Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Paradoxes of Art: A Phenomenological Investigation

Alan Paskow managed to give us philosophical "page-turner" shortly before his untimely recent death. The question is, "what is a painting" not in the sense of searching for a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions but in terms of asking what it means to us (when it means a lot to us, that is). Included in the text are four full-color illustrations, three of which he discusses at length (all by Vermeer). Paskow gives us a phenomenological analysis of our experience of a painting (and of many other kinds of art, for example literature) in the tradition of Heidegger. However, unlike books by many Heidegger followers, this one is very clearly written. It also does a good job of responding to central analytic philosophers in the field, thus crossing boundaries between these two schools of thought that are seldom crossed. (I must also say that Paskow provides a broad analysis of analytic philosophy's dependence on Cartesian dualism which shows his motive for choosing against that school of thought.)

Paskow's bold, and exciting, thesis is that fictional objects are quasi-real, or rather the distinction between the merely fictional and the actually real is not as sharp as we normally think. Moreover, we experience things that are depicted in paintings, for example chairs, as people-like. They have personalities, and they seem to speak to us (at least some of the time).

A classic question in aesthetic is why we seem to feel real emotions in response to fictional characters. Paskow argues for what he calls "realist theory" which says that the response is not to something that is simply "in one's head" even though the character is not directly perceived. Anna Karenina, like his own daughter, is an intentional object towards which he has real feelings. Similarly, if engaged in a fictional person in a film, you feel as if you are watching a real person. This is quite contrary to the most famous view in analytic philosophy, that of Kendall Walton, who holds that a fictional entity (such as Anna) is a prop in a game of make-believe. His view implies that when I fear for Anna it is just a make-believe, or on another reading, a quasi-fear. Walton's view has always seemed implausible to me: I know how to distinguish between pretending to feel fear for a character and actually feeling such fear. A person who was incapable of emotionally responding to novels might well engage regularly in the pretending that Walton describes, but this is not what most of us do when we are wrapped up in a good novel. So I agree with Paskow that at some level we really believe in fictional beings (and at another level, we do not): we have "dual consciousness" with respect to fictional beings. Paskow also recognizes that there is at least one difference between fictional and real entities: we cannot interact with the former (we cannot, for example, try to save Anna). As far as I can tell, Paskow's solution to the problem is correct.

The last part of his book is directed to how to appreciate a painting with special focus on Vermeer examples. I found his phenomenological approach to appreciating paintings helpful, although sometimes he seems to over-interpret, for example when he dwells on the existential meaning of what appears to me to be just a rug-covered table placed in shadow in the lower left hand corner of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. However, Paskow is wholly aware of the possibility of disagreement in such matters.

Sarah Worth, in her thoughtful on-line critique of Paskow's book (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) claims that he fails to recognize the big distinction between our response when we believe something and when we do not. However, Worth herself fails to recognize that Paskow has answered this objection by distinguishing between belief in conciousness1 and belief in consciousness2: we can believe on one level and not on another. Walton's idea that we quasi-feat the green slime in a film (which Worth defends) fails to capture the idea that we half believe in the green slime, so that in that part of us covered by consciousness1, there is real fear, whereas in the other, more critical part, there is not. (Worth does a good job of pointing out what I consider some minor weaknesses in a book which is otherwise quite brilliant.)

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