Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Aesthetics, part 5

It is pretty clear that aesthetic objects are phenomenally objective: we don't have any difficulty in distinguishing between what is in the painting and our reaction to it. Nor do we confuse our feelings with those of Hamlet on the stage. Even in music, it is quite easy to distinguish between the music itself and how it makes us feel. But one of the things that leads to a relativistic view of aesthetics is the fact that a lot of criticism confuses the phenomenally objective and the phenomenally subjective. A great deal of arts criticism seems to go out of its way to confuse the two. A critic referring to a "feeling" of solidity in a Cézanne landscape might be referring to either the painting or his reaction to it. The word "effect" is also used ambiguously. Indeed, the whole class of what Beardsley calls "affective terms," ones that contain some reference to the effect of the work on the percipient, need to be considered carefully for they may contain little objective information about the work itself, but merely record a critic's response. If he is careful about recording what details in the work lead to his response, that can be useful, but sometimes, or often, it may be an eccentric response of little objective value. [Referring to Beardsley, op. cit. pp 38 to 42]

If I could give a musical example, sometimes I debate with commentators here about the aesthetic value of the symphonies of Mahler which I have mentioned were once favorites of mine but which I now find nearly unlistenable because they seem melodramatic and neurotic to me. I am describing a subjective impression which is not, of course, objective criticism. If I were to take the time and analyze just what it is in a Mahler symphony that sounds melodramatic and neurotic to me, then that would be a decent piece of criticism. I suspect I have not done so because it would be quite time-consuming and also because I have a vague inkling that it would involve some foundational work on what neurosis in music might consist in. In other words, it could get very involved indeed. My subjective impression is pretty clear to me though!

I have mentioned before the interesting issue of the ontological status of a piece of music and by this formidable phrase I mean the interesting fact that we might hear several different performances of a piece of music that we would all reckon as the same piece of music. Beardsley handles this by describing these different performances as different presentations of the same aesthetic object. A particular presentation of an aesthetic object is one experienced by a particular person on a particular occasion. Certain presentations may be more adequate than others. Generally we regard the aesthetic object itself as not being identical with any particular presentation. Some critics, however, are impressionistic in that they are constantly giving their impression of the presentation without much effort to distinguish it from the aesthetic object itself. It may be easy to write that the musical composition seemed formless, but that might have been your impression simply because you failed to perceive the form on first hearing.

Beardsley gives a set of six principles that he calls the Postulates of Criticism that lay out the way to conceive of the relationship between aesthetic objects and presentations of them in order to render objective criticism possible. Here they are:

  1. The aesthetic object is a perceptual object; that is, it can have presentations.
  2. Presentations of the same aesthetic object may occur at different times and to different people.
  3. Two presentations of the same aesthetic object may differ from each other.
  4. The characteristics of an aesthetic object may not be exhaustively revealed in any particular presentation of it.
  5. A presentation may be veridical. that is, the characteristics of the presentation may correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object.
  6. A presentation may be illusory; that is, some of the characteristics of the presentation may fail to correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object. [Beardsley, op. cit. p. 46]
This is not, of course, an argument for the acceptance of these postulates, but they are fairly widely assumed amongst critics, at least ones who think about what they do.

Beardsley mentions as an example different hearings of Bartók's Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. One day you hear it on the radio, another time you listen to a clip of it on YouTube on your laptop, one day you hear a live performance of it and perhaps one day you sit down and study the score. These are all different presentations of the same aesthetic object, but some are more adequate than others and they all have different tonal and interpretive characteristics. But I think it would be widely accepted that in experiencing these different presentations we are experiencing the same aesthetic object. This is a necessary first step in countering the view that all aesthetic experience is merely subjective.

Now let's listen to this very fine piece by Bartók, the Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. This is the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ferenc Fricsay: 

I remember doing a Bartók seminar with a rather crusty composer who got rather upset with me when I pointed out that the first movement is a fugue. Which it is, of course, but his ideological stance was that as Bartók is one of the most important figures in musical modernism in the 20th century, we always have to look at his music in terms of its modernistic elements and NOT in terms of its relationship with the past.


Anonymous said...

I am having trouble making sense of these postulates in the context of painting. There is only one Mona Lisa. It's in a room in Paris that is lit the same way all the time with no exposure to the outside, so that the perceptual object isnearly indistinguishable from the aesthetic one. There is essentially only one presentation of that aesthetic object. Or would he include photographs of the Mona Lisa as different presentations? The point I am raising is at the heart of the distinction between the aural and visual arts, so one would expect the basic postulates to address it. How does Beardsley approach this issue?

Bryan Townsend said...

You mentioned in a comment on a previous post in this series something about a "unified theory of aesthetics" covering both visual and performing arts. Beardsley does do something like that, but my intention here is just to focus on music. I am tailoring my discussion to suit a musical context.

But I believe that Beardsley would mention that your experience of a visual artwork can also vary according to the time of day, lighting, gallery context and so on. It is obviously on an entirely different level than different presentations of a musical work. But each time you see, say, the late Goya works in the Prado, it is a different presentation for you. I have seen them many years apart and the experience was quite different. Even on different days in the same week the experience might be different. But again, my focus here is on music.

Jives said...

I appreciate Bartok more and more over time. I have yet to digest the Concerto for Orchestra, but I'm enjoying the string quartets and chamber works. The mood is a bit dour and grumpy sometimes, but he seems to know when (and how) to lighten things up and show some humor and heart. And his "almost but not quite atonal" idiom metes out enough cadential reward to keep the listener engaged. A clever balance of disorientation and order. Not to mention the rhythm, rhythm, rhythm everywhere. Reminded me of Villa-lobos at one point, with the insistent regular rhythms maintaining order while the tonality goes wild. good stuff.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm so deeply buried in Stravinsky these days that I can barely see Bartók for the semiquavers!

Will Wilkin said...

As a sentimental and melodramatic guy, I am in ecstasy during Mahler symphonies. But I cannot listen to him when I am heartbroken or weak, as the despair then becomes total. I must be strong to listen to my favorite composer, Gustav Mahler!

Only last year did I finally have a Bruckner Breakthrough, before which I could not stand him. Some people associate Bruckner with Mahler, but I hear melody in Mahler and rhythm in Bruckner, one sublime and the other primitive, finally I am ready to appreciate BOTH in the same way our humanity is made of both elements.

Bartok has always been difficult and half-appreciated by me, though deep inside I love his music and slowly grow around it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Each of us takes an individual journey through the landscape of classical music and as we become more familiar with it, it is a bit like ascending a hill, from which we gain a better perspective of the whole. At different times in our lives we are in love with the music of different composers. Some composers, like Bach, seem to accompany us every day of our lives, but others, like Mahler or Bruckner or Bartók, we might come across early or late or perhaps re-encounter at different times in our lives.

It is equally interesting, I think, to notice which composers we dislike and for what reasons! Some composers we can develop a real distaste for. I have always mostly disliked Richard Strauss, for example. And always loved Jean Sibelius.