Friday, October 31, 2008

Hegel on Dutch Painters

Hegel speaks of Dutch painters as being able to produce works that display a “pure shining and appearing of objects as something produced by the spirit which transforms in its inmost being the external and sensuous side of” such material as “velvet, metallic luster, light, horses, servants, old women, peasants blowing smoke from cutty pipes, the glitter of wine in a transparent glass, chaps in dirty jackets playing with old cards.” I take it that he means that the external sensuous side of these objects becomes transformed when represented in the work of art. But also he suggests that the objects themselves have a “pure shining and appearing” which is then actualized by the artist. For, in the list, the first four items shine already, as can also be said for the glitter of wine. Even the smoke of pipes in these paintings is typically represented as luminous. Hegel of course is not here commending us to aesthetic experience of these things which we “scarcely bother about in our daily life” but rather to their replacements in works of art where we see only colors and surface. However he also says that “we get the same impression which reality affords,” which seems to imply reference back to the ordinary objects. Hegel is no hero of everyday aesthetics when he says: “In contrast to the prosaic reality confronting us, this pure appearance produced by the spirit is therefore the marvel of ideality.” He thinks that this marvel of ideality even mocks external nature. For he thinks it is really hard to produce a beautiful effect in metal, whereas imagination, which is the material of art, is quite easy to work with, as here, one simply draws from inner being. Strange that he does not consider how paintings are made out of paint! What he refers to as the “existent and fleeting appearance of nature” is there in the external world (the world as we experience it), but it is also “generated afresh” when represented by the artist. The paradox here involves a temporary erasure of the distinction between the subjective and the objective.

Once again drawing on materials that sparkle and shine as the opening items of the list, Hegel observes that “precious stones, gold, plants, animals, etc., have in themselves only this bounded existence” i.e. an existence which requires hard work to bring to luminous presence? The artist, Hegel asserts, steals material from nature, and then “freely disgorges” this accumulated treasure. The imagination collects that which sparkles and shines, treasure-like, but is able to do more with it. A paradox ensues: art “furnishes us with the things themselves", but it does so "out of the inner life of mind.” One wonders how it can give us something "out" of something that is quite contrary to the thing given. He says that art confines our interest to ideal appearances of these objects which can serve for contemplation, and in doing this “art exalts these otherwise worthless objects.” In fact, although its content is “insignificant” art is able to fix these objects and make them “ends in themselves.” And then we attend to things we would otherwise not notice, presumably both in the painting and in the world.

Art also, Hegel observes, manages to fix certain aspects of everyday life that are also of note, e.g. “a quickly vanishing smile, a sudden roguish expression in the mouth, a glance, a fleeting ray of light…” (In this case, the luminous element comes at the end of the list.) Art fixes these things, and yet why fix them unless we have an interest in nature itself? And what if that interest is in the very temporariness of these natural phenomena? Hegel speaks of this activity as art conquering nature, although it is not clear in what sense this is a conquest. He wants to keep the luminous subject-matter in second place to art and so he says that “it is not the subject-matter which principally makes a claim on us but the satisfaction which comes from what the spirit has produced.” The spirit of the artist has produced (in all its freedom) a certain satisfaction based on this rather lowly subject-matter the fleeting nature of which it has captured, has conquered. Indeed he sees artistic making as more than conquering: it is the "extinction" of the sensuous external material. And yet everything he has said prior to this indicates that it is more a matter of bringing that sensuous material to life, or manifesting its inner nature.

Returning to the Dutch painters, we find that they actualize their own present “once more through art.” When we understand their art we must understand it in terms of their history, their will to freedom, and even their “painstaking as well as cleanly and neat well-being” and especially their joy in having achieved this, which is “the general content of their pictures.” So perhaps then the sparkle and shine of Dutch painting is not just the work of a free-floating imagination, but something situated historically, which, after all, is what we should expect of Hegel. Rembrandt’s Night Watch, he thinks, is “fired” by this “sense of vigorous nationality.” That is, the luminosity of the painting exists because the Dutch spirit is infused into it. So the Dutch spirit, which is everyday, is brought back into the painting through the spirit of the artist. But how is this the annihilation of the everyday? It is, in particular, the feeling of "freedom and gaity” which he takes to animate Dutch genre scenes, and also, once again, the life of the Dutch portrayed. He calls this feeling a “spiritual cheerfulness in a justified pleasure.”

All of this gets quite mystical when he says much the same thing about Murillo’s beggar boys and then indicates that in them also “shines forth…[a] complete absence of care and concern” that is comparable to that of the Dervish (known today for the whirling Dervishes). There is a mystical element in everyday life when it achieves what he finds in the representation of these boys as exhibiting “the full feeling of their well being and delight in life.” He sees them as like Olympian gods in that "they do nothing" (which makes them really more like Taoists, a philosophy Hegel had recently enountered), and Nietzschean ("they are people all of one piece without any surliness or discontent" from whom anything may come!). How odd it seems when he says that this freedom is “what the Concept of the Ideal requires.”

Earlier in the book Hegel says that man is “for himself” insofar as he “represents himself to himself” and that, only insofar as he does this, is he spirit. In addition to doing this theoretically, i.e. inwardly, man also does this through practical activity since he feels compelled to produce himself in what is presented to him externally and to recognize himself in that. He does this by “altering external things” in such as way as to impress upon them his inner being. After he does this, he then finds his own characteristics there. In doing this he strips the external world “of its inflexible foreignness.” Now this is what we tend to mean by the phrase “expressing oneself.” The example he gives is of a child who throws stones into water and then marvels at the circles he has produced. The example is interesting since the child has not shaped those circles and they are certainly not in themselves an expression of the child’s inner nature. What must be happening here is that the child perceives the circles as beautiful and as also a reflection of his internal essence, although manifested in nature. The point is phenomenological. Hegel thinks of this as a preliminary expression of human need which is eventually manifested in “that mode of self-production in external things which is present in the work of art.”

Monday, October 27, 2008

Emerson, Another Hero of Everyday Aesthetics

Emerson is another hero of everyday aesthetics. In “The American Scholar” he says: “One of these [auspicious] signs [of coming days] is the fact, that the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. That, which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts. The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign, — is it not? of new vigor, when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; — show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.

This idea has inspired the genius of Goldsmith, Burns, Cowper, and, in a newer time, of Goethe, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. This idea they have differently followed and with various success. In contrast with their writing, the style of Pope, of Johnson, of Gibbon, looks cold and pedantic. This writing is blood-warm. Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote. The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean. A man is related to all nature. This perception of the worth of the vulgar is fruitful in discoveries.”

This is mainly, as is clear, praise for the avant-garde poetry of his time. (We would call this poetry Romantic…but then Emerson reserves that term for something remote, like Arabia.) He praises this poetry for what it studies: the near, the low, and the common. The poetry was concerned with everyday life, e.g. the “feelings of the child” and “the meaning of household life.” Philosophers however are rare today who would agree that “things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote.” Now of course, even if Emerson were right it would not necessarily follow that the things themselves, i.e. household life, are aesthetic. You can write poetry about feelings of a child or the meaning of household life without finding them beautiful. But one feels that he does find them beautiful: otherwise why go beyond the poets to speak directly about embracing the common and the vulgar.

It might be argued that Emerson is not concerned with aesthetics but with meaning. He wants to see the meaning of “[t]he meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body.” But, certainly all of these things can be experienced aesthetically. Moreover, discovering the meaning of something is not contrary to discovering it aesthetically. The next line makes clear what the meaning is, for Emerson. He finds “the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature.” The suburbs and extremities are these vulgar phenomena, the phenomena of everyday life. So God lurks in the vulgar things of everyday life. As Emerson puts it, “one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.” I don't go in for the idea of some sublime lurking spirit, ultimate reasons or a single designer (did I mention I was an atheist?), but I do for the notion of trifles being ripe with meaning, for embracing the common, for finding that things near are no less beautiful than things remote, and even for the idea that this is somehow especially an American task (as implied by the title of his essay, although he mentions only British and German writers)...think of Warhol and Rauschenberg.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Walter Pater's Call to Aesthetic Experience

Consider how Walter Pater’s 1868 conclusion to The Renaissance might have something to say to us. The following quotation is taken from the “Conclusion” in Kathleen Higgins, Aesthetics in Perspective (Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996). Pater begins with what he calls our physical life. Here we must “fix upon it in one of its most exquisite intervals.” The exquisite interval he chooses is “the moment…of delicious recoil from the flood of water in summer heat.” (161) Already we are in the domain of everyday aesthetics: the delicious pleasure of being splashed with water on a hot summer day. Pater then talks about this event in terms of what he refers to as moment-to-moment concurrence of forces that go beyond us. The language is old-fashioned but we understand the thrust of it. He then moves to what he calls “the inward world of thought an feeling” where he observes that “the whirlpool is still more rapid, the flame more eager and devouring” than in the physical realm. Here, “when reflexion begins to play upon [external] objects,” and their “cohesive force seems suspended like some trick of magic.... each object is loosed into a group of impressions – colour, dour, texture- in the mind of the observe.” Thus, he describes what Monet was doing in painting in the same year in his La Riviere. The purpose of philosophy, Pater thinks, is to "startle" the human spirit to a life of observation in which “[e]very moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest…for that moment only.” The point is that “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” Why? Because “[a] counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life.” (162) We want, then, to be “present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy.” (163) Pater writes, further, that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." He encourages us to have any experience that "seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment." This includes "any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend.” That is, we should focus on the strange and curious phenomena in our everyday lives. He encourages us to have a “sense of splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch. The reason is that "our one chance [to find meaning in life] lies in …. getting as many pulsations as possible into the” time allotted us. (163). Pater is known for advocating art for art’s sake, but he really only values art because it provides us the highest quality of experiences for our moments and “for those moments' sake.” In this respect Pater is a hero of the aesthetics of everyday life.