December 23, 2013
An alternative title to this post could be, “Why existentialism and postmodernism ruined everything,” but that’s a bit grandiose. This is from Frederick Beiser, an authority on German Idealism, talking about his book, Diotima’s Children: German Aesthetic Rationalism from Leibniz to Lessing (Oxford, 2009):
The aporias of the present is that there really is no aesthetic criticism anymore, and that there are really no standards about art. Anything goes, and anything is good or excellent “in its own kind”. We got here because some aestheticians and philosophers took the avant-garde too seriously, and held that even snow shovels, urinals and soup cans can be works of art. I think that the avant-garde was making all kinds of interesting and valid points; but one it was not making is that these kinds of things are works of art. They were not intended to be works of art but, for all kinds of complicated philosophical social and political reasons, works of anti-art. There really are standards of criticism, and there really are rules of art, even though people shudder at the very thought of them. You only have to listen to film critics and book critics to see that they apply all kinds of standards, like the need for verisimilitude, the need for unity in variety, for coherence, for capturing the interest of the reader. You only have to talk to artists to see that they work according to rules, and that they know all too well that they can employ only certain means to achieve the ends they want. The question is to spell out these standards, and to make clear these rules, and that means first knowing what an aesthetic standard and an aesthetic rule means. The whole issue has to be re-thought, and to re-think we have to go back more to the past, when there was a lot more thinking about these issues.
One of the reasons standards and rules have been so undermined is because of the doctrine, common since Kant, that taste is only a matter of subjective pleasure, and that it has nothing to do with the object itself. This Kantian doctrine, which appears perfectly explicitly in the first paragraph of the Kritik der Urteilskraft, has been decisive in turning people away from criticism because there is no need to look at the object itself, to look at its qualities, to determine what is good or bad. Kant wanted universal aesthetic judgments, of course, but he could hardly guarantee them because there was no reason one could give for them. There was nothing about the object itself that made it pleasant or unpleasant to look at. We might as well look at snow shovels and urinals.
The reason why I like Diotima’s children — the aesthetic rationalists of the eighteenth century — is because they stress the importance about something in the object itself that makes it good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant to look at. They all defined aesthetic pleasure in terms of the perception of perfection, intuitio perfectionis, where perfection meant something like unity-in-multiplicity, a formal structural feature of an object, what we also call harmony or beauty. They did not deny that there is a subjective component to aesthetic experience in the feeling of pleasure; but they believed that there is also an objective component, that they judgment rests on a perception of this perfection in the object.
I think that there is something to this doctrine, and that we do well to revive it. Oddly, one of its tacit proponents, though explicit opponents, is Hume himself. When Hume insists that taste is a matter of delicacy, that it is a matter of having a sensitivity to features of an object itself, he is very close to the rationalist doctrine. Hume was really a covert objectivist (or partial one) about aesthetic pleasure because that pleasure had to be based on the sensitivity to features in the object. It was only having that sensitivity that allowed some people to be good critics. As soon as we explain what is involved in that sensitivity we get something along the lines of the rationalist’s intuitio perfectionis.
This is part of a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Beiser. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. If you are interested in this subject, Beiser expresses thoughts similar to Roger Scruton in his documentary on art for the BBC.
December 21, 2013
I have thoroughly enjoyed Robin Waterfield’s translation of Plato’s Symposium (Oxford, 2009 ). He has also translated Republic, Timaeus, Gorgias, Phaedrus, and others, plus works from Euripides, Aristotle, Herodotus, Plutarch, Plotinus, et alia. He conveys a charm and wit that I have not found in other translators — though I’ll leave it to the experts in Attic Greek to judge — and his annotations are often humorous. His introductory essay to Symposium, which should be read only after reading the dialog itself, is a fine probing of the text: appropriately cautious yet confident in his vast knowledge of Plato’s corpus.
Socrates’ speech about ἔρως is a retelling of insights given to him by Diotima, a female philosopher and seer. The argument is full of twists and turns, not easy to reconstruct. Plato is figuring how ἔρως — érōs, trans. “love” — remains continuous throughout the person’s ascent to the highest form of love, which is love of absolute beauty, not merely particular instances here below. We begin with the ἔρως felt toward a particular object of our desires, as in our desire for sexual consummation with a beautiful person. There is a lack within ourselves, which is why Love cannot be identified with the absolute (or God) according to Plato — since God does not lack anything. The precise nature of this lack is a bit obscure. Love (ἔρως) is not pursuing beauty for the sake of beauty per se but for the sake of happiness, which Plato elsewhere (Republic most famously) connects with absolute Goodness. Yet, what makes us happy? In Symposium, Plato connects our ἔρως with our desire for immortality, which compels us to procreate and thereby extend ourselves. Likewise, we want to “possess” the objects of our desire because we want the true object — happiness — to endure forever. So, this is why philosophy is better than sex (!) because we can “procreate” that which never perishes: virtue or goodness. Thus, Socrates rejects the sexual advances of his attractive male students, because he wants to procreate wisdom with them, thereby bringing them to a higher stage of eternal beatitude.
The “erotic” is never denigrated. Sexual desire and its consummation participate in the beauty that leads us to absolute beauty or goodness. The erotic impulse is not to be rejected or repressed but transferred to a greater and more expansive apprehension of beauty. At least, that is how Waterfield interprets it:
The temptation to talk about the ascent in terms of sublimation of erotic impulses has proved too strong for some post-Freudian commentators, but it is entirely inappropriate. Diotima is not talking about the unconscious repression of instinctive energy, but the conscious transcendence of it. Whatever precisely Freud meant by the term ‘sublimation’ (he changed his mind a number of times about it), it seems to involve a blockage of the erotic impulse; in Diotima’s speech, on the other hand, érōs is never blocked, even though it may be transferred on to different objects. Even here there is a difference between Plato and Freud: the new objects of érōs in Freudian sublimation are less satisfactory than the objects the person really desires; for Diotima, however, the further up the ladder of love one ascends, the more fulfilling the objects are. Finally, although it is clear that the passion of érōs is preserved throughout the ascent, it is not clear that the sexual element is, except as a metaphor (as in Eryximachus’ speech); for Freud, however, sublimated desires remained essentially sexual. [p. xxxi]
So, the “sexual element” is important at the early stages of our apprehension of beauty and desire for happiness, though it is not clear whether this persists — once our “eros” is directed toward the purer and enduring beauty of absolute goodness. Given that Plato elsewhere conceives of material reality as a lower “impression” of the eternal “forms,” it seems that Plato’s ideal is a transcendence beyond all sexual desire, even if he does not denigrate its importance in one’s ascent. The problem with an “erotic impulse” that never matures, remaining at the lower level of particular goods, is that it wants to unite with transience, instead of using this impulse to lead beyond transience.
Image: A bust of Diotima at the University of Western Australia. Click to enlarge.
October 27, 2013
I am blessed to attend an evangelical church which still has an organ and professional organist — an increasing rarity in these barbaric days. For those who are not so fortunate, you should at least compensate by joyfully attuning your ears to this wonderful piece by Bach:
October 1, 2013
This is a delightful and wide-ranging discussion with Roger Scruton on the concept of human rights, tolerance, art/aesthetics, gender theory, and more:
Scruton is the foremost public intellectual within the Burkean school of conservatism. I have previously linked his documentary on art for the BBC, as well as Edward Feser’s summary of Scruton’s definition of sentimentality.
Also, you can watch Terry Eagleton in conversation with Roger Scruton. Needless to say, I am a bit incredulous about Eagleton’s rosy picture of leftist cultural values, but he’s an articulate defender of his cause, which has long won.
September 8, 2013
Beauty is the supreme mystery in this world. It is a brilliance that attracts attention but gives it no motive to stay. Beauty is always promising and never gives anything; it creates a hunger but has in it no food for the part of the soul that tries here below to be satisfied; it has food only for the part of the soul that contemplates. It creates desire, and it makes it clearly felt that there is nothing in it [beauty] to be desired, because one insists above all that nothing about it change. If one does not seek out measures by which to escape from the delicious torment inflicted by it, desire is little by little transformed into love, and a seed of the faculty of disinterested and pure attention is created.
(Écrits de Londres et dernières lettres, Paris: Gallimard, 1957, p. 37; translation by Rush Rhees, in Discussions of Simone Weil, p. 32)
That is a perfect encapsulation of Weil’s philosophy, which is always theology as well.
July 29, 2013
I am currently reading Richard Peterson’s Creating Country Music (University of Chicago Press, 1997). Peterson is a long-time professor of sociology at Vanderbilt, and this is the fruit of decades of archival research and interviews. His focus is on the critical formative period from 1923, when the first country record was pressed in Atlanta, to 1953 when Hank Williams died at the age of 29.
One of the most striking features of this thirty year period, albeit not too surprising, is how country music’s birth depended upon the ambitions of businessmen who thoroughly disliked country music (termed “hillbilly music” at the time), including Southern businessmen in cities like Atlanta who were intent on distancing themselves from their rustic past and embracing the urbane sophistication of Northern cities. But, country music sold, to the dismay of record executives, and the prejudice would continue for a long time. The most important figure at the birth of country music, as a commercial enterprise, was Polk Brockman of Atlanta. He hated country music, but he could profit from it.
However, this disdain for country music actually served to benefit its development as a creative expression of rustic scenes, its joys and sorrows, and with its hard edges. From Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams, you have yodels and nasally voices that grated the sophisticated, classically-attuned ear. Here is Peterson discussing the A&R men (the scouts and promoters for the record companies):
…this first generation of A&R men did not try to impose their own aesthetic standards, either during the recording process or in the process of selecting which of the cuts to release. It is not that they were enlightened or that they were lazy. Their reason for not interfering was much more basic. In most instances they didn’t like the music, didn’t understand it, and had no respect for its audience. Ralph Peer, for example, was circumspect in public while he was active, but in later life he voiced great contempt for the blues and country artists he recorded and for the music they produced. …In effect then, because of the snobbish attitudes of A&R men like Peer and others, Jimmie Rodgers and the generation of artists who began to record in the 1920’s had great artistic freedom, greater freedom, in fact, than has been enjoyed by any later generation of beginners in country music.
[Creating Country Music, pp. 46-47]
Speaking of Jimmie Rodgers, here is a great recording of him from 1930 by Columbia Pictures:
April 6, 2013
This is from Albert Schweitzer’s famous two-volume study of J. S. Bach, which lead the Bach renaissance of the early 20th century:
Some artists are subjective, some objective. The art of the former has its source in their personality; their work is almost independent of the epoch in which they live. A law unto themselves, they place themselves in opposition to their epoch and originate new forms for the expression of their ideas. Of this type was Richard Wagner.
Bach belongs to the order of objective artists. These are wholly of their own time, and work only with the forms and the ideas that their time proffers them. They exercise no criticism upon the media of artistic expression that they find lying ready to their hand, and feel no inner compulsion to open out new paths. Their art not coming solely from the stimulus of their outer experience, we need not seek the roots of their work in the fortunes of its creator. In them the artistic personality exists independently of the human, the latter remaining in the background as if it were something almost accidental. ….
The art of the objective artist is not impersonal, but superpersonal. It is as if he felt only one impulse, — to express again what he already finds in existence, but to express it definitively, in unique perfection. It is not he who lives, — it is the spirit of the time that lives in him. All the artistic endeavours, desires, creations, aspirations and errors of his own and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to their conclusion in him. …
Whatever path we may traverse through the poetry and the music of the Middle Ages, we are always led to him.
The grandest creations of the chorale from the twelfth to the eighteenth century adorn his cantatas and Passions. Handel and the others make no use of the superb treasures of chorale-melody. They want to be free of the past. Bach feels otherwise; he makes the chorale the foundation of his work. …
This genius was not an individual, but a collective soul. Centuries and generations have laboured at this work, before the grandeur of which we halt in veneration.
Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach, vol. 1, trans. Ernest Newman (London: Breitkopf and Hartel, 1911), 1-4.
March 9, 2013
Chris Donato has completed a fine little series on Friedrich Schleiermacher:
I have yet to read every post, but it looks like a great introduction to Schleiermacher, with whom every responsible theologian is required to be familiar.
January 17, 2013
Philip Nielsen has a nice article on Balthasar’s aesthetics:
Here are a couple of my favorite points:
For Balthasar, a Church totally devoid of images is not something that could concentrate the eyes of the congregation purely on Christ (as many Protestant and even some Catholic thinkers would assert), but is rather much more akin to a Gospel in which half the parables of Christ were removed.
…sacred art and architecture should avoid taking on merely human dimensions, seeking rather to preserve the “dissimilarity” between God and his creatures. Sacred architecture’s first duty is to create a sense of “spacing” between God and man. The church, but especially its sanctuary, must clearly depict a distance between God and his creatures. A church that looks like a living room makes an awareness of the difference between Creator and creature more difficult to perceive—it makes it an act of near heroic virtue. “Spacing” can be achieved first and foremost by scale, ornamentation, art, and architectural cues such as rails, screens, stairs, or curtains. All of these elements, insofar as they make the glory of God more clear to the participant, express true beauty. This beauty must lead to God, however, not simply to an aesthetic experience. “The awareness of inherent glory,” writes Balthasar, “gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God.” [Balthasar, New Elucidations, 136.]
Nielsen is a Phd candidate in architecture at Texas A&M and previously studied theology and architecture at the graduate level at the University of Notre Dame.
Image: Catedral de Burgos, by Axel Haig (1835-1921)
October 10, 2012
In light of my recent bit of music criticism, I thought it would be worth pointing to some of my favorite contemporary acts, lest you think that I only exist in the 1960’s and 70’s. As much as I idolize and idealize that time period, there are in fact recent artists who are just as capable. Here is a wide range:
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has an inexhaustible amount of imagination. I don’t need to add to what has already been said about this magnificent double-disc album. Certainly a fan favorite is “Raconte – Moi Une Histoire,” the life of a frog. If that doesn’t make you happy, you have no soul.
The Joy Formidable
Their Atlantic debut, The Big Roar, is about the most addicting album in recent memory, with its unique brew of shoegaze and 90’s alt-rock. They have an extensive YouTube presence; check-out “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” and “I Don’t Want to See You Like This.”
I don’t know what to make of his most recent album, Tomorrowland. I suppose every artist needs a departure, to test the waters; and after three albums of near perfection, we can cut him some slack. Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun should be in everyone’s car. Listen/watch his first single, “Southside of Heaven,” to get an introduction.
Justin Townes Earle
Here is another fine example of folk-country Americana. I would pick his 2010 album, Harlem River Blues, as a good place to start. I will close this post with his performance of the title track on Letterman: