Saturday, March 29, 2014

Can plants have aesthetic experiences?

I have always wondered whether aesthetic experience was sui generis.  It is well known that we humans are given to anthropocentrism.  Dualism is hard to eradicate.  We see our natural way of being, our consciousness, as unique in the universe.  We do not look kindly on the suggestion that we could share certain traits with our animal relatives, much less so with our more distant plant relatives.  I have even known philosophers strongly committed to evolutionary theory who also insisted that only humans can have aesthetic experiences.  The issue of whether animals can perceive beauty is fascinating, but even more interesting, in a way, is the question of whether plants can.  Of course this would come under the broader question of whether plants can have any experiences at all!  If they can have none then there is no plant aesthetics.  (I will use "plant aesthetics" here to refer not to the aesthetic experiences we have of plants but to the aesthetic experiences plants themselves might have.)  The most famous, and perhaps the only, advocate of plant aesthetics is Gustav Fechner.  His book Nanna:  On the Soul Life of Plants (1848) is available in German, but unfortunately I do not read German.  However I recently discovered a wonderful translation of part of it by Sebastian Olma, called "Teleological Grounds" to be found in Vital Beauty:  Reclaiming Aesthetics in the Tangle of Technology and Nature ed. Joke Bouwer, Arjen Mulder, and Lars Spuybrock (Rotterdam:  V2 Publishing, 2012): 170-191.  Vital Beauty itself is a fascinating volume. I should note that one of the reasons I find this interesting has to do with thinking about Yuriko Saito's wonderful book Everyday Aesthetics and her well-known essays in the aesthetics of nature where she places a strong emphasis on the concept of empathy.  

Fechner begins by asking whether a water lily could experience the sun shining on it and the water in which it was bathing.  He fancies that "nature had made [the flower] thus so that a creature would exist that could enjoy to the fullest all the pleasure that could be derived from bathing at once in sunlight and in water."  This does seem pretty fanciful and, as a science-minded atheist, I could hardly go along with the idea that nature is a god-like entity that designs things for this purpose.  But we could take this as a metaphor and a stimulus for a series of questions.  Could there be a pleasure analogue for the water-lilly?   There is no evidence for it, but is it impossible?  Is it entirely unlikely?   Most would say that the lack of a nervous system makes any sort of experience impossible:  but could this be a circular argument based merely on definition, privileging nervous-system based experience over every other possible kind of experience?  Fechner asks the question whether flowers do not find satisfaction in their offshoots and buddings or in "the enjoyment of dew, air and sun, each in its particular way?" (172)  That is, the plant would enjoy (reader: if this is hard on you, just consider this as a science fiction story or a fairy-tale for now!) that which is in accord with its adaptation.  An alpine plant will enjoy the "freshness and purity of the mountain air."  Moreover, when there are many different species in the same ecological area, each  "according to its different adaptations and reactions, derives different feelings and impulses from the same element."  (172)  We tend to see nature from a zoo-centric perspective, but Fechner tells a nice story of the relationship between butterfly and flower that allows us to think in a somewhat different way.  We talk a lot about the importance and intensity of interactions between species in ecological niches, but isn't it interesting that we allow, at most, some perceptual element in the moving species, and none in the plant species.  "The fact that the plant is confronted by a butterfly and the butterfly by a plant places them differently in nature and renders different sensations possible for each:  the butterfly enjoying nectar from the flowers cannot experience the same sensations as they do."  (173)  Fechner basically asks us to see things from the perspective of plants for once.  We animals (humans, mice, etc.) spend our time moving about, but plants stay at home clinging to the soil.  The animal "runs fleetingly over the soil where the plant is deeply rooted; it breaks in, as it were, only once, in the direction of a single radius, into the circle that the plant fills completely."  (176)  Of course, as my readers are well aware, there are no arguments here, or at least there is no real proof that plants can experience, much less experience such aesthetic properties as beauty and elegance.  But, one wonders, are flowers simply beautiful for bees and humans?  (or are they simply beautiful for humans, as some would argue? extreme of anthropocentrism).  I admit that some of Fechner's arguments are not too convincing as they are based on religious belief.  He asks, for example, whether "we truly believe nature to be such a wasteland [as not to have souls in plants] - nature, through which God's breath blows?"  This assumes that one can make some sense of "God's breath." (177)  He even talks about God enjoying the sensations of all his creatures.  Let's just set that aside.  If it is superstitious to think that humans have souls it is equally so to think that plants do.  But then again, if we can allow a spiritual aspect for the human (given an overall science-based view of the world) then why not plants too?   More convincingly, Fechner describes the life cycle of the plant and then remarks on "how it opens up in the morning and closes in the evening or before a rain; how it turns toward the light."  For him, it is very difficult to "dismiss such a rich life cycle with all its rising and swelling and perpetual change as vain, bleak and empty of sensation."  (178)  He also observes that we often speak of plants as having feelings:  we say of a plant suffering in a drought that it looks sad or that it is thirsty:  "and why do we not equally say of an artificial flower that it smiles at us, as much it [sic] as it might resemble a living one?  Why else if not for our intuition of a proper smiling soul in the living plant?"  (179)  

Many would argue that this is just poetry or projection.  Fechner has a nice response:  "Does [the flower] unwrap its petals from the bud in such a different way than that in which the butterfly unfolds its wings from the cocoon?  Can one truly think that nature endowed the opening eye [of an animal] and the emerging butterfly with real sensation but the opening flower merely with external signs of it, so that it is we who poetically put feeling into the flower?  As if nature were not mightier and richer and deeper than we when it comes to poetic power;  as if we could give her anything she did not already carry deeply inside herself..."  (179)  

Again, one could come to Fechner from the standpoint of a strong commitment to an ecological non-anthropocentric and Darwinian evolution- based view of the world.  Fechner stresses the many relationships between flowers and insects a "strange simultaneity of counterpart and complement."  (180)  "The flower [in the process of flowering] surpasses its previous state of development while keeping it as its very basis, whereas the butterfly sheds it [in its transformation from a caterpillar], or, more accurately, dissolves it in its new state of development.  The soul of the plant builds its body as a ladder whose top is the flower, while the lower stages remain intact; the butterfly carries along the lower stages, thus rendering high what previously was low....Only taken together do butterfly and plant complete the cycle of life."  

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

My good friend Alfred Jan has commented on this post, and this is my reply.   

Hi Alfred:

Thanks for the comment.  I do not want to assume that Venus Flytraps have gustatory values or make gustatory choices but do want to consider the possibility.  So now to the question of verification.  Trying to stay within the realm of philosophy away from pure fantasy, we want to base the claim on good reasons.  Probably we won't in our lifetimes ever be able to prove that plants do have this ability, but also we are not able to prove they do not.  However, there are some interesting developments in the direction of supporting the idea that they do.  I would particularly recommend Michael Pollan's article in the December issue of the New Yorker.  here  If there are analogues to intelligent behavior (and even to consciousness) in plants then plant aesthetics is also possible.  There was also a recent episode of Nature which supports the idea of plant communication and even, dare we say it, plant "caring."  See it here


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Edmund Burke Feldman's move beyond Clive Bell's formalism

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Edmund Burke Feldman's first book, Varieties of Visual Experience came out in 1967. [However I have only seen the 1992 edition and it may be that some of this material was reworked from the 1967 version.]   Formalism was still a very live force in 1967.  For example, my high school teachers in that year taught us how to do formal analysis of literary works and of paintings.  However, Feldman's book (at least in this edition) represents some internal tensions in formalism, and probably the beginnings of a move away from formalism.  One can see here the rise in the importance of interpretation which led eventually to the fall of formalism and its replacement by contextualism.  The selection I am going to discuss  is from Goldblatt and Brown's Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts.  The selection is titled "A Formal Analysis" and comes right after the selection from Bell.  This is a bit deceptive since, although formal analysis plays a role in Feldman's thinking, his dominate idea here is the centrality of interpretation in criticism.  

Feldman begins with a careful analysis of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).  If he was a strict follower of Bell one would expect an analysis simply of relations of lines and colors.  There is some of that, but most of his discussion refers to the figures represented in the painting.  And very soon Feldman begins to talk about specific reactions by the viewer to what is happening to the figures rather than simply about the work's lines and colors or about feelings of ecstasy the viewer might have in response to the work as Bell would require.  In particular, there is one figure (the second from the left) that seems to be off-balance, or even falling.  Feldman observes that we can make "inferences about form" and that "certain physical and biological assumptions about man are shared by artist and viewer."  Our expecting the figure to fall is part of our experience of the work.  He also begins to talk about the figures in the painting in terms of a sequence of perception.  Talking about the heads of the figures, he begins with the one on the left, then moves to the upper right figure, and ends the the figure on the lower right.  So, in sum, "the idea of the viewer's expectation is very important in formal analysis."  (22)  Moreover, the artist is aware of this.  For example, Picasso, aware that we expect a deep space based on Western perspective, deliberately violates these expectations, producing a tension in the viewer. 

The formal analysis "accumulates evidence" for the interpretation and the judgment of the work. (Feldman sees criticism as a three-stage process.)  But interpretation is already happening in the very puzzlement that arises from the progressive distortions of the abstract figures of women and the construction of an unrealistically shallow space.  Feldman stresses that Picasso is making the viewer move (maybe not literally, although empirical studies show that our eyes do actually move in a sequence, focusing on one area of the painting and then on another) so that one feels one has to adjust position to make sense of the profile views of noses.  Moreover, one is forced to move imaginatively from left to right as the story develops in the figures, and as the falling figure also pushes us in that direction.  The increasing violations of convention leads us to the point where we will accept the joining of body parts in a continuous form in the figure on the lower right, and even focus on the negative spaces formed by the limbs. 

Feldman writes:  "Our formal analysis has begun to move from an objective description of forms to statements about the way we perceive them."  He insists that he has been extremely objective in his discussion up to this point:  "we have tried not to overlook evidence, and we have endeavored to make assertions which would not in themselves be the subject of disagreement."  This is not quite right, first because there is already a lot of interpretation to be found in his talk of falling figures and imaginative moving, and second because there is one rather glaring mistake in his descriptive analysis.  He writes that, "at the extreme left position of the canvas is a brown area which seems to be a closeup of a female figure, employing forms typical of African art...[it] seems to be an echo of a woman's back carried out in the brown color of carved wooden sculpture." (21)  Here, imagination has gotten the better of Feldman.  Try as I might, I cannot see a back or any hint of a figure on the far left, or any suggestion of African sculpture.  Moreover, if one looks at the various studies Picasso made before completing the painting, it is obvious that the prostitute on the left is holding onto a curtain with her raised hand.  The entire series of brown planes on the left, which Feldman identified as a woman's back, is just a curtain. A strict formalist, of course, would object to looking at earlier studies to illuminate something in the final product.  But what if the change simply takes something easy to recognize in the study and abstracts it in such a way that it is not so easy to recognize until one sees it in the study? 

Now we turn to the central moment in Feldman's account.  Throughout his discussion, he has been talking about the experience of art as something that happens to a viewer over time.  This is quite other than Bell's way of approaching art.  Feldman talks about the viewer trying to find a "principle of organization" (and this, by the way, may be why he was tempted to over-interpretation of the "figure" on the far left -  he sees it as possibly announcing the leitmotif of the painting!).  So, on his view, we accumulate information until we can no longer defer the project of interpretation, whereas, in fact, his own interpretation was already influencing his description from the start:  it is not so easy to ground art criticism in objectivity.

Interpretation, which is the process of "expressing the meanings of a work the critic has analyzed" (22) is, for Feldman, "the most important part of the critical enterprise."  Evaluation can even be omitted if we have done a complete interpretation.  In interpretation, we do not simply discover meanings but also state "the relevance of these meanings to our lives and to the human situation in general." (22) This is another point at which Feldman departs from Bell who would have us use art to escape life.  Feldman's position may also be contrasted to that of Hume who talks about delicacy of sentiment as correctly judging each subtle part of the work of art in a matter similar to the judgment made by the wine critic in which it is determined that the wine is good but for some small defect (e.g. a slight taste of leather.)  For Hume, judgment comes first, and interpretation is of little importance.  For Feldman, interpretation comes first, even (contrary perhaps to his intentions) during the so-called moment of pure formal analysis.  Moreover, Feldman recognizes that art as a human product is influenced by the value system of the artist and is a "vehicle of ideas."  He agrees with Bell only that one need not determine what the artist's actual views were or whether the ideas found expressed by the work are faithful to those views.  We need to still recognize that the artwork is "charged with ideas," however unconscious they are, and it is the critic's function to discover them.  Here is a blatant statement of the rise of interpretation as the dominant in criticism. 

Oddly, in the last two paragraphs of the selection, Feldman backs off from his revolutionary departures from Bell's formalism, insisting that we are talking about "sensuous and formal qualities of the art object," although he adds (unlike Bell) that this involves examining "their impact upon our vision."  Following this, he insists that we are not directing the viewers attention to words. (Isn't he being too defensive here, as though he had stressed interpretation too much for his formalist colleagues to accept?).  His solution to the problem is to refer once again to the unity that the viewer organizes:  "As we perceive the work, its qualities seem to organize themselves into a kind of unity, and it is this unity which becomes the meaning of the work..."  (23)   The meaning of the work, then, arises through the interaction between viewer and work, and not through any process of revealing the intentions of the artist.

Unfortunately, the selection leaves off here.  However, Feldman continues his interpretation in the book in a way that is quite striking and quite beyond anything that could have been acceptable to Bell-type formalists.  In essence, he argues that the painting expresses the fall of Western ethnocentrism and even, perhaps, a new positive attitude concerning the assertive power of women (this last, an interpretive stretch.)   I will quote this material here.

Feldman first observes that Picasso's use of white lines to delineate one of the figures is something we might have seen "in ancient Greek vase painting." He then continues: "The faces of the two central figures also have the expressionless stare which is characteristic of archaic Greek female images. … [They] embody the classical ideal of female beauty developed in the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world; they belong to Picasso’s own tradition (indeed, they look like Picasso!). By contrast, the other standing figures are derived from non-Western sources—African or Pre-Columbian.  Picasso has intentionally juxtaposed Western and non-Western racial types to express the fall of Western ethnocentrism. First, the classical beauty symbolized by the central figures is contrasted with the angular forms of the other standing figures; then they are synthesized in the hybrid figure at the lower right. … In the 'fall' of the classical figures we see the decline of a culture in which beauty is the object of serene contemplation. The ideal of female passivity is displaced by ideals of female activity and magical aliveness.” (Feldman, 1992, pp. 496­-497).

So, in the end of his analysis, Feldman returns to his interpretation of the unstable stance of the second figure from the left, this time making grand claims about Picasso's, possibly unconscious, intentions. This interpretation may be widely debated, but it does bring the painting alive again for me, and provides that unity of understanding that Feldman sought.  

By the way, one could go further here, claiming that Picasso has made a painting that represents (and perhaps exemplifies) the Nietzschean ideal of the Apollonian/Dionysian synthesis in "tragic" art, where the figures on the left represent the Apollonian and the ones on the right the Dionysian with its recognition of the tortured substratum of human existence and the possibility of redemption through ecstatic union with the Primal One.  1907 was a period of high interest in Nietzsche, so it would stand to reason. 

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Some Neglected Aspects of Clive Bell's Aesthetic Theory

It is typical in introduction to aesthetics classes to read a selection from Clive Bell's Art.   Selections of this sort are inevitably frustrating for the teacher since much that is important (at least to him or her) is left out.  For example, the Goldblatt and Brown text Aesthetics leaves out Bell's famous discussion of Frith's Paddington Station as merely descriptive art, as well as his discussion of Feldes' The Doctor which he treats as sentimental and self-indulgent. (Bells critique of The Doctor basically labels it as "kitsch," before this term ever came into use.) Other things, although present, are sometimes neglected because of placement.  (This, by the way, is inevitable...editors of textbooks must select.) 

A fundamental feature of Bell's aesthetics is his subjectivism.  He deliberately attacks the very idea of objective taste.  He only allows the critic to point out certain features which give him the special aesthetic emotion.  At this stage he seems a bit like Hume.  However, he goes after the Humean conception of taste dramatically in the chapter called "Society and Art."  (And this leads us to re-evaluate what he says in the first chapter of the book.) There, he goes so far as to argue against "cultivation" (what Hume would probably think is the result of practice and comparison).  After encouraging parents not to cultivate their children, he insists that doing so will hinder children from experiencing genuine emotion.  He then writes: "Standards of taste are the essence of culture.  That is why the cultured have ever been defenders of the antique.  There grows up in the art of the past a traditional classification under standard masterpieces by means of which even those who have no native sensibility can discriminate between works of art.  That is just what culture wants; so it insists on the veneration of standards and frowns on anything that cannot be justified with reference to them."  (Art, Capricorn Books, 1958, 177) We, one hundred years after the publication of Bell's book, are so caught up in the current dislike for formalism (and acceptance of contextualism) that we cannot see the challenging and interesting aspects of his thinking here.  It is a weakness of the Humean perspective on taste that it cannot handle that which is  radically novel, i.e. something that does not fit any of previously accepted principles of taste.  Bell was trying to introduce the Postimpressionist painters to England and had to explain their novelty.  It is the strength of his subjectivism that he can handle radical novelty, and this would suggest that any solution to the problem of taste should supplement Hume with Bell, or at least try to provide a synthesis in response to this antithesis. Ironically, Bell insists that the new works he is advocating are not novel at all, but provide "significant form" in the same way as did the great Byzantine artists and as did Giotto, both of whom he admires as greatly as he admires Cezanne. 
Another thing neglected in studies of Bell becomes apparent in the third chapter of Art, "The Metaphysical Hypothesis."  There, he asserts that art "expresses the emotion of the creator," that the lines and colors are intended to convey something the artist felt.  This is why, for Bell, material beauty (the beauty of a butterfly for example) does not move us as art does.  Something is "significant" form because it expresses emotion.  However, contemplation of natural beauty might be the cause of the artist's emotion, material beauty becoming significant for the artist.  The artist might experience the objects in a room, for example, as "pure forms in certain relations to each other" -- as "ends in themselves."  We, too, can sometimes have this experience:  to see such objects as "pure forms" is to see them "with the eye of an artist." (45)  For Bell, seeing this requires stripping the object of all associations.  What provokes emotion in this respect is the thing-in-itself or "ultimate reality."  So, the significance of the work of art is, on this view, that it is inspired by a vision of "Reality."  We are moved by certain combinations of lines and colors because the artist has used these to express an emotion felt for ultimate reality.

Bell suggests that pure form is not required for the artist to be inspired to produce significant form, that the emotion could come from apprehension of ultimate reality in some other way "mysteriously unaided by externals" (47)  What the artist felt (and not what he actually saw) conditions the artist's design.  The object of the emotion is, in a sense, irrelevant, and thus the form "bears no memorial of any external form that may have provoked it."  It does not matter whether the road to reality is through appearance, recollection or imagination.  The advantage Bell sees in the metaphysical hypothesis is that the critic will then be able to say what gives form its significance. 

His example in support of this is both strange and interesting.  He averts that it is impossible to exactly copy a work of art because "the actual lines and colors and spaces in a work of art are caused by something in the mind of the artist"  which are not in the imitator's mind. (49)  This is why the difference between copy and original are felt immediately, even if they are minute. The copier does not possess the "mysterious emotion" which inspired the original.  Good copies exist (if they possess the mysterious emotion) but are not exact imitations. This is not however to define art as expression of emotion (emotion in response to Reality):  "the characteristic of a work of art is its power of provoking aesthetic emotion" whereas "the expression of emotion is possibly what gives it that power."  But one should not go to galleries looking for expression of emotion, even though rightness of form results from rightness of emotion.  Wrong forms may, however, result from things other that the wrong state of mind.  In the end I think Bell's formalism is best seen as part of the process of creative appreciation rather than the end product or the whole thing.  The dialectic of formalism and contextualism has yet to be resolved into a new synthesis, but this has been partly because we have become so besotted by contextualism we have forgotten the power of formalism.  

Bell insists that "few artists, if any, can sit down...just to create nothing more definite than significant form, or express nothing more definite than a sense of reality."  He further writes that "Artists must canalize their emotion, they must concentrate their energies on some definite problem" which is why artistic conventions are necessary and why it is easier to write good rhymed poetry than good free verse.  Limits concentrate energies.  Similarly, an artist should not just try to create something beautiful.  The main problem, instead, is making the work "right" in the sense of expressing the emotion or "provoking aesthetic emotion in others." (52)  Another way he puts it is that, for the artist, a work is "right" if it is "the complete realization of a conception, the perfect solution of a problem." (52)  The problems of art are infinite in type but, to be artistic problems, they must focus on the emotion felt for reality. 

Surprisingly, Bell insists that the nature of the problem is immaterial, and all problems are equally good, except that two types of problem will "tend to turn out badly," one being "accurate representation," and the other being the attempt to create significant form or beauty directly.  Bell gives examples of problems including the artist desire to "express himself within a balance certain harmonies, to reconcile certain dissonances, to achieve certain rhythms, or to conquer certain difficulties of medium."  He admits that "to catch a likeness" is one such problem, but it does not work well partly because it is too easy to catch a likeness.  Doing so "will never bring into play the highest emotional and intellectual powers of the artist." (53)  Otherwise, however, the artist can chose the problem and use it focus the artistic emotions he wants to express.  Bell then says, somewhat contradictorily, that the problem in a picture "is generally the subject."

So, for the art viewer, the problem is of no importance, but for the artist it is a test for "rightness."  For some artists the emotion they express comes from the "formal significance of material things" which comes in turn from taking that thing as an "end in itself."  That something has greater significance means that it moves us more profoundly.  We then become aware of the object's essential reality, "of the God in everything, of the universal in the particular, of the all-pervading rhythm."  (Bell does not care which of these things we call it.)  It is simply "that which lies behind the appearance of all things" (54) and gives things their significance.  He also calls it the "thing in itself" and "ultimate reality."  He also allows that some artists may have this strange emotion and are inspired by it without it having a source in material objects. 

Bell admits that this metaphysical hypothesis is open to question, although he insists on his prior aesthetic hypothesis. He also insists that aesthetic ecstasy comes from freeing oneself "from the arrogance of humanity."  Treating things as ends in themselves is the only way one can get from that thing (the subject of art) "the best that it can give."  We need, in the end, to escape the "chatter and tumult of material existence" or hear it as part of a "more ultimate harmony." 

As much as Bell wants to escape the human (very much as a kind of Platonist - note the equivalence he finds between art and mathematics) he does bring up this pesky notion of the "the problem" the artist is trying to solve, i.e. the problem as variable subject-matter.  If multiple problems can inspire the artist then shouldn't we say that the ultimate source of the significant form is human?  This is why the artist cannot just sit down with the intention to create significant form.  The thing-in-itself (in Bell's metaphysics) is not some amorphous God-like ultimate reality but rather the object itself (for example, that tree) treated humbly, without the overlay of human arrogance.  Oddly, in the end Bell reminds me of Yuriko Saito's discussion of the Japanese aesthetic (in her book Everyday Aesthetics) and the search for quintessence of the object.  Saito would be surprised since Bell is so associated with formalism, but the parallel is strong.  Of course, Bell is still an enemy of everyday aesthetics, seeing art as escape from ordinary life, but "the problem" ameliorates this to some extent. 

Bell says that when a real artist looks at objects, for example the contents of a room, "he perceives them as pure forms in certain relations to each other, and feels emotion for them as such."  They then inspire him to express.  He does not feel the emotion for the object as a means but as an end in itself.  To get more specific he does not see it as "a means to physical well-being, nor as an object associated with the intimate life of a family, nor as the place where someone sat saying things unforgettable..."  (44) The artist drops the associations to see the chair as "pure form." 

I think that this is good as a distancing strategy, but that it is also worthwhile (and even required) to toggle back to the rich experience we have of the chair which is sedimented phenomenologically in all of these ways (what he calls, negatively, "mere association.").  A rich artistic experience does not neglect the second half of the experience, but also does not neglect the formalist half.  I think that it is more humbling to do both, since there is a kind of arrogance in the belief that one can totally escape the human or that one can achieve a god-like stance above humanity.  The aesthetic experience, as I argued in my book, is "not to be understood as necessarily focusing on formal properties.  One may also focus on the symbolic or content-oriented aspects of the object perceived insofar as they give an experience of aura." (The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, 132).  

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Jane Ellen Harrison's answer to Clive Bell on Art 1915

I have just discovered a quite extraordinary reply to Clive Bell's Art written by Jane Ellen Harrison in 1915. (Harrison, Jane Ellen. “Art and Mr. Clive Bell.” 1915. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 7 Mar 2007. 18 Mar 2014 .  The essay appears in her book Alpha and Omega, London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1915.)  Harrison was known to me previously as the author of a number of books on mythology written in the early part of the 20th century.  This short essay takes a very different approach to Bell than that of the standard analytic aestheticians I have been reading. Although she agrees with much of what Bell says (surprisingly much -  she even agrees with most of his taste, approving of the Romanesque architecture and disapproving of Futurist art, for example) she argues against his attack on representation and the primacy he gives to form, and she does so using what Bell calls the special aesthetic feeling (the feeling we have in response to "significant form").  Her main thesis is that representation and form are equally essential to art:  the cause of the feeling of significant form is bound up with both.

“representation, when it becomes art, is caught and fettered by form. It is not the fetters, the form, the pattern, that holds me spell-bound, that catches my breath, that sends a cold shudder down my spine; it is the spectacle of reality fettered, it is formal representation. But to take away the representation element is to empty the wine from the chalice.... 

This trance-like, spell-bound feeling [which she associates with Bell's aesthetic emotion] comes over me when I look at many of the Primitives. There is in the Acropolis Museum at Athens an archaic woman’s figure, to look at which is to me all but unbearable. The reality behind her face—I am inclined to accept Mr. Bell’s metaphysic[al hypothesis]—seems just about to break loose, utter itself, and the tension is overmuch. But I feel it even more exquisitely, perhaps because more consciously, when I look at figures treated with almost brutal realism, figures that push representation to the utmost, such as some of Degas' dancers. They are caught and held by a spell, and thereby they hold me. They are things enchanted. Now, it is form, I am sure, that casts the spell—that is, the fetters."  She further writes:

"Art, then, to me is not the creation of significant form, hollow of content, but the fettering of reality by form—a widely different thing. It may be possible to make my meaning clearer by the analogy—or is it more than reality?—of rhythm. To say that art is the creation of significant form, and that representation is irrelevant, is like saying that metre—abstract metre—is a poem. A poem is the shackling of live speech by the fetters of rhythm, and the sense of beauty arises when the fixed forms of the metre are broken, and we feel the words breaking up against the rhythm."

Harrison's spirit is very much more like Nietzsche's than like Bell's.  Bell tends to see the underlying Reality, the thing-in-itself, as something benign, somewhat like the Christian God in this respect.  Nietzsche, however, sees the relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian as a matter of tension and conflict, and the underlying reality as the realm of suffering (much like Schopenhauer, who saw it as Will):  it is not something benign. To be sure, Bell with all his talk of ecstasy, would not be happy with "cold shudder down my spine" as a description of the aesthetic emotion:  it is not optimistic enough...a bit too scary.  

Harrison concludes:   "It is not 'information' that is reprehensible in art, but information uninformed. Form, as Mr. Bell himself says, is 'the talisman.' But what use the talisman without the thing enchanted? Form without content is dead. It is the beat of the live bird’s wing within the cage that makes form 'significant.'"  

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Explication of Nietzsche selection from The Birth of Tragedy

This is an attempt to explicate the selection from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy found in Goldblatt and Brown’s Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts.  A full explication of Nietzsche’s book would have to go far beyond this selection to take into account all of its aspects.

Unlike Plato, Kant, and even Hegel, Nietzsche sees humans as essentially sensuous beings, and is not critical of that aspect of ourselves.  Like Hegel, he pays particular attention to history and tends to see history in terms of dialectic, that is, in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.  Like Hegel, he is also interested in forwarding the science of aesthetics, although it would be a stretch to think of his method as truly science-like.  Unlike any previous philosopher, he defines art in terms of a duality. Art is two things interacting with each other and achieving its highest manifestation when the two are fused into one. (However, his duality could be seen as similar to that which we have seen between the beautiful and the sublime in Burke and Kant.)  Borrowing from the ancient Greeks, whom he had studied extensively as a philologist (he was Professor of Philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland), he named the two basic elements in fine art after two Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus (also spelled Dionysos).  He sees this duality in terms of dialectic:  the Apollonian and the Dionysiac sides alternate between conflict and reconciliation, somewhat like a typical marriage.  He understands art in terms of these symbols rather than in terms of concepts.  Like Morris Weitz, he does not think that art can be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  Still, he does think something valuable can be said about art’s essence and about what makes great art great. 

Nietzsche speaks of Dionysus and Apollo as art-sponsoring deities.  This is not exactly the way the ancient Greeks saw them, but he realizes this, and I do not think that that matters very much.  He believes that Apollo represents the plastic arts:  i.e. painting, sculpture, and perhaps architecture.  Dionysus, by contrast, represents the art of music. (We will see later that this does not include the Apollonian musical art, which focuses on calming music and the cithara, the ancient Greek guitar.)  However, instead of seeing the Apollonian and the Dionysian in terms of the Greek gods it might be better to see them as creative tendencies or powers that are essentially physiological.  The main theme of this selection is that, although the two art tendencies were in dialectical conflict they eventually came together in Greek tragedy, which Nietzsche believed was the highest form of art in ancient times.  He also thought that the music of Wagner was the highest form of art in his own time, and that it represented a rebirth of ancient Greek tragedy. Nietzsche was a close friend of Wagner’s and was a leading figure in the Wagnerian cultural movement that was sweeping the German-speaking world at that time. 

Nietzsche goes on to understand these art tendencies as associated with dream and intoxication.  That is, he understands them in terms of something going on in our bodies.  Men first saw the gods in their dreams, and then great sculptors like Phidias, who created the sculpture of the goddess Athena for the Parthenon, presented these images to men.  Greek poets too were inspired by dreams, and they would agree with the Wagnerian character who said that poets should interpret dreams that have some truth in them. 

Actually, when you think about it, every individual is an artist in the sense that everyone produces dreams every night.  The remarkable thing about dreams is that their forms speak to us directly, without any mediation.  [The idea that we do not conceptualize in dreams seems contradicted by my own experience of giving entire philosophical lectures in a dream.  But then I am not clear what Nietzsche means by “without mediation.”] Still, we do tend to see them as illusions, despite their intensity.  Parallel to this, philosophers tend to see everyday reality as an illusion (as Plato did in “the Cave”) hiding true reality.   Schopenhauer, who was Nietzsche’s favorite philosopher when he wrote this book, saw the ability to see the material world as an illusion as the mark of a good philosopher.  An artist or a person who loves art looks at dream images (and at works of art) as ways to interpret life.  He sees dream-life, with all its negative and scary aspects included, as a kind of play in which he is an actor, but still with a sense that it is illusion.  He enjoys it, and sometimes he will want the dream to continue for, after all, it is only a dream.  This seems to prove that our innermost being (the underlying unconscious reality that all humans share) enjoys dreams deeply.

Apollo was also the god of making predictions and the god of light (the sun was said to be Apollo riding his chariot across the sky).  He is also a god who reigns over illusion and fantasy. [There appears to be an inconsistency here:  how can someone be a god of both clarity and illusion?]   He was also a god of healing.  Just as nature heals us during sleep, and partly through our being able to dream, so too the arts heal us through their illusions.  Insofar as they heal, they make life worth living.  But, remember, the dream image should not be seen as reality!  Only if we keep this in mind can it give us a feeling of peace.  Apollo (the Apollonian tendency) is like Schopenhauer’s man in a frail craft at sea.  Such a man relies on the principium individuationis, the principle that each individual is its own separate thing existing in its own place and time, to feel secure in the stormy waters of life.   Schopenhauer believed that this principle only applies to the world or representation, not to the thing-in-itself or Will. 

Schopenhauer also describes the awe men experience when the laws of science seem to be suspended (as in a miracle).  For Schopenhauer, an ecstatic experience happens (or can happen) when the principium individuationis is violated.   Nietzsche finds this to be the rapture obtained by followers of Dionysus during their special rituals and celebrations.  He says that this rapture is like physical intoxication.  When he speaks of intoxication he means not only the kind induced by wine, but also other forms of intoxication, as those produced by narcotics, the approach of spring, and, most importantly, religious experience (and, of course, the experience of great art).  All of these types of intoxication make you forget yourself entirely. This power drove people to engage in ecstatic dances in the Middle Ages as well as amongst the followers of Bacchus (another name for Dionysus) in Greece.  Nietzsche says that these might be thought by some as diseases characteristic of certain cultures and that some people (especially Apollonians) may criticize Dionysian ecstasy as such.  And yet their so-called sanity is really like that of a dead person:  they are “benighted” in the sense of being overcome by intellectual darkness.  The noisy party of Dionysians will pass them by.  

The Dionysiac was especially associated with certain religious rituals that involve death and rebirth.  These rites bring man back together with man.  For example, they reconcile slave and master, although only during that ritual…Nietzsche was no socialist.  They also overcome the alienation of man from nature.  This is why there are ancient images of Dionysus riding wild animals.  The Dionysian religious experience poses a universal harmony in which all men become one, and obtain a vision of the One (i.e. of the primal and god-like underlying unity of all reality). 

There is a stage of the Apollonian/Dionysian duality in which artistic urges are satisfied directly:  this is the stage of dreams and intoxication/ecstasy.  This stage does not require any artistic genius, and in fact takes no account of the individual.  It may even destroy him in mystical experience.  Nietzsche observes that the artist must seem to be an imitator of this kind of experience.  He then argues that the Greek tragic artist is both a dream and ecstasy artist.  He imagines a scene in which the artist is in Dionysiac intoxication and then, separated from the crowd, perceives his own condition of mystic oneness in a dream (thus evoking Apollo, the dream-god).  This could be the first example (in mythical form) of an experience that was both Apollonian and Dionysian.   

Nietzsche then returns to the question of the relation between Greek art and the proto-aesthetic phenomena of dreaming and intoxication, stressing the special relationship the Greek artist had to Greek dreamers and intoxicants.  Although it is difficult to determine what the dreams of Greeks were like, Nietzsche believed you can make assumptions based on looking at their colorful sculptures (Greek sculptures were painted quite colorfully, although almost all examples that exist today have lost their paint.).  He concludes that the dreaming Greek might even be seen as a Homer in the sense that the Greek were genius-like and highly creative in their dreams.  (This was wildly speculative on Nietzsche’s part!)

There was a big difference between the Greek and non-Greek followers of Dionysus.  The non-Greeks were more primitive, more like the satyr (a half-goat half-man semi-deity who followed Dionysus) than like Dionysus himself.  Their celebrations mainly involved sexual promiscuity, overcoming tribal laws, and ultimately a witches’ cauldron of lust and cruelty (i.e. sadistic pleasure). The Greeks were kept safe from these excesses through the image of Apollo.  This can be found for example in the art of the Doric temple.  (The Doric order in architecture was simple and calming compared to the two other orders, the Ionic and the Corinthian.  It was the order used in the Parthenon.)  But when such urges began to well up from the Greeks’ own unconscious minds all Apollo could do was make a peaceful gesture, one that constituted the most important event in the history of Greek religion and art.  The gesture involved a reconciliation of the two antagonists.  The Dionysiac powers were transformed so that the savagery of the non-Greek barbarian festival was replaced by rituals of “universal redemption.”  (The Christian terminology, i.e. “redemption,” is probably intentional here.  Nietzsche at this time must have seen the religion of Dionysus as very much like the more enthusiastic forms of Christianity.)  This is when the overcoming of the principle of individuality becomes something aesthetically positive.  Yet, although the combination of lust and cruelty is overcome in the Greek version of the Dionysian, there is still an ambiguity.  Even in the Greek Dionysian a certain terror or lament underlies the joy of ecstatic experience, as though nature were sad about being divided into separate individuals.  Nietzsche holds that Dionysiac music especially expressed this underlying fear, although, as mentioned above, he notes that there was actually an Apollonian music of the cithara (Greek guitar) as well.  This Apollonian form, he argues, was replaced by Dionysiac music of the aolus (Greek flute), and this change was permanent.

Nietzsche is probably thinking of Wagner, and before him, Beethoven, when he speaks of the “the heart-shaking power of tone, the uniform stream of melody, the incomparable resources of harmony” of Dionysiac music. He then mentions the Dionysiac dithyramb. Wikipedia describes the Dithyramb in this way:  “The dithyramb was originally an ancient Greek hymn (διθύραμβος - dithurambos) sung to the god Dionysus and was also a term used as an epithet of the god. Its wild and ecstatic character was contrasted by Plutarch with that of the paean. Dithyrambos seems to have arisen out of this song: just as paean was both a hymn to and a title of Apollo, Dithyrambos was an epithet of Dionysus as well as a song in his honor. Greeks recognized in the epithet ‘he of the miraculous birth’ and constructed an etymology to confirm this. According to Aristotle, the dithyramb was the origin of the Ancient Greek theatre, and one may recognize as a dithyramb the chorus invoking Dionysus in Euripides' The Bacchae….In Athens dithyrambs were sung by a Greek chorus of up to fifty men or boys dancing in circular formation (there is no certain evidence that they may have originally been dressed as satyrs) and probably accompanied by the aulos [the Greek flute]. They would normally relate some incident in the life of Dionysus. The leader of the chorus later became the solo protagonist, with lyrical interchanges taking place between him and the rest of the chorus. Competitions between groups singing dithyrambs were an important part of festivals such as the Dionysia and Lenaia.”[1]   The dithyramb tries to symbolically express the essence of nature.  A new set of symbols is needed for this.  This set includes symbols used by the actor in moving his body, symbols used in language, symbols used in dance, and especially the various symbolic elements of music.  Nietzsche speaks of this as a freeing of symbolic powers which expresses a freedom within the self, one that could only be understood by other followers of Dionysus.  All of this would have been surprising to the Apollonian, except when he realized that the Apollonian perspective is just a veil that covers the Dionysian aspect of reality.  [Nietzsche is not clear here whether he believes that the Dionysian aspect of reality is what he later calls the truth of Silenus, or whether he believes it is the aspect of reality that is experienced in Dionysian ecstasy.  The two are really very different!]

Although Apollo is generally seen as only one of the Olympian gods (which were worshiped by the typical Greek of the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), Nietzsche believes he is actually their most complete representation.  The same drive or need that generated him generated their entire world. We should not think about this world in terms of the religion of Christianity, which emphasizes moral elevation, kindness and asceticism. Rather, the emphasis here is on triumphant existence.  [This reminds one of Nietzsche’s later emphasis on saying “yes” to life, and his attack on Christianity for saying “no” to life.] Moreover, Nietzsche stressed, the Olympian religion does not distinguish the good from the bad, or rather, as he puts it in his later writings, between good and evil.  The ancient Greeks, he argues, seem to overflow with life-affirming zest:  they see a laughing beauty everywhere.   To the modern Christian viewer and to the typical intellectuals of Nietzsche’s time, ancient Greek life seemed strangely serene.  But the reality, Nietzsche argued (and this was quite an innovation on his part) was quite different.  To make his point he tells a story about King Midas and the minor deity and follower of Dionysus, Silenus.  When captured and forced to answer the question what is best for man, Silenus replies that greatest good is to never to have been born, but, if born, to die soon.  Nietzsche’s point here is that Silenus is expressing a pessimistic side of the Greek character.  Nietzsche thought that the Greeks invented the Olympian world (and later, Plato’s world of Forms) to overcome this underlying pessimism.  (This pessimism, Nietzsche thought, paralleled the famous pessimism of Schopenhauer.) That is, their serene optimism was a cover.

The dreamer forgets the day with all its troubles.  Apollo, who is also an interpreter of dreams, may help us here. Nietzsche proposes that the dreaming part of life is really more important than the waking part it that it is more truly lived.  He was inclined to believe that the “original Oneness, the ground of Being” (something like Schopenhauer’s Will, and yet more personal and thus more like the Christian God) always suffers and is always full of contradictions.  This being needs the vision and illusion of man in order to make sense out of its own existence, to “redeem” itself. We ourselves are the illusions of such a being as we move through space and time (i.e. in what Kant called the world of experience and Schopenhauer, the world of representation.)  It we look at ourselves as His idea then our dreams (and also our works of Apollonian art) are illusions of illusions.  (This is somewhat like Plato’s idea of the painted bed being three removes from reality.  However, in this case, Nietzsche thinks that illusion is a valuable thing!)  Thus, this being takes delight in the works of such “naïve” (Apollonian) artists as Raphael who produce illusions of illusions. 

Nietzsche believed that Raphael himself illustrated this very idea of reduction of illusion to greater illusion in his painting, Transfiguration.  The lower half, showing a boy possessed by some devil or illness surrounded by scared disciples of Jesus, represents the pain of human existence, which is at the very basis of being.  This is the first illusion because it covers over, or is a mere expression of, the underlying “begetter of all things,” i.e. the irrational Will (or the primordial One).  Then there is a secondary illusion portrayed in the upper part of the painting.  This is the image of Christ being transfigured, and it is also the image of a world of pure delight, much like that of the Olympians.  The top world is that of Apollo and the bottom is that of Silenus.  And each world needs the other to exist.  [Problem:  if Raphael were truly a naïve artist who was simply Apollonian then would he have conscious knowledge of the truth of Silenus?] Apollo is the principle of individuality become god, and satisfies the need of the One to redeem itself through illusion.  In short, the world of suffering is needed to produce the vision that saves us and allows us to exist safely in that world [a somewhat paradoxical notion.]

This Apollonian move involves the idea that there needs to be limits to the individual.  Aristotle named the virtue that corresponds to these limits “sophrosyne.”  As Wikipedia puts it, “Sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη) is a Greek philosophical term etymologically meaning moral sanity and from there self control or moderation guided by true self-knowledge.”[2]  Both Apollo (at Delphi) and Socrates were associated with these two sayings: “know thyself” and “nothing too much.”  But Nietzsche does not believe that Socrates has the whole story. He only captures the Apollonian side of human experience. (Later in the book he explicitly attacks Socrates.  Like Socrates, Nietzsche wanted to deeply question human assumptions about value.  But unlike Socrates he did not believe in an afterlife or in the idea that humans should try to escape their bodies.)  In fact, the Apollonians attacked excess and pride, which they associated with the earlier pre-Olympian gods, the Titans.  Yet for Nietzsche, one of the Titans, Prometheus, the god who brought fire to humans, is truly a hero.  Nietzsche even put an image of Prometheus at the front of his book.  Perhaps he thought that he, too, was bringing something dangerous and useful to man, and that he, too, would ultimately suffer horribly because of this.

In the last part of our selection Nietzsche observes that the Greeks tended to understand the Dionysian in terms of these earlier gods, and yet he believed that the Greeks were really quite close to these gods in that their beautiful existence (which he describes as under the eyes of the most beautiful woman of ancient Greece, Helen of Troy) depended on a hidden base of knowledge of human suffering, which was only uncovered again with the Dionysian.  (Nietzsche’s rather snide reference to thin harp music is also a reference to the picture of heaven which was traditional for Christians.  See end of our selection, the preface for the book much later, in which he says that he was hiding his true negative feelings about Christianity when he wrote the book.  He didn’t hide them all that well.)   As with Hegel, he believes that the true Dionysian art tells the truth, although he ends our selection by mentioning that another response by the Greeks to the Dionysian was the Spartan approach to art, one that was severe and cruel.      

Interested in learning about my own philosophical views?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

[1] “Dithyramb,” Wikipedia accessed 3/4/09.

[2] Wikipedia accessed 3/4/09

Monday, March 10, 2014

Can there be ruins in nature? And how would they be appreciated?

Robert Ginsberg in The Aesthetics of Ruins has a chapter on "Nature as Ruin."  There he argues that nature can be perceived as ruin.  Of course there is a real difference between a human ruin and a things that might be called "ruins" in nature.  We might speak of the ruins of an ecosystem or of a particular individual animal as a ruin of its former self (just as we might of a human).  But generally, to speak of something in nature as a "ruin" is a metaphor.  Ginsberg is focused on a particular kind of object in nature:  "The dead tree, broken seashell, split rock are available as aesthetic objects whose new unity differs from their intact originals..."   These are objects which we can see as aesthetically interesting even though they are hardly perfect examples of their kind or fully functioning.  Dead trees are of particular interest.  When I am walking in the woods with a camera I tend to be fascinated by dead trees.  As Ginsberg observes "the tree has been simplified, clarified, and unified."  He even argues that it has "more compact energy."  He then takes the unusual and controversial position that "the dead tree has more life, when it has ceased to be biological and turned to inanimacy.  It turns inward as complex object" one which is abstract and appealing in its abstraction.  This is correct, but it raises an interesting question.  Allen Carlson has famously argued against the Object of Art model of aesthetic appreciation of nature:  he claims that we should not appreciate nature as though it were a work of art, for example a tree as though it were a sculpture.  Ginsberg flies in the face of this idea.  He notes that in looking at the tree "the lines, masses, texture, and character of the former tree occupy our attention."  Clearly he is seeing it as though it were art, or with art-like categories.  This is not to say that the dead tree needs to be detached from its place of origin to experience it this way: "It can be enhanced by the surrounding life that cushions it upon a backdrop of greenery."  (203)   We are not seeing it as if it were in a gallery.  But still, there is a conflict here.  Ginsberg is also aware of the expressive qualities of the dead tree, how it is human like in its raising its tired arms, and, although dead, still stands:  kind of Stoic.  In addition to violating the rule against appreciating nature as though it were sculpture the dead tree can feature in appreciation of nature as though it were landscape painting.  Ginsberg observes that in London dead trees were once planted to make a scene like that found in Salvator Rosa's painting of a landscape with a dead tree.  Another experience of the dead tree is that of the roots, and certainly one of the powerful experiences of walking through the sequoia groves Calaveras Big Trees is looking at the massive roots of the uprooted trees that have fallen.  Ginsberg does not take an art-centered view of appreciation of nature.  At one point he observes that the fallen tree adds compost as it decays, that the forest feeds on its death, and so forth, all part of the ecological vision of the aesthetics of nature.  What intrigues me is that his aesthetics of the tree can include both the ecological and the art-influenced way:  a pluralist and synthesizing approach to appreciation of nature.  When discussing seashells Ginsberg notes that one can look not only for perfect examples of every species but also the individual.  But the most unique individuals are the shells that are broken and worn:  "they are interesting as forms and textures, independent of their kind."  So often the aesthetics of nature focuses only on that which is scientifically categorized:  and this directs us to the common, to the perfect example, and away from the unusual.  When Ginsberg speaks lovingly of these partial shells he sees them as handfuls of "objets trouves" and of course this is a troubling thought for the standard cognitivist view of the aesthetics of nature. 

Hegel on Art and Nature

I am just going to talk about Hegel's aesthetics as it is presented in the selection The Philosophy of Fine Art found in Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Art ed. Goldblatt and Brown (410-414).   (This is from the Osmaston translation of 1975).   Coming to Hegel from reading Kant last week we note certain things.  He is giving us a kind of definition of art by talking about "current conceptions of a work of art."  In doing so, he mentions three "determinations" of art.  All three are ones that Kant would disapprove of to some extent.  For example, his claim that "a work of art is no product of Nature" goes against the idea that the work of fine art is a product of genius in which nature works through the genius.  Second, whereas Hegel stresses that a work of art is in a sensuous medium, Kant has little interest in this dimension of art.  (Does he even mention the senses when talking about fine art?).  Third, Hegel stresses that art has "an end bound up with it," and here Kant's response would be, at best, ambiguous.  He would stress the importance of the imagination and its free play, and, although he would insist that each work of art must follow certain rules, he would probably restrict the notion of "end" to the mechanical arts.   Fine art must be beautiful, and hence we should focus not on its end but on its look of purposiveness.  Nonetheless, Kant would agree with Hegel that overemphasis on rules would produce "something formally regular and mechanical" (Hegel).  Kant stresses that the genius artist creates something that goes beyond such rules.

One of the most controversial ideas in Hegel's aesthetics is the notion that landscape painting has a "higher rank" than actual landscapes.  This view would certainly be rejected by virtually all of our contemporary aestheticians of nature.  Hegel's thinking comes from the notion that art originates in the human spirit and that works of art have a certain animation which comes from their having been processed through the human spirit:  "a work of art is only truly such in so far as originating in the human spirit, it continues to belong to the soil from which it sprang."  As he also puts it, the work of art has "received the baptism of the mind and soul of man." (411)  The animation of art appears at first to be a mere show on the surface of art, with something dead (for example dead wood) beneath.  But what makes art fine art is not its merely external existence but the way it lives in the creating and in the perceiving mind.  Partly this process (by which it is processed through the mind of man) allows it to achieve greater purity and clarity.  I know of two traditions that hold a similar view today.  The Japanese believe that the Japanese garden as a work of art captures the essence of nature, purifies it.  Similarly, the Chinese philosopher Li might hold something similar, based on his humanistic Marxist perspective.  

What to make of this?  As we experience art based on nature we do discover that it is abstracted and that the intention behind it is usually (or at least quite often) to create something essential.  What is it for a human to confront nature except by way of the mediation of certain concepts?  The aestheticians of nature set up a certain idea of seeing nature as nature and appreciating it wholly in this way.  And yet we cannot escape our humanness.  If we perceive nature through scientific concepts we still perceive it through human concepts.  We cannot perceive nature as nature.  Nature, as Li observes, is humanized for us.  Great works of landscape art, such as those of Cezanne attempt to get at nature qua nature by way of exploring the phenomenology of human perception of nature.  Cezanne's paintings clearly fit the bill of what Hegel is talking about.  To go further, along these lines, the attempt to capture something essential is not a scientific attempt (in science, "essence" means something different) but existential in the sense that the essential is what animates the object for us.  Nature is then transformed into something for which there can be an I-Thou relation.  Intimacy comes from the illusion that arises from the animation of nature, that in turn coming from the special kind of abstraction of nature that is carried out by the artist (whether landscape artist or naturalist with a visionary bent, as I will discuss below.)

What we really admire in art is not mere imitation, as Hegel observes, but something more like a confrontation between the deepest parts of ourselves and the object portrayed.  Part of growth in appreciation of art is in recognizing that mere imitation of nature (pictorial realism) is not sufficient in itself to hold our admiration.  Of course the idea that fine art is the result of the processing through the human spirit and going beyond mere imitation is also closely connected with Hegel's notion that it involves a revelation of truth.  This is a truth that is not reducible to truth of science or even philosophical truth:  rather this truth is specifically tied to medium.  This is the autonomy of art, that art possesses its final aim in itself,  that it represents its own self-revelation. 

Of course we can animate natural landscapes too, as when we compose them in the way that Santayana and Allen Carlson recommend.  In the very act of perception we can bring nature alive for us.  Great naturalists like Muir and Leopold do this, and can do this for us through their nature writing.  But it is important that their nature writing is a kind of art.  So, it is not so much that landscape painting is of higher rank than actual landscapes but actual landscapes need the mediation of deeply human medium-based interaction to actualize both their essences, and this can be done through great painting or great nature writing, or through other means.    

Although this selection is structured according to the three "determinations" of art it could also be seen as discussing several possible definitions of art.  The definition of art as imitation is rejected in part by arguing that we do not need a duplicate of nature (which would be superfluous) and that if art tries to do this it must fail.  The pleasure we get from imitation is at best the kind of pleasure we would get from rather pointless refined skills like being able to throw lentils through small holes at a distance.  A more common definition of art is that it expresses personal emotion.  Hegel attacks this by arguing that personal emotions (feelings) form an undefined obscure region of spiritual life, that they are obscure because they are personal, and that they are abstract in that they do not give us any knowledge of the subject-matter.  Hegel also rejects the view that the essence of art should be to serve moral ends or to be useful in some other way.  Instead, he stresses the autonomy of art.  The essence of art is not to be found in its relation to something else.  The goal of art is not outside the realm of art.  Its function then is "to reveal truth" and specifically, to do so "under the mode of art's sensuous or material configuration."  What sort of truth?  The truth revealed is not a scientific truth in our sense of "scientific" or a historical truth in our sense of "historical" but it is scientific and historical in Hegel's sense.  Art differs from science (in our sense) in that science does not refer to its sensuous or material aspect.  Art, unlike science, involves a reconciliation of the two aspects of reality, the material and the spiritual, which themselves exist as an antithesis which is resolved in art.  So, art comes to understand itself (and hence reveal truth) when it comes to understand itself as synthesizing the spiritual and the material, as it does for example in landscape painting where the materials used by the artist take on spiritual qualities by being processed through the mind of the artist.  Art's self-revelation is just an aspect however of the self-revelation of human culture in general or, to put it more dramatically, the Absolute's coming to understand itself.  

Hegel interestingly sees philosophy as working in tandem with art on this point, philosophy of course taking priority, so that philosophy first overcomes the opposition between spirit and nature and thereby grasps its own nature, and then also the nature of nature and of art. So as the science of philosophy is reawakened in Hegel's own writings, so too the science of art (aesthetics) which indeed depends on the philosophical awakening. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What is the point of everyday aesthetics?

This is a tricky question.  The different authors who have explored everyday aesthetics have different answers to it.  There are many motives for exploring the everyday.  One is environmentalist.  Some authors, for example Yuriko Saito, believe that fundamental to everyday aesthetics is recognizing that many of our consumer choices are not environmentally sustainable.  Things that give us pleasure shouldn't give us pleasure:  ultimately we should change our standard view of beauty, prettiness and so forth so that a green lawn which is not environmentally sustainable will no longer look beautiful, whereas a sustainable native plant garden will.  This is certainly a valuable project although I would hesitate to hang the significance of everyday aesthetics on this alone, and neither does Saito, by the way.  Another approach is to argue that everyday aesthetics encourages life-style changes that are good for us in that they promote happiness.  More specifically, we are encouraged to notice the little things in life.  This approach might generate a book that would go into the self-help section of the library.  The theme might be:  one ought to maximize happiness by maximizing the pleasures of life.  Do not just take a shower but see a shower as an occasion, as a possibility to pay attention to the multiple dimensions of experience, and hence to, in a sense, treat the shower experience as though it were a work of art.  This is a version of hedonism somewhat like Walter Pater's epicureanism.  It involves a kind of amalgamation of everyday aesthetics with utilitarianism, particularly of the sort that John Stuart Mill favored.  Mill stressed that the quality of the pleasure one maximizes is important.  Now Mill expressed this unfortunately by saying, contra Bentham, that pushpin is not as good as poetry.  The everyday aesthetician would insist that sometimes pushpin is as good as poetry:  life need not be a zero sum game when it comes to pushpin vs. poetry.  There are riches to popular arts, to sports, and to many other aspects of life, that need not be neglected in order to enjoy the riches of serious art.  Or at least the only zero sum aspect here is just the amount of time one has to spend on leisure pursuits.  Time spent on pushpin is time not spent on poetry.  But even then, there are times when we only have the psychic energy to indulge in pushpin, poetry be damned.  Probably the best approach to everyday aesthetics with regards to the debate between an environmentalist approach and a hedonist approach is to try to balance the two concerns/motives.

Another related issue is the ongoing question of whether one ought to base everyday aesthetics on special experiences or whether it should be based on the ordinary experiences of life.  This has been a point of contention between Dewey and myself on the one hand and Haapala, Melchionne, Saito and Naukkarinen on the other.  Let me propose a possible resolution by focusing on Saito. 

Saito in her book Everyday Aesthetics (45-53) wishes to oppose those who hold the aesthetic attitude theory even though they would certainly open up aesthetics to everyday aesthetics. (If you believe in the aesthetic attitude then you believe that anything can experienced aesthetically, although some things are much harder to so experience, and some reframing may be needed).  Saito grants that there are experiences in which there is some "dramatic break from our humdrum experience."  This might be caused by taking the aesthetic attitude, being disinterested in Kant's sense, being distanced in Bullough's sense, or having "an experience" in Dewey's sense.  She describes a couple such dramatic experiences in her own life.  She then says:  "However, I maintain that [these] views are...still too restrictive.  What is common to these theories is that the aesthetic (qua experience) is something which contrasts with the humdrum of everyday experience."  Dewey, for example, considers the humdrum the enemy of the aesthetic.  Saito goes further in her attack on this tradition (especially Dewey) arguing that in this tradition "the aesthetic experience is described as a kind of encapsulated unit that is hermetically sealed off from our ordinary engagement with daily life."  Bullough, for example, is cited as calling on us to cut our the practical side of life in having such an experience.  

I agree with Dewey that "the humdrum" experience is a deep problem and that it is the opposite of the aesthetic.  This is not however because I would want to make everyday aesthetics based only on the possibility of some very rare type of self-transcending experience that is itself sealed off from everyday life.  So how to resolve the difficulty?  This relates back to the beginning of this post.  The solution is to posit a range or continuum of possible aesthetic responses that avoids what appears to be a false dichotomy.  Instead of having to choose between focusing on unusual special experiences and the everyday as ordinary one needs to recognize a vast in-between area in this continuum.  The humdrum, on this view, falls just below the continuum of the aesthetic.  It is the vast region of everyday experiences that has nothing or every little aesthetically positive about it.   A large part of our experience is of this nature, and part of the motive of everyday aesthetics is to raise our everyday experience above the humdrum, to, in a sense, aestheticize it.  At the upper end of the continuum are certain self-transcending experiences, and these are ideals, but they need not define the field.  Dewey himself recognized many of the mid-level experiences.  He not only talked about that fine meal in a French restaurant that summed up all a meal could be but also the satisfaction a mechanic could get from doing a job well, and even the contemplative pleasure we experience in watching a fire in a fireplace.  Similarly, Bullough's idea of distance need not be tied simply to special once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  Yesterday my wife said to me as we were driving "look at the clouds:  they look like paint brush strokes."  I looked and enjoyed:  this was a low-level aesthetic experience that rose above the humdrum but certainly did not arise to the highest point in the continuum.  Metaphorical seeing can make some things just a little more special. (I have perhaps contributed to exacerbation of this debate by emphasizing the word "extraordinary" in my boo.  Ellen Dissanayake in her many books stresses the phrase "making special" which is much more mid-level or more to our purposes here.)  Moreover, a recognition of low-level and mid-level aesthetic experience allows for the kinds of activity-oriented responses that Saito stresses, for example seeing that a room is messy and cleaning it up.  However, here is where an important issues arises.  Sometimes, well usually, actually, cleaning up is humdrum.  Often, for the vast majority of workers in our world, work is tedious, boring, deadening, alienated.  So this comes back to the normative thrust I would wish to give to everyday aesthetics.  On my view it is a matter of encouraging us to attend to the aesthetic possibilities of ordinary experience in order to make it not humdrum.  Instead of sealing off certain experiences from ordinary engagement with everyday life the hope is to enhance these ordinary engagements.  

Saito writes about cases in which we "fail to achieve such a special experience." (46)  She speaks of these as cases "in which we form an opinion, make a decision, or engage in an action guided by aesthetic considerations without invoking any special experience."  She observes that "most of us attend to our personal appearance almost daily:  choosing what to wear and what sort of haircut to get, cleaning and ironing clothes..."  decision and actions which are guided by aesthetic considerations.  I agree:  we make these choices based on, for example, whether the aesthetic term "looks cool" applies to these clothes, etc.  However, many of these experiences of choice only rise very minimally above the humdrum.  They are hardly even aesthetic in any interesting sense of the term.  Why is this?  Well, for an answer to this we need to turn to William Morris, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In short, most everyday aesthetic choices are alienated, express false consciousness, are inattentive, and show a herd mentality lacking unity of style.  Certainly they do not rise to the level of a high level experience, but they also do not rise much above the lowest level.  They are shallow.  Saito and Haapala stress that we should focus on the everyday ordinarily experienced, and I agree that this should be a major focus.  But I would also suggest that what is ordinarily experience may just barely hover above the level of the non-aesthetic.  When Bullough says "we are not ordinarily aware of those aspects of things which do not touch us immediately and practically" he is calling on us to see things in a way that escapes what the Marxist critical theorists called "false consciousness."  Saito quotes Sartre with disapproval on this point, but I think he is on the mark when he describes the state of alienated consciousness so common in our society:  "There are no beginnings.  Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition." (40)  Sartre complains, through he character Roquentin, that there are no adventures or perfect moments in life like works of art.  This is a dour way to look at things, to be sure.  It asks us to exist only at the highest level of the continuum of aesthetic experience or not at all.  But Sartre's complaint about ordinary experience and his claim that in order to aestheticize the ordinary one has to relive it as a story:  this seems right.