Creed part 3

Continuing from last post, the last statement.

I seek the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind.  

         I came to this final statement recently as I worked on finishing my book (now begins the tedium of preparing for publication), but I know that I have sought something like this since mid-adolescence in some inchoate incipient manner.  This developed into a steady intellectual curiosity in college when I read Cassirer and Langer, so that in both bouts of graduate school and out in the professional world I have always listened, read and learned with this in mind.  I came to this idea once I had retired from my day jobs of serving children and families through teaching, speech and language therapy and clinical psychology; now farming infuses my philosophy, and though I have less time and energy during the growing seasons for reading and writing than I might like, winter is a joyful scholarly season, a special time for seeking the deep aesthetic.

Regular readers know I lean on Aquinas via James Joyce for the basic formula:  a beautiful form has integrity of wholeness, coherence of its elements, and luminosity of . . . .  Well, that is the critical question, I think: what is this luminosity?  Aquinas thought it supernatural and sourced from god.  Ho-hum.  Joyce, I think, struggled to go much beyond his Jesuit education and orthodoxy, but he still managed to focus on what the artist instills in his work, what the audience manages to find there, and the fine, sublime beauty of true and deep art that creates a stasis, i.e., a moment of epiphany and insight, as opposed to an emotionally evocative dynamism such as propaganda or pornography involve. The old humbug, Harold Bloom, in one of his last books, The Daemon Knows:  Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, refers to beauty, i.e., luminosity, as the sublime, an expression of the artist’s daemon, which from my perspective begs the question.

Art comes in two forms.  The first is what Ellen Dissayanke calls ‘making special’—the artist creates an artifact or decoration that is an expression by the self of the self.  This art form is akin to a bird’s plumage or song or dance in that it serves as an individual expression of some unique facet of identity.  The second is more akin to what Joyce and more rigorously Langer conceived of as art—the artist creates an art form that is an expression by the self of the self’s experience.  It expresses some import not about the artistic individual but about that individual’s vital experience.  This is Langer’s idea of a presentational symbol that renders the artistic import intuitively through the self’s vision and voice; it is a complex form composed from otherwise meaningless elements into a coherent and unified form that carries its import to its audience, i.e., it shines with its aesthetic luminosity.

Both of these art forms are a manifestation of the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind as are, indeed, many of the other dynamic aspects we find as we seek to understand what is happening here on Gaia.  Monod gives a careful and detailed exposition of how gene regulation and protein synthesis is carried out through chains of biochemical reactions dependent solely upon thefitbetween the shape of one stereospecific molecule complex and its substrate; if the molecule fits, an energetic reaction carries forward the vital processes, i.e., it shines.  If it does not fit, the molecules lie inert and the process is stymied.  This sort of operational feature operates in genetic replication, e.g., the double helix unzips and only reconstitutes through fitting specific amino acids into the proper place and sequence, as well in the molecular chemistry involved in the cellular machinery.  While we may not think of this as an aesthetic, Monod was quite sensitive to the beauty of these operations, and as cited above, understood that the marvelous complexity, integrity, and endurance of life in this regard fully justified his assertion that this is the true nature of spirit’s presence within us.

So I argue here that one prime property of life that emerges at different levels of biological organization is this special fitness, i.e., an aesthetic, of components interacting in an energetic chain that once engaged, pressures life forward; once this property stops its operation at this basic level, life stops. Further, the reason I now include my seeking to understand this in my creed is that this pressure forward of vitality engenders and guides our sense of future experience.  It is how we feel the immanent future and its possibilities. Some examples come to mind.

Consider first listening to music, the art genre Langer says renders its import in a virtual form of complex and many layered time.  When we listen we form expectations about what notes may come next.  This is especially true when we are familiar with the music but also when the music is novel.  Some notes feel right while others feel wrong, this according to some fitness standards that are culturally shaped to some degree.  Stravinsky’s Rites of Springviolated those expectations and energetic riots ensued, but a new aesthetic was engendered.  Some modern music seems atonal or in some way not musical to old fashioned tastes and it is hard to feel the flow forward.  When the composer is working on a piece, what has come before gives him or her a feel for what could and should come next. Again, some notes feel right, others don’t, and so the composition continues until the composer feels it should end, i.e., the form is complete.  And some endings also violate expectations.  A similar example is language and syntax.  Discursive forms are different than presentational ones but still what comes before determines what can come next and fit into the syntactic frame or structure.

I understand that the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind operates, then, on multiple levels in our experiential passage through time and that is what I seek in reflection and meditation.  Indeed, it engenders our sense of some future possibility as it comes to fruition in the present moment.  I think our sentience and consciousness follows along this operation, or better, along this path or way, like when our hippocampus processes what is old and what is new information or we form expectations for what will happen next. Our intellect is filled with such things going on mentally.  In this respect, then, life and mind are like water running downhill—downward in the stream of time where the past determines where we run next, i.e., what is ‘downhill’ in a negentropic energetic sense.  Our deep aesthetic, then, is seen in our vital and mental sense of life’s ‘gravity’; each life draws a next experience as its past experience warps what can come next in a fitting way.  Monod says each life abides by the law of entropy even while seeming to break it like Maxwell’s Demon.  Each life is a negentropic energy pool downhill from the rest of the universe. Like Maxwell’s Demon that mysteriously decreases entropy and increases information (negentropy), each of Dawkins’ replicators, as he conceptualized them in his book, The Selfish Gene, is also a daemon of this sort that, like art, operates to contravene the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics for its lifespan.  That is the source of the deep aesthetic I seek.

Much more could be said, but I will keep it this simple right now and travel on to the next post simply stating this creed.

art: solitary and social

I am reading Richard Ellman’s 1948 biography of WB Yeats. I have read smaller pieces before but this is more comprehensive and details his life events in relation to his literary output. Good stuff. I was struck by JB Yeats, Willie’s father, and the cogency of his philosophizing about art. JB made a go of it as a portrait painter. His paintings were well received but his family was continually poor because he completed so few commissions as he fussed over perfection. Yeats and siblings spent much time in Sligo with his mother’s family, the Pollexfens, who were well-to-do. JB gave his son much advice and direction, most of which was later spurned, while mostly educating him himself at home. It is telling that Willie did not attend Trinity College as his father planned because he seems not to have been able to pass the entrance exams.

JB thought about art and psychology a good deal and imparted that to Willie along with his disbelief in religious objects, e.g., gods. Ellman quotes JB as saying, “Art is the social action of a solitary man.” And this resonated with my biological view of art. I work here from two perspectives of artistry, one involving everyone who makes art incidentally as they live life where art is ancillary to any role and the other where the life is of an artist, where the role is to make art. I have written before of Ellen Dissanayake’s notion that the origin of art is “making special”, i.e., we make an object beautiful less from a symbolic aesthetic and more from giving that object our own special flavor (see post 5/16/16).  Art here is perhaps more decorative but it is also an expression of an individual self’s vision or inspiration. Art is an accompaniment to the person fulfilling his or her roles, so we have a person acting socially but giving it a personal touch, e.g., a worker decorating his or her tool, beautifying the home, or even painting a mural on a wall.

This is distinct from a person’s role as an artist, i.e., someone making art for art’s sake, as it were, professionally, or at least as central to their intent and not incidental as in ‘making special.’ The role of an artist is somewhat exotic in its seeming lack of utility. Art here is not made in fulfillment of a social role yet it still contributes to society. It is more the expression of an individual’s inspiration to render their experience aesthetically (thereby using the tools of art according to their aesthetic purpose) and so share a complex understanding of life with others. The role of artist is isolated from utilitarian life yet the aesthetic production participates fully in the cultural life of the group. Art here is a social action of a very circumscribed scope from a solitary perspective because it is so intimately involved with one self and that self’s aesthetic, i.e., symbolic expression of a presentational sort and not discursive, following Langer (as always; try posts 2/17/16 & 9/13/16 for example).

somabrainm1-e1495106206341.jpg

Given my construct of a soma with a brain and its MEMBRAIN (see posts 5/17/15, 8/11/15 & 4/17/17), we can see the self develop through three stages. At the level of the soma, the self develops through a sense of agency. Somas do things to sustain themselves, including reproduce to continue their genetic line. With the development of the brain the self develops through its retention of experience, i.e., the soma’s autobiography (this rises to a new level with the hippocampus; search for many posts like 5/27/16, 9/8/14, 12/24/15, 5/31/16 & more). With the development of the MEMBRANE (posts 11/14/14, 4/7/14 & 1/8/15) the self becomes socially defined in divers ways: through the empathic understanding of one’s own subjective domain and the objective mystery of the other’s subjective domain, the intimate roles of family, the familiar roles of cooperation, and the social mores regulating transactions with those known only through commerce and joint projects. Within each MEMBRAIN some activity is personal, i.e., self-involved, and some impersonal, i.e., defined solely by the roles characterizing the interaction or about abstract information. We mark this difference when we talk about wisdom vs. knowledge. We learn differently about death when a loved one passes from learning about numbers or metabolic processes; the former is self-involved, the latter not so much. An artist, by sharing a personal, subjective, and individually constructed symbolic work, acts socially in an intimate manner outside of any of the usual roles and relations. To paraphrase JB Yeats, an artist is a solitary person acting in a most social and intimate manner by sharing the symbolic rendition of a self’s deep experience. That is a special role indeed and not far afield from a spiritual realm.

Review: Homo Aestheticus

I finished Ellen Dissanayake’s Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why (1992) about two weeks ago and have been pondering over what to write. It seems an important book and I wondered why I did not find it sooner. I first became aware of her and her writings in a more recent book, The Origins of Music, which I have mentioned here before (see posts 1/11/16, 3/12/16, 3/26/16). I appreciate several of her ideas but am puzzled (at least) by one aspect of her thought, and she is dismissive about Susanne Langer for some reason so of course I have a quibble there. Onward.

Her central hypothesis is that art is best conceived as ‘making special’ and that art is an important evolutionary factor in our successful adaptation. She brings forth many examples from her own and others’ ethological studies to show that art is a phenomenon of everyday life, or has been until recently (very recently in our evolutionary past) when we began to segregate art into some category of fine art produced by few and enjoyed by a few more of the privileged. Not just making special, I guess, but making extra special (or all too precious, isn’t it?). Western culture, especially I think in the more mercantile, industrial and commercial aspects, e.g. USA, has minimized the importance of the arts, looking down on artistic activity as a lower form of intelligent activity or as simply a financial transaction. Of course, this is nonsense and Ms. Dissanayake does a wonderful job of correcting it.

She also resurrects what she says is an antiquated notion of ‘aesthetic empathy.’ Art, i.e., making special, involves not the pleasure of perceived forms but the pleasure of the feelings evoked or carried by those forms and more especially, making those forms. Regular readers here will understand when I say I did not know the concept was antiquated. I am not up on art theory or criticism but evidently, like so much of our cognitively oriented theorizing, the idea that feelings or emotions are important is also downplayed there, even shunned. As I have done here in the past she poses the parallel between the surface and deep structure of language (sound and meaning) and the surface and deep structure of art, e.g., music or painting or dance and their import.

What puzzles me is that Ms. Dissanayake rather insists that art need not be symbolic. In its inception ‘making special’ is akin, to use one of her examples, to a male bower bird’s nest making in which he ornaments his bower with stones, shells, and other found objects; the ‘prettier’ the bower, the more success he has in mating and passing on his (and her) genes. And much of our art is ornamentation, whether it be shaping a tool to a pleasing state or decorating skin etc. Likewise singing can be an enlivening accompaniment to activity with little seeming import though it seems to me still to express feelings.

I have written before about bower birds (see post 11/12/14). Consider this: when does a bowerbird know the nest is finished? For that matter, when do any birds know when their nest is finished? I have never heard this being discussed before but I suspect that the birds fuss about until the eggs are laid, or at least the mate selected, because after that the effort would have little payoff. Human ‘making special’ covers many creative activities in a variety of modalities the boundaries of which, i.e., the beginning and finishing of the action, come from within the mind of the artist. Does the ornamentation indicate social status or tribal membership or its workman or does it result from whiling away a moment? At some point early on in the development of this way of acting, i.e., making special, form (and necessarily the more or less complete rendition from a mental gestalt) became important, and that form expresses some complex of feelings and thinking. This is not the empathic or kinesic communication of current emotional states or even the signal of reproductive vitality, but the symbolic rendering or representation of something more complex, a conveyance of subjective experience. I am sure that even ornamentation does this for humans; I am not so sure that some proto-symbolic process does not operate for bowerbirds—that is the message of Frans de Waals most recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are.

bird bower

A few more shells placed just so and I can put this nest on the market.

It seems to me that two different definitions of symbol are at play here. One is that idea of an art symbol, e.g., a cross symbolizes the crucifixion, Jung’s archetypes, Godot whoever he is, Eliot’s wasteland the human condition, Picasso’s screaming horse in Guernica, etc. These are really like tropes (verbal or otherwise) where elements are used artistically to represent or signify particular ideas or feelings. The other definition of the symbol comes from semiotics, say from C. S. Pierce on to Ernst Cassirer and modern linguistics. These are symbols that result from neuropsychological processes to represent ‘things’ and thereby allows us to control abstract information mentally and to communicate specifics either linguistically or artistically. I think maybe Ms. Dissanayake talks more about the first type when the second is the more relevant.

This issue brings up what I think Ms. Dissanayake misunderstands about Langer when she says that, for Langer, “aesthetic experience is a response to ‘presentational symbolism’.” (page 237) No, for Langer, aesthetic experience is rendered and communicated through presentational symbols. The symbol’s import is an aesthetic experience, i.e., the symbolic elements composing the symbol are the felt significances of the colors or sounds or words in the composition. These are not ‘responses’ but symbolic forms a person has composed from his or her subjective, vital and particular experience so that others may comprehend this work of their subjective space, i.e., their mind. Sounds without meaning are not words and tones or colors or forms or body movement without import are nothing special. And yes, this is clearly an evolutionarily important biological trait of our species, at the least.

Ms. Dissanayake writes that “Langer does not consider art as a selectively valuable behavior in human evolution”. (page 242) This misstates Langer’s position a good deal; following Feeling and Form in 1953, she spent decades writing a 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, arguing that art is one of the highest forms of biological activity. Her effort was premature historically, i.e., she was ahead of her time and developments since then have changed our paradigms a great deal. Just before she died she half finished volume 3 in 1982, a few years after Jacques Monod made the case in Chance and Necessity for molecular biology as the exclusive basis of life and several years before E.O. Wilson and others laid the basis for sociobiology. Furthermore, she was also too early to incorporate the profound developments Chomskyian linguistics and information science and technology engendered in our understanding of psychology and neuroscience. (This makes all the more remarkable Langer’s elevation of virtual information back in the 1950s). So, yes, Langer did not understand modern evolutionary theory but she certainly did understand that the human mind was a biological product of evolution. Likewise she did not understand that the human mind, while distinctive (or species-centric in Dissanayake’s term), is not that different from the minds of other animals. As I heard Frans de Waal say on the radio last week, it is not that human intelligence needs to be lowered but that we need to elevate the place of other animals’ intelligences.

Finally, the last chapter in Homo Aestheticus presents a refutation of sorts to post modern art theory and criticism. I was mystified by some of the concerns here; it is not within my ken, but I think I understood from her account that post-modernism is rather sterile, elitist, and counter to any view of art as vital, organic and evolutionary. If that is so, I certainly hope her refutation is taken seriously, and I hope I can keep better company than those who espouse such poppycock.

Anyway, read Home Aestheticus. Ms. Dissanayake aptly discusses that the variety of ways humans make art, think of art, and consider the world is truly spectacular, that art is clearly an important biological result from evolution, and that art is, after all, following Langer, one of the highest organic responses. Travel on.