Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Matriarchal Aesthetics and Everyday Aesthetics

In my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary I gave credit to feminist aesthetics in contributing to everyday aesthetics.  I did not there mention Heide Gottner-Abendroth, but in reading her "Nine Principles of Matriarchal Aesthetics" in Art and its Significance, Stephen David Ross ed., I find interesting parallels between this version of feminist thought and everyday aesthetics.  Gottner-Abendroth may be dismissed by some because of her perhaps unwarranted claims about the dominance of matriarchal societies in neolithic times.  However her position can be seen more as a reflection on ways in which prehistoric art and mythology and contemporary tribal art can inspire, or stand as a model for, a contemporary feminist art practice, one that involves various deconstructions that contribute to aestheticization of what was previously considered not aesthetic. 

Of all of the philosophers I teach Gottner-Abendroth is closest in spirit to Nietzsche.  Both stress the modern relevance of a total art form of the past, in her case tribal dance, in his case, Greek tragedy.  Both stress the Dionysian ecstatic element in aesthetic experience.  However, Nietzsche  would have rejected feminist aesthetics as he rejected feminism in general.  

Gottner-Abendroth's importance in my view lies in her treatment of aesthetics as not dominated by art aesthetics.  She sees matriarchal art (her ideal art form), in her first principle, as "beyond the fictional" in the sense that it rejects the notion of a separate fictional realm (hence rejecting Apollonian art?).  Art rather should be seen as "magic" which is to say that it has some influence in the real world, as she argues, in both psychic and social reality.  It does this by way of mythology (second principle), which she also interprets as "one of the fundamental categories of the human imagination." This is much like Nietzsche's interpretation of the Apollonian and the Dionysian as fundamental physiological forces.  Matriarchal aesthetics carries out various deconstructions of traditional distinctions, many of these deconstructions also conducive to promoting everyday aesthetics.  For example, in the third principle we learn that the author-text-reader distinction dissolves and that, in not being limited to producing products, matriarchal art expresses the inner structure found in ritual dance, this structure dissolving also the distinction between author and spectator.  The fourth principle of matriarchal aesthetics also dissolves the division between emotion and thought in that "emotional identification, theoretical reflection and symbolic action" all are parts or aspects of aesthetic experience, or to put it another way, "matriarchal art welds together feeling, thinking and doing" in order to "release true ecstasy in the participants."  The Nietzschean Dionysian element is present here, but also there are affinities with Dewey's aesthetics in the notion of a fusion of feeling, thinking and doing.  The fifth principle says that patriarchal art cannot be objectified and is a "dynamic process characterized by ecstasy...with a positive impact on reality." The sixth principle stresses the idea that the paradigm of art, in her case, ritual dance, embraces many genres of art.  It also says that in matriarchal art the division between art and non-art dissolves.  Thus matriarchal art can merge with nonconformist lifestyles and with "changes in the psychic and social sphere" which are subversive to patriarchal society.  Matriarchal aesthetics then becomes an aesthetics of life.  The idea of a breakdown of the art/life barrier is also found in the eighth and ninth principles, where there is a questioning of the division of elitist from popular art resulting in an "aestheticization of the whole of society."  Everyday aesthetics can be associated with such a program. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

When is art? Goodman vs. Danto, and the relation of this to everyday aesthetics

Goodman's famous "When is Art?" appeared in his 1978 book Ways of Worldmaking.  The chapter seems at first to be mainly directed against formalists such as Clive Bell and more importantly, probably, Clement Greenberg, although neither of these are mentioned (he simply refers to a group of theorists and artists which he calls "purists" and sometimes "formalists").  Goodman wants to show that the purists are wrong that the abstract art they favor does not symbolize.  He has a broader notion of "symbolize" such that something can fail to represent or express but could still symbolize if it exemplifies.  All of this main seem to be just a matter of semantics, Goodman having a much broader use of "symbol" than the purists.  A more important target for the essay however is the work of Arthur Danto.  Both Goodman and Danto are trying to account for found art and conceptual art as well as for highly abstract minimalist art.  A useful way to see their distinction and implicit disagreement can show in part how Goodman leads us on a path that is more world-connected than Danto's and perhaps more useful for the project of everyday aesthetics.  Take for example a rock picked up in a driveway (Goodman's example).  Goodman believes that when the rock is in the driveway it has no aesthetic properties (this of course cannot be accepted by everyday aesthetics) but that when it is put on a pedestal in an art gallery it comes to exemplify certain properties (and so, is symbolic even if it does not represent or express).  In doing this it comes to function as art.  Goodman does not define art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but he does talk about what he calls "symptoms of the aesthetic" by which he means symptoms of arthood:  these are syntactic density, semantic density, relative repleteness, exemplification and multiple and complex reference.  There is no need here to go into detail about these, except to mention that relative repleteness means that a line in a Hokusai painting is richer in meaning than a similar line on a Stock exchange chart.  I suspect that all of the symptoms of the aesthetic refer basically to one thing or phenomenon.  It is the same intuition expressed in different ways.  Goodman himself suggests this when he says that all the symptoms "focus attention on rather than, or at least along with, what [the work] refers to."  We cannot simply look through the symbol to its referent as we would in the case of a traffic light or a science text.  We must "attend constantly to the symbol itself."  Danto (I am speaking here just of his view in "The Artworld") would hold that for the art to be art it is not sufficient that it be exhibited in a gallery by an artist, although this can contribute to its arthood.  It must be seen as art by someone with suitable art historical and art theoretical knowledge, i.e. seen under the appropriate concept of art. It must also have some part that is seen with the is of artistic identification.  So whereas Goodman can be seen as expanding the formalist conception of art to include new material (for example texture and the type of material used), Danto can be seen as rejecting it.  Whereas Goodman thinks art calls on us to attend quite carefully to its many exhibited referential features, Danto thinks that we need to attend to things that are not exhibited (at least directly in the work) for example art history, art theory, the intended meaning of the artist, the title.  An interesting feature of Goodman is that art's function is cognitive and, as cognitive, it does relate very much to the world, through various forms of reference.  Danto's approach involves not reference to the world but reference to the artworld.  For Goodman even work that is entirely abstract can exemplify its properties, properties which are shared by objects outside the artwork.  Thus the entire distinction between properties that are intrinsic and ones that are extrinsic seems to dissolve (not entirely though).  Goodman's approach explains why, after seeing a show by a good artist, we tend to see things in the world in terms of the works.  Goodman in a sense captures the dynamic interaction of art and world in a way that Danto does not.  Of course artworld knowledge can enter into that which is expressed or even exemplified by a work of art.  So Goodman could possibly accomodate Danto's insight.   But artworld knowledge does not play such an important role in Goodman as it does in Danto.  Danto stresses the "is of artistic identification" which, as I have argued, seems more like an "is of imaginative identification" or that, plus, seeing the object as art.  Goodman allows for metaphorical exemplification, and hence also for imaginative identification.  However, he has no role for an is of artistic identification where it is required that we see the object as art according to a theory of art. Another important difference between the two concerns what happens when the artwork leaves the art gallery.  For Danto it is still art if it is purchased, taken home and perceived by someone with suitable art historical knowledge.  What is not clear is what happens if the Warhol Brillo Box is taken to a warehouse where it is indistinguishable from the Brillo boxes there:  is it still art?  (Danto at one point imagines the Brillo Box just is an appropriated Brillo box from the factory.  That version of Brillo Box would then be totally indistinguishable from the other Brillo boxes assuming that its history of origin is forgotten, or someone switches it with a Brillo box by accident.) Danto sometimes talks like Dickie:  once art, always art, and therefore it is still art, as though once it has been displayed as art in the art gallery it cannot stop being so...even if it is impossible to locate it amongst its indiscernible counterparts in the warehouse.  Goodman however says that once it ceases to function as art it is no longer art.  Well he hedges on that a bit: he says a Rembrandt may still be a Rembrandt after it has been taken out of the museum and used as a blanket, but the question of when it is art is really more important, for him, than "what is art."  It is art when it functions as art, which does not happen when it functions as a blanket.  So one of Warhol's Brillo Boxes taken to the warehouse no longer functions as art and hence is no longer art for Goodman, which seems right to me.  

So, what is the value of this debate to everyday aesthetics?  It it is not explicit but rather lies in the gradual evaporation of the distinction between that which is intrinsic and that which is extrinsic in formalist art combined with the way in which art is essentially cognitive.  Because art's significance goes beyond representation and expression to exemplification, including both literal and metaphorical exemplification, art draws our attention to aesthetic qualities of everyday life.  The expansion of "formalist" to include not only relations of lines and colors but also texture and material, and perhaps  much more (insofar as the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction does dissolve) encourages us to focus on art features in a much more multi-sensuous way than is allowed by traditional formalism.  Bear in mind that strictly speaking Goodman has to be against the aesthetics of everyday life:  he seems to make no distinction between art and aesthetic, and to reduce the aesthetic to the artistic, so that the aesthetic is only within the realm of art.  Oddly, however, the project allows for any object to become a work of art as long as it functions as such or in the way art functions, i.e. in becoming symbolic in the ways that focus our attention on the object's references including especially (although Goodman doesn't say so) exemplification.  So enhanced formalism of the Goodmanian sort might be an answer to Carlson's objections to a formalist approach to everyday aesthetics (see my last post). 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics

Allen Carlson has written an article titled "The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics" which, one could say, takes off from a passage from one of my writings, arguing that his (and Glen Parsons') solution is the best solution to the dilemma, better than mine anyway, although possibly not quite as good as one that would also incorporate in some way Arnold Berleant's aesthetics of engagement. ("The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics," Aesthetics of Everyday Life:  East and West ed. Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014)  After noting Yuriko Saito's recognition of the dilemma in her Everyday Aesthetics he goes back to my quote, which I repeat here:  

"It would seem that we need to make some sort of distinction between the aesthetics of everyday life ordinarily experienced and the aesthetics of everyday life extraordinarily experienced.  However, any attempt to increase the aesthetic intensity of our ordinary everyday life-experiences will tend to push those experiences in the direction of the extraordinary.  one can only conclude that there is a tension within the very concept of the aesthetics of everyday life."  Leddy "The Nature of Everyday Aesthetics" in Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005).      
Saito's response is to focus on "everyday life ordinarily experienced," although Carlson thinks her examples, including Japanese gardens and special ways of packaging, takes us way from objects of everyday use, which he takes to be the "paradigmatic stuff of everyday life." (51)  He thinks we need to come to "grip with the aesthetic appreciation of truly ordinary stuff experienced in a truly ordinary way."  (51)

I would like to make a little Marxist detour here. (This is one of the nice things about writing a blog:  one does not have to rigidly follow scholarly conventions, like not mixing Marxist and Buddhist reflections with Analytic Aesthetics. My Buddhist detour comes at the end.)   What if the way we experience truly ordinary stuff in an truly ordinary way is the product of conditions of alienation produced the a capitalist system?  What if the oppression we sometimes feel from the ordinariness of ordinary life is a function of late capitalism?  What if liberation from capitalist oppression was a matter of overcoming ordinary ways of perception?  Consider Herbert Marcuse's way of looking at the poetry of Malarme in Marcuse's "The Aesthetic Dimension," where he says "his poems conjure up modes of perception, imagination, gestures - a feast of sensuousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality principle."  (Ross, Art and Its Significance, 555)  Well, of course the response would be that the shattering everyday experience is precisely what we do not want in everyday aesthetics.  When poetry does this, it takes us away from everyday life.  But, again, as Marcuse might say, isn't this just giving in to the capitalist reality principle?  If art has "emancipatory value" wouldn't that be clear in the way it frees us from perceiving everyday life under such a principle?  

Carlson goes on on consider a possible formalist approach to everyday aesthetics noting both the Roger Fry and Clive Bell would generally be opposed to everyday aesthetics but also that some things that Bell, at least, says allows for the possibility.  In particular, Bell observes that one can see a landscape in terms of a "pure formal combination of lines and colors" and that most people have done so, for example in seeing fields and cottages "as lines and colors."  Although Carlson admits that this is a "promising approach," he sees it as ultimately unsatisfactory since "in many instances formal properties depend upon framing." (53)  Moreover, there is something trivial about the approach.  He believes this because he associates it with with postcards and calendar images, things that "promote a misleading and superficial aesthetic appreciation...of everyday life."  Moreover, he believes formalism fails to resolve the dilemma since it "reduces the everyday to a shadow of itself, to a shallow veneer."  (53)  

Carlson is being a bit unfair to Bell's formalism, which, although perhaps misleading, is hardly shallow.  The quote about fields and cottages is taken from Bell's chapter "The Metaphysical Hypothesis" in Art.   Bell also writes there:  "Occasionally when an artist—a real artist—looks at objects (the contents of a room, for instance) he perceives them as pure forms in certain relations to each other, and feels emotion for them as such. These are his moments of inspiration: follows the desire to express what has been felt. The emotion that the artist felt in his moment of inspiration he did not feel for objects seen as means, but for objects seen as pure forms—that is, as ends in themselves."  and   "What is the significance of anything as an end in itself? What is that which is left when we have stripped a thing of all its associations, of all its significance as a means? What is left to provoke our emotion? What but that which philosophers used to call "the thing in itself" and now call "ultimate reality"? Shall I be altogether fantastic in suggesting, what some of the profoundest thinkers have believed, that the significance of the thing in itself is the significance of Reality? Is it possible that the answer to my question, "Why are we so profoundly moved by certain combinations of lines and colours?" should be, "Because artists can express in combinations of lines and colours an emotion felt for reality which reveals itself through line and colour"?"  For Bell, when an artist perceives significant form in a landscape he is seeing it as charged with metaphysical meaning.  This would, of course, be misleading if there no underlying reality connected with the experience of significant form.  Bell is himself very hesitant about the hypothesis.  Still, wouldn't it be obvious that if Bell were right about then then clearly, unlike works by Cezanne or the other great Post-impressionists, kitsch postcards and calendars are precisely the things that fail to get at significant form. Carlson just fails to see that Bell would have as much disgust for this ephemera as he has.  So the key here is whether there is anything to the "metaphysical hypothesis."  If there is then Bell hardly "reduces the everyday to a shadow of itself."  As for frames, I can only say here that there is a certain inevitability to framing, that everyday perception itself engages in framing, and that there is no reason to believe that Bell's artist frames the landscape he observes any more than anyone else, including the cognitivist aesthetician.  

Carlson also believes that ritualization fails to help solve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics:  "since the point of aesthetization processes such as ritualization and artification is to raise the events, activities and objects of everyday life above the humdrum of day-to-day existence, they do not resolve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics" (55) since their goal is not to appreciate the everydayness of the everyday.  The Japanese tea cereomy is given as an example of something that takes mundane things and aestheticizes them through ritualization.  For me, another puzzle is posed here.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist philosopher, calls on us to be mindful in our everyday lives.  He thinks that in washing dishes we should wash dishes for the sake of washing dishes, should slow down and notice every moment of washing dishes.  (See my earlier earlier post on this.)  The dilemma of everyday aesthetics remains in that if we attend to dish-washing in the ritualized way that Hanh suggests then we will perceive the ordinary as something extraordinary, and yet the resolution of the dilemma may simply be that we then realize that this is just the ordinary itself (i.e. as it should be seen by a person who has achieved mindfulness).  The ordinariness of the ordinary would not be see however in its dull, boring nature as an even in our commodified and alienated culture but as something rich and meaningful. I continue this discussion in the following post.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

More on Danto's "The Artworld"

This is another day thinking about Danto's "The Artworld." 

Philosophers sometimes see this essay as somehow dissolving the distinction between art and life.  On close reading this seems far from his intention.  One could even argue that he was mainly interested in making the distinction between art and life even more dramatic, and actually securing it from the tendency of contemporary of art to undercut it.  On this view, Danto was not so much acting in tandem with Warhol but against him insofar as Warhol's work could be interpreted as dissolving that distinction.  As I mentioned in my last post, Danto presents us with an implicit theory of art in this work.  He is shy about giving an actual definition but we do know that it has something to do with the idea that something is art if it can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical knowledge, and it also has something to do with the “is” of artistic identification.  The trouble is that the definition may be too broad, as an artist might be able to see a subject he or she is looking at (or perhaps painting in the studio) in such a way as to see it “as art” (not literally) and to also see it with the “is” of artistic identification.  At one point in his essay Danto worries about whether Warhol is like Midas in turning everything he touches into art.  Well, some artist who was able to see things as art with appropriate art historical knowledge could possibly be like this.  And then the line between art and life would in fact dissolve at least in that anything in life could be brought by such an artist into the artworld.  Moreover, doing so would not even require that it be put into a gallery or set on a pedestal and be declared art.  To put it another way, if mastering the is of artistic identification allows us to constitute certain things as art then doesn't its application always involve such constitution? And if so, then isn't seeing a stick as a horse (as in a child's game), which also involves the is of artistic identification, also a matter of constituting something as art?  This would imply that any imaginative seeing involves constituting an object as art...which of course Danto can't hold.  On his considered view, to constitute something as art this act would have to be imaginative seeing that is also under an artistic theory.  Danto also mentions the 10th Street abstractionist who is able to see No. 7 as art only because of "an atmosphere compounded of artistic theories and the history of recent and remote painting" an atmosphere that acts, seemingly, like a colored lens, or better, like 3 D glasses, enabling him to see the object in a completely different way from Testadura, his identification of the painting depending on the very theory he rejects, so that he says "That black paint is black paint" using the "is" of artistic identification, but in a very different way.  But how can we see black paint imaginatively as black paint?  In what way is seeing black paint as black paint like, or can be like, seeing a stick as a horse?  It looks like we have a case of imaginative seeing where the imaginative dimension simply is whatever raises the object into the realm of art.  Maybe seeing black paint as black paint is seeing it as transfigured into art?  Danto sees this maneuver as somewhat like the Zen adept who after studying Zen for thirty years has gotten to the very substance of the mountains, no longer seeing them as not mountains but now seeing them "once again" as mountains.  But if the point is a Zen point then, again, isn't the difference between art and world dissolving at least for the 10th Street abstractionist and for the Zen adept?  Is the Zen adept seeing the mountain now as art (or at least as transfigured into another realm) because he is seeing it as a mountain with the is of artistic identification?  Perhaps the mountain is now seen as itself metaphorical, as its ideal self, as itself in its inner essence, which is both itself and not itself, and so the itself that it now is seen as is a metaphor for itself?   If "the Brillo box of the artworld" is "just the Brillo box of the real one, separated and united by the is of artistic identification" then is the mountain that is now seen as a mountain a sign that the original Brillo box can actually have the "is of artistic identification" applied to it without even having to journey into a gallery or pass through the hands of an artist?

Right after Danto makes the Midas comment he says "And the whole world consisting of latent artworks waiting like the bread and wine of reality, to be transfigured, through some dark mystery, into the indiscernible flesh and blood of the sacrament?  Never mind that the Brillo box may not be good, much less great art.  The impressive thing is that it is art at all."  What a contrast:  first it looks like the latent artworks are going to be "transfigured" (a term Danto returns to again and again) which means that they are going to be spiritualized in some way, and then we find that this does not even require that they be good, much less great, which seems a pretty major tension in his thought since to spiritualize something is surely to make it great in some way. (And why bring in the religious imagery if it is just a throwaway?)  Heidegger, by contrast would say that Van Gogh has transfigured the shoes into great art through spiritualizing them, i.e. through the unconcealment of being.  (It is kind of fun to mix Danto and Heidegger in this way.)  

Danto tells us that we cannot "separate Brillo cartons from the gallery they are in, any more than we can separate the Rauschenberg bed from the paint upon it" and that "outside the gallery, they are pasteboard cartons" and "scoured clean of paint, Rauschenberg's bed is a bed, just what it was before it was transformed into art."  But surely this is false.  If you take the Brillo box by Warhol out of the gallery (say, after purchasing it!) it is still a work by Warhol.  Perhaps, it brings the presentation of itself in a gallery with it, and this is the way to save Danto's point.  Similarly,   if you scour the Rauschenberg of its paint it does not become what it was before but becomes a largely ruined work by Rauschenberg! Ironically, Rauschenberg himself created a work called "Erased De Kooning" in which we carefully erased a drawing by De Kooning.  This piece now appears to be two things at once:  a ruined De Kooning and an original Rauschenberg (although it is only listed as the second in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.)  

Some of my students have wondered how art theories that are not valid, for example, Imitation Theory and Reality Theory, can have value.  This is an interesting question.  Danto thinks that artistic theories always made the artworld possible.  Clearly he thinks that being able to see something as art under IT was required for art to exist during the reign of IT.  Maybe it still does the trick today for those who hold to IT.  But IT is false, as Danto has shown, as not all mirror images or photographs are art and not all art is imitation.  Can IT make mirror images and all photographs art if it allows us to see these things as art and see them according to the "is of artistic identification"?   Do IT and RT really transfigure things into the realm of art or do they lack the is of artistic identification that would allow this to happen?  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Puzzles about Danto's "The Artworld"

I have been thinking about "The Artworld" Danto's famous essay, which comes at the beginning of his career.  One has to think about it if one is teaching it (as a classic text) and yet it necessarily falls out of thought in the context of academic discussions as it is overlaid by so many other works by Danto on the same topic.  But, for now, let's act as if there were only this one text, cast up perhaps by the sea after a disaster of civilization...something like how we experience the great presocratic texts.  What can we make then of Danto's theory as presented here?  Let's assume also that we know something about what led up to the theory.  And so we have Danto responding to at least two things.  First, he is responding, most obviously, to Weitz's Wittgensteinian attack on the idea that there can be a real definition of art.  Danto, although cagey about it, seems here to be giving us a definition of art, although quite different from what Dickie later saw in it.  Second, and perhaps more obscurely, he is responding to another Wittgensteinian, i.e. William Kennick (whom he quotes without naming.)  His attack on Kennick is on the notion, which he (incorrectly and anachronistically) associates with Socratic dialogue, that one can solve philosophical questions simply by getting getting clear about what we already know, i.e. about the meanings of certain words.  This would seem to allow us to go into a warehouse and sort art from non-art....but in fact it fails to do this. (Danto does not consider that his own theory would also fail to pass the warehouse test, as we would not be able to distinguish between actually warehouse brillo boxes and Warhol's Brillo Boxes especially if Warhol didn't bother to use plywood rather than cardboard...which Danto himself considers unimportant...if the Warhol's were truly indistinguishable from the others then even someone armed with Danto's theory would be unable to tell which was which.)   Danto himself can be seen as Wittgensteinian in some respects, and so this essay can be seen as in some sense internal to the world of Wittgensteinians.  The response to Weitz is in part in accord with Weitz's theory.  Weitz thought that the purpose of art theory was really to come up with honorific definitions which are really redefinitions of art in terms of some preferred quality.  Weitz put this somewhat into a historical context:  each theory is presented in response to previous theories, each theory is attacked and shown insufficient as a real definition of art, and yet, since art is an open concept, the theories actually involve promoting an extension of the concept of art, perhaps by eliminating a necessary condition, or adding a sufficient condition, or setting up "similarity conditions."  Art critics play a special role in Weitz of deciding whether or not to extend the concept of art to cover new cases, for example collage and mobiles.  Danto similarly sees the relationship between the various theories of art as historical.  His version is more spare, however.  First, there is Imitation Theory, which dominates the artworld from the time of Plato, and then, after the assault of Postimpressionist art, there is Reality Theory.  This in turn is followed by Danto's own theory, call it DT or Danto Theory, which is unclear but involves the "is" of artistic identification, art historical knowledge, being able to see something as art, and seeing something under or according to a title.  Imitation theory turns out to be false since it cannot cover the plethora of counterexamples offered by the Postimpressionist and Abstract painters, imitation proving to be neither necessary nor sufficient for art.  Reality Theory is also proved false, given that the new art examples do not really give us something real in the same sense that the carpenter's bed described by Plato is real.  But what is Danto Theory?  As I have suggested, it is not clearly set forth, but seems to be of the following sort:  something is art if it can be seen as art by way of the art appreciator's knowledge of art history insofar as that history leads up to this work and insofar as the appreciator can see it according to the "is" of artistic identification.  The "is" of artistic identification is really an imaginative "is" since it includes not only works of art but also cases in which a child says that "I am the circle and she is the triangle." It indicates imaginative identification in which the first item is a physical object, for instance, this stick "is" a gun for the child.  Now the puzzling thing about Danto's theory of art is that there are two things called theories.  On one level, one can see that the painting called "Newton's First Law" is a work of art since it can be seen as Newton's First Law (as Danto shows in detail) and that the indiscernible "Newton's Second Law" is a work of art since in this case the identical physical object is seen as Newton's Second Law.  So on this level, it is the titles, "Newton's First Law" and "Newton's Second Law," that allow that viewer to "see" the two otherwise indiscernible works with the appropriate imaginative dimension thus transfiguring them into the realm of art.  But this is not enough yet to see either as a work of art.  The title itself is not theory (although Danto sometimes speaks as though it is.)  It is that certain things that happened in the history of art, in particular in the development of abstract painting towards the minimalism of Barnett Newman (mentioned by Danto in this essay) that provides the historical context for seeing both of these imaginary pieces as art.  So "Newton's First Law" is seen as or in terms of Newton's first law, and is also seen as art because of the art viewer's knowledge of art's history up to Newman, just as Newman's Vir Heroica Sublimas 1951 is seen in terms of heroism and the sublime because of the juxtaposition of the title and the work, the title being really a part of the overall work just as the work's presence in a gallery or museum is also part of it...but then is also seen as art only by those who have enough knowledge of the history of art not to see it as just a piece of canvas with painted lines on it.  Testatudura, according to Danto, can't see "Sea and Sky" ("a white painted oblong with a black line painted across it") as art until "he has mastered the is of artistic identification and so constitutes it a work of art."  Is it that he can't do it until he sees it as sea and sky (following the title) or is it that he can't do it until he sees it according to an artistic theory (for example, RT, or perhaps DT?).  Or is it that he can't see it as art until he does both things in combination?  Danto seems to think Testadura's accomplishment would be like that of a child who comes to see sticks as horses, but it must be more than that.  It might be that when we ask a person to see a canvas of this description as sea and sky we are doing something like asking a person to see a stick as a horse, but neither of these are yet asking a person to see this as art.  This may be related to the mistake of calling the "is" in question the "is of artistic identification."  The "is of artistic identification" must be different from the "is of imaginative identification," and it is surprising Danto did not see this.

There are at least two additional puzzles in the "The Artworld."  The first is that Danto believes that theory constitutes art as art, but does not distinguish between true and false theories or, to the same effect, between his own theories and the theories he rejects, for example IT and RT.  It might be that Danto intended to say that IT and RT both help to constitute art as art, although perhaps they were more successful at this during their heyday, and that DT has the advantage of not only including the same works as IT and RT into the realm of art but also including Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art works neither of which types of art fit either IT or RT.  It could be that Danto just thought that DT replaced IT and RT, doing all the work.  Or it could be that he thought IT and RT did the work of entering works into the world of art during their heyday and that DT can do the job from now on.  The second puzzle is, how does one deal with a switcheroo.  For example, let's say that all of Warhol's Brillo Boxes were moved out of the gallery and into the Brillo Box warehouse where they are used to store Brillo Boxes, and the Boxes in the warehouse are moved into the gallery, specifically by Warhol.  Is it now the case that we simply have one group of artworks wrongly housed in a Brillo Box warehouse and another new group of artworks designated as art in the gallery?  Danto implies that once something is art, it always is.  So it seems the the Warhol Brillo Boxes can't stop being art even if they come to be used and seen as things that are not art.  But that seems odd.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The primacy of honorific definitions of art.

In 1956, Morris Weitz wrote a famous article still much discussed in aesthetics classes called “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics”  Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 15: 27–35.)  I say it is much discussed today, although interestingly, the main point of the article is hardly ever mentioned.  Most readers of the essay just focus on its first part.  Weitz is then seen as advocating skepticism with regard to defining art or as holding the view that art can never be defined.  A typical comment about Weitz is that of Thomas Adajian in his article on "The Definition of Art" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in which he describes Weitz's view in this way: "any concept is open if a case can be imagined which would call for some sort of decision on our part to extend the use of the concept to cover it, or to close the concept and invent a new one to deal with the new case; all open concepts are indefinable; and there are cases calling for a decision about whether to extend or close the concept of art. Hence art is indefinable..." 

This is part of the truth about Weitz's article, but in being partly true, it is also a distortion.  Weitz in fact held that art is definable and that the definitions that have been offered in the past are immensely valuable.  His point was that art could not be given a "real" definition.  This means that, unlike "triangle" or "water," art could not be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient properties.  "Art" is a different kind of concept.  "Art" as Adajian correctly observes, is, for Weitz, an "open concept."  However, this does not mean that it cannot be defined.  It has been defined every time a definition has been put forward.  There is just no final definition.  Weitz's point is that all of the great definitions of art in the past are what he calls "honorific definitions."  He sees previous theories as theories of the evaluative use of "Art" and not "true and real definitions of the necessary and sufficient properties of art."  They are " which 'Art' has been redefined in terms of chosen criteria."  He also thinks that these definitions are "supremely valuable" because of the "debates over the reasons for changing the criteria of the concept of art which are built into the definitions."  In part, Weitz sees the history of debates over the nature of art as something like one long Socratic dialogue in which each character successively provides us with a definition of the concept under consideration, in this case 'art,' which is in turn debated.  But there is something else going on:  this debate is also sequenced in a historical way.  At each time in history there is a dominant theory of "Art," and the debate is over changing the criteria to be found in that dominant theory, thus replacing it, presumably, with a new dominant theory.  Philosophers coming after, and responding to, Weitz have typically thought that the moral of his story was that one cannot define art.  The moral, rather, is that we need to see previous definitions of art in a larger historical context, one in which the activities of artists, frankly, are either as important or more important than the activities of philosophers.  Hegel has a nice way of looking at this:  it is his concept of the "spirit of the culture" as something that is manifested not only in one area of the culture but in others as well, a zeitgeist.  So the spirit of the culture might be manifest both in philosophy, art, religion and so forth.  So the moral of Weitz's story is that each new definition of art stresses new things to focus on.  This, by the way, is true for theories of art after Weitz as much as it is for those that came before Weitz, even for those theories that claim to have no evaluative component at all.  This is a subtle point but it is noteworthy that the theories of George Dickie and Arthur Danto focused on examples of art that were "hot" during their own time.  Danto especially stresses the impact of seeing Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes in an art gallery.  Although Danto believed that his theory of art was universal (he was something of a Platonist in this regard) he also continuously throughout his career went back to that moment he walked into a gallery and saw Warhol's work.  Clearly the dynamic of the interaction of Warhol and Danto can be described in Weitzian terms as creation of a new honorific definition of art (Danto's and Warhol's) in which certain new elements are stressed and certain older elements essential to older definitions of art are disregarded, downplayed, ignored, refuted, despised, etc.  

Now, although I think Weitz is right about all of this, the view needs amendment.  The reason is that what is considered to be the dominant theory at any one time in history is also open to debate.  Nonetheless, there is usually consensus that there are some top contenders at any one time in history, for example expressionism vs. formalism in 1914, and that certain writings, as well as other cultural phenomena, including most importantly, events in the artworld itself, tended to put certain theories "in the front."  Note that Weitz's view is by not means that art is an open concept in the sense that "anything goes."     

Weitz writes that "the value of each of the theories resides in its attempt to state and to justify certain criteria which are either neglected or distorted by previous theories." so that, for example, the Bell/Fry formalist theory states that "Art is significant form" which is to say that art should be redefined "in terms of the chosen condition of significant form."  Weitz interprets this to mean:  "In an age in which literary and representational elements have been paramount in painting, return to the plastic ones since they are indigenous to painting."  (177)  The claim that art is significant form is really a request or demand that we behave in a different way, that for example, we admire Giotto and Cezanne's use of lines and colors to give us a special aesthetic experience over Frith and other academic painters who were fascinated instead with the stories that could be told when looking at their paintings.  This is essentially right...but it is not to say that one can just replace the theory with a request or demand for certain behavior or a certain kind of valuing since the term "indigenous" indicates that something is being said about the essence of art:  it is just not the kind of thing that can be said by giving a real definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  The way that Weitz puts it is that the "definitional form" is used to "turn our attention" to "the plastic elements in painting."  I think this does not tell the whole story of what happens in the definitional debate, but it does capture an aspect often neglected, and it is consistent with my main point, which is that Weitz was right that so-called real definitions are really honorific definitions in "honorific definition" is to be defined is still open to debate.

I mentioned that some modifications are needed.  I think that the point being made by various definers of art cannot always be made in terms of "emphasizing or centering upon some particular feature of art that has been neglected or perverted."  Sometimes it is more a matter of bringing out completely new features, and sometimes the debate has more to do with debates over the nature of humanity, freedom, justice, spirituality, wisdom or some other big philosophical question, than with neglected features.  Weitz did not spread his net widely enough, and it is here that a Hegelian approach might be more appropriate. 

Is fosucing on the pain in the dentist's chair having an aesthetic experience?

Recently, Mary B. Wiseman, in "Damask Napkins and the Train from Sichuan:  Aesthetic Experience and Ordinary Things" Chapter 10 of Aesthetics of Everyday Life:  East and West ed. Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) has argued for using Descartes' idea of "clear and distinct" in relation to aesthetics.  As she puts it:  "[careful] scrutiny makes the experienced object [object of aesthetic value] clear, and de-contextualizing, that is, taking the object of of its frame, makes it distinct."  (136)  Descartes had defined "clear" as "perception which is present and manifest to an attentive mind" and "distinct" as both clear and "separated and delineated from all others" so much so that it contains "absolutely nothing except what is clear."  Wiseman holds the currently unpopular view that aesthetic objects must be considered out of their contexts.   So, contrary to those who would hold that the value of an aesthetic object comes from being part of the life of something larger, Wiseman holds that it "derives from the experience of paying it careful attention."  (138)  I don't quite see how the two positions are in opposition, since paying careful attention to something surely would include paying attention to its relational qualities along with everything else.  However, I also think that, and have argued for the position that, one can usefully toggle between focusing on directly perceivable properties and focusing on relational properties. 

The thing that puzzles me here is the application of Descartes:  as I argued recently in this blog, his way of examining a piece of wax is to eliminate all sensuous perception of the object.  Clear and distinct perception of a piece of wax seems inconsistent with aesthetic perception of such.  But clearly Wiseman is not thinking about Descartes' explication of this notion in terms of the wax example.

Wiseman takes the position that aesthetics is general:  the same sort of thing happens in each of the sub-disciplines of aesthetics:  close attention: "Aesthetic experience consists in paying attention to the experience of tasting, looking, listening, imagining;  these transitive verbs all name experiences whose objects [could be] tea, the pattern in a napkin, a painting, a sonata, an attack, an earthquake, being displaced, being a jade miner.  In the more complex cases you are paying aesthetic attention to imagining what it would be like to do or suffer or be thus and so."  (143-44)  This implies for her that there is no difference between aesthetic experience of art and aesthetic experience of "the world of the everyday."  She explicates this when she says that when we talk of the aesthetics of something we mean "a manner of attending to an object presented to the senses rather than to certain features" the manner being "careful and focused."  The careful scrutiny is directed to "all and only what the senses present and the mind focuses on" (135), although she does allow for imaginative presentation as well.  

There is one problem with this approach.  Perhaps the understanding of aesthetic experience offered to too least too broad to fit what we normally mean by "aesthetic."  Weiseman says that he characterization is "so broad as to allow any clear and penetrating attention paid to what one senses as counting as aesthetic.  An individual sitting in a dentist's chair focusing only on the pain the drill is causing is having an aesthetic experience." (141)  Her idea is that an aesthetic experience is not required to "please."  Wiseman may be right that being "pleased" is not required.  Are we really just pleased by a sublime experience for example?  But isn't it going too far to say that dental pain is aesthetic if attended to closely?  I have had a lot of pain in the dentist's office and, to be frank, my general approach has been to avoid this as much as possible.  Attending closely to the experience of pain is not usually a good way to get away from that experience.  Better ways include asking for another shot of Novocain, or in the good old days of the 1970s, getting a hit of laughing gas.  Trying to think of something unrelated to the pain and discomfort is usually helpful.  Careful scrutiny of my dental pain has never produced positive results.  Wiseman says that "the person in the dentist's chair can focus so intensely on the pain that they are absorbed into it and no longer feel it."  (141)   Perhaps one can, although this has never been part of my experience, and I suspect that whatever experience Wiseman had is not described correctly.  If it is pain, you feel it:  if you no longer feel it, it is no longer pain.  Pain is necessarily felt.  Moreover, my own experience of pain is that close attention to pain makes the pain more intense.  However, in Wiseman's favor, one could say that decontextualizing pain, stripping it of meaning content, can lessen the painfulness of pain.  This is an old Stoic strategy.  If you can achieve the right attitude then attendant feelings of shame or fear which help to accentuate pain can be reduced, thus reducing the level of pain.  


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Liu Yuedi, Chinese Philosophy and Everyday Aesthetics

A new book, Aesthetics of Everyday Life:  East and West edited by Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014) points out some interesting cross-cultural connections between Chinese and Western (particularly Anglo-American) work in everyday aesthetics.  The preferred term amongst the three Chinese aestheticians I will mention here is "living aesthetics."  The three thinkers are Liu Yuedi, Pan Fan, and Wang Que. (I will only discuss Yuedi today.) The motives for an interest in everyday aesthetics can, of course, be different in different cultures.  As Yuedi observes, the interest in everyday aesthetics in China is based in part on a reaction against certain aspects of Western aesthetics.  (I suspect it also has to do with specific historical circumstances in post-Maoist China where direct political democracy is discouraged but capitalist production and consumption are encouraged.)  Another way to look at this however is in terms of a movement towards internationalism and intercultural dialogue.   As part of this dialogue Yuedi connects the rise of everyday aesthetics in the west with Arthur Danto's "end of art" thesis.  I have ambiguous feelings about this move.  Although it seems that, for Danto, after the end of art the distinction between art and everyday life dissolves, it is not clear how far that goes.  The construction of a definition of art that depends on the artworld does not eliminate a strong distinction between the artworld and the rest of life.  Indeed, Danto often uses words like "transfiguration" to mark a transformation by which an ordinary everyday life object can be taken up into the world of art.  Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes are precisely not the same as the visually identical objects that might appear in a warehouse.  If the distinction between the everyday world and the world of art really dissolved then Danto's point about indiscernible counterparts would no longer hold.  At best, what we can say is that current developments in art tend to dissolve (contrary to Danto's belief) these very boundaries.  Although it is true that, in the world of contemporary art, as Yuedi observes, conceptual art dissolves the distinction between art and concept, performance art between body and art, and land art between environment and art, all of these movements could be seen from Danto's perspective as transfiguring various types of things into the realm of art.  Still, this transfiguration might tend at least to soften the boundaries between the two realms.  But, still, no one is seriously, contrary to Yuedi's suggestion, going to advocate the identification of art and life...or if there is any identification it is only a metaphor that itself is situated clearly in the realm of art.  So when Yuedi says "Perhaps living aesthetic only arises where art is thoroughly dissolved within life, or where life is thoroughly aestheticized." (19) I register some skepticism.  However, my skepticism is not extended to the broader concern of "intercultural interaction" which I think can be fruitful.  Yuedi puts the issue in a better way when he speaks of the age of globalization as promoting two movements:  "life as art" in which elements of everyday life are drawn into art, and "art as life" in which everyday life is aestheticized.  Here, instead of speaking of identification we are speaking of world-and life-changing metaphors.  The lessening of the importance of the distinction between fine and popular arts has also contributed to this overall trend.  

Yuedi sees the Chinese contribution to all of this rightly I think in terms of three movements in the Chinese tradition:  Confucianism, Taoism and Zenism (where the Japanese term is taken to stand for the Buddhist tradition arising from India, China and Japan.)  Confucianism might well be seen as presenting a kind of unity of li (rituals) and yue (music) in a harmonic aesthetics of living, in which the ideals of daily life are seen both aesthetically and ethically.  Yuedi also mentions the later concept of qing, which "refers to the affections that arise from the nature of man encountering things external to it."  (25)  Taoism, as Yuedi, observes, is also foundational to Chinese aesthetics in a way that stresses everyday life, both Confucianism and Taoism being "philosophies of life."  The importance of Zenism in the aesthetics of everyday life is almost too obvious to mention.  See for example my previous post on Thich Nhat Hanh and the concept of mindfulness.  

I should also mention that this anthology also contains a chapter by me:  "Everyday Aesthetics and Happiness."  26-47.    

Thursday, November 6, 2014

On the Hipster Aesthetic in Four Acts by Mitch Hernandez

The following is guest post by one of our grad students at San Jose State.  Mitch took by seminar in Aesthetics in which we discussed everyday aesthetics.  I consider this an excellent contribution to the emerging discipline of everyday aesthetics.  

Tom Leddy

On the Hipster Aesthetic in Four Acts

I. Introducing Hipster

            After going over the syllabus and explaining in general what the course would be about a hand shot into the air when I asked if any clarification was needed. “Yes?”, I said. “Are you a hipster?,” a student in the front of the class asked. Having fielded this question a few dozen times in the past I have come to regard it as a sort of comedic interjection. These days I simply answer in the affirmative, “Yes, I am...” I certainly dress the part. I fit an aesthetic archetype that may be appropriately, in a superficial sense, labeled as hipster. My pants hug sufficiently to my body such that I often have difficulty retrieving my keys if I mistakenly place them in the same pocket containing my phone. I prefer to wear v-necks and black plastic framed glasses sit upon my face – both ubiquitous staples of the hipster aesthetic. I  always keep some sort of facial hair. I prefer to drink in dive bars where the clientele dress in a similar fashion to me. I ride a road bike, if not a fixed gear variety. My OKCupid matches are disproportionately a collection of pale women with bangs, tattoos and an affinity for thrift shopping I fit in with those walking the Mission District of San Francisco, drinking at the bars in East Austin, or cycling the streets of the  Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn. If I committed a crime, say punched a hipster for calling me one, a recently gentrified area is the place where I could best blend in to find safe harbor.
            Yet, though I have today relegated my response to the question of hipster identity to one of affirmation, I certainly do not think of myself as one. The irony is that this properly fits within the archetype of the hipster. The hipster never identifies with the label. To claim the label is to acknowledge a sort of inauthenticity. At bottom, there is a fear within the hipster community to take ownership of their identity as such. It is largely a pejorative term. Yet, for better or worse, it has come to be the dominant label for a subculture that, while elusive in precise definition, can be described as millennials who populate urban centers and, to borrow Thomas Frank's terminology, are rebel consumers who adopt elements of counterculture movements devoid of their political substance (Grief, 3, Oct. 2010). The hipster is quick to bring in elements of punk, hip-hop, and the icons of political subversives while leaving their cultural and emancipatory significance behind. Perhaps this is why the term hipster is evaded by those within the subgroup. To take ownership of the identity, an identity that is used to “out” one in the subgroup as not belonging, is to acknowledge their values as comprised of a vacuous set of commodified signifiers that are supposed to represent cool rather than be it. For hipsters, representation is enough. In the era of hipster, cool is not created but purchased before the rest of society has become attuned to it. Cool comes in ready made packages that make ownership of it a difficulty precisely because the only value attached to it is that of capital hiding behind a faux ethic of interchangeable flavors of the day such as individuality, DIY, green transportation, indie music and working class symbols. Because these flavors are mere means to cool, and not values that are taken as important in and of themselves, they are able to be tossed aside at a moments notice as soon as they become too mainstream. Moreover, their vacuous nature allows them to be coopted by forces of capital in a fashion that serves cool to an eager youthful demographic always looking for validation from their peers in the form of conformity disguised as rebellion and difference.
            In the critique of the hipster we have the framework for a larger examination of how societal values are appropriated by the forces of commodity, stripped of any subversiveness and packaged neatly for sale. Thus, while an examination of the hipster will be appropriate to bring forth the complications of vacuous aesthetics, I do not intend the findings of it to be exclusive to the subgroup of the hipster. Any subgroup can be afflicted by having within its ranks those who are drawn to it by its identification with cool rather than its organic origins that set it in opposition to dominant ideological forms. Still, I claim that in the hipster subculture the form of an empty aesthetic reaches its apex. While punks in the authentic form proudly protest state authority, existing social hierarchy and live a working class lifestyle, the hipster is aloof when it comes to firm commitment of such ideals. In the hipster we have the greatest victory of the forces of capital insofar as the subgroup is one that does not organically create political ideals but seeks them in the marketplace of cool. Such makes the work of capital easier in that it must simply identify cool and not aggressively strip it of political significance. The hipster is, after all, afraid of significance. While other subgroups may aggressively resist appropriation of their ideals for the purpose of profit, the hipster largely has no firm commitment to such ideals in the first place. If all one must do is observe what signifiers are “in” without fear that the cultural and political importance of them will be taken seriously by the consumer half the work has already been done. This is what Theodor Adorno disparagingly referred to as the great success of the culture industry – those institutions of marketing that executes the revolutionary potential of counterculture by reproducing it endlessly and making it available to all. Hipsters are allies to the culture industry insofar as they are, once stripped of their aesthetic pretensions, raw consumers, and thus aid the devaluation of politically significant content of other subcultures by acting as the purchasers of its reproduction resulting in the slow death of its meaning by mass dilution.
            Yet, I do not seek an unyielding critique on the subculture that is hipster. I seek its aletheia, whatever this may be. Indeed, I claim that within this culture lie the very tools needed to dismantle cultural appropriation on the part of a mass marketing industry. Irony and cynicism exist within the subgroup but in a perverse way that allows the group to continue to consume, not unwittingly but with full view to the contradictions such consumption creates. At bottom the hipster knows the cheap beer he drinks and v-neck shirts he dons are synonymous with the working class. The working class are drawn to these cheap forms of intoxication and attire because of their economic standing while the hipster merely appropriates them as an empty pathway to cool. Thus, part of the project will be to examine how the attitudinal features – irony and cynicism – of the hipster can be recalibrated to encourage not passivity and indifference in the contradictions elicited by consumption, but to examine the mechanisms by which products deemed cool are delivered to them. However, in order for this to occur seriousness must assert itself. Seriousness is what has eluded the hipster in all but a faux form that clings to a vacuous notion of cool and the pursuit of it. I claim that in bringing a robust sense of seriousness with recalibrated senses of irony and cynicism we can potentially transform what is now a shallow rebel consumer that acts as ally to the culture industry into a politically conscious agent.

II. Birth of a Hipster
            My introduction to the culture of hipster is one that perhaps defines it aptly. Nineteen at the time, and without many friends of my own, I ran into an old classmate from my high school one night in a parking lot frequented by youth. I had not seen him in sometime. I didn't know him too well either, though these things did not matter. His pupils were heavily dilated, the result of a binge of ecstasy chased with alcohol. He recognized me. Fueled by a dose of false fraternity he welcomed me to join him with his friends who were drinking in a distal corner of the lot. Fueled by a recent breakup puerile in nature and a mild urge to end my hermitude I obliged. I soon joined a small band of late teens to early twenty somethings who were passing around a bottle of alcohol that would at best be served as a well. Today, such booze makes me gag. Then, I was grateful just to be drinking it in the presence of these people. Their disheveled aesthetic showed an indifference for what society demanded of them. Their interests were artistic – photography and music were common topics of conversation as were troublesome personal lives. I had, it seemed, something in common with hipsters. These people spoke vaguely of art and culture, had a community, what seemed like storied histories and, on top of it all, had “cool.” In short, they seemed appropriately divorced from a mundane middle class lifestyle.
            Having come from a fractured, poor, working class family[1] I momentarily found identification here. I sincerely took these people for outsiders. Due to my background, I had grown up disaffected with a social structure that did not serve me. It was this very background that led me to my earliest questioning of society, turning to the work of Chomsky, Marx, and authors of dirty realism in high school. In short, my interests were of vital importance to me and not fashionable accessories. Yet, in these pursuits I found few companions. Little wonder why I was so attracted to those who were ostensibly separate from the herd but in actuality were, in hindsight, mere pretenders. I should have recognized them as fraudsters who had been on vacation for too long. I should have recognized it all as a  charade that they all assented to as soon as one girl who mentioned something about getting a political degree was befuddled by the term “proletariat.” The deep sense of stylized glamour that was on display was not grounded by any sort of substance in these people. Yet, even when I realized this I still hung around – why?
            The response to this question gets at the root of the hipster per se. I fell into contradiction. I realized the vacuous nature of the group and yet remained. I remained for cool – whatever that happened to be. I was allured by the feeling that recognition coupled with shallow validation within an “in” group could have. The paradox is that one who takes delight in the pleasure of recognition cannot explicitly proclaim as such. Critical to the pursuit of recognition for the hipster is that it is both a sort of subconscious desire as well as being a desire for recognition qua recognition. Hipsters seek not recognition for something but recognition in itself. The hipster defines himself based upon what is recognized. He is always willing to change for the pursuit of cool.
            However, a proper distance must always be kept from the fact that recognition and validation is what is sought lest one risk making the desire too explicit. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan labeled such an explicit pursuit of pleasure that is not readily acceptable by society jouissance, and it is this very mechanism that inverses pleasure into a sort of psychotic pain. Thus, the subject will always seek to mask unacceptable pleasures she seeks by way of obfuscation. Slavoj Zizek describes the process of the unconscious desire for hollow recognition on the part of the hipster as being rationalized and sublimated by taking the stance of a “not me” (1, State of Hipster). The stance of “not me” allows a more acceptable reason to spring forth as a cover for more intimate desires. The hipster always has at access the guise of art by which to veil the shallow drive for recognition. In the hipster's pursuit of art he always claims authenticity while using the term hipster to out others within the group as being pretenders chasing mere recognition. The hipster projects upon the mainstream the idea that his cheap means of expression are under assault.
             My personal veil involved holding on to some distant idea that within this group there might be a person I could identify with a bit more closely, with whom I did not have to feign interest in an intricate ruse. It is this ruse that punctuates the social sphere of hipsters. Hipsters do not become friends in any sort of meaningful way. In Aristotelian terminology, the hipster social sphere is largely one comprised of friendships of utility and pleasure where a friend's value is not intrinsic. What is called friendship in the hipster social scene is largely a slightly more intimate form of networking in which parties exchange and display cultural and social capital.
            Of course, this is not to say that such forms of friendship and exchange are the only form that emerges. Nor do I mean to say that those within the hipster subgroup necessarily engage in culture only as a signifier of importance. As Grief points out, there are artists within the community that pursue their craft in itself and for aspects of subversion, expression and transgression it represents. This attitude can be counterposed with hipsters who seek art merely as a marker of being culturally attuned  in an effort to expand social capital by increasing relations with those of status in the group. Still, he largely defines the artistic tendencies of the group in a negative light that vacates it of meaning.
One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters. (Grief, 4, Oct. 2010)

            Following Grief, we may thus characterize the art that arises out of the movement, if we risk calling it one, as being an empty form without content. In short, it is a richly commercialized aesthetic. The critical question will be to ask why the aesthetic scene of hipster sociality is, predominantly, a vacuous one that is able to be readily commodified in a reciprocal fashion – cool is sold to hipsters and hipsters themselves signify what needs further commodfying. Further, we must ask what values are hidden beneath the ostensibly empty form that punctuates hipster sensibility. While most work on hipsterism has suggested that it is a culturally shallow subgroup without values, I claim that such vacuity can act as a vehicle for the reproduction of other values that are antithetical to the movements from which hipsters appropriate. Thus, vacuity shall not necessarily mean ideological neutrality but ideological availability.
III. Further Theorizing on Hipster
            Yuriko Saito suggests that an aesthetic scene can be perceived in an ethical sense that gives us a view of what may be problematic about it. We may, following this, have two different senses of aesthetic judgment. One approves of an aesthetic scene while the other perceives the aesthetic scene in a way that may evoke a negative emotive response. In Saito's words, “we attend to and understand the way in which human tragedy or social injustice is dramatically expressed in the sensory qualities of the environment” (142-3). Indeed, aesthetic judgment is not simply about appreciation but also negative reactions of affect such as disgust. Saito uses an example of a ghetto to give rise to the idea that an aesthetic scene can convey what is wrong with it just as much as it can convey what is appreciable in it (140). The problem will be in deciphering cues that we must pick up on when the aesthetic scene is ostensibly an appreciable one. While we may readily grasp a ghetto as that place that reifies social ills into an identifiable scene there is theoretical work to be done to incorporate this ugliness into a gestalt that appreciates the interconnectedness of the parts. Without doing so we might unwittingly take delight in an affluent area of town that is home to beautiful parks and boutiques while at the same time failing to see that this delight is intricately connected with the ugliness we perceive in the ghetto. After all, hipsters are the pioneers of gentrification, being the first to inhabit up and coming neighborhoods while marginalizing their former working class inhabitants into further obscurity.
            Thus, our understanding of the hipster aesthetic will most assuredly require what Saito describes as the ethical aesthetic. Yet, it will also necessitate the proper theoretical framework to understand precisely what to pick out in a scene that may, on a surface level, be perceptually appealing.  After all, without theoretical interrogation, what could be so objectionable about a hip district dotted with chic restaurants, fashion boutiques, and dimly lit drinking establishments? Or, for that matter, an attractive girl signifying all the markers of hipster desirability –  bangs, black framed glasses, intelligent dress, and a tote carrying an acid free journal coupled with French literature? We thus must seek a deeper sense of aletheia in order to show the reality that pervades beneath the cloak of cool donned by hipster sociality.
            The common view that the prototypical hipster's place of economic standing begins in the upper-middle class, thus enabling her to pursue a life free of labor, is one filled with naivety. The hipster aesthetic expresses itself in a full range of economic class. Pierre Bourdeiu  tells us that taste is habituated in us via the social class we inhabit which itself is populated by members of multiple economic classes. One does not necessarily freely choose their social class. Rather, they are largely, but not deterministically, guided into it via the childhood signifers they are presented with from an early age. Thus, taste, as an aesthetic tool, is a conditioned vehicle that reflects the preferences of a particular social class. The social class may further be broken down into, and analyzed by, its constituent economic classes who have varying access to forms of capital – economic, social, and cultural. These economic backgrounds limit or broaden the access one has to capital. Those who come from wealth may convert[2] their economic capital into the two other forms of it. We respect to hipster sociality,  these types can be characterized as those who come from affluent means, perhaps funded by a trust, and can purchase cultural outlets such as cafes, bars, and musical venues. One step below the economic ladder are those able to access cultural capital due to their education in well respected, private, liberal arts colleges. These hipsters authoritatively define and demarcate cool with theoretical backgrounds from known institutions confirming their legitimacy. Beneath these two are those within the social class at the bottom of their own economic class who are only able to assert themselves within the social group by reference to authenticity. This final group works the in the cultural outlets owned and defined by the groups at the top. The two groups at the top will in-fight for recognition of superiority in the group as a whole while both will disparage those populating the bottom of the social (and economic) class as being beneath them (Grief, 2, Nov. 2010).
            However, what is contiguous within all three groups of the social class is what must be critiqued. What is contiguous, I claim, hides the grand delusion and conceals the harm done by ascribing to the hipster in-group. The danger of the hipster aesthetic lies not only in appropriating the authentic form of cool that arose organically from punks, hip hop artists and Eastern spirituality, but also in the vacating of its revolutionary and ethical principle. Hipsters, in fetishizing the working class by adopting its symbols of poverty – cheap beer, cigarettes, and dress – have made the abolition of that class all the more difficult by making the aesthetic perception of it an attractive one. But, as Georg Lukacs writes, “the proletariat cannot liberate itself as a class without simultaneously abolishing class society as such,” and this includes destroying its own class as well in reaching maximum liberation (21). Saito's notion that aesthetic perception can allow us to appropriately judge an aesthetic scene as a deplorable one is thus problematized by a hipster aesthetic that renarrativizes elements of these deplorable scenes as cool. At the other end of the spectrum we may examine the Western appropriation of yoga and eastern spirituality in which hipsters participate. Here, these forms of expression are robbed of their ethical components in order to function as servants of capital that allow those who participate in them to reinvigorate themselves precisely in order to return to the field of capital accumulation, of which the chief form is always economic. These forms of expression, once pillaged of their ethical principle, become the latest incarnation of what Adorno described as a “medicinal bath” prescribed by the pleasure industry to keep its workers and consumers conforming, politically docile agents (15).
            At bottom what the hipster seeks is a form of recognition vacated of substance. They are afraid to commit to ideals precisely because it would render them unable to identify what is new in the realm of cool. This sets them up, as told earlier, to be a rebel consumer – a curious paradox that folds into conformity as dictated by a culture industry that observes what is in and sells it back to hipsters. Adorno writes, “In the culture industry imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals the latter's secret: obedience to the social hierarchy” (9). Thus, while hipsters may always be on the cusp of cool, they are nonetheless reproducing and imitating the ethic of consumerism that demands cool must necessarily change in order to provoke the purchase of new products. The culture industry will always be ready and waiting as their willing participants, hipsters, purchase the commodified signifiers of what they have identified as cool. Last week it was analogue cameras, but today iPhone photography posted on Instagram has provided the next transition to a consumerist form of cool. With hipsters as their unpaid mascots of cool, the culture industry can advance its products to a broader audience. As these products become widely accepted hipsters will abandon it for something more obscure, ever afraid that they might risk being subsumed by the mainstream. What is needed is a return to organic creativity and a lack of fear to commit to the ideals and values that such creativity is spawned from. In a word, what hipsters need is a bit of seriousness.

IV. Conclusion – To Wither or Redeem Hipster?
             I have so far put forth a negative account of the hipster, arguing that they are paradoxical rebel consumers who rabidly seek cool for purposes of recognition and validation. The cool that is accumulated by hipsters serves as the sublimated form into which their shallow desire for recognition is deposited. Further, I have argued that the appropriation of cool on the part of the hipster is one that vacates it of oppositional value to the establishment and, per Adorno, aids in reproducing the capitalist values of the dominant social order.
            However, I claim that the attitudinal features of the hipster, cynicism and irony, that prevent him from proudly labeling himself as such highlight a possibility for escape from vacuous obsession with cool. The hipster denies the label precisely because he is aware that his status is one punctuated by meaninglessness. Of course, to continue in this charade he must sublimate his desire into something more acceptable. Thus arises the cheap, hollowed-out varieties of art that litter the hipster landscape. He on the one hand is meaningless and on the other constructs a life full of an eclectic mix of cultural symbols devoid of substance in order to deny his futility.. He is in this sense an ironist. If only he had the courage to direct his irony at the very institutions that sell him his meaningless life – the culture industry – in order to examine it for what it is. But this too he is able to do. He knows the products he buys are appropriated ones sold back to him. Popular shows such as New Girl, Girls, and Portlandia highlight hipster contradictions and allow them to live on by cloaking them in humor. It is little wonder why these shows are met with rave reviews[3]. But these shows tell us something more. We often use humor to make ugly realities more tolerable or even pleasant. In this sense the hipster is a cynic insofar as he sees no possibility for an alternative outside of his existing state of affairs. He may only laugh at it. If only he could be cynical about the possibility for a commodified life to produce a substantial form of meaning. But the hipster cannot assent to the ideals of those subgroups who organically create their forms of expression in a manner that demands a sense of seriousness to the values that arise out of them.
            What the hipster has are attitudinal dispositions that, when inverted to look towards the forces that cause them, show a way out. But what the hipster lacks is a sense of seriousness. Thus, we should not chastise the hipster too eagerly. In a certain sense he is well aware of the intricate functioning of society in a way that many others are not. He simply chooses to look away out of a belief that events cannot seriously be altered – and perhaps because he resides in a place where he does not need events to change for the better because events are materially good for him. But this is a view of false-consciousness, and one that submits to alienation. Cynicism and Irony, so long as they keep a proper distance, have becomes allies of ignorance as the mechanisms the culture industry depends on in order to keep it smooth operation. Hipsters thus require a notion of seriousness that is divorced from commodity and inheres in ethical principle. This may prove a difficulty insofar as seriousness is precisely what largely defines hipster insofar as it is a lack[4]. If this is a possibility, authentic creative and subversive potential may lie within this subgroup, however, if it is not it surely marks the necessity for death of the hipster if only, as Christian Lorentzen puts it, to allow cool to be reborn (1).

Adorno, Theodor & Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment, chapter 1. accessed at

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics trans by Robert Bartlett & Susan Collins. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Baime, David & Mullin, Christopher. Promoting Educational Opportunity: The Pell Grant Program at Community Colleges. American Association of Community Colleges. July, 2011.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinctions: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. by Richard Nice. Harvard University Press. 1984. pp. 466-484.

_________.  "The forms of capital." Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. 1986

Greif, Mark.“What Was the Hipster?". New York Mag. Oct, 24 2010.

_________.  “The Sociology of Hipster”. New York Times. Nov, 15 2010.

Haddow, Douglas. “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization”. Adbusters. Aug, 29 2008

Lorentzen, Christian. "Kill the hipster: Why the hipster must die: A modest proposal to save New York cool"Time Out New York. May, 30 2007.

Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness, “Class Consciousness”.Trans by Rodney Livingstone. Merlin Press. 1967. accessed at

Saito, Yuriko. Everyday Aesthetics. OUP Oxford. 2007.

Weigel, Moira & Ahern, Mal. “Further Materials Towards a Theory of the Man-Child”. The New Inquiry. Jul, 9 2013.

Zizek, Slavoj. “The State of Hipster” trans by Henry Brulard.  Rhinocerotique. Sep. 2009. accessed at

[1]    It has been an odd reality for me when discussing my status as a poor student with peers to find that, invariably, every other student is also poor – an odd circumstance when considering that college, while more accessible today than in previous eras, still largely remains an institution of privilege. While the phenomenon of all students claiming poverty may be attributable to the injustice of student loans that shackle students to debt it is certainly a separate circumstance than those who arose from poverty at birth. Thus, my own poverty arose not out of an inability to qualify for financial aid due to having the support of a middle to upper middle class family but by being born into a working class one. I was able to qualify for the full amount of the annual pell grant which is typically reserved for students from family's with a maximum income of 20,000 dollars per annum (Baime & Mullin, 4) – a working class income if there ever were one.
[2]    On conversion of capital, see The Forms of Capital by Bourdeiu, esp pg. 256 in which he states “economic capital is at the root of all the other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root, in other words – but only in the last analysis – at the root of their effects.”
[3]    Logically enough, films such as The Comedy and Somewhere which show the real dimensions vacuity have been largely panned by critics precisely for portraying lives devoid of meaning. Perhaps the real, without a gloss of humor, gets just a bit too close for comfort.
[4]              Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern, for example, define the hipster, who is a subspecies of the man-child, by his desire not to be taken too seriously and fear of commitment in “Further Materials Towards a Theory of the Man-Child”