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Maker’s knowledge and the judgment of taste

An emailed comment on the Average Philosophers pictures got me thinking about the motives or motifs at work behind the scenes as I was making them. The visual starting-point was the “Fifty People See” series at Brevity on Flickr. Brevity mentions Jesse Salavon, so I looked at his work too. Further back, I think, were memories of Saul Steinberg’s vague portraits and landscapes, which manage to be, despite their determinate concreteness, about portraithood or landscapeness rather than being actual portraits or landscapes. Francis Bacon comes to mind too. His images fascinate me because you can’t quite make them fit together; they seem to portray bodies in pain but the parts of those bodies are difficult to distinguish, and so what exactly they are undergoing is unclear.
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The Average Philosophers weren’t meant to be more than an ephemeral amusement, something you look at for a minute and forget soon after. But I do like the effect. I could have done more to make them “natural”—smoothed the edges of the pictures to eliminate the artifacts, scaled the faces more precisely, and so on.
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But the roughness of the results of merging them, the obviousness of their artifice, seemed to be worth keeping. There is also a slight 3-D effect (it probably depends on the display) that comes about, I think, from the fact that the faces differ slightly in orientation.
The underlying æsthetic isn’t new. In modernism there have been contrary tendencies—toward polish, toward the impersonal look of Vasarely or Donald Judd, and toward the rough-hewn, the unfinished or fragmentary, toward an art of detritus and deterioration—arte povera, Kienholz, some of Joseph Beuys’ work. I seem to have shifted as the years go by from one to the other. But I don’t recall either one either eclipsing the other entirely; nor did a choice seem necessary.
Some people seem to think that choices or rankings are necessary, and that taste is above the capacity to sort good from bad, and the best from the good. The slopes of Parnassus must be jealously defended against mediocrities and pretenders, and each rightful inhabitant assigned his or her proper level. Is Bach a greater composer than Gesualdo? By the criteria that come to mind in comparing one composer’s whole œuvre to another’s, I suppose he is. But I don’t find that question worth dwelling on. It doesn’t help me understand or work my way deeper into the music. When I’m listening to one of Gesualdo’s madrigals, with its startling changes of tonal center, or when I’m playing one of the Preludes I like best from the Well-Tempered Clavier, questions of rank seem pointless, almost impertinent. They belong in a consumer’s guide.
Philosophical æsthetics mostly takes the standpoint of the spectator. In Kant’s Critique the maker of art is, despite Kant’s respect for genius, not much more than a provider of occasions for judgment. There is a place for background knowedge in judgment. Taste is not only a matter of immediate effect, of successive encounters with works of art, but of discrimination or distinction. Bourdieu’s studies emphasize the latter: being able to make distinctions of the right sort is a way of being oneself distinguished from others. Like the philosophers, Bourdieu concerns himself mostly with spectatorship, not with production. From that standpoint it’s not surprising that theories of taste take off in the 18th century, when first literature and then music, as well as the decorative arts (which Kant calls “mercenary”), shifted their basis of support from patronage to market.
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It is also not surprising that the knowledge required to produce works should be largely left out of account. Although consumption and production were not quite so distinct as they are now (if you wanted to hear music, and you couldn’t afford to hire performers or buy tickets, you had to make it yourself), still the occasion for exhibiting taste is in the consumption of art, not its production.
One strand in the history of theories of knowledge is that of “maker’s knowledge” (see, for example, Perez-Ramos’s book on Bacon). Bacon and Vico, among others, held that the best way, if not the only way, to know a thing is to be capable of making it. Let’s suppose that the view applies to art, that people capable of making art know something that those who are only spectators do not. Still it remains to be shown that that knowledge is necessary to adequate judgment, or at least improves it.
Philosophers for whom the object of judgment is an immediate perception of the work tend to deny that maker’s knowledge is relevant; or to hold that it is relevant only insofar as it improves our powers of discernment, etc. Kant can be construed as a formalist-idealist of this sort—idealist because the object of judgment is a representation in thought, formalist because it is the form of the representation that excites the pleasure associated with the free play of the faculties. The Third Moment of the Analytic of Taste especially lends itself to that interpretation; Kant’s later discussion of “æsthetic ideas” can be construed, on the other hand, as allowing for more than the immediate perception of the work to enter into judgment. But even then what supplements the immediate perception would not seem to be maker’s knowledge but various additional representations suggested by the perception.
Here’s a consideration against the relevance of maker’s knowledge (in anything other than a facilitative role). Last spring Jerry Levinson gave a talk here on “musical chills”. His interest was in their causes; that they matter in appreciation was presupposed. Whether a particular passage evokes a chill seems to depend heavily on the idiosyncrasies of the listener. But if it evokes a chill, that chill does not seem to rest on anything like maker’s knowledge. As a composer I might want to figure out how the chill was produced. But the feeling itself preceded any attempt at re-synthesis, and seems not to be affected by whatever knowledge results from such an attempt. Familiarity will, of course, affect it. But that is not maker’s knowledge.
On the other hand: there are cheap thrills—effects which anyone who knows a little about techniques of composition will recognize as easy to bring about. For example: there is a wonderful program called Metasynth (U&I Software) that converts images into sounds. If you have a broadband connection you can download the 70Mb demo and experiment with it.
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At first almost everything you make is impressive, especially the walls of sound that complex images yield. A cheap thrill, if not a cheap chill. In fact some ingenuity is needed not to produce a wall of sound. But the thrill wanes quickly.
Kant gives us one reason for the waning of thrills. If the representation of a thing perceived or imagined is too quickly brought under a concept or rule, the free play of the faculties ceases. Since free play is the basis upon which we judge a thing beautiful, a representation too obviously generated according to rule is not judged to be beautiful. It is dull, “labored”, “academic”. In the case of the cheap thrill of the wall of sound, however, the waning of the thrill arises not from anything in the perception, nor from a concept applied to it (the sound is quite complex—nothing so simple as a pure tone), but from knowing how easy it is to produce. A modicum of maker’s knowledge alters judgment.
But perhaps it shouldn’t. In the case at hand, maker’s knowledge yields the judgment that the goal the artist set himself or herself was easy to achieve, either because it was not much of a goal, or because the artist, being a virtuoso, can achieve any goal easily. Virtuosity alone—the accomplishment of difficult goals—doesn’t confer æsthetic worth. Bach is a master of counterpoint; but that alone is not what makes the Goldberg Variations a great work. It is not easy to write canons at every interval, especially as variations on a theme; the canons at the fourth and fifth, moreover, are in contrary motion. The naïve listener hears only the effect; the knowledgeable listener understands the task Bach set himself. You don’t, of course, have to be capable of writing canons to count as knowledgeable, though having attempted the feat will help you understand note by note Bach’s intentions.
That doesn’t quite do to establish a case for the relevance of maker’s knowledge to judgment. But I’ll just add some remarks in lieu of doing so.
1. Kant of course refused to admit consideration of either practical or moral ends into a pure judgment of taste. Maker’s knowledge concerns ends, or what Michael Baxandall calls “patterns of intention”. Is it therefore excluded from judgment? I don’t think so. The ends in question are internal to the work. I don’t need to know anything in particular about Bach’s state of mind to understand the Variations. I do need to know the conventions of counterpoint in his period, and to have a feel for the kinds of goals a composer of his period set for himself: e.g. the manner in which the “sense of an ending” was produced. Musical listening includes the apprehension of goals, which is, I would say, essential to the apprehension of what Kant calls form.
By virtue of their form, beautiful objects present to us “finality without an end”. One could take that to exclude ends altogether from pure beauty, or (more plausibly) to exclude only external ends—the practical ends ruled out in the First Moment of the Analytic.
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The difficulty Kant faces here—a genuine difficulty, I think, and not an artifact of the machinery he brings to the theory of taste—is that even if we grant that the recognition of internal ends and their fulfillment ought to be taken account of in judgment, still no fulfilling of ends suffices for beauty. But in recognizing this Kant tends (because in his system “cognitive” judgments and judgments of taste are mutually exclusive) to treat internal ends as if their role in judgment were limited to the identification of the artifact as an artifact. That cognitive judgment (“this is a product of free human action”) precedes, and is distinct from, the judgment of taste.
2. Kant’s exemplars of pure beauty are natural, not artificial. All art, being subject to rules of genre, is impure, strive though it may to achieve the appearance of nature. (Odd that in the era of Tristram Shandy Kant didn’t notice that some art revels in its artificiality.) In natural beauty, biological functions are external, not internal; no rules of genre guide us in reconstructing the goals of nature (a flower can’t be “labored” or “academic”). Applied to art, the notion would imply that what in art is beautiful cannot be included in maker’s knowledge, not if that knowledge consists in the application of concepts. Not surprisingly, the genius is for Kant an agent who doesn’t quite know what she is doing—an instrument of nature.
3. Beauty is like tenure: there are no sufficient conditions…

LinkJuly 16, 2005 in Æsthetics · History of Philosophy