11 December 2012

[sc]airquotes (ii)

"...speaking as a precocious therapist as well as a true philistine, Plato insinuates that mimetic art is a sort of perversion–a substitute, deflected, compensatory activity engaged in by those who are impotent to be what as a pis aller they merely imitate. And who, Plato asks, would choose the appearance of the thing over the thing itself; who would settle for a picture of someone he could have, as it were, in the flesh; or would pretend to be something in preference to being the thing as such? Those who can, do, we might interpret him as having maintained; those who can't, imitate."
Arthur Danto. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1981. 12.

A philistine, my dictionary app tells me, is "a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them," which if we define "the arts" the way Danto does I suppose I am. "In the philosophy of science," he writes, "there are no observations without theories; so in the philosophy of art there is no appreciation without interpretation. Interpretation consists in determining the relationship between a work of art and its material counterpart." (p. 113). A problem, I might add, which clearly belongs to a particular art-historical epoch, even if it was always there lurking behind the cloak of improbability: it was not until artworks had known material counterparts (identical objects which were not artworks themselves) that the question he seeks to answer here became a pressing one.

For Danto, the non-art material counterparts serve as a kind of control group: by bringing into higher relief the differences between them and those things identical to them in every way except in being artworks, we home in on the essence of art itself. It is an unusually persuasive approach precisely because it describes so well the reality of the art world. A suitemate of mine here at school, a visual artist, showed a work earlier this year that was painted with mixture of paint and his own blood, but this was not transparent in the work; rather, blood was the final entry on the materials list, which in my lack of art world acculturation I merely skimmed without interpreting. I found the work aesthetically pleasing anyway and offered the compliment, but he was none too happy and an animated discussion ensued later that night with roommates and guests alike polarized into what in the language of Danto you might call the Philistines and the Interpreters. It is thus more clear to me that Danto has identified an important feature of the art world he inherited than that he has located the essence of art. I get the sense from this book as well as his "After The End of Art" that much as music theorists analyze the music which their theoretical tools enable them to analyze, Danto seeks to explain the things that philosophy can explain, and aestheticism is not one of them. (Fine with me, by the way, that we not try too hard to explain it, but I often wonder if simply ignoring it is the best course of action.)

And so to return just briefly to Plato and his insistence on being over imitating, I would say that for me the most powerful thing about abstract art is the fact that it is the real version of itself. I would call this quality "immediacy" if that word had not already been claimed for the opposite usage by those who would insist that every work of art is representational of something or other, and that the higher the degree of abstraction, the less "immediate" the impact (Danto might say the more interpretation is necessary). I think there is similarly something to be said for such abstract works which cannot in any sense be called commonplace, or in other words, whose hypothetical material counterparts do not yet exist. Call my theory "The Fetishization of the Anomalous." The best part about being a philistine, I guess, is that you get to be a hedonist as well.

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