The failure of analysis in aesthetic experience

Aestheticians (or some of them) have long sought to find grounds for claiming, “there must be reasons we say ‘X’ is an aesthetic object;’ but they come across reading as if saying, ‘there must be some reasoning a critic can use to convince us that “X” is an aesthetic object,’ which is a different question; in either case they have failed. (Logically, but not necessarily rhetorically; indeed the art of aesthetic criticism lies in marshaling a certain kind of objective language to both justify subjective aesthetic judgment, and persuade the audience to the correctness of that judgment – the success of this in effect objectifying the judgment for the audience community.)

This is really not about whether there are such things as ‘aesthetic objects’ exist independent of our judgment of such (what could that even mean?), but about how we talk about them, and whether there is any logical necessity in talking about them in a given way. Anyone who loves the arts wants to say ‘yes,’ but the harsh reality is that language is a social phenomenon; it doesn’t float above us waiting to validate our experiences; and aesthetics is the field that makes this most obvious.

Taste is a matter of inculcation, training, and experience. And not even everyone sharing the same inculcation, training, and experience, will entirely agree on selected objects.

Consequently, although there was some efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries, to find a way to transform aesthetics into a science, these failed miserably. They dominated the teaching of art and literature for a time; but eventually most people interested in art and literature simply stopped bothering with them. (‘Monroe Beardsley – who cares?’ The co-author, with W.K. Wimsatt, of “The Affective Fallacy” – arguing, in part, that the value of a poem should not depend on the emotions we read into it – was simply wrong-headed. The affective is not a fallacy, it is the very reason we come to literature in the first place.)

The notion that art is a cultural monument that we must all bow down to, in fact triggered an aggressively negative response in the ’60s, part of the “Cultural Revolution” that tossed all such notions – even some good ones – into the trash can. We largely recovered by tacit agreement that differing aesthetic values would obtain in different social factions – effectively different cultures (or ‘sub-cultures,’ although this term is illegitimate, since it presumes a mainstream culture that, in America, is really an illusion). So now, no one tries to impose the aesthetics of the museum on the those who prefer illustrated novels.

There is no ground for saying of a poem, or painting, or song, that it is ‘lovely.’ We call it such because we have been raised in a certain way, have had certain experiences (shared with others), and so attune ourselves to certain other experiences. The objectivity of art is not a matter of what’s in the object, but in the shared values of a given community.

Recently, The Electric Agora ( http://theelectricagora.com/ – where these thoughts originated as commentary), I had cause to read Frank Sibley’s criticism of what might be called ‘logical aestheticism’ – http://rci.rutgers.edu/~tripmcc/phil/poa/sidley-aestheticconcepts-controversy.pdf – which includes several critical responses to Sibley’s article. I won’t go far into Sibley’s argument; basically, his thesis is that the language we use to discuss aesthetic experiences is neither quantifiable nor conditional, in a manner that we can justify them analytically. They are, instead, results of education and experienced taste. The expert in an art is not the one who has thought rationally about it, but the one who has been immersed in it.

In Peter Kivy’s response to Sibley, attempting to redefine the problem in terms of aspect perspective, (which, if successful, would provide a means of including both rational analysis and Sibley’s theory of taste), I noted this passage:

“We are asked to perceive the melodic line of “Der greise Kopf” (“The Grey Head”) as a line drawing – the silhouette of a man’s head encrusted with snow and ice. How might I bring someone to hear the song as the outline of a face? As in the case of the duck-rabbit, my strategy would be to pick out some crucial feature or features that can be perceived in an appropriate way. I might say, for example: “Notice how the melodic line of the piano introduction climbs, pauses, as if to demarcate the nose and mouth, climbs again, to the brow as it were, and then descends in one long unbroken gesture that outlines the back of the head.” We do not stand mute before an instance of aesthetic aspect-perceiving; we are prepared to point out the features that are involved in perceiving one aspect or another.”

I was going to critique Kivy here; but on re-reading, I realized he was not writing as assertorically as I first read him. Nonetheless, the quoted passage will do to surface the problem here.

This is exactly the sort of thing an academic critic would say. The problem is, one has to already have a sense that “Der greise Kopf” is music worthy of listening to, to be persuaded by the argument. What could such a critic say to someone who simply tossed it off as ‘just so much noise to me’? Worse yet, what could be said to someone with an education similar to the critic who shrugged and said, ‘well, I really don’t like that piece, my taste leans towards jazz’? That’s worse, because the boundaries of the debate remain aesthetic, but there are no grounds by which the debate can be adjudicated. One says ‘potAYto,’ one says ‘poAHto’ – let’s call the whole thing off.

And, of course, then there’s the educated and experienced listener who simply accepts a different culture, with different cultural norms.

So I also want to quote two of my favorite musicologists * here, in order to indicate how important cultural context and experience really are to this issue, which classical aestheticians tend to miss (or, revealing a class bias, dismiss):

“Just let me hear some of that
Rock And Roll Music,
Any old way you choose it;
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it,
Any old time you use it.
It’s gotta be Rock And Roll Music,
If you want to dance with me.”
– Chuck Berry, Rock and Roll Music

“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.”
Bob Marley, Trenchtown Rock

We can certainly raise ethical objections to the lyrics of certain songs (those that advocate rape or violence, for instance), but I don’t see how we can raise any objections to the music one is culturally prepared to listen to. What would we say – ‘this is not beautiful’? ‘this is not music’? We have heard such arguments in public discourse – and we have seen that they fall on deaf ears. The aesthetic begins in the social modification of primal desires and visceral responses; articulate judgment follows as explanation. But this is not the ‘thing in itself.’ This ‘thing’ is a feeling, not a ‘thought.’

——
* Every successful musician (barring clever advertising hype) is a intuitive ‘musicologist’ – one expert in musical expression and its social reception – almost by definition; they would not be successful otherwise. The point hereis, in what culture will they’re expertise apply? The aesthetic is always culturally bound. No ‘logical analysis’ or neuroscience will ever effectively get around that.

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One thought on “The failure of analysis in aesthetic experience

  1. A couple of extreme opposite Kulturkampf/counter-culture formation/influence musical examples:

    1. Hitler and Richard Wagner – music inspiring war and the courage of the knife:

    “Hitler claimed that his Weltanschauung was derived from Wagner. His youthful reaction to Rienzi led him to exclaim 30 years later: ‘It began at that hour’. In Mein Kampf, he praised Wagner as a great revolutionary and claimed to have no forerunner except Wagner. Fest suggests that Wagner had an immense effect upon Hitler. ‘The Master of Bayreuth was not only Hitler’s great exemplar; he was also the young man’s ideological mentor. Wagner’s political writing… together with the operas, form the entire framework for Hitler’s ideology…. Here he found the granite foundations for his view of the world”. http://www.historytoday.com/jayne-rosefield/wagners-influence-hitler-and-hitlers-wagner

    “Die Walküre” Richard Wagner + Adolf Hitler

    2. Joni Mitchell and Woodstock – music inspiring anti-war and the courage of the word:

    Joni wrote the song that defined that generation, yet ironically did not attend Woodstock. David Geffen influenced her to meet her prior commitment to appear on the Dick Cavett show. This in turn inspired the song based on her disappointment in not attending.

    Joni Mitchell – Woodstock (Live In-Studio 1970)

    I don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg. Some are quants. Some are emo’s. Original cultures claim autochthonic earth-sprung roots. Some individuals have a creative spark that influences the culture. What comes first? The culture or the individuaI? I make no knowledge claim. Although inquiring minds want to know.

    Like

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