Sunday, October 1, 2017

Aesthetic Objects: the Objective Definition

My post yesterday on tradition and progressivism led to a discussion of "post-genre" thinking over at NewMusicBox. Go to yesterday's post for the links. Today I want to pick up my discussion of aesthetics from where I left off a few days ago with the post Aesthetic Objects. I have read quite a lot in aesthetics over the years--the field of study started with Aristotle--but my guide recently has been the excellent survey of the field by Monroe C. Beardsley. After his discussion of the problems with psychological definitions of aesthetic objects, the approach taken over at NewMusicBox, whether they realize it or not, Beardsley moves to an objective definition:
The safest and most informative way of distinguishing aesthetic objects from other perceptual objects would not be by their causes or effects or relations to people, but by their own characteristics. This is, after all, the way we distinguish cows from horses, men from women, and bread from stones--in terms of shape and substance. Such a definition of "aesthetic object" would be an objective definition. [op. cit. p. 63]
Isn't it lovely to read something clearly written? So how do we do this? The most direct would be to select a set of characteristics that all aesthetic objects possess, but are not all present in other kinds of objects. This however, would be at the conclusion of a rather extensive enquiry and at this point in Beardsley's argument he wants something less ambitious: a type of definition that will mark out an area for examination without presuming too much about it. We can certainly distinguish perceptual objects by their sensory fields: some are seen, some are heard. Within the auditory field, we will need to distinguish between an opera and the sound of a foundry, between a piano sonata and birdsong. Not all these dividing lines will be clear ones. John Cage went out of his way to confound the exercise by writing his 4'33 in which it is not possible to distinguish the piece from the ambient sounds of the environment. However, despite the occasional difficulty of that sort, it is generally possible to group together musical compositions, visual designs, literary works and so on under the general term "aesthetic objects."

We can, therefore, distinguish aesthetic objects from other kinds of perceptual objects and following that, distinguish statements about aesthetic objects from ones about other perceptual objects. Some of the statements about aesthetic objects are statements about the causes and effects of them and Beardsley calls these "external statements." The others are statements about the aesthetic object itself: its blueness, its "meaning," its beauty and so on. These are "internal statements." We can now define critical statements as internal statements about an aesthetic object. [op. cit. p. 64] Wasn't that neatly done!
Statements about the writer's unconscious, or the influences of one painter upon another, or the social conditions that were improved by a novel, are statements that belong to the history, or sociology, of art. There are, of course, problems involved in verifying them; but these problems are not peculiar to aesthetic objects, and they belong to the methodology of history and the social sciences, not to aesthetics. But statements about the characteristics of aesthetic objects, statements describing, interpreting, or evaluating them, do raise special problems that are peculiarly the domain of aesthetics. [op. cit. p. 64-5]
I can't find much wrong with this approach. What it tells us is that virtually all discussion of the arts these days is peripheral to the artwork itself. Nearly all of it is about the externals, the intentions of the composer, the social message, the class/gender/racist content and so on. But this is usually "read into" the work, not actually present in the work. The one quibble I have with the last quoted paragraph is when he says that "the influences of one painter upon another" are external. I'm not so sure of that. We can estimate or evaluate this only by studying the work itself. After all, if so-and-so says that Bob was a huge influence or no influence at all, the first thing we would want to do is look at the work of Bob and compare it to so-and-so to see what influence there was. And that is looking at internals, not externals.

What is really weird here, to my mind, is how casually the whole field of actual aesthetics, as opposed to the pseudo-aesthetics going by that name these days, was tossed aside with scarcely a qualm. And how hardly anyone is noticing how really impoverished discussion is these days with all its delving into irrelevancies and externals. Honestly, the supposed "intentions" of the composer are hardly more relevant to what we actually hear in the concert hall than what kind of hat he wore when he was composing!

The first edition of Beardsley's book was published in 1958 and the revised and updated second edition that I have, in 1981. Yes, there are still pockets of rational thinking here and there, even in aesthetics. One is the Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, ed. by Peter Kivy (who is quite a good writer on music), published in 2004, but the general trend is away from objective knowledge and towards politically motivated ideology. Analytical philosophy and traditional musicology are still holdouts, though besieged. I still shake my head at the feebleness of the arguments, no, not even arguments, just baseless claims, against aesthetics and in favor of, what, virtue-signalling and narcissistic whining?

Let's clear the palate with a nice aesthetic object. This is a little collection of musical aesthetic objects in the form of a mini-concert by Hilary Hahn given for NPR's "tiny desk" series. It is as if Hilary dropped by and played a few tunes over at your place. The first piece is the Gigue, not the Bourrée (which was also misspelled) from the E major Violin Partita by Bach. The second piece is indeed the Siciliano (as Bach spelled it) from the Violin Sonata No. 1, but Hilary plays a spurious F# in measure 9 that was added by a 19th century editor. I know this because the finest musician I have known personally and performed with, Paul Kling, called me up one day and said in his delightful Czech accent: "what are you doing?" I replied that I was playing through the Siciliano from the first violin sonata and he instantly said, "are you playing an F# in measure 9 or an F natural?" I had to go look as I was reading through a transcription in a different key, but I came back and said, "an F#." Paul replied, "that was added in the 19th century, Bach didn't write it." You should be aware that the original manuscripts by Bach and by his wife Anna Magdalena, who did a lot of copying for him, are very clear and virtually free of any errors. If there ain't an F# there, he didn't want it. This didn't prevent later editors from "fixing" what they saw as errors. One editor actually added an entire measure in the middle of the first prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier because he couldn't handle Bach's radical harmonic progression. But I'm a bit surprised that Hilary doesn't know about this editorial addition... Never mind that! Hilary Hahn is an absolutely lovely player.


Will Wilkin said...

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

"Great art is always flanked by its dark sisters, blasphemy and pornography." --Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae pp24-25.

Bryan, I always find you so easy to read because I find it lovely to read something clearly written, about subjects so interesting to me. But also because, perhaps excepting the assessment of certain living composers, I usually agree with you as much as I understand you (technicals on harmonic relationships, etc...). And here in your recounting of Monroe Beardsley's differentiation of the internal and external statements about aesthetic objects, you bring our attention to the essence of what aesthetics should be about and what has gone so horribly wrong with the cheap substitutes that seem to dominate the discussion of music.

The Paglia quote above always sticks with me in the sense that great art does somehow stir in us deeper spiritual feelings, which can be traced to meaning either in primal impulse or philosophical repose. Such stirrings can be vulgar provocations or, in the case of true art, stimulation to construct our own connections between our reaction to the aesthetic object and these "deeper" seats of meaning.
Lesser art (descending into entertainments) need not stir such depth, but neither does it endure in the repertoire of human culture for periods beyond its immediate context.

The Oscar Wilde quote I cite above is a line I first read about 35 years ago (and again when I finally re-read the book maybe 3 years ago), which impressed me very much and which I always remembered in essence if not in exact wording. I read Wilde (and perhaps ALL authors) the way I first became conscious of how I was reading Nietzsche: not as something to agree with or disagree with, but rather as deep provocation to think for myself, which I've always felt was the intention of those authors more than any literal reading of their words.

Anyway, the Wilde idea (ha!) that "all art is quite useless" has always struck me as having an essential truth, even in cases when the opposite might also seem true at the same time. "Art for the sake of art" is another way to express the idea, an idea which seems to be despised by those "musicologists" who focus on the externals of an aesthetic object, especially when they focus on the (real or supposed) political aspects of music, and especially especially when they write things like "The idea that art can be "apolitical" is as naive as it is (clearly, in this case) insidious." [Quoted from comment by Frank Lehman, under article "Does Music Trump Politics" by Ted Gordon at Musicology Now weblog].

I'm not thinking of anything political or social when I say "...even in cases when the opposite might also seem true at the same time." Rather I'm thinking of aesthetic touches to useful objects, in the sense that all design has (or ought to have) an aesthetic dimension. We see that in cars, furniture, and virtually any "nice" manufactured or hand-crafted object we might use or want. So even useful objects can have an aesthetic dimension to them, the "useless" aspect that, at another level, contributes to the highly "useful" function of making life more pleasurable due to adding beauty to our ordinary experiences. This is where artisanship crosses into the terrain of art. This merging of artisanship with art --and the root "art" always denoting a human origin, as seen also in the word "artificial"-- is probably why when we find beauty in nature, often this is said to be a sign of a Creator, because we find it so hard to think that beauty could be accidental and dumb. There always has to be, for many perceivers, the idea that behind beauty is some intelligence, some fancy of genius.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a masterclass where Segovia behaved like a jerk. The student was playing great and Segovia started screaming at him because he hit an F instead of an F#. The guy mildly objected that the score had an F but Segovia insisted otherwise. Segovia was wrong. The student knew it but didn't dare to push back.

The cult of the demigod is a bit hard to take.

Bryan Townsend said...

There is a faint possibility that you are referring to the same Bach Siciliano! Segovia used that edition with the sharp when he did his transcription of the piece. Sometime in the 80s I was taking a masterclass with Oscar Ghiglia, a Segovia acolyte, and a student was playing this piece, with the sharp, not the natural. I mentioned that the sharp was an editorial edition to Oscar who gave me a measuring glance and said "you are going to go to hell!"

Will, you are extremely widely read!

Anonymous said...

Great anecdote (yes it could be the same piece. I forget.)

Bryan Townsend said...

I meant to say editorial addition!

Anonymous said...

Will raises a very interesting question about the uselessness of art or the concept of "art for its own sake." I appreciate Oscar Wilde's sentiment: art shouldn't be about making money or impressing the crowds, etc. But it could also be a dead end. The fact is that much of the best art was intended to be "useful." It served a purpose. The entirety of Bach's oeuvre was functional: to please a prince or to edify the crowds and lead the congregation to prayer and the glory of God. Same with Haydn and Mozart. I doubt they would have understood the concept of L'Art Pour L'Art. In fact even the Romantics didn't pursue that angle. It only emerged about 150 years ago or less. But the best art (by far) was done before that. Maybe the mistake of the moderns is to misunderstand art very fundamentally. Mozart today probably would be the hottest composer in Hollywood.

Bryan Townsend said...

I usually cop out on this kind of question and fall back on the bromide that the true nature and function of music (and art) is a mystery. Yes, all Bach's music had a function: diversion of the noble court at Cöthen, cultivation of religious feeling at Leipzig and so on. But his music also transcended those functions. Today we all listen with great enjoyment to his cantatas, but few of us are Lutherans. Mozart and Haydn wrote diverting and pleasing music that also transcended its immediate purposes. Beethoven was the first to have the thought that he was writing for the ages. Stravinsky had an interesting and complex stance regarding this question. I have the sense that the composers of today who are hot items in Hollywood or are trying to be entertaining and diverting, are delivering a product that is likely to not only never transcend that function, but perhaps will not even meet it very successfully.

Anonymous said...

I agree on the mystery part. But I believe that Mozart and Andrew Lloyd Weber had precisely the same goals. The only difference is that Mozart was about a million times better at it. It's like Pele and Beckham: they played the same game and had the same objectives; the only difference was one a soccer legend and the other one was a photogenic journeyman.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmm, perhaps. But what were those goals and how do we know them? With Pele and Beckham, you got me! I'm so hopeless a sports fan that about all I know is the names and the sport. I had the idea that they were both huge talents?