[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]
1 June 2014
At residency we started a conversation about the tensions between beauty and art, aesthetics and meaning, that’s traveled with me over the semester. I’m grateful that our conversation prompted me to explore this topic, and humbled to recognize that the more I read the more I recognize I have to learn. Aesthetics is proving to be a fascinating and lively topic of inquiry—and one that evades facile answers. And if I’ve learned anything from my reading, it’s that I’m no longer satisfied by easy or commonsense beliefs about beauty or aesthetics. Maybe most importantly, I’m finding that my research into the subject is changing how I think about my artmaking.
I’ve long felt aligned with Ellen Dissanayake’s definition of art: the human impulse to make special those things that are important. And I’ve felt great affinity for her view that the human aesthetic impulse is equal to our proclivity to language—even if modern culture has prioritized language’s everyday epistemic value over that of aesthetic practice. Of course, that valuing is somewhat misleading; we’re bombarded by aesthetic ordering—mostly in service to selling things to us—even as we’re discouraged from engaging in individual aesthetic practice. While I generally agree with Dissanayake’s view, I’m troubled by it’s dualistic tendency. The tension I feel between Dissanayake’s positioning of language and aesthetics (or thinking and intuiting) has to do with her cultural critique, the need to make evident their oppositional relationship within contemporary culture, more than with human functioning. But my inquiry has to do with the relationship between thinking and making—or the dynamic interplay between aesthetics and cognition (and perhaps the impossibility of separating them); and to this end I’ve been reading Gabrielle Starr’s book, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience—which I directly reference below.
Before I get to Starr’s work, I want to spend a moment thinking about art’s work. Art operates on multiple levels – the conscious and unconscious, the intended and accidental, the political and the naïve, to name just a few binary modalities (and modalities that are not all entirely positive). But in achieving its aims, art uses many tools—and artists are most effective when they actively cultivate the tools necessary for their aims. Many of you have heard me talk about these things before, but it’s probably useful for me to name what I mean when I speak of tools—and to be clear that I’m not just talking about the instruments we use to make artwork. I’m talking about our capacity to understand our intentions and the context in which we’re working; our ability to effectively use craft and experimentation to create the harmony or dissonance we intend; how we anticipate and engage the expectations of audience; and our ability to layer meaning across the spectrum of elements that make any artwork. In this spirit, Adrienne Rich makes a point about tools when she speaks about poetry—emphasizing that it’s not simply the poem’s denotative function that matters, but the aesthetic message carried by language:
“To look in a poem for immediate political function is as mistaken as to try to declare immediately what a particular protest demonstration or a picket like has ‘accomplished.’ Perhaps policies will change, or a better union contract will be achieved. But suppose the particular demonstration does not stop the war, or the picket line only ends in firings and a nonunion shop. Does this render such actions useless? The process of social transformation doesn’t fold up into the package of a discrete event. Participation in a demonstration or a picket line can be a form of education. People experience in their own minds and bodies the forms of power, both grass-roots and official. They find and confirm each other out there. The reading or hearing of a poem can transform consciousness, not according to some preordered program but in the disorderly welter of subjectivity and imagination, the seeing and touching of another, or others, through language.” – Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (p. xvi)
At residency I made a strong point about my frustration with artists who claim that artwork “speaks for itself.” Indeed every object, performance, verse, or human gesture tells a story. But artworks exist within a context—consciously or unconsciously—and establishing or working within a context is one of the powerful tools at an artist’s disposal. Artworks become charged when their direct object narrative and context are both part of an integrated human experience—utilizing both linguistic and aesthetic ways of knowing. This is not to say that artworks should be “explained away,” but rather that aesthetic experience is a way to engage the fullness of human cognition. And aesthetic experience, as Gabrielle Starr establishes, provide a means for us to integrate and embody knowledge:
“…aesthetic experience is a blend of sensation and knowledge such that we may almost feel thought itself….
“…Neuroaesthetics also helps us to see how the emotions and hedonic texture—the complex admixture of pleasures and displeasures—that help make up aesthetic experience set the stage for the create expansion of knowledge through, in grand or subtle ways, changing the order by which we make sense of the world.
“…But more than this, aesthetic experience emerges from networked interactions, the workings of intricately connected and coordinated brain systems that, together, form a flexible architecture enabling us to develop new arts and to see the world around us differently…. Through this architecture, aesthetics fundamentally involved our ability to wrest pleasure from the unpredictable and to refine, continually, how we imagine the borders between the world of sense and our sense of self.” G. Gabrielle Starr, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience (pp xiv-xv)
And in addition to enabling an embodied experience of knowledge, Starr goes on to propose that aesthetics allow us to structure value between experiences:
“…the arts mediate our knowledge of the world around us by directing attention, shaping perceptions, and creating dissonance or harmony where none have been before, and that what aesthetics thus gives us is a restructuring of value…. In thinking about value, I start with the hedonic signature of a given experience—that is, our phenomenal feelings of pleasure or displeasure. To use the term of Peter de Bolla, I propose that ‘the aesthetic value of [a] work’ maps onto ‘the quality of the [affective] response it generates.’ Value in this sense is ductile, and aesthetic experience juxtaposes what had been valueless or incommensurable by giving perceptible, hedonic weight to thoughts and sensations. The restructuring of value such juxtapositions produce does not lead to new ‘facts’ but rather sets the stage for new configurations of knowledge.” —G. Gabrielle Starr, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience (pp 14-15)
I’ve juxtaposed these points about aesthetics and the configuring / embodiment of knowledge with my earlier point about art’s context for a reason. No matter how powerfully one might argue that an artwork needs to be viewed on its own terms, it’s always living within these other forces—and being interpreted both literally and on aesthetic levels (and its ultimate meaning will emerge through the synthesis of these levels and the subjective ordering and valuing brought to the work by each viewer. Our capacity to understand (foresee or guide) how our artworks are situated amongst these forces may enable (or prevent) their success. And our ability to read artworks on these various levels enables the creation of artworks with layered and dynamic meaning. This may seem self-evident to you, but it’s my way of circling back to the degree criteria—and my opportunity to again encourage you to consider how they’re helping (can help) you to build your practice and artworks that matter.
I’m also ending with Starr’s book because I want to make a point about the liveliness of this topic (and so many other topics within our fields). It’s easy to get caught in a historical moment, and to subscribe to the contingent theory of that time. But a topic like aesthetics is alive—and there are new perspectives and understandings about it that are emerging all the time. Much of our conversation at residency was informed by 19th and 20th c. theory—and grounded in political battles of past eras. It’s always a legitimate choice to advance a discourse begun in an earlier generation, but such choices come with the risk of simply reproducing a vision that’s already been fully explicated. The ways in which we build upon past knowledge (no matter if we ultimately help to further explicate it or put it to bed) is how we advance thinking. Starr’s book, her use of the most recent developments in brain science to advance our understanding of human aesthetic experience adds something vital to the conversation. I have no doubt that twenty years from now new perspectives will emerge that build upon her thinking. I’d like that to be true of your works, too.