News & Notes: Phriday is for Philosophy

Some brief reflections on Dave Hickey and Bruno Latour

Carl Morris's paintings for Oregon's Centennial are on display at the Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Carl Morris’s great paintings for Oregon’s Centennial are on display at the
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene.

I’m a believer in “philosophical reflection” of whatever sort. Even “Win the day,” Chip Kelly’s favorite bit of applied wisdom, is the result of philosophical reflection. I figure, at least we’re thinking! However misguidedly or well (and there’s no arguing with a Fiesta Bowl victory!).

During the 35 or so years I’ve been writing about the arts, there have been periods during which I ignored reflections on the substrata of art and aesthetics pretty much entirely, mostly because they seemed so elitist, the province of those with the time and wherewithal for leisurely pursuits. I’m not an idealist. I don’t believe there’s one standard for beauty for all times and places and people. I don’t discount the very real aesthetic pleasures that all of us get all the time from things we call art, sure, but also from cartoons or pop songs or landscapes or simply the efficient stride of a good runner. Philosophy seems a long way from so many of those things, and though I might find certain ideas about art entertaining and even instructive, they made me restless and filled me with my own objections to them.

Gradually, I developed a pragmatic approach to the arts, derived mostly from John Dewey, who recognized how deeply and widely distributed aesthetic experiences were and built his own philosophy of art around them, in “Art As Experience.”  And if you have a great art experience around a bit of Nashville country music that I find insipid, then all I can say is, good for you. Maybe I can point out some music I like better, if we have that kind of relationship, but your experience is a powerful thing, a personal thing, and it’s unfair of me to think what produced it is somehow unworthy. Deep down, I think you needed it somehow, right then.

But I’m not here to talk about MY philosophy of art, though maybe that comes across, both directly and indirectly every time I put fingers to keyboard.

No, I want to talk very briefly about a couple of essays about the philosophical reflections of others. The first is about art critic Dave Hickey—at least he used to be an art critic before renouncing the activity recently. Hickey didn’t lead me to Dewey, it was the other way around, but I find his ideas congenial, for the most part.


Hickey is famous for talking openly (I started to say nakedly, which maybe he’d appreciate) about “beauty,” in contrast to his fellow critics and academics and even artists who follow  those critics and academics, at least in their formulations. On the other hand, as Laurie Fendrich writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, despite Hickey’s fame, most critics failed to take up his arguments (developed in “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty” and “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy”) and apply his “philosophical reflections” to their work.

And so, the critical/philosophical apparatus of the art world became 1) remote from the concerns of us normal folk, and 2) an extension of the art marketplace. That second one was the reason Hickey repudiated his occupation.

Why is beauty such an important category or term or, better yet, experience? Here’s Fendrich on Hickey:

“Whenever we say the word “beautiful” in front of others, he argues, our feelings are transformed from private experiences into actions with public consequences, taking us into the political arena of give and take—what he calls “wrangling” over ideas that, in essence, resembles the disputes over the value of physical things in the capitalist marketplace. We utter the word “beauty,” Hickey contends, at least in part “because we are good democrats, who aspire to transparency and consensus.””

And then she quotes Hickey directly:

“We also [speak] the word “beauty” and respond to its being spoken because we are citizens of a self-consciously historical society. We count these personal responses as votes for the way things should look or sound; we acknowledge the chance that, once made transparent, these spontaneous exclamations may presage a new consensus.”

Democracy and the marketplace. I mostly talk about the former and ignore the latter myself, which is a mistake, because that marketplace is so important, not just the marketplace of sales and auctions but that of ideas.

Fendrich continues:

“As a consequence of our speaking up about beauty, we naturally end up clustered in informal groups built around consensuses of opinion. Hickey notes that we have a special, peculiarly American beauty, which sweeps up random sensations into one Whitmanesque pile—such as our appreciation of “a chemical sunset and a rookie’s jump shot.” To Hickey, all of our ordinary conversations in which we exclaim that something is beautiful end up forming links in the “chain of historical responses” to beauty that, he argues, explains “our membership in a happy coalition of citizens who agree on what is beautiful, valuable, and just.””

That’s precisely the argument I make regarding the importance of the arts in the formation of commonly held values in a community, specifically OUR community. And I happen to think that it’s easier to start with “beauty,” with the experience of art, than with political arguments.

I disagree with Hickey about some things. No, art isn’t specifically “knowledge” to be learned, but it does have a cognitive element to it (and sometimes a major cognitive element, especially these days), and it teaches by modeling processes and observations and deft balance. Though maybe we even would agree on that, if we talked it through.

But read the whole essay, and maybe we can have a little discussion about what you find interesting in it, if you’d like.


French philosopher Bruno Latour

French philosopher Bruno Latour

These days, the LA Review of Books is just about at the very top of my list of most visited sites, and right before the New Year, it published an essay by Stephen Muecke about Bruno Latour’s celebrated new philosophy tome, “Enquête sur les modes d’existence” (“An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence”), which was recently published in France and has yet to be translated into English. Naturally, I haven’t read the book: My French pretty much ends at “Frere Jacques,” I’m sad to say. Which is what makes Muecke’s review so useful!

And what caught my eye immediately was Latour’s pragmatism.

“But instead of one “outside world” which we all share but have many varied ways of talking about, Latour proposes a plurality of equally real worlds that correspond to the major institutions that order our lives: Law, Politics, Religion, Science, Technology, and so on. Latour’s is a highly pragmatic philosophy, borrowing from William James and Alfred North Whitehead as he follows the experience of those who participate in these worlds, each operating with its own truth conditions and organizational modes of staying in existence.”

Each of these world has its own rules, and depending on which one you are operating in and with whom you are talking (and which one is dominating THEIR thinking), you can rapidly reach an impasse. Frankly, if I don’t recognize the immediate and necessary applicability of the Old Testament to contemporary life, then you aren’t going to move me to your position on shellfish or sexual practices by citing Leviticus. You just aren’t. And of course, if that’s your dominant mode, then my arguments from science or political philosophy aren’t going to persuade you, either.

Again, this is why I think building consensus around “experience,” especially art experience, which is both direct (experience) and indirect (art), is such a good idea. We start talking about the experience of the play or the painting or the dance or the novel, about what is beautiful, not rules about eating shellfish.

Muecke focuses a few paragraphs on Latour’s analysis of the economy to great effect, enough to make me look forward to the publication of the English translation of the book in the Spring. At which point we’ll talk again…


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