Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Margolis vs. Danto: Margolis wins hands down, but I like to reread or rewrite Danto in my own way and perhaps Margolis wouldn't approve

In my view Joseph Margolis and Arthur Danto were the two greatest aestheticians of their generation, and frankly, in my life. Danto is widely recognized, Margolis less so.  But what Margolis lacks in fame he makes up for both in feistiness and plausibility. He is not as much fun to read as Danto, but in the end his position is much more sensible.  I have been reading his "Preparation for a Theory of Interpretation" which appears in the current issue of Contemporary Pragmatism (12, 20014, 11-37).  Danto specialized, one might say, in dazzling defenses of implausible theses:  the indiscernibility thesis, the rejection of deep interpretation, the idea that artist's interpretation constitutes the work of art, and the end of art thesis are examples.  All of this was situated within certain intuitions that he shared with Margolis in opposition to the previous generation:  for example, rejection of reductionist materialism and sympathy for Hegelian stories of historical dialectic.  In this essay however Margolis systematically takes after all of the above-mentioned questionable theses.  It is not an easy essay to read:  Margolis is seldom easy reading.  As a preliminary, here is the abstract:  "This paper points to a more viable theory of interpretation on the basis of opposing the missteps in Arthur Danto's theory. By noting the incongruities in Danto's theories of art and interpretation, a theory of interpretation emerges which unifies its varieties on the basis of the view of the human person as a culturally embodied and enlanguaged primate.  A feature notably absent from Danto's own account."  The abstract is ironic since little of what is mentioned discussed in any detail in the article!  But then, in reading the article and thinking about Margolis's many other writings, it is clear that he intends to support these theses, at least indirectly. The article is in reality, and more simply than the abstract indicates, a concentrated critique of Danto.   It only waives in the direction of Margolis's own emergentist view.  Start with the indiscernibility thesis.  Margolis is right:  Danto's key example of Warhol's Brillo Boxes just doesn't work, since these were never indiscernible from the originals. For one thing, they were made out of plywood.  Second, as Margolis notes, Warhol himself showed delight in the accidental variation of looks in the individual instances of Brillo Box which would be contrary to Danto's whole point that the aesthetic qualities of the work are irrelevant.

I cannot say that I disagree with anything Margolis says in this essay, and neither am I interested in summarizing his arguments.  I am interested in whether anything can be recovered from Danto after Margolis's onslaught.  So consider this quote from Danto:  "I shall think of interpretations as functions which transform material objects into works of art.  Interpretation is in effect the lever with which an object is lifted out of the real world and into the artworld, where it becomes vested in often unexpected raiment."  I agree that all of this is wrong, and I even, to be frank, feel a bit a Nietzschean disgust concerning the blatant Platonism implied here.  But I'll try to rewrite Danto in a way that is truer.  Here goes:  "I shall think of all of the things, including interpretations, that give things aura, that take them beyond the merely ordinary to something extraordinary.  This can happen with non-art objects, since all things can be seen in terms of sedimented as well as novel meaning.  But in art, this process is intensified.  Danto speaks of the 'artworld' and what I interpret this to mean (contrary to Danto himself) is that when something is seen imaginatively it seems as though it is carried out of this world into a world of its own, and that, in the case of art, this 'being carried out of and into' is something that is intensified deliberately, so that art, to use a Heideggerian sounding word, is a place of worlding, of creating worlds, for example the world of 'Starry Night' by Van Gogh.  So it is not that mere material objects are transformed into works of art (there are no mere material objects) but that artworks intensify what happens when material objects are perceived in terms of their aura of meaning/significance.  And when this happens, whether in everyday life or in the world of art, or more specifically, for example, in the concert hall listening to Handel's Messiah, there is an emergence of raiment (although not unexpected in the second place, since we paid big bucks to have that experience and are disappointed if it doesn't happen).  It should be born in mind that, contrary to Danto, interpretation is just one of many ways that intensification of significance which I call 'aura' can occur:  other ways include what Goodman calls exemplification, and also the other 'symptoms of the aesthetic' in his philosophy.  Danto's exclusion of the aesthetic from the process of constitution unduly narrows the richness of constitution of the aesthetic object, whether it be in the world of art or outside it, i.e. in nature or in everyday life."  That's my rewriting of Danto, and it is noteworthy that despite my near total agreement with Margolis I don't think that Margolis could assent to it.  So maybe I have escaped the embarrassment of agreeing too much with another philosopher, as though one did not have a mind of one's own.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Dunlevie, fashion, art and mystery.

Fashion and art.   They seem to move a bit more together every year.  The fashion-world oddly parallels the artworld, and also draws on it to heighten not only its legitimacy but also its charge.   Kathryn Dunlevie’s recent photographic collages are not fashion, they are art.  And yet they are fashion, in a fashion.  The collage elements are from everywhere, but always present is some element from fashion.  I used to do some collage myself and always wondered how to work with fashion magazines.  The images seemed to have too much fashion presence to serve any other purpose.  Dunlevie doesn’t let that worry her, and all for the best.  An individual piece of hers could even be a fashion shot, of a particularly surrealist or innovative sort, one strongly influenced by art.  Yet the fashion shots are just so much material for her art, an art that undercuts the ideology of fashion (“all is fantasy, all mystery is for the sake of glamour”) while still drawing on it ironically.

“Detectives of Fiction and Women of Mystery” is a series in which most of the titles have something to do with detectives, and most also have something to do with mysterious women.  Women who strut like models but are mysterious in more than one way.  Fashion, too, wants to make women mysterious, wants to glamorize the underworld of crime so as to enhance the storyline of the shoot, but there are other ways of mystery that art knows and fashion does not.  When talking about her art, Dunlevie brings up the mystery cults of the ancient world.  Her women may be goddesses or priestesses, or symbols of a world in which goddesses and priestesses really meant something, a world that seems sometimes to hover in the background, chidingly, behind our own.

For example, “Khidr” is a straight fashion shot at first, but then haunts us as the model’s reconstructed green hand disturbs the all-white right half of the work, her face masked by more green, as though she were the revenge of nature itself.  “Archimedes and the Disturbed Circles” appears at first sight to be just a statue of the ancient Greek scientist against a strange background, and then one discovers that he is a she, that his hair is her hair, purple hair, of some fashion model dressed in purple too, perhaps on a boat -- one goes back and forth as in one of those old psychology experiments with the picture that is both old and young woman.  “Inspector Saito’s Seaside Satori” draws the viewer’s attention most to the bright pink hand, the place, perhaps, for the concentration of the satori experience:  mystery in both senses of the word; as enlightenment and as mystery story.  Saito plays an electric guitar but faces a limpid abstract harbor scene where shaky reflected mast-lines seem to correspond to the energy of the hand about to strike a chord.  Similar mast-lines appear in “Terry McCaleb’s Dock,” but this time dripping like elements in an abstract expressionist painting over an aerial photograph of a road-laced seaside community, which gives me the shivers.

My current favorite is “Cinderella,” another goddess and mystery woman, for sure, but also a wild motorcycle girl with a Fragonard head.  This photomontage is packed with formal qualities taken from several seamlessly collaged photographs; the bright red fencing on the right balancing nicely the bright white barriers on the left; the scene is urban, but moment is wistful, romantic, with its character ready to escape.

Dunlevie is an avid mystery reader.  In “The Garden of Sergeant Carlos Tejada” the title refers to an obscure Spanish detective character:  but what we get is a world that is lush, tropical and infected by an invasion of abstract red riots of paisley-like designs, all bisected by a cactus and some fronds.  Almost-disturbing excess is the order of the day.  Dunlevie could easily be co opted by fashion, bought out, incorporated….I could see a spread in Vogue, where each montage introduced a spread:  fantasies for elegant women with a taste for the extravagant and edgy. Case in point: “Rescue” features a model whose head is obscured by a tangle of yellow garden hose.   Carrying chains, she is juxtaposed against a background of car headlights, book spines and other verticals.  Another case: “Ostara." Although covering the model’s face with plant matter leaves us the red lips, her handbag transformed into another chunk of tropical vegetal matter, as though she were on a journey into the jungle, half Amazonian native, half 5th Avenue. 

Some of the works are named after fashionable spots:  places to strut your stuff:  “Ipanema” features the model’s boots, and then a collaged-in languid scene, all topped by a very high neck supporting a head that is a perfect white flower:  a flower head that seems to challenge our human-centeredness.  Similarly, “Ibiza” is a place, and yet also the silhouette of a woman in high-heel shoes incongruously on a beach, with vague tan figures against a tower as her interior world, the squiggly shadow that she leaves in the sand balancing five lines of what could be soul-substance entering or escaping her heart.

I am taken by these flower ladies.  For example, in “Our lady of the Harbor” where the model in a fetching checkerboard outfit has lost her head to a lush red rose that blends perfectly with her halo of auburn hair, and she is holding a leaved branch in a way that makes me think of the followers of Dionysius, the maenads, and the Thyrsus, the Dionysian symbol.  The fashion-world wants women of mystery, but, using their images and transforming them, Dunlevie takes it to another symbolic level.  I can’t help but think that the harbor over which this mystery woman dominates was once an ancient town, perhaps like Rhodes, and she the colossus of Rhodes, this time female:  the angle of her body is the angle of a dancer on a Greek urn. 

“Marlowe’s Mistake” takes us to another place in the harbor where the collaged elements make up a lady who, although named after the great fictional detective from L.A., is once again our wistful Fragonard, this time grasping a phone, and facing an unexplained male shoulder.  The colors, lines, water abstractions, and vagueness of two shoed feet, increase the ominous intensity of the scene. Underwater is the theme of “The  Long Goodbye,” another Marlowe reference, where the model wanders through a forest that also features a fish, and yet the water above is probably a photo of water from above, the object that takes over her head like a 19th century mask worn by sea-divers.

Maybe all of this can be summed up by two of the works with which I will conclude.  “Siri Paiboun’s Bedroom” strikes one with its baroque ferocity, with taking everyday high-end commodities such as pillows and sheeting and placing them with decorative shell motifs in a lush world of green banana plants, so that the bedroom is more an anti-room.  “Escape from the Lab,” which features two creatures, one the model this time transformed into a kind of insect, the man behind her another alien insect whose head is geometrical paralleling the globe in the classroom setting on the left, a strange underground world where the red cross insignia on the bag signifies something 1940s.  Don’t we all want to escape from the lab, our postmodern world made up in equal parts of science and fantasy, and yet remember it too? 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Guest Post: "Kant's Subjectivism Questioned with Reference to Development of Taste in Food" by Christena Phouthong

Kant believed that “The judgement of taste is not a judgement of cognition, and is consequently not logical but aesthetical, by which we understand that whose determining ground can be no other than subjective.” (Stephen David Ross, Art and its Significance, p. 98) Kant’s idea of taste is based on subjective feelings regarding how the object is perceived. Although Kant may believe taste is not a judgement of cognition, I disagree. As I look back into my childhood, I feel that Kant’s ideology of taste is relatable to my life growing up in that, in the beginning, although my taste in foods was purely out of self-interest, it slowly started to change as my knowledge and understanding of certain foods began to flourish. In the end, although some areas of taste may be distinct, there is always a general perception based on cognition that dictates our opinions. 

As an Asian-American, who was the first generation to grow up in the U.S., my taste and appreciation of cultural foods has been constantly changing and has been heavily influenced by changing conditions of my life. At first, I was very open to eating dishes that were commonly found in my parent’s native home of Laos. It didn’t disturb me as a young child because I was so accustomed to eating them; I never deemed them as “unpalatable” or “strange.” But as I got older, I began to acquire a taste for American cuisine and lose taste for Laotian cuisine. I was especially fond of fast-food industry items including burgers, fries all filled with saturated fat, and soft drinks filled with sugar. From middle school through high school, I was easily influenced by my peers and this changed my perception of what foods tasted good. The Lao cuisine I was once accustomed to now seemed odd or unfamiliar. It was not until my college years that I started building my palette for a more diverse range of cultural foods and become more enthusiastic about embracing Southeast Asian food customs.

As I started my next chapter in life by continuing my education after high school graduation, I met many individuals who opened me up to the wide variety of foods this diverse State (California) has to offer.  My taste in foods grew exponentially from two cuisines to over seven, with Indian and Korean as my top two favorites.  It was a new opportunity for me to venture out of the norm and see or as I say “taste” things in a whole new light. As of now I don’t believe I would ever revert to my original perceptions of taste, but I can’t guarantee that various factors won’t come into play. Some factors I believe that change a person’s taste judgments are new experiences, or what I would like to call “opportunities,” that enlighten and provide a whole new outlook. For my generation, travel, having the money to spend, social media, and word of mouth can also be referred to as “opportunities.”

Today, social media has a huge influence on taste, not only in foods but other varieties of art – we will stay with food. Food’s sole purpose is to satisfy our hunger, but is now critiqued based on the components that entice the five senses. From Instagram, to Twitter, to blogs (online journals) and vlogs (video journals), social media platforms have created a huge cyber community of “foodies” that range from the mediocre to creditable professionals.

I guess you can say that Kant’s idea about taste being non-cognitive applies in my life but also is contradicted by it. I do believe a judgement of taste is a judgement of cognition. We as individuals grow to learn and develop taste as a form to define what is acceptable and not acceptable, and we do that based on what we come to know.

Christena Phouthong, Hospitality Management major, San Jose State University

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Guest Post: “The Darkest Color: Lament of the Images by Alfredo Jaar” by Roya Lillie

            Though traditionally art has been confined to the realm of paintings and statues, contemporary art has begun to move away from these restrictive forms. Experience-based art, art which seeks to simulate experiences or emotions through a more palpable medium of expression, has become increasingly popular because it forces the viewer to feel, regardless of his or her artistic background. When visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, I happened upon one such piece of art, Lament of the Images by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar. This art piece was unlike anything I’d ever experienced; after reading three texts, one about Bill Gate’s archiving of photographs in an abandoned quarry, one about Nelson Mandela’s near blindness from imprisonment within a limestone quarry, and one about the U.S.’s decision to purchase all satellite images after a bombing in Afghanistan (each of which was printed in illuminated white text on a black background), I walked through a winding black hallway which ended facing an bright white light that was the size of the entire gallery wall. While museums such as MoMA have devoted multiple floors to the exploration of this kind of contemporary art, many people are hesitant to classify exhibitions such as this as a legitimate form of art, so I will describe, analyze, and critique “Lament of the Images” to ascertain whether or not this unconventional piece is indeed worthy to be classified as “art.”
            Though unconventional, this piece of art produces strong reactions from its viewers, and my experience was no exception. When I turned the first corner, the brightness of this piece caused me to instinctually turn my head and body away from the light. Even though I had read a sign that cautioned viewers about the strength of the light, I did not anticipate the light to be quite so strong. After overcoming my initial shock, I was able to weakly gaze into the light, and I felt an overwhelming sadness; because the light overpowered me, I felt like I had been stripped of my humanity and any sense of relevance. I also felt a sense of unity with the three other people in the exhibit with me because we were all struggling to appreciate the piece. This exhibit continued to affect me after I left; as I wandered out of the winding black hallway and back into the heart of the museum, I had a dazed expression on my face and a heavy feeling in my heart. Though the piece absolutely has an intellectual component through the inclusion of posters, I was primarily affected by the emotions that the light instilled in me; however, these emotions would not have manifested themselves if the intellectual component, the three pieces of text, had not been present to stimulate certain thoughts.
It is the combination of these two features, emotion and intellect, that has earned Alfredo Jaar quite the reputation in the contemporary art community. Though he has previously created pieces that discuss genocide and the horrors of war, Lament of the Images plays with the viewer’s anticipation of art to reveal the ways in which the powerless are blinded by the actions of the powerful. He does this not only through his piece of art but by manipulating the viewer’s experience leading up to the viewing of the piece. Each of the selected texts serves a purpose; each highlights some aspect of blindness. In the case of the archival of photographs, people are blinded by their loss of knowledge, in the case of the South African limestone quarry, people are nearly blinded by the brightness of the rock, and in the case of the U.S.’s purchasing of images, people are blinded and put in the dark about the actualities of war. By connecting the element of blindness in these texts, it is easy to understand the function of the light within the culmination of the piece; it serves to literally blind the viewer and force them to recognize their plight and powerlessness. In an interview with Patricia Phillips, Jaar states, “I wanted to complete the piece by offering a final ‘blinding’ experience to the audience. So the next space offered a large illuminated screen that simply contained light without images, but a very powerful light that left the audience temporarily out of sight and shocked into blindness.”[1] Jaar’s creation of blindness is intended to reveal a harsh juxtaposition: though we as a society may have access to a seemingly infinite amount of images, we should be “suspicious and disillusioned about the uses and misuses of photography in the art world, the press, and the world of entertainment”[2] and realize that images to not reflect knowledge. In this piece, the complete lack of images represents the “inadequacy of the image to represent contemporary experience.”[3] Much like many mythological tales, Jaar wants the viewer to understand that though we can “see,” we are truly blind.
            Because it incorporates blindingly bright light and harsh contrast, this piece does not have the aesthetically pleasing qualities that are traditionally attributed to pieces of art. On the contrary, this piece is anything but aesthetically pleasing; it assaults the viewer by cloaking them in darkness and then incapacitating them with light. This sharp, harsh contrast is done not through intricate craftsmanship but rough construction, and this means that there are no fine details or nuances that suggest a significant investment of time or money on the part of the artist. It is not complex, like more traditional mediums, and it only consists of five recognizable parts: light, dark, and the three informative texts. It is this “barebones” composition and its poor aesthetic qualities that would cause some philosophers such as David Hume to question the quality of this “art.” Hume would argue that this piece is not something that falls into the realm of “good taste” because of its crude physical construction. For Hume, fine details and delicacies are what distinguish pieces of good art from bad, and because this piece consists of five large pieces, it lacks details “of a very tender and delicate nature.”[4] Hume further asserts that the presence of refined elements “is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments,”[5] and because this piece lacks refined elements, it cannot be considered “fine art.” Though Hume created his Standard of Taste to provide guidelines with which art should be judged, the ideal critic has a sense for fine details, and because this piece of art does not provide the critic with details to study and savor, this piece is simplistic and (possibly) crude; to say the least, it is not worthy of the title “work of art.”
            However, other philosophers argue that it is this simple, immense, and overwhelming harshness that makes this piece truly great. Because this piece features stark contrast on a grand scale, Burke would argue that viewing this piece is a sublime experience, one which could only be created by a true work of art. Because the light is present in an obscure and dark environment, the light takes control and shocks the viewer, and this makes it impossible for the viewer to attempt to fathom anything other than the art piece. Burke describes this sublime experience as a case where the “mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” [6] In this way, this piece is sublime because it creates a completely immersive and engaging experience by uniting the mind and body in contemplation of the art piece. Burke argues that this piece is also sublime because it instills feelings of delight and terror. Initially, the piece startles and instills terror, but after the viewers finds themselves able to stare into the light, they experience delight at such a profound and incredible light; however, it is the immensity of size of the light that maintains an element of “astonishment,”[7] a feature that can interpreted as an aspect of terror. Though the intellectual components of this piece are intriguing, it is the presence of the sublime through the inclusion of light that makes this piece “without comparison greater.”[8] Though the sublime is something often found in nature, the initial and resounding terror of the brightness of the light combined with the delight in the ability to stare at the light makes this piece truly a man-made sublime experience.
            Still other philosophers agree that this piece is “good art,” but disagree as to the reasoning explaining why it is “good.” Leo Tolstoy would argue that it is not the sublime necessarily that makes this piece of art good but rather the feelings that the piece intentionally instills. Tolstoy states that a piece can be considered art only if “the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt.”[9] This piece fulfills this requirement because, upon viewing it, I was filled with the same sense of powerlessness that Jaar felt as he witnessed the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.[10] Furthermore, Tolstoy states that this piece is art because it is the result of an activity where a person “consciously, by means of external signs, hands on to other feelings he has lived through.”[11] Again, because Jaar seeks to instill his own feelings in others, the piece is highly artistic. While the emotions that contributed to the creation of this piece clearly make this a work of art, the degree to which the emotions appear further clarifies the quality of the work. Tolstoy notes that though “the feelings with which the artist infects other may be most various,”[12] the degree of infectiousness, and therefore, the quality of the work, depends the most upon the “degree of sincerity in the artist,”[13] and it is Jaar’s earnest approach to spreading awareness through the emotions in his work that makes this piece sincere, and therefore, a high quality work of art.
This piece, though not physically complex, is incredibly emotionally powerful, and this is what distinguishes it as an excellent piece of art. The simplicity of this piece causes strong emotions in multiple formats, including the delight and terror of the sublime as well as sadness and nothingness that comes from erasure, and its ability to do so in such a minimal way suggests a great deal of skill on the part of the artist. Though this piece does not conform to traditional aesthetics, it is nonetheless effective in its ability to create a significant emotional experience. Furthermore, it is this untraditional approach that forces the viewer to engage with the work, something that traditional mediums are not able to do; it is absolutely possible to view the Mona Lisa and have an apathetic response, but it is impossible to walk through the dark hallways and view this piece without having either a physical or emotional reaction because this piece’s engaging properties “encourage people to take time, to stop, to read” [14] and have an immersive experience with art. Jaar notes that he “can’t force people to see, but [he] can provide conditions for people to slow down so that the work can engage them in a dialogue,”[15] and it is this dedication to increasing art appreciation within a culture that increasingly devalues art that makes this piece truly genius.
Though it is impossible to compare this piece with traditional mediums such as statues or paintings, this piece is significantly more powerful when compared to similar contemporary experience-based art found in MoMA because it alters the mood of the viewer for prolonged periods of time and seeks to engage the viewer in a much more profound and meaningful way. Though the piece does not manifest itself as physically complex, it is intellectually complex and multifaceted, and it encourages the mind to ponder the emotional significance of global issues.  In this way it makes fine art accessible and engaging for people of all ages; it reaches across socio-economic and racial barriers and forces its readers to engage regardless of their prior art education history.

Burke, Edmund. "The Sublime," in Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, 3rd. ed., ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 404-5.

Hume, David.  "Of the Standard of Taste," in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press,  1994), 78-94.

Phillips, Patricia C. “The aesthetics of witnessing: A conversation with Alfredo Jaar,” Art Journal 64.3 (2005): 6-27.

Tolstoy, Leo. “What is Art?,” in Art and Its Significance: an 
Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David
Ross (Albany:State University of New York Press, 1994), 178-181.

Walker, Sydney R. “Artmaking and the Sinthome.” Visual Arts
Research 36.2 (2010): 75-82.


Roya Lillie is an English major at San Jose State University, roya.lillie@sjsu.edu

[1] Patricia C. Phillips, “The aesthetics of witnessing: a conversation with Alfredo Jaar.” Art Journal 64.3 (2005): 21.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Sydney R. Walker, “Artmaking and the Sinthome.” Visual Arts Research 36.2 (2010): 76.
[4] David Hume. "Of the Standard of Taste," in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 81.
[5] Ibid., 84.
[6] Edmund Burke. "The Sublime," in Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, 3rd. ed., ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011), 404.
[7] Burke, op. cit., 405.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Leo Tolstoy, “What is Art?,” in Art and Its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen David Ross (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 179.
[10] Phillips, op. cit., 21.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 180.
[14] Phillips, op. cit., 21.
[15] Ibid.

Guest Post: “Yoong Bae at the Asian Art Museum” by Jennifer Huynh

For an assignment I went to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and looked at the works of an artist named Yoong Bae (1928–1992).  Bae was a Korean artist who was known for blending Korean artistic traditions with modern Western art while reflecting the calmness and harmony of someone at peace. The two artworks I was most interested by him were a painting called “Perseverance” and a silk screen print named “Meditation.” I thought that both of these works were rather unique and a bit dark. In “Perseverance” you can see that he used a lot of dark colors, mainly black and grey. There is a horse and people in this house. In the top part of the house, you can see a black figure that is supposed to represent a person and he is meditating inside of a box. There are also a variety of colors, kind of like a rainbow, coming out of the right side of the roof of the house.  In the lower part of the house, there are two people sitting on top of a horse. The person sitting in the front is holding a spear while the person behind is holding a huge leaf. Underneath the horse is someone meditating and there is a purple ghost-like figure that is hanging from the stomach of the horse upside down. Its head is facing the meditator who is sitting underneath the horse, looking as if it was going to kiss the meditator or suck their soul out. Finally, on the left side of the house is the word “perseverance” shown vertically. The other work of art, “Meditation,” (1991) is a silk screen print and it is a little more colorful than “Perseverance.” The background is orange with bits of red. In the bottom left corner is a black figure, most likely a person, meditating. Hovering over the person is a massive black bird with its head down and its beak almost touching the top of the person’s head. Interestingly, the bird takes up most of the space while the person is rather small and is put in this corner. Both of these works were part of a series Yoong Bae created called Meditation.   
            While looking at “Perseverance”, the first thing I noticed was the color. Dark colors, mostly black and grey, were used throughout the  painting except in the top right corner where there is a rainbow of colors coming out of the top right side of the home.  I would say that the painting  is more ugly than beautiful. The horse does not look like a regular horse. The body of the horse is very small compared to the front and its legs are really long. The figures representing people are all-black, some having shades of purple in them, and they have blue slits for eyes. To me, they looked like monsters or some kind of demon that was meant to scare or inflict harm. Upon first glance, I had felt a little terrified yet intrigued. As for “Meditation,” I thought this painting was beautiful. Again, the first thing I noticed was the color. It was a bit brighter than “Perseverance” seeing that the background was an orangish-goldish red color. Both the person and the bird are painted black but it does not seem as dark as the last painting. Being that the figures are black and the background is orangish-goldish red, they seem to complement one another.
            While looking at “Perseverance,” I thought that the person meditating in the top half of the home was the same person who was meditating in the lower part of the house, and the rainbow colors that were coming out represented him reaching some sort of enlightenment. I also thought that the purple ghost-like figure represented some sort of temptation or desire that wanted to prevent him from reaching enlightenment. In the description of the painting, it says that “The meditators and the horse riders are about to embark on their own spiritual journey. The iridescent lights and upside-down ghostly figure permeate the geometric house-like frame. On the left, the word “Perseverance” implies enduring hardships and the strenuous path to enlightenment.” This painting suggests that through self-accomplishment and the formation of artistic identity, you can achieve a path to enlightenment. It was a little hard to understand what was going on from the first glance but after looking at it for a couple more minutes; I began to understand what the painting was about or could have been about. As a work of art, I thought it was really good. I thought it was better than any similar works of art that I had experienced because this work  was unique and I actually enjoyed it. For an aesthetic experience, it wasn’t great but the painting had a really good meaning behind it. Emotions also had a somewhat big role in my experience of looking at this work because when I first looked at it, I had felt myself feeling a bit terrified yet awed at this painting that was quite different from what I usually saw such as portraits, landscapes, or things that were kitsch. After that initial feeling, I began to have feelings of curiosity, wanting to know as much as I can of the painting by analyzing it and reading the description.  The work of art taught me that in order to achieve in life, you must persevere through hardships and do what you can to reach your goal.
As I started to look at “Meditation” next, it was a whole lot easier to interpret what the painting was about. I thought that the person in the corner represents us humans and that, with our busy lives, sometimes we just have to relax. The person in the corner is meditating while the big, black bird that takes up most of the space in the painting represents all of the burdens or things in life that we see as important but are actually distractions. The big, black bird could also be something or someone that watches over us to make sure that we are safe. In the description of the work, it is said that “this strikingly powerful image evokes various interpretations and interesting questions such as is it a bird, a guardian figure, a divine being, or a symbolic creature that controls or world? Below the black figure, a man meditates, perhaps balancing resistance and submission.” I thought it was an excellent work of art. It gave me a good aesthetic experience, it was better than similar works I have experienced, and it was a valuable experience. Emotions also played a role for me while looking at this painting with feelings of curiosity, because I wanted to know why there was a big, black bird taking up most of the painting, and being able to relate to the meditator. How I interpreted the work of art was that while the man was meditating, you can see this big, black bird above him. I felt the bird represented our burdens and distractions in life. Since it was hovering over him and not actually touching him, it could not get to him because he was at peace while meditating. This painting taught me that sometimes in life, we have to take things easy and relax. An easy way to accomplish that would be to meditate.
Most of what I had just talked about with these works of art can relate to Edmund Burke’s ideas of the sublime. As I had explained in the beginning, the painting “Perseverance” left me feeling terrified yet awed. For Burke, there are two components of the sublime: delight and terror. I had felt terror from seeing mainly dark colors throughout the painting and the black figures that were represented as humans and yet looked nothing like humans and, to me, looked more like evil creatures. They even had blue slits for eyes. However, the awe I felt as well, which would be the delight aspect, was also from seeing these black figures as representation of humans. I’ve never really seen anyone portray humans in this way so I was fascinated. I found it to be interesting and weird to look at. According to Burke, there are also three aspects to his concept of the sublime. First, he suggests that sublimity evokes the infinite through obscurity, vagueness, and suggestion as opposed to clarity and precision[1]. This is true for both of the paintings because when you look at them, it’s up to you how you want to interpret them. There is not a clear cut answer. Second, he asserts that the sublimity lies not in its imagery but rather the emotions it evokes in the reader.. When looking at these two paintings, I felt myself feeling a variety of emotions and they felt real. Lastly, there is, according to Burke, always an element of pain, difficulty, and fear in the sublime aesthetic reaction.. This is true in this case as I had reacted with fear and difficulty upon seeing “Perseverance” for the first time.

[1] Lokke, Kari Elise. 1982.” The Role of Sublimity in the Development of Modernist Aesthetics.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 40 (4) (Summer): 421-9.

Iris Murdoch's revival of Plato's Aesthetics

An interesting oddity of Carolyn Korsmeyer's textbook Aesthetics: The Big Questions is that Iris Murdoch's "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concept" comes right after a selection from Plato's Republic II, III and X, which, although Murdoch considers herself a follower of Plato, is hardly mentioned in her selection.  However, this does give the Philosophy of Art teacher a chance to talk about views of Plato that are much more art-positive than those found in the above-mentioned selections.  The Murdoch selection is taken from a longer essay which itself is one of three essays in her book The Sovereignty of Good published in 1970.  One sees here why Murdoch decided to stop teaching philosophy even though she was a Fellow at Oxford from 1948-1963, a highly prestigious position. Her essay is very much an attack both on analytic and existentialist styles of philosophy.  I think she convinced herself she could do philosophy better as a novelist.    

Murdoch begins her discussion rather surprisingly with emphasis on the importance of metaphor (and images in general), not simply as decoration, but as contributing to the development of consciousness.  This is surprising because Plato does not mention metaphor positively and is generally negative about imagination, a closely related concept:  imagination exists at the lowest level in his epistemology, and such things as dream and shadows are at the lowest level of his metaphysics.  What interests Murdoch is that Plato uses metaphors, analogies and allegories as key points in his dialogues.   She shares with Stephen Pepper, who defended a similar view in his book World Hypotheses (although she shows no awareness of Pepper's work), the idea that the great philosophical systems play with such metaphors and images.  It is impossible to deal with philosophical concepts without using metaphors.  Indeed, metaphysical concepts themselves are deeply metaphorical.  I think this is essentially right and have argued so in “Metaphor and Metaphysics,” in Metaphor and Symbolic Activity (Special Issue on Metaphor and Philosophy) 10:3 (1995) 205-222, although at the time I wrote that paper I had not known or had forgotten that Murdoch had a similar position.  Of course, if you think that philosophy's business is to come up with science-like definitions of concepts then the idea that philosophical theories are essentially metaphors, often in disguise, is going to look misguided. Murdoch and I agree on this point.

Murdoch goes on to say that metaphors often have a "moral charge" which disappears if the analysis of such concepts reduces them to plainer language.  As mentioned earlier, she herself favors metaphors to be found in the writings of Plato.  However she then asserts two assumptions neither of which would have been shared by Plato, one that humans are naturally selfish and the other that there is no natural end for man (i.e. we humans have no purpose given to us by God or nature).  I do not think that man is any more naturally selfish than not, but I do agree with the second point, that we are, as she puts it "transient mortal creatures subject to necessity and chance"  - except that I wouldn't want that to exclude by that the possibility of our having free will.  So, in general Murdoch rejects the idea that there is a God in the traditional sense of the word. Along similar lines, she says that we are anxiety-ridden animals, which seems basically right, although this too needs qualification: there are certainly lots of days in which we are not particularly anxious, and anxiety seems absent in many children.

What is of particular interest in this essay is the way in which Murdoch posits Plato's idea of Beauty, mainly as presented in the Symposium, as an ideal that is both ethical and aesthetic.  What exactly is the relation between ethics and aesthetics?  Murdoch thinks that the path to morality is through unselfishness and that this, plus what she calls objectivity and realism, are connected with virtue.  Mainly she is interested in showing that something about the experience of beauty is more important than the kind of analysis of vocabulary that was typical of philosophy in her time. 

The idea of beauty comes in in a striking image.  She writes, "I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings...then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.  In the moment everything is altered.  The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared." An experience of beauty in nature can set things right between a person and the world.  The self dissolves and,  "there is nothing now but kestrel."   We can "give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care."  Here Murdoch is in deliberate opposition to Kant whom she takes to believe that experiences of beauty are occasions "for exalted self-feeling."  This is perhaps unfair to Kant, although it is true that he sees the experience of the sublime in this way.   

Kant aside, the question is whether taking delight in the beauty of flowers and animals has something to do with virtue.  To answer this, Murdoch brings Plato in again, arguing that, for Plato, "beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct."  Much of her essay involves quite plausible speculation about the great metaphors or images of the cave, the line, the sun and the ladder of love found in Plato's Republic and Symposium.  I too have found these metaphors compelling.  It seems that Plato is saying that only with long philosophical training can we grasp the ineffable Good itself, and that when this happens we will be able to see the Good as it manifests itself in things, its symbol being the presence of beauty.  In addition, the solution to the main problems of philosophy are not going to be, despite all of the Platonic and Aristotelian efforts in this direction, a series of definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  There would be controversy over this among Plato interpreters, but this is a place where I think Murdoch is perceptive:  the end of a Platonic dialogue is seldom an achieved definition, and the ultimate goal is to grasp the Good, which itself cannot be defined at all.  So grasping the Good is just a matter of being able to see the Good in things, or, to speak in other terms, to see things in their essential nature or in terms of the values they exemplify.  The point of the dialogues in a training in intellectual perception, not the wracking up of true definitions.

Murdoch then moves from beauty in nature to beauty in art.  She thinks of art as more edifying than nature in that it is a human product dealing with human affairs.  Further, the good artist has virtues as well as talents, namely he or she is "brave, truthful, patient, humble."  This is true, she thinks, for both the representational and the nonrepresentational arts.  However, the representational arts (painting and literature) are particularly apt since they "hold the mirror up to nature" and are concerned specifically with morality, showing how "the concept of virtue is tied up with the human condition."   For Murdoch, virtue is "pointless," meaning that it is not for any practical purpose (and human existence is pointless anyway, as mentioned above), but it is also supremely important.  The idea is summed up in the notion that "the enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue."  She tells us that "good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolutely random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form." This, she contrasts with what she calls "fantasy art."  True art, she says "affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent."  So, it is opposed to "selfish obsession" and it "invigorates the soul."  As with nature, the perfection of form offered by art "invites unpossessive contemplation."  I cannot help think here of Freud's 1909 essay on poetry and daydreaming in which he understood all of art in terms of wish-fulfillment and therefore fantasy in exactly the way that Murdoch condemns it. Freud deliberately chose popular fiction as his paradigm of art, but of course Murdoch is not going to make that choice.  Murdoch even describes bad art in terms of selfish day-dreams which leads me to think that she was thinking specifically of that essay.  "Good art," instead, gives us an "objective vision."  One could say that it brings us out of the cave.  

Before moving on, I want to stress the idea that for Murdoch, objective vision is a matter both of noticing minute an random detail and finding unity and form.  One of my favorite quotes from her:  "Art shows us the only sense in which the permanent and incorruptible is compatible with the transient" and it reveals to us aspects of the world that we are ordinarily not able to see, although I think she is too optimistic in thinking that art "exhibits virtue in its true guise."  Thus, objective vision of the artist is going to be something like the vision of the good judge in Hume.  Hume's good judge has delicacy of taste which allows him to perceive minute aspects of a work of art and see how they contribute to its overall unity and form, whereas Murdoch's good artist does the same for what she observes. 

On the face of it, and from our current perspective, the idea that anyone seriously can speak of "objective vision" especially when it comes to moral concepts seems naive.  But what fascinates me is this image of the detail of the world brought together in form, and I want to discuss that a bit further.   Murdoch puts a lot of stress on the fact that Plato asked, in the Parmenides, whether there could be forms of hair and dirt, and "if there are then nature is redeemed into the arms of truthful vision."  Murdoch thinks that there are.  This would indicate more emphasis on particularity and on detail, i.e. on everyday life as opposed to a separate mathematics-like realm of Forms.  Similarly, in Plato, as we climb the ladder of love in the Symposium, we start with the perception of something beautiful and erotic, the shoulders of a boy, and end with awareness that beauty is everywhere, a great sea of beauty. 

Murdoch also thinks that the gap between art and morality can be bridged if we take seriously the Platonic idea of techne as intellectual disciplines that are also moral (and that need, on his view, to take the place of the imitative arts), and she then sees the techne of learning a language, in which there is a structure that commands respect and in which attention is rewarded by knowledge of reality, of something the exists independently of her own consciousness:  honesty and humility are required here to succeed, thus the connection to morality, studying being an "exercise in virtue."  It is doubtful however that any focus on techne is going to guarantee virtue, as the existence of evil scientists, mathematicians and linguists pretty much shows. In the end what I find valuable in Murdoch is the stress she places on metaphor and the way she reads Plato on art starting with the Symposium rather than the Republic, interpreting the sovereignty of the good in terms of beauty, which itself can be found in the details and unities of the world we experience.   

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Guest post: "The Importance of Erotic Art" by Laki Nua

The Importance of Erotic Art
            Throughout my school career, I have always been programmed to see art as a higher pleasure; something that is understandable through vigorous education about the techniques and technicians who create such works. Though that might be true for some people, I have always found that artwork that stimulates me sexually is a much more enriching experience than art that only stimulates my rational thought; in other words, erotic art. The thrill of the primal urges, the aesthetic pleasure, and the complexity of the subject-matter all create a unique experience that cannot be mimicked. The importance of erotic art has been undermined throughout history however I still believe that it holds the same value as any other art genre.
            When thinking of erotic art, it is hard to pin down a definition for it. There is the typical definition which is anything with sexual subject matter, however I choose to go off of Hans Maes’ definition that he came up in his Stanford Encyclop­­­­edia of Philosophy article on "Erotic Art" which is, “…erotic art is art that is made with the intention to stimulate its target audience sexually, and that succeeds to some extent in doing so.”[1] This, I find, is a great definition to go off of and from there we go to some of the arguments for erotic art’s importance.
            One common theme among thinkers who disagree with erotic art’s importance is the fact that it entices us to want to own the subject. Let’s say we are looking at Edouard Manet’s Olympia (a painting of a nude woman lying on a bed as the main subject of the piece) and we say to ourselves, “Wow that woman is beautiful, I wish I could have her!” This is typically looked down upon and can be seen as a perverted male gaze. However Hans Maes argues that if 21st century philosopher, Alexander Nehamas saw Olympia he would say that, “… it does what all great art should do: spark the audience’s desire.”[2] This is an interesting point, because what is the point of going to an art museum, or exhibit, if the art that is there doesn’t spark some type of desire in you? Your desire for the subject matter is what brings you to the museum in the first place.
An argument against this view on Olympia is also in Maes’ essay when he is talking about Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who was before Kant in his idea of disinterestedness. Maes paraphrases Shaftesbury’s tree argument, noting that someone may go from contemplating a tree to fantasizing about its tasty fruits: “Both activities are pleasurable, but the pleasures involved are very different…” Shaftesbury uses this to endorse the view that the lust after the fruit is based on the appetitive side we have in common with animals, or, as he likes to call them, “brutes.” He then goes on to say, “The contemplation of beauty, by contrast, is unique to us rational beings. That’s because beauty is exclusively an object of the mind.”[3] Here he is saying that any “brute” can let his appetitive side take over, but humans have the ability to rise above this and be able to contemplate without desire. Shaftesbury, however, thinks of this ability as more of a responsibility than a freedom, as though we should look down upon it. Just because we share something in common with animals does not mean that it is a bad thing or something to dismiss. Do not forget that if there weren’t that appetitive/sexual desire then procreation would not be possible. Procreation is also something we share with animals, however should we look down upon that as well?
Nietzsche, in response to these attacks on desire, believes that, “To believe… that in matters of beauty and art there is such a thing as ‘immaculate perception’ (an aesthetic regard pure of any desire), is simply do deceive oneself.”[4] This brings us to another interesting question: can you really separate the two (contemplation and desire) when it comes to beauty or art?
Contemplation is, typically, a requirement for art, however desire has always been put off to the side for its simplicity and primitiveness.  Plato believes otherwise, using the ancient Greek tradition of paederasty. “…In…[paederasty], Plato saw an opportunity not only for the boy but for the man as well… Such a man would want to understand what made the boy beautiful and sparked his desire. Desire for the boy, then, leads to a desire for understanding.”[5] In this quote, Plato explores the idea of desire being the catalyst for understanding. Why in the world would we ever want to contemplate something if we did not have some type of desire that sparked it in the first place? In Plato’s example, he uses the desire from the older man as the catalyst for his searching for why he finds the young boy so beautiful. This is the same feeling that I get when I see a beautiful woman in a painting. I seek to further understand what beauty is. Seeing erotic art from centuries of artists has shown me what societies’ definitions of beauty were and can say a lot about that society’s frame of mind, when looked into.
Another thought from Plato is that, “…all beautiful things draw us beyond themselves, leading us to recognize and love other, more precious beauties…”[6] What most philosophers get wrong, when they look at erotic art, is the idea that eroticism is a mindless act of perversion. Just as Shaftesbury stated above, the contemplation of beauty is something unique to humans, however desire is simply the first step to enjoying a painting. Philosophers, such as Kant and Shaftesbury, appear to think that once someone sees a sexually desirable subject in a painting, it automatically turns off any rationality that they might have.  However Peggy Zeglin Brand would have a problem with that. Brand created an efficient method to view paintings that involved both disinterested attention (DA) and interested attention (IA). This was what Brand named “toggling” and is what I believe is the answer to discovering the importance of erotic art.[7] I must agree with the opposition to erotic art when they say that art and beauty cannot be simply understood from the primal urges of sex, however I do think that using beauty as a springboard into contemplation is the best method. This is what separates simple pornography from erotic art. We watch pornography for the simulation of sex without much thought into it, however erotic art forces us to see the subject and figure out what it means or represents
Erotic art, for centuries, has been looked down upon as a lower art form. Because of sex’s controversies over the course of time, erotic art has been forced to be seen as an average man’s painting. The importance of erotic art, however, is much deeper than a simple sexual urge. Desire, self-reflection, contemplation and even social understanding are all outcomes of viewing erotic art, if you do not undermine the experience as Kant and Shaftesbury have. If you can allow yourself to be overcome by a painting instead of suppressing your desires you will awaken the ability to “toggle” between DA and IA in such a way that you can fully understand a painting. This is why I hold erotic art to such a high standard. It IS more than simple pornography: it is art in every sense of the word.

 Laki Nua, Philosophy student at San Jose State

[1] Hans Maes, "Erotic Art," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007), 6
[6] ibid.
[7] Peggy Zeglin Brand, “Disinterestedness and Political Art” in Aesthetics: The Big Questions, ed. Carolyn Korsmeyer (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998) 168