Monday, January 9, 2017

every work of art possesses its own degree of perfection and its own measure of truth or falsity, triviality or greatness

Clement Greenberg, the paradigmatic American critic 

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Chances are you don't know about Theodore Meyer Greene. Born on 1897, Greene got his A.B. degree in Philosophy at Amherst College in 1918, and received his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in 1924. After teaching in Punjab, India, he got a position at Princeton University in 1923, and remained a professor of philosophy for 22 years. He wrote about ethics and aesthetics.

I never heard of Greene until accidentally I chanced upon his 1947 book The Arts and the Arts of Criticism —on the 9th floor of the Richter Library at UM, my second home.

Meyer Greene makes a decisive normative point that I wish to pursue:
... every work of art possesses its own degree of perfection and its own measure of truth or falsity, triviality or greatness. (AAC, 369)
Does this make Greene a realist in aesthetics? Sort of,  
Artistic quality, as exemplified in bonafide works of art, has its own essential nature which reveals itself only to the artistically sensitive eye and ear and can be appraised only with the aid of the artistically cultivated imagination. Attention can be directed to the inner formal structure of a work of art, considered generically, and the attempt can be made to discover the chief categories in terms of which this inner structure can most conveniently and accurately be analyzed. 
What does "essential" mean? It depends, of,
... the continued identity of any specific individual will depend upon how the class of individuals to which it belongs is defined, and this, in turn, depends upon the observer's interest and frame of reference. (AAC, 224)
There is a persistent disagreement among aesthetic scholars and critics, concerning the evaluation of artworks  —whether the aesthetic judgement is subjective, affective, expressing non-propositional attitudes, etc. Saying "this painting is derivative" or "Schubert's C Major sonata expresses formal balance," etc, must be taken as projections of feelings and emotions, not as factual claims about the work in question. Preference and differences in sentiment prove that there are no facts of the matter in aesthetic evaluation. Aesthetic properties are not real properties.

Greene takes a different course. He keeps close to the axiological branch, so to speak, by suggesting a close connection between ethics and aesthetics. He takes Aristotle's idea of the mean to elaborate a normative standard: Just as the extreme of excess and defect comes to define a balance of virtues, "essential nature" can be seen as a function of factors, states, or tendencies which, in and of themselves, constitute moral vice or artistic imperfection (let's add that Aristotle would defend a version of realism in ethics), that is to say, what is right is true and vice-versa (something is true if it matches reality).
... it is quite possible for a discriminating critic to compare two works of art with reference to their measure of perfection, i.e., to the closeness with which each approximates to its ideal of artistic expressiveness... (AAC, 401)
Perfection is a kind of approximation expressed by,
... specific reference to the specific medium, expressive intent, and other essential aspects of each work of art under review. In other words, the relative degree of perfection which any given work of art manifests in comparison with other works of art is an objective fact for artistic perception.
These two points are interesting:
(I) Artistic perfection, like moral goodness, is a mean between extremes. And it is always a single state, whereas the possibilities of artistic defect are multiple. There is in art, as in morals, only one correct solution to any specific problem, but many incorrect solutions.
In art, like in morals there is one state (one shot) with multiple possibilities for defect.1

Even if Meyer Greene's connection between ethics and aesthetics is stimulating, how could one establish the mean (of courage) between excess (rashness) and defect (cowardice)? How could that balance expressed in the art work?
(II) Artistic perfection, like moral goodness, is not a function of mere arithmetical proportion; it is not determinable, either by the creative artist or the critic, in a mechanical fashion by the mere application of universal rules. It is always the unique solution of a unique problem.
What problem? We know that Aristotle's moral mean is found when contrasting the "intermediate in the object," which is "one and the same for all men," with the "intermediate relative to us," which is "not one, not the same for all."

"Rightness" is relative to each individual moral agent and cannot be deduced a priori from abstract rules or principles.Moral balance, according lies between states of excess and deficiency. Aristotle sees courage as a mean between cowardice and rashness, but this middle point may be different for different individuals in different situations.

How does ethics and aesthetic converge? Instead of analyzing character or conduct, artistic perfection is the locus of artistic quality. If the mean (in virtue) is given by the uniqueness of the moral agent and his situation, in aesthetics, it is the specific artwork which determines the mean of artistic perfection. Uniqueness is the frame of reference.
... just as a virtuous action is never precisely the same on two occasions (since the agents and the circumstances in which they find themselves are never identical, however great their similarity), so artistic perfection, despite similarities. (AAC, 395)
 If we go to (I) above, we find an important distinction.
The extremes of artistic imperfection are not in themselves forces with a dynamic power of their own; they are merely states of imperfection. But they possess for the creative artist a perverse fascination, tempting him to favor now one and now the other to the detriment of his art. If he is to be successful in his creative labors, he must exert every effort to recognize them as states of imperfection, and to resist their psychological appeal: he must use all the artistic acumen and will power at his disposal to achieve a clear apprehension of his artistic goal and to translate his insight into the sensuous pattern which it dictates. (AAC, 399)
What is this? Meyer Greene is ready to claim that the more competent the artist, the less will he/she be tempted by the non-artistic extremes "to which lesser artists so frequently succumb."
This conflict of extremes, meanwhile, largely determines the vitality of the actualized mean, for the latter is now seen to be a dynamic resolution of a dynamic situation. As Aristotle puts it, it is because the mean is hard to hit that "goodness is both rare and laudable and noble."
Is the artist aware of the extremes? Well, if he's not he would not be a good artist —Meyer Greene would retort. And yet, is it not a platitude to maintain that Francis Bacon is a great artist because he was able "to use all the artistic acumen and will power at his disposal to achieve a clear apprehension of his artistic goal?"

Meyer Greene presents a novel parallel between Aristotle's contribution of the mean of virtue and aesthetic perfection. Just as the mean of virtue can be discovered (not merely by deductive reasoning) but by practical wisdom and moral perception, artistic quality is discoverable only by artistic wisdom and insight.

However, if perfection is a standard of properties contained in this artwork "X," how am I sure that "X" expresses —all— its uniqueness? How does "X" offers a solution to a unique aesthetic problem? Is it by comparing "X" with other works and measuring formal possibilities of error in lesser works?  
Meyer Greene's Idea of Criticism

Meyer Greene mentions two kinds of critique: historic and recreative. The former determines the nature and intent of works of art "in their historical context." Recreative critique, on the other hand, "imaginatively apprehends" whether the artist has actually succeeded in expressing in a specific work of art.

How does this happen? 

As "a desire to contemplate rather than to achieve the ends which other men are intent on achieving." There is a particular Kantian flavor here. Later in the text, Greene defends imagination as a faculty that illumines the individual's moral realm. A sort of part conceptual/part emotional faculty.

Next, Greene moves on to what he calls "judicial criticism,"
The task of judicial criticism is that of estimating the value of a work of art in relation to other works of art and to other human values. This determination of value involves, as we shall see, an appeal to at least three distinguishable normative criteria -a strictly aesthetic criterion of formal artistic excellence, an epistemic criterion of truth, and a normative criterion of larger significance, greatness, or profundity.
Now, this is new territory and Greene is going to need to flesh this out. He proceeds to address the subjectivist position, that is to say, aesthetic value is not an objective property out there in the world,
It is possible to interpret aesthetic response in a purely subjectivistic manner by denying that aesthetic quality actually characterizes the object of awareness. The subjectivist admits that aesthetic response has psychological characteristics which distinguish it from other types of response. But he denies that some objects of awareness actually possess in greater or less degree an objective aesthetic character of their own.
The subjectivist denies that there properties out there which elicit the subject's aesthetic response.3

Instead,
He explains the apparent objectivity of aesthetic quality by saying that we unconsciously project our aesthetic feelings into the object of our awareness, and thus ascribe to it a quality which the object itself completely lacks.
This is Greene's more interesting point:
Aesthetic quality is, I believe, as objective as the secondary qualities of color and sound, and may (following G. E. Moore) be entitled a tertiary quality. It is "objective" in the sense of actually characterizing certain objects of awareness and not others, and therefore as awaiting discovery by the aesthetically sensitive observer.
How are these properties "objective"?
It is correctly described as "objective" because aesthetic qualities are apprehended by the aesthetically-minded observer as an awareness of formal organization. The term "beauty" will be restricted to apply only to formal aesthetic quality. (AAC, 4)
Greene is saying that these properties are detected (as opposed to being conferred): it's out there.

How is "formal organization" objective? "Formal" is already a sort of conceptual order, an organizing principle. Howe does "formal" organizes?  Take Convergence (1952) by Jackson Pollock. Is it "formally organized?" Prima facie Convergence looks chaotic.


(to be continued)
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1Aristotle generally describes the mean of virtue an "extreme." That is to say, since the mean is an absolute norm, i.e., the one and only virtuous course of action in any concrete situation, it is impossible to be too virtuous —there is no excess of the mean. In addition, it is impossible to deviate from the mean and still be truly virtuous —there is no defect of the mean. 2 Many scholars eschew this approach. Why? "The blue in that painting is derivative," or "Pat's piano solo was overly dramatic," are good examples. Non aesthetic properties, like "being blue," or the plucking of a guitar has no causal connection whatsoever to "being derivative" or "cacophonous." 3 Objectivism is the school that the object of aesthetic discussion is the artwork. The disagreements is about which properties art works have (or lack thereof). Whether or not a work is "derivative" or "elegant" depends upon objective properties of the work. In addition, there is a requirement of general sensibility, a specific form of education. The properties require a particular discernment. On the other hand, "elegant" ends up being contained in the artwork. Subjectivism defends the view that art criticism is not about facts but aesthetic experiences, emoting propositions, etc, felt by the art critic. The subjectivist club has some famous names: R. Ingarden, B. Croce, J. Dewey, G. Lukacs, R. Scruton, M.C. Beardsley!

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