Thursday, May 29, 2014

Shusterman on everyday aesthetics

"It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to cave a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.   To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour."  Thoreau, quoted in Richard Shusterman  Thinking Through the Body pg. 288.  

"to live philosophically means living in a waking rather than sleeping state...the discipline of awakened life can provide everyday experience with deep aesthetic enrichment and even spiritual enlightenment"  Richard Shusterman, (all quotes from Thinking) 288-9

"We fail to see things as they really are with the rich, sensuous resplendence of their full being because we see them through eyes heavy with conventional habits of viewing them and blinded by stereotypes of meaning."  Shusterman, 291

I would like to live philosophically, which seems an odd thing to say for someone who has been a teacher of philosophy for more than forty years.  But then reading, teaching and writing about philosophy is not quite the same as living philosophically.  Both Shusterman and I see the task of living philosophically partly in terms of Socrates.  This, at least, is not surprising.  Socrates was one of my earliest philosophical heroes, and that is probably true for most western philosophers.  He taught that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I still believe that, taking it to mean something like:  to make life worth living (to enhance value in one's life) one needs to reflect on the key concepts that guide one's perception and action, reflect deeply, constantly questioning, constantly coming up with hypothesis to test, never accepting one of these as the final answer, recognizing that the only thing worthy of the name "wisdom" comes out of this process.  But this does not, on the face of it, seem to be the aesthetic life.  Can the philosophical life and the aesthetic life work together?  

Socrates also plays a leading role in Plato's Symposium where we get a different take on the philosophical life, one that sees it ultimately as aesthetic.  As one engages in philosophical examination one is also in search of beauty.  One travels up a ladder of love, where the object of love is always something of beauty.  The final stage is apprehension of beauty itself, the eternal Form of beauty, which holds roughly the same place in the metaphysics of the Symposium as recounted by Socrates (in describing the views of Diotima) as the Form of the Good does in The Republic.  I take this to mean that close attention to the aesthetic dimension of human existence can be one path to an awakened state of being.  But I also recognize that it may seem arrogant, perhaps is arrogant, to see others as in a state of dreaming.  We all live our own lives and do what we feel we have to do.  As my students are fond of saying: what right do we have to judge others on this (as long as they are harming no one)?  

The issue that Shusterman has raised is an important one for everyday aesthetics.  In response to the question "what is the point of everyday aesthetics" his answer would be, not to simply catalog a new field of inquiry in philosophy but to help us learn how to live philosophically where living philosophically is not just a matter of examining concepts and arguments but is also a matter of paying attention to the phenomena.  The question remains how these two things can fit together:  they almost seem to be in opposition.  How can you both examine life and also live life with the intensity of perception required by, for instance, Zen practice, or even by the Platonic philosopher at the top of the ladder of love?  Shusterman observes that "the notion of awakening to a clearer, critical awareness of the nature of things is also extremely central to the philosophy of Buddhism."  292.  

Shusterman's recommendation for living the philosophical life of heightened awareness is simplicity, slowness, and focusing on the here and now.  Yet it is hard to understand what exactly simplicity means in this context, especially when we reflect on the life of Socrates.  When we engage in Socratic dialogue (examining our lives) things become increasingly complex:  simple things are no longer simple.  We thought we knew what, for example, piety was,  and then we discover that we are ignorant (the result of his dialogue Euthyphro).  Instead of one definition for a concept we have several, none of which are fully adequate.  So where is this simplicity?  Of course Thoreau is right when (quoted approvingly by Shusterman) he says that our lives are frittered away in detail.  At philosophy conferences one is often horrified by the great level of detail to be found in individual arguments centered often around very small corners of the field.  Perhaps the life of the philosophy conference-goer is precisely what Thoreau argues against.  Again, though, one can just see it as the goal of one who seeks a philosophical life to wade into all of that (even at a conference!) and try to simplify, to find the core of meaning, the essence of the issue. 

Slowness and attending to the here and now are easier to understand as methods to the philosophical life.  The first ("slow down!") is needed for the second.  I recently read a piece of advice (can't remember the source) which is to say to oneself, every once in a while, "and so it all comes down to this!"  I find this exercise reassuring and relaxing, although also a bit funny, depending on when you say it.  It definitely brings one to focus on "the now."  Shusterman quotes Thoreau again, that the "true and sublime...are now and here.  God himself culminates in the present moment...And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us" 298 from Walden.  Shusterman adds that "the present moment - although fleeting - a sense, beyond time, when it is apprehended in itself as fully present and thus outside the conceptual line of temporal extension that runs from past to future."  299   He adds, most relevantly to everyday aesthetics:  "But apart from these sublime, quasi-mystical moments of grasping a timeless now, there is the simpler yet significant value of attentive awareness of our mundane experience, of being fully present in what we do and where we are so that we can more fully profit from what our surroundings actually offer."  299.  

Recently I listened to a debate between a friend who is an atheist and one who is more of a spiritual seeker.  The atheist felt that the word "spiritual" could have no meaning, and I wondered whether it could, to an atheist.  I see myself as an atheist, and yet I find myself constantly attracted to the word "spiritual."  Shusterman writes:  "Mindful somatic discipline is not meant to destroy the body but rather to raise it to a higher level; for the body is not simply flesh....but a sentient soma that includes all the entrenched bodily dispositions that constitute our unreflective habits - what guides our unconscious 'sleepwalking' through life.  By making our somatic life more conscious, deliberate, and controlled, we are spiritualizing it." (300) That makes sense to me. Since Shusterman rejects mind/body dualism, he is not tempted by notions of a literal soul or an afterlife.  Thus his thinking can be translated into something like what I have called in earlier posts aesthetic atheism.  He cointinues, "Through...heightened, appreciative awareness and the mindful movements and actions that emerge from it, one can achieve extraordinary aesthetic experience in everyday living" 302.

Shusterman further observes two very different conceptions of everyday aesthetics:  "Although both are concerned with appreciating ordinary objects or commonplace events, the first notion stresses the ordinariness of these everyday things, while the latter instead emphasizes how such things can be perceived through a distinctively focused aesthetic appreciation that transfigures them into a more richly meaningful experience."  303 The second involves "focused or heightened experience ...appreciated as such." 303   I think that both approaches to everyday aesthetics are valuable:  we need to recognize the ordinariness of everyday things, but we also need the meliorative approach that Shusterman stresses.  Shusterman finds limitations to the first approach since it might lead us, for instance, to try to appreciate "dull weather with an ordinary, dull appreciation of its dullness, rather than a sudden spectacular vision...of its dullness."  Dullness can become doubly dull with emphasis on the ordinariness of the ordinary, or it can become dullness enhanced (no longer really dull, actually.)   And so, like me in my book (pg. 36), Shusterman takes inspiration from Emerson's speaking of "the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking" in simple things.

So, I join Shusterman in finding the second kind of everyday aesthetics "more promising, especially when aesthetics is conceived melioristically as a field of study aimed at enriching our lives by providing richer and more rewarding aesthetic experience." 304.  He recognizes that this may seem paradoxical since "heightened perception renders the ordinary somehow extraordinary in experience" but he sees worse paradox in the first approach to everyday aesthetics in that if we experience the ordinary in the most ordinary way we risk "nor really perceiving anything aesthetically at all..."  304  

However, there is a place where we also disagree. Shusterman contrasts his own conception of everyday aesthetics with the notion in art of defamiliarization or "making strange," an idea often used by artists, for example formalists (and surrealists too).  Viktor Shklovsky saw this as a way to complicate form.  The difficulty of perception would then "compel prolonged perception."  Shusterman thinks that difficulty alienates art from life, confining art to the elite.  This takes us back to the issue of simplicity vs. complexity.  There seem here to be two ways to look at the idea of attentiveness.  The classic view is that when one pays attention closely one sees a thing for what it really is, the essence of that thing emerges.  But another way to look at it is that paying attention and slowing down allows for the work of the imagination such that a metaphor can emerge that gives that object perceived new life, making the ordinary extraordinary.  Earlier I discussed the ways in which creating greater difficulty in the Socratic dialogues can produce an experience (as in the final grasping of Beauty or Good itself) that, paradoxically, has a certain simplicity to it:  one gets to the simplicity through the difficulty.  Similarly, one could say that "making strange" is just another word for what happens when a striking metaphor emerges, one that gives new life.  I do not deny that there are problems with elitism in the contemporary art world, but at the same time, if one puts the work in, one can sometimes use contemporary art experiences to enhance everyday life experience through the process of "making strange."  This would only undemocratically confine art "to the privileged elite" if the average person is deliberately excluded.  But in truth our cultural world is full of in-groups, from motorcycle clubs to Chelsea gallery-goers.  To dump on the Chelsea gallery-goers for not making their material accessible to the motorcyclists seems as strange as reversing the situation and dumping on the motorcycle enthusiasts for not making their aesthetic thrills more accessible for the Chelsea gallery-goers.  So, although I am sympathetic to the "awakened-consciousness version of everyday aesthetics" I do not see it as an alternative to "high art's alienating difficulty and isolating elitism" but rather as as another path to intensity of awareness.  The two paths, one focusing on making strange and difficult and the other on making simple and easy, are really just aspects of the same thing.  

Ironically, despite his attack on elitism, Shusterman exemplifies his so-called democratic path with the intensely elitist experience of being a student at a Zen monastery.   This kind of experience is hardly available to your average working-class individual!  Moreover, it is perfectly appropriate to say that Zen experience is extremely difficult, even though searching for an experience of simplicity.  When Shusterman attacks high art for its "alienating difficulty and isolating elitism" one wonders why these terms do not apply to the very monastic experiences he describes.  I think that on a deeper level, Shusterman is unwilling to accept the deeply imaginative nature of the experience of the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the role that metaphor plays in this. 

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, May 13, 2014

Danto on "Metaphor, Expression, and Style" concluding comments

Maybe even the key to Danto's Transfiguration of the Commonplace is his discussion of Rembrandt's painting of Hendrijke (Hendrickje) Stoeffels as Bathsheba.  Again, I cannot find a painting by Rembrandt that specifically matches this description, although we do have the famous "Bathsheba at Her Bath" 1654 (courtesy of Wikipedia) which has been traditionally thought to have used Hendrijke as the model.  It is noteworthy that the same Wikipedia article quotes Rembrandt scholar Eric Sluijter as being skeptical that Rembrandt used his own partner for this portrait.  It is pure speculation, therefore, that Rembrandt intended to present Hendrijke as Bathsheba rather than either using her simply as a model or using some other model from a group of models that looked somewhat similar.  But let's go along with Danto and assume that Rembrandt was painting Hendrijke-as-Bathsheba.  Danto quotes Kenneth Clark saying that the modelling was "unflinching" and that her body was "seen with such love that it becomes beautiful," the assumption being that she (the image in the painting? the model?) is not beautiful apart from this.  Danto thinks that this could only be said truly of a work of art and that this tells us something therefore about the nature of art.(That's telling!)  He thinks that Rembrandt's unflinching portrayal must be due to "his deep humanity and his catholic compassion" (195) since the "signs of age and use in her body" are portrayed not in a humiliating way but as is.  Moreover, it is that woman who is shown as Bathsheba "a woman of beauty enough to tempt a king to murder...", the metaphor being a "plain dumpy Amsterdam woman as the apple of a king's eye" -- and this, says Danto, emphasis his own, "has to be an expression of love."  (195)  Danto stresses here the contrast with Cezanne's portrait of his wife in which nothing of her character or inner life is shown, just as his cardplayers are "like eggplants...devoid of any psychological interest." (196)  It is interesting at this juncture that Danto mentions Roger Fry, the great formalist (and therefore ancestor to Clement Greenberg, the mortal enemy of Danto's own contextualist theory), as seeing Cezanne to be the paradigm of artists because of this, and Rembrandt's painting as being "polluted by psychology," as Danto puts it.  It seems at this point that Danto is taking sides (with Rembrandt and against Cezanne) athough he insists (tellingly) that his "claim is [merely?] that these are simply differences in metaphors," Cezanne's painting being no less expressive than Rembrandt's.  He concludes from all of this (rather abruptly in my view) that "the concept of expression can be reduced to the concept of metaphor, when the way in which something is represented is taken in connection with the subject represented."  

What are we to make of this?  Can it really be true that he is not taking sides? Is not Rembrandt's portrayal of his wife something of a paradigm of something for Danto as opposed to Fry?  Is it more art, or perhaps greater art?  It is noteworthy that Cezanne's work is the ancestor of Warhol's Brillo Boxes where it seems that all expressiveness has disappeared (although Danto would deny it), and yet most would say that Brillo Boxes was Danto's own paradigm of art.  It is instructive that in the penultimate paragraph of the book, Danto argues that Brillo Box is art because it propounds the metaphor brillo-box-as-work-of-art, and this is the transfiguration of a commonplace object which, once it could be made, is such that "there was no reason to make it" - which makes Warhol engaged in pointless activity...(208). 

Is there another side to Danto, a Dr. Jekyl to Mr. Hyde?  (Remember our previous reference to Danto's characterizing Cezanne as monstrous.) Is Danto deconstructing himself a bit?  Note, on another but related point, that Danto's theory entirely erases the importance of the senses from the constitution and meaning of art.  For him, that two paintings look exactly the same to the sense of sight means nothing as to the meaning of each, or even as to whether one is art or one is not. (Of course, as I have said, this depends on the sense of sight being reduced to something totally denuded of meaning.) Danto insists that art must be embodied, but it does not really matter how it is embodied.  The body practically disappears.  Danto even disappears our own bodies when he says that "we are systems of representations" (204) and that his view is an expansion of Peirce's that man is the sum total of his language and that we are just signs (205)  And yet the other side of Danto takes up a portrait of a woman whose body is object of concentrated sensuous apprehension, and which portrait shows her as seen through a deep and compassionate love.  Could it be that Rembrandt in looking at his partner saw her with a certain aura, the aura that compassionate love gives, and then was able to capture that in his painting?  But that would mean that a non-art object, a "mere thing" in Danto's language, was not a mere thing at all, but rather something rich in meaning.  Could it even be said that Rembrandt saw something aesthetically powerful in looking at his partner while painting her, that he was able to see her as Bathsheba, and hence that the aesthetic predicates of art are applicable to non-art things too under some circumstances?  Could it be that the commonplace can be transfigured in perception and not just in being represented in art?  Is there perhaps no strong cut-off point between what the artist sees as he paints and what he paints as he looks?  For Danto, sensation is denuded, stripped of all of its imaginative and cognitive power, something merely passive.  But that can't be!  Perhaps Danto's interpretation of the way Lichtenstein's interpretation of the way Cezanne saw his wife is Danto's own nightmare of what art becomes when sensation is stripped of emotional power and aesthetic presence per his own theory. 

When Danto comes to discuss style he sees is as a matter of the relationship between the representation and the person who makes the representation and notes that, as with rhetoric, the representation does not "penetrate the content." He then recognizes that "only in an act of ruthless but necessary abstraction can we sunder style from substance" (198) which is so telling since ruthless abstraction is precisely what Cezanne, and even more, Lichtenstein has done.  Danto goes on to explain the difference between style and manner as being one in which the former is a gift, coming from a person's character, and a "basic action," but the later is by knowledge or art, except that, ironically, the first is characteristic of art and the second is not.  The distinction is fine.  But the problem is, going back to Goodman's example of Hiroshige, that one cannot tell which is the master and which has style when you are talking about two paintings that are indiscernible.  I am not talking about "nearly indiscernible" since there are monochrome paintings that are masterpieces of style and subtlety (for instance all-white paintings by Robert Ryman) as well as ones that are boring, trite, and mannered.  Near-indiscernability tells us much more about style than actual indiscernability.  The fact that a replication of a work of great style does not itself usually have style is because of the subtleties that the work of great art has that it does not. (This should be obvious, a touchstone fact without which we cannot do philosophy of art.)  If the replication is really good (as in a good digital image of a Rembrandt) it is just false that it does not have style and only shows style, as Danto would have it. (204)  Rather, it just operates as one way of seeing the original Rembrandt with the very style qualities that Rembrandt himself put into that work.  If the painting disappeared but the exact digital rendering of it did not we would not have lost Rembrandt's style.  It would still be possible to fall in love with the painting just as we can fall in love with Greek works of which we only have Roman copies.

Danto ends his book by saying that Brillo Box does what artworks have always done, externalize "a way of viewing the world, expressing the interior of a cultural period, offering itself as a mirror to catch the conscience of our kings."  The last comment is a reference to Shakespeare, whose Freud-like imitation theory Danto accepts while vigorously rejecting Plato's.  But again, if art does externalize a way of viewing a world then the way of viewing the world can trace aesthetic properties in the world.  (I have no problem with Danto's idea that there is both an outward and an inward side of personality and of cultural periods.)  The expression of the cultural period can already be there in the models portrayed and the way they are seen, which would mean, to use Heidegger's language, that the thingly nature of the thing and the equipmental nature of equipment is unconcealed when truth happens in the great work of art.  So, it turns out that they two philosophers are much closer than we previously thought, although only if the body and the aesthetics of the everyday are brought back along with the continuities between art and life that can be found in the creative process itself. 

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 32 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it from Broadview. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Danto's Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Chapter 7 "Metaphor, Expression, and Style."

What fascinates me about Danto these days is the relationship he sees between the aesthetics of art and the aesthetics of life.  Considering the way he has set it up, you would think that he would keep the two always separate.  But towards the end of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace there appear cracks in the wall, although the cracks can even be seen in the title.  Art, for Danto, does have something to do with commonplace things.  Its "transfigures" them.  So, how detached can it be from the everyday?  A lot hangs on this.  For example, if what Christopher Dowling has called "weak" Aesthetics of Everyday Life theory, which holds that the aesthetic predicates of art can be applied to everyday life (and with which I have been associated), is to hold, then something must be wrong with Danto's overall theory of a radical separation between art and life.  If Danto himself undercuts this radical separation in the last chapter of his own book then there is hope for weak AEL, or to put it more positively, for a unified aesthetic theory in which art and everyday life are dynamically interactive (the kind of thing I advocated in my book).

At the end of the sixth chapter Danto tells us that in the final chapter (chapter seven) he will engage in "intense analytical scrutiny" of the features that he began to stress in the sixth chapter, getting insight into the concepts of style and expression by way of studies in "the language of mind" whereby art is seen as externalizing consciousness or the artist's way of seeing.  The concluding comment of the sixth chapter surprisingly asserts that Canaletto's paintings of Venice capture Canaletto's way of seeing in such a way that they are "as magical as the city" and this because "they are the city, raised to self-consciousness, perhaps because the city itself was a work of art in its own right." (164) But if that is the case then expression is a matter not just for works of art but also for life, i.e. for the cities in which we live and the lives we live in those cities.  So much for the radical separation of art and mere things!  (It scarcely helps his theory of radical separation to turn cities, and later, persons, into works of art.) 

But, to play this out, we need to turn to his last chapter.  Here again, what is surprising to any reader of Danto who has spent much time on the first parts of his book is that in the last chapter he turns out to hold that works of art not only are about things but also express something about those things, that expression is a necessary condition for art.  He is not quite an expression theorist since he does not hold that expression is a sufficient condition, and he further understands the concept of expression in terms of its relation to style and rhetoric (by which he mainly means metaphor) which is a novel approach.  I think it interesting, however, that, whereas we commonly associate Danto with Warhol's Brillo Boxes, the set of paintings that play the central role in the last chapter of this, his philosophical masterpiece, consists of Rembrandt's paintings of his wife Saskia as flower goddess.  (There are several such paintings, one of which is at the Hermitage from 1634.  It is not clear which flower painting Danto was thinking of specifically.  This makes him somewhat like Heidegger who never makes clear which one of Van Gogh's paintings of shoes is at issue in his analysis of art.  As we shall see, he also shares with Heidegger an interest in what makes great art great and in how this is related to the quest for the essence of art.)  He uses the Saskia paintings to explain "metaphoric transfiguration" as distinct from "transformation" since the subject retains her identity in transfiguration:  we see both Saskia and Flora in the paintings, not just Flora.  Similarly when Napoleon is represented as a Roman emperor we have a metaphor, Napoleon as (is, metaphorically, a) Roman emperor, which is not just a representation of a Roman emperor with Napoleon as a model or simply of Napoleon wearing a toga.  All of this is supposed to show (Danto believes) why the differences between the Loran diagram of a Cezanne and the Lichtenstein painting that looks identical to it is not one of content. 

I keep feeling as I read this that Danto must mean something different than I do by "content" since I would generally see metaphorical seeing as a matter of content (i.e. the content of our perception), whereas he does not.  Why, I wonder, can't the difference between the picture of Napoleon as Roman emperor and a picture in which Napoleon is a model for a Roman emperor be a matter of content?  It must be that Danto thinks of content as having to be just whatever is literal, and that there is no such thing as metaphorical content.  This relates to the larger issue of what is meant by "seeing" where Danto tends to see seeing as a matter that excludes whatever we "see as," and I have trouble seeing it this way.

So, on Danto's view, Lichtenstein's painting takes or treats Cezanne's painting Portrait of Madame Cezanne (which is the subject of Lichtenstein's painting, according to Danto) as a diagram.  So the metaphor, spelled out, is "PMC is a diagram" (It is not clear, by the way, why it isn't "This diagram is PMC.")  Cezanne's portrait is "transfigured."  Of course, in this case, it is an art work that is transfigured and not, at least directly, something in everyday life.  However, we shall see that indirectly there is a transfiguration of Cezanne's wife, and hence more indirectly yet, the way women or more generally humans are seen, in all of this too. (This could all be seen as an instance of feminist critique of male perspectives exemplified by Cezanne but deconstructed by Lichtenstein.)

Now there is another theme in this which we have to keep track of, which is that, to put it crudely (but certainly in line with the idea of feminist critique of the male gaze), Danto favors Rembrandt's humane treatment of his wife over Cezanne's dehumanizing treatment of his.  This is important, and we can't lose sight of it.  So, our eyes are directed rhetorically by Lichtenstein to Cezanne's painting so that we see it as a diagram, and then we see something else, i.e. Cezanne "as seeing the world as a schematized structure."  As I said in my last post, it is a metaphor of a metaphor, and perhaps of a metaphor again. 

Important also in all of this is that in order to see the Lichtenstein as art we must not only have a concept of art and be able to see it in the way intended by the artist (required by Danto's other writings) but know something about the associations people in the 1960s had with diagrams so that the portrait can be infused with those.  Danto sums up the point:  "the artwork is constituted as a transfigurative representation rather than a representation tout court" and this is true, he believes, for all artworks.  Thus to grasp the artwork is to grasp the metaphor that is there, for example to see the women in Gainsborough's painting as transfigured into flowers, and also, through this, the painting is seen as "a metaphor on time and beauty." (172)  That is, for Danto, artworks are such as to make us see another metaphor on a philosophical level (much like Kant's notion of "aesthetical ideas"):  Gainsborough's painting as time (or again, time as Gainsborough's is not clear whether or not the metaphor goes both ways.)  It looks like the tranfiguration is metaphor contains within it usually (or always?) a philosophy of life, for example a feminist one in Lichtenstein's case (critiquing the male gaze).

Danto further writes: "the greatest metaphors of art I believe to be those in which the spectator identifies himself with the attributes of the represented character" (172) for example seeing oneself as Anna Karenina, or perhaps as Saskia.  In this case "the artwork becomes a metaphor for life and life is transformed." (172)  Fine, but that means that not only is Saskia transfigured but so too is the viewer and life itself.  The metaphor reads "the Saskia painting as life" or perhaps "life as the Saskia painting."  Further, Danto writes that "to see oneself as Anna is in some way to be Anna, and to see one's life as her life," not obviously in being a Russian woman but in possibly being "a victim of duty and passion" (173) (As Aristotle said, tragedy gives us knowledge in giving us what is probable or possible and in bringing us to catharsis over this).  So the wall between art and life that Danto tried so much to build up and make firm dissolves right here.  He goes one: "the experience of being taken out of oneself by virtually the enactment of a metaphoric transformation with oneself as subject:  you are what the work ultimately is about, a commonplace person transfigured into an amazing woman."  (173)  This sounds so much like Heidegger.  So much is packed into this it is hard to parse it out.  If transfiguring is also a matter of self-transcendence, of identification with (following Aristotle once again) something nobler than ourselves, or with someone amazing at least, then a lot more is happening here than one would suspect if one saw art as simply a class of things made art by some act within the context of the artworld or even as a matter or seeing something as art because one as art historical knowledge (a nice way to characterize Danto without taking into account the significance of these pages.) 

Danto worries in the next paragraph about the exalted nature of these reflections and then says that we must think about "what makes art an exalted activity" that is universally respected.  Great art for Danto is not exalted because it makes objects of beauty, but this is largely because he limits the concept of beauty to something more like what we mean by "pretty" and tries to keep it isolated from anything deep, unlike Plato, for example, who makes it the deepest thing of all.

No wonder that Danto finds it "intoxicating" to "ponder the masterpieces" after discussing "squares of bare canvas" so much in this book, even though one risks the danger of sounding portentous. (173)    

I plan to write one more blog entry in which I discuss the last part of Danto's last chapter.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Danto's "Works of Art and Mere Representations" the case of Loran and Lichtenstein

In "Works of Art and Mere Representations," the sixth chapter of his Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Danto seeks to distinguish between those very things found in the title.  The idea is to take two objects that are indistinguishable, one being a work of art and one being a mere representation, and discover how they are different:  this will give us another crucial part (the crucial part?) in Danto's definition of art.  That definition has sometimes been put forth, even by Danto himself, as a matter of aboutness plus embodied-ness.  But mere representations are both about something and embodied in something.  So the shorthand definition of art that Danto sometimes bandies about is not his considered position.  Actually, Danto as a philosopher is a real strip-tease artist who gradually, with many excruciating but delightful delays, reveals the true story only at the very end of his book, and there leaves us hanging anyway (somewhat like Socrates).  But towards the end of Transfiguration surprises do come fast and furious.  If we thought, for example, that Danto was someone who believed that if someone in the institutions of the artworld says it is art then it is art, we find here that we were sorely mistaken.  Actually, and here is the big surprise, Danto is an expression theorist of art (I am not, of course, the first to note this...any close reader of Transfiguration, will know that, at least.) 

Part of the fascination of this chapter is to be found in a debate Danto has with Nelson Goodman, a debate which it is not at all clear Danto wins.  Goodman, who never actually defined art, did come up with something which he called "symptoms of the aesthetic" (to be found in his Languages of Art). Central to these symptoms is something he calls "repleteness."  Repleteness is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for something to be art on Goodman's view:  let's just say that it is typical and very important.  Danto thinks he has a better idea than repleteness:  an idea that will do what repleteness did for Goodman, but better.  I am not so sure.  Consider the difference between a Hiroshige print of Mount Fujiyama and an electrocardiogram that, in Goodman's version has an indiscernible curve from the one in the Hiroshige that outlines the mountain.  The difference is that the curved line in the Hiroshige print has repleteness.  Danto's own example is a bit more interesting in that it is a graph that represents the gradients in the mountain slope, the content of the curves then being the same (if you can speak of the content of a Hiroshige line as being that!  but this is the question at issue, isn't it!)  Now, as I have mentioned, Goodman handles the difference between the graph and the artist's print in terms of repleteness:  in short, the stuff that counts in the print that makes no difference in the graph, e.g. thickness of line, color, size, and so forth.  This is the richness that gives Hiroshige's line style.  This way of talking is not available for Danto, for he can (and of course, does) imagine a modernist artist who got rid of all this stuff, calling it "hand and eye crap," gets rid of the dexterity and sensitivity that makes Hiroshige's work special.  Danto has no problem calling this person's work art, whereas Goodman would say it would at least be missing this very important symptom of the aesthetic, and so its arthood would at least be in question.  Goodman has just, on Danto's account, distinguished between two styles of drawing, one being mechanical and the other not, whereas Goodman no doubt thought that he had distinguished between drawing that had style and drawing that did not.  

Danto then turns to the case of Erle Loran and Roy Litchtenstein.  Loran had done a diagram that was supposed to capture the forces at work (or perhaps the eye of the spectator's movements) in Cezanne's painting of his wife.  Lichtenstein in 1963 then presented in his first Pop Art show a work called Portrait of Madam Cezanne which in fact looked exactly the same (except for some matters of size and materials) as the Loran.  Loran accused Lichtenstein of plagiarism, which Danto rightly thinks is ridiculous.  But Danto in trying to come up with a theory of the essence of art wants to say that what distinguishes the Lichtenstein from the Loran (which are both representations, both with the same content, let us say, for now) is that the Lichtenstein "uses the way the nonartwork presents its content to make a point about how that content is presented." (146)  so that works of art, unlike mere representations "use the means of representation in a way that is not exhaustively specified when one has exhaustively specified what is being represented." (148) In short, and put more clearly, "an artwork expresses something about its content."   Similarly, a nonfiction story that is art could, Danto argues, "use the form of a newspaper story to make a point" and in doing this would be art where the posited indistinguishable newspaper story would not be.  The difference between Danto and Goodman is that Lichtenstein does this (makes something that is art) as well as Hiroshige, or Cezanne for that matter, without having repleteness (or without the factors that go into repleteness playing any important role here.)  But to be fair to Goodman, he never saw repleteness as a necessary condition, and might well allow that Lichtenstein's piece was art if it had enough other symptoms of the aesthetic.  Danto's point, however, is that symptoms of the aesthetic can't do that job since aesthetics has nothing to do with whether or not something is art since aesthetics has to do with how things look and the Lichtenstein looks the same as the Loran which is not art.  A nice way to sum up the difference between Danto and Goodman is that for Danto "the medium is not the message, but the form in which the message is given" (146) which then becomes a stylistic device for the artist.  

I want to emphasize how important this example is for Danto's entire project.  He stresses that, in focusing on the way content is presented, he is "on the threshold of having our definition" (147) and he also says that he has tried to identify a property "to the appreciation of which I intend to devote the remainder of this book" (147).  

Normally we think of the way of presenting in terms of style in the sense that Hiroshige had style and the mechanical work that got rid of all that "hand-and-eye crap" did not.  But Danto thinks of the second as having style as well, even though indistinguishable from something that has no style at all because not a work of art.  Lichtenstein has style in that he "uses the diagrammatic idiom rhetorically" which is to say that he is using Loran's diagram as a metaphor for something else.  Danto takes it as a metaphor for the way in which Cezanne painted his wife:  "it is about the wife as it appeared to Cezanne as so many labeled areas, as so many arrows..." (149)  It is interesting here that this was not how Lichtenstein himself represented his meaning.  In public comments, he described what he was doing as a response to Loran, not to Cezanne.  See this fascinating discussion of Wikipedia, which includes the following:  "According to John Coplan's Roy Lichtenstein, the artist was fascinated by the drawings: 'isolating the woman out of the context of the painting seemed to Lichtenstein to be such an oversimplification of a complex issue as to be ironical in itself'; the oversimplification referred to was Loran's representing Cézanne's work with nothing more than black line."  But it is quite possible that Lichtenstein was also thinking about and commenting on Cézanne's style.  Danto even takes this off in a Freudian direction saying that it is interesting that Cezanne treated his wife like a Euclidean problem given his passionate and violent relationship with her and, he tellingly says, "if the source and focus of all this feeling should be reduced to a kind of formula, how much this must tell us of the final triumph of the artistic impulse in his soul, even if it entailed a certain dehumanizing transfiguration of the subject; as if the person were so many planes..." (143)  I want to dwell on this for a minute since just as Danto is engaged in a kind of Freudian deconstruction of Cezanne so too can we indulge in the deconstructive thought that Danto (or a part of him) is excited by art that dehumanizes in this way, which perhaps explains why he can never be satisfied with an essential aesthetic element in art.  (The last chapter, however, undercuts this too by showing that it is Rembrandt's sensitive picture of his lover that takes paradigmatic meaning here.  Danto could never erase the aesthetic from Rembrandt!)  So Danto thinks that Lichtenstein shows us in his work what sort of monster Cezanne has become (and what sort of monster, Cubism and maybe modernism itself in its dehumanizing tendencies?)  The relationships is complex here:  Lichtenstein's work expresses something about its content because of the connotations diagrams have in our culture (148) and, by way of this, expresses something about the way Cezanne was expressing something about his feelings about his wife.  So the diagram in Lichtenstein is a metaphor for a metaphor for a metaphor.  And this does seem to be rich, although there is a question whether it is rich enough to do the job that repleteness and aesthetic qualities generally usually do in art.  Another question also is whether metaphor insofar as it is a form of story-telling and has dramatic as well as rhetorical qualities is not itself also aesthetic, so that one could argue that Lichtenstein is replete anyway, just in a different way, a way in which the layerings of references takes the place of richness of rendering.  Danto suggests (although later rejects) the idea that these could be matters of second-order contents, of incorporation of self-reference.  He wants to say that the Loran and the Lichtenstein have the same content just because they look the same and are about Cezanne's painting, but after all they do not have the same content since content is not just a matter of how something looks.  Danto thinks this is a deep objection to this theory and hence devotes the last chapter to resolving it.  I will write more on this later. 

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. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A student comment on everyday aesthetics: the aesthetics of childbirth

My Introduction to Aesthetics students have always been an inspiration to me in thinking about everyday aesthetics.  I have asked them to comment on my book and will be commenting on some of their idea.   The first one is on the aesthetics of childbirth.

A student I will call S. raises issues about the beauty of childbirth.  Of course childbirth is not an everyday event but it does fall into the larger category I call the aesthetics of life.  The issue is how the beauty of childbirth can be incorporated into a Kantian aesthetic.  It cannot.  Certainly the mother cannot see the baby as beautiful from a disinterested perspective.  She cannot, unless she is in some way abnormal, detach herself from caring about the existence of this baby she considers so beautiful.  Nor can she see the beauty of the child in terms of dependent beauty:  the child is not beautiful in the way a race horse is when it comes close to the perfect example of a race horse (the kind of example Kant would use).  Sure, the notion of "perfection" might come up in the minds of some who perceive a newborn child (particularly one with no obvious imperfections, e.g. no missing parts.)  But this is not because of a comparison being made with some concept.  So it appears that the beauty of a child for its mother, or even for others who are concerned about the child's welfare, is not something that can be fit into Kant's aesthetics.  S. juxtaposes the way in which some see "the miracle of birth" against the way in which others merely see that baby as something that is cute, focusing only on surface prettiness.  This is a good distinction. These are two dramatically different ways of aesthetically appreciating the same child.  We naturally think of the first as more to be valued, although we do not therefore think that the cuteness response is of no value.  The first is associated with strong love, whereas the second is not.  

I know of one quite significant and excellently written article on this topic.  It appears in her article "The Sublimity of Gestating and Giving Birth: Toward a Feminist Conception of the Sublime in Sheila Lintott and Maureen Sander-Staud ed.  Philosophical Inquiries Into Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering: Maternal Subjects (Routledge, 2012): 237-250. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Altoon Sultan at "Some Walls" gallery in Oakland and the philosophy of shadows

Altoon Sultan, whose potholders as non-art were discussed in a previous post, has a current show at "Some Walls" gallery in Oakland.  You can go to this link and have a look at the work as well as at Chris Ashley's excellent commentary both in the press release and in the longer article.  Better yet, you can make an appointment with Chris to see the work itself if you are in the Bay Area between now and June 8, the close of the show.  My wife, Karen Haas, and I had a private showing.  Chris cares strongly about the art and is able to point out features one would never notice when just looking at images on the web.  This was also a good chance for us to explore the charming Glenview neighborhood in Oakland.  Here are some comments of my own about some of the works.

I love the painting "Blues."  The shadow is great in being both like and paradoxically unlike the thing shadowed.  I like the layers of space in this painting.  Every element is simple and carefully chosen. "Curves and Square" is another favorite of mine.  I like the way, again, that the shadow both reflects the shape of the thing shadowed and also does not in that it has a different shape of its own.  I think here of Plato and his comments on reflections and shadows:  how these are three removes from reality, as is also painting (and tragic plays...his real target).  However, I am not happy with his negative attitude about shadows since they seem to reveal more than he is willing to admit, and Sultan's paintings intimate this. Yes, they are illusions but they are also complements of reality, and perhaps undercut our belief in it in a certain way.  Shadows and images tell us about our ambiguous relation to reality, as do dreams (Freud's great insight).  Schopenhauer once said that a philosopher should be able to see the world as if it were a dream.  This is also probably true for shadows, to see the world as if it were shadows.  Shadows and reflections have different effects.  Reflections pretend to give us an exact duplicate of the surface appearance of a thing.  Shadows never do that.  They intimate and somewhat distort the object:  they turn it into shades of gray and erase much of its three-dimensionality.  In my book I talk about shadows on a sidewalk and how they seem to create another world.  Shadows also create an aura of their own.  There is more in these paintings than shadows, though.  The colors in these paintings are gorgeous and rich (they are in egg tempera on parchment, which gives an overall Medieval or Renaissance effect, the parchment adds to the color effect by providing a kind of inner luminescence not available in the regular canvas backing).  Sultan is very aware of what Heidegger in "The Origins of the Work of Art" calls the thingly nature of the things, and also of the thingly nature of the work of art.  

In another painting, "Blue and Yellow" the blue recedes behind the rest of the painting reminding me of something said by Hans Hoffman to his students along the lines of, as soon as you place a color on the canvas you make a space.  Although Sultan owes something to minimalist abstraction her version (or rather, her style) has a rich subtlety that is relatively rare in that tradition.  What is funny and interesting about this painting is that the title does not even mention the brown slash that dominates the left of the canvas field and no doubt represents a piece of metal, the blue lines perhaps shadows that belong to it. 

"Orange Rounds" is a complex painting that is much better seen in person.  Still, from the web image, we can see that this close-up of industrial machinery includes a detailed rendering of a ball-like object in shades of gray and black that provides a similar kind of mystery to the one I found in the black square in "Curves and Square."

I may update these notes later with further comments since there is much more to discuss, including Sultan's textile works, her potato prints, and her little boxes of parchment abstractions.  But you can get discussions of all of that in Ashley's articles, so I will leave it here for now.