Saturday, May 28, 2016

Merleau-Ponty, Everyday Aesthetics, Eye and Mind

There has long been a strong affinity between philosophers who work in everyday aesthetics and Merleau-Ponty.  I am thinking specifically here of his essay "Eye and Mind." (in Aesthetics ed. Harold Osborne, Oxford University Press, 1972)  Of course this essay is not explicitly about everyday aesthetics.  It is most famous for his discussions of such modernist painters as Cezanne, Klee and Matisse, and its anti-Cartesian approach to space and light.  Yet my own discussions of everyday aesthetics have focused on the close relationships to be found between the aesthetics of art and the aesthetics of the everyday, so I think this might be relevant to my own project.  I see Klee's, Cezanne's and Matisse's approaches to the world, their ways of seeing and painting, as ways of illuminating everyday aesthetic experience, and I see Merleau-Ponty as an illumination of Cezanne. (John Gilmour was one of the first to alert me to this, although earlier Anita Silvers, my first aesthetics teacher said that I should read this essay.)  Everyday experience is something that can become extraordinary when aesthetic properties of the surrounding environment are actualized. A valuable aspect of the Merleau-Ponty/Cezanne approach is that it takes us as lived bodies interacting with the environment, much like John Dewey in Art as Experience and Arnold Berleant in his many writings.  Before I go on I also want to recognize the historical and dialectical nature of perception.  It is arguable that the Cartesian way of seeing that Merleau-Ponty describes and attacks works really well with how people actually saw things, and certainly with how they painted things, in the Renaissance.  As Marx Wartofsky, who was my thesis adviser, used to argue, perception has a history. Michael Ann Holy also has some interesting things to say about this in his book Past Looking. Merleau-Ponty describes a way of seeing everyday life phenomena which, arguably, emerges during the time of Cezanne, and that Cezanne (or perhaps Cezanne plus Matisse and Klee) is the artist who best exemplifies and points this out.  But it is also not the case that everyone sees in the same way at any one time.  The way of seeing proposed by Cezanne and Merleau-Ponty may seem too odd and avant-garde for many, even today.   One can still say that this is cutting edge culturally speaking and points to a future in which deeper forms of perception will be possible (an overly idealist hope, no doubt).  The idea that "the world is all around me, not in front of me" (73) is in accord with environmental aesthetics of all stripes. The idea that "Light is viewed once more as action at a distance" (73) is more controversial, however, since it implies that metaphysics not in accord with the natural science attitude.  Here we have a phenomenological approach to experience in which we look at light as-experienced, and also depth-as-experienced. Merleau-Ponty says that "Vision reassumes its fundamental power of showing forth more than itself" (73) and adds that light has a dimension of imagination insofar as it can allow us to see forests in "a bit of ink." This posits a world of experience that is enhanced by what has been traditionally called the aesthetic attitude.  Merleau-Ponty refers to "light's transcendence" and juxtaposes that against a view of seeing in which the mind "deciphers the impacts of the light-thing upon the brain" the problem being that this does not take into account the relationship between the body and the world.  Transcendence, then, comes out of this relationship, an idea never broached before by philosophers, except possibly by Nietzsche and possibly by Dewey. Merleau-Ponty says that it is a question of making space and light "which are there, speak to us" which is a bit hard to take, but I think this means that space and light exist in our experienced world which is embedded with meaning and which can even be taken as person-like, as if a person.  Personification is not just mystification but a way of capturing an aspect of our experience, one that is often invisible but which deals with the emergence of actuality out of potentiality.  So, perhaps everyday aesthetics, at its highest point, is recognition of this level of experience, i.e. finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.  This might be what Heidegger refers to as listening to Being.  Even Descartes was somewhat aware of this when he refers to the minds as "suffused through the body" as Merleau-Ponty puts it.  Merleau-Ponty can then be seen as anticipating what is now called object oriented ontology, except that he avoids the dualism of Harman which I have discussed in a previous blog post. Nature speaks, but not in a way that divorces nature from us who are in nature. 

Another line of inquiry can be from a posing of Merleau-Ponty against Arthur Danto (another dualist of sorts), especially with respect to MPs discussion of the line.  Danto had rejected both the imitation theory of art and the reality theory, which he found in some things said by Roger Fry and some things said by the abstract expressionist painters, and posited a theory of art as two-sided in which the "material counterpart" is much less important than the title and the intention of the artist.  Merleau-Ponty can be posed as offering another option, using Klee and Cezanne as his mentors rather than Rauschenberg and Warhol, who are Danto's.  Danto never that I know of really talks about the line, but in looking at Klee, sees him, or rather modern painting in general, as revealing "a system of equivalences...a conceptless presentation of universal Being."  So this is neither imitation nor just another real thing but a revelation of essences or essentiality of things.  The line is not just "a positive attribute and a property of the object in itself":   this is the "prosaic conception of the line."  (78)  Danto does spend a lot of time talking about one line, that is the one line that appears in two indistinguishable paintings.  This line takes its meaning entirely from the background theory by way of the title for the painting. But this, dare we say, misses the point of lines in paintings (a point, by the way that Nelson Goodman captures more adequately by far than Danto.)  Merleau-Ponty pushes the idea beyond Klee and Matisse and even modern painting all of the way back to Da Vinci and his quote "The secret of the art of drawing is to discover in each object the particular way in which a certain flexuous line, which is, so to speak, its generating axis, is directed through its whole extent..." (78)  Le Corbusier would later say something similar about architecture, by the way.   So the art of drawing for Da Vinci, Klee, Merleau-Ponty is a way of looking that involves discovery in which the prosaic line as mere property of the object and as outer contour is overcome by a line that captures the dynamic essence of the object, one that generates.  Merleau-Ponty sees the contesting of the prosaic line as a matter of "freeing the line, of revivifying its constituting power" as in Klee and Matisse where the line does not merely imitate but "renders visible" the genesis of things.  Merleau-Ponty then provides us a lovely describes of the life of the doodle which is also the life of a line as developed in a work by Klee, where "a manner of the line" is established at the beginning and then "every subsequent inflection"  is related to it as the line's "relationship to itself, will form an adventure, a history, a meaning of the line..." thus corroding prosaic space.  What is the relation between this and everyday life.  Oddly I find myself thinking of the Situationist "derive":  the doodling line of movement through the cityscape.  

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