Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I am an Aesthete

"Artistic language by definition has to be experienced and has to be gone through. You can't just extract the 'ideas' from it and leave behind the object and the way in which it was expressed without actually reaching conclusions opposed the intention and effect of the art itself." Colin Jager

"But isn't what we experience when reading the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament the same as when we read Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Proust? Isn't the difference between the scriptures and worldly literature only social and political? The centuries-long polemics on the contrasts between poetry and faith can perhaps be reduced to the question of whether we should consider one poem or story holier than another. I have long since come to the conclusion that we can say with certainty that any powerful literary work is holy. And the opposite claim, that it is worldly, is equally valid. But it would be completely senseless to consider any great literary work holier or worldlier than another". Harold Bloom

What do I mean when I say I am an aesthete? Even when the pronunciation is correct and understanding partial there are suspicions. My interlocutors are always taken aback, sometimes amused. Does it not mean a devotion to sensation for its own sake? It is it not anachronistic, indulgent? Is it not guilty of holding beauty above all other values? And so on.

Let us ease into the matter slowly.

There is surely more than one way of knowing the world. Today, though, there are many people, usually, but not restricted to scientists, who think that explanations and knowledge form a whole, are all of a piece. It follows that if there are multiple ways of knowing the world, then none of those ways of knowing the world could ever replace or stand in for any of the others. None of the ways of knowing the world are more precise or true versions of the others.

There is a way of knowing the world in which you understand it; you can take it a part and see of what it consists. Science is the best version of such a way of knowing. In science you prove that something is so by using experiment, evidence and so on. In science something must be repeated thousands of times before it even has the beginning of validity. This very caution is why science has been extraordinarily successful at explaining certain things.

What science explains is something we can look at and point to. No matter how internal the object of study, even if it consists of a report of inner human dreams, strife, and sensations, the account of science is, by definition, limited to being a purely external one, involving third person subjectivity. It can show what neurons are firing or what part of the brain can light up when a we think about food or sex, or anticipate the end of the world. And sure enough we can report on what the brain does under those conditions.

Now many people feel that the effects of such physical processes are side effects, in essence fantasies or illusions that give us a sense that there is an "I" apart from such scientifically proven and observed facts.

Now, remembering what I observed about there being different ways of knowing, ask yourself the very basic question, what are you doing when you have an experience? Do you buy the scientists when they tell us that the neurons firing are all that is? When they tell us that humans created music in order to attract a mate? Should we trust our intuition that our experiences are real?

When we have an experience it can be a thin or a thick one. Most of popular culture, regardless of what its boosters will tell us, only gives us a rather thin experience. Now some of it is quite excellent, but we should not make it out to be more than what it is. (Some popular culture is a mixture of the thin and the thick - the Beatles' A Day In the Life is a good example)

Part of the reason that something is "thin" is that the goals of the object are clear and admit of no difficulty in meaning or emotion. People crave these types of experiences because it is a kind of dress rehearsal for life. It might even serve a pedagogical function. That is why popular things review over and over the same emotions, events, touchstones, bromides, sometimes emotional cliches and the like and why they tend to deal with and resolve "hot button" issues or current events.

I am currently watching a rather thin product called Pan Am. It has as many pains (need to flee or fly to detective and thriller business) as joys (the relationships and dreams of the stewardesses).

A Japanese filmmaker named Ozu made a film called Late Spring in which he narrated a daughter leaving her father's home and getting married. In that film the final wedding is never shown. We don't even meet the husband which normally would be characteristically opportunistic for Ozu to indulge his observations of female-male interaction and difference. All that is shown are the backstage or backyard preparations around the wedding. The events of these characters are so rich with innuendo and emotional meaning, so thoroughly observed, that it can get quite an intricate, and funny, affair. That is because Ozu is an artist who is essentially a thick artist, who is interested in inducing thick experiences in the spectator. That is another reason why he spends an inordiante amount of time showing us beautifully composed static shots of scenes and objects in which no person appears. He is trying to literally get us to a place where we must contemplate such a space and vision, in part to train our vision towards an act of contemplation, attention and focus. He wants us to treat part of the movie as a static painting. His is a project that takes very seriously indeed the first personal, experiential aspect of reality.

Science, since it is a report of what things are made of, from the third person, has been and will always be practically worthless to try and account for this first personal effect. All science can report about an Ozu film is that the shots in Ozu might relax or bore or distract the spectator. Science can tell us that it might make us healthier or something. Science can determine that it is from another age. It can track and record the box office receipts and receptions. Science can tell us that females like this particular bit of character doings in a scene and that men appreciate this other scene and so on.

Yet NONE of those accounts has anything to tell us about whether we should spend our time watching Late Spring, or, more importantly why. Though Ozu undoubtedly has what I am calling thin elements in his films - their popular subject matters for example - his films are also as thick as could possibly be in my formulation. Indeed I think that all thick artworks incorporate a thin outlying structure from which to begin.

We must remind ourselves, if possibly on a daily basis, that some of the most important things to human life are things that, on certain accounts, seem certainly worthless. In actuality their worth is spiritual, that is, their value is that they get us to do two things:

1. to meditate upon ourselves and the world. This mediation could be contemplation of beauty or excellence in creation, or it could be contemplation of the state of our souls or our character.

2. to think of how our lives might be otherwise, how we might improve ourselves. Part of this in giving an account of how we got to where we are. But this account must, if it is aesthetic, by definition, must part company from what we think of as news or journalism (at least journalism when it is a report of events rather than an art of prose).

There is a tension between understanding and experience. In my view the highest art deemphasizes understanding in favor of experience, in other words, it abandons reporting and enters into the expression of consciousness. You might think about the difference between understanding and experience as the difference between a man hearing about his pregnant wife and being at her side and the wife actually having the baby. He can certainly have a moving experience. He can even feel as if he is going through it with her. But his experience will be limited at the level of understanding. Only the wife having the baby has gone beyond mere understanding unto full experience. It is a kind of special knowledge. This is the domain of mysticism, of magic, and spirit. Art, good, bad, or middling, tries to place the reader in the position of that pregnant wife. This is a constant truth, quite apart from whether the artwork seems detached or not, in fact.

All art at at its best strives the recreate such experiential intensity. It aims to go beyond the mere intellect to the emotional and spiritual levels.

Marcel Proust, in his wisdom, said that: "books with themes stuck in them are like goods with their price tags still attached"!

When Walter Pater suggested that all art aspires to the condition of music this priority granted experience is what he had in mind. Not to privilege music as a medium but to suggest how we should think about art in general!

Now it will always be a matter of debate what experiences are thick versus those that are thin.

I don't want to get into that now since it would be useful for another essay and another time.

Obviously we need both thin and thick experiences in our lives. Yet the experiences themselves nevertheless do exist.


If we look at the etymology of the word I use to describe myself - aesthete - it will help clarify a lot of confusion around these matters.

The word arose in the 19th century, in a time that was as often hostile to aesthetic experience as it was suffused on the one hand by the utilitarian demands of a growing Left politics, and by the discoveries of a a Materialist and Physicalist science, and on the other by the rise of markets and money fever, technological innovation, and other worldly pursuits. Many voices rose to counteract this, such as Hegel, John Ruskin, William Morris, and the often misunderstood decadent authors like Oscar Wilde or Walter Pater. At the end of the century writers like Henry James and Marcel Proust (these two in particular) tried to claim the power and importance of completely interior subjectivity. Others like Dickens or Flaubert stuck to a more narrative or realist approach. In painting Whistler, Degas, and Manet shocked viewers into reflecting upon ideas of the human body and visual perception. Degas in particular depicted figures with a radical unawareness of being observed and outside of the frame in a ways that anticipates modernist cinema and theater. There is a very direct line from Degas to all of modernity and post modernity in this sense( as a way of destabilizing the frame).

In the United States the figures of Emerson and Nietzsche - who were fans of one another - and the poetry of Walt Whitman tower above even the foregoing by the force of their emphasis upon experience.

In essence all of these creators were attempting to save and protect the human individual from the forces of quantification and dehumanization. That is, their projects were essentially religious projects - importantly shorn of the the specific preachments of an authority figure or specific creed - for an increasingly secular age.

In sum, to be an aesthete is to commit to a romantic vision of sorts, borne in the 19th century, yet indebted to a Kantian autonomy. It is to project this vision into the present day. It is a way of reading. I might not convince that it is the best way of reading, as my opponents on the utilitarian or even neo-classical side appear to be winning our hour. Yet it is a way of reading that was a genuine progress over earlier, essentially tribal or homogenized readings.

What Kirkegaard got so terribly wrong in his Either/Or is the assumption that the aesthetic is about simple and indulgent pleasures, that it is behind or beneath the ethical or religious life Actually the aesthetic is really only the religious or spiritual pursued by means other than propositional creeds or texts. It is really not very different. As Bloom remarked in his quote from the opening, we study Shakespeare as we study the Bible, or rather we ought to study them in identical ways. We ought to look at the Mona Lisa in much the way we pray or sit yoga.

Unfortunately the Mona Lisa is being taught to us as if it were about the sociology of the times in which it was painted, or the technique of brush stokes. It might be talked about as an inquiry into painters attitudes towards the female. It might be seen as a mystery to be solved. (What does her face say or mean and so on). None of these approaches will get you to approach it like Yoga or Bible study. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that is how we should go about it. We should ask the Mona Lisa what it has to tell us. It is painting that clearly never shuts up after all these years (and all those bad interpretations!)

Anyway if you really want one answer to the Mona Lisa, it is a painting about our inability to get to the bottom of the woman in painting. Yes, that rather old painting is so very contemporary in that it reflects upon its own preconditions of creation and artifice!

Another mistaken notion is that the aesthetic is interested in "beauty" per se or at least the pursuit of superior standards of beauty or snobbish fetishism of beauty.

But if we take beauty to mean the intense exploration of our own experience and subjectivity beauty itself is not so straightforward a matter. There is an obvious beauty that appeals to a lust of the senses and this is absolutely necessary in life, though it leans towards the "thin" mode in my binary formulation. But there are other forms of beauty that are a bit more complex, as Andrey Tarkovsky wrote:

"When I speak of the aspirations towards the beautiful. of the ideal as the ultimate aim in art, which grows from a yearning for that ideal, I am not for a moment suggesting that art should shun the dirt of the world. On the contrary. The artistic image is always a metonym. where one thing is substituted for another. Hideousness and beauty are contained within each other. This prodigious paradox, in all its absurdity, leavens life itself, and in art makes that wholeness in which harmony and tension are unified."

Then there is the question of ethics. It is the charge that aestheticism is amoral at best and immoral at worst because it traffics in surfaces.

There are two problems here. Firstly, all surface appearances are themselves inseparable from inner substance. Secondly, the highest ethics aims at experiencing the actual causes of evils in an excruciating and dangerously fearless fashion. By definition then, many artworks - sad to say for the sensitive - must depict graphic evils in order that we understand the points of view of both perpetrator and victim. There is, it is true, an excess of such stuff, yet it fills a need to expand our compassion.

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie, Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita and Pasolini's Salo, some artworks of the 1970s are attempts to understand the ugliness of life, yet go beyond understanding towards experience. Bresson's Mouchette does the same for an innocent victim. In works like these our faces are shoved into ugliness so that we may come to leave behind our naive levels of comfort.

As to the other charges from the ethical: that art should not contain certain behaviors or gestures within them, all of these objects are not literally real life events, so they should not be taken as such. If they are taken as such then they have been perverted by their consumers, to say nothing of having been misread. The poet neither claims or disclaims, as Sydney wrote in Defense Of Poetry.

As to the charge that the aesthetic is a waste of time and energy that should otherwise be put towards survival or charitable works, these charges are non sequiturs, since the aesthetic has always about it a gratuitous character removed from the practicalities of life.

While this gratuitous aspect might, in times of great privation or hardship, be something we are forced to forgo, it is nevertheless one of the marks of our human species: that is, if any of us are still interested in demarcating ourselves from other animals, as something other than one being or type among the rest.

That is all I can do at this time to explain my chosen label. But don't hold me to it. Like all categories it is as much a fiction as a truth. It is capacious; indeed it has something of life itself. But whatever else it is aesthetics is not empty and it is not superficial. It is but another word for another way for we people to reflect upon ourselves in a space - sacred or not - away from purely direct or immediate concerns.

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