April 16, 2006

The Privileging of Use, Pt. 2




In The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, Umberto Eco writes of James Joyce's comprehension and depiction of Thomas Aquinas' theories of aesthetics in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

. . . Joyce understood that the Aristotelian and Thomist aesthetics were not at all concerned with the affirmation of the artist's self: the work is an object which expresses its own structural laws and not the person of the author. For this reason, Joyce was convinced that he would not be able to elaborate a theory of the creative process on the basis of Thomist thinking. Scholasticism undoubtedly had a theory of ars, but this did not shed light on the process of poetic creation. Although the idea of ars, as recta ratio factibilium or ratio recta aliquorum faciendorum could be of use to him, Joyce reduces this to a concise formula: "Art . . . . is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end" [p 207]. By adding "for an esthetic end," a precision which is not considered in the medieval formula, he changes the meaning of the old definition, passing from the Greco-Latin idea of "techne-ars" to the modern one of "art" as exclusively "fine arts."

This comparative analysis of “medieval” (Thomist, or Scholasticism) and “modern” art theories by Mr. Eco serves to direct our discussion “back on topic” to the “privileging of use” in defining or delineating works of/as art and/or architecture. Perhaps the extremities of these divergent eras, with their correspondent oppositional premises, would seem obtuse and incompatible. However, the fact remains that there is a distinct “modernity” to the idea of an artwork being defined as “an object which expresses its own structural laws and not the person of the author,” as was originally posited by Aristotle and further elucidated by Aquinas in the 13th Century. Surely there are others besides myself who will note the similarities to Roland Barthes’ seminal essay, "The Death of the Author" and will begin future research for proper dissertation.

The chief reason this excerpt is of interest, and why I bring it to our attention, is twofold; first, how one author’s definition of art, albeit cobbled together from previous definitions, has influenced the “modern” notion of how objects classed as “fine arts” differ from “useful” objects; and, second, how a “close” or deconstructive reading of his words fully illustrates that the play of “meaning” in written language is contingent on the epistemic construction of that “meaning.”

Briefly, the idea of “intelligible matter” that “functions” purely “for an [a]esthetic end” is Joyce’s (and modernity’s) wish fulfillment for an art that could (re)gain equality with an older, tradition of utilitarianism. That this is still a topic for debate over 2,000 years later indicates that there is clearly a reluctance to comprehend the idea of “usefulness” for “fine art” objects. Further still, it does not eliminate the exploration, which has not sufficiently begun on these pages, of the rationale of “use” being the generative criterion for the distinction of “fine” from “useful” arts, as expressed by Ms. Last in her essay, "Function and Field: Demarcating Conceptual Practices".

Last week, Mr. Gagnon wrote that, “The visually literate are free to develop the aesthetic autonomy required to define value, function and utility for themselves.” If one were to bluntly dissect his quote using a “Marxist” critique, one might approach an understanding of our preference for “aesthetic autonomy” based on social and economic class distinctions. Without considering the contradictions inherent in a term like “visually literate,” conflating as it does two distinct modes of “language,” to distinguish the “visually literate” from those less educated surely entangles us in “socio-economic” theories, per se. As we read earlier this semester in James Gaywood’s essay:

[Pierre]Bourdieu’s analysis of the organizing mechanisms perpetuating class hierarchy in society in relation to distinctions of taste is rooted in that most dense site of subjectivity, namely “Art.” Works of art that are “legitimated” by taste distinctions maintain a reproducing system of interrelated economic and cultural capital. This latter, socially oriented value relation is manifested through class-associated qualities of education and habitus that apexes with the intellectual class responsible for the epistemological acknowledgement and overt valorization of that art termed exceptional and of historical importance.

Possibly this represents a concise exposition of the “privileging of use” as a hierarchical determination by the “intellectual class,” perhaps beginning with Joyce and traceable to ancient Greece. A post-colonial “reading” might even bring indictments against these very same Greeks, and medieval monks, as initiating our post-modern downfall and the disintegration of all “meaning” within Western culture with their “architecture” of “Western” dominance in philosophy and, by further implication, epistemology.

To return to Joyce’s quote, and practicing a “closer” read, by investing his “poetic creation” in advance of an “[a]esthetic end” he subliminally introduced the idea of “self” into the “human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter.” This rather remarkable “precision” is also possibly weaker than merely admitting that “sensible or intelligible matter” must provide a “use.” Joyce sets the stage (not alone, of course, since thousands of poets, painters and authors were toiling away at “self-expression” in 1916) for an apologetic reappraisal of the “work” of art. The dominance of “self-expression” in both “fine” and “useful” arts during the 20th Century lead to the creation of “fine arts” and buildings of extreme “self-consciousness,” for example, in the paintings of Jackson Pollock and the architecture of Frank Gehry. The point I am tenaciously addressing here is that our “modern” conception of “self,” which detached us from aesthetics, and our privileging of “use,” both emanate from overarching and ancient theories of art that have ironically established their precedence as the “dominant discourse” of "modernism" and functionalism.

Photograph of Walt Disney Concert Hall courtesy of Richard A. Meade.

4 comments:

richard a. meade said...

“That aesthetic theory has received so little attention from the world is not due to the unimportance of the subject of which it treats, but rather to lack of an adequate motive for speculating upon it, and the small success of the occasional efforts to deal with it………what has chiefly maintained such speculation as the world has seen has been either theological passion or practical use. All we find, for example, written about beauty may be divided into two groups: that group of writings in which philosophers have interpreted aesthetic facts in light of their metaphysical principles, and made of their theory of taste a corollary or footnote to their system; and the group in which artists and critics have ventured into philosophic ground, by generalizing somewhat the maxims of the craft or the comments of the sensitive observer. A treatment of the subject at once direct and theoretic has been very rare: the problems of nature and morals have attracted the reasoners, and the description and creation of beauty have absorbed the artists; between the two, reflection upon aesthetic experience has remained abortive or incoherent.”
George Santayana: from “The Sense of Beauty”

The concept of “self” i.e. mind, is inseparable from human “expression”. Expression being part of the consciousness of the human mind and the mind being the instrument of all speculation both creatively and cognitively. In all expressions, we will find two things; the first is the object actually presented, the word, the image, the expressive thing; the second is the object suggested, i.e. the further thought, emotion, or image evoked or the thing expressed.

According to Santayana in his book, The Sense of Beauty, there are three distinct elements of ethics and aesthetics and three different ways of approaching the subject. The first being, moral or aesthetic faculty, based on character, enthusiasm, niceness of perception, and fineness of emotion. The second, “the historical explanation of conduct or of art as a part of anthropology, and seeks to discover the conditions of various types of character, forms of polity, conceptions of justice, and schools of criticism and of art. The philosophy of art has often proved a more tempting subject than the psychology of taste, especially to minds which were not so much fascinated by beauty itself as by the curious problem of artistic instinct in man and the diversity of its manifestation in history.” The third method being psychological and it deals with aesthetic judgments as phenomena of mind and products of mental evolution, the first two elements being didactic and historical respectively. Santayana goes on to say regarding the third method; “such an inquiry, if pursued successfully, would yield an understanding of the reason why we think anything right or beautiful, wrong or ugly; it would reveal the roots of conscience and taste in human nature and enable us to distinguish transitory preferences and ideals, which rest on peculiar conditions, from those which, springing from those elements of mind which all men share, are comparatively permanent and universal.”

When addressing Mr. Gagnon’s comment that “The visually literate are free to develop the aesthetic autonomy required to define value, function and utility for themselves.” MCB wrote “If one were to bluntly dissect his quote using a “Marxist” critique, one might approach an understanding of our preference for “aesthetic autonomy” based on social and economic class distinctions. Without considering the contradictions inherent in a term like “visually literate,” conflating as it does two distinct modes of “language,” to distinguish the “visually literate” from those less educated surely entangles us in “socio-economic” theories, per se.”

I don’t read Mr. Gagnon’s comment as a “class” struggle so to speak, but more as physiological. Some individuals react more favorable to ideation and appreciate the aesthetic value of a thing, whereas others may tend to inhibit ideation and are less favorable to aesthetic activity. I’m not sure this is based on class or education since the concept of aesthetics is concerned with the perception of values. If we agree there is no value other than the appreciation of said object, then appreciation and or preference is the basis of excellence. As Spinoza stated, “we desire nothing because it is good, but it is good only because we desire it.” Example; I don’t desire to own a Warhol, his work holds no value for me, yet I would own a Hopper, Rauschenberg or others if given the opportunity. The aesthetic ideation of Warhol doesn’t speak to me, yet my ability to appreciate a Hopper is not limited by my rejection of Warhol. As the “Fine Art” world is influenced by “Pop” culture or vice versa, we continue to question whether what is produced in the “fine Art” or “Pop” world is intrinsically inferior or superior to the other. The simultaneous tumbling of “Pop” culture on the one side, and “Fine Art” on the other, attest to the total disconnection between the two sides in America's culture wars. Until communication is restored, which is not likely, each side will try to pretend the other doesn't exist. Meanwhile, the confusion over what is “good” becomes more obscured.

lou gagnon said...

Mr. Meade thank you for acknowledging an alternative interpretation.

Mr. Boyd you are free to dissect and collage it for your own use, but the impetus for advocating a higher level of visual literacy comes from decades of presenting visual information to civic and corporate leaders only to witness time and time again that a small percentage of this information was digested and that important decisions were based on that small percentage rather than the entirety of the information available. There are significant societal and capital costs associated when people of any socioeconomic status are ill equipped to comprehend the information available. This problem begins in kindergarten. The use of the word “literacy” is effective when communicating with people who are limited to language.

Craig P. Webb said...

Wouldn't be more appropriate to call them visual skills?
Literacy implies there is an established structure - an agreed upon convention. Skill imply that people have the mental tools too figure out. Unless you are talking about charades - and I guess we have an agreed upon signifier for at least movies - though pantomiming an old crank shaft camera is a bit archiac.

Craig P. Webb said...

Wouldn't it be more appropriate to call them visual skills? Literacy implies there is an established structure - unlike language which has limits. It is hard to have an agreed upon convention for everything the eye may take in throughout the world. Just look at the controversy surrounding Justice Scalia's recent Sicillian jesture. Skill implies that people have the mental tools to figure out what is being implied. Unless you are talking about charades - and I guess we have an agreed upon signifier for at least movies - though pantomiming an old crank shaft camera is a bit archiac.