Monday, October 8, 2012

On "The Constructivist's Dilemma" by Robert Stecker Part 1

"By a constructivist, I mean someone who holds the view that artworks are constructed not merely by the artists, but also by other people who interpret these objects."  On this view it is unlikely that I would want to be a constructivist.  Artists make artworks usually by putting things together, and always by doing something (for example by displaying a urinal on its side in an art gallery with R. Mutt signed in black ink.)  Interpreters either create understandings of artworks in their minds (which itself is a kind of making, but not really part of making the artwork in question) or they make their own artifacts, i.e. essays or books called "interpretations."  What I do think is that when artists make artworks (construct them) they do not incorporate into them entirely determinate meaning.  The meaning of a work of art is something that exists as a potential in the work of art and is actualized in various interpretations.  Thus there can be multiple good interpretations of the same work of art, although some of these might be better (for certain purposes) than others.  If, by constructivist, Stecker means someone who believes that there is no one final correct interpretation of a literary work then I would be happy to be called a constructivist. 

Stecker also says that some constructivists claim that interpretations "alter the properties (features, aspects) of artworks... in interesting ways."  Stecker is right:  this too is an unattractive option.  However, much depends on whether actualization of a meaning that exists as potential in the text is a matter of altering properties.  It is certainly a matter of producing change in the world:  there is now an actualized meaning that did not exist earlier. Moreover, this is a meaning of the work.  If this is altering properties (assuming that such actualizations are what Stecker would call "interesting") then this definition of constructionism is attractive.Of course part of my view would be that one actualization does not permanently change the artwork except in the minor way that that particular actualization has been "taken" and therefor is not available for any later interpreter who seeks to be original and interesting.  Certainly the field of potentiality is subtly changed by every interpretation.  So the history of interpretations affect works in this way.

Stecker says that "A radical constructivist claims that every new interpretation creates a new work, even if each starts out from the same 'text.'  On this view the only difference between an artist and a critic or an interpreter is that the artist creates a 'text' that gets made into a work by being given an interpretation, while the critic or interpreter borrows a text."   Stecker thinks this distinction depends on seeing what we get from the artist as blank marks until given an interpretation.  I agree that it seems wrong to think every new interpretation of Hamlet would create a new Hamlet.  Hamlet remains the same and each interpretation is an interpretation of that same thing.  But is Hamlet the same thing by way of having the same determinate meaning which some interpretations get right and some wrong?  This is equally implausible.  Hamlet is a text that can be read with various understandings, some better than others, and which can be responded to by writing interpretive texts, some also better than others.  Hamlet is not just a series of words, but something that was created at a certain time by a certain person:  and this set of facts conditions the history of its interpretation...determines what is possible.

Stecker writes "If the text of the poem lacks a meaning to be found there, the text of the essay [that interprets it] should be no less opaque" and "something has to have meaning rather than be given it, or the giving of meaning will not be possible."  However if the text of the poem lacks a determinate meaning because the author intends us to use out imagination in reading it then the text of the essay that interprets it should be less opaque.  A reading gives a text of this sort more determinate meaning.  But isn't this the case for the vast majority of literary works.  Aren't they supposed to engage our imaginations and be significant for us.  If they simply recorded pre-set meanings in the minds of their authors wouldn't they then be dead in the literary sense/

Some Partial Answers to some Questions from Students about Kant's Aesthetics

"If a man finds a woman beautiful, but his friend does not, does that mean the woman is not beautiful."  No. For Kant, if a man finds a woman beautiful then he puts her on a pedestal and demands that others see her as beautiful too. (This of course makes one think of issues of sexism, but for now just think of the situation as no different from when a woman finds a man is beautiful.) I think Kant believed that if there is a disagreement then one of the two is not being thinking of the issue in terms of practicality, morality or cognition. This raises another issue.  What if the man finds his girlfriend beautiful and his friend does not.  He then is being "interested" since he really does care that she exists, whereas his friend might well be disinterested.  In fact, the man is more likely to find her beautiful because he likes her, whereas the friend is more objective.  But then, the beauty of the woman is more important to the man who finds her beautiful than it is to the friend:  so shouldn't her have some priority here?  This is where Kant's thinking may face a problem.

"When talking about dependent beauty is Kant implying that the beauty of man is not (and could not be) as great as that of a flower since he thinks that it presupposes a concept of a man's end or purpose?"  This is a difficult question.  Kant does not actually say that free beauty is more beautiful than dependent beauty, although we tend to get that impression.  Actually I think that in the end dependent beauty is more important for Kant than free beauty:  the beauty of fine art, for example, is dependent beauty.  Of course it is strange to us today to think of there being something that defines what a man has to be and thus determines the extent to which a particular man is perfect as a specimen. 

"What is the form of finality?  It is in the object, but has no purpose?"  Kant believes that "Beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end."  So, when we see something as beautiful we notice that it has the look of a purpose, i.e. it looks designed, but we do not have the explicit thought of what its purpose might be.  This happens with two kinds of object.  The first kind is objects that actually have a purpose, or have elements that have a purpose.  A flower for example has stamen.  These have a purpose in reproduction.  So when we look at the flower we are supposed not to think of that actual purpose (even the Botanist!) but only focus on the designed look of the flower.  The other kind of object is something that looks designed but there is no clear reason to believe that this design serves a function.  We can also find that beautiful. 

"Is it possible for an object to be both beautiful and universally agreeable, and if that were possible would that be something like the holy grail of objects?"  It would be possible for something to be both beautiful and agreeable, for Kant.  It would be beautiful because its look causes the cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding to harmoniously engage in free play (in response to the look of purpose in the object).  It would be agreeable because it pleases the senses.  So a painting could be beautiful because of its composition and agreeable because of its colors.  Universality is a different issue:  Kant believed that all humans have imagination and understanding that are basically the same (he seems not to have any reason to believe this).  He believed that when it comes to our sense organs, however, each of us is different.  So universality would be much more difficult when it comes to the agreeable. 

"Doesn't everyone have their own definition of beauty that doesn't necessarily agree with everyone, and hence they can call something beautiful without having to please everyone?"  Kant does not believe that you have to please everyone when you call something beautiful or even that the object you call beautiful has to please everyone.  It has to please everyone who is looking at it in a disinterested way and focusing on the designed or design-like look that can cause the mind to go into free play.  Whether everyone has their own definition of beauty is another question.  Very few people have their own explicit definition of beauty, but it is true that everyone has a different set of things they consider or have considered beautiful, and you might argue that this is based on their having a different implicit definition of beauty.  I am not sure everyone does have an implicit definition since even an implicit definition requires some rules, and it may just be that the sets of things considered beautiful by many people are just arbitrary sets.  Perhaps you could say that everyone has at least some general idea of what they consider to be beautiful.  In any case, Kant would say that beauty does not depend on a definition.  It depends on how our faculties respond to a thing that has a look of purpose when we view it in a disinterested fashion.

"If something pleases everybody, is there a need for a standard of taste?"  You probably still do since you do not know whether it pleases everyone because it is agreeable, morally good, or beautiful.  You need a standard of taste to distinguish these.

"Is there anything that, when looked at by anybody, would give them a jaw-dropping experience of awe and appreciation?"  This question may presuppose another definition of "beauty" than Kant would accept, i.e. one that entails jaw-droppingness.  Kant would probably reply that there are lots of things that that would cause anybody and everybody to be pleased in appreciating it aesthetically as long as they approach it with disinterestedness and focused on the form of finality in the object in such a way as to cause imagination and understanding to go into free play. 

"A child may not have background scientific knowledge on a subject, allowing him or her to easily have an aesthetic experience on Kant's view.  Can one really set aside background knowledge about a subject when viewing it aesthetically?"  I think we can set aside things that we know simply by not thinking about them.  So the botanist could just not think about the function of the stamen when appreciating a flower.  It might take some training however to do this.  The "child" question is interesting since the child could also be disinterested in the sense of not thinking about moral issues and not being interested in such practical issues as monetary or sexual reward.  Moreover, the imagination and understanding of a child are constantly in free play:  that is what we get the word "play" from:  from what a child does.  So it would seem that contrary to Hume, who stresses experience, the ideal Kantian judge would be a child, or a playful disinterested child who has an eye for the look of design.  That seems odd.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hegel for Artists

I am interested in what we can get from the writings of classical authors like Hegel given how different we are from them, and how different our world is.  This is a matter of taking their ideas as symbols or metaphors for something they never intended, but something which is important to us.  It might be that their ideas bear a structural similarity to what is important to us.  So, Hegel says that the purpose of art is to express the Absolute idea, which I take to mean (in this broader sense of “mean”) something like this:  that there is a spiritual aspect of our existence (not one that requires a special spiritual realm or special spiritual beings) and that this aspect (as when we are moved by the inner spirit of something) does involve a striving towards self-understanding (at least in part), that art (or at least really good art) participates in this, and that there is a kind of development or progress here (although we, or at least I, cannot go along with the idea of an absolute development or a final goal that may be finally achieved.)  The Hegelian idea that the content of a work of art must be concrete to reveal truth is easy enough to interpret in this way: it is simply that the content of art should not be too abstract.  If it is too abstract it will fail to give us the kind of truth we are looking for here, a truth that is significant for us concrete, living, breathing, human minds….a truth that matches us and our lives in a meaningful way.  So, on this view, purely abstract notions have no real business being the subject matter of art, or better yet, even when we try to make purely abstract art, the content of that is still the concrete aspects of life that are being expressed.   

Although Hegel is clearly just ethnocentric which he sees the Chinese, Hindu and Egyptian art as “vicious and false” he does capture something in the notion that there is a stage in the development of an art form in which both the form and the content are crude (think of the early Beatles) and things are indeterminate but at the same time powerful, perhaps powerful partly in their very crudeness.  The early symbolic stage of an art style is full of potential and high in energy, but short on refinement.  It is symbolic since the symbols are obvious:  they have to be read. (Later stages are still symbolic but not in the sense that there is a one-to-one reading of symbols, but in a more pervasive way in which a new world is set up that symbolizes our world as a whole.)  The content is refined as the form is refined (e.g. through what Hegel called the classical and romantic stages), as can be seen in the increasingly sophisticated lyrics in Beatles songs.

I would go further to argue (and I wouldn’t be the first one to do so) that the notion of dialectic is still relevant to art, e.g. that it makes sense to speak of a movement in art as forming a thesis, another as forming its antithesis, and a third as involving a synthesis that opposes the second by going back in some ways to the first.  Although Hegel sees this sequence as eventually ending, it makes more sense to see it as unending, each synthesis becoming a new thesis, or perhaps simply by being replaced by a new thesis which itself starts the story again at the symbolic stage.  Of course this means that Hegel failed to explain this last transition.