On Aesthetics

I was inspired by my earlier post to think about aesthetics – the philosophy of art, beauty, etc.  And I did a brief perusal of the related article on the topic on Infogalactic and discovered something:

  • In ancient and medieval world, specific things were called out as being beautiful: order, form, harmony, unity, etc. This was a means of defining beauty.
  • Starting in the Early Modern period (17th-19th centuries), the conversation changed to be about “aesthetic experiences”, wedding aesthetics to rationality and science.
  • Then in the 20th century, two things happen:
    • First, we throw away the artist/author because of the “intentional fallacy”, and center our understanding of a work solely on our individuated responses to it.
    • Second, the Po-Mo’s throw away the idea of beauty itself, and everything becomes about discourses and narratives to be endlessly invoked and endlessly deconstructed

So we move from a set of idea that are clear, evocative, and can be used by a mason to build a temple, to a set of ideas that are esoteric, tendentious, and can only be used by academics to write essays. The nerds have taken over.

71ArtInutile-s
“Art is Useless. Go home.”

A “One-Woman Fyre Festival”

That may be unfair. Caroline Calloway isn’t the first person who couldn’t make a book deadline. But the disconnect between reality and InstaReality is as vast:

Caroline Calloway knew she was not who she had made the world believe she was. She had created a public image that was essentially false and, when she was required to commit this image to print — to tell her life story — she experienced an existential crisis. It was one thing to post a photo to Instagram with a clever caption (and editorial assistance from her uncredited helper Natalie), but to compile these scattered vignettes into a narrative and say, “This is my life”? No, she couldn’t do it.

And as the Brutus of her story, Natalie Beach, indicates, there’s a semblance of honesty in there, an insistence that if you just believe hard enough, it will happen. You see the same in Billy McFarland’s pathetic stance on top of a picnic table at Fyre, trying to calm a mob of hopeful glampers just beginning to realize they got hosed.

The worst scammers are those that believe their own bullshit. If Calloway had just let Beach ghostwrite the book, she’d be full of it, but there would have at least been a book. If McFarland had limited his expectations, their at least could have been a party on whatever island that was.

But their minds were warped by saturated images and SEO data. They got high on their own supply.

It’s not at all easy to write a book. I’ve done it. It’s grinding. It’s work. It’s not glamour and bon mots and artisanal pork bellies. There’s a reason writers drink.

One of the best free books about creating, Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work, reminds us that the struggle of delivering the work, or “shipping”

When we ship, we’re exposed. That’s why were so afraid of it. When we ship, we’ll be judged. The real world will pronoubnce upon our work and upon us, when we ship, we can fail, when we ship, we can be humiliated.

For some, an insurmountable bar to clear.

Originality is not Art.

All aesthetic positions are going to offend someone, because concepts of the beautiful are perpetually wrapped up in concepts of the true, and that makes sense in poets’ vomitings but not as an ontological baseline. Whether the beautiful and the true are connected in some way doesn’t really help us to define the beautiful.

The philosophy of aesthetics suffer in a different way from the post-modern inversion. A long time ago Edmund Burke took a shot at defining The Beautiful and The Sublime, and it’s so 18th century you could powder your wig with it. Make an art student read it today and she won’t be able to get past it. Feminism owns the dialogue on what’s considered beautiful, because women have historically been far more concerned with beauty, and all women today feel obligated to at least nod to feminism lest they be accused of harboring the desire to surrender their franchise or some such nonsense. And Feminists regard beauty as a conspiracy against women, because… reasons.

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

So aesthetics has to appeal to presuppositions about what people like. If you like horror and your wife doesn’t, then no objective statement about the aesthetic value of say, The Shining, is going to be possible between you. She might agree that, on the whole, The Shining is a better movie that Bye Bye Man, but she doesn’t enjoy either, so she doesn’t care.

Where am I going with this?

I’m aiming at the reality that art of any form needs to be some kind of communication. There has to be something that The Shining is communicating, even if it’s something as simple as dread, mystery, and heart palpitations. So the first judgement of a piece of art is how well in accomplishes its intent (here the po-mo’s shriek that intent isn’t real and there aren’t any authors, because po-mo’s are nerds who think inverting things is valuable and clever). What does it want to convey to its audience? Did it do so successfully?

The second judgement would be the relative value of its intent. This must be judged on a gradient. What Animal House communicates and what Citizen Kane communicates are vastly different, and what the latter communicates is grander in scope, so it gets taken more seriously. That doesn’t mean Animal House has no aesthetic value, or that you shouldn’t watch it (I’m not bringing in any moral objections here. That’s beyond the scope), just that it’s ambitions are obviously more modest.

But in order to say something succesfully, you must find an audience that can hear it. I may have a very clear idea of what I mean when I say “wickle-bickle-num-bum-jarf-jarf-jarf,” but that doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, so I’m failing in communication. So originality isn’t always a bonus to art. You want to be unique, because you want to be heard as you, but originality gets in the way of communication as often as not. If Citizen Kane were a shade weirder, it would not have worked as well, and it would not be as successful a piece of art, by any standard.

Art can be original. They’re not synonyms.

Epistemocracy

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s term for a society based on humility towards what can be known. It is the sort of utopian idea that causes one to reconsider one’s own mental processes rather than draw up a blueprint for how others ought to behave.

He has also inspired me to read some Montaigne. Odd that I never have.

Gilgamesh is Fascinating.

Short, as epics go. And one certainly feels something got lost in translation. But there’s a marvelous universality to it at the same time, and a quaint reflection of a world more enchanted and more innocent. And the way it ends bespeaks a kind of tragedy-of-time, a luminous lamentation, that reminds me of Beowulf.

I don’t know why it took me so long to read it, but I’m glad I did.

Word of the Day: Benignant

adjective
1. kind, especially to inferiors; gracious: a benignant sovereign.
2. exerting a good influence; beneficial: the benignant authority of the new president.
3. Pathology. benign.
Definition: Dictionary.com
Where I found it: The Orphic Hymn to Ares
To lovely Venus [Kypris], and to Bacchus [Lyaios] yield, to Ceres [Deo] give the weapons of the field;
Encourage peace, to gentle works inclin’d, and give abundance, with benignant mind.

Hermeneutics of Suspicion and the Problem with Film Critics

The Sunrise Motel makes note of the same Film School Rejects article that I did, and pulls a good description of the puritanical urge to sieve any piece of art for wrongthink, “hermeneutics of suspicion”. I might go a step farther than this, and say that a great deal of criticism is done not for the sake of art, but simply to create barriers to enjoyment, that one may status-signal.

If you enjoy the same sort of thing that the masses do, and in the same way, then you aren’t a critic, you’re a press agent. It’s thus in the best interest of the critic to find reasons to find fault with things. A Hermeneutics of Suspicion will do as much as any other.

No doubt a certain degree of Exposure Effect is involved. If you watch movies for a living, you become inured to the common storytelling tropes and they cease to surprise you or have any effect on you whatsoever. So your experience of film, hoping against hope to be surprised, is vastly different from the average film patron, who is expecting merely an entertaining story for a few hours. The tendency to embrace absurdism and aesthetic extremes for their ability tweak the tropes is thus explained.

In other words, criticism has a problem.