Thursday, June 4, 2015

A neglected major insight in aesthetics: Roger Seamon on the Conceptual Dimension of Art

I was recently asked by a friend to serve on a jury to decide the best published articles in aesthetics of the previous year.  I froze. Making these lists is not something I normally do and reading a large number of articles in diverse sub-fields of aesthetics does not seem like a pleasant task.  If I had complied I probably would have just sent in some names of articles by people I admire who are working in fields that currently interest me....hardly objective. Sometimes on the other hand I have a compulsive need to look again at articles written several years ago.  It seems like I understood better what was going on back in 2001 and benefit some from hindsight as well.  This retrospective sort of reading is interesting to me in a self-reflective way as well since my current take on these things is quite different, judging by the nature of the comments I wrote in the margins when I originally read the article. 

I just reread Roger Seamon's "The Conceptual Dimension in Art and the Modern Theory of Artistic Value"  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 59:2 (2001) 139-151.  It only has about five citations in Google Scholar and yet it is a fine piece and an excellent answer to the dominant view of the time, Arthur Danto's theory of art.  It seemed then that the implication of Duchamp's readymades and the more current conceptual art movement was that the value of works of art lies in their meanings rather than in their perceptual effect. Seamon's response to conceptual art was, in my view, much more reasonable.  He wrote:  "Conceptual art... does not force us to rethink completely the nature of art.  It can, however, help us to become self-conscious about the presence of a conceptual dimension in traditional works of art" (139-140): he calls this a deflationary proposal.  He also observes that a similar "overreaction and subsequent normalization" occurred before in the history of art when mimetic art lost favor.  

Seamon's approach to the various competing theories in the history of aesthetics is particularly valuable.  He says that  "the mimetic, expressive, and formal theories of art were eventually transformed into...'dimension,' that is, different kinds of aesthetic value rather than competing essentialist conceptions of art."  The conceptual, on his view, does the same.  This leads to his view that there has therefore been "progress toward a consensus in the theory of art." Moreover, he firms up his claim by arguing convincingly that conceptual art cultivates a dimension of art that was already there in previous art, i.e. in allegory.  Her also argues that drawing conceptual implications (through the imagination) contributes to the value of a work of art.  Conceptual art involves this kind of imaginative thinking, although unlike traditional allegory, the implied meanings are often indeterminate.  Duchamp's shovel is a gesture which is "understood to be saying something by implication" this implication being relatively open.  Danto saw all art in terms of the conceptual dimension of art, but his idea of art as essentially metaphorical and metaphor as involving a filling in of a gap by the audience through imaginative inference applies, Seamon thinks, to the mimetic, expressive and formal dimensions of art as well.  So he concludes that "the conceptual must take its place with them in the modern theory of artistic value."  (145)  Seamon also observes that when a work is weak in one of these dimensions we often feel a need to fill in the missing dimension.  He finds that "interpreters normally attach a conceptual dimension to works that are themselves aesthetic, i.e., perceptual, and whose value has been independently established on that ground, thus filling in a missing band in the spectrum of artistic evaluation":  we should follow critics in recognizing the four dimensions of art.

The only thing I would disagree with is his apparent agreement with the view that perceptual features are completely irrelevant in conceptual art.  His "dimension" view should go against this. Binkley had argued that when you look at Duchamp's L. H. O. O. Q.  you learn nothing of artistic consequence that you wouldn't get from the description.  Seamon observes that Tim Binkley was arguing against the validity of the entire aesthetic tradition and, although he does not accept this, agrees that conceptual art is "not grounded in appearances." (Binkley's article was "Piece Contra Aesthetics," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34 (1977) 265-277.  I disagree that simply reading a description of one of Duchamp's readymades is sufficient to get it.  Duchamp made these things and displayed them for a reason!  The conceptual element is dominant, but the perceptual element is not absent!  I do not just want to read about Duchamp's thoughts about his readymades: that does not make him interesting as an artist.  Much more interesting is looking at images of the readymades in a book about them, or seeing them in a show.

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