Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dewey on the pervasive whole and the media of art

In his Art as Experience, specifically in his chapters on "Substance and Form" and "The Common Substance of the Arts" Dewey addresses the issues of medium and media.  In a way, this is a key to Dewey's way of thinking.  The medium is the material which is transformed in the creative process.  A good way to understand Dewey is in terms of the relationship between the public world, the creative process of the artist, the product, and the creative process of the audience.  The creative process can be seen as taking materials from the public realm translating them through the individual and then presenting the transformed product to the public again.  All of these things are organically connected.  For instance, Dewey tells us that "the work of art is complete only as it works in the experience of others." The audience's experience is required for the work to happen.  Dewey speaks specifically of the triad:  "the speaker, the things said, and the one spoken to" or the external object object, the artist and the audience.  In the creative process the artist acts as though she were the audience, and she responds to the emerging work as though spoken to by what she perceives, treating the work as if it were a new child to be understood, i.e. in order to grasp its meaning.  

Dewey suggests that matter does not come first in search of a form to embody it, but rather the creative effort of the artist is to form material so that it will be "the authentic substance of a work of art." We do not separate the aesthetic value of sense materials from that of the form that makes them expressive.  Beauty is not then seen as some transcendent essence in the mode of Plato that descends on matter from without, but as "the esthetic quality that appears whenever material is formed in a way that renders it adequately expressive."  Form, contrary to someone like Clive Bell, is something that emerges "whenever an experience gains complete development."  That is, it is a function of this three-way interaction.

We should not see the art product as a mere self-expression where the self is "self-contained in isolation" for, then, substance would be different from form.  But substance and form ultimately, and ideally, are one.  The self-revelation of the artist cannot be something external to what is expressed.  Self-expression is required nonetheless.  The reason for this is that the free play of individuality and any freshness or originality the work may have comes with this.  

Again, Dewey wants to give credit both to the public realm and to the individuality of the creative artist.  The material of the work of art comes from the common world. but self-expression exists because "the self assimilates...material in a distinctive way" a way that makes old material new, fresh and vital.  The self then also puts that material back out into the public world in the form of a created object.  If those who perceive this object also reconstruct this in their own novel experiences the result will be appropriately called "universal." The material cannot be private:  that would be solipsistic and the true solipsist would be considered mad.  It is rather the way that the common material is assimilated that is individual. 

So a work of art is only actually such when it "lives in some individualized experience," and is recreated every time it is experienced aesthetically.  Dewey uses the Parthenon as his example.  You cannot ask what its creator really meant and get anything of value since, first, he would have found different meanings in the work himself at different times in the creative process and even after completion of the work, and second, because artists generally mean by a work whatever the audience member gets out of it in virtue of his or her own vital experience.  The Parthenon continues to inspire new personal experiences and only this makes it universal.  Moreover, one could never experience it in the way a contemporary Athenian would have.  The work, or what Dewey calls the "substance," is formed in such a way that it can "enter into the experiences of others and enable them to have more intense and more fully rounded out experiences of their own."  As opposed to Clive Bell, the work as form/substance is "a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it....becomes material for the construction of adequate experience" in the audience.  We just saw Dewey use the word form and the word substance, but in fact as can be seen here, he does not really distinguish the two.  His ontology of the artwork is simply this: "the work itself is matter formed into esthetic substance."  The critic or the theorist or the artist might distinguish between form and substance in terms of "the how" and "the what" of what is produced, yet the act is what it is because of how it is:  manner and content are integrated.

But what binds these things together?  It is the "pervasive quality" that makes the work of art. or any example of "an experience." a unified whole.  If a part does not have that quality it does not belong.  Again Dewey describes this in terms of sanity and the relation between the individual and the public realm.  An immediate sense of "an extensive and underlying whole is the context of every experience and it is the essence of sanity."  The insane is that which is "torn from the common context" and thus appears in a world totally other than our own.  All material requires setting to be coherent.  

It is here that Dewey seems to violate the principles of pragmatism itself since the work of art not only accents the quality of its being a whole but also the quality of belonging to a larger whole, which Dewey calls"the universe in which we live."  The "in which we live" is important here. Dewey is not speaking of the physical universe so much as of our lived universe, our world.  Each sentence of the paragraph in which this passage appears needs to be explained in detail.  The quality of unity which exists at these two levels explains "the feeling of exquisite intelligibility and clarity we have in the presence of an object that is experienced with aesthetic intensity."  It is more clear and intelligible, and perhaps even more intense, because of its harmonious situation within a larger unity. And this in turn explains why religious feeling accompanies such aesthetic intensity. 

This need not be a dropping off point for an atheist since Dewey is by not means positing a God.  He is simply pointing out the source of religious feeling and an aesthetic intensity accompanied by a sense of greater clarity when encountering great art or magnificent nature:  it is the background sense of a larger unity that is somehow harmoniously one with the pervasive quality of the work.  Oddly, the pervasive quality would not even be present without the background unity since the intensity of the pervasive quality depends on it.  Dewey speaks of us being introduced to "a world beyond this world" which on first reading might be seen as the transcendent realm.  But he makes clear this world is really just "the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences." We always live in a world.  We always experience things against a background which can be a larger whole or not. Dewey believes the "sense of an enveloping undefined whole" that accompanies every experience is clarified and deepened by the work of art, or rather, I suspect, by the great work of art. 

He speaks of this experience moreover as finding ourselves and as "an expansion of ourselves" insofar as satisfying aesthetic experience gives the world meaning that goes beyond mere egotism.  In this experience we become citizens of a vast world, and get a "satisfying sense of unity in itself and with ourselves."

Further, this sense of a "qualitative pervasive whole" is carried by the medium of the work of art insofar as a specialized organ, e.g. sight or hearing, touches the world.  A painting touches the world portrayed without the impurities of ordinary perception in which the other senses are involved.  And now color alone must "carry the qualifies of movement, touch, sound, etc.," that were present in ordinary vision.  This enhances both the expressiveness and the energy of color.      



Friday, October 23, 2015

More on Korsmeyer on Food as Fine Art

I have posted previously on Korsmeyer on food as art but am not sure I have done full justice to her position.  I think that one of reasons Korsmeyer rejects food as fine art is that efforts in previous centuries to treat it as such were often based largely on piggy-backing on other art forms.  So, for example, she includes an illustration from the 17th century of decorative carved fruits and from the 19th century of elaborate decorative concoctions by Careme, and writes, "we may also note an objection to decorative food that points to an adventitious element to the representational capacities of food:  the examples of symbolic function in food [discussed in her book] are largely the result of visual manipulation" (126) where the artist treats the food in the same way a sculptor would treat marble. Korsmeyer notes that this objection comes from Larry Shiner and that she herself does not think this shows "poverty of symbolic possibility for food." It simply shows that eating involves more than one sense.  But the "objection" nonetheless may be a motivating factor in her rejecting food as fine art.  I think the problem is little different from problems in other media, for example in film, where early forms often imitated other art forms, whereas as the medium developed it came to have forms that were more its own.  If we look at the visual appearance of dishes in contemporary high-end restaurants we find that they are no longer crudely representational or imitative of architecture, sculpture or other art forms, although they may have some affinities with these.  The idea is that the form, color and texture of the presentation should combine with the various tastes to present an experience overall.  As John Dewey would say, it is the experience that is the work of art, not the physical object taken alone and isolated from context.  I also think that, as I have argued previously, the gastronomical experience includes a multiplicity of elements including the place of dining, the service and even the background sounds and smells. These various elements are hierarchically arranged, so that the center of the experience is the food on the plate, and the peripheries, such as the architectural setting, are intended to enhance that experience.  (This can go either way, of course.  An architecture enthusiast might go to the restaurant mainly for the architecture, the food serving mainly as an enhancing periphery.) Even the clothes fashions of the other diners can be part of the overall aesthetic experiences (that one is for you, Karen), although this is much less under the control of the artist (i.e. the chef or the restaurateur) and would not be included in the judgment of the performance.  I say "performance" since I think of the art of food presentation as a performance art where it is the event that is to be judged in the end, not just the individual object that is consumed.  

Although Korsmeyer thinks that food can meet some of Goodman's "symptoms of the aesthetic" including "exemplification" and "relative repleteness" she thinks that there are important differences between food and the fine arts, that the concept of art as fine art is "a poor category to capture the nature of foods and their consumption." (141) There is some confusion here, however.  She lists fine arts as "paintings, sculptures, poems and symphonies." Let's take painting.  This is a vast category including much that is not fine art.  Painting refers to paint on some support such as canvas or wall.  It can include graffiti art, children's murals, kitsch seascapes in Carmel, works by Thomas Kinkade, and painted works by David Hockney.  Painting is a somewhat different kind of concept than "sculpture" which seems to be limited to three-d constructions that are works of art, although there are many three-d art works that are arguably not sculptures. Moreover, there are a vast number of three-d figures, for example in religious shops or in tourist galleries, that could be seen as sculptures but not as fine art. The concept of fine art does not capture of nature of foods and their consumption because not all food is fine art just as not all painting and not all things called sculpture are fine art.  

Korsmeyer makes the interesting point that food and art do not have parallel histories.  I have perhaps not taken this point seriously enough in the past.  It certainly is true, and no one will contest it, that food and art have different histories.  The art books appear together in one part of our libraries, the food books in another part. But history has a way of bringing things together that were previously apart and vice versa.  Gardens were once considered to be fine art and then began to lose that status in the 19th century, becoming a kind of adjunct to architecture.  Then, in the second half of the 20th century some gardens began to gain the status of fine art again, often when the garden was designed by someone well known as a sculptor, for example Robert Irwin's garden at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.  Although I agree with Korsmeyer that food has its own history, I also believe that food has been converging with painting, sculpture and performance art in recent years, particularly in high-end restaurants, so that some food productions can now partake in and draw from those traditions, although again, only if this is done with care and not as a form of inauthentic piggy-backing.  Something similar has happened in fashion design.  

I think that Korsmeyer's inability to see great restaurant food as fine art is partly because of her focus on other kinds of food presentation, ones associated with festival aesthetics.  She says:  "I hope that the examples of ritual and ceremonial eating and the complex situations in which foods and tastes exemplify metaphorical properties lay to rest the idea that tasting and eating are to be appreciated only for sensuous enjoyment. The uses of foods and rink for religious and commemorative purposes clearly foster, even force, reflection on the meaning of the event taking place....unlike music or other fine art, however, this sort of reflection....is not a mark of greatness for food as food."  (142) What is left out is that great restaurant food exemplifies metaphorical properties in complex ways (often drawing on many of the meanings associated with food in these other contexts) and fuses these with sensuous enjoyment.   It might be thought that fine restaurant food is just for sensuous enjoyment, and it is true that sensuous enjoyment is the main focus of the dining experience, but this enjoyment is enhanced significantly by the various other properties metaphorically exemplified and the various other stories told.  The concept of "food as food" can be distorting of the issue insofar as it isolates food from its complex meaning content, flattens it out, as it were.  It would be like those who say that art should only be addressed in terms of the isolated object, art as art, and not in terms of any contextual considerations which may enhance its meaning.  


Monday, October 19, 2015

Dewey's version of expression theory, or his definition of art

Too much has perhaps been said about Dewey's theory of art as experience insofar as this focus has directed readers away from Dewey's central views on the nature of art itself.   Just as Dewey observed that great works of art can hide fundamental facts of aesthetics, Dewey's great idea of "an experience" can hide facts about his even richer view of the nature of art.  It might be helpful then to skip over those passages and think about what makes something artistic for Dewey.  This material comes at the end of his chapter on "Having and Experience" in Art as Experience, but then is spread out throughout other aspects of the book as well.  I am working now with the selection found in Stephen David Ross's Art and its Significance.   

Before going on, I should note a significant mistake in the Ross edition.  The selection from "Substance and Form" actually goes to page 213 bottom, and the selection from "The Common Substance of the Arts" begins with "The undefined pervasive quality" on the bottom of that page, not halfway down page 214 where the title appears in this selection.  Actually "unit in itself and with ourselves" is continuous with "every work of art" on that page.  So, in short, the heading "The Common Substance of the Arts" should be moved to the bottom of page 213.

To have a theory of art you need a definition of art, and there is a definition of art implicit in Dewey, a definition which sees art as expression.   This expression has to do with a dynamic relationship between the artist and his or her audience.  In this respect Dewey is carrying on in the tradition of Tolstoy.  

Also striking here is that for Dewey art is an activity.  "Art denotes a process of doing or making."  It does something with physical material.  He explicitly mentions "molding of clay, chipping of marble, casting of bronze" and so forth, through the various traditional fine arts.  The result must be "visible, audible, or tangible."  So the dynamic relationship goes beyond author and audience to materials.  As much as Benedetto Croce thought that Dewey was simply following him, this is far from an idealist theory of art.  

Dewey also stresses that art is a "skilled action," here in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, who described art as "perfection in execution."  Not only materials but skill in the making process is important.  This idea has not been popular in contemporary aesthetics, although it was picked up again by Dennis Dutton in his The Art Instinct.  Although art is skilled action, this would only count as a necessary condition for fine art, and as we shall see, Dewey is concerned that overemphasis on this condition would lead to an overly limited definition of art.

This emphasis on doing/making is not to say that Dewey is unaware of the other side of art, that of the consumer - what is commonly called the "esthetic" side. Instead he stresses both the perceiving, appreciative side and the skillful side of art.  The two are to be distinguished but not separated, this because the object is produced for the consumer and its value is found in its consumption.  

Although skill is important, mere perfection of execution is not the goal.  Dewey is similar to Tolstoy to this extent:  he thinks that the good artist, far from simply being good at technique, "has an experience of his own that he was concerned to have those share who look at his products." Dewey measures this in terms of the greatness of the artist. Cezanne is a great painter even though not a great technician, Sargent a great technician but not a great painter.

But what really makes Cezanne great?  Perhaps this is answered in the next paragraph.  Dewey mentions there that in order to distinguish artistic craftsmanship from craftsmanship that is not artistic we need to consider it "loving" in the sense that the artist cares deeply about "the subject matter upon which skill is exercised." This does not mean that the artist must be exact in representation (something presumably that Sargent could accomplish).  Rather, the artist must have "an experience of his own" that he/she wishes to share with others.  This takes us back to Dewey's discussion of "an experience."  Presumably Cezanne had "an experience" and Sargent did not. (This is not fair to Sargent, but this is not my concern here.)  So the relationship needed for art is between artist/receiver and subject matter insofar as that is itself "an experience."

This leads to a kind of definition of "artistic" if not of art:  "to be truly artistic, a work must also be esthetic - that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception."  That is, to be art it must be both a making and esthetic, and this is understood in terms of the relationship between the artist and his or her audience. The perception of the artist should be aesthetic also in the sense that it is not merely mechanical.   Further, the work must be the result of "constant observation"  which involves esthetic, not mechanical, or "cold and colorless" perception. 

So, we are not to understand art simply as an experience, but rather as a kind of "an experience," one that is mutual between artist and audience:  "Art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience to be an experience."  But in this case, the doing and undergoing are applied to the artist and the audience in their dynamic relation.  What Dewey calls "esthetic art" eliminates whatever is not conducive to the mutual organization of the active and receptive aspects of art experience, the making and the consumption:  "the doing or making is artistic when the perceived result is of such a nature that its qualities as perceived have controlled the question of production."  The artist selects those traits that are conducive to such "interpenetration" of his action and the audience's reception.  In short, the definition of art for Dewey is essentially dynamic in the interaction between artist and receiver. 

This idea of art is elaborated on in the next chapter on "The Expressive Object."  Whereas other theorists may just want to define art in terms of the result, Dewey is equally concerned with "action and its result."  We should not view the object in isolation from the process which produced it. The process, as he often observes, comes from the interaction between a live creature (the artist in this case) and his or her environment, and as we shall see, that environment is very much the public realm.  It is a mistake, Dewey believes, both to "ignore the individual contribution" of the artist and to isolate the process of expression from the "expressiveness possessed by the object."  We should not see expression as a mere "discharging of personal emotion."  So, to put it another way:  a work of art presents material "passed through the alembic of personal experience" and yet the material comes from "the public world."  Dewey insists that the "oppositions of individual and universal, of subjective and objective, of freedom and order...have no place in the work of art" for expression as personal and as objective are "organically connected."  That is, the work of art is both individual and universal, both subjective and objective, both freedom and order. 

So a work of art is representative not in the sense of being a literal reproduction, for it has a uniqueness "due to the personal medium through which scenes and events have passed," that is, the above-mentioned alembic.  At the same time, the artist also "tells something to those who enjoy it about the nature of their own experience of the world" insofar as the artwork "presents the world in a new experience which they undergo."  Art is about the public world, the world of everyday life.  Moreover, it contributes to constitution of the world for others in a new way:  it provides the possibility not only of "an experience" i.e. with a work of art, but also transformed experience of life outside of art. 

Dewey observes that there are some who deny that works of art have meaning.  They certainly do not have meaning in the way that signboards do, or in the way that scientific propositions do.  The meaning of art is unique.  At the same time we do not want to insist that the meaning is "so unique that it is without community or connection with the contents of other modes of experience than the esthetic."  That would make art merely esoteric, which Dewey rejects.  (The formalism of Clive Bell might be an aesthetic theory of that sort.)  Rather, the unique quality of the work of art is "that of clarifying and concentrating meanings contained in scattered and weakened ways in the material of other experiences."  Art clarifies and concentrates meaning by expressing meaning in materials.

That, in short, sums up Dewey's definition of art.  The aesthetics of art is based on the aesthetics of life.  Art, as opposed to science, expresses "the inner nature of things" by which he means that it does not lead to experience in the way that a scientific claim can be confirmed by an experiment, but rather "constitutes" experience as meaningful. The two examples Dewey focuses on to explain this are the way that Tintern Abbey "expressed itself to Wordsworth in and through his poem," and our experience of the meaning of a city which, he suggests, may "try to express itself in a celebration attended with pageantry" that would "render its history and spirit perceptible."  

It is interesting that Dewey chooses here not just to focus on the expressive qualities of a poem but also on the way in which a pageant can operate as a kind of artwork that expresses a city.  It is not just the self that is expressed in art (as we would find in Collingwood, for example) but also larger units, such as a city or a culture.   He goes on that the visitor who "permits himself to participate" in this city celebration has "an expressive object" which is similar in some ways to the poem:  neither is a "correct descriptive statement.   

(Nietzsche uses Wordworth's "Tintern Abbey" to explain his point, but in a strange way since he thinks the poem reveals something about the abbey.  In reality the poem never mentions the abbey except in the title.  It actually describes a scene a few miles upriver from the abbey.  It has been said that Wordsworth intended the reference to the abbey to add to his tendency to spiritualize nature.  Based on reading the poem it is difficult to see how Tintern Abbey could have expressed itself in Wordsworth's poem.) 

Dewey's definition of art then shows art to be necessarily interconnected with the creative process and the process of reception as well as with the public world which forms the material of expression.  Philosophy of art for Dewey must be based on the aesthetics of everyday life which includes also the aesthetics of the creative process of the artist and the aesthetic of the receptive process of the viewer.  

A bit more could be said about Dewey's implicit definition of art can be said in relation to the chapters on "Substance and Form" and on "The Common Substance of the Arts" since work on the ontology of art is surely related in some way to definition of art.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Women Aestheticians

There has been much discussion in the media recently about how philosophy tends to be a male-dominated field.   This is perhaps not as true in aesthetics (although I know of one classroom anthology that only has one female writer).  Here is a list of some of my female heroes in aesthetics, along with one of their publications. (I make not claim that the listed publication is the author's most important).  I will add to this list from time to time.  When I started this project I forgot that Christy Mag Uidhir had already done one on his blog here which is more extensive than mine.  It is organized towards producing more gender appropriate anthologies.  So let's just say this is my personal list.


Sally Banes. Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage.  1998. 

Annette Barnes.  On Interpretation. 1988.

Emily Brady.  Aesthetics and the Natural Environment.  2003.

Peggy Brand.  "Disinterestedness and Political Art."  in Carolyn Korsmeyer  Aesthetics:  The Big Questions. 1998.

Amy Coplan.  co-editor.  Empathy:  Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. 2014.  

Eva Dadlez. What's Hecuba to Him?: Fictional Events and Actual Emotions (Literature and Philosophy) 1997.  

Ellen Dissanayake.  Homo Aestheticus:  Where Art Comes From and Why.  1995.  

Jane Duran.  Women, Literature and Philosophy. 2007.

Marcia Mueldor Eaton.  Aesthetics and the Good Life.  1989.

Catherine Z. Elgin.   with Nelson Goodman.  Reconceptions in Philosophy:  and Other Arts and Sciences.  1988.

Susan Feagin.  Reading with Feeling:  The Aesthetics of Appreciation.  1996.

Jane Forsey.  The Aesthetics of Design.  2013.

Cynthia Freeland.  But is it art?  2002.

Lydia Goehr.  The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works.  2007.

Karen Hanson.  "Dressing Down Dressing Up."  1990.

Jean Gabbert Harrell. Profundity:  A Universal Value.  1995. 

Hilde Hein.  Public Art:  Thinking Museums Differently. 2006. Hilde was an early mentor of mine.  We co-edited the newsletter for the American Society for Aesthetics for many years. 

Kathleen Higgins.  The Music of Our Lives.  1991.

Sherri Irvin. "Scratching and Itch."  Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  66: 1.  2008.  

Jennifer Judkins.  Jennifer has published a number of articles in the major aesthetics journals.

Deborah Knight.  "Aesthetics and Cultural Studies."  2003.

Carolyn Korsmeyer.  Gender and Aesthetics:  An Introduction. 2004.

Suzanne Langer.  Feeling and Form.  1977.

Sheila Lintott.   "Toward Eco-Friendly Aesthetics."  2006.

Sandra Rudnick Luft.  Vico's Uncanny Humanism.  2003.  Luft was my adviser for my M.A. in Humanities from SFSU.  

Sally Markowitz.  "Guilty pleasures:  aesthetic meta-response and fiction."  Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism 50:4 (1992) 307-316.  

Mara Miller.  The Garden as an Art.  1993.

Iris Murdoch.  The Sovereignty of Good.   1991.

Katya Mandoki.  Everyday Aesthetics.  2007.

Mary Mothersill.  Beauty Restored.  1986.  

Martha Nussbaum.  Love's Knowledge:  Essays on Philosophy and Literature.  

Monique Roelofs.  The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic.  2014.  

Jenefer Robinson.  Deeper than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art.  2005. 

Stephanie Ross.  What Gardens Mean.  2001.  

Cynthia Rostankowski.  "Motivating Aesthetics,"  Journal of Aesthetic Education, 2003.  Rostankowski has been my aesthetics colleague at San Jose State for many years.

Barbara Sandrisser.  "On Elegance in Japan."  in Aesthetics in Perspective ed. Kathleen Higgins.  1996.  

Yuriko Saito.  Everyday Aesthetics. 2007.

Elaine Scarry. On Beauty and Being Just. 2001.

Barbara Savedoff.  Transforming Images: How Photography Complicates the Picture.  2000.

Anita Silvers. "The Story of Art Is The Test Of Time." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer, 1991. Silvers wrote a number of great articles for this journal.  She was also my first aesthetics teacher and basically inspired me to pursue the field.

Ellen Handler Spitz.  Inside Picture Books.  1999.

Mary Bittner Wiseman.  The Ecstasies of Roland Barthes. 1989.

Julie van Camp.   John Dewey's Notion of Qualitative Thought. 2014.  Van Camp is currently Secretary/Treasurer for the American Society for Aesthetics.

Rachel Zuckert, Kant on Beauty and Biology: An Interpretation of the Critique of Judgment. 2007.

Some hard to answer student comments and questions about Clive Bell

One of my students, Oscar, asks: if a form moves us by its preciseness can this not equally well give us an aesthetic emotion? Another student, Edgar, similarly asks whether the very existence of detail in a work like Paddington Station could not have a similar effect to that of significant relations of lines and colors.  (Isn't detail of some sort a special kind of relation of lines and colors?)  I am just not sure that Bell has a good reply to either of these points. Precision and detailed quality are not in themselves merely associations or suggestions of everyday emotions.  So they cannot be excluded for that reason.  Bell obviously wants to oppose an imitation theory of art, especially one that counts highly detailed realist art the best sort of art.  He favors the Post-impressionists over such realists.  But why? 

It is an interesting peculiarity of Bell's theory that it is both subjective in one respect and objective in another.  It is subjective in that different people can experience significant form in different things.  It is objective in that it gives us an objective definition of art.  But this objective definition would not allow us to sort things that have significant form from things that do not because of the subjective dimension.  Isn't this a paradox?  After all, we expect something more of what is objective.  I owe this thought to something Stephanny said. Makayla similarly says that she feels Bell contradicts himself "with the idea that descriptive paintings are not art" while also claiming that you cannot argue about taste.  I think that we associate the issue of "what is art?" with the issue of taste so closely that it is hard to follow Bell in saying that something is not art and that this has nothing to do with taste.

Laki wonders "how does someone say that art is subjective, but condemn a particular work of art?"  and "you do not recognize the aesthetic opinions of people who enjoy a storyline in their art." Laki goes on to say that "When someone puts a story to the art or sees in in context, there is a certain satisfaction that is achieved like that of finding the right piece of the puzzle that was missing before."  This may be similar to the first point I raised.  How is enjoying relations of lines and colors in a rapturous way, which we get from significant form, all that different from the rapture of finding the right piece in a puzzle?

Tracey raises a problem with Cezanne as an exemplar of significant form.  The problem is that students do not initially enjoy these relations of lines and colors.  Cezanne is just not easy to enjoy at first.  Bell stresses so much that different people experience different things as having significant form and yet he sets up Cezanne as an exemplar.  Let's say that all people do not have the ability to develop of love of Cezanne.  Is this problematic for Bell's theory?  Of course one important reason Bell prefers Cezanne is that he deliberately does not make his painting realistic looking and so he inhibits ordinary everyday emotional responses.  

One student, Jenny, asked what response Bell would have to minimalism.  This is an interesting question.  Take an all-red painting.  It would seem not to have relations of lines and colors since it only has one color and no lines.  And yet it does have lines: the four edges of the painting are lines.  We do not normally notice these, but in minimalist art we do.  Also, many minimalist pieces actually have very subtle differences in shadings of single color:  so in fact there are relations of colors and lines here.  In the end I think Bell would be very keen on minimalist art.

Carlos asks "could a political cartoon achieve its purpose of getting the message to the audience and the artist still provide and implement significant form..."  Bell thinks that a descriptive painting can have significant form, but Carlos raises the question of whether some things are not impossible to see as anything other than illustrations.  At the same time, there are some political cartoons, for example the work of Daumier, which do move us not only as clever or politically apt but also as examples of powerful form.  In this case perhaps the form simply enhances the political message.  

Shawn asks whether it takes a Humean good judge to decide whether a piece of art is emotional in the sense of presenting us the aesthetic emotion.  This is an interesting issue:  Bell explains significant form by offering us a group of art works that have it, and they include Giotto, Cezanne, Poussin, as well as some non-western art.  It would seem that one would need a lot of training, what Hume called practice and comparison, to be able to see significant form in such a wide range of things.  Also, Bell does think that a good critic can lead us to see significant form in something.  So it does seem that he presupposes a Humean good judge, and yet he says, perhaps in a contradictory way, that there is no disputing about taste.  Related to this, Terry says "isn't there some prior knowledge for the interaction of lines and colors" to give us this special aesthetic emotion, or is it innate?  If prior knowledge is needed we have the return of the good judge.   



 


Thursday, October 15, 2015

What is Toggling? Disambiguating Brand’s Story about Disinterestedness and Political Art



In an attempt to get clear about Peggy Brand’s defense of disinterestedness I explore her concept of toggling and suggest a way to clear up problems.  It is not simply that looking at the painting or the performance piece would open the feminist up to more experiences of a formalist sort but that there are other layers of meaning that enhance and enrich the experience of any viewer as we work through the different forms of attention, both interested and disinterested.  The enhancement by what Brand, perhaps misleadingly, calls “toggling” is not just additive but transformative in a progressive way.

This is an attempt to get clear about Peggy Brand's defense of disinterestedness in her paper "Disinterestedness and Political Art" which appears in Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  The basic claim is that political art in general and feminist art in particular can be appreciated not only in an interested manner but in a disinterested manner, in fact that it should be appreciated in both ways:  both disinterestedness and interestedness afford, taken together, the "fullest and fairest experience of a work of art."  The initial question to answer is why Brand, a feminist, would want to leave room for disinterested perception, which she herself labels as masculinist.  I think that Brand's approach is mostly correct, but sorting out the actual argument for it is difficult, and there are some ambiguities that need to be resolved.  A clue comes in her discussion of the history of the concept of disinterestedness.  She observes that disinterestedness was "both a moral and an aesthetic ideal" opposed to "private interest" and "serving one's own ends." It was contrasted with the desire to possess the object.  Relating this to the beautiful in women, we find that in Burke's writing the female body is only perceived as beautiful "if the sole interest of the perceiver is in perceiving for its own sake and not in the desire for possession." (156) 

Although Brand does not make this clear (and may not be aware of it herself), the original motive of disinterestedness was in the right direction from the standpoint of feminism. Perceiving a woman for her own sake and not as a possession is perceiving her as having her own ends. That is, disinterested attention, directed by men towards women is actually conducive to feminism both on an ethical and on an aesthetic level.  This establishes that disinterested perception has some value, even in the 18th century version, although during that period it was not always practiced with honesty.  In observing the female nude a "natural" reaction for a heterosexual male is sexually interested (I am not sure why Brand puts "natural" in quotes here.)  A much more problematic reaction is desire to possess and exploit the woman under question.  Disinterested perception breaks or at least brackets these predispositions. 

Brand then discusses this issue in relation to Arnheim's discussion of Ingres' La Source.  Arnheim is concerned that the image is so lifelike and sensuous that it makes "the observer almost forget that he is looking at" a work of art. Brand observes that the male observer has an "automatic response to the sexuality depicted" and it is difficult to be disinterested as a result. So, Arnheim's response is initially "unabashedly interested." Nonetheless Arnheim is subsequently able to focus on formal properties of the painting, i.e. the devices that make it "such a complete representation of life." Brand observes that he is able to isolate and interpret these properties because, as he says in another book, he can "peel off the context" to perceive the object "as though it existed in complete isolation" i.e. by way of "an abstraction" blocking associations with, as Brand puts it, "actual nude girls."  

This attempt to achieve mastery over one's own bodily response is, however, seen by most feminists as masculinist and as wrongful psychological censure.[1]  But Brand sees it as useful for the purposes of feminism.  It is not that she thinks that the observer can become totally neutral and unbiased or that one can become an unflawed mirror (as Stolnitz thought):  her view is that one can be disinterested in a relatively weak way, although, as we shall see, this is a weak way of putting the point.
 
Brand's main example is the work of Orlan called The Reincarnation of St. Orlan, a performance work in which Orlan seeks to represent "an ideal formulated by male desire" using the medium of her own body to deconstruct such images of women, and she does this by way of submitting herself to surgery.  The goal is to get women to not engage in reconstructive surgery.  

There are a lot of issues here but I want to keep to the question of the value of disinterestedness for the feminist.  One very effective way to discuss this issue is to focus on one image from Orlan's piece:  a scene from "Seventh Plastic Surgical Operation," Nov. 21, 1993.


The issue Brand raises is whether the empathy we naturally feel towards this woman under surgery should be or even can be blocked in order to perceive her disinterestedly, i.e. in such a way as to be fascinated by the "compositions of lights and darks" and by the "indecipherable" nature of the instruments and body parts.

Brand claims that she is taking a position "between the two extremes:  the traditional endorsement of masculinist disinterestedness ...and its feminist antithesis."  She is arguing for reconfiguring the masculinist approach "along revisionist lines." This can be achieved by "toggling" between the interested and disinterested approaches. (We shall see later that “toggling” is not quite the right metaphor for what Brand proposes.)  Now with respect to the image here: "seeing a still photograph out of its original context - a videotape of the surgical process - a viewer of a single image documenting Orlan's 'Omnipresence' scrambles to clarify the ambiguities of what is seen." 
We need to bear in mind (Brand does not mention this) that single shots like this are often considered part of the artwork, or one way of perceiving the artwork, when it comes to performance pieces.  In other words the performance is the event plus the still shots, often framed in galleries, and so forth.  The artwork is a collection of various related items and events. 

Interested attention (IA) occurs when one empathizes with the artist (or with the woman pictured, if one does not know her identity), but "a quick reminder that the image is a work of art and not just a picture of someone's cosmetic surgery might cause another reversal, this time a disengagement with the rapport one has established - a reversal of personal interest - to an intellectual engagement with the content of the work of art" i.e. recognition of Orlan's goal to "deconstruct mythological images of women" --- this would be Disinterested attention (DA) in the revisionist mode: that is, such attention would "engage intellectually and disengage emotionally" with the work.

Things may be a bit confusing here.  So I will hypothesize what I think Brand is getting at.  Let us posit the movement here as one that begins with the interested attention that goes along with the exploitive male gaze (Orlan is seen as properly enhancing her features through plastic surgery in order to better accommodate male desire) followed by disinterested attention of the classic sort in which the image of Orlan is seen in terms of lines and colors in certain relations and in which the initial male gaze is bracketed, followed by a feminist interested perception, in which Orlan is seen with sympathy, followed finally by a feminist disinterested perception which incorporates feminist theory, a kind of move to greater objectivity. The entire sequence is hardly the same as toggling a light switch:  for. although it goes from IA to DA to IA and back to DA, the IAs and DAs are different.

Going back to La Source, one can attend to the work using both DA and IA.  In DA one can focus on the color, texture and balance of the painting, and from IA (of the feminist sort) one can note that it objectifies the male gaze. 

There is much rather confusing talk in Brand's paper about psychologically ambiguous images such as the famous duck/rabbit, old woman, and pronged figures.  Her idea is that we perceive similarities between our mental sets and what we disambiguate (168).  She notes that in the psychological perceptual experiment using pronged figures when we get disambiguating visual cues we will read the pronged figures one way rather than another, and that "unambiguous sexualized predispositions" similarly explain the tendency for males like Arnheim to see La Source originally in a sexualized way.  (Why Brand believes that male sexualized predispositions are unambiguous is beyond me.) DA then allows them to switch and see it in another way, and presumably opens them up (although this is not explained in this article) to a second form of IA which is feminist.  I think the best way to deal with this material on perceptual ambiguity is to skip through it quickly since there is, after all, no cumulative aesthetic value in switching between the different ways of seeing the ambiguous pictures studied by psychologists.

Brand then tells us that "What is taking place [in the first DA] is a deliberate dis-ing of the gazer's tendency to use, take advantage of, desire, or possess the girl that is pictured [in the Ingres painting];  it is an attempt to be open to receiving all the impressions that the work can provide.  It is a shift toward the eighteenth-century concept of disinterestedness, which is clearly a denial of Arnheim's initial and intrusive interests:  an attraction to the work's sensuality..."  As a heterosexual male I take offense at the idea that my way of looking at women I find sexually desirable is always associated with the desire to exploit and dominate, that I am incapable of a sexualized look that is also caring or respectful, and therefore that in order to appreciate The Nude I have to set aside these naturally exploitative desires.  I do not have to be masculinist to be masculine, although I recognize that we all may have unconscious masculinist prejudices.  But let’s set that aside for more interesting issues. 
I think I can clear up one point here.  Brand sees those habituated to the male gaze as having to "sort through the confusion of interpretations" of the image of the Ingres nude and the image of the bruised Orlan.  The interpretations in question of the nude are simply those of masculinist IA vs. classical DA.  The Orlan case is a bit more complicated as she does not present herself on the operating table as an attractive object for the masculinist IA, or rather, she does only ironically presents herself as such, since for example she is “made up” even though on the operating table, whereas in fact, under the male gaze she can only be seen as sexually unattractive unlike the nude in The Source.   So the confusion here is significantly different in type in each case. 

In her essay Brand sets up Arnheim as a kind of hero, for unlike such disinterestedness theorists as Alison and Stolnitz, he saw that the work does not simply "yield" an impression but rather that a process of abstraction/subtraction is needed to attain DA.  This process, she argues, actually adds to his experience of the painting thus making him "more open to all the impressions that the work might provide." Brand will use this idea to construct a new level of DA for the feminist, one that comes after the feminist IA.  

However, as Brand correctly observes, the initial DA, even that of Arnheim, does not provide a full experience of the work, since it blocks significance that can only be regained by "imaginative exercise of IA" i.e. a switch not only away from conditioned viewing of the image formed by the male gaze but to viewing the girl, in the case of The Source, as "embarrassed by her nakedness." Such a switch, Brand thinks, opens one to "more impressions than ever before."

What I had not realized on my first reading of Brand but which is now apparent, is that the second, feminist, IA is a matter of adding a context, of telling a story, one that may or may not be literally true....it doesn't really matter.  It doesn't matter whether Ingres’ model actually had the feelings of being embarrassed by her nakedness. What matters is that she can easily be seen under this story since this story is true to a common or general experience of women who suffer under the exploitative male gaze.  That is why Brand refers to it as "the imaginative exercise of IA."  So, rather than subtracting context, which Arnheim recommended for IA, this is a matter of adding context, of "building" interest, one that opens the viewer to more impressions. 

So the process Brand envisions is from IA to DA and then to IA (the feminist IA that adds context), and then, but Brand neglects to make this entirely clear, back to DA again by way of a bracketing of the emotional level of response in order to attain the feminist intellectual level.  This comes out, rather vaguely, when she says, "The feminist viewer of Ingre's nude or Orlan's surgeries - whose tendency is to adopt a more physically and bodily based interested stance (IA) like Arnheim's - may also benefit from the lesson of undergoing an intellectualizing and abstracting process" i.e. of moving to the second, feminist DA.  The is confused by the fact that Orlan does not adapt an IA like Arnheim's since she explicitly offers her performance pieces as representing an ideal formulated by male desire and as having the goal of discouraging women from reconstructive surgery.  So, the images from Orlan's performance can now be seen in terms of the feminist theories of Mulvey and the feminist intentions of Orlan herself.  For Brand, the benefit of DA for the feminist observer is the "intellectualizing and abstracting process" not made available through the IA of feminist empathy.  Where Brand goes wrong, and against her own intentions, is to think of the feminist as somehow benefiting from the classical IA in a direct way, saying that "the feminist who looks upon Ingres' nude formalistically is self-consciously and deliberately shedding her feminist lens to view the work as disinterestedly as possible."  The problem here is with the notion of "shedding her feminist lens."
Brand mistakes her own theory when she says that, for the feminist, "[v]iewing La Source in terms of geometry and color adds to the variety of experiences she [the feminist] gains from the piece."  (168)  That is confusing the feminist IA with the original IA.   Brand just thinks her own "revised" DA may be more difficult when it comes to political art since, in the case of Orlan, one needs to "shift toward viewing bloody facial features as combinations of reds and purples, darks and lights..."  This is coupled in Brand's mind with a "shift to reflection on the concept of women and of art exploited by the performance series."  Yet just seeing the facial features in formalist terms is not the goal at all.  The goal is to see them in terms of the feminist IA and DA.  Brand is just confusing the traditional formalist perception advocated by Clive Bell and the intellectualist perception informed by feminist theory.

There is a deep reason for this and it has to do with Brand's misconception of her own idea of toggling.  Briefly, the move from IA to DA to feminist IA and then to feminist DA is not a matter of just switching perspectives.  The previous perceptions are carried into the later ones in a way very unlike the ambiguous figures which had so misled Brand, and very much like what John Dewey refers to when he speaks of the flow of art experience being one that carries the past into the present and projects into the future.  When, in looking at the photograph of Orlan's performance, one is "looking at bloody facial features as combinations of red and purples" this is not a matter of replacing the one form of perception with the other but rather of being very aware that these are bloody facial features as we attend to them formalistically:  you can't stop thinking of the fact that they are bloody facial features. There is no purely formalist way to look at this photograph, nor do I think we should even try.  The reds and purples take on a different look, a different intensity, when we know they are reds and purples of rendered human flesh, just as the initial awareness that this is human flesh is intensified when we focus on the formalist aspect of the work.  These reds and purples take on a different meaning again (and, let me suggest, increase in intensity) when we understand the entire performance under the feminist intentions of Orlan.  The process is not just one of opening up to new experiences, but cumulative.

Brand’s conclusion is not as powerful as it should be.  It is not simply that looking at the painting or the performance piece would open the feminist up to more experiences of a formalist sort but that there are other layers of meaning that enhance and enrich the experience as we work through them.   Further, some aspect of this is even to be found in the original construction of DA in the 18th century as we look at it now under contemporary lenses, insofar as it was directed against seeing things in terms of ego and possession and moved ethically towards treating the object portrayed as a thing in itself. My conclusion is that the "toggling" (perhaps mislabeled because of its association with a mere on/off switch) Brand describes is a way to deepen our understanding of a work and that the enhancement by toggling is not just additive but transformative in a progressive way.  This has implications that go far beyond debates over feminist interpretation since Brand's concept of toggling between DA and IA contributes to resolving the great debate between formalism and contextualism.






[1] lt seems peculiar that feminists would have a problem with men censoring feelings that have negative implications for women.  I wonder whether Brand has these other feminists right here.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ted Cohen's High and Low Thinking about HIgh and Low Art

Ted Cohen's 1993 article "High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art" is something of a classic, although not widely recognized as such.  It appears reprinted in Carolyn Korsmeyer's anthology Aesthetics the Big Questions.

Cohen begins by observing that the distinctions between high and low art and between art and non-art are both indefensible, as least by strict standards, and, at the same time, indispensable, although he wonders why we need both distinctions:  "if paintings are high and pots are low, what difference does it make whether both are art?"  You can say that Shakespeare is better or deeper than The Simpsons without any need to go on and say that one is art and the other is not.  Cohen then draws an analogy to ethics, insisting that it makes sense to say that some moral obligations, for instance, that he ought to have gone to Auschwitz on a certain occasion, are purely personal, and that any appeal to theory would distort his sense of why he ought to have done this thing.  In general, he thinks his "moral landscape requires a number of landmarks" i.e. ones that include such personal obligations as well as general ones, and that the same thing is true for his aesthetic landscape.  His problem is with categories like "the forbidden" and "the permitted" which he finds no more helpful than aesthetic categories like "art and non-art" or "high and low art."  Such categories "blur and blotch" rather than illuminate his aesthetic life. Cohen then gives a long list of things he cares about (things mainly, although not exclusively, in the arts) including a movie by Hitchcock and some music by Mozart, but also The Simpsons and some other items that some would consider to fall in the category of the popular arts.  He also includes the Hebrew Bible (which some would consider not art at all) and a couple of his own stories.   

He then asks, are they art? and answers, "I suppose so, but I'm not sure that I care, and I will not advance the assertion that they are," although he would be willing to argue about it (for example, presumably, to defend the view that The  Simpsons are).  This passage is one that many of my students respond to positively.  Then he says "I think I feel a need to think of all these things as art because it somehow matters to me how they stand with other people."  Does he mean that it matters to him that they stand as art to other people or simply that it matters to him that at least other people also care about these things?  And does he care about differences between things he cares about which are not art, for example his own children, and things he cares about which are?

We quickly see that he is talking about Kant's idea that when I see something as beautiful I "demand" that others (all others) agree with me, a view which is always hard to convince people of in the classroom, but which seems strangely right anyway.  In this case the term "beautiful" is replaced by the term "art."  But, unlike Kant, whom Cohen mentions now, Cohen does not require that everyone agree with him when he finds something to be art or good art. Sometimes he thinks it would be good if a work could reach everyone, but in most cases he would limit his hopes to groups of people (some small, some larger), and he thinks this is not a bad thing.  He writes, "it is my membership in these groups [as well as his absence from certain groups, as he mentions later] that locates me aesthetically," i.e. which defines who he is.  This point is oddly reminiscent of Bourdieu, but different in the sense that Cohen thinks of these determining group relations not in terms of social classes to which one belongs usually by fiat or chance but in terms of other sorts of groups one chooses, for the most part, and values for the intimacy afforded.  You could, for example, join a jazz club or a book group where people have similar tastes.  The difference is that Bourdieu is not very interested in intimacy whereas Cohen is.  But perhaps Cohen's talk of intimacy is just the subjective side of the same coin that Bourdieu describes in Distinction.

Cohen also lists things he cares about (in the arts) "which I do not, in my caring, suppose link me to others in any way that matters to me."  His caring for chocolate ice cream of some brands and for Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldiers" surely links him with some people but not in a way that he cares about.  

These examples are hard for me since I care (a bit) for these things too and yet in each case my caring does link me to others, i.e. this brand of chocolate ice cream (Ben and Jerry's) with my wife, in ways I care about.  

The weirdest example Cohen uses is that of a photograph he once made of his son, since this photograph clearly links him with his son as well as with other family members in a way that he must care about.  However, perhaps he finds the photograph moving and his son does not, and so, even though he feels linked to his son through the photograph, it is not through shared love of the photograph. In any case, he does not think of these things as art because he doesn't suppose them to link him to others who might care for them.  

His answer to the question "why I ...would ever seriously care to assert or deny that something is art" is that "I wish to insist on or resist the idea that the thing is to be taken seriously," which is to say that "there is a kind of obligation to recognize the thing as a significant item in my life" and further that "to explain the significance in my life I must suppose that it also has a place, or deserves to have a place, in the lives of others."  Cohen considers this an answer to the question "what is art?" and as a "proto-conception of art." He also thinks this helps explain the high art/low art distinction, but it is not clear how. 

Perhaps to explain the point he observes that in attending a funeral of a friend he listened to musical works (by Mozart and Haydn) that were favorites of his friend, the music being appropriate because the friend cared for it, being something that partly defined who he was. So at the funeral Cohen bent his imagination "to the task of reaching and comprehending an aspect of" his friend, of imaginatively joining him.  Moreover, in doing so, he joined others in the room who were doing something similar.

Cohen then distinguishes between two quite incongruous ways a work of art can have trans-personal significance, one where very popular works, thought to be slight and superficial, are appreciated by many, and the other where works of great depth, like Hamlet, are believed to be capable of reaching all. 

The problem with the claim that the highest art is only for the very few implies that the connoisseur (Barbara Rose is referenced) must think that the crude people who do not appreciate what she does should be like her, otherwise the contempt she feels for them does not make sense.  So lets say that someone has contempt for Cohen's loving television: that person must supply a reason why it would be better for him to join them, and there is no such reason, especially in the case where the movie lover has contempt for TV lovers including someone like Cohen who is an equally good connoisseur in both.  

In the end, Cohen leaves us with the idea of "an affective community, a group whose intimacy is underwritten in their conviction that they feel the same about something, and that that thing - the art - is their bond."  Art is communitarian in this way:   some works connect with many people and some with only a few, and the first connection can be either of great depth or something superficial.  Or it can be something different:  in the case of the Hebrew Bible, people relate to it in a great variety of ways.  In the end, "width is neither better or worse than narrowness" which is to say, I suppose that popularity is neither bad nor good.  Cohen asserts that he needs both width and narrowness.  He even needs to be virtually alone in appreciating some things:  "I need to be like you and I need to be unlike you" since the things he is alone in liking, helps him to be himself.

After discussing this with my students the big questions that emerge are what after all is Cohen's definition of art and what is his distinction between high and low art?  Cohen seems to be very reluctant to really give a definition of art or explain the high/low distinction.  He does say that high art may be shared by a small community and low by many, but this is  hardly an original insight.  About defining art, one could hypothesize that he believes that art is whatever artifact moves him and does so in the context of a community of shared appreciators of art of that type.  If so, this would make him strangely like Tolstoy who holds that art is whatever infects others with the artist's own sincerely felt emotions and also manifests or expresses, in our own time anyway, the brotherhood of man.  There remains the problem of the extremely private art that Cohen also finds himself attracted to, art that he thinks he enjoys alone, for example the photograph of his son, and the movie, Ishtar, and which I think he thinks is not art at all It seems to me that this class of things must be vanishingly small, as I have suggested above.  When we display photographs of family in our homes we do not expect all to find them aesthetically valuable but we are presenting them to the public and at least expect positive or caring interest from people close to us.  But I suppose the point of the Auschwitz example is that just as there are some moral obligations that just go for oneself at a certain place and a certain time there are some art experiences that are totally one's own:  they are part of the much larger field.

My student Amanda has a nice comment:  "He gives a playful twist to deciding what high vs. low art is because he doesn't really think classifying them as either/or is all that important."  








Monday, October 12, 2015

The Virtue of Confusion

This is a comment on philosophy and confusion and it will be very short.  The standard view is that we need to always work through confusion to achieve clarity.  The standard view is that clarity is the goal for the rational person.  I don't know.  Actually, I disagree on some level.   What I will say now is totally unorthodox and should get my philosophy membership card torn-up.  My idea is, let's try to think of philosophy and knowledge differently.  Let's think of it as an unending process.  We can think of confusion as the beginning point of philosophy, or the end point, or the middle point.  Usually we think of it as a beginning point.  Philosophy begins with wonder, a kind of confusion.  Philosophers are well known for finding things confusing that no one else does.  Training in philosophy is learning how to question what seems to be clear and obvious.  Is that a real object in front of me?  No one would question this but a philosopher.  Descartes begins with confusion but ends with clarity.  This is supposed to be what philosophers do.   Analytic philosophy, for example, always prides itself in having the goal of clarity.  But, I want to suggest, any clarity one gets should be another point of confusion.  Shouldn't philosophy be seen more as a process, i.e. from confusion to clarity to confusion to clarity, and on and on.  There is a yin and yang of philosophy:  confusion and clarity.  There is an Apollonian and Dionysian of philosophy:  confusion and clarity.  There are a lot of people out there arguing that confusion is not always a bad thing.  May I suggest one more step, i.e. that confusion is as necessary, as useful, as valuable, as clarity.  (One could take the arguments from the "not always a bad thing" people and use some of them in support of the position I am advocating.)  Another related point:  what makes great philosophers great for me is not only their moments of great clarity but equally their moments of great confusion.  One of the reasons why encyclopedia articles in philosophy are inevitably deeply boring (including my own entries I imagine) is that everything is done to make it seem that everything is clear:  the confusion of the philosopher in question is seemingly erased.  Reading the great texts of philosophy is quite a different experience than reading the explanation.  Don't get me wrong:  I have a deep interest in clarity.  I am just beginning to realize that I have an equally deep interest in confusion, and not just because I want to uncover it or clean it up.  Part of my interest in clarity is that what is clear from one angle or at one time can, under philosophical investigation, become quite confusing. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

More on Bourdieu art and everyday aesthetics

Bourdieu's book Distinction provides an important source for everyday aesthetics.  I have already commented on it here.
But here is some more.  Sociology as Bourdieu understands it is a bit complicated...more like a combination of science and philosophy than science alone.  He insists that in order to truly understand the conditions of production and appreciation of objects of taste we need to bring culture in the normative sense back into culture in the anthropological sense.  On one level this would seem to be simply saying that we need to just give up on philosophy of art and do a kind of anthropology of taste.  But he sees this as reconnecting elaborated taste for refined objects with elementary tastes such as the taste for food flavors.  This sounds more like the kind of thing Dewey advocated:  i.e. a reformative approach not only to philosophy but also to social practices.  This appears to also be part of what Bourdieu means by "sociology."  I suppose that this is obvious to people in Sociology or at least to followers of Bourdieu.  So, sorry if I am stating the obvious.  

Bourdieu makes an interesting distinction between two ways of acquiring culture, one being in terms of educational level and one in terms of social origin:  the scholastic vs. the domestic.  And yet, he observes, the classroom also favors "those who have had early access to legitimate culture, in a cultured household, outside of scholastic disciplines."  He even notes that within the classroom there is a certain devaluing of "scholarly knowledge and interpretation" as scholastic.  Privileged, rather, is "direct experience and simple delight" which, presumably, comes to those who are cultured at home.  

The pedantic or scholarly approach, he argues, involves "mastery of a cipher or code" which gives us the "capacity to see."  That capacity is based on a certain kind of knowledge.  This is similar to Danto's theory of artistic identification where identifying something as a work of art requires an atmosphere of knowledge (but we will see later that the similarity is weak).  Here, it is perception that requires such knowledge.  Without knowledge of the code, the appreciator is lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms.  Instead, he only perceives "sensible properties," for example that this lace-work is delicate, and cannot move to the level of the "secondary meanings."  For that, he needs the appropriate concepts.  He would need such concepts, for example, to identify "the specifically stylistic properties of the work."  The encounter here is what Bourdieu calls an "act of empathy" based on cognition, i.e. decoding. 

This idea of culture, again, is in opposition to that which sees it as a matter of "insensible familiarization within the family circle," where the "enchanted experience of culture" forgets the process of concept acquisition.  Here, what is considered is "form rather than function."  It is accepted in this context, and by the formalist (whom, after all, is the referent here), that artistic seeing can be applied to anything.  In the practice of art, for example in Post-impressionism, this implies that the mode of representation is more important than its object. The distinction is virtually the same as that of Danto vs. Stolnitz, for example.  (But again, we will see that this is simplistic and that from Bourdieu's perspective Danto and Stolnitz are one.)

The artist who follows the second path intends to be autonomous, to be "master of his product."  Such an artist rejects both the a priori programs of scholars but also their a posteriori interpretations of his work.  The method is to proclaim that his work has many meanings, that it is open.  Again, what gets primacy is what the artist is master of:  form and style and not referent and function.  Necessity here is limited to the discipline itself:  there is a shift from that which imitates nature to that which imitates art, the history of art itself being the source of its experiments.

But, oddly and paradoxically, I now find Danto here!  "An art which ever increasingly contains reference to its own history demands to be perceived historically; it asks to be referred...to the universe of past and present works of art."  Such historical perception refers to that which deviates from previous art and thus makes up a new style.  This is a mastery, Bourdieu insists, that comes through "implicit learning" i.e. from "contact with works of art."   One does not, for example, have to be able to explicitly distinguish the features that makes something original in order to make or appreciate art in this mode.  

The so-called "pure gaze" of the formalist then is really one based on historical knowledge.  Bourdieu identifies it with something in Ortega y Gassett, i.e. the idea that the human or that which is associated with the passions of ordinary lives is to be rejected by the modernist artists and appreciators.  It is the aesthetic, as opposed to the ordinary, attitude.  The ordinary attitude is associated with what is called "popular aesthetic" which affirms continuity between art and life and subordinates form to function. The "popular aesthetic" is that of the working class insofar as they reject formal experimentation and any the unconventional.  The popular aesthetic requires full identification between the spectators and the characters, as in Brecht's plays.  This, then, is contrasted against Kant's notion of disinterestedness (which is now associated with y Gassett).  Formal experimentalism rejects the vulgar enjoyments of the working class.  The aesthetic, or rather the ethos, of the working class is the opposite of Kant insofar as it does not separate what pleases from what gratifies or from "the interest of reason" or the Good.  Bourdieu seems to join them in this.  

So, popular taste reduces "things of art to the things of life."  Pure taste, by contrast, is opposed to the na├»ve and half playful relationship to the world characteristic of the working class approach to art.  

This leads Bourdieu to discuss what we would call aestheticization or even artification.  Even though art itself allows the greatest scope for purifying vision or "the aesthetic disposition," it is possible to stylize life anywhere, and in doing so we may "confer aesthetic status on objects that are banal or even 'common'." In doing this we are applying aesthetic principles to "everyday choices of everyday life," for example to cooking, clothing and decoration.

So, different ways of "relating to realities and fictions" is a matter of different positions in "social space" which is a matter of the habits of different classes:  "taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier."  Thus the oppositions in cultural practices are also found in eating habits as much as in differences in appreciation of high art.  The taste of "liberty," as opposed to that of "necessity," favors the manner of presenting food over the practical value of food, thus denying function.

So we return to the issue of sociology and the surprising idea that "the science of taste and of cultural consumption begins with a transgression that is in no way aesthetic." In doing so, "it has to abolish the sacred frontier which makes legitimate culture a separate universe" simply in order to find the unity of choices or preferences within certain classes.  For example, if one takes a distanced approach to music one will also do so for food.  Bourdieu recognizes how radical this is when he says that "this barbarous integration of aesthetic consumption into the world of ordinary consumption abolishes the opposition" which is the basis of Kant's aesthetics, i.e. between taste of sense and taste of reflection, the latter only representing, for Kant, the "moral excellence" and "capacity for sublimation" that makes us truly human.  What is opposed is this "magical division" which is "sacred" and a matter of "transubstantiation."  

Danto is defeated (if Bourdieu is right, anyway) and the aesthetics of everyday life is assimilated to the aesthetics of art.  This all explains why art (high art) legitimates social differences.

If Bourdieu is right then there is something problematic about having an aesthetics of the everyday.  What we should have instead is an aesthetics in which the distinction between the everyday and the refined dissolves and the distinctions so dear to Kant and his followers are set aside.

 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Aesthetic Health

Kevin Melchionne has an idea of aesthetic health as found in an article of his called "Artistic Dropouts," to be found in Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions, a textbook I am using this semester.  The article first came out in 1998.  I did not recognize it previously, but it is one the founding documents of the new sub-discipline of everyday aesthetics.  This should not be surprising since Melchionne's later writings have also consistently addressed this issue. In  this article, Melchionne argues that aesthetic health is like emotional health.  Let us say that emotional health includes the ability to empathize with others, for example, or to control emotions.  In parallel, "an aesthetically healthy person reflects upon the pleasures that she has and seeks to discover their sources."  He further says that aesthetic health "means being open to sources of satisfaction encountered randomly in the world or proposed for our consideration by our friends" or artists through their artistic creations.  This is a matter of "being able to appreciate a decent chunk of what is offered by the world."

I doubt that any of this could be proved or established in the way we establish notions of emotional health, but it seems reasonable as a working idea.  It is interesting to contrast Melchionne's conception of the aesthetically healthy person and Hume's concept of the good judge.  They are not totally different since the good judge is someone who is not "defective" in delicacy of imagination, although it seems a stretch to speak of the good judge as healthier than others.  One difference is that Melchionne's aesthetically healthy person is interested in the sources of his or her pleasures, whereas this does not seem to be an interest of Hume's good judge.  Another difference is Melchionne's inclusion of random sources as well as those proposed by artists and friends.  

An important feature of aesthetic health for Melchionne is that it develops through both expansion and refinement.  He speaks of an aesthetically healthy person as being able to "expand her capacity to appreciate more and more of what the world has to offer."  This is not an idea that you would find in Hume, but does accord with the above-mentioned idea of appreciation of random things.  This person "seeks out new experiences or creates new variations of past successes." This is a glass-half-full type of person, an overall optimist about life.  For example, when she approaches the artworld she is looking at it as a "feast of visions rather than a glut of egos."  The picture Melchionne offers is of someone who is actively seeking out new experiences rather than someone mainly interested in judging. 

What about refinement, though?  Melchionne must have had Hume in mind here because he indicates that the capacity to refine experience allows for "convictions about the aesthetic quality of what she encounters" that allows the aesthetically healthy person to discriminate in the "sea of aesthetic possibilities" and thus avoid nausea...possibly a reference to Sartre.  But, in contrast to Hume, he observes that "without the thirst for new, unforeseeable experiences [the expansive part], her capacity to make these fine distinction would degenerate into the pedantic quibbling of the snob."  In other words, someone who just follows Hume's theory of taste may just be a snob:  we need this openness of expansion to escape this fate.  For Melchionne, the exploration of possibilities is more important than establishing a hierarchy of values.  The snob may be focused only on the superiority of this wine or that cheese.  Thus aesthetic health does not depend on clear judgment alone [or at all?]:  nor are judgments really as clear as is often pretended. 

He goes on to make the even more anti-Humean point that "aesthetic health doesn't depend on our recognizing that one wine is really better than another."  Rather it depends on our capacity "to discover which wine we ourselves enjoy more," as well as understanding the source of that preference.  I cannot agree with the idea that aesthetic health is just a matter of knowing one's own preferences and the sources of those preferences.  How does one come to know one's own preferences better, anyway?  Nor am I willing to throw out the concept of qualitative difference, since with that would go the concept of the good judge itself.  

Like Hume, Melchionne speaks of refinement, but mainly understands this in terms of a development of personal confidence and a coincident development of "a sense of adventure and higher expectations"  Yet, again, although development of such a sense may well be an important part of the journey of taste, what sense can be made of higher expectations if there are no qualitative differences?  

Melchionne's expansiveness leads to his version of the aesthetics of everyday life.  As he puts it, "a finely honed but voracious aesthetic appetite helps us to combat the boredom and banality of everyday life," allowing us to develop "our everyday aesthetic perceptions."  Melchionne believes that these things are "pleasurable in and of themselves."  

This leads him to suggest that "the most valuable art is that which we can do." (Wouldn't it rather be this?  The most valuable art for us is that which we cannot do extremely well but can do fairly well.  Thus, someone might value ball-room dancing because he does it fairly well, while still recognizing that the most valuable form of this it was someone else does extremely well.)  That is, that we can "practice certain arts on a daily basis" makes them valuable.  This leads to his notion that human well-being consists mainly in "the art that surrounds us in our everyday lives," i.e. the "everyday arts."  These arts "are valuable simply because the everyday matters."  Further, "everyday art is the world of immediate experience upon which a good part of our overall satisfaction with life depends." 

He then argues that examining this everyday artworld allows us to see the "artistic dropout" referred to in an earlier part of the paper as dropping "into" something, i.e. "an ordinary life of creative possibilities.:"  These include "decoration and maintenance of the home" and "mundane excursions across town" all of which now, become art because they "arrange our lives for the enhancement of aesthetic experience."  This can, for example, happen in garage bands or auto-customizing.  

For Melchionne the home itself ends up being most people's largest project, with our daily excursions forming perhaps the next largest when those excursions involve appreciation.  The basic pattern of everyday life:  "most of us do most of these things on most days."   

Melchionne concludes that when others "derive aesthetic satisfaction" from these things "we become artists of everyday life." So the concept of art itself is expanded.