Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On appreciating thumbtacks: Arthur Danto's "Aesthetics and the Work of Art"

My comment here will be based on thinking about the fourth chapter of Arthur Danto's great book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Harvard, 1981)Before I go on I should note that Danto recently passed away.  Sad news indeed!  He was such a wonderful man.  He was kind to me on the couple occasions I met him, as he seems to have been to everyone he met.  He has always been one of my heroes not only as a philosopher but as a world-class intellectual.  Some might think that criticizing the dead is inappropriate, but there would be no better thing for a philosopher, that is if the criticism amounts to taking his or her ideas very seriously.  These comments are therefore dedicated to Arthur Danto. 

I take it that Danto is arguing in this chapter that aesthetic appreciation means something very different when it comes to art than when it comes to non-art objects.  Much of this chapter (and much of the book) is directed against George Dickie, and Dickie argues that the only difference between appreciation of art and appreciation of nonart is that the two have different objects, Dickie holding that what we appreciate in art is the same as what we appreciate in nonart.  This is why Dickie entertains the idea that in appreciating Fountain we appreciate its gleaming white surface and other features that virtually identical urinals would have.  Danto, by contrast, insists that in appreciating Fountain we are appreciating very different qualities than we would in a urinal.  He calls these properties "aesthetic" too, but one could more usefully call them art-qualities.  One example would be Fountain's wittiness.  This quality is not shared with the urinals back in the hardware store.  Danto even questions whether "gleaming surfaces and deep reflections" are qualities of Fountain (even though they might well be the qualities of the urinal upon which this work is based.)  This goes against my own feeling that the separation between art and life should not be seen as quite so radical, that Duchamp, despite everything he said, picked a urinal for this work of art because it looked cool to him, just as Le Corbusier a few years later picked grain elevators as new paradigms for architecture.  There is something modernist about choosing a urinal to display as art:  for example the "gleaming surface" look we also find not only in Brancusi's sculptures but in most high design artifacts of the period.  (There is also something modernist in the Freudian aspects of the wit involved.)   Duchamp had to pick something that had powerful aesthetic qualities for the time just so that he could be making a real point when he insisted that he did not pick it for its powerful aesthetic qualities!  Danto takes the rather extreme position that the properties of the the urinal "deposited in the artworld it shares with most items of industrial porcelainerie [industrial objects made of porcelain] while the properties Fountain possesses as an artwork it shares with the Julian Tomb of Michelangelo."  Really? And what pray-tell are those that it shares with Michelangelo's breath-taking sculptures other than those of the sort, "its photograph appears in an Art History book," "many sophisticated people consider it art,"  and "is smaller than the sun"?  This is a thin set of similarities indeed.  Danto may be leading us into a false dichotomy, for he considers the (only!) alternative to be that "what made Fountain an artwork were only the qualities it shared with urinals" which is surely false, I agree.  But his position goes further and is clearly directed against the possibility of a general aesthetics (one that covers art, nature and everyday life) and thus is against continuities between art and nonart.  He says a work of art has many qualities which are "of a different sort altogether" (94) from qualities belonging to objects indiscernible from it but not artworks.  For example, Fountain has many qualities entirely different from the urinal that Duchamp picked up.

Fountain is hardly indiscernible from the original urinal for two reasons on my account.  First, Fountain is the original urinal:  it is just that urinal transformed into a work of art. Danto would be shocked at this idea.  But although the two are in different timeslices they are no more different essentially then myself at five years of age and myself now.  We should distinguish between "identical with" and "is identified with."  I am not identical with my five our old self:  I am not even identical with myself yesterday.  But I have the same identity.  I am still Tom Leddy.  I am the same person.  This is true for the urinal that become Fountain.   So it does not even make sense to speak of Fountain as indiscernible from the original urinal.  You couldn't set the artwork and the "material counterpart" beside each other, the reason being that one thing cannot be in two places at once!  You could, Danto might reply, compare photographs of each.  Yes, but this is where the second point comes in:  they are not indiscernible even in their photographs.  The photograph of Fountain by Stieglitz shows it with a signature on it and placed on a pedestal.  Even if a photo of the urinal that became Fountain existed and even if the urinal was lying on its side, the signature would be absent.  So the we could tell which is which by looking at the photographs:  they are not indiscernible counterparts. (Sometimes Danto talks as if the material counterpart of Fountain is exactly what we see when we see Fountain but not seen as art.  So in this case the indiscernible mere thing counterpart would look just like Fountain.)  This may seem a trivial point but something very like it is quite possibly true for all of Danto's examples when they are not completely imaginary.  Very little in this world is really indiscernible.  One could have a gallery show of paintings that are indiscernible:  there was once one by Yves Kline, but this would pretty much require that all of the works be by one artist.  Multiple monochrome artists will necessarily produce works with subtly interesting differences based on their own choices.  Someone could of course argue that this does not work since Fountain is a multiple:  there are other objects called Fountain in various museums, objects which Duchamp picked from hardware stores later and signed in the same or a similar manner.  Whether Fountain is one work, a series, an edition, or of some other such ontological category, is not an issue I want to get into here:  suffice it that each time a urinal was picked by Duchamp that urinal was transformed into a work of art while retaining its identity (it is still that object that began its life in a hardware store) as well as many of its properties.  You could say, however, that it took on a new identity while retaining its old identity just as I took on the identity of being a college professor while retaining the more fundamental identity of being Tom Leddy, one that I have had from shortly after birth.  It is nonsense to say that the urinal no longer has the property of "gleaming surface" for example when it becomes Fountain.

Danto argues that "there are two orders of aesthetic response, depending upon whether the response is to an artwork or to a mere real thing that cannot be told apart from it." (94) He uses this to attack the idea that "aesthetic" should be a term included in our definition of art.  Its art nature determines what sorts of aesthetic responses are appropriate.  So there is "a special aesthetics for works of art."  (95)  But is there?  Can't a "mere thing" be witty?  Isn't witty conversation witty even though it is not part of the art of literature?  Does Danto seriously mean that beauty means something completely different when applied to art than when applied to a flower?  Danto grants to Dickie that thumbtacks can be appreciated if one makes an effort, but just thinks that the language of appreciation is going to be totally different here than in the case of a thumbtack that has been transformed into the world of art. 

Again, Danto talks about an artwork's "material counterpart" often as though we are referring here to the material substratum of the work of art rather than an indistinguishable object that is elsewhere from the work of art (back at the hardware store, for example.)  One wonders whether on Danto's view the material substratum of works of art does not entirely disappear (although sometimes he speaks as though it remains at least in aspects of the material counterpart that are picked out by the particular interpretation).  He says at one point that "a work whose material counterpart consists of three thumbtacks may have abysses of meaning" (103) to which one can only ask why the indiscernible object could not also have abysses of meaning i.e. for a Zen Buddhist having a satori experience.  If completely different language is needed for each then "abysses of meaning" cannot mean the same, on Danto's view, in each case.  But that seems strange, doesn't it?  

Let's go into this a bit more.  Consider the creative process (to which Danto plays very little attention).  The main elements in the creative process are artist, materials, and subject-matter.  (There is some possibility that in totally abstract art there is no subject-matter:  but Danto would not think so himself since he insists that all art is about something.)  Let's think of Cezanne in his studio looking at a still-life arrangement.  As he looks at a group of peaches he perceives in them certain aesthetic qualities which he tries to bring out, express, enhance or exemplify in his painting. At the same time he is noticing certain aesthetic qualities in paint and in paint splotches that he has placed on canvas, which he also tries to bring out, express, enhance or exemplify.  The amazing thing is that he tries and sometimes succeeds in doing both at once and in the same progressive act:  the same act that progresses to completion of a painting, a masterwork by Cezanne.  As Cezanne looks at the still life arrangement in front of him he sees it as art in the sense that he sees it in light of creating a work of art, not in the sense that he mistakenly believes it to be art.  What is this, again, it is a matter of noticing and imaginatively interacting with certain aesthetic qualities already there in the arrangement and already there also in the paints on his pallet and on his unfinished canvas.  There are continuities in aesthetic experience here that Danto simply denies.  I am not denying that there is a "transfiguration of the commonplace" in art, but insist that the transfiguration also occurs in the creative process and in the way that the artist sees the world and in the way that people who aesthetically appreciate the common things of our world see those things, and that these are all related.  Danto rightly sees the importance of theory in our seeing art as art but fails entirely to see the continuities between art and life.

Danto bases his thinking on a radical distinction between the physical senses and what one might call the value senses: i.e. an aesthetic sense, a moral sense, and a sense of humor.  (96-100) For him, the sense of sight is innate and cannot be refined, unlike the value senses.  So, on his view, seeing something is not tinged by values.  But this is false.  As Marx Wartofsky has shown in his writings on historical epistemology, perception changes historically.  There is no pure seeing: seeing is always "seeing as."  David Hume famously explained aesthetic taste by showing its continuities with physical taste, in particular, taste in wine.  This is a good example that Danto fails to follow.  Danto insists that the sense of taste and the sense of humor are culturally conditioned.  Fine, but this is also true for the physical senses.  Danto thinks that the big difference between the two types of "sense" (physical and value) is that in the case of humor for example we are responding to something because it is amusing.  The idea is that in the value senses we attribute a value to an object and act in relation to it.  Yet, in seeing, we are constantly connecting the act of seeing with the act of looking:  the two cannot really be separated except in theory.  Seeing is tied to a variety of practical actions and evaluations.  How could it not be?   Danto says that having a sense of humor affects one's life globally:  but then so too does the way one sees things, the texture of one's perceptual life.  Moreover, there are important phenomenological similarities between the seeing involved in looking at a landscape and the seeing involved in looking at a landscape painting.  Isn't it obvious that there is a connect, even between very abstract landscapes such as those of Diebenkorn. 

Danto's position seems to be tied to agreement with Wittgenstein that values are not in the world, and that there is a radical distinction between evaluation and observation.  But I would hold, in a more Deweyan spirit, that all observation is value-laden, that values are to be found in the world-as-we-experience-it, and that these perceptions can be inter-subjective, the reason being that others can see the same objects in the same value-laden way that we can; and that, yes, Danto is right that "values involve a relationship between ourselves and the world," however it is wrong to see all of this as simply projection of our value responses "back onto the world" as Danto seems to think.  Thus Danto is just wrong when he says that "responsiveness does not go with the so-called five senses."  We never just "sense red" as Danto implies, but rather notice or say that something is red within a specific context of life and action:  "red" is definitely not a matter best understood by whether someone says "red" when asked for a color identification in a psychological lab.  So there is something disturbing about Danto's sentence "Mirroring the transformation of nature" is a natural and suitable metaphor for minds equipped solely with the five senses." (97) since those minds would be very much unlike human minds, and in these circumstances "five senses" would mean something very much unlike what we mean by "seeing" for example. 

Danto thinks that the ordinary senses cannot admit of perversion whereas the value senses can.  At first this seems plausible, but the problem lies in the radical abstraction of "ordinary senses" from value senses.  All of our ordinary senses are value senses, and so, if there is perversion, there is perversion of both.  It the Marxists are right, for example, that there is false consciousness this cuts across this supposed divide.  It might be thought that "seeing" is not subject to intervention of the will (as Danto thinks), but looking, noticing, and observing are subject to will, and it is not clear how these are to be distinguished from seeing, in the end.  So, when Danto says "no knowledge of an object can make it look different" and "an object retains its sensory qualities unchanged however it is classed and whatever it may be called" (98) one can only think that it is the failings of his theory that leads him to say things that are so obviously false.  He wants to say that the aesthetic sense is a function of one's beliefs and that the ordinary senses are not.  That's the big distinction, but it just doesn't hold.  The only way he can get around the fact that we do change our perceptions of wine, for example, based on knowledge is to insist that when "told that a certain wine has the taste of raspberries, I may learn to discriminate this taste" which he did not at first even though it was there to be tasted, and so "the object did not acquire these qualities by being described" whereas the art object has qualities completely different from its indiscernible counterpart.  This is the crux of the issue. 

Danto is making two mistakes here.  First, he underestimates the role of imagination and value-perception in the tasting of wine.  Fine wine is more like art than he is willing to admit.  The descriptors ("tastes like raspberries" for example) and their accuracy are to a large extent socially and culturally determined:  the claims and experiences are no less real for that.  These are complex relational qualities.  Second, he underestimates the imaginative capacities (the value-laden perception) of the artist when observing the subject-matter or materials that are part of the creative process that goes into making a work of art.  He thinks that "the qualities an object has when an artwork are in fact so different from what an indiscernible counterpart has when a mere real thing that it is absurd to suppose I missed those qualities in the latter."  Well, it is not absurd.  Some of Duchamp's Dadaist friends, maybe a few years after Fountain's creation, might reasonably have said to themselves, "how could I have missed the aesthetic possibilities for our project in a urinal!"  They didn't see what he saw when he walked into that hardware store.  (A more complex story could be told but to the same effect if Duchamp actually was inspired first by the idea of submitting something to the show that would be rejected and then thought of Fountain as the perfect response. Here, the urinal comes to mind imaginatively first, and this is followed by the trip to the hardware store to find the right thing.) 

So when Danto says "no sensory examination of an object will tell me that it is an artwork, since quality for quality it may be matched by an object that is not one" (99) my reply is that a sensory examination of the object will necessarily carry with it concepts and values (as Kant say, there are no percepts without concepts) so that there just isn't anything indiscernible or matching Fountain quality for quality. (Incidentally, his claim here contradicts his other claim that quality for quality there is no match at all between Fountain and its indiscernible counterpart in the hardware store.)  Our responses to artworks and to the things that are their causal sources (chosen subject matter, materials, etc.) are different, I agree, but I also insist that they are continuous and, in most instances, otherwise related.

Danto writes "learning it is a work of art means that it has qualities to attend to which its untransfigured counterpart lacks" and so our aesthetic responses will be "an altogether different order of things."  (99)  Partially true, but not quite right.  He is missing the transitional moments, for example when Duchamp beings to see the object differently in his mind, when he is working on Fountain in the studio but before he has presented it as art, and so on.  Moreover, there is no reason why the original appropriated object couldn't carry with it into the artworld context many of its properties enhanced and otherwise transformed in such a way as to retain their identity.  Duchamp had to insist that the aesthetic qualities of the urinal were left behind in Fountain precisely because this does not normally happen in the transfigurations of art.  This might be a case where really rare cases just do not make for good philosophy.  If, for example, Fountain was the only artwork in existence for which the artist denied that the aesthetic qualities of the subject matter or materials were of no relevance to its value, interpretation or identity as a work of art, then to make claims about art in general based on this would be absurd.

Interestingly, Heidegger's "Origin of the Work of Art" could be read as in direct opposition to Danto on this point.  Danto sets up the artworld as detached from the thingly nature of art (the material substratum).  Heidegger sees the nature of art as revealing itself through the way a work of art can reveal the "abysses of meaning" in a pair of peasant shoes, whereas Danto would deny that "abysses of meaning" could apply with the same meaning both to Van Gogh's painting and to the peasant shoes it portrays.  For Heidegger, art happens as truth happens, truth being the non-scientific truth that is the unconcealment of Being.  As we learn about the equipmental nature of equipment we learn about the thingly nature of a thing and thereby the work-nature of a work of art.  The relationship between the painting of shoes, the shoes, the peasant women who wears the shoes, the artist who paints the shoes, and we who look at and are moved by this painting, is intensely intimate.  This is surely a case in which an analytic philosopher (one who, interestingly, was widely read in continental philosophy) and a continental philosopher deeply disagree....they are not just talking past each other or using different kinds of language.  (It is also interesting that no one I know of has commented on this deep disagreement.) However although Danto was clearly trying in this book to refute major views held by his analytic philosopher contemporaries (Dickie, Cohen, Beardsley, etc.) he seemed unaware that he was in direct conflict with Heidegger.  Who was right?  Danto, like Plato (on most interpretations), leaves the world of mere things as a kind of dross, best to be forgotten when we enter the ideal realm of art (of Forms, in Plato's case).  Heidegger finds the value of art to be deeply interrelated with everyday life.  Currently I lean towards Heidegger on the question, but am open to counterarguments as I have a certain fondness for Danto, who was, at the very least, a  nicer man.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Are Altoon Sultan's potholders art?

A good friend of mine who is a well-known artist, Altoon Sultan, has an ongoing debate on her Facebook page on whether some potholders she made are works of art.  Unusually, she argues that they are not, and this even though many of her correspondents believe they are.  She posted some images of the potholders, which she made herself using a kit.  They are nice-looking potholders, but I agree that they are not art.  It is not sufficient for something to be made by an artist and to be nice-looking for it to be art.  Some of  Altoon's friends insist that the potholders are beautiful and hence should be seen as art.  Whether or not they are beautiful is open to question:  I certainly would not go so far.  Hardly anyone believes that beauty is an objective quality like temperature or length.   But some philosophers believe that something can be objectively more beautiful than something else, for instance Van Gogh's "Starry Night" is objectively more beautiful than Kinkade's "Christmas Chapel 1."  I agree.  Kinkade's painting may be beautiful to someone and quite possibly to those who buy copies of it or would even buy the original.  To me, it is mildly charming at best (Kindade has done stuff that is stupendously ugly, but "Christmas Chapel 1" does not quite stoop that low), but I would never say it is beautiful.  I would hope that even most of those who believe it is beautiful would admit that it is not as beautiful as "Starry Night."  Nor are the potholders beautiful, certainly not in the same sense as Altoon's textile artworks

I am not of course arguing that Altoon's potholders are like Kinkade's work, only that someone thinking that some artist-made artifact is beautiful is not sufficient to make it art.  Altoon insists that when others claim that her potholders are art while she insists that they are not they are insulting her because doing so devalues the textile works she has been  creating recently and which she considers to be art.  These works use similar materials and are similar in size to the potholders, but are more sophisticated, require more work, and are of higher aesthetic value than the potholders. 

It is an interesting question whether George Dickie would argue that Altoon's potholders are or are not art.  His famous definition in its earliest version is "A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation." (Aesthetics:  An Introduction, 1971)  I think that he would say that the potholders fail to meet the second condition.  They are artifacts (thus meeting the first condition), but they have not had conferred upon them the status of candidate for appreciation by a member of the artworld.  Moreover, Altoon would insist that even if she thought they should be appreciated as nice or pretty potholders, she was not conferring this status "on behalf of the artworld."  The status she conferred (if she conferred any) was not art status but simply the status of something worth looking at (proof being that she posted it.) 

I interpret Dickie's "for appreciation" to mean "for appreciation as art."  On this interpretation of Dickie's theory the potholders would not be art.  Nonetheless, if you take "for appreciation" to mean any appreciation or even "aesthetic appreciation," they would be art.  So in this case I would say that Altoon's potholders would be a great counterexample to Dickie's theory.  They are clearly not art even though they are candidates for appreciation:  they are just candidates for appreciation as potholders (i.e. as looking nice in the context of use for holding pots in the kitchen).   It is better to take Dickie to mean "for appreciation as art."  That this introduces circularity into his theory is of no real importance since the theory is already circular, and Dickie has already argued for the value of the theory despite its circularity.

Moreover, I would venture that Altoon's potholders would not meet most definitions of art currently on offer.  Most of these require that the artist intend the work to be art, and Altoon insists that her potholders are not art.  However, some would argue that just as artist sketches that were never intended to be displayed as art become art as soon as they are displayed in a museum, so too Altoon's potholders could be displayed by a curator as art, perhaps alongside her serious textile works, perhaps even as part of an exhibit dealing with the very issue of whether or not they are art.  So, let's say that they are displayed in a museum by a curator.  Does that make them art?  What about the ones that are indistinguishable from them made by someone else from the same potholder kit?  Let's imagine that the curator, being keen on philosophical debates over art, decides to exhibit another potholder in the same show, except this one is not by an artist.  Let's even say that Altoon's potholder gets mixed up with the other person's potholder, and so one cannot be sure which one one is looking at!  Hmmm.  Without going into this any further I would just want to stand firm with Altoon and say that the curator's little game does not make either her potholder or the other person's potholder art.  Exhibition of an artifact made by an artist in an art museum, even if some think the artifact is beautiful, does not make it art.  

But now, let's say that a follower of Duchamp gets hold of Altoon's potholder and, as with the urinal in Duchamp's "Fountain," he paints "R. Mutt" on it and displays it as art.  Is it then art?  Well yes, of course.  This person has created (rather bad and derivative) art from a potholder.  But then it is not Altoon's artwork.  Rauschenberg took a de Kooning and erased it and presented it as "Erased de Kooning."  It is an artwork, but not de Kooning's.  So this would not prove that Altoon's potholders are art.

If Altoon can say that some things that she makes that clearly have aesthetic properties and are made of similar materials to her artworks are not art, can she also say that things that you would really expect her to say are examples of art are not art?  Well, she can.  She can say anything.  But let's say that she insists (contrary to reality) that her textile works are not art, or that they used to be, but are no longer.  Would exhibiting them as art then be a category mistake?  (Perhaps it would be morally wrong for a gallery owner to exhibit her works after she has tried to withdraw their art status.   But that's another question.)  I think she cannot actually withdraw art status from her fiber art works.  They have features that make them art that the potholders just do not.  

Denis Dutton (in The Art Instinct) defines art  in a cluster account way in which something is art if it has most of the following features and must have feature (12).  The features are roughly:
1.[Provides] Direct pleasure.
2. Skill and virtuosity
3. Style
4. Novelty and creativity.
5. [Evokes] Criticism.
6. Representation. Represents.
7. Special focus.
8. Expressive individuality.
9. Emotional saturation.
10. [Provides] Intellectual challenge.
11. [Belongs to] Art traditions and institutions.
12. [Involves] Imaginative experience
The potholders do provide direct pleasure to some, but show no skill or virtuosity beyond the minimum needed, show no unique style (one could not tell they are by Altoon), exhibit no novelty or creativity, are not subject to serious critical review, represent nothing (except perhaps ordinary objects in a debate about whether ordinary objects can be art), are ordinary objects used every day in the kitchen rather than being something special, express nothing beyond a desire perhaps to have one's objects of everyday use look nice, have no more emotional saturation than any other ordinary object of the home, provide little intellectual challenge beyond the current debate over whether they are art (and this intellectual challenge was probably not intended by Altoon in their making), do not belong in any interesting way to art traditions or institutions, and encourage no special imaginative experience (although any object can evoke imaginings, given the right conditions).  In conclusion: the argument that they are art under Dutton's theory of art is not compelling.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Heidegger on everyday aesthetics

Heidegger's "Origin of the Work of Art" is normally seen as a discussion of the nature of art, and this is certainly one of its main themes.  But remember that it is centrally concerned also with the equipmental nature of equipment, with the focus being a pair of shoes.  The conclusion about art (great art) is that Van Gogh's painting of shoes allows truth about the equipmental nature of the equipment to come into unconcealment.  But what is that about?  In order to see why this is important one must see that the equipmental nature of equipment is going to be quite a bit different for Heidegger than what we would expect.  He begins his essay by discussing what it is for a thing to be a thing.  He is critical of the idea that the thingly nature of thing is to be understood in terms of Aristotle's conception of imposition of form on matter, but exemplified today in the factory process of making objects for purchase.  One could understand shoes in the traditional western manner as imposing form on matter to create something that serves a certain function.  It could be said that the equipmental quality of equipment consists in its usefulness...but that would not be enough, we need to look at the object in its use. The problem with just looking at usefulness or the object in its functionality is that it does not take into account the meaning of the shoes as they are experienced.  Heidegger's imagined example is that the shoes Van Gogh paints belong to a peasant woman.  Whether or not this is true of these depicted shoes does not matter.  One could tell a different story if the shoes, as some have suggested, were Van Gogh's own shoes.  (He sometimes lived and dressed like a peasant, and certainly trudged in the fields as a plein aire painter.)  It would be a story about the life of an artist, the lived experience of an artist.  Heidegger probably chose the peasant woman because she is "close to the earth" and, in this, the existential situation, which all humans share, is made more clear than it might be if we took a modern urbanite as our example (with all the superficial overlays that might distract us).  The shoes are only "what they are" when experienced as used in the fields. The point is that the shoes are experienced as connected to everything else (directly or indirectly) in the life of the wearer.  For the peasant woman, this means that they are directly connected to slowly trudging in the fields, indirectly connected to the frustration when the fields refuse to nurture the crop, and more indirectly connected with other aspects of her life, including her fear of death when giving birth.  This is part of what phenomenological existentialism is all about:  we give an account of the structure of experience (all of the layers of experience associated with experience of the shoes) and this includes things in our lives (our existence) which are deeply important to us.  Think of this as like Freud's insistence that the unconscious is always present even in slips of the tongue, and the unconscious deals with matters that are of intense emotional importance to us.  So, the existential facts of life are the ones that have this deep emotional significance and they loom large in experience as a kind of intense background of which we are not entirely aware.  (There is a paradox here:  this background is both central to experience and also not experienced in the sense of being consciously experienced.  The theory of psychoanalysis is all about this paradox.) 

So how are the shoes experienced?  Heidegger talks about this in terms of what he calls "reliability."  There is something deceptive about this term, which means something quite a bit different from what we mean by "reliability."  For Heidegger, the term refers to the way in which the shoes can have a richer, deeper significance than is found in the mere notion of their functionality.  They "vibrate" in this significance.  They have an aura.  We do not immediately see this reliability.  Rather, we see something that has a certain function.  It is getting away from the functionalist approach to everyday aesthetics that reveals "reliability."  Van Gogh's painting reveals the inner existential reliability of the shoes in a way that we might not get just by looking at the shoes. 

It is useful to contrast this with Plato.  Both Plato and Heidegger would agree that the shoes, qua objects in the realm of appearance, are not the true shoes -- that there is an inner essence to the shoes.  However, for Plato, the inner essence is the way that the shoes participate in the eternal Form of shoe, whereas for Heidegger, it is to be found in the existential significance of the shoe, the way that it exhibits our human existence, that we are thrown into this world of care and anxiety.  So there is something more disturbing and less reassuring in the Heideggerian vision of "essence" than in Plato's.  Whereas Plato symbolizes the relationship between the Good (the highest of the Forms) and the Forms by the light of the sun, which he also calls "truth," so too Heidegger symbolizes the presence of "reliability" by the way in which something seems to shine or have an aura.  The shining of the shoes in experience shows that their existential essence is shining forth, which is the same as saying that their truth is shining, and Heidegger calls truth "unconcealment." Another feature of the shoes that Heidegger observes is that they have a certain life in experience:  the usefulness can gradually disappear (partly because of old age and brokenness) and they can become merely usual.  This refers to a major aspect of everyday life, when everyday life is boring.  It is through art that we can be reintroduced to the unconcealment of Being in the world of everyday objects and in which the entropy of the boredom of the everyday is overcome.  

There is a disagreement between myself and some Heidegger-influenced authors interested in everyday aesthetics.  For instance, Arto Haapala believes that one ought to focus on the ordinariness of everyday aesthetic experience and set aside that which is strange.  As I see it, the approach I have taken is more in tune with Heidegger which, of course, does not mean that it is better because of that (one would not want to be "in tune with" Heidegger's Nazi beliefs evident at the time he wrote this essay!)  The essence of the everyday aesthetic experience is when truth shines forth, when we get "reliability" and not merely boring usualness, when we manage to break beyond the western emphasis on the notion of informing form on matter, when we actually break down the form/matter dichotomy so that the thingly nature of the thing comes forth as something essential to it and not something that merely is imposed upon by its formal nature.  The point, however, in favor of Haapala's interpretation is when Heidegger says that only when the peasant woman wears the shoes in the field are they what they are and "they are all the more genuinely so, the less the peasant woman thinks about the shoes while she is at work, or looks at them at all, or is even aware of them."  But I do not see how this can be made consistent with the idea that "in the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth."  There must be some experiential dimension to the shoes that is understood in the shining forth of truth that is so important to Heidegger.  Heidegger himself helps us when he says "if only this simple wearing [of the shoes by the peasant woman] were so simple":  she knows about the complex existential laying of significance "without noticing or reflecting."  So the usefulness of the shoes is not what we call usefulness, but rather "rests in the abundance of an essential being of the equipment" which he calls "reliability."  It is by this reliability that she can know "the silent call of the earth."  It is by this that she can also be "sure of her world" by which is meant the world of a peasant woman. 

For me, a central neglected passage is when Heidegger says that usefulness depends on reliability, which is to say that the primarily thing is the dynamic way in which the shoes fit into an entire way of life.  You would not have usefulness if you did not have things that underlie it.  This is what is meant by "the former vibrates in the other."  So, what about the large portion of things in our world that are tired and boring?  Heidegger covers this when he says, "A single piece of equipment is worn out and used up; but at the same time the use itself [the reliability] also falls into disuse, wears away, and becomes usual.  Thus equipmentality wastes away, sinks into mere stuff.  In such wasting, reliability vanishes.  This dwindling, however, to which use-things owe their boringly obtrusive usualness, is only one more testimony to the original nature of equipmental being."  Heidegger's philosophy is directed not only to the western forgetting of Being (to be found in the production of objects for mere use, and their reification as fetish objects in a world of mass consumption and death of spirit) but also in the "boringly obtrusive usualness" of the the loss of the shining aura of Being which is found in the ordinariness of the ordinary.  We tend to think of everyday objects in terms of "worn-out usualness":  we tend to think of this as "their sole mode of being."  It is only through great art and through seeing the world as an artist would that we can recover this other mode of being. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Can you burn a poem? Danto's stupendous discovery!

I try not to dabble in philosophical ontology.  It all seems too abstract and disconnected from reality.  But sometimes a claim just gets to me.  Danto (The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 33-34) seriously considers the claim that one cannot burn a poem:  one can only burn a copy.  So, on this view, the poem is like a Platonic eternal Form. 

Yes, burning a copy is not burning the poem.  But burn all the copies and you come pretty close to eliminating the poem too, the only things left being whatever remains in the memories of those who had read or heard it.  I cannot go along with the idea that the poem continues to exist even after those memories are erased too.  Burn the planet to a crisp and all the poems (except for those that were put on space ships) are burned as well.  The end of the universe eliminates any survivors.  Poems are not eternal forms. They are no less valuable for that.

Turning to the chapter in which this passage occurs, "Content and Causation" we find Danto's discussion of the famous imagined case of two fragments one of a text of Don Quixote by Cervantes, and one of a text also called Don Quixote and identical to the first, but by a 20th century writer named Menard.  The second text has a very different meaning since, for example, it would be absurd for Menard to satirize chivalry, and so on. What is interesting about this story is that it is completely ridiculous.  One should no more believe that such a thing is possible than believe in miracles.  That it is ridiculous makes it a good story by Borges, from whom it originally comes, but not good philosophy.  Danto pulls off taking it seriously by using it as a premise for an argument in which the conclusion, in my view, is entirely true, i.e. that "works are in part constituted by their location in the history of literature as well as by their relationships to their cannot isolate these factors from the work since they penetrate, so to speak, the essence of the work." (36)  That is, as Danto intended, the "Intentional Fallacy" of Monroe Beardsley (arguably the leading aesthetician of the previous generation) is no fallacy at all.  The conclusion is fine, and a nice innovation.  But here's the trick.  Danto uses the truth of this conclusion and the dubious way he arrives at it (through this absurd thought experiment) to support an even more dubious theory about the nature of philosophy (and of art) in which indiscernible counterparts play the central role.  Thus on his view "Borges contribution to the ontology of art is stupendous" which makes Danto's own recognition of it to be stupendous as well.  Stupendous.  Really.

Of course Danto's argument hangs on an implied slippery slope argument.  We can all grant that short passages may appear in works from vastly different times or hands.  For example the phrase "the past is prelude" appears in 236,00 places on Google.  So, the argument goes, there are probably longer identical passages that not only come from different hands but also are independent of each other (one author not knowing about the other's work).  So why not a page of Don Quixote (or at least a paragraph) that is identical to a work by a 20th century author who is, perhaps, not even aware of Cervantes' work, and means something entirely different?  But it isn't going to happen any more than that famous collection of Shakespeare's plays written by monkeys.  So why base an argument on it?  Well, my interlocutor responds, it is a "thought" experiment:  you are supposed to imagine the instance and then follow Danto's logic proving that Beardsley was wrong.  Well, that is nonsense.  We just have a claim to "stupendous" ontology based on a string of witticisms tied to a clever story.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Shusterman on Popular Music

Richard Shusterman's "Form and Funk:  The Aesthetic Challenge of Popular Art" was published originally in 1991 in the British Journal of Aesthetics.  My current textbook edited by Goldblatt and Brown has a selection from it titled "In Defense of Popular Arts."  One difficulty with teaching it is that no one I know, and certainly none of my students, thinks that the popular arts, particularly popular music, needs to be defended.  If anything it is classical or "high art" music that needs this.  Still, I do have some comments to make about Shusterman's arguments.  Shusterman and I share a commitment to pragmatism and hence to Dewey's idea that humans are live creatures interacting with their environments.  Pragmatism calls on us to recognize that humans are animals with bodies (and in Dewey's atheist form of pragmatism, no immaterial souls).  So, like Nietzsche, the pragmatist encourages us to say "yes" to our embodied existence.  Shusterman sets up the debate over popular music in terms of the age old debate between dualists and materialists (although he does not mention this.)  His opponent is Plato and Plato's attack against the popular arts of his time.  Allen Bloom and Pierre Bourdieu (both of whom attack popular music) are just descendants of Plato (and Kant).

There is much that I agree with in his approach but I wonder whether something can't be said for the other side or for dissolving the very dichotomy he uses to replace dualism.  Shusterman himself favors talking in wider terms about the aesthetics of life, the art of living, and the implosion of the high art/popular art distinction.  I think this is the right direction to take.  I like the idea that the ancient Athenians are an ideal because they integrated art and everyday life.  I increasingly have a problem with the notion that everyday aesthetics is autonomous from art aesthetics since this would encourage the ongoing radical distinction between art and life which popular music seeks to overcome.  

However, at times Shusterman seems to be saying that high art is itself problematic, and this of course is in relation to an attack on a certain kind of aesthetics, that of Kant with his emphasis on disinterestedness.  Shusterman observes that philosophers both on the political left and on the political right have attacked the popular arts.  His own teacher, Bourdieu, who is famous for having argued that taste is a matter entirely of class, thus reducing the normative to the descriptive, nonetheless does not believe that popular art deserves to be called aesthetic.  On his view, it is not sufficiently reflective or complex.  Theodor Adorno has also famously criticized popular music for being regressive and for ultimately promoting the capitalist system by way of false consciousness:  it is not sufficiently critical of society.  Adorno goes on to defend autonomous avant-garde music as being truly revolutionary, a move that Bourdieu would probably not make.  In any case, the general argument from the political left is that popular art is too passive.  The argument from the right, for example from Bloom, who by the way was a translator of Plato, is that it is too sensuous...too sexy even.  Bloom seems to be worried that the popular arts encourage the rule of the self by pleasure and pain and not by intellect.

Shusterman's response to the passivity argument is to try to turn the tables, to argue that art designed to be appreciated in a disinterested or distanced manner, as classical music is, encourages far more passivity than popular music.  By contrast, when we turn to popular music, particularly the music inspired by African-American culture, we find something more active, although active on the physical level insofar as we are talking about the kind of active engagement that might include wild dancing.  (Could it be more active on some other levels too, for example on an emotional level?)  Shusterman contrasts the opera-goer who goes to sleep (my condition, frequently, I confess) to the dancer at a rock concert who works up a sweat (hence the reference to the "funky").  This seems unfair to classical music since true classical music lovers seem to be not only entranced (which, after all, is a physical condition) but also sometimes given to pretty active foot-tapping and hand-conducting. Consider the recent 60 Minutes episode which featured a central African orchestra created in a war-torn country (Democratic Republic of Congo) in which the members seem to have found a mode of resistance that is also a mode of escape through, strangely enough, classical music.  Shusterman also says that classical music is "justifiably cherished," so perhaps he is not being serious when he downgrades it in comparison to rock. Shusterman is certainly right however if he simply wants to maintain that popular music can have most of the features we value in classical music, for instance the presence of artistic genius, the possibility of reflection, the presence of cultural or political resistance, a satisfaction that is enduring, and the development of a critical tradition of commentators and historians. 

Whether all of this is a refutation of the idea that aesthetic listening is disinterested is another matter.  One could argue that there must at least be a disinterested moment in the overall aesthetic experience for popular music to rise to the level of the best classical music.  Can something be aesthetic if there is no reflective element at all, if the experience seems to bypass the intellectual side of ourselves entirely?  I just don't know.  The issue also comes up in everyday aesthetics.  We might gain a lot of pleasure from a wonderful shower, but it is not clear that this is aesthetic pleasure since it might just bypass the intellect completely.  Shusterman is correct that the terms of aesthetics are often used with respect to non-art phenomena:  this recognition is the basis for much of my own work in everyday aesthetics.  But one wonders which side we should come down on here:  to keep aesthetics tied to something where there is a reflective/contemplative dimension, or open it to include pleasures that fail to reach that level.  Does the latter trivialize aesthetics?  Perhaps popular music that is mere entertainment, that has no reflective/contemplative dimension, is not quite up to the language of aesthetics...and this would be true for some classical compositions as well.

For me, the take-away is that art is a part of life, that there is an art of living in which the popular arts, fine arts, and everyday aesthetics all play a role, that we should cheer on the implosion of art into life, that we cannot continue with a radical distinction between art and life, and that an aesthetics of life would include not only the aesthetics of everyday life but also the aesthetics of holidays, the aesthetics of popular art, and the aesthetics of fine art.  I agree with Shusterman that just because popular music may serve a function does not imply that it is artistically illegitimate. But this does not mean we must defenestrate the concept of autonomy. We just have to be modest about it.  If we are going to talk about autonomy with respect to art (including popular art) we can at best talk about a moment or aspect of autonomy, or relative autonomy, enough autonomy to carve out a special place, a place of freedom. 

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, April 1, 2014

Plant intelligence and plant aesthetics

This is a followup on my last post on plant aesthetics. Michael Pollan's New Yorker article "The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora" here lends support to the idea that plants may have aesthetic experiences.  Pollan begins his article with a mention of a book from the 1970s called The Secret Life of Plants which was intriguing at the time but also not very scientific.  Recent work in plant behavior and plant "intelligence" has been much more impressive and interesting.  Assuming that intelligence is an emergent capacity, it is arguable that perception of aesthetic qualities or the having of aesthetic experiences is also possible for plants.  I use the word "possible" advisedly here: we do not as yet have any strong reason to believe that plants can have aesthetic experiences.  But the idea is intriguing.  The claim being made by a group of six contemporary biologists (in an article from 2006 supporting a new field called plant neurobiology) is that (to quote from Pollan) "the sophisticated behaviors observed in plants cannot at present be completely explained by familiar genetic and biochemical mechanisms. Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and coördinate a plant’s behavioral response.."  and "electrical and chemical signalling systems have been identified in plants which are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals."  The usual claim by opponents to plant intelligence (and thus plant aesthetics) is that plants have no nervous system and hence cannot be intelligent, conscious or have aesthetic experiences.  But isn't this just an a priori argument?  It assumes that intelligence requires a nervous system and then automatically exclude plants because they have no nervous system, even though we can talk about plants communicating and behaving in many other animal-like ways.  If you have behavior that "looks very much like learning, memory, decision-making, and intelligence" then why not behavior that looks very much like the experience of beauty? 

To be sure, Pollan also observed that no one he spoke to who supported plant intelligence supports the idea of plant emotions.  One could say that although intelligence may be there, aesthetics is a matter of emotional response and hence is beyond the realm of plants.  However, supporters of plant intelligence have also argued to the idea that plants can experience something like pain and that they can behave in ways that favor their own relatives over others.  So, if plant intelligence is conceivable, so too may be plant emotions.

The problem is that we may have just been looking for brains in individual plants:  and there are none.  However, it might be that both intelligence and aesthetic experience emerges at a level above that of the individual:  "intelligence in plants resembles that exhibited in insect colonies, where it is thought to be an emergent property of a great many mindless individuals organized in a network."  Perhaps, as Pollan suggests, there are ways of getting brainy behavior without actual brains.

Of course you do not have aesthetics is you have no senses, but the claim made by scientists like Stefano Mancuso is, as Pollan puts it "Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root “knows” when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound."  Pollan notes that Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist, found in a recent experiment that a recording of a caterpillar eating a leaf can prime a plant to produce defensive chemicals.  Moreover, "the tips of plant roots, in addition to sensing gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. Roots about to encounter an impenetrable obstacle or a toxic substance change course before they make contact with it."

Aesthetics also requires choice (this wine is better than that, and so I choose the better one), but do plants choose?  Mancuso argues that they do.  Pollan writes "A dodder vine will 'choose' among several potential hosts, assessing, by scent, which offers the best potential nourishment. Having selected a target, the vine then performs a kind of cost-benefit calculation before deciding exactly how many coils it should invest—the more nutrients in the victim, the more coils it deploys. I asked Mancuso whether he was being literal or metaphorical in attributing intention to plants."  His answer implied that he did.

Again, to have aesthetic experience one must be conscious.  If, by consciousness, one means "the state of being awake and aware of one’s environment" then Mancuso and František Baluška argue that plants can be conscious: “The bean knows exactly what is in the environment around it,” Mancuso said. “We don’t know how. But this is one of the features of consciousness: You know your position in the world. A stone does not.”  Pollan writes further, "in support of their contention that plants are conscious of their environment, Mancuso and Baluška point out that plants can be rendered unconscious by the same anesthetics that put animals out: drugs can induce in plants an unresponsive state resembling sleep. (A snoozing Venus flytrap won’t notice an insect crossing its threshold.)" 

But again, in order to have aesthetic experience you must be able to feel pleasure and pain.  Can plants feel pain?  Mancuso and Baluska argue yes, although they carefully call it "plant specific pain perception."  If plants can experience pain then why not pleasure as was argued by Fechner?

What about the arguments against plant intelligence?  Lincoln Taiz, a plant physiologist at U.C. Santa Cruz said to Pollan that “the mechanisms are quite different from those of true nervous systems” and that plant neurobiologists suffer from “over-interpretation of data, teleology, anthropomorphizing, philosophizing, and wild speculations.” He thinks plant behavior will ultimately be explained by "the action of chemical or electrical pathways, without recourse to “animism.”"  Yet it is granted already that the mechanisms are quite different from animal nervous systems.  Moreover, when Taiz makes his reductionist assumptions he is philosophizing and speculating every bit as much as his opponents.  Moreover, it has long been argued by reductionist materialists that this is true for humans as well: and so Taiz's argument seems too strong for its purpose, "too strong" in the sense of too general.  That is, his argument just is the same argument materialists have used traditionally to attempt to reduce human consciousness.  Perhaps this will turn out to be the correct position and aesthetics itself will be reduced to chemistry, but this is no special argument against plant aesthetics.  If Taiz thinks that "animism" is the sin of applying the correct notion of the human soul to animals he is just inconsistent.

So, given that arguments set forth in my previous post and the additional work done by scientists like Mancuso I would argue that it is quite possible that there is such a thing as plant aesthetics.   

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.