Taste, aesthetics, the will to power

Habakkuk, the prophet, by Donatello

Habakkuk, the prophet, by Donatello

I happened upon an innocuously titled entry, “Taste and Aesthetics”, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy last night, and it brought to mind a brief section in Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche, where the German philosopher celebrates Kant’s theories of beauty—particularly the notion that a human being’s reaction to beauty is “disinterested.” Heidegger praises Kant for this insight that maintains the effect of a work of art has nothing to do with desire—the impulses or motivations an individual harbors, at any level. Art serves no purpose, no end, other than to be what it is. Like human life, it is not a tool, not meant to achieve anything. It’s an end in itself–and thus can convey an awareness of the whole of life, or, for Heidegger, Being. Here is how the Stanford entry summarizes it:

For Kant the pleasure involved in a judgment of taste is disinterested because such a judgment does not issue in a motive to do anything in particular. For this reason Kant refers to the judgment of taste as contemplative rather than practical (Kant 1790, 95). But if the judgment of taste is not practical, then the attitude we bear toward its object is presumably also not practical: when we judge an object aesthetically we are unconcerned with whether and how it may further our practical aims. Hence it is natural to speak of our attitude toward the object as disinterested.

This sounds like blasphemy when you consider what is routinely celebrated in the art world now–how much art is meant to have a political or social “message.” I was puzzled at first why Heidegger dwells at some length on this issue, and especially the fact that he was siding with Kant, when Heidegger’s fundamental concern is ontological: “the question of Being.” Yet as I spent some time with his asides on Kant I realized that he recognized how Kant was, in a way, putting art beyond the reach of his own rationalism. In a like-minded way, the thrust of Heidegger’s effort was to recognize the limitations of Western rationalism and Western philosophy in general.

(Heidegger’s view is that Western philosophy has been unintentionally nihilistic since Plato, and that Nietzsche’s thought represents nihilism in full, decadent bloom. Nietzsche believed he was overcoming nihilism with his notion of the ubermensch and the will to power, but for Heidegger these notions represented the pinnacle of nihilism, its ultimate form–and the dead end of Western metaphysics. For Nietzsche and for Heidegger, art was an affirmation of life in opposition to nihilism, but the two philosophers had dramatically different views of how this works. Nietzsche was a prophet, not of fascism, but of where we have arrived as human beings on this planet. The human race has collectively become his ubermensch, in its march toward the mastery and manipulation of nature through science and technology. By contrast, Heidegger’s lifelong effort was to warn against the dangers of Western hyper-rationalism, in which the natural world and human beings themselves become raw material to be shaped by the will to power inherent in science and technology. Anyone who doesn’t recognize how Nietzsche’s predictions have come true in this way is living in denial.)

In his philosophy, Heidegger was reverting to the contemplative puzzlement of the pre-Socratic thinkers, like Heraclitus and Parmenides, who asked foundational, unanswerable questions without moving far beyond those questions. This Stanford entry echoes Heidegger’s concerns about the limitations of Western rationalism:

Rationalism about beauty is the view that judgments of beauty are judgments of reason, i.e., that we judge things to be beautiful by reasoning it out, where reasoning it out typically involves inferring from principles or applying concepts. At the beginning of the 18th century, rationalism about beauty had achieved dominance (through the work of) a group of literary theorists who aimed to bring to literary criticism the mathematical rigor that Descartes had brought to physics.

It was against this, and against more moderate forms of rationalism about beauty, that mainly British philosophers working mainly within an empiricist framework began to develop theories of taste. The fundamental idea behind any such theory—which we may call the immediacy thesis—is that judgments of beauty are not (or at least not primarily) mediated by inferences from principles or applications of concepts, but rather have all the immediacy of straightforwardly sensory judgments.

Behind this lies an unasked question about what visual art is uniquely able to do—whether it can be reasoned into being or originates, and operates, in other ways. The flip side of that question is whether or not art requires rational analysis in order for a viewer to feel or see what art is actually doing—what sort of work it’s engaged in—or does art do its essential work in an unmediated way. Kant would say that you see it immediately, without thought.

The Stanford entry quotes Kant, who elevates the concept of taste above reason in his 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment:

If someone reads me his poem or takes me to a play that in the end fails to please my taste, then he can adduce Batteux or Lessing, or even older and more famous critics of taste, and adduce all the rules they established as proofs that his poem is beautiful . . . I will stop my ears, listen to no reasons and arguments, and would rather believe that those rules of the critics are false … than allow that my judgment should be determined by means of a priori grounds of proof, since it is supposed to be a judgment of taste and not of the understanding of reason.

If you read the entire entry, you realize that this question is a difficult one, though I’m completely on Kant’s and Heidegger’s side in this tussle. At first it doesn’t sound like a disagreement with much at stake: to mock it, someone might say that it’s a question of whether art needs to be pretty or can actually be doing more important things. (It feels as if art since the 1950s has sided increasingly with “more important things.”) The problem with the language being used to address all of this is that it does sound trivial, given what’s happened to visual art since the early 20th century. When Dave Hickey asserted that art was essentially about beauty, it was easy to laugh at how backward it sounded. Was he talking about nothing more than taste? The faculty you rely on to pick out a fabric or a color for the dining room wall? He had Kant in his corner, but does “taste” govern anything in our culture anymore—art or otherwise? Art has to be about something, right? It can’t just be beautiful. No, Hickey was saying, it’s beautiful or it’s dispensable, because when we recognize what’s alive, vital, and meaningful, or otherwise crucial to who we are, we experience beauty. It’s an experience as instantaneous and indubitable as tasting a meal: no thought required. For him, beauty is what enables a work of art to outlast us and attract new meanings as time passes and the world around it changes.

The most interesting part of the Stanford entry briefly addresses Arthur Danto’s theories on why art has to be interpreted in its historical context. It’s an argument against formalism: the idea that nothing but a work of art’s formal qualities determine its worth–which is an extension of Kant’s idea. Danto’s central insight was about Pop art: that it marked the end of art history because it erased the distinction, in formal terms, between a work of art and anything else in the world. After Warhol’s Brillo boxes, anything could be considered a work of art—Warhol’s boxes were art only because his factory made them rather than Brillo’s—and thus art history had run its course. All frontiers in art were now open; there were no new trails to blaze. Anything Warhol touched was, by definition, a work of art. With that, formalism had run its course, because the formal properties of a Warhol box were identical to the manufacturer’s boxes. There’s no question this is what has happened, but I’m not sanguine about the conclusions Danto draws from this: that art is now a philosophical activity, needing to establish its own philosophical justification as it moves along, and that art can be understood only in terms of its historical context. In other words, to appreciate them as art, you have to know that those Brillo boxes, in a gallery or museum—formally indistinguishable from the ones created by the manufacturer—are Warhol’s commentary on art and popular culture, his flippant response to the gravitas of abstract expressionism a decade earlier and so on. In other words, you need instruction in art history to grasp their significance because their formal properties are utterly commonplace.

In the same way, you could say that Guernica makes sense only if you understand where it stands in relation to Cubism and to the Spanish Civil War—pick almost any work of art, and you can argue that you won’t fully understand it without knowing its historical context. But is that what gives the artwork its power and governs its impact on the viewer—is that how it actually works? Through a reasoned response? Is art fundamentally conceptual? I disagree with Danto—the greatest art continues to exert its power long after its historical context has disappeared. Its effect is immediate and immune to the passage of time. The once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Donatello’s sculpture last year in Manhattan confirmed for me the idea that art’s impact lies primarily in its formal, physical properties, not in the conceptual net used, after the fact, to pin down what it “means”. Knowing that Donatello’s prophet isn’t simply any old man in a tunic adds resonance to the work, but doesn’t magnify the astonishment and reverence you feel looking at it—not simply at its technical genius but at the pathos and gravity of a particular, individual human being transformed into stone. Moving through centuries, from the Renaissance into the postmodern world, and having been moved as well from Italy to America, did nothing to diminish the fact that Donatello brought stone to life. It’s as alive now as it was then, and as beautiful as ever.

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