Friday, January 9, 2015

Does it make sense to speak of after the beautiful?

I have been reading the very interesting new book by Robert B. Pippin, After the Beautiful:  Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism.  (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2014.)  The book attempts to show how Hegel's philosophy can be applied to modernist painting after his time, in particular the work of Manet and Cezanne.  It also has some things to say about Clark, Fried and both Hegel and Heidegger or art and truth.  The idea of "after the beautiful" is that the concept of beauty is no longer (or was no longer in the modernist period) of any great importance to art.  A possible summary of the position can be found in the following sentence:  "if we look at art and art history as a component of a collective attempt at social intelligibility - how we attempt to make ourselves intelligible and answerable to each other - and this is a uniquely sensible affective modality, the success and failures of such a project continue to be available to us in and indispensable way in visual and in other arts."  (240)  This seems right to me  -- are does not die after Hegel or Danto, for that matter, and yet what is not clear is how this pathway excludes the concept of beauty.  If beauty is taken as a marker for the value dimension of whatever comes to us in "sensible affective" modalities, then it is hard to see how it can be transcended.  I suspect that Pippin has simply identified beauty with various no longer viable or currently questionable concepts of beauty.  Yet concepts change, and to identify beauty entirely with Kant's or Hume's concept of beauty makes no more sense than to identify sensibility and the affects with their concepts of these things.  Pippin clearly sees "painterly meaning" as replacing such things as "beauty, pleasure, and taste."  (65)  Yet, if we are going to think in terms of meaning in relation to the aesthetic or the painterly, how can this exclude beauty, pleasure and taste?  Like Pippin I find both Manet and Cezanne to be powerful and moving.  Surely something here is being communicated.  But at the same time I mark them high on the scale of beauty, the possibility of aesthetic pleasure, and as objects of taste.  Of course, Hegel, Pippin's favorite author, does neglect beauty, mentioning it infrequently, and downplaying the beauties of nature.  But even he, as Pippin is aware, ends his lectures recognizing the, as Pippin quotes at the end of his book!, "indestructible bond of the Idea of beauty and truth" (144).  Pippin goes so far as to say that the "modernist equivalent to beauty as the 'promise of happiness' is this promise of meaning..."   (59) where success in this promise is related to what Manet's figures do when they "confront" the beholder.  But isn't the immense power of Manet's work a matter of just this, and isn't this also how beauty manifests itself here?  Let's not confuse surface beautiful effects and mere prettiness with beauty.  

Pippin's chapter 4  "Art and Truth:  Heidegger and Hegel" has perhaps the most importance for everyday aesthetics, although Pippin himself seems not to be aware of that.  Through Pippin's reading of Heidegger on the origin of the work of art, a reading which seems, for the most part, to be correct, one sees the glimmer of a possible alternative theory of beauty, one that can allow for a close relationship between art and everyday life in the way that great art reveals something about the everyday (although perhaps at the same time also concealing something).  Pippin writes:  "A painting is some kind of embodiment of the 'happening' of truth - basically, as we shall see, the happening or being at work of the 'world' or horizon of possible significance that constitutes a world in various dimensions of the art of an age."  (102)  Setting aside the somewhat irritating circularity of defining painting in terms of art, what is interesting here is the idea that painting can reveal something in the world that happens.  Heidegger speaks of this as the "Being of beings" coming "into the steadiness of its shining" which is the same thing as "the truth of beings setting itself to work."  Unlike Pippin, I take "shining" to be the new word for, or signifying a new manifestation of, beauty.  Pippin himself puts it this way:  "In the most general sense Heidegger is trying to reanimate the question of the relation between 'beauty' and 'truth,' but where the beautiful is not understood as a matter of the subject's experience....and where truth is disclosure...and not 'correctness.'"  (111)  I am fine with truth not being correctness, but what puzzles me is how beauty would not be a matter of subject's experience.  As I understand it, Pippin is defining "experience" in a highly subjective and isolated way, and not, for example, in an expansive Deweyan way, i.e. in terms of the interactions of the (necessarily socialized) live creature with its environment.  

The approach to beauty and the relationship to everyday life is made somewhat clearer when Pippin draws together the various comments Heidegger made about Cezanne along with Merleau-Ponty's more extensive discussions of that artist.  Here we stress that the "presence" of beings that is brought forth in Cezanne is something revealed in such a way as to have "vitality or vibrancy."  (116)  The stillness of Cezanne is "accompanied by an extraordinary vitality or vibrancy even a kind of vibration or pulsing of life in the objects..."   Pippin thinks that this is best illustrated by a comment from Greenberg (1971) in which he speaks of the paint vibrating and dilating rhythmically both in terms of  illusion of depth and flat pattern.  But this is typically Greenbergian in failing to recognize the way in which paintings constitute and reconstitute the world:  the vibration Heidegger and Merleau Ponty speak of is surely not just in the painting.  Pippin is not unaware of this and captures the thought when he says that for Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty "the meaning of this painterly effect, the 'vibration,' is some intimation of the object's actually coming into being, its "birth," as if composing itself....taking intelligible form.  He further quotes from Merleau-Ponty about the painter:  "The world no longer stands before him through representation; rather it is to the painter to whom things of the world give birth by a sort of concentration or coming-to-itself of the visible."  (119)  

OK, so the great painter reveals something about the world in getting beneath the surface, through capturing something symbolized by this talk of "giving birth." The painter then reveals the world to us somehow as lost, a pantheistic world in the Spinozistic sense.  In that world we were still able to listen to Being, and as Heidegger would put it, these great paintings preserve this possibility.  But this is not the ordinary way of seeing objects of everyday life, not ordinary in our Western world anyway.  Great painting, particularly of the sort exemplified by Cezanne, challenges the ordinariness of the ordinary.  It challenges us, for instance, not to see things as merely a matter of imposing form on matter. Vibrancy is just another word for beauty, although of the deep sort. 

It is a major mistake, by the way, for Pippin not to see the way in which the entire Origins essay is about the thing-being of things.  I think the problem is that Pippin is overly influenced by a certain reading of Being and Time and applying that to the origins essay.

Perhaps this is why he does not quite get the point when he says that by "event" of birthing  "They [Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty] mean to say that it is 'as if' everything of relevance to the bare intelligibility of the object, its simply and meaningfully being there at all, occupying space, confronting us in a kind of mute presence, can be somehow 'made visible' in the painting....powerfully present."  (121)  Intelligibility by itself is not enough! What is made powerfully present, rather, is the beauty in the strong Neoplatonistic sense of emanation and also the Spinozistic sense of the spiritual aspect of a world which is at the same time entirely material  (Spinoza superceding Plotinus here).  

Pippin then, not surprisingly, takes a somewhat different approach to Cezanne's later bather paintings (1894-1906) than I would.  For him these paintings "could be understood as expressing the ever more limited possibilities of answering [questions concerning the point of modern easel painting and the possibility of social relationships involving mutual intelligibility of action], or perhaps intimations of the suspicion that they cannot be answered or that they can be answered only at the level of the shareability of a rather brutish material meaning."  (129)  He thinks it not incorrect to say that in these paintings the earth (in Heidegger's sense) is winning over the word, and that the bathers are world-poor.  (But this accepts the whole earth/world dichotomy, which itself may be problematic, as a kind of acceptance of dualism.) 

I think that Cezanne here is trying to dig even deeper into the possibility of a Spinozistic way of viewing the world, and that this is what Heidegger was trying to get out of Van Gogh.  But then I also think that Pippin is engaged in a heroic struggle to fit his progressivist left-Hegelian politics in with his strong responses to painting, and this just can't be done here, even though it can be done to some extent when talking about Manet.  Cezanne seems to have gone beyond politics to our deeper existential situation as humans.  

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