Thursday, January 11, 2007

Peroxide Makes the Art Grow Blonder

As usual, amazing questions again this time. There were a couple of questions about aesthetics, the philosophy of art.

BKriplur asks,

Has anyone applied analytic philosophy to art criticism?

Yes. The most famous analytic figures in aesthetics are probably Jerrold Katz and Arthur Danto. Actually, I’ve always wanted to write a paper on Arthur Danto’s take on Platonic aesthetics and call it, "Plato on Art/Art on Plato."

Jeff Maynes asks,
Are aesthetic judgments relative to local aesthetic sensibilities, or do you think there is any hope for more meaningful judgment?
The key here is to realize that there is a big difference between the sentences "X is aesthetically valuable" and "I like X." The purpose of aesthetics is not to justify or shape personal preferences with respect to art anymore than ethics is meant to make sure that what is morally right is the same as things you really want to do. Why humans tend to widely like the same sorts of artistic pieces, for example, why certain musical works are particularly catchy, is a psychological question, not a philosophical one.

I think that there is perfectly good grounds for making meaningful aesthetic claims that are non-local appealing to various sorts of artistic properties. Certainly, what counts as such a property is open to discussion and hard and fast rules will be very difficult to formulate. Indeed, one can see art in the 20th century as a movement turned intellectually inward on such questions. Just as philosophy became about the process of philosophizing and analyzing the linguistic foundations of philosophy itself, art became about art and about creating art that challenged attempts by critics and aestheticians to formulate these sorts of criteria. But the very point of challenging them was to create more thoughtful conversation. The act of creating art became in some cases, applied philosophy. Works like Rauschenberg’s "Erased De Kooning Drawing" (exactly what it sounds like) or Duchamp’s "Fountain" (a urinal) for example, was intentionally designed to create concern over the nature of art.

These, of course, are the sort of thing that folks point to when they try to discuss the worthlessness of modern art, the fact that it is all a scam. But, art, like philosophy, does not occur in a vacuum, it is part of a conversation and like any conversation, if you don’t know who is what to whom, then by in large you won’t understand what any given response means. In the 20th century, the self-referential movement in the art world put the discussion in a private language, a coded discussion that made sense largely only to those in the in crowd. I was in the National Gallery one hot July day — the same day as the big union march in DC — and I heard over and over again how eight year olds could do that. When art made the move from representation to conceptual comment, it became an endeavor that required being hip to the conversation, you had to be on the inside. Art was not about techniques that made
But those who were inside were having a very interesting philosophical parts, at least. Sure, some was banal, but much was interesting. So when we talk about aesthetic judgements, we can talk in non-local terms, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will suddenly be tapping their toes to Schoenberg.