April 1-4, 1998, Asilomar, California
The 1998 meeting of the Pacific Division of the ASA met, as usual, at the scenic Asilomar Conference Center on the edge of Monterey Bay. About 50 aestheticians heard seventeen papers divided into nine sessions.
Monique Roelofs began the first session with a paper “Permeable Boundaries, Tight Connections,” which surveys recent attempts to overcome the autonomy of art by highlighting connections with the rest of life. Roelofs cautioned that connections between artworks and the world must be considered selectively, since not all are aesthetically relevant, and that art trades on dis-connection as well. In looking to context one must be aware that art works “activate” some parts and not others. William Peck’s comment tried to make a simple map of connection possibilities, external (between art work and its world-context) and internal (between form and content). Externally, the hot topic is politics, and some people suspect apparently non-political art of being ideologically biased against activism. Peck noted that even if a work is non-political, its context may nevertheless make it political, so that historians will naturally relate it to the Revolution.
The next session featured accounts of fiction. In “Making It Up: A Definition of Fiction,” James O. Young argued for the failure of two views: that fiction is determined by authorial intentions and that fiction is the result of audiences using texts as props in games of make-believe. Young proposed instead to define works of fiction as the result of the author’s process of “making it up.” In the next paper, “Make-Believe, Fiction, and the Imagination,” Anton Alterman continued the assault on what he called the Walton/Currie approach to defining fiction in terms of authorized imaginings in games of make-believe. Whereas the wrong approach attempts to understand what makes sentences fictionally true, Alterman proposed rather that we must understand fiction as a genre. John Heintz’s commented on both papers, using the old tin-pan alley song, “Make-Believe,” to question whether we have one (Walton-like) concept of make-believe that can be used as a foundation for fiction.
The evening session comprised two papers on music and authenticity. In “Afrocentrism, Old and New: Reinventing Jazz Theory at the Century’s End,” Lee B. Brown discussed postmodernist accounts of the ethnic identity and authenticity of jazz music. He argued that the new “Critical Jazz Theory” falls under the spell of a “primitivism” that parallels the Afrocentric perspective on jazz in vogue several decades ago. In reply, Joel Rudinow noted that debates about authenticity have occurred in many other areas of popular music: black musicians ‘crossing over’ into rock and pop, white blues bands, and Bob Dylan’s transformation from folk guru to rocker. Rudinow suggested that while the sub-text of the theoretical debate may be race, we may find useful new ways to think about authenticity in Charles Taylor’s recent work. In “Performance Authenticity: Possible, Practical, Virtuous,” Stan Godlovitch argued that since there is sense to be made of authentic restoration of historical musical instruments, this same sense applies to authenticity in historical performance. In commenting, Jennifer Judkins added that we need to remember the richness and variety of historical musical practice: period instruments authentic for what city? what orchestra? what year? Much of early performance was poorly instrumentated, under-rehearsed, and badly performed, and what we try to reconstruct may often be ideal, imagined performances that never in fact occurred.
Thursday opened with “Mad Love: Our Love Affair with Horror,” by Daniel Shaw. Shaw held that in The Philosophy of Horror Noel Carroll fails to do justice to the fact that we are attracted to as well as repelled by the creatures of horror. Contra Carroll, Shaw claimed that psychoanalysis holds the key to understanding the appeal of horror to so many. Commenting, Jane Duran largely agreed with Shaw, adding a word for the potential of feminist theory to be illuminating in this context. In “‘An Unaccountable Pleasure’: Hume on the Experience of Tragedy,” Alex Neill argued that the standard interpretation of Hume’s account of our experience of tragedy is seriously flawed, and proposed an alternative. Commenting, Cynthia Rostankowski agreed with Neill’s rejection of the standard view, but suggested that there are elements of Hume’s essay that neither Neill nor the standard interpretation took adequately into account.
In “Imagination, Expression and Understanding: A Response to AIDS Art,” Stephanie Ross used the art of Jeff Colby to explore the power of art to enable us to imagine and come to understand experiences quite unlike our own. Commenting, Susan Feagin focused on the significance of Colby’s use of his own blood in his work, and on the value of a culture that is able to accept such a practice. Mitch Avila, in “Learning to See (Well): Justice and Care in the Photography of Dorothea Lange,” used the work of Carol Gilligan and Lange to explore the capacity of photography to serve as an resource for moral education. Commenting, Dom Lopes suggested that while Avila tended to criticize his opponents’ views of morality while leaving their accounts of photography alone, more mileage could be gained from thinking critically about the latter.
Thursday afternoon began with a session on “Intentions, Interpretations, and Descriptions.” Ted Gracyk discussed the issue of “Historical Authors and Speaker’s Intentions in Mass Art,” focusing on the case of popular music. He noted that for most listeners, the performer becomes the “speaker” responsible for the musical speech act, rather than the work’s composer. Popular music can engage in discourse at even further levels of remove, as when such recordings appear as material in films. In response Kathleen Higgins questioned whether the co-opted speech act must displace the original compositional meaning, or if the usages Gracyck described might piggyback onto the composer/authors original illocution. This was followed by Tom Leddy’s discussion of “Iseminger’s Literary Intentionalism,” a response to the problem Iseminger has posed when one has two contradictory interpretations of a work. The nub seemed to be that while for Iseminger literary works are semantically closed, Leddy argued that they are semantically open, which forestalls the possibility of two interpretations of a work really being contradictory. Gillian Parker rejoined that on Leddy’s view, since each interpreter is engaged in the construction of the work (which includes its text and its interpretation), then Leddy’s interlocutors are never talking about the same work. The session concluded with Roger Seamon’s presentation on “The Description of Expressive Intentions.” Using commentaries on Milton’s Lycidas, Seamon argued for a re-valorization of description, as not a precursor to interpretation, but as an alternative to interpretation. In response James Hamilton noted that while this is plausible, historical differences between various kinds of poetry may make a descriptive or an interpretive mode more appropriate.
After brief refreshment we went to the movies. Allen Casebier relied on Husserl’s concept of moments (objects whose existence is dependent on the existence of another object) to give an account of “”Truth-Makers in Aesthetics,” which in turn provide approach for the characteristic of shibui in Kurosawa’s film, Throne of Blood. Shibui is the quality of unfinishedness or incompleteness that constitutes the highest praise in Japanese aesthetic discourse. In response, George McKnight asked both about the temporality of moments, especially in a medium such as film, as well as whether or not Throne of Blood was really shibui. Next Deborah Knight examined Don Juan DeMarco and, following Northrop Frye, she claimed that in this film comedy is a “serious pleasure,” a comedy which engages in some serious social critique. Flo Liebowitz commented that perhaps Frye’s account of comedy is both too strong and too narrow, as it fails to acknowledge that comedy also gives rise to the distinctive emotion of delight, the enjoyment of unexpected pleasure.
Friday morning began with Gary Iseminger proposing a functional definition for art, namely that the function of art is to promote aesthetic situations, since (a) art is very good at promoting such situations, and (b) it is intended to do so. Robert Paul had a number of concerns regarding this approach to a definition of art, especially with respect to the boundaries of the aesthetic--in short, what isn’t (possibly) art on this view? Next, in her paper “Is ‘Artistic Excellence’ Unconstitutionally Vague Requirement for Government Funding in the Arts?” Julie Van Camp provided a report on the latest deliberations of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding criteria for NEA grants, and the roles that subjective vs. objective criteria play in awarding such grants. Van Camp suggested that no matter how the court rules, aestheticians may have a role to play in assisting the NEA and the courts to decide how to adjudicate matters of expression and taste. Ron Moore was less sure whether or not professional aesthetic input was really necessary or appropriate. Moreover, he noted that there already is an establish legal principle – of objective liability – which may well be sufficient for making such judgments.
The meeting ended with a session centered on Peter Kivy’s, “Odd Man Out: Haydn and the Idea of Musical Genius.” Kivy outlined two approaches to genius and showed how they were current in the 18th and early 19th centuries. He then demonstrated how these conceptions of genius were refracted back onto the leading musical lights of the day, notably Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Kivy concluding by noting the conspicuous absence of Haydn from this list. He argued that this was because although Haydn’s musical achievements were well known, Haydn did not fit either model of genius. Martin Beckerman added that Haydn had the poor luck to be active when Mozart held the center of European musical attention, as well as that Mozart excelled in the most public of genres, the opera. Justin London had some questions as to exactly what kind of genius Mozart was (for he seems to fit both models). He also noted that Haydn’s status may be due to a selective attention to his compositional oeuvre.
John Andrew Fisher