Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Taking a Walk with Bob: Stecker's Approach to Everyday Aesthetics

These comments were  originally intended to be given at the American Society for Aesthetics Pacific Division meeting in Berkeley that was to meet last week but was cancelled due to the current pandemic.  I rewrote them somewhat after seeing Bob's intended reply.   All references are to Intersections of Value:  Art, Nature and the Everyday by Robert Stecker, Oxford University Press, 2019.

I went for a walk with Bob yesterday.  He is such a sensitive observer not only of art but also of nature and the world of human artifacts.  Both of us are pluralists about these things.  So there wasn’t much to disagree about, although I did have one or two worries and some thoughts off in my own direction.  First, we walked through the U.C. Botanical gardens, which, although not a pristine natural ecology, certainly offers a lot of occasions for nature appreciation.  Bob explained how there is no one appropriate way to appreciate nature.  There are many models for nature appreciation, and each can be useful under some circumstances.   We looked at a potted cactus in the museum store and we were able to appreciate it even when it was taken out of its natural context.  We looked at the meadow there as if it were a landscape painting, and that was enjoyable in its own way.   However, our fiends Allen (Carlson) and Glen (Parsons) were horrified.  They insisted that we look at nature with a lot of scientific knowledge as background.  Bob and I agreed that, although scientific background can be helpful, it is not necessary.  In short, knowing the chemical composition of a flower doesn’t normally enhance our appreciation of it.  We also agreed that it can sometimes be aesthetically enhancing to look at something in the natural environment using one’s imagination.   
From there, we moved on to downtown Berkeley, and we turned our attention to artifacts.  Bob took special interest in a frying pan that someone had used to make a satellite dish.  Some would argue that there is something aesthetically wrong with this, since being a satellite dish is not the proper function of a frying pan.  Bob took a somewhat different position.  He said that some artifacts are aesthetically indifferent, having no aesthetic value, negative or positive, and that this might be an example.  (143)  But I was not sure how you can say that anything is totally without aesthetic value.  In fact I thought that the frying pan satellite dish looked cool.  Isn’t “looking cool,” sometimes at least, an aesthetic attribute?   Bob himself alluded to the possibility that the satellite dish looked “functionally interesting.”  But isn’t “interesting” often an aesthetic predicate?  People use it all the time in artworld contexts.  As with nature, this might be an example of appropriate use of imagination.

Bob replied that even though I might find this artifact to be aesthetically indifferent, I must find some artifacts to be aesthetically indifferent, neither aesthetically good nor aesthetically bad.  I thought about this for a while.  I agreed that at any particular moment I might find something aesthetically indifferent, but that at another time I might not, and this would be true for just about any artifact.  Of course this would introduce an element of subjectivity into everyday aesthetics, but only on this matter of aesthetic indifference.  I also thought one can't say that one prefers a simple cast iron frying pan to other types (as Bob has done) and also say that one finds it aesthetically indifferent.  That would be a contradiction.    

Fortunately, Bob did not think everything that violated its proper function was aesthetically indifferent.   For example, he directed my attention to a church which had been re-purposed as a home.  He noted that although the church once had its proper function as a church, it no longer does.   Bob thought neither the building’s proper function nor its current capacity function is uniquely relevant to aesthetic appreciation.  He further thought that full appreciation of the church-as-house requires recognition both of its history and of its current function.  (143)  I found this idea, which reminded me of his pluralist approach to appreciation of nature, appealing  I thought, however, that the idea of “full appreciation” needed the following clarification, viz. that a fuller appreciation is one which draws on more than one model of appreciation, and this is true both in nature and in artifact appreciation.    

But I was disappointed when Bob returned to the claim that some objects are aesthetically indifferent.  Arguing against Carlson and Parsons’ theory that functional beauty is a matter of something’s look fitting its function, Bob insisted that, generally speaking, can openers do this but are aesthetically indifferent.  I wondered whether this was true.  I was reminded of Beatrice Wood’s defense of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in which she said that plumbing is one of the great aesthetic achievements of America.  How do you respond to people who say that ordinary urinals, and can openers, are beautiful precisely because their look fits their function?  Le Corbusier and Sullivan tended to say things like this too.  In fact, this seems to have been the meaning of the functionalist movement in architecture.  Even an ordinary can opener can be aesthetically interesting if looked at from this perspective.  Sure, today, unless we are hard-core functionalists, we do not often find things beautiful just because they fit their function well.  But this is a matter of taste, and taste swings with changes in fashion.  

Also it is a matter of how one defines "fitting its function."  I wondered whether functionalism has ever been just about whether things look fit for their function in a narrow sense.  It seems to have been more a matter of a pared-down style that takes certain functional features to, in Nelson Goodman’s sense, exemplify in certain ways. 

Bob said, no no no, none of this Beatrice Wood talk, if you want to see a really attractive can opener you have to come with me into this Williams-Sonoma store.   Turns out that Bob has a real taste for this sort of stuff.   He thinks that design features of the sort you see in such a store, ones that have what he calls “formal aesthetic interest,” are necessary for ordinary artifacts to have aesthetic value.  (146)  I kind of doubt that, as we shall see.

Let’s consider whether, as Bob claims, it is the different design features of such utensils that makes them aesthetically compelling, i.e. variable colors and unexpected shapes, features that, as Bob puts it, “please the eye and engage the mind in forcing it to wonder whether they serve some purpose or are just decorative.”  (146) This does happen sometimes.  But what struck me on this occasion was Bob’s stylistic preference.  He reminded me of postmodern architects and designers.  As opposed to the advocates of functionalism, these figures, prominent in the 1980s, called on us to bring back decoration, without disregarding function entirely.   
Now I confess that I’ve purchased one or two things in stores like this.  But I kind of feel sleezy about it.   Maybe it’s the remains of a youthful Marxism, but isn’t there something a bit wrong about putting a lot of value on such commodities?  Or does my discomfort come from a different source?  Could the problem be more one of excess, of gilding the lily, of a kind of upscale kitsch?  

With these thoughts in mind, we turned to an aisle devoted to decorated plates.  We agreed that attractive designs can enhance the usefulness of these items. (146)  More generally (as Stephen Davies put it) something is functionally beautiful if it has aesthetic properties that contribute positively to satisfying its main function.  Bob elaborated this in relation to some plates on display.  He saw them as not only having shapes that make them better for consuming food but also as having a beautiful visual pattern that would enhance the experience of a meal.   He argued that although such patterns do not make the plates function better as plates, they serve as a secondary aesthetic function that also contributes to functional beauty.  (147)

Although I understood the distinction, I had a problem with separating the different aspects of this in my own experience.  How could the functional beauty aspect be separated from the aesthetic beauty aspect?   Bob says that “the aesthetic features do not strictly have to enhance the primary function of an artifact to contribute to its functional value” (148), which seems to be true.  But what I find more interesting is when he says that, although “the aesthetic function and the food-containing function of plates are distinguishable … they are wrapped together in expectations, even norms perhaps, about the role dinnerware should play in having certain types of meals.”  (148)  What this “wrapped together” means to me is that the distinction of functions is somewhat artificial.  Moreover, it is precisely when functional and aesthetic beauty are easily distinguished that you have a piece which lacks unity and appropriate seriousness.  This may have been the problem with postmodernism, and why the style had such a short life-span.  The decorative elements seemed to be added on gratuitously.  

When Bob says, “a design property contributes to functional aesthetic value if it enhances an aesthetic experience in which the artifact plays a central role when performing it primary function or functions.” (148) it is hard to disagree.   But he also sums up his position in this way: “I claimed that ordinary artifacts have aesthetic value only when they have formally interesting designs”  (150)  That seems wrong to me since it implies a kind of dualism (function vs. aesthetically interesting design) and a rejection of the holism he elsewhere accepts.  Also, sometimes ordinary objects look visually interesting and have aesthetic value but not for formal or design reasons, for example a front yard that expresses the owner’s personality. 

Because of the joy he took in fancy cutlery I directed Bob to Chez Panisse, my favorite restaurant in Berkeley.  He thought that in evaluating artifacts we need to think of their role in an overall way of approaching life.  It struck me that this was in line with his holism.  First, he focused on the experience as a whole, and now on life style as a whole. He talked about experience as embedded in a larger appreciative enterprise, i.e. “the identification and evaluation of the way of life in which the artifacts, their use, and the experiences they generate is understood and evaluated.” (153) And he observed that one does this in appreciating art as well.  Bob is also sensitive to the interplay of different kinds of value cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic, and to how these values “interact or conflict in each way of life.” (154)

But the ethical dimension might pose a problem for the Chez Panisse experience.   As Bob put it, a life in “which eating exquisite food in an exquisite environment is highly valued, but there is complete indifference to the poor and hungry” would be a bad life. (157)  Yet, although I thought this was probably true, I wondered how it should play out in practice.  Would we be ethically allowed to appreciate an experience at Chez Panisse while not thinking about the suffering of the homeless?  Could we enjoy the experience as long as we tried to do something to help them later? Or does engagement with exquisite aesthetic experience in itself show complete indifference to suffering?  
After our walk and when I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole issue surrounding the can opener.   Bob uses the example to counter Carlson and Parsons’ theory that something is functionally beautiful if its form fits its functions.  Their theory is quite technical.  Based on Kendall Walton's concept of categories, they argue that an object looks fit when, viewed under a functional category, it is perceived to have no contra-standard features and has, to a high degree, variable features indicative of functionality.  In response, Bob writes, writes, if I may quote at length, “First, regarding the purported aesthetic property of looking fit, the fact is that many artifacts are aesthetically indifferent even though they are well designed to fulfill their function or functions on whichever conception of function that is relevant to appreciation.  Further, the artifact’s ability to fulfill its function may be quite visible without this making the artifact aesthetically valuable.  That is, it may have design features that give it variable features that are indicative of functionality without making that object aesthetically valuable in any way.  The basic metal can and bottle cap opener tends to open cans and remove bottle caps quite efficiently.  Because its design is well known, simple visual inspection may reveal its aptness to fulfill these functions.  But this is not sufficient to make it aesthetically interesting or valuable.  The can opener looks fit in the sense defined above" [i.e. “occurs when an object, viewed under a functional concept, has only standard features"] (144-5).  "Hence looking fit per se is not an aesthetic property, at least not one that has any implications for aesthetic value." (145)

What exactly is meant by “looks fit for its function?”  The phrase is quite uncommon.  When I Googled it, the only users were Carlson, Parsons, and following them, myself and Bob.  “Looking fit” is much more common.  It registers about half a million hits on Google, most of which have to do with the physical fitness.  Although it might make sense to simply stipulate what it means based on Parsons and Carlson I am more interested in what it might mean torn away from that narrow context, as when we might ask someone about a bar in a former church, do you think this building looks like it fits its current function?  What is a natural way to talk about fitting form and function?  

I tend to think that the ordinary houses I see on my walk to work look like they fit their function if they look good to live in.  But, as with the plates Bob and I were looking at, it seems difficult to separate this issue in my mind from whether or not they look good, period.  That is, if I were looking for a house to buy or rent I would also want it to look good, to be aesthetically attractive.  It seems obvious that if something is designed well then it looks good. 
What does it mean to say that something looks like it fits its function?  Are we simply saying it looks like it will do its job?  Are we simply predicting whether it will do its job?   But wouldn’t that be true of most of the houses I see on my walk, the only exception being the one recently gutted by a fire (although, to be sure, a walk in gutted districts of a major city, might find houses that look fit for their function much rarer).

So, is functionality just a minimum condition for attractiveness in houses?   Or is something different happening when we say that something looks good to live in, which is what I take us to mean when we say a house is functionally beautiful.  Are we making a prediction about how well the house will fit its function, such a prediction seeming to have little aesthetic about it?  But, again, it is really hard to separate functionality from aesthetics when it comes to houses once we get beyond the minimal interpretation of what “functionality” means.  Shouldn’t we distinguish here between thin and thick  functionality, only the later having to do with functional beauty?  Again, what does it mean to say that a can opener looks like it will actually open cans?  Isn’t this just a prediction of functionality (a thin one) based on looking at something?  Is it really a characterization of something’s look?   I think not.  Prediction of functionality is very different from functional beauty, and functional beauty is ultimately not separable from beauty as such.

Here is another way to look at it.  Even between two can-openers we can be asked to choose which is more attractive.  Similarly, between any two houses one can decide which one looks nicer.  Looking nice seems at first to have nothing to do with functionality.  But what about “looks nice to live in”?  If a house looks nice to live in then most would agree that it looks fit to fulfill its function.  The function of a house is to BE nice to live in.  (Admittedly that might not have anything to do with looking nice: for example it might be nice to live in this house because the people are nice.) You might say “that house looks nice but I couldn’t picture living in it,” but normally “looks nice” is short for looks nice to live in.  And to say that a house looks nice but you couldn’t picture living in it sounds odd. 

So I cannot agree with Bob that there are well-designed artifacts that are aesthetically indifferent.  (Maybe there is a scale here, and ordinary can openers as well as battery rechargers are relatively indifferent.  But isn’t this a problem with our civilization, one that such design reformers as William Morris and the Bauhaus, as well as the functionalists generally, rightly tried to oppose?)  An important function of most artifacts is to look good:  a good knife should not only cut well but look good.  Looking good is one of the functions of kitchen utensils in general.  Functionality in the thick/rich sense cannot be separated from aesthetics.  Although we might be able to predict by inspecting it that a can opener will be able to open a can adequately, this has nothing to do with aesthetics.  But if we look at a can opener and say that it looks like a nice can opener then we are referring to an aesthetic quality, albeit a low level one.  “Nice,” as I have argued elsewhere, is like “pretty” in this regard:  one of the neglected low-level aesthetic qualities.  Nor does it have to be a fancy Williams-Sonoma product to have such qualities.  

Bob denies that the ordinary can opener can be aesthetic because such things are not aesthetically valuable.  And yet they may have aesthetic properties.  For example, the can opener can still be nice-looking.   Similarly, I wouldn’t say that a nice looking house is necessarily aesthetically valuable, if by “aesthetically valuable” you mean something we might find in the architectural guidebooks.  Standards for “aesthetically valuable” are a lot higher than standards for “looks nice,” “pretty,” “looks good,” or “charming.”  Something can have aesthetic value in the sense of having aesthetic properties without being aesthetically valuable in the sense of having high level aesthetic values.  Such things, however,  would not be aesthetically indifferent.  

However, I like resolving what Carlson and Parsons called the problem of indeterminacy (how to determine the right function for evaluation) in Bob’s way more than in their way.  That is, it is not a matter of eliminating all functions but one, the proper function, but a matter of considering all functions.  Looking at the Plaza Major one should consider both the original and the current function in order to get a better, richer, appreciation of it.  This goes along not only with pluralism but with the idea of combining different perspectives…a matter already discussed with respect to appreciation of nature.   

Bob says “to make an adequate overall judgment one must weigh up all these considerations.” (149)  I would go a bit further: one must not only weigh considerations but synthesize approaches.  Bob considers the Zaha Hadid designed museum at Michigan State.  Here, it is clear that he is concerned with the fact that some functions do not work well together, for he says that “an evaluation of the overall aesthetic effectiveness of the museum should consider this defect [that it would work better in its own space] and weigh it against the building’s virtues.”  I am just not surely that weighing here is as important as synthesis, but I am not sure this is a point of real disagreement between us.

On an issue of great concern to everyday aestheticians, whether we should treat the ordinary as ordinary,  Bob answers very sensibly:  “this is a problem if only one way of seeing the chair is required for aesthetic appreciation” and he replies “this is not even true for art or for nature, much less for everyday artifacts.” (151)  Again, on this, Bob and I both take a pluralist approach and we both think that synthesis of more than one approach is best.  One can take a relatively disinterested approach and one can look at it in terms of intentions and context (taking these two stances alternatively for example).   Bob wisely wants to “leave room for standing back and looking at an artifact in a more detached manner” (151) but also recognizes that this is just one way of looking at it.  He also thinks that in this regard there is no big difference between aesthetic appreciation of art and of artifact, although, of course, there are many differences between the two, some of which he describes.  I think that this is a great way of resolving a continuing debate in everyday aesthetics.   Overall, there is no radical break between artifact and art-oriented aesthetic appreciation.