Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Saito and Thick vs. Thin Appreciation

I have been thinking about Chapters 6 and 7 of Saito's Aesthetics of the Familiar.  In chapter 6 "Consequences of Everyday Aesthetics" Saito stresses the ways in which "seemingly trivial and inconsequential aesthetic preference and taste have unexpected serious implications that determine the state of the world and the quality of life."  She calls this "the power of the aesthetic."  The aesthetic can guide our behavior, our decisions and our actions.  Although I disagree with little in this chapter, the mood of the first part can be kind of depressing.  One begins to feel that aesthetics is, overall, a bad thing, since it is associated so strongly with propaganda, advertising and various forms of manipulation.  Saito's overall position is consistent with also paying attention to the good results of aesthetics.  I also should note that I strongly approve of her alliance of everyday aesthetics with environmentalism.  However some individual passages make me nervous.  Doing philosophy is exploring this kind of nervousness.

For example, she argues that "The aesthetic norms governing [the] ideal [American] lawn are order, uniformity, neatness, and cleanliness, although the contemporary critics of this aesthetic ideal point out that the green lawn instead expresses monotony, conformity, lifelessness, and sterility."  (143)  I have no problem with criticizing the environmentally bad "ideal lawn."  But I do not see how the critics mentioned know what the green lawn really expresses....and in such detail.  Are we anthropomorphizing the green lawn here?  The green lawn, as a type, is not a person.  It does not, as a type, express anything.   Perhaps as a particular thing a green law expresses something. True, most people who have green lawns have similar ideas about it.   Perhaps they are the ones who are expressing, i.e. by way of the lawns they choose to have.  But do they really want to express these properties or endorse these values?  I doubt it.  So the claim seems to be that green lawns have or exemplify these properties regardless of the intentions of their owners.  This might be true but I would like to see some explanation of how.  It would be easier to simply say that, to an environmentalist, it seems as though the owners were trying to express these values.  But this solution would seem too subjective to environmentalists.  Couldn't we just do without this move and insist that we should change the looks of our lawns based on the bad environmental consequences?

This whole matter has to do with a debate I have  had earlier with Allen Carlson over thick vs. thin appreciation of a junkyard.   See my, “The Aesthetics of Junk and Roadside Clutter,” Contemporary Aesthetics.   http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/journal.php  6 (May 17, 2008).  I will return to this later.

In my seminar meeting on this chapter some discussion entered around the issue of the relationship between Saito's views and utilitarianism.  It is odd that Saito does not mention Bentham, Mill or any consequentialist, given that she is committed to talking about consequences, and also given that she is really interested in bringing ethics and aesthetics closer together.  I think that one of the reasons for this absence is that Kant looms so large in both ethics and aesthetics, whereas the utilitarians are not often mentioned in aesthetics articles, this despite the fact that qualitative differences in pleasure are central to Mill's thinking.  

Another thing that is nagging me takes off from a sentence on consumerism that goes:  "Contemporary persuaders consist of qualities such as new, fashionable, cool, cutting-edge, novel, state-of-the-art, and stylish."  (146)  The quote actually comes right after a quote from my book.  So I may be expressing here some doubts about my own previously expressed views.  I agree with Saito that obsession with these things can lead to bad consequences.  But I also don't want to abandon these everyday aesthetic concepts, or demote them to the realm of the negative. 

So here is my thought, or perhaps it is just a worry.  It seems to me that most of us participate in consumerism, although often with reservations.  I might buy something partly because it is stylish for example.  To that extent I might be buying into (literally) what the advertisers who use the "aesthetic persuaders" want.  But also I want this stylish item (say a nice pair of shoes), and I actually do think that they will look good on me.  Even though I happily join in with critics of consumerist society, I cannot fully do so since I am part of it, and not just part of it out of "no other choice."  I am part of it out of choices I make every day.  I choose, for example, to shop at Whole Earth rather than Safeway.  I choose to buy Ritual coffee over Seattle's Best, and I am not going to be seriously put off if I hear this described as fashionable.  I am particularly susceptible to the persuader "cool."  Most people I know want to be cool, or at least not to be "uncool." 


Even if I were to join a commune in the woods I would still need to buy certain products, and my choice of this lifestyle might well itself be the result of coming to see this lifestyle as stylish, although in a non-standard way. 

What worries me are quotes like the one that says that the staggering volume of stuff created to satisfy consumer appetite is "fueled primarily by aesthetic desire rather than genuine need..."  Can we really distinguish (in anything but a vague way) the domain of aesthetic desire from that of genuine need?   Isn't what is considered "genuine need" highly relativized?   

To be more aesthetic than ethical or more ethical than aesthetic?  This is a great dilemma which needs to be seriously addressed.  For instance I know only a couple of environmentally-minded people who refuse to fly because of global warming:  I am not one of them.  I do it....I consume that product largely because I really enjoy travel.  How much of this is a real need?  Well, if we reduced ourselves to "real needs" (as defined say by the minimum needed to keep us alive) then perhaps all aesthetic properties and experiences would be expendable.  The truth is, I live in a world in which most ethnically minded people think it is worth the environmental cost to indulge their aesthetic desire to fly to places like New York. I can respect the environmental purist who refuses to do this just as I can respect the vegan who refuses ever to harm an animal for his/her daily nourishment.  But it seems to me reasonable to act differently, perhaps while making some modifications to my habits, or hoping that these (e.g. the fact that I do not commute to work) balance out the more ethically problematic stuff.  I just do not want to give up the aesthetic portion of my life to be ethically correct.  Although I know that people who work for contractors for Apple in China sometimes commit suicide because of poor working conditions.  But I still buy an IPhone.  I do not change my IPhone every year....but I still have one.   So too with my car.  It is 1999 vintage, which is sort of virtuous, but on the other hand it is not an electric car, and so it still contributes more to global warming than a electric car would, which in turn contributes more than just walking would.

Also sometimes in Saito's book things are described in a way that makes them seem bad; but maybe they are, in a way, good.  For example, she discusses how "today's economy is referred to as 'experience economy'" and how businesses are expected to go beyond selling goods and services to selling an experience.  For example, when buying an Apple product you are also buying the experience of an Apple Store.  (147)  It is even seen as problematic that someone who goes to a place called "The Rainforest CafĂ©" has all five senses engaged.  But isn't this exactly what Dewey was calling for in his Art as Experience and what Arnold Berleant is still calling for in his writings, and what Saito herself calls for from time to time?  Is the problem here that the experience is being packaged by a company and is not created by self and friends in a DIY manner?   

Actually I really hate some total experiences some corporate stores and malls provide for me, but that just might be closely associated with my own snobbery: my intellectual caste taste-group has rejected these things, and so do I.  Saito mentions how a bookstore found that the aroma and taste of coffee go well with selling books. (148)  Is that supposed to be a bad thing?  Over the years I have spent many a charming hour in now-fast-disappearing coffeehouse/bookstores.  This is a product (sometimes the coffee, sometimes the books) I willingly buy.  Should I feel guilty about this?  Does this make me hopelessly non-environmentalist? 

Terry Eagleton takes a strong position on this:  Saito quotes him as saying that there is aestheticization that saturates the entire culture of late capitalism "with its fetishism of style and surface, its culture of hedonism and technique, its reifying of the signifier and displacement of discursive meaning with random intensities."  (148)  Well, that is the culture we live in, and I agree that sometimes we really need to escape all of this.   But we (that is most of the intellectual caste I belong to) still live deeply immersed in this world most of the time.  Have we sunk into something like the realm of sin?  Or are we just choosing our own pleasures within this world of hedonism (e.g. choosing to consume MSNBC and not FOX news)? 

Saito quotes Berleant as complaining about "the ubiquity of canned music in public spaces" as a particularly "flagrant aesthetic-moral intrusion....psychologically manipulating moods to promote vulnerability."  Sure, I hate canned music too, but isn't this a matter of poor targeting that may actually be rectified in the near future?  How would Berleant feel if instead of the awful stuff he has to listen to now he would get his own bit of well-recorded Bach to listen to as he picks through shirts at Macy's, knowing full well that the trucker next to him is listening to Country Western?  We used to complain about boom-boxes in the 70s.  But, guess what, they (almost) all disappeared, replaced by ear buds.  To see a boom-box now is to almost have an experience of nostalgia.

Saito says "While it is possible to adopt a distanced and disinterested attitude toward [negative aesthetic qualities such as hideous, offensive, malodorus], as in seeing the junkyard for its interesting combination of colors and texture....it is crucial that these negative qualities be experienced as negative in the context of the world-making project."  (214) The problem I have with this is that it assumes a realist stance with respect to negative qualities, as though an omniscient God would be able to see minus signs next to all of the bad things with all of their bad qualities.  And yet aren't negative qualities, as with all experienced qualities, a function of interaction between perceiver and perceived?   Dewey would say so.  Can sense be really made of really experiencing negative qualities as negative?   In the 1960s the neighborhood in San Francisco called the Fillmore was considered blighted, and all urban design experts agreed that it would be better for all, including the residents, that it be torn down.  They were realists about urban blight, but they were wrong.  (I wouldn't say that they were wrong in a realist sense but rather that they were wrong in being realists rather than pragmatists in the first place, and that their wrongness led to bad consequences.)  What they saw as a pit of moral decay others saw as a vibrant African American community.  Today, we consider the destruction of the Fillmore to have been a major aesthetic and moral mistake.  Doesn't it make more sense to just say that we and our taste cohort think it a good idea to eliminate what we perceive to be negatively aesthetic phenomena?  And shouldn't we set aside our self-assured realism and take into account how others would feel about our actions of urban improvement? After all, urban designers really should have followed the golden rule when it came to the mostly black folk who lived in that neighborhood. 

Saito asks, in a rhetorically fashion, "How else are we going to detect something is amiss or wrong with the artifacts with which we interact, our environment, or social engagement?"  (214)  I think that the question is far from having been  answered., and far from having an obvious answer.  I do not think we can assume that finding negative qualities is like finding coins on a beach.  They are not "really there" in the same way that those coins are.  What we have to do is engage in conversation with those with whom we disagree.  To be fair, Saito herself does this to great effect in chapter "The Aesthetics of Wind Farms" which I think has the sense of ethical complexity and nuance that seems lacking when she discusses the thick context vs. thin context issue in Chapter 6.

It is in Chapter 6 that she happily quotes Berleant who complains about the "bland anonymity of suburban housing tracts...sitcoms....pulp novels" and so forth.  But this just, again, sounds like urban elite taste.   Much of the history of recent aesthetic theory has been involved with giving recognition to these things, which are generally called the popular arts.  I recently saw a photograph of the tacky houses of Daly City which made them come alive as objects of wonder.  Whether or not something is aesthetically negative depends on situation and context.

Saito says that "So, the legitimacy of my environmentally informed aesthetic response to green lawns and laundry-hanging, one could argue, is context dependent, and we have much to gain from recognizing the value of aesthetic experience unencumbered b the life values associated with the object."  (203)  I agree, except I would ask "life values associated by whom with the object"?  She goes on "The important point ...is that we cannot make an indiscriminate case for or against one kind of aesthetic appreciation of everyday objects with out values or disvalues.  A further consideration is needed to determine the appropriateness of a certain kind of judgment in a particular context." (203)  I fully endorse this approach.





  















Friday, May 4, 2018

The Aesthetics of Washing Dishes

I have been reading Yuriko Saito's Aesthetics of the Familiar.  She has a great chapter there on the aesthetics of laundry.  I can relate more to the aesthetics of doing dishes.  So here is my current thinking about this.  My question is:  to what extent is the proper attitude to doing dishes mindfulness?  I want to do a kind of phenomenology of dishwashing.

I go back and forth on mindfulness.  What happens when I try to be mindful (as I do) when cleaning the kitchen.  I am aware of the ugliness of the dirty dishes and do not try to take a Ziff like aesthetic attitude towards them.  I get to work washing.  So my awareness of the dirty dishes is one that has a certain directionality.  As you have taught, it is action oriented.  If I was just mindful of my dirty dishes as dirty dishes I think this would not lead me to action.  But the directionality is towards the positive.  Negative aesthetics is only important if is directed to positive outcomes.  (probably an overgeneralization...but it seems apt here.)  I am also mindful of the process of my action, i.e. of cleaning and neatening.  It would be wrong of me (and less conducive to happiness) just to focus on getting the job done and over with.  I do not want my thoughts of the future (end of this process) to make the task itself less present.  That's the good way to interpret "be in the now."  But I also do not want to be totally in the now, for then I would miss out on the dynamic of the relation between the original situation, the process, and the goal.  Ideally I am aware both of the mess going away and of the orderliness coming in.  (Be in the now does not mean erase past and future.)  The end of the process is what Dewey would call a culmination.  I have had a low level example of "an experience."  The culmination however has no point if does not carry with it the process that led up to it.  Actually, the end moment, as I survey the neatened kitchen, although satisfying, is not actually more intense on the pleasure scale then any of the other moments, for example then the "now let's get to it and get this done" low level enthusiasm at the beginning, or the "let's focus on the natural rhythms of neatening" that gives pleasure to the medium moments. 

Another factor of this is that mindfulness can either be aesthetic or non-aesthetic.  Aesthetic mindfulness is attentive to aesthetic properties.  These emerge between objectivity and subjectivity.  But some may be believe that aesthetic properties are not real, for example because the subject him or herself is not real.  In that case it might be wrong or considered distracting or part of Monkey mind to attend to aesthetic properties:  in mindfulness you erase the thus and thus erase the aesthetic since the aesthetic always requires the self.  This kind of mindfulness is anti-aesthetic.  it might involve being aware of the oily feel of the plate but not of the unpleasantness of the oily feel of the plate.  My thought here is that the mindfulness I want to achieve is not Buddhist mindfulness if Buddhist mindfulness is the non-aesthetic sort I have just described.  

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Goodman. Danto and Everyday Aesthetics Significantly Revised


Goodman's famous "When is Art?" appeared in his 1978 book Ways of Worldmaking.  The chapter seems at first to be mainly directed against formalists such as Clive Bell and more importantly, probably, Clement Greenberg, although neither of these are mentioned (he simply refers to a group of theorists and artists which he calls "purists" and sometimes "formalists").  Goodman wants to show that the purists are wrong that the abstract art they favor does not symbolize.  He has a broader notion of "symbolize" such that something can fail to represent or express but could still symbolize if it exemplifies.  All of this mainly seems to be just a matter of semantics, Goodman having a much broader use of "symbol" than the purists.  As we shall see, however, this is far from the case.
 
A more important target for the essay is the work of Arthur Danto, although Goodman never mentions Danto.  (Surely they knew each other:  New York is not that far from Boston).  Both Goodman and Danto are trying to account for found art and conceptual art as well as for highly abstract minimalist art.  A useful way to see their distinction and implicit disagreement can show, in part, how Goodman leads us on a path that seems at first to be more world-connected than Danto's and hence more useful for the project of everyday aesthetics.  In fact, the two can be used to supplement each other since Goodman focuses on the sensuous and directly apparent aspect of experience, whereas Danto focuses on the cultural-meaning and not immediately apparent aspect.

For Goodman, something is art when it functions as art, and something functions as art when its exhibits an unspecified number of symptoms of the aesthetic (although the most important of these is exemplification.)  Thus objects, such as paintings, can move several times in their lifetime in an out of arthood.  It follows from this that they can also move in and out of the everyday.  Goodman of course did not realize, or at least, did not mention this.

Unfortunately, when they are out of arthood they are also out of the realm of the aesthetic since Goodman doesn’t really take into account non-art aesthetics.  

Take for example a rock picked up in a driveway (Goodman's example).  Goodman believes that when the rock is in the driveway it has no aesthetic properties (this of course cannot be accepted by everyday aesthetics) but that when it is put on a pedestal in an art gallery it comes to exemplify certain properties (and so, is symbolic even if it does not represent or express).  In doing this it comes to function as art.

The relevance of this for everyday aesthetics is that there can be a realm between non-art and art that is aesthetic but not enough so, or in enough ways, to be art.  I doubt that Goodman would have agreed with this (given his metaphysical strictures against possibility) but, as I see it, the rock can have potential aesthetic properties which are actualized in the experience of someone who looks at it with an artist’s eye, and then those properties can be full actualized when the rock achieves art status in the context of a museum exhibit where it is displayed as art and thus can fully function as art.  

Goodman does not define art in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but he does talk about what he calls "symptoms of the aesthetic" by which he means symptoms of arthood:  these are syntactic density, semantic density, relative repleteness, exemplification and multiple and complex reference.  There is no need here to go into detail about these, except to mention that relative repleteness means that a line in a Hokusai painting is richer in meaning than a similar line on a Stock Exchange chart.  I suspect that all of the symptoms of the aesthetic refer basically to one thing:  it is the same intuition expressed in different ways.  The conditions of syntactic and semantic density are both described in terms of very fine discriminations, as is also relative repleteness.  Goodman himself suggests that all of the symptoms are one when he says that they all "focus attention on rather than, or at least along with, what [the work] refers to."   We cannot simply look through the symbol to its referent as we would in the case of a traffic light or a science text.  We must "attend constantly to the symbol itself."  We know something is art if it calls attention to the properties it exemplifies in a fine-grained way.  That pretty much sums up Goodman's theory.

Danto (I am speaking here just of his view in "The Artworld") would hold that for the art to be art it is not sufficient that it be exhibited in a gallery by an artist, although this can contribute to its arthood.  It must be seen as art by someone with suitable art historical and art theoretical knowledge, i.e. seen under the appropriate concept of art. It must also have some part that is seen with what he calls the “is of artistic identification.”  This special "is" might better have been called "the is of imaginative identification" since a child sees his hobbyhorse as a horse imaginatively and yet this does not mean he or she sees it as art.  The "is of artistic identification" is necessary but not sufficient for art. 

So whereas Goodman can be seen as expanding the formalist conception of art (initiated by Kant and expanded by Bell to include relations of lines and colors) to include new material (for example texture and the type of material used), Danto can be seen as rejecting it.  Whereas Goodman thinks art calls on us to attend quite carefully to its many exhibited referential features, Danto thinks that we need to attend to things that are not exhibited (at least directly in the work) for example art history, art theory, the intended meaning of the artist, the title, and physical artworld placement (i.e. in a gallery or museum).  As I have suggested, I think both are right about this.   

An interesting feature of Goodman is that art's function is cognitive and, as cognitive, it does relate very much to the world, through various forms of reference.  Danto's approach also provides reference to the world but in his case it is through aboutness or meaning.   Two paintings can be visually indistinguishable, but their titles, for example Newton’s First Law and Newton’s Second Law, provide external reference and hence meaning. (The body is in fact unimportant since except as a receptacle.  This can be seen by the fact that two different works can have the same body, or at least a visually identical one.)  In addition to the titles there is whatever else might go into the intended meaning of the creator. 

Both Goodman and Danto might well admire an all-red painting, but for Goodman the key is in how the artist has drawn our attention to the particular quality of redness and to all sorts of other exhibited features.  Goodman does allow, however, some external reference through his notion of metaphorical exemplification as well as through the fact that the property of redness is shared by all of the other red things in the world.  Danto focuses instead on the way in which we see the painting based on our knowledge of art history, the intentions of the painter, the title and so forth.   

For Goodman it is what you see that gives you at least indirect reference, i.e. exemplification.  (Denotative reference plays only a small role in Goodman’s theory of art.)  For Goodman, even work that is entirely abstract can exemplify its properties, properties which are shared by objects outside the artwork.  Thus the entire distinction between properties that are intrinsic and ones that are extrinsic seems to dissolve (not entirely though).  Goodman's approach explains why, after seeing a show by a good artist, we tend to see things in the world in terms of the works.  He in a sense captures the dynamic interaction of art and world in a way that Danto does not.  But then Danto provides captures something about that in a way Goodman does not.  In short, for Danto artworld knowledge can enter into that which is expressed or even exemplified by a work of art. 

So Goodman could accommodate Danto's insight, and Danto Goodman’s.  But artworld knowledge does not play such an important role in Goodman as it does in Danto.  Actually it seems to play no role at all.   Danto stresses the "is of artistic identification" which, as I suggested above, seems more like an "is of imaginative identification" or that, plus, seeing the object as art.  Goodman allows for metaphorical exemplification, and hence also for imaginative identification.  However, he has no role for an is of artistic identification where it is required that we see the object as art according to a theory of art.   (Both Goodman and Danto draw on Weitz.  Goodman, like Weitz, moves away from defining art, replacing "What is art?" with another question.  Danto, like Weitz, thinks that the conflict of theories of art is really important even though the conflict of philosophical theories of art ended when Warhol and he discovered what art really is.  The importance of theories continues rather in further complexities of the style matrix.) 

Another important difference between the two concerns what happens when the artwork leaves the art gallery.  For Danto it is still art if it is purchased, taken home and perceived by someone with suitable art historical knowledge.  What is not clear is what happens if the Warhol Brillo Box is taken to a warehouse where it is indistinguishable from the Brillo boxes there:  is it still art?  (Danto at one point imagines the Brillo Box just is an appropriated Brillo box from the factory.  That version of Brillo Box, not Warhol's version, would then be totally indistinguishable from the other Brillo boxes, assuming that its history of origin is forgotten, or someone switches it with a real Brillo box by accident.)

Danto sometimes talks like Dickie:  once art, always art, and therefore Brillo Box is still art out of the gallery, as though once it has been displayed as art in the art gallery it cannot stop being so...even if it is impossible to locate it amongst its indiscernible counterparts in the warehouse.  (But at other times he takes the opposite position holding the Brillo Box is reduced to its real counterpart once it is taken out of the gallery.  Danto: you can't have it both ways!)

Goodman however says that once it ceases to function as art it is no art.  Well he hedges on that a bit (more than a bit): he says a Rembrandt may still be a Rembrandt after it has been taken out of the museum and used as a blanket.  Yet under these post-apocalyptic conditions it would no longer be functioning as art, and so it would not be art, unless you could say it had the potential to once again be art...which, as we saw, would go against Goodman's spare metaphysics.) 

But the question of when it is art is really more important, for him, than "what is art."  It is art when it functions as art, which does not happen when it functions as a blanket.  So one of Warhol's Brillo Boxes taken to the warehouse no longer functions as art and hence is no longer art for Goodman, which seems right to me, until I think of the curator who has been desperately looking for his stolen art, and at last finds it hidden in plain sight in the warehouse.   She is not going to say, "well it is no longer a work of art." So that is  a problem for both Danto and Goodman. 

So, what is the value of this debate to everyday aesthetics?   It is not explicit but rather lies in the gradual evaporation of the distinction between that which is intrinsic and that which is extrinsic in formalist art (especially for Goodman), combined with his view that art is essentially cognitive.  Because art's significance goes beyond representation and expression to also include exemplification, including both literal and metaphorical exemplification, and both of sensually evident and experientially somewhat hidden cultural properties, this draws our attention to aesthetic qualities of everyday life. 

Goodman’s expansion of "formalist" to include not only relations of lines and colors but also texture and material, and perhaps much more (insofar as the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction does dissolve) encourages us to focus on art features in a much more multi-sensuous way than is allowed by traditional formalism. 

Bear in mind that, strictly speaking, Goodman has to be against the aesthetics of everyday life:  he seems to make no distinction between art and aesthetic, and he seems to reduce the aesthetic to the artistic, so that the aesthetic is only within the realm of art.  But again, as anything can move in or out of the realm of art, depending on how it functions, one could imagine an in between realm, the realm of everyday aesthetics where some, but not the sufficient number or intensity of symptoms of “the aesthetic” (which is to say, of arthood) are present. 

A big difference between Goodman and Danto here is that Danto lays a lot of emphasis on imaginative seeing and Goodman seems to lay none at all.  The “is” of artistic representation, since it can also be applied to what the child does in pretending that a stick is a horse, plays no role in Goodman, except perhaps in the domain of metaphorical exemplification.  Once the “is” is let in, and metaphorical exemplification emphasized we can see that the artist, in looking imaginatively at both her subject matter and her materials is, through the process of creative work, able ultimately to make something that, in Danto’s words, embodies meaning. 
 
My view of everyday aesthetics would incorporate both insights even though neither were actually applied by their authors beyond the world of art.  One of the reasons for this is that neither Danto nor Goodman seemed to pay much attention to the artist’s perspective in the creative process.  (Yuriko Saito has pointed out how most philosophers, certainly in the analytic tradition, have neglected the creator’s perspective.  Exceptions are Nietzsche and Dewey, and, oddly given his idealism, Collingwood, who is one of those rare philosophers who thinks a lot about the relationship between the artist and her materials and subject matter in the studio.)

But this, of course, requires seeing the relationship between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics as being dynamic and interactional.  It would reject those views of everyday aesthetics which see the everyday as totally detached from art every bit as much as it would reject those who, like Danto in some moods, see art totally detached from the everyday.  For Danto, if Rauschenberg’s Bed is stripped of its paint it becomes a mere bed again, and if Warhol’s Brillo Box is taken out of the gallery and, even more generally, out of the artworld context, it too loses all of its art-relevant properties, which are the only aesthetic properties of much interest to Danto.  My view, perhaps closer to Goodman on this point, is that the materials taken up by artists in the creative process contain aesthetic properties already, and that these are transformed in the creative process.  Dewey says that art refines and intensifies everyday experience.  This is how that is done:  the artist in the creative process refines and intensifies art-like aesthetic properties already there in the non-art world, both the ones favored by Danto and the ones favored by Goodman.




Further Thoughts on Danto vs. Goodman

The battle between Danto and Goodman is between seeing the body (the work of art) through atmosphere, where the body is basically unimportant, to seeing and looking at the body with emphasis on discriminating and appreciating fine distinctions concerning properties (in an enhanced formalist fashion) with little or no attention paid to background context.  So this debate is a variation of the contextualist vs. formalist debate that we all the time in art circles (although the contextualists are the current winners). 
Both Danto and Goodman are thinking of Ad Rhinehart and other "purists" of the time.  Both think that the purists are wrong, and both spend considerable energy proving them wrong!  This makes reading both philosophers sometimes seem dated:  who really cares now that the purists were wrong?  The important point however is why they are wrong.  Danto thinks they are wrong because what he calls "Reality Theory" (based ultimately on Bell and Fry, Fry being the one who is quoted by Danto) is wrong.   For Danto, purists fail to see that they are using the “is” of artistic identification.  They fail to see the background presence of the style matrix. 
Goodman also believes that the purists are wrong, but this time because the purists do not see that there is a third kind of reference in art, even art that is not representational or expressive.  So they do not see that their work actually does symbolize, i.e. it symbolizes through exemplification.   Looking at storeroom samples helps us see this.  (It is interesting to me, an everyday aesthetician, that Goodman goes to everyday life for his key example and his fundamental insight.  Of course the path for this was already cleared by Wittgenstein.)  It is not that the painting is just like a sample swatch.   Both exemplify, but the painting has other symptoms of the aesthetic as well.  One needs to have more than just exemplification.
Danto’s critic makes the painting art because he sees it as art through his/her appropriate art historical knowledge.  Goodman’s critic sees the painting as art because she sees that it functions as art and sees that because she can see that, when looking at it closely, it exemplifies certain properties.   How do you know that it does?  The key is that it is in an art museum.  Being in the art museum draws attention (in audience members) to “formal” properties, whereas if it were in another museum, say a geology museum, this would draw attention to other properties. 
 
So for both Danto and Goodman being in a museum, although not a sufficient or a necessary condition for art, is practically a guarantee of arthood because it directs a certain kind of seeing.  Danto’s kind of seeing is a “seeing as” based on background knowledge.  Goodman’s kind of seeing is more like that of Hume’s good judge:  it involves delicate discrimination.  Goodman’s definition of art in terms of five symptoms emphasizes looking at it in terms of what he calls "intransparency."  Background knowledge could even be a hindrance to this.
 
So what should we do, follow Danto or follow Goodman?  The answer is to follow both, even though you probably can't do so at the same time.   They both provide a great way to see and understand art. 
 
Note also the impact on seeing outside the museum, i.e. in everyday life. Danto is looking for thick perception, as Allen Carlson would put it, Goodman for thin, but very thorough, perception.  The Goodmanian might be made aware of all of the ways in which subtle discrimination can work in everyday life.  The Dantoian critic will help us be aware of how context can help us see things through at atmosphere of knowledge of history and concept. 
 
 


Monday, April 23, 2018

Yuriko Saito on the Familiar

I am having my aesthetics seminar students read Yuriko Saito's Aesthetics of the Familiar.   Although I agree with almost everything Saito says in the second chapter, there are some points of contention in the first.  They are not deep, but perhaps interesting.   I like the idea that everyday aesthetics ought to be understood primarily in terms not of a list of objects but an attitude. (10)  Yet this move to attitude is somewhat surprising since it was precisely the aesthetic attitude which philosophers like Saito have rejected in this arena.  I am still fond of the aesthetic attitude.  But, Saito thinks, it is another sort of attitude that is required here.  What exactly is this attitude?  Saito says  "We tend to experience 'everyday' objects and activities...mostly with pragmatic considerations. Preoccupation with accomplishing a certain task often eclipses the aesthetic potentials of these..."  (10)  My first thought is: if it is not aesthetic then it is not aesthetic.  There are some things that are just pragmatic (or, as I prefer, "practical").  In these cases one is not noticing or otherwise responding to any aesthetic features.  I notice that my tire is flat.  There is no time here for contemplation or appreciation.  I don't even see the flat tire in negative aesthetic terms, i.e. as ugly.  No time for that either.  I have to engage in a course of action, must refill the tire with air and then find a place that will fix the leak.  To be sure, in the dreary or somewhat depressing time waiting for someone to change the tire I can divert myself by viewing the world about, and even the current situation, in an aesthetic way.  Also, after the whole project is over I can review it as a low level example of "an experience" in Dewey's sense.  But the practical side of repairing a tire requires nothing aesthetic.  

Of course Saito is probably just describing here the point of view of the aesthetic attitude theorists she is referencing and rejecting.  But she continues by agreeing with Naukkarinen that "[t]he everyday attitude is colored with routines, familiarity, continuity, normalcy, habits, the slow process of acclimatization, even superficiality and a sort of half-consciousness and not with creative experiments, exceptions, constant questionings and change, analyses, and deep reflections." (10)  This quote makes me nervous.  Saito had already admitted that one person's everyday is another person's unusual day.  What makes what Naukkarinen has described the "everyday attitude"?  More likely this is one type of everyday attitude.  It is not the everyday attitude of a creative artist, thinker, philosopher, poet, musician, or nature lover.  It not the everyday attitude of anyone who has a zest for life and an urge to create, and this includes even businessmen.  I doubt that it is the everyday attitude of Naukkarinen himself.  It is the everyday attitude of a quiescent sort, somebody who probably wouldn't have any interest in writing and publishing articles and books.  So, is Naukkarinen's everyday attitude, which Saito has endorsed in opposition to the aesthetic attitude, the answer to the questions of everyday aesthetics?   Perhaps a better question is, is this how we ought to live our lives? 

Saito concludes the same paragraph by saying that "[l]ocating the defining characteristics of 'everyday' in the attitude and experience rather than a specific kind of object and activities has the advantage of accounting for how works of art, such as paintings, could be an ingredient of somebody's everyday experience if his job is to wrap, package, and ship them." (10)  Yet nothing special is needed to explain how working with paintings can be part of such a person's everyday aesthetic experience.  What I think Saito is saying (if I am to make sense of this) is that what is needed is to account for a different aesthetic for the painting wrapper as opposed to the painting maker.  I agree that the painting wrapper may be satisfied or not with her wrapping job, and I agree that this is part of everyday aesthetics.  But what is forgotten is that experience in the studio working on a painting is also part of someone's everyday life, that is, the artist's, and that this experience requires almost the opposite qualities than those required by Naukkarinen!

The disagreement, however, is not deep.  Saito and I agree on an expansionist notion of everyday aesthetic where some aspects of our everyday lives are more art-like and others are less so.  Difficulty only arises when we try to interpret what is meant by "less so."  Saito speaks of experiences that are less art-like as "primarily experienced without conscious aesthetic attention." (11)  She notes that choosing clothes might require aesthetic attention:  so the act of choosing what to wear today does not fall in the less art-like category.  She then endorses Naukkarinnen's idea that, in addition to the art-like pole, there is another pole of everyday aesthetics which includes "household chores and preparing work-related documents" and we normally take towards these "a non-aesthetic attitude for pragmatic purposes." (11)  She refers to this arena is "more physical in nature," and believes that it is these things that form "the core of everyday aesthetics."  I object to calling this the core.  How can the core of something aesthetic be normally non-aesthetic?  (We need to say more about this later since towards the end of Saito's chapter she seems to revise her position.)

The way I see it, when we take a non-aesthetic attitude towards these things for pragmatic purposes then they are not aesthetic and hence not part of everyday aesthetics.  I am not sure what "more physical" means but I do think that even daily chores can be approached in a more contemplative way than usual via something like the aesthetic attitude, and when they are then they rise a bit above the merely humdrum and non-aesthetic.  In any case, they cannot be part of the core of everyday aesthetics or even part of everyday aesthetics at all if there is nothing aesthetic about them.  Again, we need to hold off on this since Saito modifies her conception of the core towards the end of the essay. 

Perhaps for Saito and Naukkarinen, the aesthetic nature of these "more physical" activities is unconscious and the important contrast here is between conscious and unconscious aesthetic experience.  Maybe the entire issue surrounds what is meant by "unconscious."  (But, again, she actually rejects this idea later....so this is just a possibility that emerges at this point in the book.)  Surely some low level of consciousness is required for anything to be either aesthetic or experiential:  to experience requires consciousness.  So let's say that at one extreme there are experiences based on daily activities that, although seemingly at first completely non-aesthetic, actually have an aesthetic charge, albeit one that the actors might not be fully conscious of.  

Saito is mainly in opposition to the school of thought that says that everyday aesthetics requires a defamiliarization of the familiar.  I, however, think that the idea she rejects is basically right.  Yet, again, the disagreement is not as deep as one might think.  As I see it there are high level forms of defamiliarization and low-level forms, what I would call "weak defamliarization."  Saito, in her objection to the defamiliarization hypothesis seems only to be thinking of the high level forms.  If she could accept the low level forms then there would be no disagreement.  And I think she does, implicitly.  Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of mindfulness in washing dishes.  Saito also speaks positively of the Buddhist concept of mindfulness.  Washing dishes definitely falls into the category of activity that is "familiar, routine and ordinary," the category which Saito sees as central to everyday aesthetics.  For me, what is central to everyday aesthetics is that it involves everyday experience made special (to borrow a term from Dissanayake).  But one way this can happen is when we are mindful in the Buddhist way of washing dishes.  (I do have one problem however with the Buddhist approach, which I will discuss later.)

Saito describes the position she opposes in this way:  "Everyday life is so familiar, so ordinary, and so routine-like that it forms a kind of background.  In order for this aspect of our life to be foregrounded as the object of aesthetics, it has to be illuminated in some way to render it out-of-the-ordinary, unfamiliar, or strange:  it needs to be defamiliarized."  (11)  I think this position, which she rejects, is mainly correct, and I think that this is what mindfulness, which she advocates, accomplishes!  (The concept of "illumination" probably needs some clarification:  if it implies illumination from the outside I would reject it along Deweyan lines since it implies an implicit dualism.  My idea of "aura" as developed in my book describes something like illumination that is neither fully subjective nor objective, again, in the spirit of Dewey's pragmatism.)  I also fully agree with Saito's other characterization of what she disparagingly calls the "popular narrative."  This is how she puts it: "aesthetic experience promotes a radically sensitized acuity of perception that is the antithesis of everyday inattentiveness...the everyday must be rescued from oblivion by being transformed;  the all too prosaic must be made to reveal its hidden subversive poetry.  The name for this form of aesthetic distancing is of course defamiliarization."  I do not want to lose the idea that everyday aesthetics is about revealing hidden subversive poetry.

Saito goes on to discuss some forms of defamiliarization that are deeply unpleasant, for example the one described in Satre's Nausea.  Sartre's description reminds of the experience of the manic/depressive in the manic phase of his/her illness in which everything takes on such a strongly defamiliarized look that it is overwhelming and, in the manic phase, very positive, although highly disruptive.  Clearly defamiliarization is not always good.  Saito describes Roquentin in Sartre's novel who "loses the usual control of existence through conceptualization."  He fails to "experience ordinary objects in their benign everyday aspect."  Roquentin describes his nausea as arising from failing to reduce things to "their everyday aspect."  This is a possible experience, for example in the depressive phase of the life of a manic/depressive.  

Now it may be that Saito is saying that this form of extreme defamiliarization negates something, a kind of low-level aesthetically positive thing of which we are seldom if at all conscious, which Roquentin refers to as the "everyday aspect."  This sounds good, although I think that it might be better for Roquentin to simply ratchet down from high-level defamiliarization to a form of defamiliarization that is much lighter, rather than entered into the state of a boring, overly literal and mechanical person who simply lives to classify things,  To be sure, Roquentin may only be made aware of the second lower level sort of  aesthetic experience experience based on modest forms of defamiliarization because of the contrast with the extreme sort that has made him miserable.  So, it is the contrast that raises the low level experience.  

Roquentin's experience of the tree as having "lost the harmless look of an abstract category" becoming an aspect of a larger material obscene "paste" without individuality describes a very strong negative aesthetic experience which may reveal, by its very absence, something we are not always conscious of, i.e. the comfort attendant on being able to categorize and individualize things.  But this comfort is only worth something for us if it goes beyond a life of mere categorization.

A life under stable categories might at first seem like what  Nietzsche referred to as the Apollonian.  However the Apollinian again is not just at the level of categorization but entails a kind of imaginative seeing.  As Nietzsche would put it, the Apollonian lives in a dream world as if under the eye of Helen.  Actually both Sartre's and Camus' experience of existentialist absurdity seem much like what Nietzsche described, through quoting Schopenhauer, as the moment when the principium individuationis suffers and exception, a moment in which there is both horror and wonder, i.e. when our normal principles of explanation fail.  This, for Nietzsche, can be a moment of Dionysian ecstasy.  

Perhaps Nietzsche could make a contribution to this debate in everyday aesthetics insofar as he would hold that the Dionysian experience can be one not of nausea but of ecstasy, and moreover, that great art (ideal aesthetic experience) can only happen when the two modes of experience are in some way synthesized.  The question would be, then, where this can also have some application to the level of the everyday (since great art and everyday experience are clearly different).  We need to be able to categorize the tree, but we also need to be able to see it beyond categorization, as Stan Godlovitch does when he talks about the need for mystery in appropriate appreciation of nature.  The poet sees the tree by categorizing it not literally but through metaphors:  a kind of defamiliarization.

As with many other things, I argue here for toggling between the two attitudes, for example, in the case of Godlovitch vs. Allen Carlson (who holds that aesthetic appreciation of nature must be science-based), I would call for toggling between the two positions to get the most appropriate or (better) most adequate aesthetic experience.  Similarly, in the realm of the everyday, something defamiliarizing is needed to get us away from the sheer boringness of washing dishes in the practical attitude:  we need the aesthetic attitude here.  But, we need balance, and if we fail to categorize at all, or leave our capacity to categorize, we can slip into a Dionysian nightmare in which all individuality vanishes.  

Saito says that "the most comfortable mode of our interaction with things around us requires an act of intellectual knowing that gives us a power to control them by organizing, categorizing and classifying them."  (15)   This is Apollonian, but as Nietzsche would observe, the Apollonian by itself is limiting and does not maximize aesthetic experience.

Saito also observes that, for Iris Murdoch and many others, the "contingent overabundance of the world" is not nauseating but glorious.  This is the other response to Dionysian experience.  What can drive us mad can also drive us to ecstasy. (15)  Saito then lists several thinkers who hold like Murdoch to a more positive approach to the Dionysian everyday:  Annie Dillard who wants to see "unencumbered by meaning," Neil Evernden, who wants to return to the things themselves away from Nature humanized, Aldous Huxley, who finds drug-induced experience to raise colors to a higher power and drug experience to be like the experience of the artist who is not limited in seeing by what is useful, and the Zen Buddhism of Dogen, who sees this as overcoming of the self and who suggests that we can "see water as jewel necklaces" and jewel necklaces as water, crossing the traditional categories of use. (16)  She also mentions my own claim, that, as she puts it "artists are gifted in experiencing and presenting the aesthetic dimensions of everyday life, illuminating a slice of everyday life with an 'aura.'" (17)  She admits that such experiences can be refreshing and enlightening.  She adds in the next section that our lives can become enriched through being open-minded, as when Sherri Irvin talks about experiencing a cup of coffee as quietly exquisite and even strangely foreign.  Interestingly, Irvin, like Saito, stresses the unconscious dimension:  those of us who are not Zen masters, she says, respond to sensory information without much conscious awareness. 

So Saito basically characterizes the kind of position I and many others, including Paul Ziff, have taken in this way: a "move to turn the mundane, everyday, humdrum into an aesthetic treasure trove is an attempt to extend the time-honored aesthetic attitude theory to everyday life." (19)  But she also sees limitations to the aesthetics of defamiliarization.  For one thing, it is only one part of everyday aesthetics.  She thinks defamiliarization can only happen against the background of (or by way of contrast against) the familiar, ordinary and mundane.  Further, to try to make everything special is to make specialness disappear. You want to balance art-like experiences of a paper clip with using it to neaten up the work space.  Again, Saito and I are closer than it may at first seem.  For example, as I argued in an early paper, neatness is an aesthetic property, although at a very low level of intensity. So we agree that using a paper clip to neaten up a desk can be an example of everyday aesthetics.  

Sometimes, however, there is more of a debate surrounding Dewey's concept of "an experience."  Many hold that an experience cannot be helpful in defining everyday aesthetics (or even art aesthetics) because it is too committed to being something grand, as in a meal at a fine restaurant that sums up everything a meal could be. But, for Dewey, "an experience" can also be something as simple as being satisfied with repairing one's car.  What is really at issue here is how to approach what Dewey called "the humdrum."  Before I go on I should note that "humdrum," although usually considered a negative aesthetic property, can sometimes be used as a positive aesthetic property.  More on this later.

The main problem Saito has with defamiliarization is that it seems to negate the everydayness of the everyday.  Thinkers like Rita Felski and Ben Highmore, as well as Saito herself, worry that treating everyday experience as art-like involves disloyalty to the particularity of such experience, for example arresting its natural "flow" by way of scrutinizing it,  and thus losing that which is routine about the everyday.   Well, whether not art violates this condition really depends on what poet, painter, sculptor, musician one is thinking of.  Still, there is something to the point.  Dewey thought that art refines and intensifies everyday experience, and it is true that this involves providing some structure where there was none before.  However, providing structure is also part of everyday experience.  We provide structure when we recount an experience we had to someone else in the form of a story with a beginning, middle and end.  Recounting the events of our lives, including our dreams, is part of what it means to experience everyday life aesthetically.  Some of the "flow" is lost, to be sure, but not all of it, since flow is pretty characteristic, as an intensified quality, often referred to as "rhythm," in both artistic and art-like experience.

As I said previously, much of Saito's position involves rejecting the aesthetic attitude.  A leading proponent of that position was Edward Bullough.  In The Extraordinary in the Ordinary I defended Bullough, particularly in his account of experience a fog at sea from a "distanced" perspective.  I still believe that distancing provides us with the possibility to perceive metaphorically, and not just under the standard categories.  As I have argued above, I think that the aesthetic attitude can still do the job that Saito thinks it cannot.  In particular, I think it is the wrong route to take for everyday aesthetics to abandon the aesthetic attitude for the sort of attitude that Naukkarinen recommends, an attitude that fails to bring out metaphorical qualities and that seems limited to a quiescent non-creative approach to everyday life.  So when Saito asks "are the everyday as ordinary and everyday always incompatible with aesthetic?"  my answer would be, "almost."  As I have said, in a much quoted passage, "any attempt to increase the aesthetic intensity of our ordinary everyday life-experiences will tend to push those experiences in the direction of the extraordinary."  To clarify, this this does not mean that they must become extraordinary:  the emphasis is on "in the direction of."  

So, this is what has been called by Carlson and others "the dilemma of everyday aesthetics" and I will have more to say about that elsewhere.  Saito agrees with Carlson that my concept of "aura" as developed in my book does not resolve the dilemma.  I do not know whether it was intended to resolve the dilemma.  Perhaps the dilemma needs several resources to be resolved.   Or perhaps there really is no dilemma at all, or just a dilemma for those who, like Carlson, think we have to choose between formalist and cognitivist appreciation.  Saito thinks the dilemma cannot be resolved simply by introducing cognitive understanding since such understanding, say of how a knife works, is needed both to properly experience the extraordinary performance of a knife-swallower as well as the everyday pleasure of watching her mother skillfully cut vegetables.  I still think that the idea of "aura" helps here since it indicates how something experienced aesthetically seems to go beyond or rise above the merely humdrum, and it has a positive affective valence which I think essential to the positive outcome of everyday aesthetics.  But, of course, basic cognitive understanding plays an important role.

OK, so here is the core of our disagreement.  Saito says:  "I do believe...that experiencing the ordinary as ordinary is possible and it offers the core of everyday aesthetic experience."  By contrast, I think that "making special" offers that core.  Making special is what gives aura.  Saito goes on:  "My argument is this:  paying attention and bringing background to the foreground is simply making something invisible visible and is necessary for any kind of aesthetic experience, whether of the extraordinary or of the ordinary."  Further "Bringing background to the foreground through paying attention contrasts with conducting everyday life on autopilot, which puts the ingredients of everyday life beyond capture by our conscious radar."  And "putting something on our conscious radar and making something visible does not necessarily render our experience extraordinary."  I agree with the last sentence and regret that I previously implied that extraordinariness is necessary.  Also, I should note that whereas earlier in the chapter Saito seemed to be talking about something unconscious, here she clarifies that she is not.  So my concession plus this modification of her thesis removes two areas of disagreement.  Yet another one opens up, and it centers around the idea of "paying attention."

There are different ways to pay attention.  One might be called the realist model.  On that model, there are properties already out there in the world, including aesthetic properties, and we can either attend to those properties or not.  I think that Saito sometimes assumes the realist model.  Another model is more Deweyan.  It sees properties as neither fully objective nor fully subjective and as emergent on the interaction of the live creature and the surrounding environment.  I advocate this pragmatist model of paying attention.  One aspect of the pragmatist model is that it does not exclude the affective element of experience since it does not isolate the subjective from the objective.  Paying attention on this model always has an affective aspect.  And of course this also means that it always has an evaluative aspect.  I go perhaps a bit further than Dewey in insisting that paying attention also requires emergence of aura.  Let's call this the pragmatist/romantic conception of paying attention since the romantics seemed to always see something transcendent in the mundane, something universal in the particular, and I think this is an important insight that needs incorporation into all aspects of aesthetics, of art, nature and everyday life.  I think this conception is also be present in Dewey, although it is more implicit in his many positive references to romantic poet than explicit.  

Again, Saito says that "[b]ringing background to the foreground through paying attention contrasts with conducting everyday life on autopilot."   I think that when we pay attention in a pragmatist/romantic way to, say, washing dishes, it is not that real background is now foregrounded but rather that a potential is actualized, the potential of real experience comes out where routinized mechanical experience existed before.  Both Saito and I (and Dewey and Thich Nhat Hanh) want to get beyond chopping vegetables mindlessly.  We favor mindfulness.  But how to interpret "mindfulness" is the question.  I would not interpret it in a realist fashion since the realist interpretation leaves out affective/evaluative content and provides no basis for the experience of "aura" which is necessary for the whole thing to be aesthetic.  How a Buddhist would interpret it depends on the form of Buddhism:  there are certain forms that seem more realist whereas others are more like Dewey in deconstructing the objective/subjective split.

Saito puts the contrast she thinks important in this way:  "I can attend to the appearance of the vegetables, their feel against my fingers and the knife, the kinetic sensation of using the knife and the staccato sound it makes, all of which are all-to-familiar, or I can experience all of these familiar things as if I am encountering them for the first time." (14)  She thinks that both of these require mindfulness as opposed to chopping vegetables on autopilot.  I agree. But I think this is a false dichotomy.  The first option is incomplete if it does not account for the emergence of these familiar things into aura.  The second takes defamiliarization to an extreme, an extreme that is not necessary for aesthetic experience of the everyday.  Something in between is needed.  

Saito appeals to George Dickie's attack on the notion of the aesthetic attitude to back up her idea, making clear that her notion of "attending to" is realist and not pragmatist/romantic.  Dickie thinks all we need to do is attend to the properties of the theatrical production, for example, without being distracted:  and that there is no need for a special aesthetic attitude.  What Dickie fails to realize is that the conventions of theater have already created the aesthetic attitude for us (it is incorporated into the presence of actors on a stage, for example) and that is why we do not need to take the aesthetic attitude in the theater.  Where we need to take the aesthetic attitude is in relation to nature and life, where artistic conventions (and the aesthetic attitude of the artist in her creative process) have not already done the job.  When we attend to things in the disinterested fashion advocated by Kant, Bullough, Stolnitz and me we do not just see properties but "see as" as Wittgenstein would put it:  we see imaginatively.  (Again, in perceiving a play we do not need as much to see imaginatively since the playwright has done that for us.  But this does not exclude more creative or imaginative ways of watching a play.)  So, contra Saito, Dickie's distinction does not help but rather hinders our understanding of everyday aesthetics.

Dewey thinks, as Saito correctly observes, that the enemy of the aesthetic is the humdrum, whereas Saito believes that the humdrum aspects of everyday life (made up mainly by habitual actions) are the core of everyday aesthetics as long as we are mindful, i.e. as long as they have risen out of the unconscious domain.  I think that they must rise a bit further, i.e. into something that we experience as with aura.  Saito objects to "[t]he usual narrative" that emphasizes the humdrum as "dreary, drab, tedious, monotonous" for example as Marx saw the life of the worker in a capitalist society.  I think that Marx was exactly right, although, again, the actual word "humdrum" is open for positive as well as negative aesthetic usage.   

Dewey, similarly, sees the humdrum in terms of slackness, loose ends, and personal drift, where there are no genuine initiations and concludings, and no carrying of the past into the present and projecting into the future.  Again, we need to distinguish between "an experience"  in the grand manner and relatively low level examples of integral experience that still have the qualities that go beyond the humdrum, i.e. coherence, a pervasive quality, and unity.  Saito insists that experiences that do not have these qualities are not, contra Dewey, anesthetic.  She calls on Highmore for support.  Highmore argues that slackness is suitable for "diffuse consciousness of routine" and "drift" fits with "routine, humdrum life."  I agree with the many critics of Dewey that he overemphasized the idea of unity.  There are of course aesthetic experiences that can involve disunity, and I think that drifting can be positively aesthetic:  the idea reminds me of a lazy summer day for a dreamy teenager.  I also agree with Saito that the humdrum as dreary, tedious, etc. is not positively enjoyable but is rather a case of negative aesthetics.  I am not sure that this is a background experience since if I am bored or find something dreary or tedious this is pretty much in the foreground, and I do not know what background boredom or tedium might be like.  

But when we turn to Saito's distinction of honorific vs. classificatory uses of "aesthetic" I find myself once again raising some questions.  Saito chastises those like Dewey and me who hold that the humdrum is not aesthetic since the aesthetic involves perception and enjoyment.  Of course there is no denying that there is a negative aesthetics and that there are many negative aesthetic terms, as, for example, ugly.  But Dewey and I would hold that the point of everyday aesthetics has to do with what Aristotle, Mill and Marx thought was a point of human existence:  happiness.  What we want to happen in society is for people to get away from the state of alienation Marx described so well.  Negative aesthetic experiences should be attended to so that they be replaced by positive ones or incorporated into larger wholes that are themselves positively aesthetic.  

Saito is worried about defining "aesthetic" in an honorific rather than in a classificatory way.   She calls on us to return to the root meaning of "aesthetic" which simply referred to sense experience in a neutral way.   On this view the aesthetic is any "sensibility mediated response" as Paul Duncum would put it.  Saito puts the point strongly:  "It is particularly critical in everyday aesthetics that we keep the classificatory sense of 'aesthetic' as its primary meaning ....[r]egarding aesthetics in this value-neutral way is important precisely because the power of the aesthetic can affect us positively or negatively...."  (28).  For Saito if the humdrum is dreary drudgery this does not mean it is anesthetic but that it is "an aesthetic texture of everyday life, though negatively experienced."

I do not have a big objection to this since I am very much in favor of the negative aesthetics as exemplified in the work of Saito, Berleant and Mandoki.  My worry is more with the distinction between the honorific and the classificatory senses of "aesthetic."  I have a problem with that if the classificatory is intended to replace or downplay the importance of the honorific.  This debate reminds me of the old debate between Morris Weitz and George Dickie.  Weitz thought that art could not be defined in a classificatory way, i.e. in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but could be defined, and always had been defined, in an honorific way, i.e. in terms of preferred properties and paradigms.  So when Bell says that "art is significant form" he should not be understood as giving a real classificatory definition of art but as recommending that we attend most to those works of art that have significant form and that give us that special aesthetic experience which he referred to as rapture.  It is the debates over such disguised honorific definitions that makes aesthetic theory worthwhile.  Dickie by contrast thought that there really is a classificatory definition of art, and that the key here is to leave out all honorific definition.  I see Dickie's move as a great wrong-turning in the history of 20th century aesthetics.  And it was dependent precisely on the property realism which in turn was dependent on the sort of dualism Dewey rejected, whereas Weitz recognized what Dewey recognized, i.e. that values are emergent upon the interaction of the live creature and its environment.  Similarly, replacing honorific definition of everyday aesthetics or of "aesthetic" with a classificatory value-neutral definition might denude "aesthetic" of the same dynamic that the move to classificatory neutral definition of "art" after Dickie denuded debates over the nature of art of their real dynamism and richness, i.e. the dynamism that was present in the debates over the essence of art up to Weitz's anti-essentialist intervention.   

A final point relates to Saito's final section of this chapter, a section she titles "Positive characterization of the ordinary."  This point hearkens back to a complaint I earlier had about Naukkarinen's replacement for the aesthetic attitude: a replacement that seemed to shortchange creative experience in everyday life.  Similarly, here Saito seems to advocate Happala's characterization of everyday aesthetics in terms of a set of qualities, which, although I agree are everyday aesthetics qualities, I cannot accept as definitive of the realm of the everyday.  As Saito puts it, these are "the qualities such as familiarity, comfort, stability, intimacy, homey, warmth, reassurance, and safety..."  (29)  One might refer to these in general as "homey" qualities.  Saito thinks that "everyday life as familiar can be a source of positive experience" and I agree.  But these homey qualities are no more important than the qualities we experience at home and in our own neighborhood when we notice things that are a little off or strange, i.e. things we might consider worthy of a photograph just because they rise above the ordinary qua ordinary.  It is not the contrast between the really strange and foreign and the homey everyday that interests me here but that between homey everyday qualities and the qualities of everyday life that add zest and interest to, for example, a daily walk.  But, of course, I agree with Saito in her opting for "the wide swath of everyday aesthetics in all its rich variety" (30) and that "the most important issue is...to discriminate between when and in what context it is appropriate and desirable to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and when it is better to recognize negative aesthetic experiences as negative so that we can work on changing them."  I am even willing to agree that sometimes we need to savor "the very ordinariness of the familiar" as long as it is understood that this savoring makes the ordinary somewhat less ordinary insofar as it takes on an "aura" it does not ordinarily have.      

  
Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 32 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it from Broadview. 









       




Sunday, April 22, 2018

Legitimizing Everyday Aesthetics

I just want to give a shoutout here for Yuriko Saito's Aesthetics of the Familiar:  Everyday Life and World Making.  (Oxford U. Press, 2017).   Saito is already well-known in the world of philosophical aesthetics for her work Everyday Aesthetics. (OUP 2007).  These books together help establish this new sub-discipline of aesthetics.  In this post I am just going to talk about her second chapter.  "Challenges and Responses to Everyday Aesthetics."  There is hardly anything I disagree with in this chapter and so the notes may be a bit scattered, more like musings.   One of the things I always enjoy in reading Saito is the wide range of her reading.  She goes directly from Melchionne's defense of everyday aesthetics to Callicott's views on land aesthetics, and then to Howes and Class,  cultural anthropologists on Ways of Sensing, and then Buffalo Bird Woman on cooking.   I agree that everyday aesthetic phenomena are not limited to objects and can include our experiences of activity:  for example cooking.  I agree that although one can appreciate the baseball game qua baseball game one can also frame the experience somewhat differently, where what is appreciated is a day at the park.  The second kind of appreciation would be focuses as much on the small of hot dogs, for example.   I agree that there are certain values that permeate "our everyday life such as fellowship, reciprocity, care, and love."  (56)  I agree that there are alternative to judgment-oriented aesthetics, and that "a phenomenological description rather than a critical discourse is more suited for this dimension of our everyday aesthetic life."  (58)  

I might be a bit more critical of Juhani Pallasmaa's idea that there is a problem with "increasingly visual primary of experiencing architecture."  (59)  Drawing on Dewey's concept of medium I would hold that one of the ways in which art forms can have power is that they can focus on one sense to the exclusion of our usual incorporation of the other senses.  The senses of small and hearing are absent from our experience of a painting as painting, but they are also in a strange way evoked.  This concentration on one sense produces an experience of the work as having aura.  So, thinking about architecture, although it is not entirely visual in the way that painting is, it is not exactly a lot more tactile, and it seldom involves the sense of smell.  So focusing on architecture as architecture is focusing on the medium of architecture.  So I think it is over the top for Pllasmaa to say "The nihilistic eye deliberately advances sensory and mental detachment and alienation.  Instead of reinforcing one's body-centered and integrated experience of the world, nihilistic architecture disengages and isolates the body..."  nihilistic architecture being architecture that is visual centered.  (59)    Sure, we can go too far in the direction of vision-centeredness in our society, but to throw out all of this is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  I would agree with Dewey in strongly opposing this quote that Saito gives from Pallasmaa's 2007 book The Eyes of the Skin:  Architecture and the Senses:  "The problems arise from the isolation of the eye outside its natural interaction with other sense modalities, and from the limitations and suppression of other senses, which increasingly reduce and restrict the experience of the world into the sphere of vision."  (64)  Would he similarly have a problem with music qua music excluding the other senses?  The wonder of music is that it creates worlds of its own without the other senses, just as people who are blind are able to get along pretty well (as least sometimes and with some assistance) without the sense of sight:  they do not lose the world.


Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 32 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it from Broadview. 


      

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Susanne Langer "Feeling and Form" in the Ross anthology: sculpture and architecture

As I said in my last post, "virtual" is a central term in the aesthetics of Suzanne Langer.  She held that artists create a virtual world, whether the art be music, dance, architecture, film, painting or sculpture.  Although she rejected the imitation theory of art, she did believe that art creates a kind of "illusion," i.e. an illusion of another world with its own space.   (The point owes something to both Kant and Nietzsche.  Kant held that we have a priori forms of intuition, i.e. space and time.  So, on his view, we construct the world through the reproductive imagination, locating things in these a priori forms.  Kant also believed that the artist genius uses the productive imagination to create a world of his/her own out of the materials of our world.  This ideas is similar to Langer's.  This is not surprising since one of her teachers was Cassirer, a Kantian.  The Nietzschean angle may be a bit more surprising:  Langer's references to Nietzsche do not show a deep understanding of his writings.  However she shares with him a view of art as creating a world of illusion, and that, unlike Plato, this is a good thing.  For Nietzsche, this is the Apollinian side of art.)

It is interesting to see how Langer applies her idea to sculpture.  She argues that the volume created by a sculptor is "a space made visible, and is more than the area which the figure actually occupies."  The work "absolutely commands" a complementary empty space which is part of the sculptural volume.  There is continuity between the figure and this space:  the void enfolds the figure and this space "has vital form" that is continuous with the figure.  She further argues that this "illusion" is based on "the semblance of organism."  What makes certain moves in sculpture inevitable or necessary is what she calls "vital function."  Sculptures then are like living organisms in that they, symbolically, "maintain themselves, resist change, strive to restore their structure..."  She admits that sculpture is not actually organic, but its form is "the form of life" that its space if vitalized.  That space is "virtual kinetic volume" which is created by the semblance of living form.

We gain a fuller understanding of Langer's idea of virtual reality when she discusses architecture.  "Architecture creates the semblance of that World which is the counterpart of a Self."  Architecture makes the totality of environment visible.  (Readers of Heidegger on "The Origins of the Work of Art" will find this to be quite familiar.)  The World of the Self is communal.  Architecture provides a created space which is a symbol of the system of functional relations that makes up our actual lived environment.  She seeks to distinguish her view from "functionalism" in architecture:  she is not talking about good planning.  Instead she is thinking of architecture as symbolic expression, as embodying the "feeling, the rhythm, the passion...with which any things at all are done."  It is the image of life which "is created in buildings."  Architecture then is "the visible semblance of an 'ethnic domain,' the symbol of humanity to be found in the strength and interplay of forms."  By "ethnic domain" she means not the domain of an ethnicity but rather the way in which architecture models the life of humanity.  As she makes clear in the next paragraph, this is a matter of how we exist as organisms.   Our actions develop organically, and they, and our feelings, have a natural pattern.  The human environment also has a functional pattern that is organic in nature.  Thus "any building that can create the illusion of an ethnic world, a 'place' articulated by the imprint of human life, must seem organic, like a living form."  Architecture should do this.  She finds this philosophy already in the writings of Sullivan, Wright, and Le Corbusier, with all of their talk of organic this and that.  These terms, she says, refer to "virtual space, the created domain of human relations and activities."  And this place, created by the architect, "is an illusion." It is atmosphere.  And it can be lost with any revision of the building.  Along with her architectural heroes she holds that decoration can destroy this illusion:  

So, "the primary illusion of plastic art, virtual space, appears in architecture as envisagement of an ethnic domain...."

So we might ask ourselves:  is Langer right?  Has she added anything to the history of aesthetics?  This might be difficult for me to answer since she clearly is saying some of this in opposition to Dewey.  She clearly wants to overcome the idea of continuity between art and everyday life.   I think however that the two could be synthesized.   I agree that art creates a world of illusion or, rather, each artwork creates its own illusion.  Speaking of architecture as creating virtual space seems to help.  So too with sculpture.  And I think what she has to say about painting is truly insightful.  In architecture, you are both walking in a real space and also transported into another space when walking through Falling Water.  Dewey speaks of refinement and intensification of experience, and he, like Langer, is very aware of how visual art both excludes all of the other sense, but also incorporates them indirectly, so that in seeing a painting of oranges you can sometimes almost smell the oranges.   One refines and intensifies ordinary experiences by way of creating a virtual reality.   When I have spoken of aura in previous writings might I not be saying the same thing as what Langer means by "virtual" or "image" or "illusion." 


Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 32 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it from Broadview.