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Is aesthetics itself beautiful

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  • 1. 19: Is Aesthetics itself beautiful? 177 [Published in Rolando M. Gripaldo, ed. 2004. Philosophical landscape. Manila: Philippine National Philosophical Research Society] IS AESTHETICS ITSELF BEAUTIFUL?1 Rolando M. Gripaldo Aesthetics deals with theories of beauty. As the study of the beautiful, it tries to explain the nature of the creative impulse. This study is distinct and apart from the appraisal of the work of art which, in the contemporary scene, is called the philosophy of art. In practice, however, many philosophers do not separate the two. They discuss the functions of both the creator and the critic as one since for the artist or creator to judge whether his/her work is beautiful or not, s/he has to assume the function of the critic. The artist cannot appreciate his/her work unless s/he distances himself/herself from it by assuming the position of the audience or critic and by viewing his/her work objectively. For purposes of this paper, aesthetics is viewed to include the philosophy of art. There are three major types of works of art: (a) visual arts such as painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, architecture, interior design, landscaping, mosaic, computer design printing, etc.; (b) performing arts which include music, dance, theater, cinema; and (c) literary arts such as drama or play, novel, poem, short story, essay (Ortiz et al.1976: 1-31). Aesthetic theories take the form of literary arts, that is to say, they are written as essays. To analyze whether aesthetics is itself beautiful, we have to rephrase our title: “Are aesthetic theories, as essays, themselves beautiful?” I will attempt to answer this question in the affirmative. An aesthetic theory as a literary art has both form and content. Its form is the essay, but we are more concerned with the nature of its content, that is, whether as a theory of beauty, it is itself beautiful. LEXICAL MEANING OF BEAUTY There is only one lexical meaning of beauty that is relevant to aesthetics, viz, that which delights the perceiver or aesthete. This meaning is found in the dictionary and is uniform or the same to all who use the word “beautiful.” However, the standard of beauty for each individual may differ or, socially speaking, may be culture bound. (A Ugandan tribe, e.g., considers a fat woman beautiful.) One person may consider one work of art as beautiful or aesthetically satisfying while another will judge it weird or ugly. In other words, perceivers may disagree as to the criteria or standards of beauty, but they agree as to the meaning of beauty since that meaning is based on usage. We appreciate the thing we call beautiful, or to call a thing beautiful is to appreciate it in the sense that it delights us, it satisfies our cravings for beauty, it fascinates us. It lets us play with our imagination. There are various theories on the creative impulse, on where beauty resides, and on the criteria of appreciating what is beautiful. When I was young, I grew up in a rustic place. Every morning I saw the open landscape, the dewy meadows with carabaos and horses roaming around, and birds flying against the background of an azure sky. It was a sight to behold. It delighted and fascinated me, and I found it beautiful. In late afternoons, I saw the sun setting—a red, orange disc moving slowly down the horizon. Again, I was delighted and fascinated by it. To me, it was beautiful. Each one of us has a bias. My bias when I was young was that beauty exists out there objectively, or independently of my perceiving mind—that is, that beauty resides (is found) in nature. When I grew up and was introduced to artistic works—mostly paintings—I noticed aesthetics_beautiful.pmd 177 1/10/2006, 1:22 PM
  • 2. 178 Rolando M. Gripaldo that the artist copies or imitates nature such that it seems to me, commonsensically speaking, that art imitates nature or life. The paintings were like photographs of landscapes or animal. Plato (Titus 1968: 376) supports this theory when he says that the artist imitates what is pleasant. Aristotle likewise argues that painting arises from the desire to make likenesses of men and women, or that comedy mimics life. According to Titus (1968: 375): Aristotle…finds in imitation a natural tendency that he regards, along with the pleasure that comes from recognition of the object or scene portrayed, as the explanation of art. Painting grows out of the desire to make likenesses of people and things. The theater imitates men in action: comedy mimics people, and tragedy is an imitation of some of the events of real life. TRADITIONAL INTERPRETATION OF ART This traditional interpretation that art as an imitation of life or nature has been challenged. And this is where the delight of aesthetics, for me, begins. Oscar Wilde (1960: 20-22) contends that nature or life can also imitate art. No one appreciated the fogs of London before because they were associated with colds and sickness, not until the impressionists started painting them. When the people saw the paintings, they were fascinated by the fogs and found them beautiful. Then every time London had the fogs, the people welcomed them, and found fogginess a beautiful scenery—a sight to behold. “The artist,” as it were, “provides a kind of education of the imagination and the senses, so that we perceive in nature what art has prepared us to see” (Rader 1960: 5). APPRECIATING ART It appears not only commonsensical but also rational to conceive that art imitates nature. But even this rationality for the artist to imitate nature has likewise been challenged. According to Henri Bergson (1960: 80-87), it is not reason or the intellect that enables the artist to imitate nature. Rather, beauty is intuited from an objective reality and depicted by the artist as he “sees” it. He does not actually imitate nature. The intellect, for Bergson, is the misfortune of man since it reconstructs reality. Reality is something that subsists. Time, for example, is the interpenetration of the past, present, and future. A part of the past and of the future partakes of the present. We cannot really subdivide reality, but the intellect does just that. The intellect constructs its own reality by subdividing time in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds, and by portraying what is typical. We need the intellect, of course, for our survival and it lets us enjoy the fruits of science and technology, but for a price: we cease to perceive reality correctly as individuality since the intellect has diminished our intuitive capacity. The artists have plenty of intuitions. They perceive the individual rather than the type. They transform it into a work of art. They intuit the individual (or the unique) rather than the typical as something beautiful. Art is not therefore imitation but intuition. A milder view can be reconstructed from the views of G. E. Moore and Plato. It is an attempt to reconcile art as imitation and art as intuition. G. E. Moore (Hudson 1970: 66-71) is a moral intuitionist who says about “good” that whenever we call a thing or action “good,” this word “good” refers to a unique object which we intuit. By the same reasoning, we may argue that “ beauty” refers to a unique object which the artist intuits when he perceives something beautiful, and beauty exists objectively—perhaps as a perfect form elsewhere as in Plato’s World of Forms or simply as a logical possibility (see Ceniza 2001 and Gripaldo 2004: 135-69). In this view, the artist imitates what s/he intuits in objective reality. Sigmund Freud (1960: 127-40) also challenges reason as the basis of the creative impulse. He maintains that art is wish fulfillment. The conscious ego or intellect is only the tip of the iceberg, which is largely dominated by the unconscious id. Artists like everyone else do have aesthetics_beautiful.pmd 178 1/10/2006, 1:22 PM
  • 3. 19: Is Aesthetics itself beautiful? 179 frustrations, and while many of us non-artists fulfill our frustrated desires in some other way as in dreaming or the like, the artist fulfills his/her frustrated wishes in his/her works of art. In extraordinary cases, some people who are not by nature artists are able to write good poetry because of frustrated desires. A suitor, for example, who is jilted by his lover may sit down— in desperation and frustration—and starts to write something which turns out to be an excellent piece of poetry. In appreciating the work of art, the participation of the audience is quite important. Vernon Lee (1960: 370-74) holds that to appreciate a work of art as beautiful is to empathize with it. This is the commonsensical view. Lee says that when one claps his hands, stumps his foot on a musical march, or shed tears on a melodramatic scene, then he is empathizing. To empathize is to show the sentimental or human aspect of the audience. This was my bias when I was young. Josè Ortega y Gasset (1960: 411-19) believes that true art is dehumanized art. The tendency of new artists is to get rid of sentimentalism, escape from the human element, or to get out of the crippling humanizing situation. Wilhelm Worringer (1960: 382-91) also contends that the tendency to abstraction is the “polar opposite of the need of empathy.” The artist, according to Worringer, has the psychological fear of space. Everything is spatially transitory or impermanent. The artist somehow wants to escape from impermanence and tries to encapsulate the perfect form of beauty—in terms of geometrical forms—which are permanent and absolutely immutable. As Worringer says (1960: 387): [The artist’s] strongest impulse was, as it were, to tear the external object out of the context of nature, out of the endless interplay of existence, to purify it of all dependence on life, all arbitrariness, to make it necessary and stable, to make it approximate to its absolute value. Allied to art as empathy is art as communication. Leo Tolstoy (1960: 62-71) thinks that for an artist to succeed in his/her work, s/he must be understood by the audience. In this regard art is a two-way communication. There must be a feedback mechanism whereby the artist will know if the audience understands his/her message; otherwise, s/he is a failure or his/her works are not aesthetically fulfilling. A contrary view to this is that of Benedetto Croce (1960: 88-104). He contends that what is important is simply the fact that the artist is able to express himself. Art as expression is therefore audience-free. Whether or not the present audience understands the artist does not matter. For all we know, the present generation will not understand the artistic work, but the future generation will. Impressionism was rejected during its time but is now accepted. Many rejected the works of Van Gogh and Picasso during their time but they now command a high price in auction sales. As one may express himself to a woman: “I love you but what concern is that of yours?”2 ART AS REBELLION Art as rebellion is an entirely different genre in aesthetics. Here art as pure realism, art as intuition, art as wish-fulfillment, art as empathy, art as communication, art as expression, art as pure abstraction, etc. are discarded. Art as rebellion takes at least two forms: dadaism and existential rebellion against the absurd. Dadaism (1915-23) was an art movement that rebelled against art itself. It is sometimes viewed as an intellectual revolt (against the social order) that came into existence in view of the disillusioning experience of the First World War. Dada, which in French means “hobby horse,” comes down to us to mean “to kill art.” It has a negative, anarchic, and nihilistic tendency brought about by the situation during and immediately after World War I. It makes a mockery of art itself. The paintings here are weird looking, not necessarily abstract but aesthetics_beautiful.pmd 179 1/10/2006, 1:22 PM
  • 4. 180 Rolando M. Gripaldo contrary to reality itself such as Marcel Duchamp’s reproduction of Mona Lisa with moustache and goatee or a painting of a urinal labeled as “fountain.” There are nonsensical poems with combined words selected at random and formally read in public. Unintelligible lectures are formally read in unison The other version of art as rebellion comes from Albert Camus (1967: 437-49). As an atheist, Camus considers life as absurd, pointless, ridiculous. One who surrenders easily to the absurd will commit suicide. The Suicide Man is a coward, but there is another way. Each one of us is condemned to die whether we like it or not. The Condemned Man, however, faces reality and confronts the absurd. In a way s/he is a rebel by trying to make sense of his/ her own absurd existence. S/he attempts even to live a happy life. And what about the artists? Well, they rebel with their art. For Camus, there are two artistic extremes: pure realistic art which is a copy of absurdity and against which the artist rebels, and pure abstract art which goes overboard, a complete escape from absurd reality. In pure abstraction, the artist no longer rebels, s/he becomes an escapist, s/he is like the Suicide Man. His/her work has no more semblance with the reality s/he is supposed to be rebelling against. True art, according to Camus, must be somewhere between pure realism and pure abstractionism. In the 1970s in the Philippines, another version of artistic rebellion is expressed by R. Esquivel Embuscado (1975; see Gripaldo 2004: 1-32). He argues in his aesthetics of dissectionism that artists must not simply copy the styles of the past and perpetuate them in the present but must dissect the depressive social scenarios of the present and freely project them in dissection towards the open future. That’s where new artists find their aesthetic fulfillment and satisfaction. POSTMODERNISM The contemporary scene has produced a movement known as postmodernism. The “After Postmodernism” movement simply gets rid of the excesses or arbitraniness of postmodernism. There are many currents. One important current which I think will continue to be significant during the Third Millennium is the attempt to use art to level off cultures by effacing the distinction between mass culture and high culture. The important precursor of this current is John Dewey (1960: 171-88; Titus 1968: 379), a pragmatist. He maintains that art should not be limited to museums and art galleries. We can find art in everyday life, in the quality of experience which is different from the ordinary, normal experience. When a basketball player shoots the ball gracefully, our reaction is “Wow, ang ganda!”3 In his article, “Postmodernism and the aestheticization of everyday life,” Mike Featherstone (1991: 265-90) contends, among others, that there is a leveling off of cultures. High culture, which is represented by artworks found in museums and galleries, is lowered while mass culture, which is represented by the aestheticization of everyday life, is elevated. The effect is the leveling off of cultures in that mass culture and high/elitist culture are on a par with each other. Dante Leoncini (1995-96: 92-98) likewise contends in his postmodernist article, “On the possibility of making oneself a human work of art,” that a man or woman can become a work of art when he/she beautifies himself/herself. This is not petrified art in the museum but a living, walking work of art. Beauty, however, in this regard is very temporary. Alvin Toffler (1970: 174-75) says that contemporary art is characterized by temporariness. It is called “Kinetic Art,” whose “very raison d’etre is transience.” This renders the traditional standards of permanence, uniqueness, and enduring universal value as inapplicable and obsolete. Artist nowadays work for the moment and do not believe that permanence is a virtue. aesthetics_beautiful.pmd 180 1/10/2006, 1:22 PM
  • 5. 19: Is Aesthetics itself beautiful? 181 NATURE OF BEAUTY The commonsensical view that beauty is out there existing independently of the perceiving mind has been held by Plato and many realists. This is one other bias I had when I was young. But like the other commonsensical positions, this has been challenged by John Locke and by Bertrand Russell, among others. According to John Locke ([1961]: 24-26), beauty is not a primary quality that resides in the material object, but a secondary quality that resides in the perceiver. There are only three primary qualities: solidity or weight, extension or volume, and motion. The data of the five senses—smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste—are secondary qualities. Beauty is perceived through the sense of sight, and in view of the relative standards that each individual may possess, then his perception of beauty may vary. One work of art may be beautiful to behold to someone, but not aesthetically satisfying to another. Bertrand Russell has put it more succinctly. He says that we seem to perceive the firmament as beautiful at our safe distance on earth, but there is really no beauty out there. When we come nearer to any star, we will get burned. Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder. Another philosophical point of view that will possibly continue to be discussed in aesthetics is the circumstantialist point of view where beauty is argued to reside in a situational perspective. It is not out there in the work of art, and it is not likewise in the eye of the beholder. It is in between, depending upon one’s situational perspective. When one comes very close to a painting, for example, s/he does not perceive the work as aesthetically fulfilling. If, on the other hand, s/he goes quite far from the work, it is likewise not artistically satisfying. But when s/he stands in just the proper distance, s/he perceives it as beautiful. S/he has therefore the proper or appropriate situational perspective: the right situational line of vision for the object of art to appear as beautiful. Beauty is in the perspective—the appropriate situational one—and not in the object or the perceiver. Samuel Alexander (1960: 19) calls this a “tertiary quality” of the object, the quality that lies in between the primary and secondary qualities. Locke ([1961]: 25) himself simply refers to this third sort of quality as “barely powers” of the object. THEORIES OF BEAUTY All these theories of beauty are possibilities in that they are not reducible to truth and falsity.4 But they are cognitively meaningful in the sense that they serve as possible alternative explanations of the nature of beauty, the nature of the creative impulse, and the effects of the works of art to the audience or critic. As possibilities, they are irrefutable. One cannot refute what is possible. He either accepts or rejects it. To go back to our question: Are aesthetic theories themselves beautiful? Insofar as they delight me, they fascinate me, they allow my mind to soar to the realm of possibilities, I think, aesthetic theories are beautiful. Oh yes, persuasively, aesthetics is itself beautiful. NOTES 1. Originally published in Unitas 73 (2), 2000. The present version is slightly revised. 2. Goethe (Kaufmann 1960: 31) says something similar conditionally: “If I love you, what concern is that of yours?” 3. Literally, it means, “Wow, beautiful!” Idiomatically, it means, “Wow, superb!” 4. Rudolf Carnap (1955: 209-25) will certainly classify aesthetics, like metaphysics, among the literary arts in that he considers it as an expression of preferences or emotions and not reducible to truth or falsity. aesthetics_beautiful.pmd 181 1/10/2006, 1:22 PM
  • 6. 182 Rolando M. Gripaldo REFERENCES Alexander, Samuel. 1960. Beauty and illusion. In Esthetics. Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Bergson, Henri. 1960. The individual and the type. In Esthetics. Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Camus, Albert.1967. Rebellion and art. In Perspective in aesthetics: Plato to Camus. Edited by Peyton E. Richter. New York: Odyssey Press, Inc. Carnap, Rudolf. 1955. The rejection of metaphysics. In The age of analysis. Selected by Morton White. New York: Mentor Books. Ceniza, Claro R. 2001. Thought, necessity and existence: Metaphysics and epistemology for lay philosophers. Manila: De La Salle University Press. Croce, Benedetto. 1960. Intuition and expression. In Esthetics, Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Dadaism. 1998. From the Internet. <http: //www.peak.org/~dadaist/English/Graphics/>. Accessed: 9 March 2000. Dewey, John. 1960. Having and experience. In Esthetics. Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Embuscado, R. Esquivel. 1975. The aesthetic[s] of dissectionism. Pasay City: By the author. Featherstone, Mike. 1991. Postmodernism and the aestheticization of everyday life. In Modernity and identity. Edited by Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman. Oxford: Blackwell. Freud, Sigmund.1960. Wish-fulfillment and the unconscious. In Esthetics. Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Gripaldo, Rolando M. 2004. Filipino philosophy: Traditional approach, Part I, Section 2. Manila: De La Salle University Press. Hudson, W. D. 1970. Modern moral philosophy. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books. Kaufmann, Walter. 1960. From Shakespeare to existentialism. Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Books. Lee, Vernon.1960. Empathy. In Esthetics. Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Leoncini, Dante. 1995-96. On the possibility of making oneself a human work of art. Σοφια 25. Locke, John. [1961]. An essay concerning human understanding. Abridged by Richard Taylor. In The empiricists. Garden City, New York: Dolphin Books. Ortega Y Gasset, Josè. 1960. The dehumanization of art. In Esthetics.Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Ortiz, Ma. Aurora R., Teresita E. Erestain, Alice G. Guillermo, Myrna C. Montano, and Santiago A. Pilar.1976. Art: Perception and appreciation.Manila: University of the East. Rader, Melvin, ed.1960. Esthetics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Titus, Harold H. 1968. Living issues in philosophy. 4th ed. New Delhi: Eurasia Publishing House (P.) Ltd. Toffler, Alvin. 1970. Future shock. New York: Bantam Books. Tolstoy, Leo.1960. The communication of emotion. In Esthetics. Edited by Melvin Rader.New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Wilde, Oscar. 1960. Nature’s imitation of art. In Esthetics.Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Worringer, Wilheim. 1960. Abstraction and empathy. In Esthetics. Edited by Melvin Rader. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. aesthetics_beautiful.pmd 182 1/10/2006, 1:22 PM