Category: Judgment

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.

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 match.com 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.

On Judgment

In an essay on Gerhard Richter entitled “The Master of Unknowing” [New York Review of Books, Volume LXVII, No. 8, May 14, 2020], Susan Tallman quotes Richter:

“Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.”  A good picture “takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name.  It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view” (4).

Tallman then writes: “Richter is contemporary art’s great poet of uncertainty; his work sets the will to believe and the obligation to doubt in perfect oscillation. . . . Though his influence has indeed been profound, it has played out in eyes rather than hands, shifting the ways in which we look, and what we expect looking to do for us” (4).  She concludes her essay by saying that Richter’s art is “an assertion of endless possibility” (8).

I read this assessment of Richter as pointing toward an attempt to suspend judgment.  The aim is to arrest the movement from perception (‘looking’) to naming—what Kant calls “determinate judgment.”  Judgment, it would seem, can not be avoided altogether.  Notice how Richter’s statement—with its hostility to “meaning”—reintroduces “significance” in the very next sentence.  The real stakes rest (it seems to me) on the contrast between the “manifold” (a pluralism that generates multiple possibilities) and the singular (a “name” that would designate the object as one, and only one, thing, with a clear and determinate “meaning”).

The hope of arresting judgment, of deliberately frustrating our habitual rush to designate some thing as this or that, does seem characteristic of much modern art.  First, there is the continual desire for “pure”perception, for a perceptual experience that is not directed or shaped by conceptual judgment.  Second, there is the attraction to difficulty and ambiguity, both of which make a singular judgment difficult to make.  The artist wants to resist having his work easily digestible, easily categorized.  A glancing look should not suffice.  We should be made to pause before the work, to see its multiple possibilities.  It should arrest the eye—but, even more importantly, arrest the mind.

Is judgment just slower to arrive in such cases—or can the urge/need to judge (to name) be frustrated altogether?  Can we just have the “looking” and stop there?  A perceptual experience relieved of any act of naming what we are seeing/touching etc.?  Perhaps that perceptual experience is linked to an inchoate emotion, a kind of “raw feel” to go with the “pure perceiving”—and we get no further, not naming the experience and not feeling any need to name it, just resting in it.

In any case, that seems to me one version of the modern artist’s hostility to—or, at least, suspicion of –“meaning.”  And one version of the strategies adopted to frustrate the processes through which “meaning” is assigned.

However, as detailed in Florian Klinger’s essay “To Make that Judgment: The Pragmatism of Gerhard Richter” (in Judgment and Action: Fragments Toward a History, ed. by Vivasvan Soni and Thomas Pfau [Northwestern University Press, 2018], 239-67], Richter does expect “judgment” to play a crucial role in the act of creation and the act of reception when it comes to works of art.  Richter’s method (as he describes it) is “to paint without a plan,” “to smear anything I want on it [the canvas].”  But as the process continues, “each step forward is more difficult and I feel less and less free until I conclude there’s nothing left to do.  When, according to my standard, nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop.  Then it’s good.” (249).   The criteria is not meaning, but some sort of aesthetic quality.  There is a “standard” of judgment, even if that standard is vague.  When his interlocutor tries to press him to be more specific about what “good” means, Richter replies: “It just doesn’t look good. Then it’s wrong.”  The interviewer presses on: “Can we dig deeper than looking good or bad?”  to which Richter responds:  “It’s extremely difficult.  We’re all completely equal here.  The producer and consumer, artist and observer, both must have one quality: to be able to see if it’s good or not.  To make that judgment” (249).

I don’t really know what to do with this, except to make three observations.  First, the issue of “taste,” or “sensibility,” keeps rearing its (ugly?) head.  What’s this “quality” of being able to see if something is good or not?  Where does it come from?  How do you tell when someone has it—or does not have it?  Classical conundrums that keep recurring.  Presumably there are many ways to be “good”; that’s why one keeps producing new works—or keeps going to view new ones.  But still there is dichotomous judgment to be made.  This one is good; that one is not.  And we receive little guidance as to how that judgment is to be made.

Second, Richter (throwing up his hands; “it’s extremely difficult”) asserts an equality between artist and audience (even as his words acknowledge a distinction of roles).  The judgments made by the artist is the process of creation are guided by the same standard—of goodness—that guides the spectator’s response to the work.

Third, can this judgment of goodness occur without a judgment as to meaning?  Can there be that suspension of interpretation, of naming, that seems to be the goal?  It seems easier to say that it is not the artist’s business to concern herself with the meaning of what she produces.  The question of meaning may never arise in her practice—and the possible meaning of her work for its audience may be of no interest or concern to her.  It is also possible to say that the meanings that her finished work calls forth for its audiences were not consciously controlled or produced by the artist.  The work encompasses things outside that artist’s control; part of the pleasure of artistic creation is precisely that.  As Richter puts it, “Something happens spontaneously. Not by itself, but without plan or reason” (249).  [Here we get the “interactive” understanding of artistic creation.]

Still, even if we can see the process of artistic production as unfolding apart from the question of meaning, can we say the same of the process of reception by the audience?  Can the audience judge the work good or not apart from also judging what kind of thing it is (naming) and understanding its significance in relation to that name?  We are in Kant’s territory again since it would seem a judgment of goodness in the absence of any act of naming would be a “reflective judgment” (not a determinate one) because the work would be viewed as utterly singular (the only one of its kind, thus not “a kind” at all. Only a proper name, not a generic one, would be adequate to it).  And to finish up by returning to the Tallman passage: it would seem that to have no determinate name, to have no determinate meaning, would be to have multiple possible significances.  The paradox would be that the “singular” (by escaping categorization) becomes plural.   It gets to be a shape-shifter.