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.