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.


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