Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book III Plato's Republic

The key idea of Republic Book III is “grace.”  The passage I am interested in is the following:  “Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful;  then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear.”  (Jowett translation in Art and its Significance ed. Stephen David Ross, 3rd. ed., 31)  Focus on the idea of an effluence that flows through the eye and ear through fair works both as beauty and as the good.  Focus also on the idea that, in having this, the youth “dwell in a land of health.”  Consider also the paragraph in which this work appears, one in which Socrates stresses not only the poets but artists of all sorts, who are expected to express the “image of the good” in their works. (So much, by the way, for the idea that Plato did not have a conception of "fine art" as a collection of creative art practices).  The world described is a kind of utopia in which the arts, not only poetry but also sculpture, weaving and architecture, are expected to express not corrupted taste and moral deformity but something noble.  Clearly, as has often been stated by scholars, the Greek concept of the good here is closely allied, almost identical with, that of beauty.  We may disagree with Plato’s actual conception of the good life, but consider the possibility of a world in which the good as equivalent to the beautiful flows into eye and ear.   (This, by the way, is much closer to what Shusterman has called somaesthetics then we would usually attribute to Plato.  Is my note, then, a deconstruction of Plato?  It is only if we adhere to a simplistic view of what makes Plato Plato.  My assumption is that Plato has an often hidden somaesthetic side.)  And consider that this is not the usual image we get of Plato as someone who holds the good to be completely detached from our world of change as well as from the body and its interactions with the environment.  The imagery is similar to that of the atomists, for example Plato's contemporary Democritus, when they talk about perception in terms of effluences.  We should also not forget the contrast, the other side of the coin.  Plato writes prior to my quote:  “We would not have our guardians grown up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul.”  The other option draws not from a theory of perception but from a theory of nutrition.  But this is embodied too: we perceive as beings with bodies and we eat as beings with bodies. 

So, as Socrates says, “grace and harmony are the twin sisters of goodness and virtue and bear their likeness.”  Now consider an application to our own world.  We might, in a Platonic vein, ask if the poverty of our lives ethically speaking might not be the result of losing track of the intimate relationship between the ethical life and the life devoted to creative activity, to every “creative and constructive art” as Jowett's translation has it.  

The bridge concept is that of grace as related to rhythm:  “grace or the absence of grace is the effect of good or bad rhythm.”  Do not, for a moment, think about the specific rhythms Plato recommends, but simply the notion that some rhythms express a good life, and some not.   Some, as he says, are expressions of a “courageous and harmonious life.” for example.

Back to the flow then:  Plato sees the flow into the eye and the ear as “like a health-giving breeze from a purer region.”  One thinks here of Nietzsche and all of his anti-Platonic reasons for emphasizing the idea of health, his body-centered reasons.  Plato’s position is strangely close to that of Nietzsche, but perhaps more nuanced.  It is these effluences that “draw the soul from the earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.”  They are in a sense preparation for higher beauties that can only be observed by reason.

Interestingly, Plato believes that this all leads up to, logically leads up to, the idea that “music is a more potent instrument than any other” and the reason for this is that, get this!. “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul” and fasten on these and impart grace on them.  Think about the metaphysics of the soul here:  the soul is something that has inward places, and these are not said to be touched the most by reason, at least in the case of the child, but by the very physical rhythms and harmonies of music.  So it seems that Plato is calling for a transformation of life focused on ways in which the creative arts can remake the world and thereby our innermost souls, sensuously, and yet in a way that is also in accord with some sort of rule of reason to be introduced later in life.  The idea is to shape our souls when young, to make them graceful, rhythmic in the right way, and harmonious.  The young man or woman, through this shaping process will gain good taste (yes, Plato actually has a concept of good taste) which will come before the age of reason.  Such a young person, Plato says, will justly praise the good and despise the bad “even before he is able to know the reason why.”  When reason comes “he will salute” it as a friend because he has already become familiar with it by way of his immersion in the creative arts.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Idealism vs. Realism, or why not give credit to both?

Here is my current thinking about idealism vs. realism.  I am in my home office looking at my computer, surrounded by my books. This room I am in, my body, my activity, etc....all of this is real. How do I know this:  I cannot absolutely, but it seems reasonable, at least right now, to deny every alternative hypothesis (for example, that I am actually looking at a virtual reality world).  I am, as Dewey puts it, a live creature interacting with my environment.  Let's just take that as a given.  The world I experience around me as I am walking, for example, is a world that exists and to which I have access through my senses.  It is one part of a larger world to which I do not have access through my senses, for example the sub-atomic aspect of that world. Modern science is the best way to understand the world I have access to through my senses, and also the larger world to which sometimes I have no access through my senses.  Yet, the the world of modern science is not, and here I am following Nelson Goodman, the only way the world is.  There are other ways, and this brings in the issue of idealism. 

So where is there room for idealism? There is room on two levels, these having to do with two different meanings of "idealism."   First, as soon as I represent this world, either in language or by some other means, I create a second world, i.e. a representation of the first world:  it is a way the world is.  

Much of my life is spent contemplating and making such representations.  These representations are all ways of seeing the world, and they present ways the world is.  Moreover, although I have access to the world sensuously, I only focus on those aspects of the world that are of interest to me and that fit into certain categories I commonly use.  So, although what I see and otherwise experience is the world, the arrangement that comes from choosing what I look at, and how I construct my own internal map of this world, is influenced by ideas.  One could say that I view the real world through various idea worlds, where the second "world" refers to world maps.  To ignore the pervasiveness of all of the representations that mediate my relations with the physical world is to ignore this fundamental truth, the real intuition of idealism. Moreover, since much of the physical world within which I live is made up of artifacts which themselves are either representations or are the result of human non-representational thinking and activity, the meaning content of that aspect of the world is also subject to idealism.  

An interesting problem for strict realists (realism that excludes the intuition of idealism) is that I cannot say or think anything about the real world without using representations.  Even if I say that "this is a chair" I am using ideas such as "chair" and all of the complex grammatical ideas associated with the formula "this is a" to do this.  And so my experience is two-sided:  there is the side that is real and physical, the chair in front of me, which I have access to by way of my senses, my brain, and my bodily behavior, and the chair as described, as thought of, as having meaning content (even if that meaning content is entirely expressed in physicalist terms and is the result of a physicalist philosophy!).  

A second aspect of idealism is belief in something like Plato's Forms.  Don't get me wrong, I do not believe that Plato's Forms themselves exist, i.e. as eternal and unchanging, except possibly in the way the certain mathematical entities may exist (I am agnostic on whether there is an eternal Form of "circle") The point here, with respect to a defense of something vaguely like Plato's Forms, is that there is a legitimate activity, a philosophy language game, that asks "what is the essence of X" and that gives us competing answers that can generate dialogue with some resolution.  On my view, essences are real but within the domain of representation and its interaction with the real physical world, especially with those aspects of the real physical world that are also implicated in human activity and interpretation.  As opposed to Plato's Forms, essences evolve historically.  I grant to Plato that they have an ideal as well as a real aspect, but this ideal aspect is always of the form of an unrealized and ultimately unrealizable goal:  the ideal aspect has no content of its own and simply marks the ideal of resolution of debates over essences.  I have written about this elsewhere in detail.  
Wikipedia says "In philosophyidealism is the group of philosophies which assert that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial."  I am not an idealist in that sense, and yet there is a fundamentally mental aspect of the world in that there is not only the level of physical objects but also the level of multiple interpretations of those objects especially as evidenced in the language game of philosophy its search for truth, or, as I would put it, essences.  

Nor do I accept the idea that something mental or spiritual is the foundation of all things.  And yet, in a strange way, I am as much an idealist as a realist.  Paul Guyer and Rolf Peter Horstmann in their Stanford Encylopedia article on idealism make a point of distinguishing between idealism of this sort and epistemological idealism, which they describe in this way:   "involves a theory of the nature of our human knowledge; and various decidedly different theories are called by this name in view of one common feature, namely, the stress that they lay upon the ‘subjectivity’ of a larger or smaller portion of what pretends to be our knowledge of things."  Yet, atlough attracted to idealism, I would not say that knowledge is essentially subjective. There is, of course, a subjective aspect of all knowledge, and yet we can still speak of degrees of objectivity, and this is just based on the fact (assuming we are willing to accept it as fact) that there is a real world in which we live, and that that world is what it is independent of our thoughts about it, although of course our thoughtful representations, once made, also become an important part of that world.  Moreover, there is some truth to ontological idealism, both in terms of the existence of an emergent world of representation and interpretation and also the ideal but indescribable aspect of the world represented by the philosophy language game.  Essences are real beings, although not reducible to the realm of the sciences nor identifiable with eternal unchanging Forms.  To reject idealism of the traditional form that posits a separate metaphysical world is not the same as rejecting all ontological implications for the intuition of idealism.  My point:  interpretation and representation animate our world, and the world experienced through that animation is what is important to us, and the search for essences is one way to animate the world as was the search for gods previously.  Thus creating new mythologies, writing poetry, done in a way that is deep, and also respectful of the physical world in which we live and respectful of the way it grounds our experience (the pragmatist intuition of Dewey, I think) is the way to respond to our present crisis of spirit. Nietzsche, of course, saw this.  

Guyer and Horstmann say "An inclination toward idealism might even arise from considerations pertaining to the ontological status of aesthetic values (is beauty an objective attribute of objects?) or from the inability or the unwillingness to think of the constitution of social and cultural phenomena like society or religion in terms of physical theory." and this seems to describe my attitude or the reason why I would consider idealism as having equal status to realism as long as restrained to include only the world as represented through language and art.  Physical theory is not and can never be sufficient for explaining social and cultural phenomena since these all involve many levels of interpretation and are complex evolving entities that are, as Joseph Margolis would put it, emergent upon but not reducible to physical phenomena.   

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Rancière "Aesthetics and its Discontents"

I am no expert on Rancière but I am beginning to think that his work should be of interest to everyday aestheticians.  So here I will just make a couple comments on the Introduction to his book Aesthetics and its Discontents.  What I like about Rancière is that he has some valuable things to say about the relationship between art and the aesthetics of everyday life.  I also like the scope of this thinking:  he tries to relate it to such big figures as Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and so forth, as well as to French contemporaries like Bourdieu.  His attempts to relate aesthetics to politics can also be fascinating.  This kind of scope is not typical of the English speaking aesthetics I grew up with, and so entering into the world of Rancière can be disconcerting, to say the least, but still worth it.  

Much of Rancière's concern is local to the French intellectual scene and thus not of much interest to someone living on the West coast of the U.S. like myself.  I have no intention to wade into those waters. Still, I have long been concerned with two questions in aesthetics, the question of the definition of art and the question of the nature of aesthetic experience including experiences outside of the domain of art.  Because of this, I am particularly interested in the intersection between these two questions and domains.  

Rancière speaks of an example brought up by Jean-Marie Schaeffer and taken from Stendhal's autobiographical work Vie de Henry Brulard.  The example is that of insignificant noises first noticed in childhood: ringing church bells and the noise of a water pump.  These Schaeffer compares to Shen Fu's talk of seeing mountains in a molehills as a small child.  So Schaeffer thinks this shows a cross cultural aesthetic attitude not directed to artworks.  I think Schaeffer is right about this: if we turn to the powerful aesthetic experiences of childhood we can overcome an overly art centered notion of aesthetics.  At the same time, Rancière makes a good point in reply, that Stendhal in this writing is blurring the distinction between art and life, and provides a new insight into what Rancière calls "sensory microevents."  Rancière then writes, "Far from demonstrating the independence of aesthetic attitudes with respect to artworks, Stendhal testifies to an aesthetic regime in which the distinction between those things that belong to art and those that belong to ordinary life are blurred."  (5)  I agree with this too.  Rancière then wants to reveal the new form, arising first at the end of the 18th century, "taken by the relation between the conscious productions of art and the involuntary forms of sensory experience in which their effects are manifest." (5) And he thinks this is what Kant, Shelling and Hegel were trying to do; Kant through his theory of genius and aesthetic ideas, Shelling through his talk of unity between conscious and unconscious processes, and Hegel through his story of the development of art to a Romantic form that recognizes such everyday life scenes as those portrayed in the genre paintings of the Dutch.  So we are talking here about a "new education of the senses informed by the insignificant noises and events of ordinary life" (6) a new education associated with the rise of republican sentiments during those years, ca. 1787.  This makes me realize that the rise of everyday aesthetics as a concern goes back to the origins of aesthetics itself.

Rancière observes that aesthetics has been accused of "confusion," i.e. of confusing boundaries between distinct categories, for example art and everyday life.  But his approach is to actually glory in this confusion.  I feel that I can ally with this since my own efforts in everyday aesthetics have sought to find a continuity and close relation between the aesthetics of everyday life and the aesthetics of art, an effort that might be seen as a "confusion" by those who wish to keep these categories rigidly distinct.  

Rancière situates his discussion within a definition of art.  The definition is not entirely clear:  but here goes:  "For a statue or a painting to be adjudged art, two apparently contradictory conditions are required.  The work in question must be seen as a product of an art and not as a simple image that is to be judged solely in accordance with the legitimacy of its principle or its factual resemblance.  But it must also be seen as something that is more than just the product of an art, more than the rule-bound exercise of a savoir-faire."  (6)   He further asserts that the something else needed for something to be art is a story told, for example for a dance to be art it needs to tell a story. When we left the "mimetic regime" and entered into the "aesthetic regime" of art there came a new close relation between poesis and aesthesis, a "discordant relation" which he sees Kant, Adorno, Schiller, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as thinking through.  

To conclude today's post, Rancière is of importance to everyday aestheticians because he shows how fundamental everyday aesthetics is to the constitution of art itself within the "aesthetic regime" i.e. after the invention of aesthetics as a discipline in the 18th century.  "'Aesthetics' is a word that expresses the singular knot that, posing a problem for thought, formed two centuries ago between the sublimities of art and the noise of a water pump..."  

Guest Post: City Paintings of Rosa Younessi by Hovsep Lalikian

While visiting the KALEID Gallery in San Jose, CA. I saw the works of art by Rosa Younessi, the featured artist for April, 2016 (her show was titled “Colors of Dreams”). Several of her oil paintings caught my attention, but “London Fog” and “San Francisco Fog II” did so particularly well.  At first glance, they didn’t seem to have the real shape of what was painted. When I took a closer look, however, I could make out the shapes of buildings, as well as other parts of the city, such as the boats floating near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. These paintings showed London and San Francisco, but the paintings weren’t clear, as if there was heavy fog in the city.  Being able to see the cities in this state was interesting because I wouldn’t have thought that a foggy setting would be good for a work of art, but the artist portrayed the cities in such a way that it changed my mind. There were clearly layers of painting used to blur the lines between the buildings. These layers helped to blend the colors together to give the foggy appearance that the two works have.
I don’t believe that the artist was trying to say anything through these paintings, but wanted to share images of London and San Francisco. Having lived near San Francisco for most of my life, I have seen the morning fog that settles into the city. Seeing Younessi’s painting reminded me of how San Francisco looks during these times. Although I have never been to London, I have always heard of the fog and rain that are common in England, and can imagine what it’s like in “London Fog.”  Oil was a good choice for these works because oil paints can be blended together to give the foggy look the artist was aiming for.

These works provide a good aesthetic experience on multiple levels. They are able to catch the viewer’s eye at first glance, but upon closer inspection the viewer is able to see a detailed and intriguing painting. Even if somebody saw the painting but wasn’t paying close attention to it, they could still enjoy the pleasing combination of shapes and colors. Taking a closer look at the paintings, however, the viewer is able to see finer details. This includes not only the bigger items like the buildings in the paintings, but also smaller aspects, such as the streaks in “London Fog” that appear to connect the two halves of the painting. Although the paintings didn’t hold much value outside of their aesthetic qualities, and there were no deeper connections or emotions evoked, I do not consider this to take away from the quality of the work. A work of art does not need to have a deeper meaning to be a good work of art, although such meaning can help make a work better.

Although works of art can be strengthened by involving emotions that aren’t directly connected to the work, these emotions aren’t a requirement for a good work of art. Like Clive Bell (author of Art, 1914), I believe that significant form is the primary qualifier for works of art, and significant form is something that both “London Fog” and “San Francisco Fog II” have. These two paintings provide an aesthetic experience that is memorable through the relations of lines and colors they have. If Younessi had tried to include emotions that draw on other experiences, the works would have been weakened. It would be difficult to include those emotions without feeling as if these are forced, while still maintaining the original idea behind the paintings.

Bell would likely agree that these paintings are good works of art because they both have significant form. The two works are based on the relations between the lines and colors. True, they both need the relation between the different aspects of the city’s landscape to be able to create a realistic feel. The colors, however, are the strength of the paintings. The colors are what create the foggy look the artist aimed for. These colors are able to blur the lines between each shape in the painting, but keep everything differentiated so that the viewer can see every detail.  Bell didn’t believe that we need to go into the artist’s thoughts when they were creating the works of art, because good art is able to aesthetically please us without the involvement of such emotions. Although some people may feel an emotional connection to these paintings, such as someone who grew up in either London or San Francisco, and long for the foggy days portrayed, many will enjoy the art for its aesthetic qualities, without looking into a deeper meaning.

Rosa Younessi’s “London Fog” and “San Francisco Fog II” would be considered art by Clive Bell because they have significant form. More than that however, they are good works of art because of the aesthetic experience they provide. The paintings rely on lines to portray the scenery in the cities, but the colors pull the paintings together by creating the foggy image the artist wants. There are no real emotions or lessons to be learned from these paintings, but that doesn’t detract from their strength. The works are strong enough on their own and the aesthetic emotions that the viewer feels allows him or her to fully appreciate what the artist created. 

Comment from Thomas Leddy
Although Bell's formalism has been attacked many times since it was originally put forth in 1914 it is still often a powerful way to understand some contemporary art.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Are there inchoate poems existent prior to the writing of poems?

Andrew Cecil Bradley suggests that there are.  "Poetry for Poetry's Sake" in A Modern Book of Esthetics:  An Anthology  ed. Meldvin Rader, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1952.  This material is originally from Oxford Lectures on Poetry, The Macmillan Co., 1909.  Bradley believes that "The Fall of Man...offers opportunities of poetic effects wider in range and more penetrating in appeal [than a pin's head]."  He further says "And the fact is that such a subject, as it exists in the general imagination, has some esthetic value before the poet touches it.  It is, as you may choose to call it, an inchoate poem or the debris of a poem.  It is not an abstract idea or a bare isolated fact, but an assemblage of figures, scenes, actions, and events, which already appeal to emotional imagination, and it is already in some degree organized and formed."  (342)    He also says that a good poem on a pin's head "might revolutionize its subject so completely that we should say, 'The subject may be a pin's head, but the substance of the poem has very little to do with it."  (342)