Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Roger Fry and everyday aesthetics?

Roger Fry's famous "An Essay in Aesthetics" has been so much read over the last nearly one hundred years that we seem to think we already know what is there.   That is, Fry is simply an advocate of Formalism.  Indeed, most people simply lump him in with Clive Bell.  I would like to suggest a different reading here, one that might shed some light on possibilities for the new sub-discipline of everyday aesthetics.  Fry begins with a strong distinction between actual life and imaginative life.  In the latter "the
whole consciousness may be focused upon the perceptive and the
emotional aspects of the experience."  This allows us "in the
imaginative life, a different set of values, and a different kind of
perception."   The movies represent the imaginative life in that the action-response is cut off:  "we see a runaway horse and cart, we do not have to think either of getting out of the way or heroically interposing ourselves."  As a result, we see more clearly "a number of quite interesting
but irrelevant things, which in real life could not struggle into our
consciousness, bent, as it would be, entirely upon the problem of our
appropriate reaction." 

Now it would seem that this would indicate detachment from everyday life, that, for example, this attitude (sometimes called the aesthetic attitude) is quite the opposite of the attitude of life.  But I would argue that everyday life has two aspects, and that one aspect is precisely the part that comes up when we take the aesthetic, as opposed to the practical, attitude.  Where I would disagree with Fry here is simply over the rigidity of the distinction.  There are gradations of attention between the totally practical and the aesthetic, and most of our lives is more in the grey area between these poles.  More accurately, we tend to shift along this continuum, back and forth.   I agree that we notice things on the movie screen that we might not notice if looking in daily life.  But then again, if in daily life, we shift a little to the aesthetic side, we might very well notice those things.

Fry's next example is particularly intriguing.   "A somewhat similar effect to that of the cinematograph can be obtained by watching a mirror in which a street scene is reflected. If we look at the street itself we are almost sure to adjust ourselves in some way to its actual existence. We recognize an acquaintance, and wonder why he looks so dejected this morning, or become interested in a new fashion in hats--the moment we do that the spell is broken, we are reacting to life itself in however slight a degree, but, in the mirror, it is easier to abstract ourselves completely, and look upon the changing scene as a whole."

Note how Fry rather inappropriately identifies "actual existence" with becoming "interested in a new fashion in hats," as though being aesthetically interested in hats has nothing to do with imaginative existence.  Actually "being interested" is a form of imaginative perception, and one that exists in the above-mentioned grey area.  It is not purely aesthetic, but then again, not purely practical either.  Even the wonder at the dejected air of an acquaintance does not fall totally outside the imaginative domain.  Wonder is something very different from mere practical activity.

Although I am not completely on board with Fry, I do think something of interest is happening here.  He goes on:  "It [seeing in a mirror] then, at once, takes on the visionary quality, and we become true spectators, not selecting what we will see, but seeing everything equally, and thereby we come to notice a number of appearances and relations of appearances, which would have escaped our vision before, owing to that perpetual economizing by selection of what impressions we will assimilate, which in life we perform by unconscious processes." I think something like that does in fact happen sometimes when looking in mirrors or when looking into the image at the back of a camera or through binoculars.

To go on:  "The frame of the mirror then, does, to some extent, turn the reflected scene from one that belongs to our actual life into one that belongs rather to the imaginative life. The frame of the mirror makes its surface into a very rudimentary work of art, since it helps us to attain to the artistic vision. For that is what, as you will already have guessed, I have been coming to all this time, namely that the work of art is intimately connected with the secondary imaginative life, which all men live to a greater or lesser extent."

The idea here that the surface of a mirror is made into "a very rudimentary work of art since it helps us to attain to the artistic vision" is very interesting.  Fry is posing that there is a "secondary imaginative life" and that art is connected with that.  Thus on his view there is a continuity between art and life.  After all, we "live to a greater or lesser extent" in this imaginative world.  Life is not just practical or "actual" life.   The aesthetics of everyday life begins to take on life when it approaches art, when everyday life is scene as framed, as partaking in "artistic vision."  This is what I have called "the extraordinary in the ordinary."

This leads to Fry's definition of art:  "Art, then, is an expression and a stimulus of this imaginative life, which is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action."  What is interesting about this definition is that it extends art beyond its normal bounds insofar as it is tied very closely to "imaginative life."  At the same time, it also seems clear that Fry is not extending art so far as to include all aspects of imaginative life:  it expresses it and stimulates it, but arguable is not it.