Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The newly expanded category of the aesthetic: further comments on Porter on ancient Greek aesthetics

Porter's book (see previous post) leads us to re-evaluate the discontinuities that have been traditionally placed between the aesthetics of everyday life and the aesthetics of art, discontinuities that were not accepted by the materialist philosophers of ancient Greece.  It leads off in many different directions of which I will mention a few here.

First, although Aristotle is no special fan of the aesthetics of everyday life and, in fact, is listed by Porter in the idealist school of Plato and Socrates, he still makes statements, as does Plato, that can be useful for everyday aestheticians.  For example Aristotle says "the pleasure that comes from living the pleasure we get from the exercise of the soul; for that is true life" and that this is contemplation.  Moreover, for Aristotle aesthetic creatures are lovers of life:  "For in loving life they love thinking and knowing; they value life for no other reason than for the sake of perception, and above all for the sake of sight..."  [quotes taken from Porter 54-55.]  The privileging of sight is not in favor of everyday aesthetics, but the idea of pleasure that comes from living as an exercise of the soul contemplating the world fits in the with tradition that goes on to Pater and the aesthetes of the 19th century.  It is recognized by Aristotle at least in the realm of sight (and also hearing elsewhere) that contemplation is both sensual and intellectual at the same time.

More to the point, perhaps, is the alliance Porter finds with the materialism of Epicurean philosophy.  "the experience of beauty, qua the most pleasurable experience there is, will be an experience of intense perceptual awareness.  It is clear, immediate, sensuous, uniquely suited to our perceptual apparatus...; it has, in other words, all the attributes of a clear grasp of the sensible world...In fact, it just is the sensation we have whenever we have a clear grasp of the sensible world..." (55)  So, "for Epicurus our primary orientation towards the world is not only a pleasurable one, but also an aesthetic one....for Epicurus the experience of beauty and the purest form of experience (ataraxy) differ in no way at all because they are indistinguishably the same experience..." (56)  

In his section, "Aesthetic vocabularies and the languages of art" Porter points to ways in which Greek aesthetic terms (many of which we still use today) crossed many disciplinary boundaries, and thus could be applied not only to what we would call the arts but to other aspects of life.  This is part of the point of everyday aesthetics as well, as least as I have advocated it.  Porter observes that some contemporary writers have dismissed Greek aesthetics because they have not delimited art critical vocabulary from other domains:  but as Porter correctly observes, it is positive when the same terms appear in different domains.  (It might be suggested that it is a healthier culture that does not keep its vocabularies in silos).   Porter observes that even Plato allows aesthetic terms to cross boundaries, for example when he says that "harmonies are found in music and all the works of artists [demiourgoi]" i.e. painters, sculptors and all kinds of makers.  (58)  Thus the term "harmony" is not limited to what we would call the fine arts.  

Porter quotes Socrates in Plato's Menexenus in a way that gives us another clue not to a view that is Plato's own but rather to understanding further what it means to experience life as drenched in aesthetics. The passage is remarkably similar to one found in the Ion in which Ion recounts how he is taken out of himself by inspiration, i.e. taken into another world, when he recites Homer. The passage quoted in Porter (revised from the Ryan translation) goes as follows [I am leaving out Porter's insertion of Greek terms]:

"The speech writers do their praising so splendidly that they cast a spell over our souls, attributing to each individual man, with the most varied and beautiful verbal embellishments, both praise he merits and praise he does not....The result is, Menexenus, that I am put into an exalted frame of mind when I am praised by them [i.e. Socrates feels that he is being praised by the orators as the orators praise his city, Athens].  Each time, as I listen and fall under their spell, I become a different man - I'm convinced that I have become taller and nobler and better looking all of a sudden...The speakers words and the sound of his voice sink into my ears with so much resonance that it is only with difficulty that on the third or fourth day I recover myself and realize where I am"  (67)  

No doubt Socrates and Plato saw this as a dangerous illusion, and it can be.  Hitler cast a similar spell, for example.  But one can see the great orator as doing something more positive, as enchanting the polis so that can be seen as valuable.  This is perhaps something we have lost in our age of anti-politics.  Porter sees the passage as illustrating "how aesthetic qualities can permeate the very fabric of civic life, and not just one quarantined aspect of that life where we would normally look to find aesthetic experiences" so that "to be a subject (a politically constituted subject) is to be invested in a set of aesthetic values, and it is to reflect those values in the very core of one's self-image."  (Porter, 67)

One last quote:  "In place of an embarrassing dearth of aesthetic vocabulary, we run the risk of discovering an embarrassing overflow of evidence:  once we have eliminated the artificial boundaries between the aesthetic and the non- or extra-aesthetic, no text and no artifact will be immune to plundering for its indexical value in the newly expanded category of the aesthetic." (68)

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