Monday, September 28, 2015

Marcia Eaton on locating the aesthetic

Marcia Muelder Eaton has been one of the philosophers who has opened up the arena of aesthetics to include the possibility of an everyday aesthetics.  One might read her "Locating the Aesthetic" (in Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions) which is a selection from her book 1989 book Aesthetics and the Good Life as simply an attack on formalistic approaches to art and advocacy for paying attention to subject matter. However there is much more going on there.  Eaton does of course advocate bringing in the artist's life, the history of the work of art, and its political repercussions.  She rejects the Beardsleyan notion of the "intentionalist fallacy" and allies herself with John Berger who gained a lot of popularity through his Ways of Seeing TV series and book and who advocated looking at paintings in terms of subject matter.  She quotes with approval his discussion of a Franz Hals painting in terms of how the sitter must have felt about his life, perhaps seeing life as absurd.  (This projection of an existentialist sentiment back to the 17th century, however, seems anachronistic.)  Then she boldly claims that subject matter is itself an aesthetic property.  

I find that to be a bit of a stretch since it seems to me that although subject matter can be important, and seeing something in terms of subject matter can influence the way we see it, there is nothing about subject matter that refers to things like beauty, grace, elegance or to the pleasure we take in sensuous qualities.  Still, I agree with Eaton that different things have been considered an aesthetic property at different times in history.  So, there is flexibility in the concept, and perhaps she sees into the future of the concept or its current state in a way I cannot.

After saying that subject matter is an aesthetic property it is not surprising that Eaton wonders whether "aesthetic" can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  She concludes that it can be, asserting that "what is aesthetic remains constant even though specific features pointed to as aesthetically valuable may change."  Her examples of things the once were aesthetic qualities but may be no longer is fascinating.  One example is taken from Quintilian, the Roman writer, who said of some trumpets, "the louder the concert of their notes, the greater is the glorious supremacy of our arms over all the nations of the earth."  Quintilian valued loudness in the sounds of trumpets, and largely for socio-political reasons.  As Eaton puts it, "being big and loud are a source of delight; and they mattered for Quintilian and his contemporaries aesthetically as well as militarily."  Eaton even goes so far as to argue that "considerable uproar" can be an aesthetic property when taken in the context of standards operative in a medieval wedding feast in Normandy where "performed at his best" indicates that the properties were experienced with pleasure.  The sentence analyzed is:  "Everyone performed at his best and the noise of the instruments and the voices of the narrators made a considerable uproar in the hall." 

Similarly, Veronese saw "sumptuous" as an important positive aesthetic property, at least based on a note on the back of one of his paintings. 

I had not realized it at the time (six years later), but this parallels my own advocacy of neatness and messiness as aesthetic properties under certain circumstances and in certain contexts.  (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 1995, vol. 7, no. 1, 259-268)   In this sense one could say that Eaton was a progenitor of the approach to everyday aesthetics I later championed.  Both Eaton and I opened up the domain of aesthetics to include the everyday, she doing so before I did.

I am less able to agree with her that "shows Christ" and "this room shows my rug" indicates a positive aesthetic quality.   I am uncomfortable when she uses "aesthetic quality" to describe subject matter, i.e. Christ or my rug as opposed to quality, as in loud or sumptuous.  Eaton thinks that they all have something in common:  "we attend to intrinsic features in the belief that this attention will be rewarded by delight."  She concludes that "delight in what resides intrinsically in something is a mark of the aesthetic generally."  Is "shows my rug" something intrinsic about a painting?  Isn't that precisely something extrinsic to the painting qua painting?  It is a relational quality having to do with relations between objects depicted as a singer person's possessions.  So maybe Eaton's definition is a good one, and the example is just weird.

One can agree with Eaton that "discussions of works of art are not limited to manifest or directly observable properties" and may include how a work came to be or admiration of the skills of the artist.  But this may not in itself be enough to warrant extension to subject matter or to the kind of psychological speculation about the sitter favored by Berger and accepted by Eaton.  Eaton interestingly requires that even when skill of the artist is referenced it must be directed "back to features of the object" i.e. to intrinsic properties.  

Another, rather brilliant in my view, extension of the concept of the aesthetic made by Eaton is to the notions both of unifinishedness and finishedness.  The point is that this all  depends on earlier valuations, i.e. of imagination or craftsmanship.   Thus the Cinquecento valued invention over imitation and hence was able to appreciate what was considered artistic ecstasy which was found expressed was or exemplified in works that are unfinished, for example Michelangelo's slaves at the Boboli Gardens.  Similarly we can admire Mondrian's work when told that it is done carefully over months even though it looks like it could have been done quickly.  But we can also admire certain works for being finished.

Where then is the aesthetic located.  There is a certain openness here, which I applaud, whereas I am less comfortable with extension to subject matter, "depicting my rug" being something that could give one viewer pleasure but seems to lack being an actual quality of the object or being "intrinsic" as Eaton puts it. 

What is the aesthetic attitude? Stolnitz revisited.

It is common for readers in a discipline, even sophisticated ones, to dismiss writers and thinkers popular at one time by way of labeling them.  Then when you sit down and actually read something by that person carefully the position turns out often to be much more complex and nuanced than one would expect.  Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions contains a selection from Jerome Stolnitz's Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism, A Critical Introduction (1960) which defends and develops his own version of the aesthetic attitude.  The selection is followed by  Marcia Muelder Eaton's "Locating the Aesthetic," which came from her Aesthetics and the Good Life (1989).  It is easy to dismiss Stolnitz as a formalist uninterested in subject-matter and become an advocate of Eaton's contextualism.  But now, almost a quarter of a century after the contextualist revolution --- now that contextualism is our dominant form of critical practice, and has been for a long time -- it might be worthwhile to reread Stolnitz with a kinder and even more sympathetic eye, if for nothing else but to just gain some perspective.  I already tried to do that in my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (2012) and in my previous article “Practical George and Aesthete Jerome Meet the Aesthetic Object,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 28:1 (1990) 37-53.  In the book I say: 

"One can look at an everyday streetscape from a disinterested perspective, focusing on sensuous and design features, and then switch to a perspective that takes into account history and context. One can follow Stolnitz in isolating the object from the flow of experience and from its interrelations with other things, and then toggle [I adopt this idea from Peggy Brand] to a non-isolated form of perception.  I have been arguing that taking the aesthetic attitude is taking an attitude that allows objects, environments or events to have aura.  Although either disinterestedness or interested perception alone might do this, toggling between interested and disinterested perception is more likely to heighten significance. The toggling approach may be applied to all types of aesthetics:  of art, of nature and of everyday life."  (198)  I still endorse this view.

So what more can we get out of Stolnitz.  Much of the selection in Korsmeyer's book is an attempt both to enrich our notion of what goes on with the aesthetic attitude and also to overcome some prejudice against the notion.  [True scholarship would look at Stolnitz's book as a whole, and also his entire life's writing.  But hey this is a blog.]  Let's assume for the moment that Stolnitz is right that our ordinary practical attitude towards things is such that we only perceive things in a partial way.  After all, it would be "stupid and wasteful to become absorbed in the object itself" under normal circumstances.  There is no value, for example, in absorbing ourselves in the aesthetic features of a stop sign:  we need to just know when to stop or go.  So the perception of things under practical conditions is "limited and fragmented."  It is sufficient just to identify the thing, something we do habitually, as when we choose a pen over a paper clip to write with.  As Stolnitz puts it, we "read the label" rather than look at the thing itself.  But when we pay attention to the thing itself for the sake of enjoying the way it looks or sounds [or...add the other senses] then we are taking the aesthetic attitude. This happens for example in attending to a play or even when we glance aesthetically at our surroundings while on vacation.

Stolnitz's definition of aesthetic attitude is "disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone."  The rest of the selection attempts to explain the concepts in the definition. [Unfortunately Stolnitz does not explain "for its own sake alone":  what exactly is the "sake" of a landscape seen from a car?] 

The key here is that the aesthetic attitude is needed for having an aesthetic experience.  Stolnitz stresses that we are not taking an aesthetic attitude when we have a cognitive interest, as in that taken by a sociologist or a historian, or when our interest is in judging, as in that of an art critic.  This last point is somewhat surprising since Kant, who had also promoted the idea disinterested perception, had associated it strongly with critical judgment.  So, in a sense, Stolnitz's version of disinterestedness is even more purified than Kant's.  He further elaborates that the aesthetic attitude "isolates" the object insofar as it focuses on the look or the sound, and it is not seen, therefore, in the fragmented manner characteristic of practical perception.   The inference seems odd, but the idea is noteworthy:  that aesthetic perception is specifically not fragmented. 

Stolnitz further stresses that the aesthetic experience is not "un-interested" but in fact is "intensely absorbed."  This leads into the notion of "sympathetic" which has to do with preparation for the aesthetic experience.  The aesthetic attitude is sympathetic in that we "prepare ourselves to respond to the object" in order to "relish its individual quality."  He talks about this as accepting the object "on its own terms."  What this means is never made clear, as mentioned above, although he elaborates it in terms of "being receptive" to what the object has to offer perceptually, and inhibiting unsympathetic responses, for example of the sort we would have to a novel that does not accord with our way of thinking. So we are to "follow the lead of the object and respond in concert with it." This seems interestingly in accord with the recent school of object-centered theory that I discussed in a recent post. 

Stolnitz tries to explain this point further by talking of a sonnet by Milton written as a protest, but which now seems remote from us in terms of the "heated questions of religion and politics" involved. To be sympathetic to the work is to "give it a chance" to show what about it would be interesting to perception.   

Stolnitz also warns us that we should not see aesthetic attention is a matter of just looking or of a blank stare but rather something like, or understood in terms of, what happens when we listen to a "rhythmically exciting piece of music" where we are absorbed by the "energy and movement" or when we find ourselves sitting on the edge of our chair:  it is not passive.  

The key notion is "coming alive."  Stolnitz writes:  "In taking the aesthetic attitude, we want to make the value of the object come fully alive in our experience."  This requires that we prepare our selves to respond in terms of imagination and emotion.  It is not just that we attend to the object but how intensely we attend to the object.  We only attend aesthetically when we are wholly absorbed. And this is attended by activity.  An example of this is keeping in time with the music by moving one's foot, or responding in a muscular way sympathetically to a sculpture.  

Arnold Berleant has been a long-time critic of the aesthetic attitude and yet it is therefore ironic that he shares with Stolnitz an interest in this kind of activity:  it is clear that what Berleant attacks is not really what Stolnitz believes, that Stolnitz's notion of the aesthetic attitude is much richer than what we find in traditional attacks on it, for instance in the famous attack by George Dickie.  Like Berleant, Stolnitz stresses that we experience a cathedral actively through walking through it. 

Stolnitz goes further and, drawing from Hume, stresses that in acting in regard to the object we savor it fully only when we focus on its "complex and subtle details."  Like Frank Sibley, he stresses the role of the "able teacher" in being able to make a work of art "vital and engaging" by way of showing us things to which we might have been insensitive.  

This comment is followed in the reading by a sentence that should be a surprise to Stolnitz's critics.  The sentence states that this kind of awareness often requires "knowledge about allusions or symbols which occur in the work" as well as possibly "training in the art form."  So that which is external is not necessarily excluded from attention to the object's intrinsic features, a point he surprisingly shares with Marcia Eaton.  

I mentioned his reliance on Hume.  However this should not be oversimplified.  For Stolnitz, there is a specific purpose for "discriminating attention."  For Hume, that seems just to allow us to reconcile judgments or to condemn others.  But for Stolnitz, the matter is more object-centered:  it is for the work to come alive to us.  Again, he explains this in terms of listening to a symphony where keeping the themes in mind, following the development, appreciating the dynamic of their interrelations, contributes to an experience that has "greater richness and unity."  So it seems that aesthetic attitude is an attitude that has as its end product an experience of greater richness and unity based on understanding structure, among other things.

In conclusion, for Stolnitz the aesthetic attitude is not just a blank or passive stare, but rather is setting oneself in preparation for aesthetic experience (i.e. being fully absorbed in the object of perception), that preparation involving giving the object a chance to reveal its individual quality worthy of appreciation, treating it in a non-fragmentary way, learning about allusions and other background considerations, physically engaging with the object in appropriate ways, and generally doing whatever is necessary to bring the object alive in experience.  His description of listening to a symphony is paradigmatic of what this involves:  one has to attune oneself to dynamic interrelations that give rise to greater richness and unity.  Finally, this attitude can be applied to anything whatever, even a landscape seen from a car.     

Dickie is often said to have definitely refuted Stolnitz, but given my description of Stolnitz's view above, that hardly seem plausible. Dickie's view is that there is only one kind of attention, and either one attends to the properties or not.  My specific criticism of Dickie is to be found in the above-mentioned article, however I might mention here that Dickie's is an overly spare notion of the structure of consciousness.  He thinks that differences in motive simply cause the critic, the philistine and the aesthete to focus on different properties in the aesthetic object.  Properties are treated as static attributes of the thing in question.  I think that there really is a profound difference between the kind of fragmented viewing Stolnitz calls "practical" and the rich and complex form of experience I have just described, an experience that requires some training, some preparation.  If one approaches something with this preparation and has the appropriate aesthetic experience then one can be said to have had the appropriate attitude.  Attending to something in such a way as to give it a chance and to bring it alive is very different from attending to it in such a way as to track its properties:  tracking properties is really just another way to look at something as having certain appropriate labels, which is precisely the form of perception which Stolnitz sought to wean us from. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fashion and Art

Back in 1990 Karen Hanson wrote a fascinating article titled "Dressing Down Dressing Up," on the philosophical fear of fashion.  It was anthologized in Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions where I am reading it for a class I am teaching.  The article was originally for a feminist journal and so it is not surprising the Hanson begins by discussing the issue of feminist response to fashion.  The big issue is how to deal with the "male gaze" particularly if you value fashion.  Feminists have argued that the male gaze objectifies women and hence is an adjunct to sexist culture and patriarchy.  Eliminate the male gaze and you strike against inequality of men and women.  The problem is, as Hanson sees it, that the feminist attack on fashion can be seen as allied with the traditional philosophical attack on fashion based on rejection of the body.  So there is an interesting problem:  if you don't want the body rejected, and you think this is part of the feminist platform, then there must be some way that understands an appropriate "gaze" for fashion.  

The issue of fashion should be of interest to anyone focusing on everyday aesthetics.  Fashion has an everyday dimension in clothes choice, both in store shopping and in daily dress.  Also, as is well known, popular clothing styles are influenced by things that happen at the level of haute couture.  It is hard to categorize high fashion as a type of everyday aesthetics.  It might be categorized more fruitfully with other forms of high design.  The fashion world itself is remarkably similar to what Danto classically called the artworld.  It seems that fashion designers are very like artists, especially like architects insofar as they design things that are both functional and often decorative.   We speak of fashions and changes in the art world, and it seems as though these days the artworld is becoming more like the fashion world and the fashion world is becoming more like the artworld.   The fashion world is not the artworld but interestingly touches it as several points.  Someone can be called in from the artworld to enhance fashion and fashion people often end up with shows in art museums. Similarly, the various activities surrounding the fashion world often remind one of the movie world.  

This leads us inevitably to the question of whether or not fashion is art, a question much like that of whether or not food is art.  We can argue that both fashion and food are like photography and film. While both were excluded from the domain of art in the early part of the 20th century they gradually gained art status.  What this meant was not that all photographs or films are art but rather that these things can count as media for art.  As I have suggested, it is worthwhile to think of an aesthetic hierarchy where, for example, ordinary clothes choice and ordinary cooking are aesthetic but at a low level  (these things are not art).  At a higher aesthetic level some clothes design, making and arrangement can be seen as a minor art (or minor arts), as also some food-making.  The highest aesthetic level is where a small number of costumes and restaurant productions can be seen as high, serious or fine art.  For some people, this is art in the truest sense of the word.  This would work for a lot of other things.  The high fashion or haute couture level of fashion will be more culturally prominent at some times in history than at others.  

Why not call fashion art?  Of course it is an art, but not the same kind of art as painting, sculpture, video art, all of which seem to have a firmer place in the main halls of the art museum than fashion.  The fashion world is in fact distinct from the artworld.

Grant that it is art.  Is it nonetheless less authentic because inevitably shallow and sentimental?  Can one really compare Michelangelo to Coco Chanel?  As lovely and sophisticated high fashion can be, even as expressive of cultural changes, can it touch on deeper truths?  How do we deal with the view that it is ultimately frivolous.  Maybe we should treat it differently from literature, dance, poetry, and the other so-called fine arts: as expressive but not in the same way.  One of my students, Sadie, writes:  "I think fashion can be art all on its own if it is done the way a great painting is done" i.e. if it is done with great care and if the artist knows what she or he is doing.  Another student suggests it can be if it gives us the kind of awe we get from great works of art. 

There are many things that can be said in criticism of fashion (e.g. the way that it establishes class difference), but as Hanson correctly observes, these do not significantly distinguish the fashion business from many other luxury businesses.  The question she poses is why does philosophy hate fashion.  One reason is that fashion is associated with change and even encourages us to change our desire from season to season.  It is seen as superficial.

Philosophy's rejection of change has its problems however.  As Hanson writes:   "The search for lasting truths and enduring values is a noble activity, but it has sometimes engendered a flight from ordinary, common experience, the experience of growth and decay, coming-to-be and passing away."  The question is whether we philosophers need to identify with the traditional rejection of appearance in preference for underlying unchanging truth.  Must we be Platonists?   Or can there be a wisdom that changes with the Fall issue of Vogue?  

Hanson nicely documents many of the attacks on fashion in Plato's dialogues.  One she doesn't mention is Socrates' ironic comment to Ion that he admires him to be able to present himself in fancy costume before the multitudes.  Socrates the bare-footed philosopher clearly does not admire this.  

I am currently reading a novel called The Rosie Project which is about a geneticist who has Asperger's syndrome but does not know it and who gets into all sorts of socially awkward situations because he does not understand the point behind fashion.  At one point he is expected to put on a sports jacket for a fancy restaurant and refuses because he cannot understand why his much more expensive and much more functional jacket will not do.  Are philosophers who reject the aesthetic relevance of fashion just missing the point in much the same way?  One thinks of Thomas More's utopia in which citizens wear the same style and color and jewels have become children's playthings.

Thoreau famously says "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."  So perhaps one should beware of being a news reporter since news reporters on TV never seem to wear the same outfit twice.  But is that a problem, really?

Hanson discusses Baudelaire as an advocate of the ephemeral surface,  Baudelaire as supporter of particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance, which gives us pleasure in the quality of being present and of being in the present.  Unfortunately Baudelaire's advocacy is a mixed blessing for fashion as he adheres to a version of Platonist rejection of the body anyway.  

One thing brought up in my class is the issue of the relation between the clothes and the body.  We seldom see clothes without a body to cover.  The fashion experience should be an experience of a clothed body.  The interaction between the body clothed and the clothes themselves is essential to the totality of the experience.  So the study of fashion is inextricably connected with the study of human beauty.   As my student Kristin puts it, "women wear makeup to accentuate the eyes, the lips, or the cheekbones, and people wear different fashions to accentuate the is as colorful and artful display of a human form." It might be possible to observe human beauty with no connection to fashion, but this is in fact rare.  As the same time I am not convinced that fashion is just a way to display or enhance a human form: it is also an artform that uses human form as a ground or base to accomplish other things, to produce amazing visual effects using such materials as cloth, feathers, leather and so forth.

Hanson has a nice quote from Freud that deals with the issue of the transience of fashion:   "Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment....The beauty of the human form and face vanish forever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lands them a fresh charm.  A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely."  from his "On Transience"  Vol. 5 of his collected papers, 1959.  The point seems closely related to the Japanese fascination with transience in natural beauty.

Hanson's own position seems to be something like this:  self-consciousness is a good thing but should include awareness of and interest in one's own appearance [and also with the appearances of others as well as awareness of one's own standard of taste in this regard?]  The problem for philosophers is that they wish to be thinkers not the thought-about, active not passive, not the object of the cognition of others.  Thus philosophy has antipathy to personal passivity.  Feminism in rejecting traditional dichotomies questions the passive/active distinction as well as the masculine/feminine.  It rejects the female as essentially passive, but does not go over to rejecting the value of passivity in human experience.  There are genuine problems with the male gaze, but not necessarily with being the object of contemplative perception, knowing that one does not want to join with traditional philosophy in devaluing the body:  "if philosophy - with the help of feminism - could be brought to terms with our embodiment, could work to find an appropriate stance on the relation between the individual and social norms, could come to admit that each of us is, in part, an object to others, then philosophy might just change its attitude toward fashionable dress [and to its] appropriate if ephemeral satisfactions."

I am not entirely happy with the emphasis on an innocent and valuable passivity in Hanson's article.  Many of my students talk about everyday fashion from the perspective of choices made both in the purchasing of fashion products and in choosing which ones to wear on any particular day or to any particular event.  This is not a matter of pure passivity.  One presents oneself for the viewing of others, but then the first person who sees the product, often in a full-length mirror, is oneself.  One is shaping one's image for the public.  As my student Mikhail puts it, just as "an artist reflects their mood or personality in the medium of a painting, one may reflect the way they feel through fashion."  Several students also observed that the issue is not just one of being the passive object of an objectifying male gaze, which, when it happens, is just rude or sexist, but being the object of a critical/appreciative gaze by both men and women, sometimes women being more concerned about how they are seen by other women, and also more concerned about how other women are seen, as a component of this critical gaze.   The critical/appreciative but non rude/sexist gaze would be in accord with the core feminist value of treating women as equals to men and with the feminist/Nietzschean critique of traditional religion/philosophy in saying "yes" to the body.  

Saturday, September 19, 2015

In what ways can we talk about the Japanese tea ceremony as art?

Is the Japanese tea ceremony art?  I am prompted to think about this question as I have assigned "Zen and the Art of Tea" by Daisetz T. Suzuki to my students for my Philosophy of Art class. Of course this is not the question that Suzuki himself is interested in:  his question has more to do, as the title indicates, with the relationship between Zen and the art of tea.  That in itself raises issues about the boundaries between art and religion and how those boundaries can sometimes be overcome, or dissolve.  The context of our discussion here is a previous discussion of Danto's definitions of art.  His early artworld paper seemed to define art as whatever can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical and art theoretical knowledge. Towards the end of his life he defined artworks are embodied meanings that get viewers to engage in acts of interpretation to "grasp the intended meaning they embody."  It is not clear how the two different definitions relate to each other. (There was an intermediary definition created by Noel Carroll and based on Danto's Transfiguration of the Commonplace that has also often been discussed:  I won't go into that here.)  My point right now is that coming from thinking about Danto to thinking about Suzuki is a bit like jumping from a hot shower into a cold bath.   It is not clear how a tea ceremony can be seen as art under a theory that stresses the artworld or seeing something in terms of art history and it is not clear how a tea ceremony is to be interpreted, or even whether a particular tea ceremony counts as an artwork even though there is, to be sure, an art of tea.  At a minimum one could say that (1) there is something one might call the "tea ceremony world" i.e. the world of practitioners, events, histories and so forth, something like Danto's "artworld" (2) tea ceremony is often listed as one of the Japanese art forms much like painting and Noh drama, (3) interpretation and aboutness can play a role in the tea ceremony as it is important to understand how things work symbolically.  Is this enough to make interesting comparisons?

The central ideas of Suzuki's 1938 essay are, I would say, simplicity, soft-heartedness, and swallowing the universe in swallowing tea.  Simplicity is a common aesthetic quality often also stressed in the West not only in art but also in ritual contexts. We are well aware of similarities between the search for simplicity that can be found both in Zen and in Cistercian monasteries. Simplicity is also a value in modernist design.  When Suzuki says "the art of tea is the aestheticism of primitive simplicity" we can think of the tea room and its comparison to the work of modernist architect Adolf Loos.  However, the next part then puzzles:  "its ideal, to come closer to Nature, is realized by sheltering oneself under a thatched roof in a room which is hardly ten feet square but which must be artistically constructed and furnished."  How is being sheltered in such a room bringing oneself closer to Nature? (I am not questioning the validity of this, just trying to wrap my mind around it.) Of course it might be closer to Nature than sheltering oneself in a skyscraper, but one might think less than in not sheltering oneself at all.  But maybe sheltering in the hut puts one in the right frame of mind for coming closer to Nature.

Bringing closer to Nature, if essential to the Art of Tea, might pose a further problem for a follower of Danto, which is that the constitution of something as art is a matter of taking it out of the realm of mere real things and moving it into the realm of the artworld, thus seemingly further away from Nature.  One would think that for Danto making art cannot be consistent with getting close to Nature.  

Suzuki further says, in comparing Zen to Tea, "Zen also aims at stripping off all the artificial wrapping humanity has devised" and that it "combats intellect."  Suzuki even opposes Zen to philosophy which he thinks is "accessible only to those who are intellectually equipped, and thus cannot be a discipline of universal appreciation."  Danto was nothing if not a philosopher, and his philosophy was only really accessible to the intellectually equipped. Moreover, he treated art like philosophy, insisting that being able to distinguish art from non-art, especially in contemporary contexts, requires a special form of intellectual equipment, thus making impossible any universal appreciation of art.  If the tea ceremony is art under a Zen concept it does not also seem to be art under Danto's concept of art, or if it is, the two paths to art status are going in very different.  Danto takes us away from Nature to a highly cognitive and hence intellectual Artworld, and Zen and Tea follow the reverse path.  

Suzuki says that "the art of tea symbolizes simplification, first of all, by an inconspicuous, solitary, thatched hut if the hut were part of nature..."  That it symbolizes something would indicate "aboutness" on Danto's account, but imagination seems to play a radically different role here than in Danto.  For Danto we might use imagination in seeing the Brillo boxes as art when they are in the gallery.   We use imagination when we perceive something under what Kant calls "the is of artistic identification."  We are supposed to see the thatched hut as quite the opposite of art, as Nature, in the Suzuki case.  

Suzuki stresses the Zen ideas of harmony, reverence, purity and tranquility, all of which are notions that play a role from time to time in the Western arts as well.  But they are not necessary to art as the West conceives it, and no one would accept Suzuki's "these four elements are needed to bring the art to a successful end" as true of great architecture, painting, dance, or photography in the West. Occasionally purity gains prominence as when Clement Greenberg stresses that true art must be pure, something that Danto, by the way, spent a lot of time opposing.

Suzuki interprets harmony in this case as "gentleness of spirit" which he sees as governing the art of tea:  "The general atmosphere of the tea-room tends to create this kind of gentleness all around - gentleness of touch, gentleness of odor, gentleness of light, and gentleness of sound," and he describes how one would appreciate handmade teacup in the tea ceremony in terms of a charm of "gentleness, quietness, and unobtrusiveness."  

I have no intention here, by the way of setting up Danto, New York, or the West as in any way superior on the issue of art:  what interests me mainly here is how difficult it is to talk about the two together!  Perhaps gentleness of spirit, or the pervasiveness gentleness of the tearoom can be seen as the dominant aesthetic quality that the tea room master seeks to achieve.  Suzuki goes so far as to suggest that gentleness of spirit is "the foundation of our life on earth" and says "if the art of tea purports to establish a Buddha-land in its small group, it has to start with gentleness of spirit."  So the idea is that the foundation of a good life would being with establishing gentleness of spirit:  it is not just a matter of aesthetic choice, one aesthetic quality among many, but the key one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The problem posed by feminist art history for defining art, especially for Danto

"In this hierarchy [a hierarchy of art forms based on art history's organizing of art into categories] the arts of painting and sculpture enjoy an elevated status while other arts that adorn people, homes or utensils are relegated to a lesser cultural sphere under such terms as 'applied,' 'decorative' or 'lesser' arts."  Rozsika Parker and Griselda Polock  "Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts

Danto in his famous paper "The Artword" says that what he calls "the is of artistic identification" is needed to constitute something as a work of art.  So, the presence of the "is" appears to be at least a necessary condition for art.  The "is of artistic identification" is poorly explained by Danto, although one can eek out basically what he meant by it.  He says that it is featured prominently in statements about artworks, that it is not the is of identity nor that of predication or existence, and that children use it when they say of a drawn circle "that is me."  Obviously, however, this is not enough to make such a circle art.  So the is of artistic identification, although necessary, is not sufficient for something to be art.  Danto does make clear that the is of artistic identification, when it indicates that something is art (unlike the drawn circle case), contains within it some reference to things beyond the physical object apprehended, such things including the presence of the Brillo boxes in an art gallery, the way in which the paint is inseparable from the bed in Rauschenberg's Bed, and the way in which the title, and all of its implications, are inseparable from each of the imagined pair of otherwise identical paintings called Newton's First Law and Newton's Third Law.  I want to keep in mind that the is of artistic identification, in a sense, contains within it the way in which the physical object, what Danto calls the mere real object, is situated within an artworld context, i.e. the gallery, the history of art up to that point, the title, and the intentions of the artist.

Now, when reading this in conjunction of "Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts" by Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, the question is whether, among all of these other matters, a certain patriarchal stance is also included within the is of artistic identification.  In short, does this feminist critique of art history (rather dated, I admit) pose a problem for the definition of art and also for Danto's definition of art in particular?

One way that the project of defining art can play out is in terms of making distinctions between art and craft.  Another version of this, slightly off center from the first, involves the distinction between fine and decorative art.  The problem that "Crafty Women" poses is not so much that of destroying these distinctions entirely as that it raises some interesting questions about them.  The first thought that comes to mind is that if, as Danto suggests, something is art if it can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical knowledge, i.e. someone versed in the ways of the artworld, then how do we deal with embroidery, quilts and Navajo blankets?  It is not at all clear that the women who were so prominent in these various art forms as makers were necessarily able to see these things as art with appropriate art historical knowledge.  And, perhaps more interestingly, when some of these things were moved into the art museums in the 1970s the manner by which they were moved, and the explanation of this, was open to question by such feminist art historians as Parker and Pollock (PP).  So, as PP observe, Ralph Pomeroy (1974) introduced his appreciative understanding of Navajo blankets by saying that he intends to forget certain things about these blankets:  to consider them as "Art with a capital 'A'" he is going to look at them "as paintings - several nameless masters of abstract art." PP write "several manoeuvres are necessary in order to see these works as art."  (50)  For Pomeroy to see them as art requires, as PP puts it, these maneuvers:  "the geometric becomes abstract, woven blankets become paintings and women weavers become nameless masters." That is, although from Danto's perspective, these things become art because they can be seen as art under an appropriate theory, there is a problem of misrepresentation based on certain sexist and probably also racist assumptions.  To be fair to Danto, in later writings, and perhaps even in the artworld essay, he stressed the intentions of the artist, and so the feminist approach to this (of PP) which stresses giving honor to the actual originator might agree with Danto in that the originator is not honored if the work is only seen as art if she and the originating context are abstracted out of the picture.  (An additional feature here is that the original material out of which it is also seen as something else, i.e. dye on unpainted fabric as a kind of painting).  Focusing on the term "nameless masters" which seems to imply that the makers were men since "master" is a male term, even though it is obvious to all that women have produced these works.  So, in order to see them as art Pomeroy had to see them as produced not by women but by men. There does seem something unfair going on when a blanket only is seen as art if these changes are made. Is patriarchy then contained within the is of artistic identification?  Probably today this work can be seen as art without making all of these transformations, and perhaps patriarchy is not now included in the is of artistic identification. However, distinctions between art and craft and between fine and decorative art still hold sway.  

Perhaps the larger issues, particularly relevant to everyday aesthetics, is the one raised by PP when they say that "the feminine spirit in art is ...linked with the domestic sphere."  If an art form is linked to the domestic sphere and particularly to the activities of women within that sphere then it is more likely to be seen (in a sexist society) as non-art, mere craft, or decorative as opposed to fine art.  Moreover, it may well be that women are seen as closer to Nature than to Culture, and that even though, unlike animals, they do participate in the human making of "means of subsistence" transforming "materials into tools, houses, clothes and utensils" they have secondary status because, as Sherry Ortner argued, their activities occupy a position between Nature and Culture, their activities of cooking and sewing being cultural but taking place in the home.  Cooking in the home, as Ortner argues, is seen as closer to nature than haute cuisine which is seen as "real" cooking, and this is done usually by men. Thus, women "perform lower level conversions from nature to culture."  (This may pose a problem for my own arguing forthcoming at the ASA that food can be art based on the work of great chefs.  The feminist claim could be that the very notion of "great chef" degrades home cooking and forces women into the realm of culture, and that my not intending that effect is irrelevant.)

Now the conversion of nature to culture can be seen as something like the conversion Danto posits of a mere thing to an artwork under the application of the "is" of artistic representation.  The place or location of the activity is central here too.  The actual Brillo box does not just appear in a warehouse, but also in the grocery store and in the home, as involved in domestic chores.  The Brillo box as artwork appears however in an art gallery. Warhol in creating "Brillo Box" has taken something from everyday life associated with the traditional domain of women and has brought it into the City of Art through his act of construction (which, interestingly, Danto seriously under-emphasizes:  as far as he is concerned, Warhol could have just made these objects out of cardboard or could have even just appropriated one from the warehouse, since the physical manifestation is not important the very act of making art too close to the natural and is the Dantoian rejection of the act of making as insignificant a manifestation of the patriarchal place of the "is" of artistic identification?).   

Much has been written about the danger of everyday aesthetics setting up the trivial as equal to the masterwork.  Perhaps as PP argue, the endless assertion of the superiority of the distal senses and of the fine arts insofar as they are subject to reflection and judgment is also a function of an anthropological reality, i.e. the endless assertion of feminine stereotype in art history which, they argue, is needed to provide an opposite against which male art can find meaning and sustain dominance.

I don't think that all of this comes down to saying that Danto was somehow unconsciously sexist, or at least not just that.  That would be boring even if true.  What is interesting here is the idea that Carolyn Korsmeyer, a well known philosopher of art (and a feminist), has placed these two articles together in a textbook such that anyone who reads carefully would naturally ask whether the claims made by PP can not only undercut traditional masculinist history of art but also pose problems for Danto's theory of art.  It is not that Danto is guilty of the same thing Pomoroy was when talking about Novaho blankets.  Pomoroy was clearly a formalist much in the tradition of Clive Bell in his transformation of the women's work into abstractions by nameless masters.  Danto would not abide by that, nor would his theory.  The formalist theory of Bell and Greenberg might well be the model for what Danto called Reality Theory of art which, for Danto, is replaced by his own theory of art.  In arguing against what he called purists he was obviously also arguing against formalists.  For Danto the content and context is essential to the artwork's being an artwork.  So when something enters into the realm of art it carries with it the intentions of the artist, including for example the intentions of the women who wove the blankets that are now treated as art.  That said, there may be a residual acceptance of the ideology.   There is certainly a similarity with Pomoroy in that seeing something as art by someone with art historical knowledge brings it into the world of art.  One could say that Danto to make himself clear must add a condition or two, i.e. that the seeing x as art must be constrained not only by art history but also by history of the context and intended content of the item under consideration.  This is undercut a bit however by the way that the history and content of the original designing of the Brillo boxes was undercut by replacement of those ideas by Warhol's own.

PP are mainly criticizing the acceptance of a duality and therefore of an opposition, in this case between the feminine and the masculine, between the domestic and the public, and in the way that we treat the transformation from Nature into Culture (the Nature/Culture opposition is not itself overcome).  And so they say:  "The important questions concern women artists' relationship to an ideology of sexual difference in which the notions of masculine and feminine are meaningful only in relation to each other. What accounts for the endless assertion of a feminine stereotype, a feminine sensibility, a feminine art in criticism and art history?  Precisely the necessity to provide an opposite against which male art and the male artist fine meaning and sustain their dominance."  What I am suggesting is that the opposition between Nature and Culture as understood in terms of an opposition between mere things of the home (e.g. Brillo boxes, etc.) and things in the artworld where the artworld things gain more status reproduces the feminine/masculine opposition that is the grounding of patriarchal dominance.  "Ideology is not a conscious process, its effects are manifest but it works unconsciously, reproducing the values and systems of belief of the dominant group it serves."  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

In a house of mirrors with Danto's Artworld

In the past I have posted on Danto's "The Artworld" here and here  Continuing to teach the classic essay I find myself with more questions than ever. Even with all of the color of logic in the essay Danto seems sometimes to be making logical mistakes.  For example, he refers to the work of the impressionists as non-imitations and then says that "one might almost interpret the crude drawing in Van ...drawing attention to the fact that these were non-imitations, specifically intended not to deceive" and "Logically, this would be roughly like printing 'Not Legal Tender' across a brilliantly counterfeited dollar bill, the resulting object...rendered incapable of deceiving anyone."  Really?  The point of a counterfeit bill is to make you think it is a real bill. Similarly the point of a trompe l'oeil realist painting is to get you to think you are really seeing what it represents.  So, on Danto's view, Van Gogh's painting of irises would deceive like a trompe l'oeil painting, but for its style, which somehow negates that?  This seems implausible.   

A more significant issue regards the status of what Danto calls reality theory, RT.  He says that by means of RT Van Gogh's picture "has as much right to be called as a real object as did its putative objects."  Doesn't this seem strange?  Van Gogh's picture is already a real object by anyone's account: it is a picture with real properties such as weight and so forth.  Well, not anyone's account:  Plato clearly would see it as less real than its subject, actual irises.  So at least for a Platonist, RT is a promotion in ontology.  But hardly anyone is a Platonist these days and few were in the 19th century.  Few, even then, would find it odd or innovative to say that a painting is a real physical object with physical properties.  Moreover, if the business of RT were simply to claim that paintings, such as a painting of irises, is just as real as the irises themselves, then in what sense does RT give us a theory of art?  

It really bugs me when Danto says "A photograph of a Lichtenstein [i.e. of "Whamm!" 1963] is indiscernible from a photograph of a counterpart panel from Steve Canyon" except for the fact that the photograph does not capture the scale difference.  Well, look for yourself on the Pop Culture Safari blog.  There are many differences between the two renderings, for example Lichtenstein left our the dialogue balloons.  I am not sure there is a philosophical point here except that whenever Danto says that two things are indiscernible I usually find that they are not.

What exactly does Danto mean by "this artist [the purist, like Ad Reinhardt] has returned to the physicality of paint through an atmosphere compounded of artistic theories and the history of recent and remote painting, elements of which he is trying to refine out of his own work; and as a consequence of this his work belongs in this atmosphere and is part of this history"?  This is why this is art for the 10th Street abstractionist but not for the philistine who says, like the purist, "paint is paint."  Danto may be saying simply that the artist cannot see his painting except under concepts he has learned from art theory, those concepts arranged in a historical sequence up to his own time.  Belonging to the atmosphere, on this account, just means that in order to see it as art you must know about the history of art and theory leading up to the point at which this painting was made.  My question remains: how exactly, and in a less metaphorical way, is the atmosphere supposed to be hanging?  

Danto says in the next paragraph that the difference between the purist artist and Testadura is that the purist is using the "is of artistic identification" when he says that "That black painting is black paint."  So what exactly is going on here?  If a kid points to a stick and says "this is a horse" he is using the is of artistic identification according to Danto but this does not mean that he sees the stick as art.  Somehow the "is of artistic identification: in the case of "that black painting is black" serves to identify the black painting as art. But shouldn't the sentence then read "that black painting is art"? Moreover, the odd thing about this is that whereas seeing a stick as a horse involves imaginatively adding something, i.e. horse properties, to the stick, seeing a black painting as black does not involve imaginatively adding anything, except perhaps that we now see it as art:  but it does not imaginatively add anything with respect to its blackness.  

The other examples that do not have the appearance of tautology give us a hint of what to do, but how are we supposed to take "is" in this case?  Again, Danto insists that "That black paint is black paint" is not a tautology, but it is not clear how it can be anything else unless of course it is just a funny way of saying "That all black painting is a work of art":  but again that is not really a metaphor at all, it is literally true!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

How old is the concept of fine art? Answer: as old as the Ion by Plato.

Paul Oskar Kristeller famously argued in "The Modern System of the Arts" (Problems in Aesthetics ed. Morris Weitz, The Macmillan Co., 1970, 108-164) that the "system of the five major arts, which underlies all modern aesthetics and is so familiar to us all, is of comparatively recent origin and did not assume definite shape before the eighteenth century, although it has many ingredients which go back to the classical, medieval and Renaissance thought."  (110)   This has largely been accepted as proven.  However it should at least be modified since Plato's Ion pretty much provides the basis for the system.  The five major arts are, according to Kristeller, "painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry." Plato assumes most of this system in the Ion, although in the Jowett translation, the word "art" translates "techne" and is reserved for thing that we would not consider to be part of the system of major arts, whatever that list might be.  For example, techne includes medicine and charioteering.  I want to make one caveat here:  the specific argument of the Ion is that the poet and the rhapsode do not operate from art but from inspiration, and others of what we would call fine arts are brought up, but in contrast to these two.  However, it is clear that Plato is making his own point here and, in doing so, is pretty much assuming a system of fine arts as a starting point. That he does not use a term that can be translated as "fine art" does not prove Kristeller's point.  The bottom line is that most of the group Kristeller mentioned as fine arts are clumped together in the Ion. 

Socrates starts the line of argument by saying "poetry is a whole" and then moving from there to the other arts which also constitute the whole.  The point is that Ion should be able to judge and interpret other poets than Homer since poetry is a whole.  We only learn later that he can't do this because his ability, at least hypothetically, is based on inspiration rather than rule-following skill or knowledge. However, many interpreters of the Ion have, I think justly, seen the inspiration theory as ironic and have insisted that Socrates is not complimenting Ion by saying that he is out of his mind when he practices his craft.  

Socrates then says "when any one acquires any other art as a whole, the same may be said of them."  (47)  So, after poetry, the next art discussed is painting, followed by sculpture, flute-playing, harp-playing, and the art of the rhapsode (these last three in one paragraph, so grouped together) . In each case he mentions specific individuals famous in these art forms, for example Polygnotus in painting, Daedalus in sculpture, Thamyris a mythological lyre-player, Orpheus another mythological lyre-player, and Ion himself, in the art of the rhapsode.  So how many of the fine arts do we have so far?  It seems that we have painting, sculpture, music and poetry, although the category slicing is somewhat different from our own when it comes to music and poetry, two art forms that the Attic Greeks found difficult to think apart from each other.  Poetry is definitely included since the rhapsode is included, and the art of the rhapsode is closely associated with the art of poetry in the dialogue. Moreover, the art of mimetic poetry is also closely associated with the art of painting in the Republic.  The only of the classic five excluded from Plato's list is architecture.  Plato does talk about architecture in The Statesman where he describes it as a science, although distinct from calculation.  It is a science in which the architect's business is to insure that his workers follow his instructions to completion. 

Kristeller says "if we want to find in classical philosophy a link between poetry, music and the fine arts, it is provided primarily by the concept of imitation" (115) which is true, but the point should be addressed cautiously.  Mimesis is not actually mentioned in the Ion passage discussed, and Plato only includes comedy and tragedy, i.e. theater in general, under the mimetic arts in the Republic.   Kristeller mentions this in a footnote (115) when he observes that only certain kinds of poetry are imitative for Plato, but note again that Plato does talk about non-imitative poets, for example Archilochus.  He even discusses three kinds of poetry in the Republic in Book III when he discusses style:  imitative poetry (comedy and tragedy), non-imitative poetry (dithyramb) and mixed (epic).  

Kristeller's argument seems to rest on the idea that architecture is not included. But this is not convincing since the list of fine arts has changed more than once over history, with architecture being added later along with dance and gardening, and with gardening dropping out even later.  Today, the concept of "fine art" is seen as somewhat anachronistic and to the extent that there is any canonical group it would include any aspect or part of any discipline that seems sufficiently like what has previously been called fine art:  so this would include some gardens, Japanese tea ceremonies, some video games, and so forth.  

Kristeller also mentions that music and dance "are treated as parts of poetry and not as separate arts" which is true, but again no real argument for his overall claim.  Also it is not as though Plato does not say specific things about dance and music distinct from claims made about poetry more generally.  More shockingly, Kristeller seems to think that Plato would group the imitative arts with the use of the mirror and with magic tricks, failing to see that this is not a matter of categorization but rather a rhetorical move on Plato's part. (116) In the Ion when he talks about arts as a whole he does not include these categories:  there are no famous users of mirrors or magic tricks in the way that there are famous poets etc.

Kristeller's confusion about Plato is further evidenced in a footnote in which he says that Plato "arrived at his distinction between productive and imitative arts without any exclusive concern for the 'fine arts' since imitation is for him a basic metaphysical concept which he uses to describe the relation between things and Ideas."  (115)  This is wrong:  Plato clearly distinguishes the relation between the bed made by the carpenter and the Idea of the bed from that between the painting of the bed and the physical bed (in Book X of the Republic).  He only calls the second "imitation" strictly speaking.  

So, based on Plato's writings at least, there did seem to be an implicit list of the fine arts in ancient Greece, one not based on Plato's notion of mimetic art or even on some notion of arts of inspiration.    

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

John Dewey "The Live Creature"

The first chapter of Art as Experience appears in part Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  This is where Dewey tells us that understanding fine art requires a detour into the aesthetics of everyday life.  Most people today who are working on everyday life aesthetics go at it from a different angle, and so it is worthwhile to be reminded that Dewey himself was interested primarily in the dynamic relationship between everyday aesthetic phenomena and the refined experiences of fine art.  He recognizes that he is extending the concept of the aesthetic when he applies it to the experience of someone who is standing before a fire and poking the burning wood, or the experience of the housewife tending to her plants.  But he also believes this is necessary in order to uncover the vast material upon which the refined experiences of fine art are ultimately based.  In a way, he is engaged in a critique of modernity and calling for a partial return to earlier ways of dealing with the world.  When he does talk about something widely regarded as a great work of art, for example the Parthenon, he calls on us to try to re-experience the way in which this building met very specific needs of the people of Athens, needs that did not fit into the compartmentalized notion of art.  He speaks of the role that the Parthenon played in the civic religion of the people of Athens and how they experienced it in terms of that role.  For Dewey, the Parthenon is only aesthetically valuable insofar as it is experienced by human beings.  Theorizing about the republic of art of which the Parthenon is part requires moving beyond personal enjoyment to consideration of the social context of its origin.  But this is not to be seen as a mere sociological inquiry.  Rather, and this is the surprising conclusion of the paragraph, the theorizing critic needs to consider what the Athenians, both creators and appreciators, have in common with us, i.e. with "people in our own homes and on our own streets" i.e. with the average individual in the modern world.  Gadamer would say that this is a matter of fusion of horizons, but again the point is what we can learn from our understanding of the Athenian experience of the Parthenon about how to approach the theory of art.

This reference to people in our homes is the transition to the paragraph in which he talks about the importance of aesthetics "in the raw" i.e. the "sights that hold the crowd."  The Parthenon as "civic commemoration" contrasts quite dramatically with our contemporary fascination with such sights.  We are not engaged in civic commemorations of the sort we find in the Panathenaic procession when we appreciate, as Dewey encourages us, the "human fly climbing the steeple-side."  This, instead, is just the kind of thing that is commemorated in the socially engaged art of Dewey's own time, for example in popular photography of Life magazine.  

So, although we may be engaged in a civic commemoration when we appreciate this kind of thing, it is a very different kind, one that is not connected with a specific ritual, or even with something truly communal.  I said earlier that Dewey is engaged in a critique of modernity, but it is not total.  There is something of the love of modernity in this fascination with the urban world, with, e.g. "the fire engine rushing by" and with the individual's response to this sight.  There is also something democratic in Dewey's inclusion of the "housewife in tending her plants" and the "mechanic engaged in his job" under this expanded conception of the aesthetic.  What we have is a call for a return to satisfactions that would have been made available to us by "earlier craftsmen" insofar as the "conditions of the market" fail to encourage sufficiently the kind of "artistically engaged" action of the "intelligent mechanic."  But we do not have a call for a return to civic religion. 

Another feature in this modified critique of modernity is a certain amount of praise extended to the Athenians for having their various arts be parts of a "significant life of an organized community" in which painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, music and so forth are all organized together to consummate "the meaning of group life."  The opposite of the compartmentalized conception of fine art which we find today is one in which the arts work together, and also in which they work together as part of "group life." 

What Dewey wants to call us back to is the "intimate social connection" that has been "lost in the impersonality of a world market."  What we need in our own time are aesthetic perceptions that "are necessary ingredients of happiness" rather than "compensating transient pleasurable excitations."  Clearly this happiness is closely tied to the notion of intimate social connection.