Saturday, January 5, 2008

Aesthetics. A discussion.

Fellini's 81/2
By Gabriel Esquivel and Josiah Weinhold
Immanuel Kant, the great promoter of morality in Western thought, vehemently denounced the visual arts as being inferior to books, in their capacity for stimulating the faculties of reason. Kant's arguments concerning beauty, deal with the subjectivity any representation of nature inherently implies. A claim to beauty, must then address the faculties of sensation which are definitively disinterested with regards to reason. Gilles Deleuze describes this interaction within Kantian theory writing, “In aesthetic judgment the reflected representation of the form causes the higher pleasure of the beautiful . . .the higher form here does not define any interest of reason: aesthetic pleasure is independent and both of the speculative interest and of the practical interest and, indeed, is itself defined as completely disinterested.” (Deleuze 47) It is then the works relation to the world around it, not solely to itself, that attains significance within the faculties of reason. One could pose the question of, “where is the place for affective atmospheres that operate in an absent space” within Kant's critique? For Kant, aesthetic beauty is a condition that is justified through interpretation, or judged through the work's representation of nature, which holds moral precedent. Contemporary art critics still employ Kantian ideas with regards to the promotion of significance over sensation, as there is no popular dialectic for quantifying the affect of atmospheres or moods upon the viewer. It is the imagination then, that quantifies these sensations and allows the mind to be affected by the mood or environment of a work. No method has yet been theorized to account for this cognitive interaction and the significance that is placed upon the work for affecting these changes within the viewer. It is necessary then to explore the different relationships between aesthetic and cultural notions of beauty and how the art concerned with affect could reshape these ideas within the digital realm.
In Western society, the notion of “what is beautiful” is a critical component in the machinery of commerce. Beauty, in turn is a critical aspect of art, as it justifies the works significance. Jacques Derrida confirms this assertion by writing, “if a work of art can become a commodity, and if this process seems fated to occur, it is also because the commodity began by putting to work, in one way or another, the principle of art.” (Derrida 162) Derrida's assertion relates to the necessity of the commodification of art, as the beautiful is an object of desire. This in turn, powers the machinery of the art world. It is this artificiality that many of the Pop artists, especially Warhol, were addressing by presenting their own work as an already commodified product, one that was brought about through the use of industrial process'(Warhol's screen print method). In his book, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe writes that “the art world mirrors the larger one rather than providing an alternative to it... One may further say that the contemporary art world is by and large an economy (with more than one currency) that pretends to be Nietzschean . . . but is, in fact, Hegelian. The discourse in charge of contemporary art world discourses is a new – original but not disinterested- application of Hegel.” (Gilbert-Rolfe 41)
The present amalgamation of the art world operates as a Hegelian system in the sense that a product is put to work, in the figurative sense, to effect progress. The affect of the work is then lost as the mechanization of the work within the system diminishes the affect of the sensual elements. The Hegelian system poses a predetermined set of catch-phrases and allusions to other prominent artists to validate the work's significance. In the same breath, the notion of the beautiful is replaced with these preconceived metaphors that do not allow for the works own affect to be a relevant determining factor of sublimity. Gilbert Rolfe continues writing, “(the present art world) has substituted for the art object and the aesthetic a cultural object meant and judged as an articulation, through a rhetoric obligatorily that of demystification or appropriation, of a historical, or nowadays, anthropological (i.e., Hegel inverted and apologetic) idea, as image, of the spirit of the age.” (Gilbert-Rolfe 41).
The “principle of an art” then serves as an industry, one that “Post-modernism has replaced the ends of art with the end of art, art after art which does without art, its origin to be found in that which it no longer deems necessary.”(Gilbert-Rolfe 43) The goal of this new form would not be an art that would erase the past in search of the new, but as the concern for affect commits the art to the senses, the notion of the beautiful is nullified as the “principle of an art” is substituted for the sensual. This phenomenon can be attributed to the growing dehumanizing nature of our culture at large, as the arts move further and further towards digitalization. Artists that rely on various new technologies to amplify the significance of their work often forget to include the fundamental aspects that truly affect the viewer and give the work validity. This problem necessitates a new set of techniques that can be applied within the digital space in order to provoke through the sensuality of the surface. As a new form can reinterpret the human and various forms found in nature within a digital space, a critical link is being created that must address the nature of both the absent (digital), and the present (our world interpreted through the sensory organs). Even though these new works are produced within a space that is radically different from our own world, they can still retain the human element and become something more than just a digital reproduction. Affect is then achieved, as our culture has become used to the rampant digitalization of our world. The form being depicted within the digital space can then have more of an affect than the original, as the reference is implied but not explicit, thus causing the imagination of the viewer to amplify the affect of the original and create a new experience.
Many works, such as the Intractable Avant-Garde and notable abject art from the Byzantine, era rejected the notion of beauty in order to affect a different emotion from the viewer; whether it is the presentation of a new aesthetic dialog or to induce piety, respectively. The problem inherent in the notion of the beautiful and the ugly is found in their representational aspects, as what is beautiful is not the work itself, but rather, what the subject of the work represents. In a truly non-representational mode of art, one that creates a new affection through the radical surface of the work, the piece creates its own beauty through the various provocations it employs. Arthur C. Danto, in his book The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, cites David Hume’s assessment of beauty, as Hume writes, “In many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection. There are just grounds to conclude that moral beauty partakes much of this later species, and demands the assistance of our intellectual faculties in order to give it a suitable influence on the human mind.” (Danto 91) Through the use of these mental faculties beauty retains a moral precedent, and is then open for debate upon its cultural significance, and not its affect on the viewer. If the work affects through provocation on the senses, the reverberations of the aesthetically beautiful are relevant as the work is separate from representation. These new works affect as a reinterpretation of the subject/object dynamic just as they reinterpret the subject of the work within a digital space.
Continuing his critique of Hume, Danto writes, “(I)t would have helped immensely had Hume been able to distinguish between aesthetic beauty and what we might call artistic beauty. It is aesthetic beauty that is discerned through the senses.” (Danto 92) It is this later quality of beauty that this new form is expressing as the radical surface of the art concerned with affect achieves its purpose through the various aesthetic qualities expressed in the work. It is beauty judged not through the mind, but through the affect upon the senses. A notion such as this is an extreme departure from the notion first posed by Kant that the faculties of reason within the human mind hold precedent over all others.
The articulation of beauty within a person’s consciousness is only validated, according to Kant, by thought, who states, “the mind is made conscious of a certain ennoblement and elevation above the mere sensibility of pleasure received through sense, and the worth of others is estimated in accordance with a like maxim of their judgment.” (Danto 40) Beauty, then represent a shared ideal, much like morality or codes of ethics, that from every instance must be judged according to a shared set of rules or laws. Within our society, beauty, and the notion of beauty is intertwined to various social and ethical dogmas, ones that must be upheld if order is to be maintained. Through film, the notion of what is beautiful is reinterpreted from an aesthetically pleasing image to the movement of the image creating an erotic experience which is seen as beautiful by the viewer or by the characters within the film. Such a scene is seen in Federico Fellini's 8 ½. In the scene with the Saraghina(image above), who dances for the boys from the parochial school on the beach, the crucial element is not the beauty of the woman, but the erotic experience, the aura that she creates for the boys. The Saraghina is neither beautiful nor a fantastic dancer, and it is only through Fellini's brilliance as a filmmaker that imbues the grotesque features of the woman, combined with the suggestive movements of her body to create an aesthetically beautiful impression, why could this be possible, in fact these are the mechanisms that operate questioning the classic paradigm of ugly/beautiful . The Saraghina is subsequently demonized by the parochial elders, as the sensuality presented by her movements creates an erotic experience within the boys and subverts the values of moral conduct.
The significance of eroticism's affect on the human mind is validated through the imagination. As discussed before, the use of our imaginative faculties is paramount to Deleuze in validating the experiences of the world around us. Likewise with the erotic, imagination gives the experience power as it is separate from the act of copulation. Octavio Paz writes in The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism that the erotic experience “is sexuality socialized and transfigured by the imagination and the will of human beings.” (Paz 8) He continues writing, “in every erotic encounter there is an invisible and ever-active participant: imagination, desire. In the erotic act it is always two or more . . . who take part.” (Paz 9) The Saraghina then completes this dynamic with the boys and is condemned by the priests who view this as mirroring the sexual act and damaging the chastity of the boys. This conflicting act of representation employs different strategies that question representation itself as well as Beauty as a moral condition. We need to revise our present notions of aesthetics in order to promote our work, whatever form that takes. The aesthetic beauty of the moving image is then ignored in favor of the conscious associations made from the image. In this way, true affect is ignored given the senses interference with cognition, as what the body senses as aesthetically pleasing which in turn is rejected by the mind’s interpretation given the pervasive social dogmas of society.
The philosophers and political theorists of the 18th century then looked to the ideal human form of the ancient Greeks, the male figure, to represent their republican ideals, as it was associated with “the austere ideas of freedom and heroism.” (Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal, 226) By taking away the representative power held, traditionally, in both forms, the art concerned with affect could reinterpret these ideas to provoke the viewer’s affect. The historical notions are then incorporated in a different form that can be expressed any number of ways to exude sensuality or power, or both combined to present an androgynous form that takes on a new affectation. As the form of the male and female are reconstructed, so is their affect, as the subjectivity of their representation is removed. Since the experience of the work is reconstituted within the mind with its relationship to other works and images, it is not the work that is flawed in its affect upon the viewer, but it is the modes of criticism employed that do not address the affectual. Because this new form is reinterpreting the concepts of the erotic and the beautiful, the modes of discourse previously employed to critique are ineffectual in that they purport previous moral notions that are separate from the technological realm that the works could have been created in. The notions that are applied in traditional critiques deal with Kantian notions of sublimity as acted upon within the subject/object distinction. The subject in these new works are not represented directly, but re-molded through the use of digital tools. The object then is free from the notions of sublimity through association, as it builds its own within its surface. New words and metaphors must be constructed to deal with this new dialectic that address the need for a descriptive mode that pertains to the sensations felt by our imagination. In opposition to the faculties of imagination Kant writes that “the imagination, no doubt, finds nothing beyond the sensible world to which it can lay hold, still this thrusting aside of the sensible barriers gives it a feeling of being unbounded. . . As such it can never be anything more than a negative presentation – but still it expands the soul.” (cite Kant, Deleuze 51) As the forms created within the digital approximate or reinterpret our world, there is a universality that goes beyond the subjective associations presented in representational art. Therefore, one cannot attribute sublimity to one (the subjective universality) or the other (the objective form created). The work must then be evaluated given it sensual elements, as they pertain to the affective nature of these new environments and moods.
The notion of the sublime can be described, as it relates to this new art, within the terms of the sensual; as it is imperative in regards of affectation to reach the most dynamic, or provocative, experience within the work. The natural world, according to Kant, is the only sphere where true sublimity resides. Paul Guyer, in his discourse on the Kant, writes “Kant...seems to assume that a work of art can have some claim to sublimity, at least by representing the naturally sublime.” He continues by stating “the dynamical sublime then adds a representation of the independence or autonomy of reason from the influence of the natural world.”(Gilbert-Rolfe 45, cite Guyer) It is this separation from reason that lends the affect of a work so powerful, in that, the mind is calmed by the explosion of the sensations. Sublimity is reached in this new form, not by the representations of the natural world, but through the creation of new environments not linked to a literal experience. The new innovations in digital structuring enables the producer to create the layering and intricacies found in nature, but in a new and radical way that renders the work as an interpretation, not a representation of the real world.
It is important to note, that the use of current technology in the creation of this new form or aesthetics, which is critically bound by the fact that the interfaces (keyboard, mouse, etc ...) used to create it are distinctly different from the previous analogue modes; in that, the representation of the human is virtual, and is produced by means that are separate from humanity. The human form created is the result of “the androgynous sublime of technology...which frames the human with the post-human.”(Gilbert-Rolfe 67) A new aesthetic is possible that supposes new questions to be asked to determine the significance of the work within the current world. As these new works recreate the material world, they are at the same time paradoxically removed from this realm by the fact that they were created within and absent space that operates on duplicitous spatial rules.