The Aesthetic (Three)

If there is an “artistic temperament,” how might we characterize it?  The next few posts will offer a variety of answers to that question.  As I have already said, Dewey touches on almost all of the possible answers in Art as Experience.  I don’t think those various answers hang together in any necessary way; an “aesthete” might have one or more of these hallmarks of an aesthetic sensibility, but not others.  And some of the hallmarks might even be mutually exclusive.  We’ll have to see.

The epicure is a traditional “type” of aesthete.  An aesthetic sensibility cannot avoid discrimination. The aesthete discriminates between good and bad instances of any phenomenon.

Interestingly, the Greek word “aesthetic” only means “to perceive.”  Then the Germans, in the mid-18th century, added the notion of perception via the senses of the beautiful.  In other words, we are back to the problem of “perception.”  Can we perceive without judgment?  For Kant, no.  We must judge what this thing is as we perceive it.  We must name it, identify it.

Must we judge whether it is beautiful or not, good or not?  That is, can we just perceive and identify absent of any judgment of beauty or morality?  Kant seems to think the answer is Yes.  I identify a glass of water as water when thirsty and drink it down.  I don’t make a judgment about its beauty or lack thereof.  I do, it seems, make a judgment of goodness.  The water is “good for” satisfying thirst; that judgment precipitates my action of drinking it down. But Kant doesn’t think that instrumental notion of goodness is moral. Kant is following Aristotle fairly closely at this point, especially in his understanding of “good” as tied to “good for.”

We only enter the realm of morality for Kant when we move past what a thing is “good for” to a consideration of what is “good” for its own sake.

To get from the empirical judgment of what this thing or situation is and from the instrumental judgment of what this thing or situation is good for, Kant thinks we either must determine intrinsic goodness (that which is good for its own sake) which leads us down the path toward the categorical imperative or we must abstract away from all “interest” in order to make an aesthetic judgment about beauty.  The aesthetic judgment is connected to pleasure—and that pleasure derives from the realization (in the judgment of beauty) that the world is made for us and we are made for the world.  A harmony exists between the human powers of judgment and the things the world presents to us for judgment.  Perception (to return to the root meaning of aesthetic) is pleasurable—and that pleasure is experienced in the marriage of perceiving subject and perceived object.  The pleasure yields the judgment of beauty.

The puzzle for Kant scholars has been: does that mean that everything is beautiful?  Kant does offer the sublime as a different perceptual experience—one in which perception is thwarted, doesn’t work, because the object is so large or so powerful that it overwhelms our perceptual capacities.  But he doesn’t discuss the ugly or degrees of beauty.  Perception is still doing its work when we encounter an ugly thing, so presumably we would still feel the same pleasure in our capacity to perceive that we feel when seeing the beautiful thing.  Where does the difference between the beautiful and the ugly lie in Kant’s account?  There is no clear or obvious answer to that question in the Critique of Judgment.

Dewey offer his own version of the way that art aligns us with the conditions of existence in this world.  He is, as we have already seen, not oriented toward “beauty” but to the establishment of an “equilibrium” that is attuned to flux, uncertainty, and the changes wrought by time.  But we can move toward an “acceptance” of these conditions.  Shakespeare and Keats, he tells us, “accept life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turn that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities–to imagination and art” (34).  Instead of kicking against the pricks, we find a way to live in this world that celebrates its capacity for consummatory experiences–ones we can produce consciously in art if sensitive to that world’s possibilities.

But surely the fact of that discrimination—and trying to locate the grounds for making it—is the essential issue.  At least it is the central one for as long as the epicurean notion of the aesthetic reigns.  I want to pursue two tangles here.

First: subject/object.  Traditionally, we get either subjective explanations—“beauty is in the eye of the beholder”—or objective ones—beauty is a product of certain identifiable qualities in the object (proportion, symmetry, unity, regularity etc.).  Kant’s book is trying very hard to overcome that subject/object split in its marriage model and in its insistence on the “universal validity” of aesthetic judgments.

In today’s theoretical landscape, there are two major ways to handle the subject/object split.  The first denies any kind of individualistic relativism by moving judgment to a more intersubjective or collective locale.  Kant’s focus on the sensus communis foreshadows this approach.  We get cultural or collective relativism in the place of individual subjectivism.  The claim (shades of Wittgenstein’s private language argument, but also various theories of “socialization”) is that we think within the categories that our society, our “form of life” (Wittgenstein), provides for us.  Judgments outside that form are very rare; the prison house of culture is almost completely immune to escape—with that “almost” serving as a thin reed of hope.  (In fact, we will see the aesthetic return in another guise in a future post, a guise in which it is the source of that hope.)

The second way to overcome the subject/object divide is the interactionist approach found in Dewey and now being revived by figures like Bruno Latour.  In this model, the features of both subject and object that are activated in an interaction are not present prior to the interaction.  Chemical reactions offer one instance, but marriage also provides a good example.  I am this person in this relationship to another person.  In some sense, those qualities existed in me prior to the relationship, but they cannot become manifest, cannot be realized, except in the relationship.  Similarly, the flower is not beautiful without the human perceiver who deems it so, just as that perceiver cannot have the experience of “beauty” except through the encounter with the flower.  It takes two to tango.

I am actually more interested now in the second tangle introduced by the epicurean notion of the aesthetic.  This is the problem of taste.  On the one hand, what could be more mundane, more ever-present, than taste?  Everyone prefers some things to other things.  These preferences can be across categories. I prefer novels to biographies.  But the preferences work within categories as well.  I like this novel, but not that one.

But we can’t leave it at that.  Some people’s judgments of taste are considered more reliable, more valuable, than others.  These people are experts of some sort, respected connoisseurs.  (The French word simply means “with knowledge” and my dictionary defines the word as “a person who is especially competent to pass critical judgment in an art.”)  Aesthetic education attempts, in part, to enable students to acquire the relevant knowledge that would improve their judgments.  At the very least, I think, we try to give students a vocabulary by which to discern and discuss the features of an art work.  We are training their attention (the very ability to see certain features in the work) and we are giving them a way to articulate the reasons why they would consider the work done well or not so well.

Even this modest program can make us queasy.  It goes against an egalitarian ethos that would see everyone as entitled to their own judgments of taste.  Interference with those self-formed judgments, with the often unstated but still strongly felt implication that some judgments are better than others, raises disquieting questions.

In aesthetic matters, the consequences of bad judgments, formed out a lack of knowledge or careful attention, are hardly dire.  But what about one’s political judgments?  If our students cast their votes in ignorance of certain facts, or actively misled by “fake news,” are we authorized to interfere?  The egalitarian ethos is tied to a commitment to autonomy about basic issues.  People get to decide for themselves who to vote for, what religion to follow, whom to marry, and what kind of career to pursue.  We might deplore their choices, but feel it an outrageous violation of individual freedom/dignity to intervene beyond a verbal offering of advice or dissent.

This means aesthetic education, insofar as it hopes to reform or refine or revise the aesthetic judgments of its recipients, can only “woo the consent” (Hannah Arendt’s phrase) of its pupils.  I had a college professor who insisted that “to impress was to tyrannize.”  He systematically tried to undermine appearing as a role model, as a figure who attained that kind of “authority” I talked about a few posts back.  He didn’t want disciples or fans or imitators.

But, in fact, I don’t think any teacher can avoid this dilemma.  We are—for better and for worse—shaping the taste of our students.  (Of course, some of them just ignore us completely, walking out of our classrooms completely unmoved in any direction.)  Discriminating judgments, as I have already said, are inevitable, part and parcel of everyday life.  Reflecting upon the grounds for such judgments is part and parcel of any education that introduces students to art works.  (Of course, reflecting on the grounds of judgment actually takes place in all classrooms.  The historian and the scientist are also introducing students to canons of evidence and reasoning on which judgments about knowledge claims are made.)

Furthermore, there is an unavoidable infinite regress here. The teacher stages the judgment that this judgment of Moby Dick is more credible than that judgment about the novel.  And then the teacher’s judgment is subject to similar scrutiny—and it goes that way all the way down.  All judgments are open to question, to evaluation.  All we have are the reasons that someone can offer in support of their judgment when it is challenged—along with the sensibilities that greatly influence which reasons seem convincing to us and which not.

Training someone’s judgment, then, includes heightening their awareness of (focusing their attention on) the particular qualities of the object (or situation) to be judged (making them connoisseurs in its etymological sense) and making them conversant with the kinds of reasons, the different terms, utilized in the justification of judgments.

But, to get back to the epicure, is aesthetic education also about forming a sensibility?  Are we creating not only a sensitivity to something’s qualities, but also an emotional investment in things being done well?  When I tell students (to make a point) that I broke up with my high school girlfriend when she gave me J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey to read, it is only half-true.  But it is half true.  The trouble is that we take aesthetic judgments as a revelation of character.  And in some instances those aesthetic judgments are also read morally.  Bad taste becomes not only an indication of a person’s lack of discernment, but also of their suspect values.  Wouldn’t a woman on a first date be well within her rights if given pause by her date’s enthusiastic love of violent films?  It is very difficult to disentangle aesthetic judgments from other kinds of judgments, including moral ones—which is one reason why the jump from aesthetics to politics can look easy and obvious in some cases.

So, can we create a firewall between aesthetic and moral/political judgments?  And should we even want to do so?  I (as should be obvious by now) think collapsing the distinction is a bad idea if only because it leads to cloudy thinking.  I also think (because of my adherence to the egalitarian ethos) that any interference with others’ judgments should be forthright.  That means I don’t like smuggling in a political agenda in a class that is advertised as addressing the arts.  That doesn’t mean ignoring any artist’s own political or moral convictions, or denying that the line between art and politics, and between aesthetic and moral/political judgments, is never absolute or impermeable.  But maintaining a distinction is, I believe, a good thing.  Learning how to appreciate Milton’s craft can—and should—be separated from deploring his view of women.

So that brings us back, once more, to the epicure.  When the epicure judges the quality of a bottle of wine, he abstracts away from the exploitation of the workers who picked the grapes and the tax evasion tactics of the corporation that sold him that bottle.   We can turn our choice of what wine to drink into a moral/political choice that hinges on the ways it was produced.  But it does our thinking no good if we deny there are other grounds for choice—and those grounds include the aesthetic ones of its quality as wine.  In short, I am saying that there are certain grounds for judgment that are “aesthetic” and certain other grounds that are not.  Clear thinking is aided by maintaining this distinction.  And it is a good start to think of aesthetic properties as those directly connected to perception.  I can taste the wine’s quality; I can’t taste the exploitation of the farm workers.  (Unfortunately, things don’t remain that simple.  How do I perceive King Lear’s pessimism or Frank O’Hara’s campiness?  I will have to take up such complications in a future post.)

For now, I just want to hold on to the idea that some features of an object or situation are aesthetic while others are not.  Water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade.  Is that an “aesthetic” quality of water?  Water gathered into a large body like a lake will reflect the color of the sky.  Is that “aesthetic”?  Common sense says Yes to the latter, and No to the former.  Both facts fit Latour’s interactive model; these potentials in water are only manifested in certain conditions where the water stands in relation to other entities.  Many attempts to explain the common sense reaction point to the utility of knowing under what conditions water boils as contrasted to the “uselessness” of the blue of the lake.  A more circular account simply says the blue lake is “beautiful” whereas the boiling water is ho-hum.

It is certainly an indication of how we judge character through one’s aesthetic judgments and of the communal consensus about such judgments, that we would find it “odd” if someone enthused over the beauty of the water boiling in the pot, just as we would deem insensitive someone who proclaimed utter indifference to the lake’s shining blue.

It goes the other way, however.  Perhaps it is just that egalitarian ethos.  We do seem to tolerate the connoisseur in most cases, although the suspicion that he is a snob and thinks himself superior to the plebes and their deplorable taste lingers.  Epicure is at this point pretty much always a term of abuse.  This is where we find Dewey.  He is willing to grant to the artist a special sensitivity.  “An artist, in comparison with his fellows, is one who is not only especially gifted in powers of execution, but also in unusual sensitivity to the qualities of things” (49).  Compare this statement to Wordsworth’s (in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads) ungainly attempt to square the circle of egalitarianism with a conviction that the poet is special.  “What is a Poet?” Wordsworth asks and answers his own question:  “He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind” (p. 567 in the 2nd edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.)  Nice to know that Wordsworth thought so highly of himself.

Dewey, it won’t surprise us, is more aware of the non-egalitarian implications of this notion of the special sensitivity of the artist.  For one thing, it contradicts his notion that aesthetic experience is general, that everyone has that kind of experience when things align in that “equilibrium” that all of us are constantly trying to achieve.  He doesn’t follow that line of argument in this instance.

Instead, the pages immediately following (see pp. 50 to 52) his statement about the artist’s special sensitivity echo Kant’s dictum that “taste disciplines genius” (Section 50 of the Critique of Judgment).  Dewey offers two constraints on the artist’s vision.  One, it must be “controlled”—i.e. conscious and intelligent, oriented toward the guiding purpose and toward the achievement of unified form.  Second, (very similar to Kant), “even the composition conceived in the head and, therefore, physically private, is public in its significant content, since it is conceived with reference to execution in a product that is perceptible and hence belongs to the common world” (51).  Taste functions to discipline genius in Kant so that the products of genius are “universally communicable.”  Dewey (as we will see in a future post) is equally committed to communicability—and here that view leads to the assertion that the artist’s vision must be rendered in a product that “belongs to the common world.”  The artist’s special sensitivity cannot be something that separates her from her fellows, but serve as a meeting point with them.

The epicure is condemned precisely for his lack of concern for or connection with his fellows.  It is all about exquisite sensation—and no moral or practical considerations should be allowed to jeopardize pleasure.  Pater and Wilde can be read as advocates for this religion of beauty—and for the kind of aristocratic disdain of those whose palates are not fine enough to join them in worship at that altar. Nothing, of course, could be further from Dewey’s democratic sensibility.

To sum up this rather wandering post:

  1. The recurrent figure of the epicure reminds us that one persistent way to identify “the aesthetic” is to highlight perceived qualities that are beautiful, useless, pleasure-yielding etc. Judgments of taste will consider the extent to which an object or situation delivers those perceived qualities.  Aesthetic education will provide its students with a heightened ability to perceive and enjoy those qualities.
  2. There is, in both Dewey and Kant, a sense that the aesthetic reconciles us to existence, proves that we are fit for this world, and it is fit for us.  I want to pursue this notion of “acceptance” or “affirmation” in future posts.
  3. The epicure (and “aestheticism” more generally) is a figure of suspicion insofar as he seems to downplay all moral and non-selfish (communal) claims in favor of exquisite sensations. At the same time, disdain and condemnation runs in all directions, since everyone deplores everyone else’s bad taste—and very often reads that bad taste as a character or moral failing.
  4. Aesthetic education cannot avoid being in the business of re-forming its students’ taste and in the business of claiming (even if implicitly) that some works and some judgments are better than others. How to address this establishment of better/worse; what kinds of authority or reasons or sensitivities or models will do the work of making students adopt a presented hierarchy of judgments; and how to square all this with a commitment to democratic egalitarianism and the right of everyone to judge for themselves are a true conundrum.  (This gets us back to the Michael Clune essay on Judgment, which tries to solve the problem by fiat—or so it seems to me.)
  5. Since there does seem to be growth in tastes (i.e. we learn to appreciate certain things through a process of exposure to them, increased knowledge about them, and focused attention on their features), aesthetic education has a clear goal and some observable success in reaching that goal if we stick to a purely epicurean outlook. Aesthetic education can heighten sensitivity to and pleasure in the aesthetic properties of various objects and situations.  We could even say that aesthetic education fosters an “aesthetic sensibility” insofar as it instills the habit of attending to such aesthetic features of objects and situations.
  6. The relation of that aesthetic sensibility to moral and/or political commitments remains open to question—and will form the subject of subsequent posts. On the face of it, since the epicurean sensibility has so often been tied to an aristocratic indifference to, even disdain for, the tastes and needs of the plebes, the attempt to move from an aesthetic sensibility to a leftist politics does not look all that promising.
  7. That said, the attempt to isolate aesthetic judgments from judgments of value seems to me untenable. I can perhaps say that something is to be valued only for the aesthetic pleasure it yields.  But that is still claiming that the thing has value—and should be valued.  Once that claim has been entered, I don’t see how I can avoid having to weigh that value against the claims of other values.  I can say the exquisite wine makes me indifferent to the farm worker’s plight, but I can’t say that I am not making a judgment that deems one value more important to me than the other.

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