Gotthold Lessing's ideas about the Laocoön were the main topic this week. This classical sculpture, now in the Vatican, depicts Laocoon and his two sons being attacked by serpents (a punishment meted out by the gods). Prior to Lesssing's book, Winckelmann, the art historian, had maintained that Laocoön's mouth was only half-open in a sigh rather than bellowing as he is described in the Aeneid by Vergil because this reflected the grandeur and perhaps the stoicism of the Ancient Greeks.
Lessing disagrees. For him, this is about the visual arts doing what they do best: had the sculptor shown the face in the full grimace of a bellow, then the imagination would have had no further place to go...as it is, the sculpture engages our creative intellect and invites us to imagine the next phase of the writhing in agony.
Lessing disputes the Latin poet Horace's aphorism that 'ut pictura poesis' (i.e. that pictures and poetry are similar). For Lessing each has its distinctive potentials.
In some ways Lessing's focus on the distinct properties of pictures and of words is a precursor of semiotics, and in particular C.S. Peirce's division of sign types into index, icon and symbol (there is a fuller explanation of this here). Roughly an index is a sign that represents by causal connection (smoke means fire); an icon by resemblance (a picture resembles what it is of); and a symbol represents by means of a convention ('cat' means that furry animal, but the word 'cat' is arbitrary - it could just as easily have been 'mountain').
With iconic signs, as Nelson Goodman pointed out, every change in the sign potentially represents something different (a smug retouching of the Mona Lisa's smile could, with a line as fine as a hair, radically change what was represented); whereas the colour or font in which a poem is printed don't (typically) affect the poem's meaning.
In the gallery we looked at the two works in Room 1 of 'States of Flux', Tate Modern: concentrating on the ways in which the still arts of painting and sculpture dealt with events unfolding over time, a theme in Lessing's writing.
The focus of this week's work was Edmund Burke's ideas about the Sublime (see his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime of 1757 - see reading 12 in set book for the course Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology ed. Cahn and Meskin). A complete online searchable text of Burke's Enquiry is available here.
Burke's account of our responses to beauty and the sublime focuses on the bodily and emotional responses to physical objects: in many ways a stark contrast with Plato's more cerebral approach that ultimately sees beauty as something lying beyond sensory perception and best appreciated by the intellect. Burke also gave aesthetics an interesting direction by giving clear expression to idea that beauty may not be the only quality in nature and art that moves us profoundly...
Burke maintained, quite plausibly that pain and pleasure aren't on the same spectrum. A reduction of pain does not automatically lead to an increase in pleasure (though, in his terminology, reduction of pain results in delight).
Pain is effective in our self-preservation; pleasure makes social interaction possible.
Pain has the power to move us more profoundly than pleasure. To back up this claim he points out that few would agree to a life of exquisite pleasures if they knew that this would end with brutal torture.
Burke described beauty as 'for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses' (p.119 of Cahn and Meskin eds). Beauty is a quality that tends to produce pleasure.
The sublime in contrast is always in some way linked with terror. Not complete terror, but rather with the potential for danger. Causes which under different circumstances might endanger us evoke the emotions of the sublime.
The key passage in which Burke contrasts the beautiful and the sublime is this (see p.120 of Cahn and Meskin eds.), from Section XXVll of the Enquiry [NB he uses 'the great' as a synonym for 'sublime' here at several points]:
"For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small;beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates, it often makes a strong deviation; beauty should not be obscure; the great out to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure..."
Burke believed that the reason we frequently take delight in intrinsically painful situations - an apparent paradox [related to the Paradox of Tragedy - listen to a podcast on Paradox of Tragedy] is that this is nature's way of toning up our nervous systems. While this last point isn't particularly persuasive, his general account of the contrast between beauty and the sublime has been extremely influential.
In the Tate Modern gallery we looked at all the works in Room 6 Poetry and Dream: Joseph Beuys' huge work 'Lightning With Stag in Its Glare' and two paintings by Anselm Kiefer: 'Lilith' and 'Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom'. All had qualities of scale, roughness, terror, gloomy colouring and so on that make the notion of the sublime relevant to their appreciation. Mark Rothko's 'Seagram Murals', the focus of a previous week's class also displayed some of these qualities, and there may have been a direct connection here since Rothko had certainly read and admired Burke's book.
I have made a twenty-minute audio file of the key parts of my presentation from the third session of this course. It is available to students on the course here (email me to get your username and password...or wait till next week when I will gives these out in class).
Further Notes from Session 3 For the first part of this session we focused on Plato's idea that the artists should be banished from his ideal republic and his views about beauty in the Symposium, particularly the thought, expressed through Socrates' account of what Diotima allegedly told him about how erotic love of a beautiful boy could be the first rung on an ascent up a ladder that lead to contemplation of the Form of Beauty (which for Plato was intimately tied to the Good in the sense of moral good). Iris Murdoch in The Fire and the Sun (published in 1977, but given as a series of lectures in 1976) gives a succinct summary of Plato's ideas about art, but she also spends the last quarter of the book opposing them (read a review of The Fire and the Sun). Put simply, she believes that great art can reveal truth in various ways, and even that the pilgrimage from appearance to reality is the major theme of great art; furthermore, lesser art, she thinks, is relatively harmless (I discuss this on the 20-minute audio clip that students on the course have access to, see above).
In the second half of the session we explored some of David Hume's thoughts about aesthetic judgment as discussed in his essay 'Of the Standard of Taste' [download a sensitively-paraphrased version] thoughts which he had presumably already worked out as a young man when he planned the never-published fifth book of his Treatise 'Of Criticism'. This essay is quite difficult to read. At its heart is the paradox that we both want to say that beauty and other aesthetic merit is in the eye of the beholder, and so a matter for subjective judgement, but at the same time think that people who hold views such as 'Tracey Emin is a greater artist than Leonardo da Vinci' (not Hume's example!) are just wrong.
Hume maintains that most of us are not in a great position to make reliable aesthetic judgements because we do not necessarily have accurate perception and understanding of the work under consideration. There must be general principles underlying critical judgments whether or not we know what they are. But above all we need a critic who can perceive what is there. The ideal critic, amongst other things, has
Delicacy of Taste (remember the story of the key with the leather thong at the bottom of the hogshead of wine. You might also want to read the further essay Hume wrote called 'Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion') Practice (Hume also includes the requirement that the critic view the work more than once) The Ability to Make Comparisons (historical as well as contemporary) Is not Prejudiced and has Good Sense (i.e. reason that allows him or her to weight the different factors) (I discuss all of these on the audio clip).
Someone who exercises these qualities can stand as a touchstone against which to measure taste. Others can learn from such a person and recognize the distinctions that he or she draws. Where, over time, there is a consensus amongst such critics this is the strongest evidence we have of a work's worth (people now speak of a work's 'passing the Test of Time'). It may be a matter of subjectivity how we feel about a work of art, but that doesn't mean that any judgement we make, which may well be based on a poor assessment of what it is that we are looking at, is respectable...not unless we possess the attributes of an ideal critic. And if we do, we can set the standard of taste. [For a related discussion about judgements of taste in relation to wine, informed by a reading of Hume, listen to Barry C. Smith, editor of a recent book Questions of Taste on Philosophy Bites. Read my review of this book here and a longer one by Christopher Shields here]
In the gallery we looked at works in the Level 5 'Idea and Object' section in groups, reflecting on the categories of the ideal critic, the degree to which perceptive or knowledgeable individuals could help others to see or understand something about a work they hadn't previously realized was there...
In the second session of the course Aesthetics: Classic Theories, we continued looking at Plato's approach, concentrating on his ideas about beauty, as expressed in his great dialogue The Symposium. There, through the nested characters of Socrates and Diotima, Plato stresses the limitations of the phenomenal world. He does, though, allow that physical beauty can play a part in the ascent towards appreciation of the Form of beauty.
This is all part of a conversation about the nature of erotic love that takes place at a drinking party. [Listen to a podcast interview about Plato on Erotic Love]. Socrates recalls Diotima's teaching that the desire for one beautiful man's body is merely the first rung on the ladder that leads up to the appreciation of the Form of beauty, and so is merely a means to the higher end of appreciating the abstract idea. To learn about beauty, first of all recognize the physical beauty of the desired lover. But then the rational individual will appreciate not just the individual loved one's beauty, but also the physical beauty of others too. From this the next step up the ladder is to see the beauty that lies beyond appearances in wisdom and knowledge. The last step is to come to recognize the Form of beauty itself - with the implication that this Form itself possesses beauty. The Form of beauty also carries with it moral qualities of goodness. Plato does not mention beauty in art as having a potential role in this ascent - given the views he expressed in The Republic, it is unlikely that he thought it could play a role. (For a nice summary of Plato on Art, see Christopher Janaway's essay in the Routledge Companion to Aesthetics).
[To read the rest of this summary click on the red writing below]
The word 'Aesthetics' is used in a number of different ways.
Within philosophy it is now usually taken to be synonymous with 'The Philosophy of Art', so that books called Aesthetics or an Introduction to Aesthetics cover questions such as 'What is Art?' 'How relevant are an artist's intentions to interpretation?' 'What is the status of a good forgery?' and so on.
Another way in which the word is used is to refer to thinking about beauty in art or nature. Some art, such as Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain' is deliberately anti-aesthetic and so outside the realm of such discussion (whereas it would fall within the realm of 'aesthetics' in the first sense mentioned above).
In the eighteenth century, 'aesthetics' focused on sensory experience and in particularly judgements based on sensory experience. For more on the 18th Century uses of 'aesthetics' and on the origin of the notion of the 'Fine Arts' see Kristeller 'Introduction' in the set book for this course). For a more detailed discussion of what 'Aesthetics' can mean, read Malcolm Budd's article on Aesthetics.
Plato on Imitation
Plato was perhaps the most anti-aesthetic philosopher of all time (in senses 1 and 3 above, at least). He gave much higher priority to truth acquired through reason than to the evidence of the senses. He also wanted to exclude art that involved representation from his ideal state as described in his famous dialogue The Republic. [for a critical summary of the main themes of The Republic, including his views on art, listen to an audio file from my book Philosophy: The Classics'Plato The Republic'- approximately 26 mins]
The Forms Plato believed that we are most of us misled into believing that we understand the world we live in: we are dwelling in the world of phenomena, of appearances, but reality consists of the Forms or Ideas. To get a sense of what he meant, think of an equilateral triangle. Your idea of the triangle is perfect in the sense that each angle is exactly sixty degrees, the sides are perfectly straight, and exactly the same length. If you try to draw an equilateral triangle or make one out of wood, it will always be slightly imperfect: it will never achieve the perfection of your idea of the triangle. In Plato's terms, the imaginary perfect triangle is the Form. But such Forms don't just exist for triangles and other geometrical shapes, they also exist for such things as a couch. The couch you see is an imperfect rendition of the Idea or Form of a couch as interpreted by a craftsperson. If someone then paints a picture of the couch, this will be even less perfect (and require even less knowledge of the Form of the couch than required by the craftsperson): the painting will be at two removes from reality (where reality is the Form). [for more on this see the extract from Plato's Republic in the set book]
One of the ways he explained this idea that reality lies beyond appearances was through the famous analogy of The Cave. Prisoners chained to the floor, look at flickering shadows which they take to be reality, but is in fact produced by light cast from a fire behind them in front of which people carrying cut-out shapes walk making shadows on the wall. When one of the prisoners escapes into the real world and turns even to face the sun, none of his fellow prisoners believe him when he returns to the cave. They still dwell in the world of mere appearances and are ignorant of reality. In Plato's view, it is philosophers who have the capacity, through reason, to understand the real world. Consequently he set them at the head of his ideal society, making them philosopher-kings.
Plato argued that representational art should be excluded from his ideal republic because it was fundamentally misleading about reality. Those who ruled needed to keep focused on the Forms and in particular on the Form of the Good. He was particularly worried about the corrupting effects of poetry, which often misrepresented the nature of the gods, and also the kind of first person poetic expression that encouraged a reader to identify with an evil person's viewpoint. So poets and painters would be politely turned away from the borders of his ideal society and those who attempted to practice these deceptive and corrupting arts within would be prevented from doing so. As Karl Popper pointed out in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, this is an aspect of his totalitarian tendencies...(for a more sympathetic account of Plato's censorship of art, see Myles Burnyeat article from the London Review of Books, 1998, reprinted in Nigel Warburton ed. Philosophy: Basic Readings, 2nd edition).
In The Gallery We looked at five large photographs by the contemporary photographer Thomas Demand.There is a slideshow of Demand's work here, including some from the series 'Tavern' (click on 'previous' and 'next' to scroll through the slideshow). Each was a colour photograph of a paper sculpture that represented part of a building in which a child had been held after a kidnapping. The child was never discovered.
These images have an uncanny feel (because they at first look like straight documentary images of banal scenes, but yet which aren't quite right in some way - the lines are too clean). At one level, as in all his work, Demand is playing with ideas about representation and realism, about what we see, and about what we think we see.
Susan Sontag, explicitly invoking Plato's Cave, in her book On Photography claimed that photographs inevitably deal with appearances and so cannot deliver moral knowledge or deal with what is not seen or what is not in front of the lens. Here Demand seems to have found a way to use photography to represent what cannot be seen - the missing child - in a nested series of representations (the photograph represents the paper sculpture recreation of the scene; the paper sculpture represents a real scene of crime; the scene of crime is symbolically empty of the child's presence - he is experienced as a concrete absence).
Plato, would, of course, ban Demand's paper sculptures, and also the photographs of the sculptures, because each was misleading in various ways about reality.