Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some quotes from Epicurus related to Epicurean Aesthetics

Epicurus and his disciple Metrodorus, 150-200 A.D., Roman

These quotes are taken from Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings tr. Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997)

"For I at least do not even know what I should conceive the good to be, if I eliminate the pleasures of taste, and eliminate the pleasures of sex, and eliminate the pleasures of listening, and eliminate the pleasant motions caused in our vision of a visible form." (75) This is taken from Athenaeus Deipnosophists.

"I summon you to constant pleasures, and not to virtues, which provide [only] empty, pointless, and disturbing expectations of rewards." (76) a letter to Anarchus from Plutarch Against Colotes.

"I revel in the pleasure of my poor body, employing water and bread, and I spit upon the pleasures of extravagance, not for their own sake, but because of the difficulties which follow from them." (79) from Stobaeus Anthology.

"As they say, remembering previous goods is the most important factor contributing to a pleasant life." (99) Plutarch A Pleasant Life.

He said that the wise person is a "lover of sights and enjoys hearing and seeing Dionysiac performances as much as anyone." Plutarch A Pleasant Life (this taken from Elizabeth Asmis, "Hellenistic Aesthetics: Philosophers and Literary Critics," Encyclopedia of Aesthetics vol. 2. pg. 391. Monroe Beardsley observes that he continues this quote by saying "yet he will not allow musical discussion and the learned inquiries of critics at parties." Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present. 1975. (72)

“It is only the wise man who will be able to converse properly of music and poetry—but not engaging in composing poems as a serious activity.” This is recorded by Diogenes Laertius.

Interestingly, his Roman period follower Philodemus held that music is useful simply for pleasure and that poems give pleasure through the thoughts expressed as well as the sounds produced, this in contrast to the Stoics who thought poetry had to be useful. Asmis is also my reference on this.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Epicurean Aesthetics

Epicurus Greek Philosopher 341-270 BCE
I have been reading Epicurus and the Epicureans recently and have wondered whether there is such a thing as Epicurean aesthetics, and what such an aesthetics could contribute to everyday life. This seems a strange question at first since "Epicurean" is practically synonymous in our culture with a love of the good things in life, i.e. epicureans in food. However Epicurus himself was critical of the very things the contemporary epicureans seem to love. The goal of a good Epicurean is to achieve a life free of pain and worry. The main pleasures one should pursue are ones that are both natural and necessary. One should avoid the ones that are natural but not necessary, especially if pursuing them will cause pain or worry. And shun the ones that are neither natural nor necessary, as they are most likely to bring trouble. So the pleasures of eating and drinking are important, sexual pleasures somewhat less so, and the pleasures of fame, fortune, and gourmet food usually not worth the trouble. In short, one should avoid luxuries if what it takes to pay for them causes some pain. Epicurus recommends a simple life and enjoyment of simple pleasures, although if luxurious pleasures come along without trouble they can be enjoyed without guilt. It seems strange to say that the goal of life is absence of pain and worry. I think that it was a mistake of Epicurus to put the point so negatively. The goal of life, as he elsewhere says, is pleasure, and the most pleasant life is one that is without pain and worry. I suspect that the Epicurean ideal of absence of pain is really one of a kind of pervasive comfort, both physical and mental. So in general one could say that Epicurus is a hero of everyday aesthetics insofar as it promotes a certain aesthetic quality in life. He is certainly not a hero of the aesthetics of art. He does not seem to think much of the arts, encouraging a student in one letter not to study culture. He was even said to have referred to poetry and music as "noise" and to have joined Plato in rejecting them from the ideal society.  I suppose he saw the arts as just more luxuries. But I don't think such an attack on the arts is necessary or even useful for everyday aesthetics. Also, later followers, like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, hardly agreed with him on this point. He is also not a lover of the word in Greek that is usually translated as "beauty," i.e. kalon, which also means "good." This would seem to make him anti-aesthetic, but he is really just against any notion of beauty not connected with pleasure.

One of the things I like about Epicurus is his idea he promotes that "death is nothing to us." Beyond the fact that there is no reason to believe in an afterlife the Epicurean just recognizes that when you are dead you no longer experience. And so fear of death seems particularly absurd. This cuts pretty deeply against existentialism which seems to revel in our dread of death, something that attends us every day of our lives. Of course fear of death is probably genetically ingrained into us, but if we can achieve a certain freedom from it then there are some real benefits. This approach focuses one on one's own life as an embodied being interacting with the world through the senses and via our responses of pleasure and pain. Some followers of Epicurus thought that this meant focusing on the now. Although true in a way, this idea needs modification. For Epicurus mental pleasure is the best, and this pleasure is directed to the future and past as well as the present. So it is rich and complex. A key pleasure is enjoying past pleasures in memory. Another is anticipation of future pleasures. These can easily however be combined with pleasures of the moment as when one enjoys a smell not only for now but for the pleasant memories it evokes. (This seems to contradict the idea that only simple pleasures are wanted. In fact, there is a kind of complexity wanted.)

So an Epicurean, in the traditional sense of the word is someone who seeks a pervasive experience of comfort and safety connected with the basic pleasure of life and richly textured by memory and anticipation (this is much like Dewey).

Another aspect of the pleasures of the Epicurean life is the importance of friendship. There is much discussion in the scholarly literature over whether Epicurus saw friends as merely useful for gaining pleasure and safety or whether he valued friends in themselves. Whereas Aristotle saw man as a political animal Epicurus sees him as an animal for whom the appropriate richness of experience is impossible without friendship. The pleasures of friendship, basically of shared pleasure, add another dimension to the complexity of pleasure. So what I am saying is that an aesthetics of everyday life should probably follow Epicurus in emphasizing the rich complexity of aesthetic experience in the ways just discussed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What is central to literary meaning, or the meaning of any work of art?

Sometimes when I read philosophers on this topic I wonder how their theory would work in practice, or even what they are actually thinking of.  Some philosophers seem to be telling us that we are not supposed to pay any attention to what the author says about the meaning of his/her work.  Yet I just saw an excellent commentary on a film by the director that made me appreciate the film more than I did before.  So am I being told that this is not a legitimate experience, or what? Jerrold Levinson holds to a view called hypothetical intentionalism which says "the core meaning of a literary work is given by the best hypothesis, from the position of an appropriately informed sympathetic, and discriminating reader, of authorial intent to convey such and such to an audience through the text in question" and this means valuing "optimal hypotheses about authorial intention, rather than actual authorial intention." I confess that I have no idea how to make sense out of this idea.  If you are trying to come up with the optimal hypothesis about authorial intention you are trying to come up with an optimal hypothesis about actual authorial intention.  What other intention would this be about?  It is true that your best hypothesis about authorial intent might not actually capture actual authorial intention, but you would only know this if you knew what the actual authorial intent was, but then in that case what you knew would then be your best hypothesis.  This seems to me to be remarkably like the lier's paradox.  From what Levinson further says I gather that the problem is that if actual intentionalism were true then the literary text would be no more important than the author's diaries, etc. in determining the meaning of the text.  This is a more subtle issue.  What is seems to assume is that somehow the meaning of the text is independent of contextual knowledge of the reader.  Gregory Currie, an ally of Levinson's on this point say "an interpreter for whom letters [etc.]...have suggested an interpretation of which the text is a defective embodiment has ceased to be an interpreter of the work in question..."  However Currie fails to see that if I had read the letters etc. before reading the text then I would naturally see the text in terms of that contextual information, and if the text is clear to me under those circumstances then it is hardly defective.  It is no more defective than if I read some other writing of Kant before reading the Critique of Judgment and then read the latter work with understanding others might not have!  My quotations come from Jerrold Levinson "Defending Hypotehtical Intentionalism" British Journal of Aesthetics 50:2 (April 2010) 139-150, pp. 139-140.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Should Philosophy of Art Rule Aesthetics?

Christopher Dowling rejects the idea that "Experiences from daily life can afford paradigm instances of aesthetic expeirence.  Such experiences are not bound by the limitation and conventions that temper discussions of aesthetic value in the philosophy of art." "The Aesthetics of Daily Life," British Journal of Aesthetics 50:3 (July 2010)  325-342.  He thinks that some pleasures are not aesthetic pleasures and that thre are some judgments that are too trivial to be considered aesthetic.  They, or rather judgments concerning them, are trivial in the sense that they do not "require others to engage with them."  Scratching an itch, although pleasurable, is too subjective to be aesthetic.  Dowling supports an art-centered approach to aesthetics of everyday life where norms are important.  On his view, you have to be able to say which responses are appropriate and which are not.  I am frankly not sure what my view of this is.  I am suspicious of claims that people have to follow rules when making aesthetic judgments but I do agree that some pleasures are not sufficiently contemplative or reflective to be considered aesthetic.  The pleasures of scratching an itch can be contemplative and even reflective, but they are generally trivial and purely subjective.  I am also suspicous of making appreciation of art the paradigm for aesthetic appreciation in general:  after all, art appreciation involves attending to the intentions of the artist, and this is not needed in appreciation of nature, nor is it always needed in appreciation of everyday life phenomena.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

How Important are Author's/Artist's comments about the Meaning of their Work?

This is a question that garnishes an astonishing amount of discussion in the circles of analytic aesthetics.  A recent article "Intention, Interpretaion, and Contemporary Visual Art" by Hans Maes (British Journal of Aesthetics 50:2 (2010) 121-138 argues that such pronouncements are defnitive.  His proof though is insufficient.  He simply observes that often when looking at contemporary art we do not understand the meaning of the work until we find out what the artist has to say about it.  An example he gives is a work by Amer Ghada called 2002.  I am nervous about putting an image of Amer's on my blog, but here's a  link.  Just looking at the work itself (considering for example only the most abstract image in the link) does not allow one to know that the abstract images are derived from pictures found in pornographic magazines.  Arthur Danto observed this in a review of Amer's paintings for The Nation.  Now I do agree that this sort of thing is common and that we often today accept what the painter says about her work, and see the work in terms of that afterwards.  But does this really prove that we should always do so?  It seems that this is just typical of certain kinds of avant-garde work in our century:  the work is not just what you see but also what is said by the artist about it.  But this does not mean that what the artist says about a piece determines what it means in a definitive or absolute sense.  It is still the case that the artist can say misleading things about the meaning of the work.  Of course the real position at issue here is whether the meaning of the work is determined by the artist's intention at time of completion of the work.  This position is called Actual Intentionalism.  However the position simply assumes that there is something in the artists mind, something like a sentence, which is the artist's intention.  The idea is that we find out the artist's intention if we find out the sentence or sentences that accurately describe that state of mind.  Yet is there such a thing?  Aren't intentions simply constructions, often constructions after the event?  Aren't artist's comments about the meaning of their work such constructions?  If I say something to you and you ask me what I meant, am I looking into the past and finding the actual intention I had when saying it, or am I constructing something that will work for the occasion?  Isn't it myth to think there really is a thing that corresponds to what we call the actual intention?  In short the kinds of cases Maes discusses do not speak strongly in favor of Actual Intentionalism, as he argues, but simply speak in favor of using that theory when looking at works of this sort.  By the way, if you are already familiar with Amer's work and have seen examples that are less abstract, it is fairly obvious that these lines are derived from pornographic images, so the claim that you need to rely on her words to understand the work is a bit disigenuous. What is in the mind at the time of creation of the piece?  Are unconscious phenomena allowed? If so, could the artist be channeling the spirit of the age unbeknownst to her/him? If so, what does this do to the claim that the meaning of the work is what the author/artist intended it to mean? 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Riggle on Street Art

Nicholas Alden Riggle explores a new domain of art with his "Street Art:  The Transfiguration of the Commonplace."  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68:2 (2010) 243-257.  He begins by developing a definition "An artwork is street art if, and only if, its material use of the street is internal to its meaning."  As a result, some graffiti (but not all) is street art.  Works that count as street art are used to illustrate the article:  one piece by Blu in 2007, another by C215, another by Swoon. I have no objection to his definition but wonder whether the tile works by Richard Hawes on the bridge on San Antonio Street in San Jose count as street art.  The street is used in the work since the tiles face the street from both sides of the bridge.  Riggle allows that Invader's works, which use tiles, are street art.  This work probably would not appear in a book on street art since Hawes is not part of the hip-hop culture.  On the other hand, Invader is the kind of artist whose work would appear in a book on Street Art.  Hawes works were placed there (as it turns out without clear legal authority) over a period of a couple years.  He was originally invited to do this work by one of the local neighborhood associations but the work was not sanctioned by the city public art program (at least not at that time....it may now have some retroactive sanction).  Riggle would probably exclude Hawes' work from street art as Hawes did not make a commitment to ephemerality.  Riggle thinks that Tilted Arc by Richard Serra is not street art since it rejects ephemerality and because it "transforms the public space into an artworld-sanctioned artspace" which is not then, any longer, a street.

Returning to Hawes's work, I should observe that a few years back it was partly destroyed by an over-enthusiastic "protector" of the bridge.  When I discussed this with Hawes he was upset about it.  So he was not in favor of ephemerality, and, like Serra, was not in favor of the destruction of his work.  Unlike the Serra case, however, one could not argue that Hawes had turned the space into an art-sanctioned space with not internal connection to the street, no real use of the street.  I should note that I played some role in this drama.  My wife and I apprehended the art vandals in the act of destroying works with crowbars and managed to scare them away, mainly by taking photographs of what they were doing.  The local communities (including Olinder Neighborhood, the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood, and Naglee Park) rallied in favor of the art works (petitions were distributed, emails flew, and a newspaper article was written in the San Jose Mercury News).  The works that were not destroyed remain on the bridge, including ones that were partially ruined by the art vandals.  I would tentatively include Hawes work as street art, but I am somewhat nervous about this since it is not connected to any street art tradition, for example it is not connected in any way with graffiti or graffiti art.

Riggle's definition would include Hawes' work except for the ephemerality condition.  However, are street artists really always committed to their art being ephemeral?  How do they show this belief?  What if they would prefer it to be up as long as possible?  What about a mural artist who is paid to put up a relatively permanent mural by the city?  What about architects?  Many of their buildings will be destroyed in their lifetimes:  does knowing this mean that these artists are committed to their work being ephemeral?  How do we distinguish this commitment from mere acceptance? 

More important, Riggle says that street art is "antithetical to the artworld."  Wouldn't this, if true, pose some serious problems with atworld theories of art?  One of Riggle's main points is that street art allows art to "join the living" by which he means that it allows art to be integrated in everyday life.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Margolis on Defining Art

My aesthetics blog has been pretty dormant recently, but since I am gearing up to teach Introduction to Aesthetics again this fall I thought I would jump in again. Although he makes a tough read sometimes, and although it is a bit hard to take his self-certainty, I still think Joe Margolis is one of our best aestheticians. His “The Importance of Being Ernest about the Definition of and Metaphysics of Art” (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68:3, 2010, 215-223.) is yet another example of his trenchant thinking. The main thrust of his article is an attack on Weitz’s skepticism concerning the possibility of a definition of art. His strategy is to argue that Weitz has misunderstood Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” concept. Although I feel that Margolis treats Wittgenstein too much as an authority here, I do like a couple things in this article. One is that Margolis allows for accounts of art that are both realist and essentialist and also open to revision and reinterpretation. He also allows that the great philosophers’ attempts to define art or its genres are not worthless. Nor are they just disguised theories of evaluation, in the manner that Weitz suggested. I like particularly his ability to accept both Aristotle’s and Nietzsche’s definitions of tragedy, recognizing that each has something to contribute. As Margolis observes, most philosophers who have discussed the definition of art have done so without discussing or perhaps even thinking about the very nature of definition itself. He argues for instance that there are many different kinds of definition, and that art can be defined for a special purpose. (I had argued something similar in my “Socratic Quest” article.) The article begins with talk about Danto and Dickie as well as Weitz, and ends with a brief discussion of Berys Gaut’s cluster theory of art. There is much talk of Wittgenstein in between. At one point Margolis argues that none of the philosophers he discusses “addresses Duchamp’s challenge straight on.” I am still trying to figure out what this means. What I think he means is that unlike Warhol, or in a more dramatic way, Duchamp challenged the boundaries between art and life, challenged the very notion of a separate “artworld” that could stand as a basis for an institutional definition of art.

Saturday, July 3, 2010