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. 

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