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.

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