Aesthetic Understanding

Periodically I post something on my course blog, Interaction Culture Class, that might be of broader interest than just the class. In such situations, I repost them on my personal blog. This is one such example, and its original post can be found here.

For the past two years, I used a reading in this course from Richard Eldridge’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. I dropped the reading for this time around–one of many casualties that came as a result of making room for adding Carroll’s Brillo book [On Criticism] to the syllabus.

Anyway, Eldridge had some very nice quotes about what an aesthetic understanding (= Barnard’s “understanding”; = Carroll’s “analysis”) is, which I thought I would share here, in hopes of further elucidating some of these concepts.

Since [artists’] problem situations, and especially problem situations of artistic work, can be complex, since the action of artistic making is frequently temporally extended, and since thoughts, reasons, plans, intentions, and so forth of the agent [i.e., artist] are formed out of publicly intelligible strategies, some articulated and some not, we need not and should not longer on worries about any single “real intentional cause” of the artist’s action. Any story that cogently relates details of the work and of collateral historical evidence where available to any respect of the artist’s complex problem situation may be regarded as a story that tells a truth about the work – about what it is as a product of action and about what it means.

A few points here. First, and above all, Eldridge is clearly rejecting any notion that there can or should be a single “correct” account of art. Rather, because art is enmeshed in different forms of complexity, we look for an infinite field of potential aesthetic understandings. However, he does not suggest that all understandings are equally valid. He instead suggests several criteria that establish a “good” understanding: it must be cogent; it must engage particular details of the work; it must engage the problem situation of the artist (i.e., some understanding of what the artist was trying to do), and it must do so constrained by available historical evidence about that situation.

Such an analysis has practical benefits:

we become able ourselves in light of new readings to see particular works more comprehensively and with more awareness of the multiple significances of details–as long, at least, as the critical readings that guide our exploration of the work do engage with its elements and are not generalized screeds or free fantasias.

Eldridge echoes the idea we saw in Carroll that criticism is not about eviscerating artworks but rather contributing to the public’s appreciation of them. This only works, of course, if the criticism is any good, and so screeds and fantasias are excluded.

Here is a nice quote with which Eldridge ends his chapter:

the meaning that a work has–and that an interpretation may capture–is a matter of the multiple, complex reasons–expressive, affective, psychological, social, and economic, among others–that may reasonably be taken to have entered into its production…. [W]orks of art remain, as Dewey puts it, “means by which we enter, through imagination and the emotions they invoke, into other forms of relationship and participation than our own.” To understand art critically is to explore it imaginatively, guided by a range of relevant comparisons and conceptions of rational action and focused on how a work presents its subject matter as a focus for thought and emotion.

I like this quote a lot, especially the last sentence. Behind these quotes is a notion that works of art (and, by extension, design) are overdetermined, that is, there is not a single cause that explains them, but rather there are many simultaneous causes (authorial intention, styles and genres, political and economic contexts, etc.) that contribute to a work’s being a certain way; what we seek to do is develop some sort of overall coherent account of how we see all that coming together.

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