Saturday, August 30, 2014

Does the object of art ever disappear? I don't think so.

This view has been argued by some philosophers, notably Arnold Berleant in his classic "The Historicity of Aesthetics"  which appeared in two parts in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Part 1  26:2 (1986) 101-111 and Part 2  26: 3 (1986) 195-203.  The discussion of the disappearing object appears in Part 2.  Berleant insists that there are three dogmas or axioms accepted by traditional aesthetics, dogmas which he intends to refute by way of showing that they have been refuted by contemporary art practice.  These are "that art consists primarily of objects, that art objects possess a special status, and that such objects must be regarded in a unique way."  (195) 

I do not think that any of these views have been generally held as dogmas, but I do think that Berleant has some interesting things to say about them.  My position, in short, is that (1) the first "dogma" is false, and yet the object has not, contra Berleant, disappeared, (2) the second is true and that Berleant's examples from avant garde art intended to refute it actually support the point, and that (3) the "unique way" of regard to which Berleant refers, the aesthetic attitude, is, contra Berleant, required for any aesthetic perception, not just perception of works of art, and (4) that this way is misconceived when seen as simply a matter of attending to a thing in a passive way.  The aesthetic attitude, on my view, is an imaginative attitude which perceives objects as having aura. 

I would also, however, like to strongly affirm Berleant's idea of what he calls the "aesthetic field."  Berleant says that "art does not consist of objects but of situations in which experiences occur and that frequently but not invariably include identifiable objects." I agree with the idea of situations as being more primary than objects but would modify his claim in a small way to say that such experiences do invariably include objects, although the objects are not always easily identifiable. He goes on in his discussion of the aesthetic field to say "This situation is a unified field of interacting forces involving perceivers, objects or events, creative initiative, and performance or activation of some sort.  These four factors - appreciative, independent, creative, and performative ones - serve to delineate the constitutive components of an integrated and unified experience.  To single out any one of them as the locus of art, then, is to misrepresent the whole of the aesthetic field by a part."  (201)  

I think this is exactly right and also has not, unfortunately, been recognized as true or even as a valid option within contemporary aesthetics.  But he follows this with "Art objects are not necessarily different from other objects" which I have a bit more trouble with.  Art objects not only exist in their own worlds (artworlds) but also create their own worlds, worlds other than the world of ordinary life.  In this respect they are like the objects and practices of religion, and I suppose they are also like the objects and practices of politics, which also creates its own world, its own reality, relatively isolated from the rest of the world (although this point is subtler, and expressly not mentioned or even thought about by politicians themselves).  Van Gogh's painting of Arles presents us with an Arles other than the one we may walk in, although related to it.  So, I do not disagree with Berleant's claim that "aesthetic experience is ...a mode of experience that has connections with other modes of experiences, such as practical, social, religious experience, but which combines in a distrinctive and identifiable fashion." (201).

Now, for the dogmas of aesthetics.  Berleant holds that the object has often receded in importance as in Duchamp's "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors."  It is true that appreciating this work requires not only apprehending the object (which I have never seen....but in the photos it is endlessly fascinating) and in reading the author's written material surrounding the work (most notably the collection of notes called The Green Box published in 1934), including looking at the work in terms of its title, the most important piece of writing associated with it.  The importance of the title and other background information is nothing new in art, however.  And this does nothing to lessen the importance and centrality of the physical object:  titles and interpretations are meant to influence how we see the object.  The physical object in "The Bride" was important even to Duchamp since he used careful craftsmanship in making it and also found it interesting and valuable to leave the cracking the glass that happened by accident.  I cannot therefore accept that in Duchamp there is, as Berleant puts it, a "metamorphosis of the exhausted art object into the realm of meaning."  (197)  What is this "realm of meaning"?  Is it something like the realm of Platonic Forms separate in some way from material reality?   The object is not exhausted and replaced by meaning but is enhanced by meaning.

The myth that the object disappears has been encouraged by Conceptual art.  Conceptual art certainly plays with the concept of the art object disappearing.  Yet the object never does disappear, even in Conceptual art.  (You cannot make something true simply by saying it!)  To be sure, the object of art is placed differently in Conceptual Art, and we look at it in a different way.  Sol Lewitt's "Six Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty-five Lines" is mentioned by Berleant as an example of a disappearing object, something that "devolves into trivial gestures."  Yet it is something to look at, and I wonder whether it is even respectful of the work to refer to the lines as "trivial gestures" that reverse evolution in some way.  The appropriate way to look at Lewitt's work, by the way, is, as I argued in the last post, disinterested contemplation.   More interesting are works like Richard Fleishner's "Sited Works."  But all one has to do is look at the images that come up with a google search of Richard Fleishner and one sees that his work is not about the disappearance of the object.  Berleant describes a work by Fleishner which involves photographs of striking objects placed on various sites in which the viewer is supposed to "reconstruct their presence imaginatively."  Surely here, he would say, the object has disappeared.  I cannot find any other references to this work but I assume that, like other conceptual pieces, this one involves a written text.  We look at the text and then imagine something.  Yet there is still an object:  the text and the thing imagined.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Is it Disinterestedness OR Engagement? Short answer No

Arnold Berleant is one of my heroes.  His contribution to aesthetics has been amazing.  In rereading the first two chapters of his Art and Engagement (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1991) I re-encounter a brilliant mind addressing aesthetics from a new perspective strongly informed not only by the spirit of John Dewey and such phenomenologists as Merleau-Ponty, but also by a keen interest in, and excitement about, movements in contemporary and avant-garde art, particularly those of the 1960s and 70s when artists in all the arts were constantly testing boundaries.  Berleant's main point in this book was to counter what he called "traditional aesthetics."  (He has continued to write books in aesthetics and, since his position on most issues has not changed significantly, I will henceforth speak of these views in the present tense.)  Unfortunately his notion of "traditional aesthetics" is something of a caricature since it essentializes something (aesthetic theory) that has evolved constantly over centuries.  Indeed, his own version of aesthetics is just another iteration of that long tradition.  When someone uses a term like "traditional aesthetics" it seems to be just a stand-in for the aesthetic theory he/she doesn't like and that he/she thinks that most of his/her elders, or perhaps most everyone in the field, holds to.  (Caricature is not necessarily a bad thing, and it serves an important rhetorical purpose in Berleant's intervention.  But one should also be able to step back from such things.)  What he means by "traditional aesthetics" seems to mean mainly the aspects of Kant's thought which were most strongly advocated during his, Berleant's, youth and early career.  "Traditional aesthetics" mainly refers to belief that the aesthetic perceiver should be disinterested or  distanced.  On this view, the perceiver should, in observing art and other aesthetic objects, take the aesthetic attitude.   The object itself should be seen as autonomous or in isolation from the rest of life; in particular, from practical matters.  Berleant's alternative is what he refers to as an aesthetics of engagement.  Again, I think that his intervention was brilliant.  It served to cast a bright light on the importance of engagement at all levels, breaking boundaries, and continuities between art and life.  

However, I prefer to see the confrontation between Berleant and "traditional aesthetics" as a moment in the dialectical history of aesthetics calling for, as such moments always do, a new synthesis.  Berleant's working assumption is that there is a very clear choice:  either aesthetics based on disinterestedness or aesthetics based on engagement.  I say, why not both?  Granting most of what Berleant says about the value of engagement, and even most of what he says about the value of various avant-garde productions, something should also be said, at this point in the debate, about the moment of distancing in the process of creating and appreciating art, nature and everyday life.  In short, Berleant has thrown out the baby with the bathwater.  (Too extend the metaphor:  wash the dirt off of the concept of disinterestedness and you find something worth keeping.) He thinks that the older ideas are "refuted" and "obsolete," and yet, in philosophy old ideas are never wholly refuted and never wholly become obsolete.

Berleant is of course right in attacking certain aspects of Kant's notion of disinterestedness.  Kant thought that the experience of beauty should be separated from sensory pleasure and even from ordinary emotions.  I just do not see how this can be done.  If I experience a flower as beautiful my experience of the color and smell of the flower is as important as the abstract design:  the design cannot be separated from the color since every shape and line is a colored shape or line.  So I agree with Berleant, against Kant, that the aesthetic experience is grounded in somatic activity.   At the same time experience of a thing as sensuously beautiful is enhanced through contemplation (another term that meets Berleant's disapproval).  In the process of appreciation, one inevitably isolates the object of aesthetic appreciation, whether it be a physical thing, an event, a situation, an experience or a thought.  This is not to say that the moment of distanced appreciation is the only moment in any aesthetic experience.  One can, and should, toggle back and forth, for example, between a disinterested or distanced appreciation and one that pulls in surrounding contextual considerations.  As shown by Peggy Brand and Ted Gracyk in various writings, there are advantages to look at a painting or listening to a piece of music without knowing or thinking about its context of origin, but just focusing on what is present, as long as one is also open to enriching that experience through another moment, one that allows bringing in these contextual considerations.  

Berleant's either/or approach is exemplified in the following quote:  "In the effort to keep them distinct from other activities and objects in human culture, our aesthetic encounters are usually channeled along a carefully paved course through official cultural institutions - galleries, museums, concert halls, theaters."  This is true.  But it is not a bad thing.  Lovers of the arts gain most of their best experiences in such places.  However, this true sentence is followed by another which it is supposed to imply: "Such confinement not only often restricts the force of the arts; it conspires to erect obstructions that inhibit our openness to artistic modes that do not conform to those requirements."  This is a mysterious inference.  That "usually channeled" implies "confinement" or a set of "requirements" is doubtful.   Even though many have thought that the existence of galleries and museums (with their respective gate-keepers) restricts non-gallery, non-museum art in some way, it is not at all clear that it does.  Graffiti artists, for example, are not kept down due to the existence of galleries in Chelsea.  Sometimes they are even offered shows in such galleries.  Berleant implies that "traditional aesthetics" only considers art that is accepted into such institutions as "acceptable."  But if traditional aesthetics is the aesthetic theory that stresses disinterestedness and contemplation there is nothing to keep appreciators of graffiti art to disinterestedly contemplate such art as a moment in their experience.  I am all with Berleant in opening up the range of legitimate aesthetic experience even to include things commonly considered to be kitsch.  I love St. Thomas More Church in San Francisco, which has gardens surrounding it filled with cute and humorous decorative statuary.  This is out of museum and gallery art and it no doubt has a religious purpose.  Nonetheless, one can bracket that purpose and just enjoy the playfulness and humor of it, i.e. in a disinterested fashion.  

Earlier I said that "traditional aesthetics" is something of a caricature in Berleant's work.  As an instance, he says that "Traditional aesthetics is uncomfortable with sharply new materials such as plastics, electronic sounds, and found words and objects." (18)  It is not only caricatured but turned into a person who can have feelings of comfort or discomfort.  It may be that Berleant is confusing traditional aesthetics with traditionalists in the arts in the mid 20th century.  Art traditionalists were indeed uncomfortable with these materials.  Traditional aesthetics, however, says nothing about materials and has no feelings about anything. 

In short, we cannot really have a meaningful discussion about "traditional aesthetics" unless the term is tied down to mean something specific.  If it simply means the predominant non-Deweyan non-phenomenological aesthetic theories of the mid-20th century, perhaps associated with such writers as Jerome Stolnitz (one of Berleant's opponents) then we at least know what we are talking about.  But I can't recall Stolnitz having a special problem with new materials based on his advocacy of disinterestedness.  Perhaps he did, but if you are disinterested, materials should not even matter.  Berleant thinks that traditional aesthetics has trouble "accounting for artist developments such as process art, where the product is secondary to the activity of producing it, and in explaining artistic activities that have purely ephemeral objects or no identifiable objects at all." (19)  I agree that an aesthetic theory that has problems accounting for these things is problematic.  However there is no reason why process art or the activity that produces it cannot be contemplated in a disinterested fashion.  Even conceptual art in which there is no identifiable object beyond a written statement that calls on us to do or imagine doing something is open to aesthetic appreciation from a disinterested standpoint.  Indeed, one has to isolate this object of appreciation in conceptual art from the practical perspective that would instantly reject it --- one has to do this in order to even get started on aesthetically appreciating it.  

Again, Berleant insists that with the rejection of traditional aesthetics "aesthetic experience ...becomes rather an emphasis on intrinsic qualities and lived experience than a shift in attitude."  (26)  I wonder how one focuses on intrinsic qualities or even takes certain qualities as intrinsic without bracketing the object and experiencing it as relatively isolated, i.e. by taking a special attitude towards the object.  The special attitude constitutes the intrinsic qualities as intrinsic.  Berleant's reference to "lived experience" is to the idea that "one need not dissociate oneself from practice and use in order to take something on its own terms, as disinterestedness would have us do."  (26)  In a way, I agree:  there is no absolute "on its own terms."  As a consequence, taking something "on its own terms" is situational and relative:  we treat things as if they had terms of their own.  Disinterestedness requires bracketing:  however, interestingly, this bracketing (taking certain relations as irrelevant...backgrounding them) involves drawing lines that can be drawn at different points, even so as to include practice and use in some of their dimensions.  One can focus on the practice of flute-playing in appreciating a flute performance while bracketing out the practice of concert production, the practice of arts financing, and the practice of bourgeois self-legitimation, all of which have all sorts of ties to any particular performance.  One can, similarly, have a disinterested appreciation of a church without bracketing out its usefulness as a church, but still bracketing out one's own views about religion.  Maybe this should be called "relatively disinterested" perception as opposed to absolute disinterested perception:  but, then, absolute disinterested perception would be impossible anyway. 

Nietzsche saw art as a duality involving both Apollonian (read "disinterested") and Dionysian (read "engaged") aspects.  In his eagerness to stress the Dionysian, Berleant forgets the importance of the Apollonian dream-world.  Berleant makes his allegiance to a one-sided Dionysian approach explicit when he refers positively to "Dionysian acstasy, which the contemplative tradition from classical times on has always viewed with suspicion and hostility."  His Dionysianism leads to talk positively about mysticism and an "inexpressible merging of person and place, of human and the universe."  Nietzsche himself, unlike Berleant, saw this merging as an illusion every bit as much as the illusion of the Apollonian dream-world.  What is certain is that we often feel as if one with the object of appreciation, or as Berleant observes, with the people we love.  This fictional experience is immensely important to the arts.  When Berleant speaks of "an essential reciprocity [which] binds object and appreciator as they act on and respond to each other through an invisible interplay of forces" (43) I can only agree -- if we can throw "as if" in there somewhere.  This also goes for  when he says "aesthetic engagement...joins perceiver and object into a perceptual unity."  (46)   At the same time, the Apollonian gives us the stage on which this occurs.

Berleant makes much of how contemporary theater in the round merges audience and actors.  Audience and actors are merged in the Dionysian experience, but as Nietzsche has shown in his analysis of the origins of tragedy, the distancing of what happens on stage is inevitable.  Experiences of theater "in the round" are not be notably different from traditional theater.  The audience is still contemplating another realm, a dream world created for us on which stage the Dionysian illusion of redemption and rebirth is performed.  And this is where I think Berleant makes another mistake:  he thinks that the detachment of a separate world is unique to the enlightenment era whereas it goes back in human history as far as ritual goes.  Art is an extension and development of primitive ritual:  tribal societies usually have places, people and things that are somehow detached from our world, that one could call distanced.  When you enter into ritual you must take a special attitude.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Plato Book II of The Republic On Censorship

Books II and III of the Republic are notoriously difficult to teach.  It seems like it is mainly Plato complaining about Homer and Hesiod, coupled with some very strict views on censorship in the ideal State.  Socrates does not seem very attractive in these sections.  The issue in Book II is the education of the guardians, an inquiry that is supposed to shed light on the larger question of how "justice and injustice grow up in States," which can be roughly translated into a concern for how to make a state (such as Athens) more just.  So the question is whether educational reform that specifically involves greater censorship can make a people or a society more just.  As an American and a political liberal I am not keen on censorship and I am particularly not sympathetic to Plato on this issue.  Of course Plato does make a couple sensible (or at least defensible) points about selection of literature for children.  When dealing with fictional literature he insists that we should not carelessly allow children to "hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons."  This is at least a point that can be defended in a contemporary context.  An interesting recent case is that of Tomi Ungerer, whose children's books were widely censored in the 1970s largely because, as an illustrator, he had another body of work that was pornographic.  Although his children's books contained no pornography they often depicted a scary aspect of life.  For instance, in one, robbers are shown with a blood-red ax and frightened children in one corner.  In an article I wrote many years ago (“Aesthetics and Children’s Picture Books,” Journal of Aesthetic Education  36:4 (2002): 43-54) I defended a more liberal approach to children's illustrated books than is commonly advocated.  So I would disagree with Plato to some extent.  But, at the same time, it is hard to argue against the idea that parents and teachers should select children's books partly in order to teach moral lessons.   Still, that is not the same issue, as one can chose works to teach moral lessons that others would reject for moral reasons.  I would probably select Ungerer's books because they encourage children to deal with their fears and to think for themselves.  Others may not value these books because they value these character traits less than I do. 

More shocking, Plato moves on to attack the great classics of his time, in particular Homer and Hesiod. He attacks them for telling lies.  It turns out that a lie is a story about God, a god or a hero that makes either out to be somewhat less than perfect.  So, proper theology trumps good story-telling.  In effect the premise that a god is, by definition, perfect determines the rest of Socrates' argument.  So Uranus cannot do to Cronos what he did in Hesiod's tales, and so too Cronos to Uranus.  If the story must be told, it can only be told to a select few, and even these must sacrifice a huge and unprocurable pig before doing so.  The principle is that a child or even a young men should never be able to use a story from mythology to justify an action like chastising his own father.  Also, stories about the gods quarreling cannot be repeated, since you do not want to encourage quarreling among citizens (and, again, the gods are perfect, so Homer must lie about their quarrels).  To say that the stories have allegorical meaning is not helpful, Socrates argues, since young persons are not good at judging whether or not something is allegorical or how it should be interpreted if it is.  Socrates goes so far as to claim that since the gods are good they cannot be the cause of anything evil, and so any poetic statement that implies that gods (or God) dispenses evil things as well as good things must be wrong.  He even argues from this that God could not be the author of all things, but only of those things that are good.  Nor can God be seen as being the author of the misery of those whom he punishes.  Rather, we should see those who have been punished by God as benefiting from that.  Really, I find all of this insufferable.  To add to this, the gods cannot be represented as changing their shapes or appearing as mortals.  If you are perfect you cannot change since any change would be for the worse.  More interesting, the gods cannot even deceive us into thinking that they appear in human form, since "no one is willingly deceived in that which  is the truest and highest part of himself, or about the truest and highest matters."  If God deceived us about the highest reality then this would be harmful to us, wicked, and therefore impossible for God.  This would be a "true lie" since it would entail "ignorance in the soul" of the person deceived.  A true lie is far worse than a mere "lie in words" which itself is a mere imitation of the true lie.  The notion of a "true lie" is interesting with respect to Plato's metaphysics, since elsewhere he does not allow for negative Forms (for example in Parmenides) but now he seems to be talking about the Form of the lie.

The upshot of all of this is that God is "perfectly simple and true both in word and deed;  he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision" and if Homer or anyone portrays God or the gods as doing any of these things then they should be censored.  I suppose one could admire Plato's desire to clean up theology by making it more logical, and then tying this to making the State more rational and thus better for the citizens.  But none of this appears to be enough of an argument for censorship at the level Plato recommends. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Some Student Definitions of Beauty

I have long thought that there is much of value in even the beginner's attempt to answer one of the great philosophical definitions.  Remember that Plato would often begin his dialogues not with a definition offered by Socrates but one offered by someone who is philosophically naive.  True, such definitions are always shot down -  but they do provide Socrates with a starting off point.  I am more positive about student definitions, seeing them as perhaps glimpsing part of the truth.   I usually have my students try to define beauty on the first day of class, and I usually find some food for thought in their definitions.  Here are some examples.  How these may actually stimulate thought or capture part of the truth about beauty is not always clear to me, but many at least rise to the level "interesting, although I do not know why."

Student A says that beauty is "what makes you learn something new about yourself.  It enlightens and inspires you to achieve the seemingly impossible."  Although this is not really a definition but rather a possible feature or characteristic of beauty, it is interesting that A believes beauty involves both learning about oneself and motivation for great personal achievement.  Has this connection been ignored by contemporary aesthetics?  B defines beauty as "finding comfort, lust, and a sense of what life is all about in a specific person, place, or thing."  So beauty for B is an activity, not just an attribute, and one that has meaning content, which is "what life is all about."  C says that it is "something that catches your attention and possibly mesmerizes you with its appearance or what it consists of.  [It] can either be an object, a person, a thought, or concept."  I have long thought that beauty has a component which goes beyond merely catching one's attention to something like being "mesmerizing."  D thinks beauty is "any positive emotion or feeling that benefits humanity on a large or small scale and leads to personal growth and love."  The idea of connecting beauty not only with the good but with the good of humanity is relatively unique, but interesting.  That its perception leads to "personal growth" is similar to what we find in Plato's Phaedrus.  E  says "beauty is something that is pleasing to a person's tastes or senses - sight, smell, sound.  It can involve things that are familiar or comforting to that particular person, e.g. "that girl looks like my mom; she's so beautiful"  The first part of this definition is not unusual, although we do not often say that a smell (or a taste) is beautiful.  The second part is obviously true, although the explication leads us to think that it might mean that beauty ties in to something very intimate and already experienced, like the beauty of one's mom....that it has a built-in memory component (often associated with nostalgia)...a kind of recollection as Plato would put it.  F says it is "one's perception of an ideal object, moment, sound, action, or art."  Beauty is often defined in terms of an ideal perceived. 

It is interesting that most of the classic definitions of beauty show up in a college classroom on the first day of class.  Often the definitions are highly subject-oriented, seeing beauty in terms of subjective experience.  An example of this is G's "a word used to describe a moment or feeling when you appreciate or enjoy an experience or moment."  Others have both an objective and subjective dimension, for example H's "An object or experience that provides positive emotions and makes you appreciate the object or situation."

Students often associate beauty with happiness as in I's "Beauty is a perception from a person's point of view that makes them happy or feels good."  Definitions that feature pleasure are not as common as one would think, although we have J's "Beauty is specific sight, smell, or experience that makes you feel pleasure or type of positive emotion."  Other internal feelings associated with beauty are joy and contentment, as in K's "an outside stimuli that creates a feeling of joy or contentment." L mentions "makes you feel in awe."  Again, pleasure is often combined or modified in a way that makes it more personal as in M's "Beauty is anything that pleases any single one of your senses in a good or happy way." 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Plato's Apology from an Aesthetic Point of View

When read straight Plato's Apology is an ethical work and has nothing to do with aesthetics.  So to read it from an aesthetic point of view is to read it against the grain.  If you are a student coming across this post in an effort to understand Plato's great work, be forewarned: what I am about to say may be considered at best an example of creative interpretation, at worst, a distortion.  My question is, how can the practice of Socrates as described in the Apology be illuminated from the perspective of aesthetics of everyday life and how the aesthetics of everyday life can be illuminated by this text.

Let us begin with theology.  In earlier posts I have advocated something I have called aesthetic atheism.  Let's say, as a kind of hypothesis, that Plato's Socrates (that is, the Socrates that is portrayed in the Apology....whether or not this Socrates is consistent with the real Socrates, no one will ever know...I'll just use "Socrates" for short from now on) was nearly an aesthetic atheist and that his philosophy can be helpfully or interestingly interpreted in this way.  On the face of it, of course, Socrates claims to believe in God and even in the traditional gods worshiped in Athens.  He does so in opposition to those who are attacking him, charging him with atheism.  Meletus, the accuser with whom he engages in dialogue during the trial, definitely believes that he is an atheist.  Note however that Meletus believes that Socrates is an atheist of the sort that Anaxagoras might have been, i.e. someone who believes that science can better explain things like the sun. Anaxagoras believed the sun to be a large molten metal body and not the god Apollo with his chariot.  For this, Anaxagoras was charged with atheism.  (He was notably the most famous philosopher prior to Socrates to be charged with atheism in Athens.) Socrates claims that he has no interest in such matters.  He was more appropriately charged with introducing new gods (this was one of the formal charges, specifically "not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things" 24c) and that Meletus is contradicting himself when he says that he, Socrates, is an atheist and that he introduces new gods.  The point of course is that the new gods Socrates introduces really come down to his personal daemon, an internal spirit or voice which tells him when he is doing something wrong.  Socrates seems to identify this spirit with the oracle at Delphi which had said that Socrates was the wisest of all men and, which saying, Socrates interpreted to mean that he had an obligation to act as a gadfly constantly questioning men concerning their claims to wisdom or knowledge and showing them that they are not actually wise.  The oracle is supposed to represent Apollo, although Socrates simply refers to it as "the god."  One gets the feeling that Socrates, despite his protestations, only believes (at most!) in one god who is represented both by this oracle and by his personal daemon (a kind of inner voice that seems to manifest the will of that god.)  This of course does not make him an atheist.  However, note that Socrates has no trouble with the notion that he is introducing new "spiritual things" and, of course, a religious atheist of the sort I have called "aesthetic atheist" can feel comfortable with "spiritual things" without believing in any actual spirits.  It is ironic, and perhaps a bit disingenuous, that Socrates refutes Meletus with the sentence "if I believe in spiritual things I must inevitably believe in spirits." (27c) After all, one can believe in spiritual feelings, experiences, places and times without believing in spirits, and I suspect that that was the case with Socrates.  Moreover, there is no reason to believe that Meletus was as complete an idiot as he is portrayed:  Socrates was quite likely some sort of atheist.  His new god was no traditional religious god, and really no god at all.  But again, this unorthodox reading is easily refuted by the text...Socrates literally says he believes in, unless we take him to be outright lying, he is no atheist.  Still it is easy to see him as one.  Generations of students have interpreted the daemon as a form of personal conscience, even though this is a contrary to the text --- it is a easy and useful move to make.  And what, practically speaking, is living "in service to the god" for Socrates other than engaging in a certain practice, i.e. a life of questioning? 

One still might ask where aesthetics comes in here.  Note what happens as Socrates engages in his daily task of questioning.  The young men who follow him about (his audience) "take pleasure in hearing people questioned" (23c) and they often imitate him in questioning others, thus leading to the second charge against him of "corrupting the youth" although this charge is also based, presumably, on his teaching them to believe in new gods.  So the practice Socrates engages in and which is the source of all the trouble is one of shared pleasure.  Pleasure is downplayed in the Apology.  It is not the goal of the activity, but its presence cannot be denied.  Moreover, it is at the causal root of the problem at hand.  Pleasure, on my view, is core to aesthetics:  it is not an absolutely necessary condition for aesthetic experience, nor is it sufficient (as there are non-aesthetic pleasures), but the pleasures gained by Socrates' audience are similar to those gained by the audience of Greek comic plays.   So I find myself with the unconventional hypothesis that Socrates can be (usefully) seen as an atheist, but not of the modern exclusively science-centered sort, i.e. of the sort promoted by Richard Dawkins, but rather one that is also at the same time deeply religious.  I say this because he is replacing the gods with an inner daemon that, practically speaking, represents a way of life that is, at its core, aesthetic insofar as it involves performances, audiences, and pleasure.  (If you do not believe that Socrates is deeply opposed to traditional religion ready his Euthyphro.)

It can be immediately replied that the view I am expressing here would mae the practice of philosophy (which Socrates may have originated, or at least developed from earlier philosophers) a form of art, which, many would argue, is patently false, especially those who would see it as a handmaiden of science.  Socrates, however, would block the handmaiden of science move.  Further, in Book X of the Republic Socrates makes clear that what we consider arts are not arts at all and that a true art would be something that contributed to the good of society, for example what Solon accomplished through the Athenian constitution, so that, ironically, Socratic philosophy would probably be seen by him as an art although not of course in the sense of "fine art." Whether it involves aesthetic experience is, however, the point at issue here.

One way to see Socratic philosophy as an art is to recognize two points:  first, that it involves a form of education in which the object is to make the interlocutor (and perhaps the audience) more excellent or virtuous, and second, it is clearly not, for Socrates, a form of knowledge (and hence not a science or even a craft).  The Socratic artist is in fact much more like the inspired imitative artist discussed in the Ion than like a good craftsman.  So perhaps Socrates did believe that Socratic philosophical practice was an art in something closer to the sense of "fine art," and this is why he was so determined to destroy his competition in the same field, i.e. Greek Tragedy and Comedy.  There is no denying that Socrates believed that it was not only of the "greatest importance that our young men be as good as possible" (24e) but that the conventional ways of doing this based on imparting words of wisdom to the young (by the sophists, usually for a fee, or by the politicians through speeches, or by poets through their productions) was deeply wrong. 

Socrates aims to transform everyday life.  The "examined life," which is the only life worth living, is dialogical intercourse with other mean and women, intercourse that improves us by showing us that what we think to be wisdom (common sense and science-like knowledge) is not wisdom at all.  Wisdom, in fact, is whatever comes gradually (whatever happens) in a successful dialogical process.  

This might not apply well to the analogy of the horses.  One could argue that in his dialogue with Meletus Socrates is promoting the idea that men should be improved by the one kind of expert who knows how to improve men just as horses are improved by the one kind of expert who knows how to improve horses.  The problem is that Socrates consistently refutes the sophists' claim to be these experts, and denies having this expertise himself.   There are no experts in improving men in the way that there are of improving horses.  Improving men cannot be a science or a craft.  It can only be a poesis, i.e. an art based on inspiration.  The two competitors in this domain are Greek theater and Socratic dialogue.  Greek theater is not a practice of everyday life:  what is distinct about it is that it separates itself from everyday life.  Socratic dialogue however it something practiced every day by Socrates and his followers as a way of life.  It is not the presenting of a fictional world but an achievement of beauty (as described in the Symposium and the Phaedrus).  And so it is deeply aesthetic.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Can the aesthetics of art be reconciled with the aesthetics of nature? Yes, says Schelling!

What I am saying about Schelling and aesthetics I probably learned from Andrew Bowie, whose book Schelling and Modern European Philosophy I read earlier this summer.  This is a continuation of my last post on Schelling.

When Schelling says "For that wherein there is no Understanding cannot be the object of Understanding;  the Unknowing cannot be known" I take him to be saying that there is a continuity between the knower (humankind) and the known (nature) and a natural fit between the cognition-like structures of nature and human cognition itself.  (This fits quite well, by the way, with Alva Noe's theory of human consciousness as discussed in his book Out of Our Heads, Hill and Wang, 2009.)  So when Schelling speaks of finding science in Nature I suppose he means that we find structures in nature (laws, systems, etc.) which accord well with science and even act in a science-like way (experimentation, for example, happening in "lower" species.)  The distinction, for Schelling, is that in nature the conception is not distinct from the act.  This is why nature strives after regular shapes and geometric forms: "the sublimest arithmetic and geometry are innate in the stars, and unconsciously displayed by them in their motions."  (277)  Thus Schelling is willing to grant, unlike Descartes and many others since, that "living cognition appears in animals" even though they are "without reflection" i.e. do not think like humans.  Thus Schelling can speak of "the bird that, intoxicated with music, transcends itself in soul-like tones."  (277)  This would be a shocking claim to contemporary aestheticians of music (Jerrold Levinson denies that bird-song could be music, for example), and yet are we not unfair to birds to deny them musical intoxication or soul-like tones?  Others would call this anthropomorphism, but it is more likely that the sin is in the other direction, that scientists are too unwilling to attribute human-like emotions to "lower" animals. (It is noteworthy that there are now behavioral scientists who at last are questioning the assumption that animals are so unhuman-like, that they are incapable of anything like perception, feeling, cognition, emotion, bonding, social order, and so forth.)  Schelling, of course, still believes animals only have "single flashes of knowledge," whereas Man has "the full sun."

So it is this "formative science" (really, the unconscious orderings of nature itself) found both in nature and in art that Schelling believes connects idea and form, as also body and soul.  We have a dualism, but one in which the two factors are dynamically intertwined, much as in Spinoza. (Bowie correctly points out many points of divergence from Spinoza as well.) 

The next sentence, however, could have been written by Plato or Augustine (or even Hegel), and needs some explaining if we are not to reduce Schelling to the position of mere Platonism:  "Before everything stands an eternal idea, formed in the Infinite Understanding" followed by "but by what means does this idea pass into actuality and embodiment?"  The answer is "only through the creative science that is...necessarily connected with the Infinite Understanding."  If however, we set aside a traditional religious interpretation of this and read it against its Platonist meaning we can see it simply as an affirmation of a deep interconnection between the striving and self-organizing ordered and developmental processes of nature (literally striving in the case of organic nature) and the similar processes found in the creative activity of the artist.

Then how is the artist to excel?  "If that artist be called happy and praiseworthy before all to whom the gods have granted this creative spirit, then that work of art will appear excellent which shows to us, as an outline, this unadulterated energy of creation and activity of Nature." (278) What aesthetician today would connect the activity of art with the activity of nature, i.e. the creative process of the artist with that of both nature and everyday life?  Art and artist are excellent that show the creative activity and energy of nature (humankind included, of course.)

How is this art created?  In great art, conscious and unconscious activity are combined (Schelling was one of originators of the idea of the unconscious later developed by Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and so on).  "it is of the perfect unity and mutual interpenetration of the two that the highest in Art is born."  (178)  Works that lack this "seal of unconscious science" are lifeless.  By combining the two, art can give both clear understanding and "unfathomable reality," and with the second the work of art can resemble the work of nature.  This might be a path for reconciliation of the aesthetics of nature and the aesthetics of art (following the path, for example of Emerson and Thoreau.)



Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling on Art, 1807: Critic of 20th Century Art

"Plastic Art [painting and sculpture] ...stands as a uniting link between the soul and Nature, and can be apprehended only in the living center of both."  (275)  It does so by expressing spiritual thoughts.  This initial thought from "On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature" (found in What is Art? ed. Alexander Sesonske, New York, Oxford U. Press, 1965) indicates a break from Schelling's master, Kant, in that there is no deep division between the soul and nature.  (The translation is by Eliot Cabot and may be found here in part as well.  Google provides it for "free."  This edition is The German Classics:  Masterpieces of German Literature translated into English, Vol. 5.) He believes this relation is found in other arts too, for example poetry.  Both nature and art are productive forces and this is what unifies the arts.  Moreover, the original source of plastic art is nature.  So, for Shelling, as opposed to, for example,  contemporary writers like Dom Lopes, there is a coherence to the whole structure of art, and this is found in the relation between nature and art (made up of the various arts).

Further, when people say that art imitates nature, we need to consider which sense of "nature" is being used.  One sense is that: "Nature is nothing more than the lifeless aggregate of an indeterminable crowd of objects, or the space in which....[the proponent of this theory] imagines things placed."  Another person might see it vaguely as the soil of his nourishment.  But "to the inspired speaker alone [Nature is] the holy, ever creative original energy of the world, which generates and busily evolves all things out of itself." That's Schelling's position, and it seems generally right.   Of course, as atheists, we need not take the claims for this ground to be literally "holy" or even see a literal "creative original energy" acting in the world, although the latter correlates roughly with the idea of evolution (as long as evolution is conceived of in a way that allows for some directive elements....admittedly not a strictly Darwinian notion of evolution).  If art imitating nature means this Schelling believes it is highly significant.  

Schelling thinks it makes no sense to imitate a nature that is without life.  He rejects the notion of Nature as a "dumb," "life-less" image and the imitation of this in artistic materials.  Some philosophers of his time believed that, in imitating nature, only the beautiful and the prefect should be represented.  But this leaves open the question of how the imitator distinguishes the beautiful perfect parts from the others, the ones that should not be imitated.  Since it is actually easier to imitate the ugly it is tempting for the imitator not to be concerned with this.  

Schelling also argues against the notion of imitation of abstract form.  In this, we might regard him as a critic of Clive Bell's and Roger Fry's formalism before their time.  He says that regarding "in things not their principle, but the empty abstract form" we will find that the result will not say anything to our souls or hearts. (276)  But the perfection of a thing is "the creative life in it, its power to exist." So those who believe nature is dead cannot create beauty and truth through artistic imitation.  (Bell and Fry, of course, rejected the very idea of imitation.  But their formalism is not acceptable to Schelling.)

Schelling admired Winckleman for restoring the role of soul in art, raising it into the "realm of spiritual freedom":  "he taught that the production of ideal Nature, of Nature elevated above the Actual, together with the expression of spiritual conception, is the highest aim of Art."  However, people continued to see Nature itself as lifeless.  We can see that this move of Schelling's allies him with the American transcendentalists in the aesthetics of nature (not surprising since they were inspired by Coleridge, who was inspired by Schelling.)  Schelling prefers the idea of ideal forms of nature being animated by "positive insight into their nature." (276)  Seeing nature as lifeless led to replacing nature with "the sublime works of Antiquity" whose outward forms could be imitated in the classroom, but without their spirit.  They are only animated when we bring to them "the spiritual eye to penetrate through the veil and feel the stirring energy within." (276)  This seems like good advice to artists.  Another position taught "the secret of the soul, but not that of the body" missing the "vital mean" between these two extremes.  So, for Winckleman, on one side there was "beauty in idea" flowing from the soul, and on the other was "beauty of forms."  What connects the two?  "Or by what power is the soul created together with the body, at once and as if with one breath?"  (277)  How can forms be produced from the idea?  

At this point Schelling introduces a bit of metaphysics, the idea of Limit (the material and determined world) and Unlimited (the realm of freedom).  From this comes his criticism of Bell/Fry formalism.  (This is important since everyone believes that this formalism is destroyed by contextualism.  But if there is an alternative formalism which also destroys Bell/Fry formalism, then isn't there a possible competitor to contemporary contextualism....not saying it is false so much as incomplete?)  This is worth quoting at length:

Art after Winckleman went to a retrograde method since it strove "from the form to come to the essence."  "But not thus is the Unlimited reached; it is not attainable by mere enhancement of the Limited.  Hence, such works as have had their beginning in form, with all elaborateness on that side [consider much contemporary abstract art!] show, in token of their origin, an incurable want at the very point where we expect the consummate, the essential, the final.  The miracle by which the Limited should be raised to the Unlimited, the human become divine, is wanting; the magic circle is drawn...."  (277)   

Don't read "Unlimited" as God.  Read is rather as the moment of Freedom where the human becomes god-like.  This, for the aesthetic atheist (see my earlier posts on this), does all the work religion needs to do without the excessive metaphysics and authority-based dogmatic belief.   For this to work as a philosophy of life, the divine-like, the holy, the Unlimited, and freedom itself, can be a fiction, can be "ideal" in Kant's sense of not being real, but still absolutely necessary.   

Schelling puts the issue of the relation of the artist and nature in a compelling way.  He asks "How can we, as it were, spiritually melt this apparently rigid form [Nature as quiet and serious beauty], so that the pure energy of things may flow together with the force of our spirit and both become one united mold?"  Isn't that a good question for the artist?  Again, attacking the formalists before their time, he writes, "We must transcend Form, in order to gain it again as intelligible, living, and truly felt."  He continues:  "Consider the most beautiful forms;  what remains behind after you have abstracted from them the creative principle within?  Nothing but mere unessential qualities, such as extension and the relations of space."  Further, he asks,  "Does the fact that one portion of matter exists near another, and distinct from it, contribute anything to its inner essence? or does not not rather contribute nothing?"  Hans Hoffman, the abstract expressionist painter would deny that it contributes nothing.  Fine, but the question is worth asking.

I will end today with this passage, which I take to be profound, although difficult.  Take this not only as a criticism of formalism but even of surrealism and dadaism, i.e. a criticism of 20th century art or better, the philosophy behind a lot of it, a philosophy that denies essences but only because it sees them as eternal and unchanging, failing to recognize essences that are historically relative

"It is no mere contiguous existence, but the manner of it, that makes form;  and this can be determined only by a positive force, and subordinates the manifoldness of the parts to the unity of one idea - from the force that works in the crystal to the force which, comparable to a gentle magnetic current, gives to the particles of matter in the human form that position and arrangement among themselves, through which the idea, the essential unity and beauty, can become visible." (277)  

Is this to exclude a scientific world view?  Not at all:  "Not active principle, but as spirit and effective science, must the essence appear to us in the form, in order that we may truly apprehend it.  For all unity must be spiritual in nature and origin; and what is the aim of all investigation of Nature but to find science therein?  For that wherein there is not Understanding cannot be the object of Understanding; the Unknowing cannot be known..."  (277)