Ñåêöèÿ “Aesthetics and philosophies of art”
Contemporary aesthetical problems
(Ñîâðåìåííûå ýñòåòè÷åñêèå ïðîáëåìû)
Ðîññèÿ, Ìîñêâà, ÌÃÓ èì. Ëîìîíîñîâà
The article discusses the structure of the core problem of aesthetics. The author highlights the main trends of contemporary aesthetics. Some main features of most influential currents of aesthetical thought of the 20th century like existentialism, phenomenological aesthetics and the Frankfurt school are examined.
Key words: aesthetics, existentialism, phenomenology, Frankfurt school, philosophical knowledge, values, anti-values, beautiful, ugly, taste, harmony, plastic.
Before speaking about contemporary aesthetical problems, I would say a few words about aesthetics in general. Aesthetics is a specific branch of philosophical knowledge. The word aesthetics comes from the Greek and means ‘sensitive, dealing with perception’. The subject matter of aesthetics as it is formulated nowadays is a specific aesthetical human attitude towards surrounding world. There are various types of attitudes: 1) utilitarian and practical; 2) theoretical (in terms of cognition). What is especially characteristic of aesthetic attitude? It is characterized by two main points. Firstly, the object of consideration is a sensitively perceived appearance as a clearly expressed form. Secondly, this attitude is of non-utilitarian character. The appearance is represented as the object of disinterested admiration. Marx wrote about aesthetical attitudes like that: the man who is burdened with worries and needs has no sense for the finest of plays; the dealer in minerals sees only the commercial value, and not the beauty and peculiar nature of the minerals. The thing, which perceived aesthetically, just can be (or can't be) enjoyed and the principles of utility are not taken into account. That is why the aesthetically valuable appearance is valuable by itself. It is perceived as a valuable (or anti-valuable). It is seen as something precious and it implies evaluation: either you enjoy it or not, either it's beautiful or ugly. This precious value is not to be proved, it is an object of an agent's individual preferences, and it is a matter of taste.
Though in this sense aesthetical value seems to be sovereign, it nevertheless deals with material reality and human practical interests. Aesthetically attractive appearance, so to speak, indirectly contains the elements of practical value. For example, we like the smooth outlines of a car. Why? Because they symbolize speed. Thus, aesthetic attitude appears due to the emergence of stable associations with things like good, purposefulness, prestige, wealth (the aesthetic qualities of gold and silver are closely connected with such things; for example, one Black tribe in the XIX century considered coal to be beautiful). In such a way the utilitarian is presented in aesthetics as the second hidden but manifested plan.
An aesthetical attitude may have different nuances and emotional coloring. That is why it is characterized by various defining concepts. These concepts are usually referred to as aesthetic categories. All these categories are usually paired (positive or negative). The most important are beautiful/ugly; tragic/comic; sublime/sordid. But there also exist some clarifying, secondary or intermediate categories - for example, elegant.
Different phenomena can serve as objects of aesthetic attitude. Those are distinct things of natural origin or nature as it is; they can also be artificial things (in particular and above all, works of art), environment and, finally, a human being, and various forms of his or her activity. For example, we can have in mind the aesthetics of sport or an aesthetic appeal of some household forms. Mathematicians speak about beautiful solutions; chessmen say about elegant chess moves and compositions, etc.
An aesthetical appearance hasn't got a cognitive status. We can't get proper knowledge through aesthetic value. But it promotes and activates knowledge. It orients us in surrounding world. The typical example is given by Aircraft designer Antonov: as it often happens, the most beautiful form comes to be the most expedient. An aesthetical attitude discovers some information which is important for our knowledge. It allows us to take a holistic set of parameters in their mutual relation. So, the contents of contemporary aesthetics are quite diverse. They include such problems which give rise to important theoretical sections like the essence of art, the nature of aesthetic taste and the mechanism of formation of aesthetic attitudes, the law of human aesthetic exploration of surrounding world, the structure and regularities of aesthetic cultural functioning (aesthetic culture is meant to represent part of culture in general which is the aim of aesthetic value), etc.
The ability of aesthetic evaluation is determined by cultural, historical and social situation. For example, Chernyshevsky noted that top-society ideal of beauty differs from folk ideal. Or: in the age of classicism the nature which was formed and decorated by people was considered aesthetically beautiful ( in opposition to chaotic and multi-colored world of Middle Ages) and in Romantic age the appearance of nature was considered aesthetically beautiful.
As cultural and social conditions influence aesthetic abilities, it produces a range of problems of aesthetics, a way of setting up and analyzing these problems which have been changing historically. The aesthetics' place in the system of knowledge has been changing too. For example, ancient philosophers used to set up aesthetic problems, but aesthetics as a discipline was not distinguished as a separate sphere. The fact is that what they understood as aesthetics was actually a doctrine of world harmony and existence embodied in plastic form. They saw it as corporal proportionality. Therefore, aesthetics in their understanding coincides with philosophy of nature, or using a special term, with natural philosophy.
In the Middle Ages the aesthetical lost its corporal character and acquired a spiritual, cleric character. Beauty is treated as a symbolic reflection of divine perfection. In their world outlook aesthetics wasn’t distinguished from philosophy of religion. It started to be separated from other branches of knowledge, when the sovereignty of man as the subject of cognition and action was fully realized. A human being began to be cognized not as a part of the world, but as opposed to this world, as somebody who had his word in evaluation and choice. It took place in the philosophical thought of the New Age - in the XVII and especially in the XVIII centuries. It was exactly in the middle of the XVIII century that the term ‘aesthetics’ appeared. This term was coined by German philosopher-educator A. Baumgarten. During this period aesthetics was mainly developing as a philosophy of art.
Contemporary aesthetics goes on to have the character of philosophical discipline. But now it relies on data of specific sciences, which did not even exist in the XVIII and XIX centuries, or were still in the bud like psychology of art and perception, sociology, semiotics, and likewise.
Until recently existentialism has been considered an influential direction in aesthetics next to Marxism. The typical example of existentialism in aesthetics is that of Sartre who was one of its theoreticians and an outstanding writer as well. Existential aesthetics reflects some specific features of existential philosophy as a whole. This philosophy is interested in a human being, in his or her emotional state. An individual is a creature thrown into the world and feeling anxious and desperate here. The basis of existentialism consists in distinguishing between genuine and non-genuine existence. An individual acts as a non-genuine, impersonal, stereotyped creature in everyday life. He or she can exercise their genuine existence while making a free choice. These minutes are their minutes of fame, but as well they are tragic as this choice is made in front of death, in very special "border" situations. That kind of freedom has supreme value, but it also bears a heavy burden as man is doomed to this freedom. The example of this kind of existential situation is that of battalion commander Sotnikov in "The Ascent" of L. Shepitko.
In the light of this conception Sartre analyses the Baudelaire’s work, his themes and motives. According to Sartre, art is pure freedom which loses itself in man's consciousness and per se in the ‘nought' as consciousness is always the extension of objective reality beyond its borders and in this sense it is its denial, its non-existence. Baudelaire seeks to get this freedom, but at the same time he feels frightened before its loneliness and non-existence. This desire to avoid anxiety of full freedom gives birth to his intention to limit freedom as pure subjectivity by frames of objective character; he tends to compromise with the objective world. It results in the poet’s duality, in his sense of guilt that is reflected in his poetry.
According to Sartre the main and the final aim of art is appropriation of the total integrity of objective reality by a man. He creates art by showing not a real world but the one that it could have been if a man could enjoy such degree of freedom that allowed him not to be estranged, but felt that the world met his aspirations. The rise of esthetical enjoyment in art perception might be an indicator in the process of getting to this.
The discovery of the world is only exercised through an action, because a human being can feel as if he dominates the real world’s situation and so he is able to change it. The artistic activity that is stimulated by perception of the artwork transfers into the real world and becomes apparent in the aspiration for justice and freedom. Consequently, it is in the nature of art to fill a man with a sense of moral responsibility for injustice in the world; art teaches us to bear this responsibility. Early Sartre insisted on the idea of ethical neutrality of art, but mature Sartre, who had some experience in the war against fascism and in the movement of resistance draws a conclusion about a connection between ethical and aesthetical aspects and he even puts forward the latter to the forefront: moral imperative lies at the base of aesthetical imperative. One can’t create a good artistic work without an ethically justified idea. There Sartre’s aesthetics has something in common with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Proceeding from this kind of understanding of artistic function, Sartre states that the main condition of freedom is democracy and when democracy is threatened, art is threatened too. Democracy cannot always be defended by pen, there comes a day when a writer puts his pen aside and takes a weapon.
Sartre as well as some other representatives of radical left aesthetics criticized capitalism. This is something to be thought about by our contemporary public leaders who call themselves left radicals (though they actually are right radicals). Sartre’s invective against capitalism stresses the fact that bourgeoisie tends to make art a part of market relations; art isn’t regarded as disinterested creation but as a paid service, in which case only true artists stand by the mission of the art. Their work doesn’t only reflect the world but it also tends to change it. To some degree Sartre’s extent idea gave rise to radical left aesthetics of 60-80th connected with revolting student movements. Trying to change the world, they wanted to break, so to speak, the “transparent wall” between them, to get over the barrier between art and world creating some kind of ‘happenings’ where the distinction between art and politics disappeared. But the experience showed that art as an immediate catalyst is not that effective. Much more important is its reflective function and its views. Admitting disappointments in this experience, Sartre came to know that art by itself cannot change modern society. “I used to mistake a pen for a sword for a long time, but now I admit our powerlessness”, – says Sartre in the 60th.
This change of point of view on art produced a shift in Sartre’s aesthetics. Then he starts to analyze productive work, manufacture instead of considering philosophical or creative production as he used to do before. At this stage of his ideological evolution he drew closer to Marxism. According to Sartre there is nothing predetermined in the process of any activity. By acting a man, an artist is not based on any beforehand given target; he is involved into life without knowing where this way will bring him to. For example, when an artist makes up a picture he does not know exactly how it will look like in the end. In this sense artistic creation is like an integrated model of human activity in general.
Sartre distinguishes 2 basic models of creation: “escapist” and “involved”. The former is defined as an escape to the past, to the world of illusions, aspiration for perpetual immobility and calmness of material objective reality. The latter opposes it. Sartre comes out against a snobbish point of view which weakens the aesthetical meaning of art. The artist is involved into social life, he is engaged by it, and it is not bad, it is quite natural. The artist should promote the changes of actual social situations with the aim of furthering the human freedom. But at the same time he must not serve any particular party. Therefore the concept of ‘committed’ art is opposite to the famous concept of “partisanship”.
The next and quite influential tendency is scientistic aesthetics. Though there exist lots of tendencies and concepts, there is one thing in common: their tendency to apply scientific definition for analysis of art, especially they are fond of using definitions worked out in the field of natural and exact sciences, as well as those of linguistics, logic, semiotics, the theory of information, They all are actively applied and define scientistic aesthetics’ profile.
One of the typical examples of this approach is N. Goodman’s aesthetics. He considers art to be the form of cognition and specifies it confronting art to scientific knowledge. He doesn’t link the criteria of aesthetical perfection with beauty or pleasure but only with cognitive effectiveness of art as a symbolic system. The flaw of this kind of aesthetics – as of many other kinds of scientistic concepts – is that the subject of creation and perception are taken isolated. This is a special kind of aesthetical adventures. Nevertheless the use of these definitions developed in logic and mathematics sometimes comes to an unusual effect and highlights some unexpected aspects of art.
Defining the cognitive peculiarity of art, Goodman takes into consideration the intellectualization of contemporary art. That’s why he rejects the traditional scheme proving that science finds world in definitions and art in images. According to Goodman, the difference between art and science is in domination of symbols with different specific characteristics.
He links the specific features of aesthetical sing systems with 4 “symptoms” – (as he calls them) of the aesthetical:
1) The relation between a sign and the denoted as a type of exemplification (ex.: in the movie “October” directed by Eisenstein, the shots where clocks are shown, reproduce the idea of historical time.) The problem is that exemplification is polysemantic.
2) Compactness. This term is taken from mathematics and defines the insight structure of some plurality. This plurality is compact if between any of its two elements there appears the third element. Using the notions of compactness and formal-mathematical language, Goodman tends to indicate the fact that by aesthetical perception one considers the slightest nuance of inscription, the character of the stroke and so on…
3) Syntactical fullness. This term is brought up to distinguish visual elements of scientific or artistic language. Let’s compare, for example, an instant cardiogram with the Hokusai’s drawing that shows Fudzi mountain. The contour can be the same, but what’s the difference? For the perception of this piece of art everything is important: the color of the line, the thickness of the stroke and so on… That means that there are more significant components on the piece of art than those on the cardiogram. It is fuller syntactically.
Another example of scientistic aesthetics is theoretico-informational aesthetics of A. Moll. He takes some piece of art and divides it into elementary items: separate sounds, image on principle of TV raster, and each of items can be shown as figure of binary-number system – bit. Then they count the total amount of information in the piece of art, and on this basis they formed quality estimations of the piece and its substantiveness. The piece is considered to be an informational structure with complicated architectonics of its levels. Thus, a work of art gives us both some general information and aesthetical one. Aesthetical information is linked to opportunity of variation for one and the same sign or message (for example, estimating a woman’s beauty, we don’t take into account only common specific feautures of the female body; we appreciate the uniqueness of this particular body).
The next step of aesthetical theory we are going to shortly characterize is phenomenological aesthetics. Let’s study it looking at Hans Sedlmayr’s concept. The moulding of Sedlmayr’s scientific interests is connected with the Vienna’s School of Arts. It’s characterized by disappointment in positivism and phychologism and by its attempts to analyze the immanent qualities of art. According to Sedlmayr, the history of art is the history of spirit that unfolds itself through the changing artistic systems and styles. The main attention is concentrated on the analysis of the work of art as the autonomous specific structure of text.
Phenomenological analysis of the work of art – is a method of structural analysis of a separate work, then an analysis of art as a whole, and finally of all spiritual atmosphere of this era. A work of art as an aesthetical object exists for Sedlmayr in the act of perception. For him a work is not a thing but some kind of “ideal object” which is given in this material thing; this ideal object exists in consciousness. Thus, aesthetical perception gives rise to a piece of art as an aesthetical object, at the same time this giving rise is equal to interpretation. While scientific consciousness divides objective reality into pieces and focuses on facts, details and particulars, art is aimed at integrity of objective reality. Therefore, the truth of art is higher than the truth of science. Moreover only an artist is able to catch “the ‘face’, vital quality of the world”. The anthological presupposition of work of art is some kind of objective reality, however, the work of art itself does not exist in reality, it is given only in our imagination, isolated of the world and has its time of existence.
The main principles of structural analysis of fine arts and architecture are formulated in Sedlmayr’s work “Figurative vision’. The core notion here is that of structure as divided unity, which elements are connected wich each other in a particular way. The laws of existence of a work of art are equivalent to the laws of its structure.
Sedlmayr gives new understanding of interpretational analysis of a work of art. Interpretation of art is not just a “construction”, searching for same “meaning”, that is hidden behind its creative form. Interpretation is recreation, a new birth of masterpiece in an individual soul. In interpretation a picture or sculpture as a thing does not change, but its “ideal object” is always new.
Interpretation of a piece of art is a creative process and captures a human being totally –his mind, soul and body. This process has three levels:
1) spontaneous unprejudiced impression, yet not developed and unclear.
2) search for a “right interpretation”, search for the connection between elements of creative unity, using the knowledge of the world and art. It is work of imagination and intellect. This is a rational level.
3) at the second level initial unity divides, therefore a stop at this level means the destruction of a masterpiece. That is why at the third level this unity recreates itself enriched by interpretation.
The problem of interpretation, according to Sedlmayr, obtains a new specific meaning in connection with rating of modern art. This kind of art was the first to produce works, which couldn’t be interpreted. In front of this kind of “works” the interpreter goes speechless or he just simulates the interpretation. Since the interpretation is equal to the creation of the piece of art as an ideal object, modern art brings us outside the frames of art.
However, Sedlmayr treats this problem in a specific way, as for him modernism and decadent art include realism as well. He offers this kind of periodization of European art:
1. Pre-Roman and Roman (550-1150)
2. Gothic (1140-1470)
3. Renaissance and Baroque (1470 – 1760)
4. Modernism (1760 - )
This is connected with religious aspects of his aesthetics. The top of this gradation is Gothic as an example of true unity and beauty, an image of “goodness” of absolute. Then goes decay, regress, that is caused by the crisis of Christianity. The natural consequence of this crisis was isolation of art from religion. This process gave rise to anti-humanism and eccentricity of modernism and finally to anti-art. Modernism symbolizes the substitute of homocentric, anthropomorphic world-view by cosmo-centric and technetronic. It’s impossible to define contemporary art as decline or take-off, it’s controversial.
Finally, the last direction which influenced the development of aesthetics in the 20th century is Frankfurt school. Frankfurt school is an ideological stream that was founded at the beginning of the 30th on the basis of Frankfurt Institute of Social Studies. It is connected with Marxism but so called “critical Marxism”, adapted to bourgeois philosophy and small-bourgeois left radical political conscience.
The core problem of Frankfurt school is critique of rational reason and of the whole dialectic of enlightenment which underlines European spiritual culture of the new age. Rational thinking has an initial defect – it is repressive, is connected with the will to power and supremacy. Its aim is to capture an object separated from the subject and contravene the subject nature (and human nature as well). It means that it always suppresses. Rationality penetrates into human society and turns a society into a collective of appeared anonymous personalities. Every human being just seems to be personality but actually he is pseudo-personality. Instead of rational bourgeois human creature we need to produce a real human being. In order to do that we have to free our consciousness and our self from those thinking forms which produce a bourgeois society. And it is art that can do it. The true art states the truth of human existence in harmony with nature, when a man and his consciousness do not contradict nature but become similar to its creative powers. Such kind of harmony of an individual and nature exists at the earliest level of history. And true art should recreate the spirit of those times in order to become “the search of the lost time”. From the point of view of this searching we should examine the whole contemporary civilization. But the truth announced in this way may seem absurd to a representative of bourgeois culture. That is why the form of contemporary art that is adequate to its aims is the art of absurdity. Such art is doomed to loneliness and conflict with mass audience. The romantic position of an unacknowledged and persecuted artist is the only possible one for those working in this kind of art. That is why it is necessarily elitist.
That means that true art goes into contradiction with the notion of work of art as it is. This work of art ceases to be a kind of art in the exact meaning of this word, but it becomes a means of denial and destruction. The real piece of art is always “on the edge”; it balances between existence and imperfection. Art must model a revolutionary process of destruction of rational bourgeois reality. But it should do it not in the field of images but in its own material architectonic. As an example of such art we can mention atonic music of Schonberg and the experience of pointlessness in fine arts.
By the example of Frankfurt school we can see the connection between left-revolutionalizm and avangard, an attempt to see avangard as aesthetic equivalent to revolution. This attempt achieves some pretensions of bogemic rebelliousness at most. And ideologists were convinced that the total denial results in destruction as well as ideas of total freedom do. In the end majority of them gave up this rebelliousness and took side of bourgeois liberalism.
Aesthetics today as a science has entered the 3d millennium of human history. People aspire to achieve aesthetic knowledge and attitudes. Relying on the culture of the previous centuries we suppose that aesthetics will be developing successfully and will conventually influence other sciences, by analyzing and rethinking classic, modernist and post modernist picture of the world and human being.
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