Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Victor Cartagena’s Sugar Face at the San Jose Museum of Art guest post by Pablo Almazan

This post is on a series of twelve faces cast from sugar and water, works of art inspired by Cartagena’s relationship with the United Farm Workers Foundation in his earlier life and the brutal story of sugar beet farming in California. Prior to Cesar Chavez’ labor rights movement, laborers had little to no rights or recognition. They were the invisible figures that no one took account of when consuming food or produce. The workers often chewed on sugar beets to acquire enough energy to get through a day of picking the cash crop. The maltreatment and neglect of these workers led Cartagena to collaborate with Maurilio Maravilla, a Mexican immigrant who worked alongside Chavez during the fight for labor rights. Cartagena cast a mold of Maravilla’s face with sugar, the cash crop he worked so hard to harvest. He created twelve molds of Maravilla’s face to represent the Last Supper. This reference is meant to create a relation between farm-workers and the fact that they are the ones who put food on the table. In the work, Cartagena purposefully uses sugar to refer to the struggle in the sugar beet harvest. He also used it to create the molds because eventually the sugar molds will melt away because of the heat lamp pointed at each one. The works will essentially become non-existent because of this process. The eventual non-existence of these works symbolizes the farm workers who, at one point, were also invisible and non-existent to their employers and to consumers.

The story behind Sugar Face evoked strong emotion in me because I have family members who are farm laborers who experienced the struggle of having few rights. They relate to the pain and inhumanity felt when they were made invisible by employers and consumers alike.  The story Cartagena tells in these works is resoundingly similar to the stories I have heard my aunts and uncles recount of the times they worked in the fields. Experiencing works of art that I could relate to on such a personal level unlocked a sensation that brought ease and tranquility but at the same time evoked pain and anger. Looking at the molds of Maurilio Maravilla’s face was similar to a face to face interaction because the molds were so realistic. I could make out the creases in Maravilla’s skin and his sagged features. His face revealed a life of pain due to unfair treatment in the agricultural labor force. This is the aspect of the work that evoked pain and anger in me. I felt the pain and anger that Maravilla experienced while simultaneously feeling the pain my family endured in the farms. The life-like busts made the connection even more intense because I felt like I was experiencing a genuine human interaction. I felt as if Maravilla was one of my own family members. Overall, I was moved emotionally by the realistic features and the story behind Sugar Face.
Sugar Face has a unique story and appearance in comparison to similar works such as those of ancient Greek masks. The works evoked such a strong emotion in me, compared to similar works, because the features in these works were so life-like. I had never felt a deeper connection to a similar work because I never understood the symbolism of past works I experienced. I also valued the aesthetic experience and the aesthetic emotion that these works uniquely evoked in me. Time stood still as I observed the melting sugar drip down the sad, droopy face of Maravilla. The raw emotions expressed in his face encouraged me to be raw in the moment and allow my emotions to be honest and genuine. I felt overwhelmed as I came face to face with the bust of another human. This work was effective in provoking my aesthetic emotion by the dark color scheme created with the mixture of sugar and water. Its realistic features and animistic emotions also sparked unique emotion in me.

Getting to know and understand the symbolism behind the twelve busts of Maravilla and the story they tell played a role in my feeling such a strong emotion toward the works. Sugar Face taught me about pain and sacrifice; it taught me the importance of leading a humble life. The works at first glance seemed basic and uninteresting, but as I delved deeper into the faces and their creases I discovered beauty in the struggle and wise life advice. As humans, we all experience such emotions and feelings as pain and suffering.  Cartagena does a flawless job of incorporating these emotions into his work in an attempt to appeal to the  emotions of any person who views his work. This appeal to emotion simultaneously works as an appeal to human consciousness and makes us aware of the agonizing labor process we take for granted in order to have food on the table.

Overall, I experienced a true aesthetic emotion toward Sugar Face, but not the aesthetic emotion defined by Clive Bell in his book, Art. These works convey information and purposefully encourage an emotion of sympathy toward the hard-working laborers. For this reason, Bell would most likely label this work as a descriptive painting, although this work consists of facial molds not paintings. His description of aesthetic emotion also states that one should not make attempts to enter the mind of the artist and view the work through their eyes; he says one should experience one's own subjective reaction and create one's own interpretation of a work. 

I did not make attempts to interpret Sugar Face through the perspective of Victor Cartagena, but I did feel a deeper connection with and understanding for the work after reading the description and story behind the creation that Cartagena wrote. My initial aesthetic emotion was not altered by the story behind the work though. At first glance a strong aesthetic emotion was evoked within me as I scanned over the precise facial features of an old man who was alive in the sense of the cast’s animated qualities. Bell denies that aesthetic emotion can exist when experiencing a descriptive painting, but this is simply not the case.[1] The face of Maurilio Maravilla unintentionally tells a story, a face carefully sculpted through the genetics of his parents and through his life experience. A human face is independently considered aesthetic with its symmetrical qualities and gentle features. Clive Bell’s hypothesis is wrong to imply that an aesthetically pleasing human face cannot evoke aesthetic emotion because the face simultaneously tells a story through its twinkling eyes, skin creases, and scars. Bell says that the purpose of art is, “to transport the viewer into a purely artistic world, cut off from real life” [2] (McLaughlin, 434). In Sugar Face, Bell’s claim of the purpose of art is impossible. Victor Cartagena found a way to intertwine the artistic world and real life by displaying the cast of twelve faces as art and using their aesthetic qualities to promote a story of pain and sorrow.

[1] Clive Bell, "Art," in Ross, Stephen, ed. Art and its Significance. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
[2] Thomas M. McLaughlin, "Clive Bell's Aesthetic: Tradition and Significant Form," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35, no. 4 (1977): 433-43. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Crispin Sartwell on everyday aesthetics and wabi-sabi

Crispin Sartwell's fascinating, but also sometimes frustrating, book Six Names of Beauty (Routledge, 2004) is the subject up for discussion here.  I have long thought of Sartwell as one of the originators of the new sub-discipline of everyday aesthetics, but have kind of short-changed him on the theoretical side.  Six Names is very well-written in an essayist style.  But it is also frustrating, as one picks up the book thinking one will learn a lot about six approaches to beauty in six cultures, whereas instead there are often so many side-trips that that fundamentals are lost in the shuffle.  Perhaps the side-trips are the whole point anyway.  The tendency gets really extreme in the second chapter titled "Yapha Hebrew, glow, bloom," which, although it seems at first to be a chapter on Hebrew aesthetics, actually only discusses the Hebrew culture for about three pages, spending most of the time on the beauty of flowers, jewels, water, the sky, perfume, and fireworks! However, once the reader gets used to the idea, the results are well worth the effort.

My comments today, however, will be on the chapter "Wabi-Sabi Japanese humility, perfection." As with the Yapha chapter, this one begins with something seemingly irrelevant to Japanese culture: Sartwell's youthful experience of learning how to play the harmonica.  Although the story is charming and it does capture the interplay of spontaneity, discipline and joy the goes along with learning this instrument, it is hard to see the connection with Wabi-Sabi.  The reader is supposed to say something like this, I suppose: oh yes, this is an art in the West that has these qualities of the lonely, rustic, poverty-related, and impermanent that are also associated with Wabi-Sabi in Japan.  

I am not going to go into detail on Sartwell's take on Wabi-Sabi: suffice it to say it is associated with "withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthy, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral" beauties (114), and also with stillness, solitude, extreme economy of means, imperfection, asymmetry, and humility. 

The essay gets going when Sartwell begins to discuss an account of Soetsu Yanaga of the famous Kizaemon Tea Bowl.  The issue here is the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary in everyday aesthetics.  

Yanegi describes the bowl as "made by a poor man; an article without flavor or personality; used carelessly by its owner; bought without pride.." (115) and the issue then is: how can such a thing be the object of aesthetic delight?  And what does it mean to take aesthetic delight in such a thing?  Sartwell notes that Rikyu, one of the great founders of the Wabi-Sabi form of Teaism, was influenced by Zen and the idea that enlightenment can be found in the ordinary.  Rikyu stressed the ordinariness of the tea ceremony.... and yet he was a connoisseur.  There's a paradox here.

Sartwell sees the paradox and notes that "As an arbitrary emblem of the ordinary, in some sense any ordinary bowl would do.  The very imperfections of the Kizaemon bowl are its aesthetic strengths or the source of its beauty:  it is more ordinary than an ordinary bowl. And yet there is something graceful ...something perfect or right about its form, that is all the more striking for being artless.  The Kizaemon tea bowl achieves beauty without self-consciousness, merely in the engagement of practical concerns."  (116)

Still, there is a paradox in its being singled out, since it is, after all, supposed to be ordinary, and yet at the same time it is kept in five boxes and is shown only to experts.  Sartwell asks: how can the idea of quieting self-consciousness, characteristic of Zen, be reconciled with the self-consciousness of the connoisseur?  It seems that "placing it in five boxes and exalting it beyond price destroys the ordinariness of which it is an emblem."  (117)  

Similarly in the history of Wabi-Sabi you get extraordinary craftsmen trying to imitate the ordinary, and is this much different, Sartwell suggests, than the artificially distressed jeans young people pay big prices for today?  He writes: "it's hard to see how the everyday can resist becoming a mannerism once the connoisseurs get at it."  (117).  The spontaneous comes to be replaced by following the rules.  Thus, one worries: "Wabi-Sabi is a kind of trap, an over-intensifying consciousness of the need for a lapse of consciousness, an ever-broadening exaltation of the ordinary in which the ordinary loses its ordinariness."  (117)

In my book the Extraordinary in the Ordinary I opposed those everyday aestheticians who stressed the ordinariness of the ordinary and who wanted everyday aesthetics to be autonomous or even entirely separated from art aesthetics.  I saw a dynamic relation and a continuity between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics.  But perhaps I did not take into account enough the issues raised by such things as connoisseurship of Wabi-Sabi.  I had Sartwell's book on my shelf and wanted to read it but did not see its relevance to my topic.  So I am regretful than I am only now, several years later, seriously reading Six Names.  Allen Carlson, who's views on the dilemma of everyday aesthetics, I have discussed in a previous post, picked up on this problem, this paradox, without mentioning Sartwell, but based on thinking about something Yuriko Saito said at the end of her book Everyday Aesthetics about tension to be found in the domain of everyday aesthetics.   But Carlson's solution to what he calls the dilemma of everyday aesthetics is simply to reject arts-based approaches (which he associates with Clive Bell's formalism) to the everyday and to stress the ordinariness of the ordinary, which he sees in terms of functionality.  I have argued against this elsewhere. 

But my question here is, what is Sartwell's solution? Perhaps it can be found in the next quote:  "But though wabi-sabi has a contradiction at its heart, it is also a way to transcend the paradox by immersion in it. At its deepest, broadest reach, wabi-sabi is a form of beauty that overcomes the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness, even as it overcomes the dichotomy of ordinary and extraordinary."  (117) Was I perhaps still steeped in that dichotomy even as I wished to talk about the extraordinary in the ordinary?  I will hold off on answering that, but am open to Sartwell's answer, if he has one.  What I think is Sartwell's solution goes on like this: "once one starts to see mud or the blues as beautiful, one is pursuing an affirmation that can lead to the thought that all things are beautiful, that all things can be exalted."  And of course that would be a Zen state, one which will see "ugliness itself as a variety of beauty."  (118)  It is also, I think, what happens when you get to the highest rung of the ladder of love in Plato's Symposium.

Sartwell connects this thought with reflection on the meaning of representation for the Japanese, representation as "encapsulating or crystallizing."  (119) It is not seen as deceptive in Plato's sense because it is not a matter of creating something new but in finding something, as for example in the practice of suiseki, where small stones are placed to form a miniature landscape, or ikebana, which is similar, where "the practice of composition becomes an immersion in or meditation on nature."  (121).  The point, also in bonsai, is to "heighten the sense of the beauty of the world to a point of utmost poignancy, until one sees everything as art, and art as non-art, but as spontaneous nature."  (122.)  OK, that is not far from what I was trying to get at in The Extraordinary.

Sartwell then flies off into another aside, this time on Wolfgang Laib, the artist famous for slaps of marble with milk, and his pieces that collect pollen.   I grant that Laib is an extraordinary artist and that he at least captures the sabi element of solitude in his art, and maybe even the wabi element in that there is no display of skill. (123)  But we have lost sight of the argument, or perhaps a certain tension exists, since Laib clearly is one of those who takes something ordinary and makes it extraordinary, thus abandoning the ordinariness of the ordinary. 

Sartwell of course is suggesting that we take a more Zen approach to our ordinary lives.  So, when he talks about the sound of gravel, he observes that "patina of symbolism," the associations with the rural, the evocation of past experience, the fact that these sounds are common and unmusical, and yet when attended to can have their own beauty.  This is the kind of thing John Cage tried to teach us.  As Sartwell puts it:  this is "testimony...to our ability to be moved unexpectedly, to find the greatest beauties in the least expected places."  (126)

What appears to be another detour, this time on the concept of patina, may actually be a further attempt to answer, or at least deepen his answer, one that is very unlike Carlson's, concerning the way to approach the ordinary and the everyday.   He talks at length and poetically about a stoneware crock he has which is plain and from the mid 19th century:  "it is now almost black, and the glaze has silvered and deepened into something that makes the surface of this humble object mysterious.  It seems to have a swirling depth floating under the brownish glaze that is not something that could simply be painted on."  It was glazed carelessly and "was never intended to be an aesthetic object."  So what does it mean?  (127) 
Perhaps the point is that only with certain ordinary objects does something extraordinary emerge, some beauty that does something different even than what artists might be able to achieve.  "The surface of the crock has become deep in a plain way."  (127) Perhaps "patina" is an example, even a symbol, of what the ordinary can achieve.  In the case of patina there is a sedimented meaning:  "it shows the traces of what touches it."  To gain patina is to express what one has experienced on the surface and to become more intensely oneself.  (128)

The chapter ends with a discussion of William Carlos Williams as an artist of the everyday.  Williams walks in his neighborhood and, no longer the young man who wants to make something of himself, appreciates the "a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors" to be found on the fences and outhouses of his run-down neighborhood.  I know what he is talking about!  And then Williams says, to end the poem, "No one will believe this of vast import to the nation."  Sartwell sees this poem, "Pastoral," as performing "the entire cycle of Zen" where Williams achieves mindfulness:  "Our lives, in fact, consist largely of the mundane:  most lives are lived in the sort of squalor...that Williams describes."  Williams takes us back to the earth.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Some Reflections on Indian Aesthetics

The field of Indian aesthetics is vast and it is notoriously difficult for Western readers to get even a minimal grasp of what might be going on in Indian texts on art and beauty.  I have been teaching a course on World Aesthetics and have recently been lecturing on Indian aesthetics.  My main source has been the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 2nd edition edited by Michael Kelly.  Our university has electronic access to this encyclopedia, which makes it convenient. There are several articles in there on Indian aesthetics.  

The thing that fascinates me the most about Indian aesthetics is the possible overlap and dialogue with Western aesthetics. Indeed, any area of controversy, even if it goes back to the 11th century, can intrigue a contemporary philosopher.  Abhinavagupta is of particular interest, perhaps because, unlike the earlier rasa aesthetician, Bharata, he does not limit himself to technical discussion of an individual art form, but develops a broad aesthetic theory in the context of an overall philosophical position.  

Looking at V. K. Chari's article on him in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics I am struck by Abhinavagupta's synthesis of ideas of aesthetics with the metaphysics and epistemology of Saivism [I apologize for not using the diacritical marks in this post.]   The notions that, as Chari puts it, "rasa perception..is a form of recognition of what one already knows" and that "rasa experience is, in the final analysis, a tasting of one's own consciousness" is intriguing.  There is a way in which aesthetic experience, when powerful and apt, is a kind of rediscovery of something one already knows.   

Chari is wary of Abhinavagupta's metaphysical speculation, as I am.  But, at the same time, Abhinavagupta seems to free Western readers up a bit insofar as he posits aesthetic experience at its highest and most intense as something remarkably close to enlightenment experience.  Chari makes clear that there is still a distinction between rasa and enlightenment experience since the latter has no interest in objects, whereas there is an intense object-directedness in aesthetic experience.  The idea of certain aesthetic experiences being close to enlightenment experience suggests that there may be something of value here even for an atheist like myself.  Whereas the idea of enlightenment may require the existence of a God or a separate metaphysically transcendent realm, the idea of aesthetic experience does not. 

It also might be of value to Western aestheticians to think of ways in which rasa experience can be "supramundane...transcending the empirical modes of cognition such as sense perception, inference and recollection"  and that the experience "completely negates all distinctions of person, place, and time, which obstruct our enjoyment of emotions in real life."  Again, it is not that I would want to affirm this theory, but find that it makes a nice balance against the overemphasis we often see these days on cognitivist approaches to aesthetics.  I would prefer to say that aesthetic experience can involve a perceptual experience that goes beyond what is ordinarily associated with empiricist methodologies insofar as it is as if all of these features are negated.  In addition the idea that distinction Abhinavagupta holds between life emotions (bhavas) and the rasas recognizes that rasas take from life but do not strictly imitate life, not at least in a copying way.  This allows, as Chari observes, for the importance of disinterestedness in aesthetic experience of art in particular and explains why we can experience things that are otherwise negative in an aesthetically positive way when decontextualized and placed within an artistic context.  

Chari has a number of criticisms of Abhinavagupta.  I have already mentioned his problem with the "metaphysical scaffolding" of the theory.  He thinks that the "difference between art experience and life experience may be allowed under the conditions he specifies" without appealing to the metaphysical.  He also questions whether rasa perception is cognitively privileged since he notes that all cognitive functions including perception, inference, and association, are involved in aesthetic appreciation:  "his attempt to focus on the pure moment of the ecstasy of relish to the exclusion of all other accompanying mental processes can be of interest only to the mystic, not the aesthetician."  This may not be entirely fair in my view if the pure moment of ecstasy incorporates or draws into itself all of these other mental processes rather than excluding them.  Chari's next objection is that "the rhapsodic description of aesthetic delight that he gives can apply equally to any sensual ecstasy."  This seems unfair again since other sensual ecstasies are not directed to an artificial world, or if they are, then it might well be argued that they too are directed towards art.  

The most interesting objection is that raised against the idea that the reader's rasa experience is radically different from the emotion presented in the work.  On Chari's view, there is no qualitative difference between the fear that King Lear feels and the fear that we the reader feels.  But I think Abhnivagupta is right on this one, that there is a distinctive difference, and that the fear we feel is tinged with delight, whereas the fear felt by Lear is not.  There may be more differences as well.  Thus when Chari rejects the view that all rasas are pleasant we can agree, but we can also agree that they are all positively tinged.