April 2-4, 1997, Pacific Grove
Some fifty aestheticians gathered at Asilomar April 2-4 for the annual Pacific Division Meeting of the ASA. The program featured eighteen presentations divided among eight sessions. As always, the conference was enhanced by informal conversations, exquisite scenery, and well-chosen wines. Thanks to program director Joel Rudinow for a job well done. The summaries that follow were provided by Jennifer Judkins, Deborah Knight, Ron Moore, and Taffy Ross.
Session 1: Aesthetics and the Politics of Culture. James Young’s paper “Voice Appropriation: A Defense” asked when the borrowing of art forms, styles, or techniques from other cultures is misappropriative and wrong. Beginning with an analogy between mastering a language and mastering a culture, Young argued that multiculturalism (like multilingualism) is a good
thing, that outsiders can have a good deal of useful knowledge about a culture foreign to them, and that the lines dividing cultures are, after all, changeable. In her comments, Gillian Parker argued that instances of cultural borrowing have quite different moral significance depending on the relations of power between the two cultures involved, and she proposed that only those who ‘live’ a culture are genuinely entitled to posses it.
In “Negative Beauty: On the Religious Rhetoric of Literary Criticism,” Roger Seamon argued that there are rhetorical affinities between the New Criticism of the past and the cultural criticism of today, based on the fact that both treat literary works like sacred texts.
“Aesthetics and Secularization: How Does Art Theory get Politicized?” by Casey Haskins examined a debate in aesthetics between those who believe in the autonomy of art and the universality of art-critical judgments and sceptics who believe aesthetics to be time- and culture-bound. Haskins argued that the debate can be reconstrued more broadly as a conceptual debate pitting internalists against externalists.
Session 2: Aesthetics and the Boundaries of Culture. In “Open-Textured Aesthetic Boundaries: Matters of Art, Race and Culture,” Rudolph Vanterpool applied John Ladd’s suggestion that aesthetic concepts are open-textured, and thus not susceptible to clear-cut definitions, to two cases involving art from other cultures, specifically African masks and rituals, as well as paintings by Aaron Douglas and fiction by Clarence Major.
Carol Sheehan, in her paper “Landscape/Lens-Scape: Disconnection and Connection in Euro-American and Aboriginal Visual Art,” proposed a distinction between landscape – “a slice of the real world” – and lenscape – “an activity of the mind, a mental process through which images of the natural world are formed.” Sheehan argued that we are mistaken in thinking that Western art represents ‘real’ landscapes while artists from other traditions represent landscape as viewed through their own cultural lenses.
Session 3: Aesthetics/Ethics. Pitting the moralist against the anti-moralist, Berys Gaut’s “Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humour” attempted to dissolve the paradox that good cases can be presented both for and against the view that humour is subject to the demands of normal ethical constraints. Commentator Robert Solomon raised two key issues: whether jokes are too narrow for an adequate consideration of humour, and whether nasty or vicious humour is defensible.
Another paradox between the aesthetic and the ethical was examined by Patricia Herzog in “Akrasia and Aesthetic Judgment.” Aesthetic akrasia occurs when a person judges one work of art better than another yet prefers the less good work, or when a person’s admiration for a work conflicts with her better judgment, all things considered. Herzog argued that Wagner’s racism should cause us not to esteem his operas because they are morally vicious in spite of the fact that many find them compelling aesthetically. That we might find the operas aesthetically estimable is a case of weakness of will. In his reply, Denis Dutton asked whether weakness of will was the best solution to the problem and wondered whether it makes sense to speak of music in general, or Wagner’s operas in particular, as either nasty or vicious.
Session 4: Music/Noise. In an ‘Author Meets Critics’ session, Kathleen Higgins and Renée Lorraine discussed Ted Gracyk’s recent book Rhythm and Noise. Noting that on Gracyk’s view, rock music “privileges particular timbres over structures, recordings over performances, and particular performances over ‘works,’” Higgins offered several criticisms. Gracyk’s focus on recordings has, she felt, de-emphasized the whole range of rock music geared to live performance. She also disagreed with Gracyk’s contention that contemporary commercialism actually facilitates artistic vitality in rock music. Finally, Higgins insisted that rock musicians have indeed cultivated an image of being sexually over-driven and have always treated their music as a mode of sexual expression. Lorraine agreed with Gracyk that for rock music recordings are often centrally important to the work. However, she was less inclined to look at rock predominantly from an aesthetic standpoint, and more inclined to examine its socio-political implications. She also urged us to engage current feminist arguments regarding both the positive and negative associations of rock music and sex.
Jennifer Judkin’s paper “Signs of Struggle: Aesthetic Aspects of Musical Noise” argued for the appreciation of musical noise as an aesthetic aspect of live musical performance and for its inclusion in recordings. She noted that there is always some ‘noise’ surrounding the means of tone production in live instrumental or vocal performances. These noises testify to the physical effort of tone production, reminding us of the gestures and sensuality of making music. In his comments, Alex Neill pushed Judkins to specify more fully just which unintended sounds produced in the course of music-making count as musical noise.
Session 5: Eros, Poetry, Plato. Outlining an “Aesthetic of the Erotic,” Jane Duran began with a basic dualistic approach, contrasting wholeness with fragmentation and arguing that the former is on the side of the non-bodily or transcendental appreciation of the erotic, the latter on the side of the merely physical. She then suggested more complex accounts of the erotic emphasizing multidimensionality and geometricity, where erotic tension is experienced through complexities of attraction as well as disjunctions between the interests of those in the erotic relationship. In her comments, Ellen Handler Spitz turned attention back to the body as locus of erotic experience, suggesting that Duran’s transcendental move took the body out of the equation too quickly.
In “Power, Form, and Secrecy: Approaching Emerson’s ‘The Poet,’” Tim Gould examined a central feature of Emerson’s aesthetics, his view of art’s capacity to promote important self-discoveries. Gould argued that Emerson’s distinctive approach to Romanticism led him to emphasize the importance of overcoming ennui and conventional passivity in the exercise of our distinctively human powers of freedom. Commentator Tony Graybosch pointed out several ambivalences in the heart of Emerson’s reflections on art having to do with the status of the individual, ways of living, and quotidian experience.
In her paper “Poets as Auxiliaries of Philosophers? New Facets of Plato’s Critical Engagement with the Literary Tradition,” Susan Levin re-examined Plato’s opposition to poetry in the Cratylus and the Republic. According to Levin, Plato holds that poetry may be retained because it can promote the optimal functioning of individuals and hence of the community. In his comments, Peter Hadreas argued that we can’t accept Levin’s thesis so long as we take seriously Plato’s account of poetry in Book X of the Republic.
Session 6: American Philosophy of Art. In “The Ends of Art and the End of ‘Art,’” Stanley Bates provided yet more reasons in the never-ending series of reasons why we should resist Arthur Danto’s well-known claim that art has reached its end. First, aesthetic experience made available to us through art is now understood to be a form of human awareness that we will not willingly change or abandon; so whether any particular art forms come or go, the place of art in human life seems secure and permanent. Second, Bates argued that Danto’s notion of the end of art is parasitic on a certain view of history. In response, Stephen Burton asked whether art couldn’t be, as Bates suggests, an end of human life and yet progress to some end (philosophy, say) in which it is transformed into something it wasn’t previously, and, in that sense, comes to an end.
Christine Watling’s presentation “William James: A Philosophy of Art” threw new and useful light on a philosopher of the American “golden age” not generally regarded as having much to contribute to aesthetic theory. Watling argued that James’ philosophy of art might have taken a form that resembled Susanne Langer’s, emphasizing the form in which artworks reveal life’s dynamics rather than its objectives. In response, Ronald Moore expressed more sympathy for a special aesthetic role that James’ “fringe” features might occupy than for her deployment of James’ none-too-sophisticated management of relations and feelings of relations.
Session 7: The Aesthetics of Nature. In “What the Hills are Alive With,” John Fisher considered whether our appreciation of the sounds of nature falls within the compass of aesthetic theory. He argued that our preference for natural sounds and the justifications we might offer for such preferences are based on a causal connection between the production of the sounds and our attention to them. Commentator Donald Crawford agreed that we should start with the idea of causal connection, but suggested that we should think about how we already conceptually preform what natural sounds we then say we value.
In the paper “Valuing Nature and the Autonomy of Natural Aesthetics,” Stan Godlovitch addressed a problem that arises when environmentalists seek advice from aestheticians regarding conservation decisions. Is there any way to avoid deeming some parts of nature inferior to others and thus dispensable? Granting that art aesthetics is inevitably in the business of ranking, assessing, and grading, Godlovitch explored Allen Carlson’s view that everything in nature has a positive value and questioned whether we can provide a plausible version of the view which doesn’t reduce to mere art aesthetics. In her comments, Stephanie Ross accepted Godlovitch’s characterization of nature as everything that is given, actual, without meaning for us, and indifferent to us, yet she questioned many of the consequences Godlovitch drew from this definition.
Session 8: Phenomonology and Television. Alan Casebier’s “A Phenomenology of the Television Experience” argued that understanding the experience of television required that we first place it in the context of Husserl’s phenomenological ontology. To demonstrate important differences between video and other art forms, Casebier contrasted watching a commercial television program at home and appreciating an artwork in an art gallery. Roger Bell’s comments considered how the Fox network’s decision to shift the X-Files from Friday nights to Sunday resulted in an entirely different phenomenological experience for himself as viewer, since the program was now at the beginning of the work week, rather than at the end of it.