Monday, March 18, 2013

Katya Mandoki on disinterestedness

Katya Mandoki, a leading exponent of everyday aesthetics, offers a nice argument against Kant’s notion of disinterestedness as necessary for aesthetic experience.  She observes that Paul Crowther (in a work of 1987) had come up with the idea that appreciating a mirage is a perfect example of Kant’s disinterestedness since one does not care whether or not the thing seen actually exists.  Her reply:

“Obviously in the mirage there is no objective aspect to detect, regardless of the amount of attention paid to it, because there is no ‘aesthetic object’ as understood by the naïve realism of analytic aesthetics. What, then, are the ‘aesthetic aspects’ that attention detects in this case? In fact, aspects only exist through a perceptive or aspectual activity of the subject… As far as disinterest goes when perceiving that imaginary landscape, find a single spectator who would not prefer the landscape to exist physically in order to enter it and increase the delight it can provide: to smell its aromas, taste the refreshing water, and feel the cool shade of its palm trees,,,. [Crowther] forgets that aesthetic delight in a landscape, as that in architecture, depends also on exploring it from the inside, smelling the wood, brick, leather ....You do not enjoy equally the façade of a building when reproduced by photography as you do the architectonic work in its entirety. ”  Katya Mandoki  Everyday Aesthetics

That seems right to me, although I think it is still possible to appreciate the look of a mirage while bracketing these other concerns.  My view is that disinterested perception is a useful strategy in aesthetic experience but hardly necessary or sufficient.  Lack of concern for the existence of the object seems the weakest aspect of Kant's notion of disinterest.  However, looking at something while bracketing out moral and cognitive concerns can yield various benefits:  it can, for example, allow us to see things independent of our prejudices.  It can also bring our formal qualities we might otherwise miss.  I advocate then the approach of alternating between the disinterested and the interested, between a-contextual and contextual perception, for best results.

Mandoki may be expressing a similar view when she says proposes a concept of aesthetic swinging. 
"I thus propose the concept of aesthetic swinging that Brecht practiced with mastery when he attracted the spectator toward the play by identification, and then distanced him by the Verfremdungseffekt. Painters, sculptors and architects also make use of this swinging when they provide a detailed view of the work seen at a close distance complemented by the overall view seen from afar. This swinging is evident when one observes a painter or a sculptor in action: we continuously move back and forth, away and near the work to better appreciate it. The spectator will later emulate this movement.Without aesthetic swinging it would be impossible to perceive what Monroe C.Beardsley, following Hutcheson, calls 'unity in diversity,' since the first requires distance and the second, nearness."  A similar idea is also found in writings by Peggy Brand and Tom Gracyk when they speak of aesthetic "toggling."


Monday, March 4, 2013

Can something fail to be clean and pretty but still be beautiful?

Can something fail to be clean and pretty but still be beautiful?  Perhaps a town can.  A student of mind talks about her home-town of Nipomo which she finds beautiful to her, even though not pretty, and failing to have luxurious buildings or decorations.  She finds "beauty in the mundane nature of Nipomo."  Its beauty is partly a function of its own personality.  She finds it "comforting" and that it has a certain charm, and indeed more aesthetically pleasing, for that reason, than some larger cities.  Often I find that students see beauty as something very personal, contrary to Kant's idea that it involves universality.  Kant insists that we put something on a pedestal for all to appreciate.  Yet this student does not expect everyone to appreciate her little town.  Ironically, Dorothea Lange's famous photograph of a migrant farmworker "Migrant Mother" was taken in Nipomo in 1936. 

Another student discusses a cartoonish poster of the Golden Gate Bridge. He writes:  "The artist makes the drawing multidimensional instead of flat.  In the drawing, the background is a sunset...The color of the sunset and the sky is sherbert-like, not what you would see in a typical sunset.  There are also cars on the bridge, but the colors the artist used are not typical car colors.  The artist used uncharacteristic colors for cars such as green, pink and yellow...When I look at the picture, I think of beauty and it invokes peace within me....more peace than a realistic drawing or painting of the Golden Gate Bridge... [also] the artist's use of her imagination makes me feel happy."  The student concludes "While my thoughts may not be completely rational to some, I enjoy the drawing because it has sentimental value, for it has been around since I was born."  This comment captures some interesting features of kitsch and kitsch appreciation.  Many of my students who enjoy and defend kitsch refer to the evocation of inner peace as well as a feeling of happiness.  Sentimental feelings associated with having grown up with an art object makes this comment similar to the one above about a town that is not pretty but is beautiful.  I doubt that I would experience beauty, peacefulness or sentimentality in response to this work, but it is not clear to me that my response is any more valid than his.

Kitsch Parks by Jake Rodenkirk

From time to time I post particularly insightful short papers by my students.  This paper is by Jake Rodenkirk.  It should not be used by any other student for any class assignment:  that would be plagiarism. 
            Imagine walking several hours into a serene forest through densely clustered pine trees. Stepping over roots and jagged earth covered by dry needles on spotty grass, sweet smells of pine and fresh air fill your lungs, and  the rustle of trees and wildlife ring in your ears. Then, in the midst of the forrest a small reprieve from the dense trees opens into a beautiful green meadow. Perhaps its a place for a contemplative walk or summer-time picnic. In contrast, four stories down from a hotel-like apartment complex a master planned community dominates the landscape, and right in the center is a kitsch-like meadow.
Surround by trees? Yes.
A place for a picnic? Maybe.
A place to encounter nature? Certainly not.
             Robert Solomon says kitsch causes  a cheap, or easy expression of emotion or sentimentality ("Kitsch" in Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, 344). At first glance, the planned park seems calm and tranquil, surrounded by a winding path, ivy growing up large beams making a fragrant canopy. Upon closer inspection, a broken sprinkler head causes flooding and storm drains gurgle along the scenic path.  The large grassy center of the park would be a cliche spot for a quiet picnic; if only sounds of squeaking brakes would silence themselves for more than a few minutes. The illusion of nature causes many of my neighbors great joy as dozens of people walk the quarter mile loop several times or take their kids or dogs with them. Solomon might say the imitation or the manufactured elements of the park bring joy to people who might not get outside the city often. It is nature-like and perhaps it calms and pleases them. Why does it matter if this pleasure is simplistic or superficial? Whats the harm?
            A ten minute car ride from my apartment takes you to a untouched wildlife preserve, full of natural imperfections. All trees don't grow perfectly vertical or in rows. grass isn't  always short and dense contained by concrete paths. Shrubs aren't placed to guide the eye and casual walkers to circumambulate a meadow. The park in my community enforces an artificial sense of idealized nature, turns people into cattle, directed to walk in circles several times a day for exercise.
            Solomons concluding words from his article Kitsch sums up the intent of my community park ...Presenting a well-selected and perhaps much edited version of some particularly and predictably moving aspect of our shared experience, including, plausibly enough, innocent scenes of small children and my favorite pets... I don't reach the conclusion that Kitsch is harmless as Solomon does. I believe it often cheapens real experiences, or in the case of my community park, kitsch pitifully resembles the beauty of nature to faintly and cheaply deliver an experience of nature to a lazy or busy community, far removed from the true beauty found in nature.
Comment from Tom Leddy:  Jake has captured an area of kitsch I have never considered before.  Although Solomon's examples do not include certain kinds of parks, I find the Jake's application is apt.   I also agree with Kirk that kitsch can harm by cheapening human experience.