The Aesthetic (Four)

The traditional worry about associating the aesthetic with epicurean sensibility/sensitivity has been the fear of sensuality.  The aesthete will just be someone who hedonistically indulges in pleasurable bodily sensations.  It seems a short step from Pater to Sade, from a healthy pagan sensuality to the perverse.  Hence we famously get John Stuart Mill trying to disentangle the pleasure/pain calculus of Benthamite utilitarianism from endorsing swinish bodily pleasures as humanity’s goal.  From Epicurus to Bentham, Mill tells us, utilitarians have always been attacked for being bestial sensualists—to which Mill offers this riposte.

When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other.

The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. . . . It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. . . . [I]t is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both [i.e. bodily as contrasted to mental pleasures] , do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. (Utilitarianism, Chapter Two)

I don’t want to linger on the tangles Mill gets himself into in trying to make this argument. (Especially worth noting is his claim that the higher faculties of humans means that they suffer more than beasts, a point that makes a straight-forward pleasure calculus problematic as well as encouraging a comparative indifference to the suffering of animals.)  What I want to highlight instead is the theme of this post, to wit: almost every account of the aesthetic insists that art has some kind of significance or provides some kind of experience that cannot be reduced to the corporeal.  Art entails more than just perception and bodily sensation.

What is this more? Let me dispense immediately with theories of the aesthetic that attempt to abstract away from the bodily altogether.  Kant seems to belong in this camp.  I always present this to students as the attempt to distinguish pornography from the nude.  Kantian disinterest and the elevation of form over matter/content is designed to protect the nude from awakening either desire or bodily lust.  A hard and fast line (a wall) is to be established between pornographic representation and the nude that figures so prominently in art from the Greeks to the present day.  If it is bodily it is not art; if it is spiritual it is art.  And the appeal to “form” over “matter” allows us to make—and preserve—this distinction between representations that are art and ones that are not.

Like Dewey, I have no interest in this way of understanding the aesthetic.  Dewey’s effort to embed the aesthetic in everyday experience means he is opposed to abstraction in all its forms.  He doesn’t want the art object, the aesthetic experience, or mental processes to be alienated into some separate realm apart from the ordinary–or from the corporeal.  He is firmly committed to overcoming any mind/body dualism. (What follows draws on Chapter three of Art As Experience, esp. pp. 52-55.)  Dewey’s interactive model of experience means that perception is both passive and active at the same time.  As he never tires of saying in all his works, experience is both a doing and an undergoing.  Perception (which is bodily and mental for Dewey) registers the impact of the situation, which is not chosen but which is imposed upon the perceiver. However, that perceiver is always already pushing back against the circumstances in which she finds herself, trying to shape those circumstances toward her purposes, toward fulfillment.  The “matter” of perception (the material offered by the situation) is being pushed toward “form” by the active engagement of the perceiver with the environment.

Revising Dewey a bit (see page 55), we get four elements of an experience, all of which occur just about simultaneously, and all of which do not exist separately or self-sufficiently.  We perceive a situation; it is registered bodily by our senses.  We have an emotional response to what we perceive; we consider it a threat, an opportunity, pleasing, disgusting, as something mostly indifferent, or something of tremendous interest/significance.  Dewey adds that this emotional response binds the different elements of the situation into a whole, since the emotion gives us an overall assessment of our relation to that situation.  (He underplays ambivalence or confusion in this last claim).  There is also an intellectual response/assessment of the situation.  This response deals with meaning (in the very distinctive pragmatist understanding of meaning as the potential consequences of the things and/or situation perceived and emotionally registered.)  Intelligence (that favorite Dewey term—and the highest value in his overall philosophy) entails acting in relation to those understood meanings/consequences in such a way that we can produce the “fulfilled” or “satisfactory” relationship to the environment for which a meliorist pragmatism aims.  Finally, there is the practical component of an experience—which is the actual interactions through which we try to put the meanings/vision imagined by intelligence into action.  The practical is the site of the actual interaction with the environment.

The association of intelligence with imagination—with the projection in thought of a future state of affairs through a vision of possible consequences—is crucial here since it links intelligence with art.  After all, if we consider all human action as aiming toward a satisfactory relationship with the environment, then there is no difference between science, art, and just daily life.  Dewey’s position appears to be (see page 26) that art is the all-encompassing term for the human way of interaction, with science a subset of art (a “handmaiden” that attends to natural events), and daily life the less conscious, more habitual, and thus often less satisfactory dealing with what life throws at us.  Art is the effort to find fulfillment raised to full consciousness.

Now back to the main problem this post wants to explore—and a devilishly difficult problem it is. To restate: almost all accounts of the aesthetic assume—or explicitly argue—that the aesthetic transcends the corporeal.  “Intelligence” is the site of that transcendence in Dewey.  The field of candidates as agents of transcendence is crowded.  And my “meaning” project obviously (or so it seems to me) is located precisely here.

Let me sharpen this point.  I do not suppose—and believe no one else would suppose—that an epicurean pleasure in antique automobiles has much of great significance to tell us.  We might certainly learn something about the character of my friend who devotes much time and mental (as well as bodily) energy to the appreciative gazing upon those cars, and we may also learn (from him or from the books written on the subject) much about how those cars worked, were designed, manufactured, preserved etc.

But we are very unlikely to think this aesthetic pursuit has much to say to us about how to live one’s life, or about how to judge different possible ways of being in the world.  In short, this pursuit has little to say about what is significant or what has meaning in relation to the primary ethical question: how am I to live my life? (I adopt here the Bernard Williams distinction between ethics and morality.  Ethics is about how to live one’s life in the best possible way given that there are many possible ways to live a life; morality is about the best possible ways to arrange relationships among humans–and between humans and all the non-human beings and things–in the world we humans find ourselves in.)

There are, of course, those who would divorce art from any pretension to offer “meaning,” any effort to address the ethical question of how to live.  For those who take this position, there is nothing more to be said of or claimed for fancying Moby Dick than there is for being a devotee of 1934 Rolls Royces.  Art is a hobby like any other, equally non-essential if relatively harmless, and we should just give up all these efforts to make it into something more.

But that is a minority position.  While we don’t find many car fanciers arguing for the centrality of their pursuit to living a good life, the majority of artists do believe—and often declare that belief passionately in public—that the aesthetic is the royal road to a meaningful or fulfilled or good life.  Examples are everywhere, but most telling for me are figures like Kandinsky and Rothko, who insist that their non-representational art is loaded with meaning, is completely removed from any Flaubert-like aspiration to create an art “about nothing.”

The insistence that art has vital things to say about how to live explains how the aesthetic gets connected 1) to a critique of the an-aesthetic way many lives are lived and 2) political programs that would make daily life more aesthetic. And I take it that any project of “aesthetic education” is connected to the ethical project and, at the very least, to the critique of an-aesthetic forms of life–even if that educational project is not signed on to some reformist or revolutionary political re-vision.

I will postpone further thoughts on the connection of the aesthetic to the ethical and/or political.  Right now, I want to push harder at what the hell we mean by “meaning” or “significance” in art.  I will start with Dewey.

The aesthetic is significant (or important) to Dewey because it alerts us to fulfilling, consummatory experiences.  Teasing out exactly how that works is difficult.  Here are some possible ways of explicating Dewey’s position.

One, we have fulfilling experiences all the time in ordinary existence.  But we do not always register them as such.  Art calls them to our attention, makes us realize their qualitative difference from less satisfactory experiences.

Two, fulfilling experiences don’t just happen.  They require an especially conscious effort of crafting them, a highly intelligent mode of interaction that imaginatively grasps the possibilities of the given situation, and is joined with a highly conscious and focused pursuit of one’s purpose.  Art alerts us to these conditions for achieving satisfaction—and/or is the name for that kind of concerted effort.

Three, the arts offer models of satisfactory experiences from which we can expand our vision of what is possible and learn ways to make such possibilities realities. (See pages 346-347.)

Fourth (and finally), the aesthetic offers us a vision of a fully integrated “experience,” one that combines in a harmonious equilibrium all the subjective elements (perception, emotion, intelligence, practice, and purpose/motive/desire) with a sensitive, careful interactive relationship to the non-self (whether than non-self is other people or non-human features of the environment or the existential fact of time.)  Many (most) of our interactions are partial; they neglect (fail to take into account) all the elements of a situation.  Art is the place of holism—and holism enhances the chance of fulfillment.

Note that none of these accounts of the aesthetic has anything to say about “meaning.”  Technically, Dewey reserves the term “meaning” for its pragmatic sense.  Following the pragmatic maxim, “meaning” only refers to the possible consequences of the interactions that are made available by a given situation.  Intelligence is the grasping of such meanings; satisfaction follows from the satisfactory achievement of the outcomes that intelligent imagination has predicted will follow from a certain course of action.

But Dewey in certain places departs from the technical use of the term “meaning.”  He seems to assume that satisfactory experiences are “more” meaningful.  We find them more significant.  Why should that be so?  It is easy to see why fulfillment of any desire is more pleasurable than its frustration.  But why should we think fulfillment more meaningful?  After all, many would argue that frustration tells us more about the nature of the world, teaches us more, than satisfaction does.  Dewey’s position depends on his benign (Romantic?) view of the human condition.  Art teaches us how to live because it teaches us that nature can be aligned with human desires and needs.   The meanings (consequences) human intelligence can discern can be activated to provide fulfillment.  An existentialist, absurdist reading of the human relation to nature would yield a different model of how to live (think of Camus’ rebel).  This is the way that “meaning” gets attached to the ethical question of how to live one’s life—and how art could be a site for the portrayal of such meanings.  What the world can “afford” to us makes a big difference in the strategies we might then adopt for living.

Once we abandon the goal of an art about nothing, the focus usually shifts to the ways in which art delivers its message.  In other words, what meanings the art work conveys depends on how that specific art work is interpreted.  (Or, in Dewey’s case, I think we are to understand that “aesthetic experiences” come in many different varieties; not all fulfillments or the means to them are the same. So there is still the work of attending to the particular details in different cases even though the general outline of “fulfillment” is provided by his theory of the aesthetic.)

There are, of course, multiple theories of interpretation.  I want to bypass those to consider instead how we account for the art work’s having a meaning at all.  By what means does art convey its meanings?  The answers to this question are very often contrastive.  Unlike logic, reason, polemic, or assertion, art works by indirection.  It doesn’t state things outright (showing instead of telling); it works by inference and through emotional, more than intellectual, appeal.  The superiority of aesthetic modes of communication—or at least such modes being equally valid as more direct ones—motivates many discussions of this issue.

There are different schools of thought.  The Martha Nussbaum camp wants to insist on the aesthetic as cognitive.  Art provides knowledge about the world just as much as science does—and art’s knowledge might very well be superior because it blends the emotional and the reasonable instead of trying to purge emotion like positivism does.

Dewey inflects this all differently.  He holds on to science as our best means for learning the potentials of nature.  Then the knowledge that science offers contributes to the more comprehensive aesthetic project of fulfillment.  Art can convey the knowledge that satisfactory experiences are possible.  But more important to Dewey than the possible “cognitive” function of art is its enabling impact on its audiences.  The shaping of sensibility (character) that art can accomplish “is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude” (334).  “Compared with [art’s] influence things directly taught by word and precept are pale and ineffectual. . . . The sum total of the effect of all reflective treatises on morals is insignificant in comparison with the influence of architecture, novel, drama, on life” (345).

Why does Dewey think the arts more effective in shaping our values and our ways of living?  It is precisely here that he falls back on the term “meaning”—and uses it in the non-technical, non-pragmatist way.  The “stabilizing” and “enduring forces” in a “civilization” (or “culture”; Dewey uses the terms interchangeably) are founded upon the “meaning given in imagination” it provides for its members (326).  “[T]he multitudes of passing incidents” that comprise life must be “organized into the meanings that form minds” (326).  We process experience through those meanings—which shape our interpretations of our situations and influence the values (attitudes, concerns) by which we understand and judge those situations.  Art serves to “consolidate” these available meanings, by giving them enduring “objective expression” (326).  “If social customs are more than uniform external modes of action (i.e. if they become internalized structures of feeling), it is because they are saturated with story and transmitted meaning” (326).

Here’s my attempt at the best way to understand Dewey at this point.  (I don’t know if I personally subscribe to this view.  I have to think about it more.  But I do think this is what Dewey believes.)  Science provides meanings in the technical pragmatist sense.  The scientist aims for the fullest account possible of the consequences that might flow from any particular state of affairs.  The experimental method provides the best way to tease out all those possible consequences.  Intelligence entails relying on the experimental method–and in cases where that method has provided reliable (even though “fallible”) knowledge, intelligence acts upon that knowledge.

There is, however, also another set of meanings—the meanings that human actors have given to their experiences, meanings that relate to how satisfactory, how fulfilling, how important or trivial, they find some experiences as compared to others.  These meanings are connected to desire and to the formation of purposes.  Science is never disconnected from purposes for Dewey; all inquiry is motivated in his view.  Still, conscious reflection on purposes is not pursued via the experimental method.  (Dewey does not appear interested—except in one short passage I will get to in a subsequent post—with the idea that art works are thought experiments.)  Rather, such reflection involves 1) an introspective awareness of one’s desires; 2) an engagement with (internalization of) the values provided by one’s culture; and 3) an image of possible fulfillment that is responsive to the situation at hand and enacted by a practical interaction with the elements of that situation.  “Meaning” is the term that sums up this combination of received values, individual purposes, and evaluation of/ interaction with the environment.  Meaning is what motivates. It moves the philosopher toward an account of what Kenneth Burke called “the grammar of motives.”  Art is a privileged place where meanings in that sense are stored, examined, articulated, displayed, interrogated, fooled around with in playful and not so playful ways.  And art seems to be a privileged place for one’s immersion into the realm of meanings—and one’s becoming initiated into various attitudes toward the values that meanings instantiate

Enough for today.  As I said, I don’t know if this account is what I mean by meaning. I do think I have offered a fair “reconstruction” of Dewey’s use of the term.  All I know for myself is that I think there is some kind of connection between art and the claim that “meaning” is important.

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