|Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin [Public domain] Saying Grace, 1740, via Wikimedia Commons|
At one time, roughly in the 1960s, aestheticians saw themselves as meta-critics. This entailed that they read a lot of actual criticism, just to know what they were talking about. The idea is not as popular today but I submit that aestheticians can learn a lot from critics and should read them more often and more seriously. There was a time, also, when we treated some particularly philosophical art critics as honorary philosophers. Selections from Clive Bell's Art still play an important role in aesthetics textbooks. Why not some more contemporary critics too?
I have been reading Jed Perl's Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Cutlure (New York: Eakins Press Foundation, 2012), a book lent to me by an artist friend. Firs, what a pleasure it is to read a real physical book that is so well put together: so often today we read electronic versions, and miss out on a lot. This book is pleasant to handle and has excellent color illustrations that fit in well with the overall reading experience. (The illustrations generally are of better quality than the online versions I have seen. As with many readers today, I supplement my reading with checking out images of the works the author refers to, and it is especially helpful to read Perl along with looking at an image.) I confess that this is the first time I have sat down and read an entire book by Perl. (I have been put off in the past by his strange adulation of Balthus, who, despite Perl's best efforts, still seems to me a rather minor figure.) However, in my estimation, he is a very good critic indeed. It would be great for some philosophy graduate student to work through his many books and cull the meaty stuff just to address the issue of the relation between philosophy of art and art criticism, perhaps even to bridge the gap. Today I will just focus on his chapter "Ordinary Magic: Chardin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art" which was originally published in August of 2000.
I have often said that artists are the true experts in everyday aesthetics. A question is what they actually contribute and what role this contribution can play in the aesthetic theories of philosophers. I am very aware that in reading works like this one by Perl I am looking for something very specific: the possible contribution to aesthetics. (Perl provides a lot else: comments on how paintings are made, the life of the painter, the social context of the show being reviewed, and so forth.) I see Perl as acting as a medium between myself and the artist, where the artist is probably the one who is making the major contribution. I also will not make comments about what Perl has to say about the art as such but rather about how the art reveals a certain approach to everyday life.
The still life in general is an exploration of everyday life, and Chardin is surely one of the greatest still life painters. My claim in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary and elsewhere has been that great art reveals to us something about the potentialities of everyday aesthetic experience. How does Chardin do it? Partly it is through animation of the object, treating it as if it were living, or even human. Imaginative seeing is at the core of this kind of engagement with everyday life. Perl describes it: "Often placed with their handles facing us, these pitchers [by Chardin] move off into a dramatic engagement with other objects. The handle, which is close to us, can have an eye-popping verisimilitude, a bulk and a glistening surface that is as action-packed as the muscular arm of an athlete." (181) It achieves what I have called "aura."
For me, the philosophically interesting material comes with the paragraph which begins: "Ordinariness was, of course, one of Chardin's favorite themes. Luckily for us, he always felt the need to give a little extra to the ordinary." This is followed by: "there is something in the temper of Chardin's realism, in his sense that close, almost scientific observation can yield magically revelatory experiences, that is in line with some of the most progressive thinking in Europe ....Those ultrasimplified still lifes ....in which a few humble objects are simultaneously set under a microscope and dissolved in a romantic atmosphere, present quotidian experience with something of the adoring lucidity that poets would bring to the study of folklore in the years to come." (188) He adds that Chardin was able to operate in a period before thinkers took too seriously the opposition between the rationalist and the Romantic. I think sometimes that the disagreement between myself and functionalists like Carlson and Parsons (call them rationalists) is not so much a matter of my thinking that they got it wrong but of my thinking that they did not get enough...that aesthetic experience of the everyday can be both science-minded and romantic (imagination imbued) and that one need not choose between the two.
Perl tells us that in Chardin, "Inanimate things are set under a spell. They are animated - they are enchanted - by the stroke of Chardin's painted brush." What is fascinating about the great painter's approach to everyday life is that the exploration of the aesthetics of everyday life is in the painting, and that what happens in the painting is not just a recording of what is seen or even of that plus a subjective reaction but an actualization of a potential which is already there in the scene as experienced by the painter. Of course there is a lot that happens in the construction of the painting that is not ordinarily there in everyday life experience: As Perl puts it, "This is everyday life in eighteenth-century France, until you begin to imagine Chardin plotting the arrangement of his immortal toy theater - then you realize that what we have here is some kind of Constructivist pinwheel of circles, more circles, and radiating angles" [this referring to Saying Grace, pictured above.] (190) Fine, but this is a making that is itself a kind of seeing, from which we cannot detach the seeing that goes along with it.
Perl is also not unaware of the these paintings just escaping a descent into kitsch. He writes, "Strangely enough, Chardin's figures achieve ...totemic power despite the aura of sticky sentimentality or fussy conventional feeling that sometimes clings to his impressions of a mother supervising her daughters' prayers or a servant going about her daily rounds. Some of the paintings may be bromides, but they are so beautifully hewn that the ordinariness becomes sphinxlike, quietly oracular." (192)
Chardin gives us a truth, that everyday life, even of those who are not part of the privileged elite, can be rich with aesthetic meaning. He brings out the aura of meaningfulness to be found in everyday objects by way of his imaginative vision, fully actualized in his painted products, but already nascent in the seeing that attends his creative process.