Sunday, August 6, 2017

Aesthetics, part 4

I'm going to continue with these posts on aesthetics until I feel that a broad picture has emerged of the field. This is because, for what I believe are mistaken reasons, the practice of aesthetics has almost disappeared from the public sphere. The reasons for this are manifold and include a distaste for any kind of aesthetic judgment, difficulty in defining terms like "beautiful" when applied to aesthetic objects, a preference for psychological explanations over aesthetic ones and so on. Aesthetics does have its own unique set of problems, but so does every other field of human knowledge.

Let's outline some typical aesthetic issues and concepts:

  • one characteristic of aesthetic objects is that they might be described as "beautiful" but people often disagree as to whether a particular artwork is beautiful or not--the avant-garde has taken the approach that art is meant to be "challenging" not beautiful, but that does not solve the problem of the host of older artworks that are typically described as beautiful. How do we defend or criticize a description of an artwork as "beautiful"?
  • discussions of artworks can simply describe them, or go on to interpret them or, most controversially, evaluate them--what constitutes validity in each of these activities?
  • discussion of an artwork can focus directly on what we can see and hear in the artwork or can speculate as to the creator's intentions--we should be aware of the difference
  • in the performing arts the problem of correct performance arises--a great deal of reviews of concerts concerns this and one aesthetic challenge is to evaluate whether the commentaries are justified or even justifiable
  • aesthetic objects are perceptual objects with a physical basis, but the physical basis is NOT the aesthetic object. The physical basis for a particular note might be a string inside the piano vibrating at 440 times a second, but it is what the listener hears that is the aesthetic object. Incidentally, this is why the neurophysiologists are never talking about the music, but about brain states.
  • there are unique problems associated with perception, our phenomenal field includes things that are phenomenally objective and ones that are phenomenally subjective
  • we might be listening to a piece of music and describe it as "cheerful" or say that it makes us "feel cheerful." The first is a description of the piece while the second is a description of the subjective effect of the piece.
  • A piece of music is objective in a way similar to the way a rushing stream is objective: we can stand in it and feel its force as something outside ourselves the same way we can sit in a concert hall and feel the objective force of a piece of music
  • we can hear qualities in a piece of music such as desolate sadness which can be objective qualities (even though we can be mistaken about them)
  • the defining mark of phenomenological objectivity is our experience of things as independent of ourselves
I think that if you mull over this list of concepts and issues you can see the irrelevance of much discussion of artworks in the popular media and why I criticize it.

Let's have an aesthetic object for our envoi today. This is the Prelude #6 from Book I for piano by Debussy and the title is "Des pas sur la neige." The score includes the instruction "Comme un tendre et triste regret" ("Like a tender and sad regret"). The pianist is Krystian Zimerman:

UPDATE. I should mention that for most of this material I am relying on the excellent book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism by Monroe C. Beardsley.


Anonymous said...

Nice list. A further concern, which touches on the physical basis of artworks, is the role of the physical object in the visual arts. Even though the visual perceptions might be strictly identical, the experiences of watching the real Mona Lisa and a perfect replica of it are quite different. Music is fundamentally not like that. Which makes me wonder if there can be a unified theory of aesthetics that combine music and painting. I suspect you'll be addressing this issue in later posts.

Bryan Townsend said...

Anon, it sounds like you might be thinking of the Walter Benjamin essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I'm not sure I buy that argument, but yes, we will get into that whole issue.