regard.  Now I think that something more than pluralism is needed:  that what we need is an approach that synthesizes the best of the various traditions of nature appreciation.  Muir, and in particular his "A Near View of the High Sierras," is my model for this synthesis.  Thus, whereas most contemporary aestheticians of nature take some form of cognitivism as their touchstone, scientific cognitivism being the most widely accepted view currently, I will take Muir's synthesis of the art-based approach, the scientific, the transcendentalist and the somaesthetic, as the touchstone. 

Since the somaesthetic dimension is the least discussed I will comment on that first.  (Richard Shusterman first developed the idea of somaesthetics and has elaborated it in his many books and articles.) There is an aesthetic of mountaineering and an embodied activity and this has a lot to do with paying very close attention the relationship between one's body (particularly the hands and feet) and the immediate environment.  It also means being highly aware of where one's body is in relation to massive natural phenomena.  Muir writes:  "All my first day was pure pleasure; simply mountaineering indulgence, crossing the dry pathways of the ancient glaciers, tracing happy streams...."  The emphasis here is with what he is doing...crossing, tracing, and so forth.  Muir speaks of "groping my way, and dealing instinctively with every obstacle as it presented itself."  This is somaesthetic engagement with the natural environment.  Another passage that stresses the somaesthetic dimension is:  "After gazing spellbound, I began instinctively to scrutinize every notch and gorge and weathered buttress of the mountain, with reference to making the ascent."  This may seem to many to be a practical matter having nothing to do with aesthetics, but I think of it as part of his "pleasure of mountaineering."  This is why the very next sentence (after this seemingly purely practical passage) is put in evocative images:  "The entire front above the glacier appeared as one tremendous precipice, slightly receding at the top, and bristling with spires and pinnacles set above one another in formidable array."  Muir is still concerned here with the physical task ahead of him, but he puts it in terms that are evocative of the sublime.  Once again, the arts-based approach to aesthetic experience is evident here in his references to architecture, for example in his talk of spires and then latter of "massive lichen-stained battlements" and "crumbling buttresses" (70).  This way of looking at things is lasting for Muir as he brings it up again when he says, "I thus made my way into a wilderness of crumbling spires and battlements, built together in bewildering combination, and glazed in many places with a thing coating of ice, which I had to hammer off with stones."  Here the somaesthetic experience is synthesized with imaginative viewing of the landscape as though it were art.

The religious or transcendental dimension of Muir's aesthetics of nature is often disregarded by contemporary aestheticians.  I think that they are worried about seeming to be mystical or religious.  Noel Carroll in his "On Being Moved by Nature:  Between Religion and Natural History" (also found in Carlson and Lintott's text) takes  great pains, for example, to distinguish between his secular sense of "being moved" and a religious perspective.  Readers of this blog can refer back to my entries on aesthetic atheism to get an idea about my views on religion.  In short, I am an atheist but also believe that religious experience can be immensely valuable:  I see it as a kind of aesthetic experience.  Carroll is worried about reducing being moved by nature to "a residue of religious feeling" or what T. J. Diffey refers to as "a refuge of displaced religious emotions."   Carroll thinks that the emotions aroused "can be fully secular and have no call to be demystified as displaced religious sentiment." (171)  Talking about religious sentiment as "displaced" or as "residue" in this case does sound pretty negative.  Let us turn again to Muir for illumination.

Muir, writing in 1894, is not squeamish about talking about God.  He may actually have believed in God.  His accounts of natural beauty are immensely moving, but cannot (to use the term against Carroll) be reduced to something that has no religious dimension at all.  The religious language is also often incorporated into the poetic description as a series of religious metaphors.  Notice the terms "evangel" and "redemption" in the following description of the cassiope:

"I met cassiope, growing in fringes among the battered rocks.  Her blossoms had faded long ago, but they were still clinging with happy memories to the evergreen sprays, and still so beautiful as to thrill every fiber of one's being.  Winter and summer, you may hear her voice, the low, sweet melody of her purple bells.  No evangel among all the mountain plants speaks Nature's love more plainly than cassiope.  Where she dwells, the redemption of the coldest solitude is complete.  The rocks and glaciers seem to feel her presence, and become imbued with her own fountain sweetness...I strode on exhilarated, as if never more to feel fatigue, limbs moving of themselves, every sense unfolding like the thawing flowers, to take part in the new day harmony."

This is a fine example of the synthesis of perspectives I have been talking about.  The arts-based perspective is found in the evocation of music in the "sweet melody" and the reference to bells.  The somaesthetic can be found in the exhilaration in which one feels no fatigue (Shusterman writes about various somaesthetic practices that can turn body functioning into such an art.)  The imaginative dimension (which I had not brought up earlier) is found in the happy memories; the religious in the reference to Nature's love and to redemption; and the scientific in accurate description of the flower.  

Another passage that does much of this is, "How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!  To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion a thousand times over.  The highest peaks burned like islands in a sea of liquid shade.  Then the lower peaks and spires caught the glow, the long lances of light, streaming through many a notch and pass, fell thick on the frozen meadows.  The majestic form of Ritter was full in sight..." (69)

I cannot leave this post without mentioning the most dramatic somatic moment in this writing by Muir.  While climbing Mt. Ritter, he comes to a point where he cannot find a hold and seems stuck and ready to fall, and is naturally terrified.  He then writes, "But this terrible eclipse [his moment of terror] lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness.  I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense.  The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel, - call it what you will, - came forward and assumed control.  Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock as seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision which I seemed to have nothing at all to do."  (72)  Muir describes here an experience that is at once mystical (but without any specific ontological or theological commitment), somatic, and aesthetic.  This was clearly a profound moment in his life and certainly the climax of the story.  

At this point when one turns to the Carroll and his concern with whether the sentence "The Grand Tetons are majestic" can be appropriate, correct and true, one thinks that perhaps something is being missed here.  Carroll writes: "we may be emotionally moved by a natural expanse - excited, for instance, by a towering waterfall.  All things being equal, being excited by the grandeur of something that one believes to be of a large scale is an appropriate emotional response."  Sure, but what about what happened to Muir during that moment on Mt. Ritter:  is that an "appropriate emotional response" or is it too religious for Carroll's taste?  I do not disagree with Carroll that "many of our emotional responses to nature have a straightforwardly secular basis," and I am sure we will find good evolutionary explanations for the kind of experience Muir has described.  I just would not want to limit a non-religious or secular perspective to one that cannot give honor to this kind of experience.  

With respect to evolutionary explanation, Carroll explains our survival interest in certain landscape by saying "open vistas give us a sense of security insofar as we can see there is no threat approaching."  Perhaps, and yet there is nothing in Muir's descriptions of the landscape views from Mt. Ritter that indicates he was motivated in the least by concern for approaching threats.  If someone says, "Your quasi-mystical experience is explained in secular terms by a great ancestor of yours feeling more secure when looking out on a landscape from a great height" this does not tell us much, even if true, about the aesthetic nature of that experience.  On the other hand, Carroll also gives an evolutionary explanation of another type of aesthetic experience:  at one point he found himself in an arbor "carpeted by layers of decaying foliage and moss" and he "imagined that in such a situation we might feel a sense of solace, repose, and homeyness."  He thinks this might be caused "by our tacit recognition of refuge potential"  (184) holding that his emotional response is causally triggered by the usefulness as a refuge.  This feeling, he argues is not residual mysticism but "instinctually grounded."  Carroll is certainly right that being aroused by nature is not always a matter of repressed religious response.  This may be a case here.  Muir himself describes a similar experience, but his description seems to have no religious dimension:  "I made my bed in a nook of the pine-thicket....These are the best bedchambers the high mountains afford - snug as squirrel-nests, well ventilated, full of spicy odors, and with plenty of wind-played needles to sing one to sleep." (68-9).  Here the inspiration is more related to the everyday aesthetics of the home than to transcendent religious experience.

I will close with Muir's description of "the most exciting pieces of pure wilderness...I ever discovered in all my mountaineering."  This is the highest point of nature aesthetics, on my Muirian view (note that he refers to all of this as a picture...he truly is an advocate of the picturesque, but in this case as synthesized with the sublime!):  "There, immediately in front, loomed the majestic mass of Mount Ritter, with a glacier swooping down its face nearly to my feet, then curving westward and pouring its frozen flood into a dark blue lake...the glacier separated the massive picture from everything else.  I could see only the one sublime mountain, the one glacier, the one lake; the whole veiled with one blue shadow."  It is right after this that he goes into the scrutinizing I earlier described as introducing a somaesthetic element to his experience.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Are art-mediated responses to be disregarded in appreciation of nature?

Aestheticians of nature frequently refer to John Muir in supporting the idea that art-mediated responses should be disregarded in our appreciation of nature.  He is often described as an opponent of the concept of the picturesque.  This is surprising given that in his book The Yosemite (1912) he uses the word "picturesque" positively at least eleven times.  For example, he refers there to the picturesque Cathedral Rocks and picturesque oaks.  The impression that Muir is opposed to the picturesque and to art-mediated responses to nature is usually based on a reading of his "A Near View of the High Sierra" to be found in Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism edited by Carlson and Lintott (from his book The Mountains of California, 1894)  Here he says that "To artists, few portions of the High Sierras are, strictly speaking, picturesque." (64) However this is not to say that they lack this quality for Muir himself!  He seems rather to be speaking here specifically of painters of his time.  Even this seems a strange thing to say since there are many amazing paintings of Yosemite by artists of his own time, not to mention the works of later artists, such as photographer Ansel Adams.  The paintings of Albert Bierstadt, for example Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park (1868) and Thomas Moran, for example Domes of Yosemite (1904), show that Yosemite has long been a rich source for painters.  More recently, consider the watercolor "Birch Lake, near Hetch Hetchy" by Stephen Curl (2012). 

Muir has a theory for why he thinks that painters will find the Sierras problematic.  He speaks of how the mountain landscape there is "not clearly divisible" into smaller units and how this fact makes it difficult to isolate "artistic bits capable of being made into warm, sympathetic, lovable pictures with appreciable humanity in them."  Perhaps artists in 1894 had trouble using the Sierras to produce such effects.  But this in itself is not an argument against seeing the Sierras from an artist's perspective.  It may just be that artists from different periods will see different things.  Well, actually, that's pretty much the way it is.  It is not required to be picturesque that a landscape look like a picture by a typical painter of 1894.  The landscape could be picturesque by looking like a painting by David Hockney, a contemporary landscape artist.  That is, it doesn't have to be warm, sympathetic and lovable to be picturesque.  Or, if readers balk at this expansion of the notion of the picturesque, it is certainly the case that "seeing something in nature as like a picture" is not itself limited to seeing it as like a picture by Claude Lorraine or like a picture by Bierstadt.  Muir himself, I will argue, has a view of the picturesque that expands beyond that which is warm, sympathetic and lovable.   

Muir actually says some very positive things about the picturesque in "A Near View."  There he writes about how "on the head waters of the Tuolumne, is a group of wild peaks on which the geologist may say that the sun has but just begun to shine, which is yet in a high degree picturesque."  (65) His description of this scene in terms of foreground, background and colors could have been made by a painter or a poet.  Also, noteworthy in his description is his constant use of metaphor:  he speaks of the "crystal fountains" of the Toulumne, the river "swaying pensively from side to side with calm, stately gestures past dipping willows and sedges....ever filling the landscape with spiritual animation, and manifesting the grandeur of its sources in every movement and tone."  He even gazes repeatedly at the "glorious picture" and encloses it in a frame with his arms, speaking of it as being "ready and waiting for the elected artist."  And he wishes that he himself knew how to paint, although he contents himself with mental "photographs" and "sketches" in his notebooks.  

Following this description we have the humorous episode in which he encounters two artists, one of them Scottish (is it Moran?), who wanted to know whether he had come across a landscape "suitable for a large painting."  He then describes this one at Toulumne meadows which had "excited my admiration."  The humorous part is that although the artists are impressed by the colors they saw they are disappointed (at first) saying: "All this is huge and sublime, but we see nothing as yet at all available for effective pictures."  The problem, for them, is that the foregrounds, middle-grounds and backgrounds are all similar.  However, they are soon satisfied when "the whole picture [of what Muir previously saw and admired] stood revealed in the flush of the alpenglow."  What they wanted was "a typical alpine landscape" which they weren't getting previously, but now they are.  Notice that nowhere does Muir reject the beauty that the artists seek.  Indeed he speaks of "feasting awhile on the view" that the artists enjoyed.  

In the story, Muir decides to leave his companions to climb Mr. Ritter on his own.  As soon as this happens one might think that his aesthetic references would no longer run into the realm of the arts (if contemporary aestheticians who take a cognitivist approach to the aesthetics of nature are right).  And yet this is not what happens.  In speaking of the Tuolumne river he says "what a fine traveling companion it proved to be, what songs it sang, and how passionately it told the mountain's own joy!  Gladly I climbed along its dashing border, absorbing its divine music, and bathing from time to time in waftings of irised spray."  And then "new beauty came streaming on the sight; painted meadows, late-blooming gardens, peaks of rare architecture."  Each beauty is described in terms of a different art!  Muir did not limit himself to the art of painting in his descriptions:  music and architecture also play a role.  Sculpture does too when he speaks of a scene "adorned with characteristic sculptures of the ancient glaciers that swept over this entire region." (67)  The art of gardening is also mentioned, as when he says "pools at this elevation are furnished with little gardens."

It is true that the knowledge he had about geography also animates his experience.  For example, recognizing that the waters lead eventually through the San Francisco Bay to the sea adds to the entire experience.  It gives it a certain aura.  However, this is not just geographical knowledge that informs perception.  Rather, it is form of story-telling in which his experience of the mountains  scenes he perceives is imaginatively enhanced by the story. 

Yuriko Saito, a well known aesthetician of nature, takes another approach to this.  She writes, "In contrast to the accompanying artists' pictorial appreciation of the landscape, Muir attends to the way in which the geological events are embodied in the rock formations, and celebrates nature's own story-telling without imposing his own vision and poetry upon it"  ("Appreciating nature on its own terms" in Carlson and Lintott, p. 161.)  My reading of Muir is somewhat different.  I see him as a strong advocate of using arts-based viewing in his appreciation of nature.  He did incorporate his knowledge of geological events into his perceptions and his descriptions of Yosemite.  However, rather than this being in contrast to his artist friends and contrary to the picturesque I would say that this is a supplement to his experience that enhances his concept of the picturesque.  I would agree that he did not impose his own vision and poetry on the landscape.  However, it is clear that he has his own vision and that he constantly uses poetic metaphors in articulating this vision.  In a sense he is using his own vision and poetry.  The term "imposition" is supposed to imply something negative, something to be avoided, and it may be that some poetic visions or renderings of natural scenes seem like impositions (for example, ones that stress aesthetic properties that cannot be found when one is there).  It is not clear to me why his own vision and poetry is any less an imposition than that of Bierstadt or Moran.  In any case, I do not accept the idea of contemporary aestheticians of nature that nature has its "own story-telling" independently of the stories we tell about it.  At best, we can say that the story Muir tells seems immensely fitting to those who have visited the same scenes.

Many aestheticians of nature have commented on these passages by Muir.  They frequently make fun of the painters for their interest in finding something "alpine" to represent.  However, remember that what the painters saw was "alpenglow" and that if Muir was opposed to the alpine picturesque one would think that he himself would be opposed to using this concept to describe his own aesthetic experiences.  (alpenglow has been described in Websters as "a reddish flow seen near sunset or sunrise on the summits of mountains" and originates from the German Alpenglühen, from Alpen Alps + Glühen glow, first used in 1871.) But instead, as he hikes by himself, he writes of the rosy glow that gradually deepens in the evening and says, "This is the alpenglow, to me one of the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.  At the touch of the divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness..."  This is hardly someone taken only by the glories of geological science or nature's "own story" told through geology or natural science alone.  Nor do we find here that Muir limited himself to perceiving the mountains as an artist would.  This is a highly aesthetic experience of the sublime that partakes of the religious.  This religious dimension is also to be found when he speaks of "the darkest scriptures of the mountains [the desolate scenes in the very high sierras]" as "illuminated with bright passages of love that never fail to make themselves felt when one is alone."  (68)  [see my next post for more on this.] 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Some Thoughts on Questions by Robert Ginsberg on the Aesthetics of Ruins

Robert Ginsberg, in a paper to be given at the American Society for Aesthetics meeting at the APA meetings in San Diego, raises several questions about the aesthetics of ruins.  I am to comment on his paper, and these are preliminary notes towards those comments.  Ginsberg has literally "written the book" on the aesthetics of ruins.  I recommend that readers of this blog look at the excellent selections from that book, The Aesthetics of Ruins, made available for free on Google books.  For now I will pose some of his questions and my thoughts about possible responses. (This by the way makes me guilty of writing the typical aesthetics paper which Ginsberg says is "a critique, correction, or expansion on some other author's paper.")  Before proceeding I should note that I am currently teaching a seminar in which we are studying the aesthetics of nature:  many of the issues there are relevant to the aesthetics of ruins as well.

Also, as a preliminary, I will describe an experience of mine during a recent visit to Mazatlan, Mexico.  The downtown area contains many early 19th century and possibly late 18th century buildings which are now in ruins.  The walls are still there, but when you look through the windows you see open sky and random vegetation.   Other buildings have been renovated including the wonderful house of our friends where we stayed.  Moreover, an elegant new restaurant has been opened in this area called The Presidio.  It is very modernistic in design but is situated amongst the ruins of a former grand house.  The exterior is completely intact in what looks like its former glory.  The interior however contains some crumbling walls some of which still have the graffiti on them that was there when the place was renovated.  The effect for restaurant-goers is that of being in a ruin transformed.  Eating there under the open sky and looking out onto the various elements of the former house, now re-used, sometimes encased in glass, graced by minimalist fountains, with interesting art on some walls, is a fine experience.  Its fineness is partly because of the ambiance created by its intimate references to old Mazatlan:  the building has been owned for several generations by the same family, and there are large blown-up portraits of two ancestors in one corner.

"What shall we do with a ruin?"  Ginsberg thinks that this is an odd question since the answer to the question "what we should do with a work of art?" is obvious ("we should experience and enjoy it") and the answer to the question about ruins is not so obvious.  Yes, artworks have a function (or rather, have various functions).  Given the many functions art can have, I doubt that "experience and enjoy it" is always the best answer to the question "what should we do with a work of art?" although this is surely an important function of art.  The question posed about ruins feels different.  It is somewhat more similar to "What should we do with a forest?" - a question we might ask in the aesthetics of nature.  In the aesthetics of nature the term "should" could be taken as indicating an ethical question, in which case environmentalism ("preserve it!") comes in as a possible answer, or it could be taken as indicating an aesthetic question, i.e. how should we go about properly experiencing this natural object aesthetically.  In any case, both with nature and with ruins "experience and enjoy it" is not, by itself, enough of an answer:  the question is "how?" and "what else?" 

In answering this question Ginsberg suggests:  "a ruin might not have aesthetic value.  It often is the wreck of a work that was of aesthetic value."  There is a much-discussed view in the aesthetics of nature that everything in nature (or rather, everything in nature untouched by man) has positive aesthetic value.  One could argue equally that everything period has positive aesthetic value (Paul Ziff once argued that anything could be viewed aesthetically), although this view would be opposed by many philosophers.  More plausible is the view that everything has the potential to exhibit positive aesthetic value.  That something is the wreck of a work that had aesthetic value does not mean that the wreck has no aesthetic value of its own now.  It may no longer have the aesthetic value of the original, but this does not erase all aesthetic value and all potential for aesthetic experience.  Moreover, there are new aesthetic values to be found in ruins and not to be found in the ruined originals.  You lose something, you gain something.  You gain nostalgic interest, for example. 

"If we enjoy a ruin aesthetically, must we first determine that it is indeed aesthetically enjoyable?"  What better way to determine that something is aesthetically enjoyable than to discover that it is aesthetically enjoyed?  But then the question is whether the ruin is a proper object of aesthetic enjoyment.  I think it is.  One way that we can contextualize a ruin so that, in our seeing it, we see more than what our senses immediately tell us is to learn about it, especially about its history.  Ginsberg asks whether such information is "decisive in indicating its aesthetic identity?"  Well, "decisive" is a strong term.  Expecting anything decisive in aesthetics is to expect too much.  Information about past history is certainly important to aesthetic experience of ruins.  But imagination is also important.  Consider the experience of the owners of The Presidio as they dreamed about their future restaurant.  Is it not part of the aesthetic experience of a ruin to think about its beauty when transformed into an elegant restaurant? Can we exclude imaginative projections from our aesthetic appreciation of such things?  Does aesthetic appreciation have to be fully and entirely centered on the object as it is now?  Is there even such a thing as "the object as it is now" that can be fully distinguished in our experience from the way we see the object?  

"What on earth is the aesthetic identity of a ruin?  Do we have to rely on the experience of others as a guide to what we may enjoy?"  It is often argued that we need to rely on knowledge that can be given to us by experts, by art historians in art, and by naturalists in the aesthetics of nature...even that this knowledge contributes necessarily to the constitution of the object as an aesthetic object.  Certainly having this knowledge changes our understanding and appreciation of these objects.  But it is equally certain that sometimes our initial relatively ignorant gut reaction to the aesthetic object is of great value in itself.  Ruins have moved me both when I have had a great deal of previous knowledge and when I have had very little.  We often forget that appreciation is usually a temporal thing, and that the first encounter is just that.  Appreciation of a waterfall, a ruin or a painting can change over time, becoming richer and deeper through the addition of knowledge, but also sometimes eventually becoming dead and tired through overexposure or through the cultural context moving on historically.  We need to think more about the life span of an act of appreciation.  We need to also think of our lifespans as appreciators who change over time as we mature and eventually decline.  There is the life-span of the art work in our experience and then there is the life-span of the work within the culture too.  This too involves birth, maturation and decay, with further possibilities of rebirth, or a renaissance.  Those who stress the necessity of background knowledge seem to take as their paradigm only the mid-moment in one's career as an appreciator after the initial moments of ignorant appreciation (as a child, usually) and before the moments of appreciative decay and death.  Similarly they tend to look only at the mid-moment of the career of the work-as-appreciated within the culture or worldwide.  This may be a mistake endemic to aesthetics as a whole, but it is made evident especially when we consider the aesthetics of ruins, where the ruin may represent the old-age point of the life-span of an art object. (Here I depart somewhat from Ginsberg who sees the ruin as a different aesthetic object from the building or other art object from which it came.  I think it can be both.)  I am not saying, however, that ruins pose no possibilities for fresh vision and lively new aesthetic experience:  Ginsberg has amply shown these possibilities in his writings.  

"Most famous ruins are lauded with honorific terms:  beautiful, sublime, wonderful.  But are these expressions simply of outmoded or otherwise limited taste?  A commercial or political interest may be at stake in uttering such terms, for they encourage the business of tourism while bolstering national pride."  I agree that the classic terms of aesthetics are malleable.  They mean whatever they mean within the context of their use.  However, part of the context of the use is the history of the term and also the standard accepted uses as expressed in dictionaries.  Another context to consider is the state of play among scholars and other interested parties with respect to the ongoing debates over the meaning of the term or over the essence of it referent, depending on one's preferred ontology and methodology.  Yes, "beautiful" and other such terms can in certain contexts be outmoded, tired, and/or manipulative.  Such terms can also be revived by using them in a context that gives them new life or recovers old life.  Terms and correlated concepts have life-spans every bit as much as aesthetic objects and the humans and cultures that perceive them.  "Beautiful" is a term that recently has had a near-death experience, but has also recently been revived in various ways.  "Picturesque" is a term ready for the morgue, but is open for revival.

Ginsberg calls for analysis of ruins in detail to show their "aesthetic qualities, values, features, or potentialities."  He has done that himself, in spades, in his book.  I think though that only a small number of connoisseurs of ruins will ever respond to his proposal.  The interest in ruins will never be as great as the interest in nature or in art.  We are not talking about equivalents when we speak of aesthetics of art, aesthetics of nature and aesthetics of ruins.  Still, the thrust of his approach is to point to deeper levels of appreciation than can be found by way of guidebooks to ruins, and I think this can be achieved.

"Shall we insist on a unique right approach [to ruins] or remain open to multiple ways of making something of value out of a ruin?"  My answer is "yes" to the second option.  This is also the approach I favor in the aesthetics of nature and the aesthetics of everyday life. Ginsberg also writes that "[t]hough the remnant may be used as material to prompt us to imagine the missing original, that is not the beauty of the ruin."  Although I find this sentence attractive I would like to (in the spirit of pluralism) revise it to say "that is not the only beauty of the ruin."  For surely part of the beauty of a ruin is found in the way that we see it imaginatively.  So, the question remains whether the aesthetic greatness of the site during its heyday guarantees its beauty as a ruin, and the answer is that if one is able to imaginatively see the ruin in terms of its past glory then I would say that this is a guarantee, as much as guarantees are allowed in aesthetics.  But it isn't required since one can appreciate it as an interesting setting for a restaurant or a garden without going into any imaginative exercises at all.

"Is beauty the right term for ruins?  Is ruin-beauty distinct from art-beauty or nature-beauty?"  Of course it is the right term, but only if we recognize that "beauty" has many uses.  We can say "we saw some beautiful ruins outside Rome" and this seems quite appropriate although also, a little odd, since a ruin is the ruin of a beauty:  but we all know that ruins can have their own beauty.  Of course ruin-beauty is distinct from art-beauty and nature-beauty, and also design-beauty: "beauty" operates differently in each sub-domain of aesthetics.  Aestheticians of everyday life, for example, have shown many ways in which everyday life beauty is distinct from art beauty.  

Ginsberg thinks that the question "How does beauty work in a ruin? is not a question for art historians, since the ruin is not, or is no longer, a work of art.  This is a task for the aesthetician."  Is it then not a question for aestheticians how beauty works in a work of art?  Who gets what tasks?  If I google "aesthetics of ruins" I find that archaeologists are interested in this task.  Is it any less their task than that of philosophers who do aesthetics?  Do art historians have nothing to say about the aesthetics of ruins?  I think not.  Different disciplines take different angles often on a topic that is quite similar. Moreover, an aesthetician who, as Ginsberg does, devotes himself to showing the aesthetic qualities, values, features and potentialities of a class of things has somewhat expanded the definition of "aesthetician" although I have no problem with that.  Ginsberg also asks "Are aestheticians asking for trouble by trying to theorize from concrete experience?"  Yes, but that's fine too.  And so I favor pluralism over the idea of one right approach.  And yet, pluralism can seem to dissipate energies, whereas monism has the aesthetic cleanness of certainty.  

"Shouldn't aestheticians be engaged in highlighting the aesthetic merit of candidates for the World Heritage [many of which sites are ruins]?  Is not the aesthetic heritage of humanity at stake?"  Since as far as I know no one has this job now the question might be whether we shouldn't promote this for some of our graduate students, somewhat like philosophers of Medical Ethics promote the idea of a philosopher working in a hospital helping to make ethical choices.  This would depend on training our students to highlight the aesthetic merit of candidates for World Heritage sites:  something we do not currently do... but we could (particularly, to be frank, if there was money available.)  The process would involve creating/training connoisseurs or critics of ruins.  I think philosophers could do this, but equally could art historians and archaeologists.  In any case, philosophers would inevitably contribute to the project if only by way of thinking about the requisite theory of ruins and ruin beauty.

"Or is this asking too much for the aesthetic side of our lives?  Is that side merely a minor feature of our shared humanity?"  This is too big a question to answer fully here, but a short answer could be that if everyday aesthetics and what I have recently called "the aesthetics of life" is viable then aesthetics is hardly minor.  At the very least it includes every taste choice (every choice involving application of an aesthetic property term) that we can disagree about.  That covers an extremely large territory of human affairs.  Ginsberg is well aware that, although hardly any aesthetician would assent to the idea that the aesthetic is "a window-dressing on what is really valuable in life," many others, including some philosophers, would agree.  But briefly look at one popular theory that gauges what is valuable in life:  utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism says that the goal of life is happiness for the maximum number, and Mill's version says that quality is important.  Mention quality and you mention the possibility of debate over the value of a pleasure, and this brings in aesthetics as the major determinant of value in the Millean version of utilitarianism:  hardly mere window-dressing.  But philosophers, even utilitarians, seem blind to this.

"The combat within disciplines might best give way to peace accords that allow a pluralism of approaches and theories to grow.  But don't we work in a competitive scholarly world in which we receive praise for triumphing over others?"  Ginsberg now turns to the issue of the social function of the very debates in which we engage as philosophers.  In reading about the aesthetics of nature it seems obvious that those who have made the biggest splash are the ones who have put forth a plausible defense for a distinctive position.  Moreover, it is clear that some positions are dominant whereas others, although considered deserving at least a refutation, are peripheral.  In the aesthetics of nature, the position called scientific cognitivism is currently dominant.  Allen Carlson's is probably the most successful position of this sort.  Carlson has many followers, admirers, and co-defenders.  An interesting powerful second place is given to what Arnold Berleant has called "the aesthetics of engagement."  Berleant also has followers, admirers, and co-defenders.  Other more peripheral but equally interesting theories include ones that emphasize imagination, ambience, and emotional response.  I have advocated an arts-based approach to the aesthetics of the natural environment, a position that is definitely an outlier.  My current view however is pluralist.  I believe that each position has its place, that each model of aesthetic appreciation of nature can be of value, even ones currently out of favor, for example the landscape/scenery model where nature is seen as if it were a landscape painting.  Of course consistency is possible only if the pluralist denies the monistic assumptions of most, if not all, of the other positions. 

Pluralism (to follow up on Ginsberg's point) also is not academically interesting:  it is not bold or dramatic, and it poses what most philosophers consider the danger of descending into radical relativism.  The pluralist is not going to triumph over others.  (This is not a complaint:  just being realistic.) Moreover, pluralism is not aesthetically interesting as philosophy.  One of my favorite essays in the aesthetics of nature is "Icebreakers" by Stan Godlovitch.  The theory is that the one appropriate way to appreciate nature is to see it as mysterious and radically other than humanity.  Godlovitch calls for an "acentric" approach to the aesthetics of nature.  That means it should not be anthropocentric:  it should not even be biocentric.  Godlovitch provides an interesting counter to the scientific cognitivist position which still relies on human-constructed categories.  His theory, however, seems ultimately indefensible largely because we humans cannot not be human, and so we cannot take an acentric position. This is not to say that we should accept anthropocentrism, which is the view that humans are the most important species on the planet or even (in one definition) the universe.  I would hesitate to rank species for significance!  We just inevitably take humans as the center of things, just as we take our selves as the very center of everything.  Nonetheless, there is much to be gained by taking Godlovitch's position on occasion and in certain circumstances (as far as one can, as a human, anyway), although to adopt it as the right one view leaves out too much.  Still, reading Godlovitch's essay is a powerful experience:  the moves are elegant....all in all, good philosophy, and probably to be preferred, aesthetically, to even the best defense of pluralism.  It might seem strange to talk about the competition between philosophical positions in terms of aesthetics especially in a paper in which a position about aesthetics (e.g. the aesthetics of ruins) is taken --- but this comes up when one takes Ginsberg's comments about academia seriously.

Ginsberg suggests that a turn to the aesthetics of ruins involves an escape from "the narrow-mindedness of professional aesthetics."  As he puts it, "Ruins escape the standard theories.  Neither works of art nor works of nature, ruins could yet have surprising aesthetic merit."  I am sympathetic since I have found the same is true for the aesthetics of everyday life:  new territory is refreshing.  

Earlier I suggested that archaeologists might equally (or even more validly) claim the aesthetics of ruins as their academic territory.  Recently some archaeologists have even published in the field.  Ginsberg worries that archaeologists are either social science quantifiers or classicists wrapped up in ancient texts and that both are likely to be horrified by aestheticians on the site.  But I think that archaeology is more flexible and diverse than that.  Ginsberg is exactly right, however, that archaeology has an aesthetic side to it, involving choices that entail aesthetic evaluation, attention to form, material and symbolism:  a good reason for the aesthetician to have a role on the archaeological team, a kind of philosophy as kibitzer, but more positive than that.   

Ginsberg notes similarities between his aesthetics of ruins and the aesthetics of everyday life, and in particular the aesthetic interest we sometimes take in eyesores and the way we look at these for "redeeming form" and "poignant juxtaposition."  He also references the other (perhaps more important) region of everyday life:  the aesthetic interest in unbroken things (i.e. of designed objects with functionality).  As he puts it, "the aesthetics of the everyday...need not be regarded as a minor corner of aesthetics or a trivial part of life" to which I can only agree.  But should we go so far as to give it "predominant scope" in aesthetics?  The advantage of this may be, for Ginsberg at least, the Deweyan/Thoreauian impulse to move outdoors, out into the world, and away from theories, categories, and endless arguments in conference halls.  He becomes lyrical when he writes that "ruins will have led the way to our being surprised by joy" in much the way that Zen practice concentrates us on the now of everyday life.  Along these lines, he suggests that aesthetic experience ultimately is not distinct from spiritual experience (particularly of the Zen variety), a point I have also been suggesting in my blog posts on aesthetic atheism, an atheism which is not inconsistent with some religious perspectives.  

"Aestheticians, is it too much to call upon you to save the world?"  Ginsberg takes on the role of a prophet coming in out of the wilderness, Zarathustra down from the mountain, to address the scholars:  "in turning to the world, do we thereby take upon ourselves a new burden, awesome and inspiring, of assisting the world to recognize, preserve, enhance, and share the beauties of life in the world."  The Greek and Roman philosophers similarly often saw the task of philosophy as a transformation of life:  this is still attractive to many of us today even though we spend our lives immersed in the details of academia.  Aestheticians of nature already ally themselves with environmentalists and naturalists, seeking to do precisely this.  Is this also part of the task of the aesthetics of everyday life?  I feel uncomfortable with the role of prophet, but also like to be challenged by Ginsberg's vision.  William Morris, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche all tried to play this role, the consequences sometimes laughable, sometimes sublime, sometimes downright scary.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Scruton on Judging Beauty

 Roger Scruton is a hero of mine.  His little book Beauty published in 2009 by Oxford University Press is a nice primer on aesthetics.  Moreover, Scruton was probably the first major philosopher to pay serious attention to everyday aesthetics and in this book he devotes one chapter to what he calls "everyday beauty."  I want here to make a few comments about his opening chapter on "judging beauty" which also deals with issues of everyday aesthetics while at the same time introducing his readers to issues surrounding the very concept of beauty.  He opens cleverly with the idea that in order to understand beauty we need to think about a series of truisms about it.  The first four these are truisms in my book too:  beauty pleases us, one thing can be more beautiful than another,  "beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it," and beauty is the subject matter of a judgment of taste.  (The fourth will turn out to be problematic not as stated but as interpreted.)  

The next two are a bit more controversial, however.  The first states that "the judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject's state of mind.  In describing the object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me."  Why can't it be both?  It makes more sense to me to say that a judgment of taste is both about the object and about the judger, although sometimes it may be more about one than the other.  The sixth truism is that "there are no second-hand judgments of beauty" and that a person cannot argue another into such a judgment.  One needs to experience and judge it for oneself.  I am inclined also to think this a truism, but then it would seem to contradict the fifth truism, although this is not a problem for me since I question that one.

Scruton, however, sees a paradox here.  He notes that the first three platitudes, and even the sixth, may be applied to that which is attractive and enjoyable.  It seems however that the judgment that something is enjoyable is about the person and not about the thing.  There is no distinction between what is really enjoyable and what is only apparently so.  I am not so sure of this since the phrase "that was only apparently enjoyable" is not total nonsense.  If the enjoyment of something was based on a falsehood that, upon discovery, put it in a very different light, we might well see it as no longer truly enjoyable, although we may admit that before the discovery it was in fact being enjoyed.  To say that something is enjoyable has something normative about it:   if I say to some friends that a particular street is enjoyable to walk down I hope and even expect that they will find it so too.  The contrast Scruton wants to make is between "beautiful" and "enjoyable," and it is true that there is a contrast, but is it as strong as he finds it to be?  For example he insists that we distinguish between true beauty and fake beauty, of which kitsch is an example.  True, we may say that something is a "fake beauty" but it is interesting that many would deny this of kitsch (most of my students do so even after they learn what "kitsch" means).

Scruton further observes that "the judgment of taste is a genuine judgment, one that is supported by reasons." (8)  This strikes me as probably false if taken universally.  (And it poses a problem for the fourth truism if that is what he takes it to mean.)  Surely many judgments of taste are not supported by any reasons at all.  A connoisseur might say that a painting is beautiful and be entirely uninterested in giving reasons for his or her judgment.  I do not see why taste needs to be connected necessarily with reasons given.  I suppose that his reply would be that the connoisseur could always give reasons and that implicitly his judgment is based on reasons.  But I do not think that this could be established empirically:  its just an assumption, and perhaps one that needs to be questioned.  The genuineness of a judgment is not dependent on reason-giving or ability to give reasons in support of that judgment.  A good judge of painting can just see that this is a good painting.  Sometimes curators have to judge hundreds of artworks in a very short period of time:  no time to give reasons.  This is not to say that the judgment must be irrational: it could be based on long experience and hence be rational because reasonable.  But being reasonable is not the same as being someone who gives reasons!

Scruton insists (following the sixth truism) that "these reasons can never amount to a deductive argument."  Well, that is a bit disingenuous.  If I say that A is a reason for B then aren't I saying that you can deduce B from A given the assumption that "If A then B"?   We often carry out our arguments assuming hidden premises of this sort.  (Most arguments are enthymemes.)  So, to speak of giving reasons for believing something is already to be in the realm of deductive argument. (To put it another way:  in most cases when we say something is a deductive argument we mean that it can be translated into a deductive argument by supplying the hidden premises.)  If I question whether A is sufficient reason for B is that not the same as questioning the hidden premise that "if A then B"?   So it seems to me that the claim that there can be no second-hand opinions about beauty is quite consonant with the claim that Scruton rejects, i.e. that beauty is something that has both an objective and a subjective dimension.

Here's how he states the paradox of beauty:  "The judgment of beauty makes a claim about its object, and can be supported by reasons for its claim.  But the reasons do not compel the judgment, and can be rejected without contradiction.  So are they reasons or aren't they?"  They are reasons, of course.  But reasons said to just refer to qualities of the object independent of any experience are not (and should not be!) compelling.  Reasons have to be contextualized (and given weight!) within experience, especially in aesthetics.  Here, the subjective side needs to be taken into consideration.  When this happens the paradox is resolved.

It is interesting that although Scruton refuses to countenance "enjoyable" as an aesthetic quality he nonetheless has no problem with what he calls "minimal beauty" i.e. what he calls the lowest degree of beauty. This idea brings in aspects of aesthetics that I have championed elsewhere (although I am somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of "the lowest degree":  I would just say "lower degree").  Scruton is an everyday aesthetician when he says "There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a web-site, which seems a first quite remote from [fine art]."  (Why would he consider these as exemplifying the lowest rather than just a lower degree of beauty?) He stresses that you want your room etc. to "look right" and this is a way that not only pleases the eye but also conveys meaning and value. (This is a profound point.)

Scruton illustrates the idea of the relation between great beauties and minimal beauties nicely by an architectural example:  how great buildings need to be set amongst more modest neighbors.  Most important is that there be an appropriate fit.  One could go so far as to say that the beauty of the great building is partly a function of its relations to the buildings surrounding it, and that the building of a minor building is also a function of its relation in a supporting role to that of the great building it frames.  Scruton is so right when he says "Much that is said about beauty and its importance in our lives ignores the minimal beauty of an unpretentious street, a nice pair of shoes or a tasteful piece of wrapping paper...."  Moreover, "these minimal beauties are far more important to our daily lives...than the great works..." (12) 

All of this fine, with one exception.  To say that there are minimal beauties is one thing, but to say that things with great beauty and things with lesser beauty need each other is quite another thing, and to say that beauty is comparative is quite another thing again.   On the last point, it is one thing to rank works of art, but it is another thing to see them as parts of a larger ensemble that makes their comparative value a matter of interaction and mutual enhancement. 

Another statement in favor of everyday aesthetics is "for most of us it is far more important to achieve order in the things surrounding us, and to ensure that the eyes, the ears and the sense of fittingness are not offended" than to pursue absolute or ideal beauty.  Scruton follows this by noting that there are other aesthetic terms besides "beauty":  "we appreciate the pretty, the charming and the attractive" (14)  But wait!  Wasn't his big point in the preceding section that "attractive" was not an aesthetic property and was unrelated to beauty?  An easier way to resolve the problem is to admit that the enjoyable, the pretty and the attractive all emphasize the subjective dimension somewhat more than the beautiful, and that there is no strict dividing line between these.  When he ends the section by saying that "Delight is more important than the terms used to express it" he seems to be avoiding the issue since the delight of enjoyment was precisely what he was using as an example of something that was not beautiful previously.