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.  

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