Category: Literary studies

Cakes and Ale and the Mellon Foundation

Sir Toby:
Dost thou think because thou
art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Twelfth Night Act 2, scene 3, 114–115

The Mellon Foundation has announced that, starting now, all its funding will prioritize work in the arts and humanities that advances “social justice.”  I will admit to very mixed feelings on reading this news.  Here’s a link about the shift:


First, a little bit about Mellon before my reaction.  This year the Foundation will make $500 million worth of grants.  They are the gorilla in the world of funding for the arts and humanities.  Only the NEH and NEA are even remotely comparable in terms of supporting organizations and big collaborative projects.  Individual fellowships are available from the ACLS and places like the National Humanities Center, but Mellon has been the place for infrastructural support of institutions.

Mellon has gone through a sea-change over the past thirty years.  In the 1990s, they were an astoundingly elite organization, with their humanities funding going almost exclusively to private universities with very few exceptions.  In the early 2000s they decided it was time to expand their portfolio and came to the University of North Carolina.  It has always been true that Mellon comes to you; there is no application process, just an invitation from Mellon to submit a proposal. It will be interesting to see if the new emphasis on social justice will be accompanied by a more open application process.  Getting in the door at Mellon has always been extraordinarily difficult, especially for those further down the prestige chain.

UNC’s first proposal was for Mellon to support our fledgling Latino Studies program.  Mellon was not interested in anything so politically fraught; it ended up funding our second proposal instead—for a program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS).  Mellon’s evolution can be charted in the fact that its next two humanities projects it funded at UNC were in the digital humanities and then in the public humanities.  In other words, between 2004 when it funded MEMS and 2016 when it funded the Public Humanities Program, Mellon had moved from focusing on elite traditional scholarship to encouraging emerging humanities practices (digital humanities) and then on to supporting efforts to move the humanities out into public space beyond the university.

I have, over the past ten years or so, taken to asking various people: “do you think there will be professors of Victorian literature in fifty years?”  I take their answer as a litmus test of how far their heads are stuck in the sand.  To me it seems obvious that certain forms of literary scholarship are fast becoming dinosaurs.  And it also seems (to me, at least) incredibly difficult to justify the study of English literature as crucial to just about any good (social or individual) that we can name.  Do we really think our society is going to keep subsidizing the study of Dickens—and keep requiring that students read Dickens?  Only institutional inertia keeps the practice alive.

And yet.  Do we want to live in a world where no one reads Dickens?  In a society that says we can’t afford Dickens?  That we have other more important matters to attend to?  Even when the rationale is “social justice,” not economic viability, the reasoning is still utilitarian.  Activities without an impact, a deliverable, must go by the boards.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations abandoned the arts and humanities some years back.  The Mellon Foundation became the only place to go.  Mellon was a strong supporter of humanities institutes like the one I directed at UNC.  And it was a very generous supporter of arts programming at UNC, most memorably in our extravagant celebration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—featuring commissioned performances, an academic conference, classes on modernism, and visiting artists.

It is hard to see how that Rite of Spring project could claim to contribute to social justice.  Is every dance company that looks to Mellon for support going to have to show how its choreography contributes to social justice?  Must humanities scholarship claim a social impact to garner Mellon money?

I have said my feelings are mixed.  I understand that Dickens scholarship may be a luxury we cannot afford.  It seems presumptuous to claim one is entitled to make a living teaching and studying Dickens.  For many years, I evaluated proposals for dissertation fellowships from across the university.  It was always difficult to balance a project from Public Health on breast cancer in non-white communities against a thesis on Melville.  The significance and social contribution of the one was obvious, while the work on Melville seemed like fiddling while Rome burned.  But what kind of society do we end up with if we declare non-utilitarian pursuits are a “privilege” that must be renounced?  No cakes and ale for the likes of you.

The arts and humanities in the United States have, to a very large extent, retreated to university campuses. (Outside of two or three big cities, any innovative or “avant-garde” artistic endeavors survive because of university support.)  In the midst of the pandemic, universities are in dire straits—and it doesn’t take a weatherman to see any ill wind as bringing more cuts to arts and humanities programs/departments that were already in a precarious position prior to COVID-19.  Mellon has been an increasingly crucial partner with universities since 2000—and has in the last twenty years extended that partnership far beyond the elite privates and the public flagships.

What is that partnership going to look like under the banner of “social justice”?  Access and affordability are certainly social justice issues—and there is much Mellon can do to further those goals.  So maybe more traditional (or more experimental), less immediately presentist, work will be supported if it has credible plans for reaching formerly unreached audiences.  But just how potentially popular will something have to be to qualify?

It’s ironic that I have these doubts and fears since I spent most of my academic career trying to push my discipline of literary studies and my university’s curriculum toward a more direct engagement with the analysis of contemporary society and its problems (injustices and inequities).  I think my hesitation now has to do with what seems to me an oversimplified vision of the relation of the arts to social issues.  I don’t think—at least in many cases—that there is a direct path from artistic vision or humanities scholarship to social effects.  Reading novels does not guarantee that the reader will care about, much less do anything to promote, social justice.  If Mellon insists on such direct social pay-offs, it will abandon large swathes of work in the arts and the humanities that it has supported in the past.  Such work really has no place else to go for support—and its loss will be felt in an artistic and scholarly world that will be diminished (less diverse) because Mellon has put its thumb on the scale.

Futility and Despair

Like Tristram Shandy, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the things swirling in my head.  So much is going in—all the reading I am doing plus the daily gleanings from the web—that I have lots that feels like it needs to go out.  I keep falling behind.

However, it is not the futility of my getting it all down or despair over time’s finitude (and its resultant cruelty) that is my topic today.  The topic is contemporary art.

Nick and I had our second zoom conversation about John Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  Dewey argues (both in that book and in a chapter entitled “Qualitative Thought” in Philosophy and Civilization) that humans intuitively grasp situations in their “qualitative unity” before proceeding to any kind of analysis of the components of the situation.  He also (it seems to me, but Nick would disagree) appears to claim that situations actually possess that qualitative unity.  We have satisfactory or fulfilling experiences when we are best aligned with what the situation affords, or when we can work on what it affords to shape it to better suit our needs.  Art is important because it models this fulfilling alignment; it offers instances of creative interaction that brings “form” to the interaction, crafting the situation’s elements into “equilibrium” or “harmony.”

There are features of this view of what art does which, in fact, I find helpful to my ongoing desire to consider the connection between art and meaning.  But I am going to leave that aside for the moment in order to address a different point here—basically the observation that Dewey’s picture of art as stated in the previous paragraph seems utterly antithetical to much artistic practice since 1910.  (On or around 1910, Virginia Woolf told us, human nature changed.)

Much art—and most “high” or “serious” art—of the past 100 years has displayed the futility of all attempts to apprehend or craft “unity.”  “These fragments I have shored against my ruin” can be written over the portals of modern (and postmodern) art—an updated version of “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Dewey looks old-fashioned and naïve with his talk of unity and harmony.  Of course, that Dewey is old-fashioned and naïve is a standard critique.  Like Whitman, he lacks any idea of evil.

Many modern paintings are cluttered.  They are not “composed,” but scattered, with no clear pathway for the eye to follow, no “form” that brings all the elements into order.

But, for my primary example, I will take the contemporary “serious” novel.  Experimental fiction is pretty much dead, but those avant-garde narratives are all about fragmentation.  The same goes for avant-garde poetry.

More “realistic” fiction, it seems to me, comes in primarily two forms.  There are the domestic novels (think Julia Glass, Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Franzen), rooted in upper middle-class life and its romantic and family problems.  Updated Updike and Cheever.

And there are the novels about social injustice.  These novels (interestingly enough) are, more often, than not “historical”—and tell the tale of how the downtrodden are trodden down, with the rich and powerful escaping scot free.  Colson Whitehead (I have pasted at the end of this post the relevant passages from a recent interview with him) sums it up: “the guilty escape punishment, the innocent suffer.”  This glum conclusion fits any number of novels by Toni Morrison, Sebastian Barry, James Welch, Edward P. Jones, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others; these victim tales appear to confirm Whitehead’s glum conclusion about “human nature” and the inevitable (?) “tendency” of the “powerful . . . to tyrannise and bully the weak.”  These novels are committed to witnessing, to telling the tales that the powerful would rather remain untold.  They can hardly be faulted for the desire to bring injustice to the light.  But they have nothing to offer beyond witness, beyond indignation.  They don’t imagine (because, it seems, they don’t believe in) any way to move beyond injustice.  Injustice is an old story that is bound to occur again and again.

I think these novels of despair come close to Nietzschean nihilism.  Nietzsche wants to enlist art in the difficult effort to “affirm” this life, even with all its imperfections.  Finding the grounds for affirmation is hardly easy, but giving into despair is, for Nietszche as much as for Christian orthodoxy, the ultimate sin.  For Nietzsche, the solution was the masochistic embrace of suffering, his amor fati.  But James Baldwin offers a different path; his story “Sonny’s Blues” displays his hope (his reliance) on love (a recurrent term in Baldwin) and on art to allow us to endure, perhaps even rise above, the inevitable suffering that life is going to deal out to us.

When talking about my frustration with these novels, Nick reminds me I am just repeating my desire for “liberal comedies.”  I want plots that move us toward more just, more humane societies.  Plots that imagine reform, melioration, in the right direction.  Steps toward a better world—an idea that fits not only with William James’ “meliorism,” but also with Dewey’s concrete account of adjustments to a situation.  The problem with despair is that it is too abstract; it insists that only a global transformation of the whole system (of “human nature”?) can do the job—and then hasn’t a clue about what steps might even be taken to get you closer to such a transformation.  It’s magical thinking, tied to an all or nothing vision.  Either we are living in hell or in heaven—and since it’s obvious we ain’t in heaven, we are clearly in the other place.

Among the non-realistic novelists the same despair is prevalent.  Salman Rushdie and J. M. Coetzee have an equally bleak view of human nature and certainly don’t offer any vision of more just or desirable social arrangements.   In speculative fiction (David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood), some grand catastrophe does bring about the kind of complete transformation more realistic fictions don’t dare to imagine.  But those transformations only deliver a world even worse than the contemporary one.  When it comes to imagining an alternative society, it seems variants of the one offered by The Lord of the Flies is the best we can do.  Ursula LeGuin’s work offers a welcome exception to this generalization about imagined post-catastrophe futures.

There have been some “serious” realistic novels that have attempted to locate their characters in contemporary political/economic context (unlike the domestic novels I mentioned above).  Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December; Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens; John Lanchester, Capital; Joseph O’Neill, Netherland.  The first three are “ensemble” novels, tracking a variety of characters.  And those characters end up with a variety of outcomes—which does avoid the powerful/victim dichotomy of the witness novels.  These novels seem less driven by a need to indignantly call out injustice and more focused on the multiple ways people survive or fail to survive contemporary conditions.

O’Neill’s novel is interesting because it combines the domestic novels focus on family relations with the more sociological interests that drive its portrait of post-9/11 New York City.  Liberal comedy (from Shakespeare to Anthony Trollope to 1930s screwball films and beyond) often rests on a homology between the central couple whose endangered love relationship is the focus of the plot and a reformed society.  If the couple can successfully consummate their love that is because the society which thwarted them has been reformed in the course of the play/novel/film.  (This is basic C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye on the theory of comedy.)

From the start (as recognized by Walter Scott in his commentary on his own novel Waverly), the great problem faced by the “historical novel” (or by any novel attempting to portray individualized fictional characters caught up in events of historical significance) was to make the connection between the character’s eventual fate and what those events wrought.  That Prince Andrei dies in War and Peace is fitting; to be in the Napoleonic Wars would very likely lead one to death.  That was the impact those wars had on individuals.  But the novelist can hardly just march all his characters off to death.

How, then to align the fate of the characters who survive with the state that society reaches after the events of the novel?  The happy marriage of Pierre and Natasha is discontinuous with the reactionary course followed by the Russian state after 1815.  They escape into a separate peace—and that kind of escape (also enjoyed by Waverly in Scott’s novel) becomes the norm in most realistic novels, even the ones that import historical events and historical figures into their plots.  The battle of Culloden destroys Scottish Highland society, but Waverly gives the battle a miss and his life is not destroyed. In O’Neill’s Netherland, the protagonist saves his marriage precisely by renouncing the public world of New York City’s financial industry.  He can have one or the other, but not both.  The corruption of the financial world makes a genuine and sustainable romantic relationship impossible.  The primary character who remains behind in that world after the protagonist abandons it is doomed.

One way, then, to describe the lack of unity that prevails in “modern” art is precisely the ever-widening gulf between public and private.  We live utterly fragmented lives.  Domestic comedy abounds; we can imagine the joys and tribulations of family life and friendship.  We can even imagine the joys and tribulations of the workplace (Parks and Rec; Thirty Rock; The Office), but we can’t translate the comraderies, the necessary tolerances of how others annoy us, the ability to shrug off (even enjoy) differences and eccentricities, into the public sphere.

We can’t connect, as E. M. Forster urged us to do in Howard’s End.  Forster at least had the country house—a domestic space that carries a larger social import—for his effort to bridge the gap between public and private.  We have no apparent bridges of any sort.  We stand dismayed by the nastiness of our politics and the brutalities of our economic order, even as we carve out loves and friendships we can affirm.  No wonder our art is all about disconnection.

Nick’s way of describing modern art’s lack of unity was very different from mine.  He attributed it to art’s becoming more and more entangled in, focused on, its own institutions.  Going that route also highlights disconnection—but now the alienation of art from the “lifeworld” (to resurrect Habermas’ way of talking about this issue).  The idea in Habermas was that modernity tended to segregate various activities (the scientific/technical; the aesthetic; the economic; the scholarly) into relatively autonomous spheres (we could call them “professions,” although he does not) which end up mostly speaking to themselves—and hence divorced from the “lifeworld” (understood as the daily life of social intercourse and domestic relations).  Certainly, Dewey is all about re-integrating the aesthetic back into the ordinary; he wants the aesthetic and the ordinary to be continuous, even though (the topic for a future post) he still wants the aesthetic to be distinctive.

So what Nick is pointing out is that artists speak more and more only to other artists, other insiders.  The practice of art is increasingly self-referential in the sense that works are best understood in dialogue with previous works, with prevailing discussions in the field. This self-enclosure is mirrored by the creation of institutions specific to the practice, and to a primary desire to impress (communicate with) those positioned within the field.

This development of specific institutions and a set of recognized practitioners fragments art in two ways: one, no work can be a self-sufficient unity because it refers to, stands in relation to, other works.  (Dewey actually seems to accept this fact since he is adamant that the present always stands in relation to the past; but that acceptance does seem a problem for his insistence on the “qualitative unity” of a situation.)

Two, more crucially, the more any pursuit becomes closed off from the comprehension of outsiders (the less it engages in fruitful interchanges with different pursuits), the less likely we are to find bridges across the divides between pursuits—and the divide from the lifeworld.  We get here another version of the old Lukacs and Jameson diagnosis: we (and the fate of the novel since Tolstoy and George Eliot is one symptom of this fact) are less and less able to comprehend totality—where “comprehend” means not just “to understand,” but also to capture or contain within any aesthetic or intellectual form.  Fragmentation is the order of the day because unity is now, quite simply, beyond our capabilities.

I have a bit more to say on this topic.  But will stop here for today.

Here is the interview with Colson Whitehead.  I have given you about half of it—but pretty much all the substantive parts.  But here’s the link to the whole thing.

“It is a story,” says Whitehead, “about how powerful people get away with abusing the powerless and are never called to account.”

He uses the term “human nature” more than once and one senses that the writing of his past couple of books has reinforced his essential belief that, as he says at one point, “people are terrible – we invent all sorts of different reasons to hate people. We always have and we always will.” Does he really believe that? “Well, in terms of human nature, the powerful tend to tyrannise and bully the weak. I really don’t think that will change very much. In fact, I think we will continue to treat each other pretty horribly in the way I described in The Nickel Boys for all eternity.”

For all that, The Nickel Boys, despite passages of dark, almost gothic horror, is a tentatively redemptive fiction, a survivor’s story. I wondered if the creation of the wounded characters in his most recent novel and the tracing of their traumatised lives took a psychological toll on Whitehead.

He tells me that, throughout the writing of the book, he would open a file on his computer every morning and see a note he had posted there when he began. It read: “The guilty escape punishment. The innocent suffer.” He had put it there to remind him what the story he was telling was really about. “And yet,” he says, “the last third of the book is really about all the other stuff that is not in those two lines: what do you do with that? How do you live with that knowledge? And, how do you make a life?”

The Aesthetic

My friend Nick Gaskill and I have embarked on a plan to read about the aesthetic—and talk about what we are reading over the ubiquitous Zoom.  Nick is interested in “aesthetic education,” partly because his fabulous book Chromographia: American Literature and the Modernization of Color (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) uncovered the (at least to me) surprising fact that American schools at the turn of the 20th century developed specific pedagogies to teach pupils the different colors and their relation to one another.

But this interest is also partly fueled by a return to the aesthetic in recent work—work that Nick has been pushing me to read.  In their own ways, Rita Felski’s anti-critique campaign, Caroline Levine’s book on “form,” the Joseph North history of criticism, Michael Clune’s work on judgment, Fred Moten’s development of his notion of the “undercommons,” and Saidiya Hartman’s interest in “beautiful experiments” all try to mobilize the aesthetic as a site of resistance to the dominant order.

Déja vu all over again.  The 30s and the 80s were all about, as Walter Benjamin put it, making aesthetics political. [In other words, right wing triumphs in the political realm seem to inevitably generate attempts to use art against the regime.] In Benjamin’s case, that project was poised against the ways that fascism “aestheticized politics.”  For Nick (inspired partly by Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories), there is not just the aesthetized politics of Trump (can’t take our eyes off the spectacle he offers daily), but also the meretricious everyday aestheticism of consumer capitalism.  All dressed up and ready to spend.

Can some other (truer? proper? more tasteful?) version of the aesthetic combat its trivialization in our culture?  I have had very little to say about the aesthetic over my long career—and pretty much abandoned literary criticism as soon as I got tenure in 1987.  I read novels voraciously, and taught literature all the time, but I lost (if I ever had) any ability to do the kinds of things critics do, especially fancy formal readings.  I became (probably always was) a “naïve” reader of texts—interested in meaning, content.  I have very little avant-garde sensibility when it comes to art: I like novels with plots and characters.  My taste does run to the abstract in painting, but that’s because I love vivid color, while I find the chaotic incoherence of much surrealism distinctly unappealing.  Pop usually strikes me as cheap, cynical tricks, although I like Roy Lichtenstein.  But give me Diebenkorn over Warhol any day.

More theoretically, I have had two problems with the aesthetic.  The first is how to even define it.  I knew someone who was into vintage cars.  His appreciation for them seemed as fully aesthetic as mine for abstract painting.  And some of those cars seemed worthy of (in fact were) being placed in museums.  Yet it seemed absurd to do somersaults to show how his fascination with cars was political in any way.  And I was similarly (in almost all cases) unimpressed by efforts to show me that Mondrian or Matisse was somehow political.

Instead, it seemed to me that lovers of painting and novels (for some reason) were just more prone to feel guilty about their love than those who fancied antique cars.  That guilt generated their need to justify their love by painting it up as radical, as a blow for the revolution etc.  That two things—a commitment to leftist causes and a love of novels—happened to co-exist in the same person in no way demonstrated that one was related (causally and necessarily) to the other.  No one tries to connect my being addicted to running as exercise to my political convictions.

Worse still, in my view, was that the attempts to tie the aesthetic to politics led to gestural politics.  Proving that a close reading of Moby Dick was political left you off the hook.  You got to spout all kinds of rousing slogans—and didn’t have to do any of the work of political organizing and political action.  “Get real,” I always found myself saying.  Another reading of Moby Dick is not going to change the world.  It is bad faith to pretend otherwise.  And there seemed no lack of bad faith in the various art worlds out there.  Parading one’s virtue stood in for rolling up one’s sleeves and actually going to work.

In fact, it seemed most artists and academics (of the literary variety) were allergic to collective, collaborative work, with all its messy compromises and inefficiencies.  They were loners, pursuing their own visions in splendid isolation before presenting the finished product to the world—and feeling hurt when the world did not respond with astonished applause.  The world also did not transform itself to correspond with the artist or author’s vision.

My skepticism duly registered, the point of this collaboration with Nick is (for me; I trust there will be a pay-off for him as well, but it will be a different one) to challenge these long-held prejudices of mine.  There are (immediately) two reasons for me to reconsider.

One, if I have been converted by recent events to the William James view that sensibility, not reason, is the more important factor in our adopting values and commitments, then art does seem to address sensibility more directly and effectively than other modes of discourse.  If the aim is to shape or transform sensibility, then attention to artistic modes seems imperative.  (In my 2002 book Democracy’s Children, I argue the opposite.  Basically, I wrote that since I believe my commitments have a good rational basis, it is condescending of me to assume that others’ commitments are a-rational in a way mine are not. I am still nervous about throwing reasons—offered in the public speech acts by which we try to persuade one another in a deliberative model of democracy—overboard.  But it is hard to retain any faith in deliberative democracy these days, when all sides seem so determined to not ever hear other sides, and refuse to give any credence to what others might say.)

Two, the focus on tying “education” to the “aesthetic” in the phrase “aesthetic education” shifts the playing field in the right direction (I think).  Now it is not the artist or critic’s performance that is political, but the shaping of sensibilities.  The question is not whether the art is political or has direct political effects.  The question becomes how (and why) it is useful to deploy art works as the means to developing certain sensibilities.

This pathway is fraught with many difficulties—and I warn you that, once again, a slew of posts is on the way.  But this educational project is one that makes sense to me in a way that claims for the political efficacy of “radical” readings of Moby Dick does not.

Nick and I started out by reading the first three chapters and the final one of John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934).  So my next few posts will try to consider features of the aesthetic—and the hallmarks of aesthetic sensibility—as gleaned from Dewey’s text.

Joseph North Six–Latour and Aesthetic Judgment

Clearly, Joseph North’s book has been left pretty far behind at this point.  But I will keep the heading in order to indicate that the thread, however tenuous, is still being pursued.  There will be a seventh post on this track—and then a stop.

In Latour, the different modes constitute different quasi-objects and quasi-subjects.  Perhaps the “quasi” is meant to indicate that both objects and subjects under-determine their identities because nothing becomes a “thing” except through the relations in which it is entangled and the “paths” it traverses or the “scripts” to which it contributes.  The solidity of “thingness” is only a momentary achievement—or, perhaps, embalming.  There is more than a little here of Deluezean vitalism, of “flows” or energies taking form, but only briefly before dissolving back again into motion.

Many years ago I formulated the phrase: “nothing is necessarily anything, but every thing is necessarily some thing.”  I have never quite dared to use this potted metaphysics in print, although I do think I have used the phrase “metaphysical egalitarianism.”  The idea—very Latour—is to grant all the components of “a situation” or of a network equal status as contributors to how that situation is judged—or to what that network is seen to produce.

At the same time, the first statement points to the fact that the judgment, the act of naming, will take place.  We will refer to the product of the network; we will describe what we take to be the situation.  Coming into the network, no component is pre-determined to play any specific role; its possibilities are not infinite, not completely unconstrained, but they are plural, more than the “one” of “necessity.”  The “existent” will become “some thing” through its acting and being acted upon in the network—and the full ensemble of relations will constitute the “situation,” or the “state of affairs” the inquirer encounters.  (Latour’s use of the word “Inquiry” in his title comes straight from Pearce and Dewey; it is not a term as dear to James as to those two other pragmatists.)

To return to the aesthetic object, it is fairly easy to fit Van Gogh’s Sunflowers into Latour’s model.  The painting has its existence as a painting by virtue of a whole set of institutions, traditions, canons of evaluation, methods of reproduction and circulation, that are complicated, but can be traced.  It “subsists” as an art object in and through these relationships.  But it also exists as a legal object through a different set of relationships—those of property, provenance, copyright, plagiarism, inheritance etc.  It just a obviously exists in an economic mode: the art market, the auction houses, the thousands of objects on which it is reproduced for sale in museum gift shops etc.  And we can also imagine it in Latour’s “political” mode, being taken up in ways meant to reinforce or to dismantle the formation of a “we,” of a community united around common goals/aspirations/values, or as a weapon wielded to undermine a “we” that is experienced as oppressive, exclusive, or unjust.

My worry, just to repeat from last time, is that, no matter what the mode, there is still a recognizable object: the painting Sunflowers by the man we know as Vincent Van Gogh.  I don’t see how we get ontological pluralism here; there is one object.  That object can be “taken up” in various ways.  Multiple modes does not, as far as I can tell, yield multiple objects.  Yes, the painting has to be constituted as “an economic object.”  But there is still a stubborn persistence across modes.  I don’t know if we have to identify the source of that persistence as “substance.”  But I guess I do believe that there is a material presence there: a thing to be perceived, handled, “taken up.”

All this brings me back to “meaning” and “aesthetic judgment.”  My intuition (what I am struggling to cash out) is that the aesthetic is particularly focused on “meaning,” where meaning means both how this thing (or this situation) is understood at this moment and what this thing or situation “means” to me in terms of the intensity of my interest, my care, my need for it.  That we have a “judge” here does not, I think, doom us to a spectator theory of knowledge.  The judgment is produced from the interaction with the thing, from the immersion in the situation to be evaluated.  But the judge does stand in a particular location within the network.  I do feel it can make sense in certain circumstances for me to feel unworthy of a situation, to feel that the situation is judging me along with my judging the situation.  But I find it harder to believe that the situation can itself feel unworthy of me, that a painting (no matter how mediocre) can feel embarrassed by being in the same room as the Van Gogh.

There is also, when it comes to aesthetic judgment, the asymmetry between the artist and audience to consider.  Aesthetic judgment for the artist is fully interactive, is a perfect example of Dewey’s insistence that ends emerge through the engagement with means.  The artist makes a thousand small judgments as she proceeds in the act of creation—and those judgments are produced by the tensions experienced in her manipulation of her means and her projection of her audience’s reactions.  The work produced is never the work imagined at the outset.  In fact, if my own writing practice is any indication, at the outset there is a vague sense of ground to be covered, of ideas to be explored, but what is actually going to end up being said on the page is a surprise.  I don’t know where my train of thought will go; the act of writing brings those thoughts into existence.  The thousand of small judgments produces the final product.

It is different for the audience.  It is a cliché by now that the work is completed by its audience.  So we don’t have to see that spectator in the art museum as a passive observer—or the painting on the wall as a passive object.  And, in fact, it seems that “meaning” is more obviously involved in this interaction than in the work of the painter herself.  The painter is trying to create a thing; the relation of those difficulties of creation to “meaning” are not clear-cut or obvious.  (That will be the subject of my next—and final—post in this thread.)  But the viewer’s judgment is, inevitably I would say, one of value.

Traditionally, this has been said (by Kant and many others) to take the form: is this work beautiful or not?  That focus on “beauty” seems a very bad mistake.  For one thing, it sets up one standard of value where in fact there are many.  It is also leads, surprisingly quickly, to a connection between art and the numinous.  Art gets transported away from the ordinary—and is burdened with the expectation that it will somehow provide some special insight into realms of value normally hidden from us.  To invest the world we inhabit with meaning, with a vitality or glow, that attracts our interest, our attention, even our care (as in Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi”) is a very different matter than offering us intimations of some all-encompassing, all-explanatory account of it all.  Worst of all, is when that art-conveyed message is somehow meant to “redeem” this world, to “save” us from some projected despair of “meaninglessness,” or from the all-too-real fact of suffering.

Instead of beauty, I will settle for intensity and affirmation.  (Pater and Nietzsche are certainly lurking in the shadows here.)  If art alerts us as to what we might care for, then it is giving us specific instances of experiences, ideas, emotions, human achievement—in short, examples—that make life worth living.  Good art energizes; it awakens us (Pater’s metaphor) to what the world has to offer.  That’s how a work as dismal as King Lear can be utterly exhilarating to read.  To think that a human being was capable of producing such a magnificent work.

Here is where, following William James, I retain a stubborn, irreducible, subjectivism.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink—as every teacher knows.  Granting everything Latour has to say about the complicated networks and multiple interactions required to get King Lear into my hands; granting everything Bourdieu has to say about the social determinants of taste; there remains the fact that King Lear speaks to me in ways Hamlet does not.  I teach the one almost every year, and have taught the other twice, most recently over twenty years ago.  I can’t light up Hamlet for my students because it does not light me up.  And even when I feel like my classes on Lear have gone well, I know there are students that the play does not reach.  It leaves them cold (a great metaphor in this instance).

To repeat: I think I am on the right path to think that aesthetic judgment is not so much about beauty as it is about meaningfulness.  Some thing (and it does not have to be something deemed “a work of art”) is experienced as shot full of meaning.  That’s the aesthetic mode.  I want (like Dewey in Art and Experience) to make that judgment of meaningfulness mundane.  We are not being given some key to the universe, some access to the numinous, by the work of art.  We are simply (simply!) able to see, through the work, that our world (at some times and in some ways) is luminous.