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1996 Canadian Society for Aesthetics Meeting
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The thirteenth bilingual conference of the Canadian Society for Aesthetics took place May 27-30, 1996, at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Due no doubt to the proximity of the US border, we were joined by an unusually large number of our American colleagues. The theme of the conference was “Art and Science,” and a number of sessions directly addressed this topic. Willie van Peer of the University of Utrecht dissected a number of attempts to apply “chaos theory” to literature. Haidee Wasson and Janine Marchessault, both of McGill, presented a rather frightening vision of the manipulative possibilities of presenting history as “edutainment” by means of interactive cd-rom technologies. The interconnections of eighteenth-century theories of science and aesthetics were addressed in papers by Thomas Rueger, Steven Kammerer, and Matthew Pollard; these papers meshed well with a discussion by Stephen Ahern of the aestheticization of moral virtue in the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility

Taking a somewhat broader approach to the theme, a number of papers defended the cognitive values of art. Robert Stecker and David Davies seemed to agree that fiction can have cognitive benefits: while fictional propositions lack truth, they may permit us to vividly imagine what it would be for the proposition to be true or provide hypotheses to be tested in the real world. For Victor Haines our experience in a make-believe world of art allows us to explore the world in which we do believe. Ira Newman defended the traditional image of art as a mirror of nature; artists change the way we see the world by causing us to notice patterns in that world, not by actually recreating the world. James Harbeck argued that the experience of the clash of fictional cultures in Star Trek can help audiences deal with cultural differences in the real world.

Another trend seemed to be towards defending, albeit in a carefully circumscribed way, the objectivity of aesthetic value. Cynthia Freeland suggested that a pragmatist view of truth was compatible with some degree of objectivity in art criticism, basing her argument on Helen Langino’s similar argument for the objectivity of science in her book Science as Social Knowledge. James O. Young argued that a cognitive account of aesthetic value can put some restraints on aesthetic relativism. And, in one of the conference’s most memorable sessions, Hugo Meynell valiantly defended his 1986 book The Nature of Aesthetic Value, which is an unapologetic celebration of the values of “high art.”

An apparently heterogenous group of papers on modernism and postmodernism in architecture and the visual arts proved to have many interconnections. Ernestine Daubner saw in several paintings by Duchamp a reflection of the attack on enlightenment thinking by Adorno and the Critical Theorists. The enlightenment project of seeking to contain the unruly female Other is also evident in Le Courbusier’s obsession with “cleaning up,” according to Melony Ward. Stephan D’Amour argued for the inseparability of the artistic and engineering aspects of architecture; Joel David Robinson explained the quest for “weak form” in Peter Eisenman’s postmodernist buildings.

One of the most significant papers was the presentation by Roger Seamon of a new theory of “subjective formalism”; the distinguishing feature of art is its creation of “semantic gaps,” which the audience seeks to bridge by a rapid unconscious act of reconfiguration. The pleasure of art results from our success in doing this, which is analogous to getting a joke.

CSA/SCE conferences are notable for their extraordinary diversity of presentations, and this year was no exception. Tracy Punchard presented Oscar Wilde’s theory, derived from Herbert Spencer, that art, as a form of play, allows one to realize oneself in an ideal form, mirroring evolution’s progress towards the fullest development of the individual. A paper by Manon Regimbald dealt with the aesthetic implications of the blurring of the distinction between art and nature in the photographs of Alfred Steiglitz and Robert Smithson. Eric von der Luft argued that the end of Wagner’s Ring embodies a Hegelian view of history. Douglas Arrell explained the implications of the contention of several musicologists that classical music suffers from “homosexual panic,” as defined by Eve Sedgwick. Trevor Ponech described the epistemic void created by the failure of “experts” in certain horror films. James Hewitson described the connection between beauty and divinity in the work of eighteenth-century theologian, Jonathan Edwards. And there were many other papers on equally unlikely topics which demonstrated the diverse experiences of our members and the remarkable fertility of our theorizing imaginations.

Doug Arrell

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