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On Philosophy

On Philosophy

Previous blogs have wrestled with the conflict between contemporary art and aesthetics and attempted to identify and understand the problems and philosophical efforts to resolve the quandary of aesthetics. This blog makes further efforts at understanding.

Wikipedia defines aesthetics as: “… a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of art, beauty and taste and with the creation or appreciation of beauty… the study of subjective and sensory-emotional values” (1)

Philosophers have attempted to address issues around aesthetics such as who should make aesthetic judgments and whether it is even possible to make them. This blog further explores how philosophical theories have shaped current attitudes toward art & aesthetics.

Analytical Philosophy

All western philosophy appears to be refinements of the thinking of its founding fathers , Plato and Aristotle. In brief, Plato’s philosophy is  a transcendental metaphysics based on his theory of forms and he is described as an absolutist.

Aristotle by contrast, believed that the proper goal of metaphysics is to present a non-transcendental essentialism. (2) Two major schools of philosophy have developed from Aristotle’ s approach Analytical and Continental. (3)

Analytic philosophy is identified with the logical-positivist principle that there are not any specifically philosophical facts and that statements about value, including all ethical and aesthetic judgments, cannot be objectively verified or falsified. Instead, the logical positivists adopted the theory that value judgments expressed the attitude of the speaker. The first half of the 20th century was marked by skepticism toward, and neglect of, subjects, such as aesthetics. During this time, utilitarianism was the only non-skeptical type of ethics to remain popular. (2) The influence of logical positivism began to decrease mid-century but it’s influence in the arts, especially the visual arts, continues to hold sway.

Logical positivism attempted to analyze & critique culturally damaging & limiting bourgeois assumptions. Based on the idea that what is cannot be extrapolated to determine what ought to be, this approach has given rise to a revolution in thinking. Politically and socially, this revolution has, in some instances, led to more diversity & inclusivity.  But these ideas have been applied more widely than they merit as well as misinterpreted and wrongly applied. While the main thrust of logical positivism was the uses & misuses of language, especially the written word, the ideas developed have been indiscriminately applied to the visual arts. Especially at the university level, administrators & teachers eager to embrace current thinking and not be “devant guard” have latched onto the idea that aesthetic judgments cannot be objectively verified or falsified. As a corollary to that it has been assumed that aesthetic judgments should therefore not be made and as a further corollary, that aesthetics itself is an unsound basis on which to view art.

Thus, the influence of logical positivism has been to skew the visual arts in a direction antithetical to aesthetics. This is based on the understanding that, as there is no objective way to determine if a work of art is beautiful or not, any attempt to create works of art that are beautiful are naive and irrelevant.

The idea that value judgments can only express the attitude of the speaker rather than any objective fact has been extended to art criticism, so that critics are wary of forming or adhering to criteria on which to form judgments, or of analyzing artworks according to any criteria other than subjective experience. Instead, most contemporary critique limits itself to descriptions of the critics’ personal observations.

A visual arts establishment fearful of taking on questions of aesthetics has left the determination of value to the marketplace. So the final outcome of one hundred years of philosophical works designed to circumvent the bourgeoisie’s stranglehold on western culture has been to consolidate and strengthen its grip on the visual arts.

Continental Philosophy

The term “continental philosophy” is used it to refer to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. It differs from the analytic philosophy in that it rejects the natural sciences as the only or most accurate way of understanding natural phenomena. Continental philosophy considers experience as variable: determined by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history.

A major strain of continental thought is structuralism/post-structuralism. Structuralism proposes that one may understand human culture by means of a structure—modelled on language that differs from concrete reality and from abstract ideas. Post structuralism emphasizes plurality of meaning and instability of concepts that structuralism uses to define society; language, literature etc. So though these philosophers were mainly focused on the application of their ideas to analysis of written material, their work has been extrapolated to apply, however erroneously or tenuously, to the visual arts. The post-structuralist thinkers with the most important influences on the visual arts include Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. (3)

Barthes felt that avant-garde art should maintain a distance between its audience and itself. By presenting an obvious artificiality rather than making claims to great subjective truths, the avant-garde ensures that their audiences maintain an objective perspective. He believed that art should be critical and should interrogate the world, rather than seek to explain it. (4) Strict adherence to this approach is observed in any description of the goals and objectives of contemporary artists by galleries, museums of the artists themselves. These descriptions are always careful to state that the artist is “investigating” this or that in an objective way, rather than making any definitive statement as to what the art is about. This open-ended approach is a cornerstone of post-modernism.

Derrida’s work retains major academic influence and has been influential on thinking about aesthetics, art and art criticism. Derrida argued that that the whole philosophical tradition of Western culture”,[89] rests on arbitrary dichotomous categories (such as sacred/profane, signifier/signified, mind/body), “by which an order is imposed on reality and by which a subtle repression is exercised, that excludes, subordinates, and hides the various potential meanings.” Derrida refers to his procedure for uncovering and unsettling these dichotomies as deconstruction of Western culture.(5) Again, this post-structuralist approach has been applied to contemporary art and is the accepted measure by which it is viewed. Any clear statement of goals or reference to absolute principles is suspect, such that contemporary art practices and criticism is based on a relentless relativism. The more vague and open-ended an art-work, the better, to avoid accusations of the artist’s attempt to impose a subtle repression of the viewer’s freedom of interpretation.

Foucault’s theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. Often cited as a post-structuralist and postmodernist, his thought has influenced academics working in critical theory. (6)

In her book, The Long Life, Helen Small does not wish to “revisit the deconstructive/Heideggerian debate over the “destruction” of metaphysics – or what sometimes looks like a competition for the credit of having murdered it (Derrida v. Nietzche)”. ( 7) If we define metaphysics as “thoughts which seek to penetrate beyond the boundaries of experience” (8) by denying any metaphysical basis for either existence or thought, this view assaults traditional criteria for aesthetic judgements. Artistic forms can no longer be linked to any substantive affirmative metaphysical meaning.(9)

This gives insight into how these rarified philosophical musings have had a profound impact on contemporary art. Critics have attempted to interpret, translate and apply the moral relativism of Continental Philosophy to the visual arts to profound but in my view, detrimental effect.

No Consolation of Philosophy

This brief discussion of analytical and continental philosophy suggests that both branches of the discipline have contributed to deriding the role of aesthetics in the visual arts.  Both branches agree on a central theme – aesthetic judgments express the attitude of the speaker rather than any objective fact and artworks can only be analyzing according to subjective experience. However, the continental philosophers have been most effective in convincing the Western contemporary art establishment of this view.

The previous blog On Academia, described how the thinking of post-structuralists colonized universities and shaped contemporary art institutions and through them, contemporary art. These assumptions have been transported to institutions of higher learning where students learn the words and phrases that convey their superior understanding of art as well as a belt of intellectual rather than technical tools. Some critics argue that universities have been transformed in the late twentieth century into institutions where the broadly humanist educational curricula of the past have been replaced by a free-market model of learning and where the assumptions of moral relativism are scarcely challenged.

As David Balzer explains in his book, Curationism,(3) It is no longer adequate to go to art school, one must have a Masters of Fine Arts to be taken seriously as someone who understands art. He describes how critical theory imported from Europe, mainly from France, became trendy in the 1980’s and colonized universities in the 1990’s. One of the main objectives of this critical theory, particularly post-structuralism, is to explode assumptions about language, tradition and privilege. Graduates of programs based on these new theories were embraced by contemporary museum and gallery curators as a way to ostensibly break free from their image of themselves as having a stodgy, dead-white-male-focus. Artists thus came under pressure to professionalize by taking graduate degrees from the institutions that offered these new theories, especially for those working outside painting, drawing and traditional sculpture.

While post-structuralist theories challenged the white male privileges of the modernist era, they have led to unanticipated effects on the visual arts that, some would say, have damaged Western culture more than the previous philosophical errors. These effects include more social control by societal institutions, less creative freedom for artists and far less creation or appreciation of beauty and subjective sensory-emotional values, or aesthetics.

The impact of the post-structuralists has gone far beyond the arts and could be said to have negatively affected the earth itself. As Zadie Smith says in the collection of essays, Feel Free (2018):

What will we tell our granddaughters about our collective failure to address global warming? So I might say to her, ‘look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes–and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.’

Where the cultural establishment does not tolerate expressing opinions based on firm principles, and where it is assumed that every work of art is subject to any number of various interpretation, none of which are more true or relevant than any other, there is an authority vacuum created. As David Balzer explains in his book, Curationism , this vacuum has been filled by the sector with the most to gain from creating its own measure of value for artworks – marketability. Value is imparted by popularity, sales and giving people what they want. Curators have become visual merchandizers so that contemporary art has become a seemingly timeless zone of consumerism and spectacle. We have been schooled by university cultural-studies departments and their end-of-snobbery messages to believe that anything is fair game for “critical discourse” from porn to action films and mainstream hit-driven music. Balzar goes on to suggest that the equal aesthetic rights given to all expressions of human activity prevents the addressing of internal structural oppression. “It invokes an abstract idea of equality that is institutionally normalized without being able to see the means by which that normalization occurs”. (7)

Thus this blog concludes that aesthetics in the visual arts have come full circle after a century of philosophical attempts to construct or deconstruct the ways in which aesthetic judgments are made. Instead of social control effected through value judgments by societal institutions run by stodgy white males, social control is effected through dollar value judgments imposed by the marketplace. As Balzar points out, however, the arts may be in a worse position now than before because this social control is subtle and internalized, so it is difficult for dissenters to frame their opposition in the face of an entrenched and highly popular system of belief.

How have relativism and deconstruction, in which our fondest-held principles are wishful thinking, nothing is essential and everything changes, become so entrenched? In any overview of philosophy, relativism and deconstruction are included as only one of many lines of thought and not considered the most important in terms of contributing to an understanding of the most vexing quandaries of our existence.  So how has suspicion of any clear statement of goals, reference to any absolute principles and denial of any metaphysical basis for existence or thought become the dominant paradigm? If we follow the money, we find connections between moral and aesthetic relativism and the triumph of free-market capitalism.

An interesting topic for further research, but meanwhile relativism has taken the fight out of us at a time when we need to battle against art as commodity and the earth as an environmental catastrophe.

  2. The Long Life, Helen Small, Oxford University Press, pp. 178-181
  7. Ibid, The Long Life, p. 181
  8. op cit p. 186
  9. op cit p. 199
  11. Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else. by David Balzer, Coach House Books,2014

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