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Tag Archives: philosophy

My next book

When I was busy finishing my last book Sculptures of Melbourne my wife asked me what my next book would be. It was not the question that I wanted to hear then but she did help me work through a few ideas. It was worth asking the question because it was the same question that my publisher asked me just after my book launch. Fortunately by then my wife had helped me find an answer and my publisher liked the idea.

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Pablo Picasso, Femme au mouchoir, 1938

My next book will be A Brush With the Law, stories of true art crimes in Melbourne, or some title like that; I don’t have a deep commitment to titles because my titles have  often been changed. It will be published, whatever the title is, by Melbourne Books in early 2018. To keep to that schedule means finishing writing the book in the next couple of weeks. Then will come meetings with the editor, the copy editor, the book layout designer and eventually the person doing the publicity. For more clues about the content of the book see my blog post from last year.

I have no ideas for another book after this one. I don’t even have ideas to reject and I don’t want to think about that now. Perhaps I will find it writing more blog posts, exploring the city or taking with someone. It is not going to be about taking a walk there are too many people writing books about walking. The best of these books is Frédéric Gros A Philosophy of Walking (translated by John Howe, Verso, London, 2014); this is not ‘philosophy’ as in ‘new age nice thoughts’ but the rigorous hard thinking of Kant, Nietzsche and the ancient Cynics in relationship to ambulation. Not that Gros has written a dense academic examination, it is an entertaining read, but chapters about Ghandi, Rousseau or Rimbaud walking is about as light as he gets.

I haven’t been posting on this blog as often as I usually do because I am working on my book. However after all these years of writing this blog I don’t want to give it up because this is where I get many of my ideas.

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Meta-Aesthetics

What do we mean when we say something is beautiful? Beauty, or other similar words, describe the attraction of something. However, while there is often similarity in the appreciation of beauty some people find somethings beautiful that other people do not. Any good theory of what beauty is will have to account for both the attraction and differences in taste.

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ sums up old fashioned subjectivism about aesthetics. Old fashioned subjectivism is the simplest explanation for both attraction and differences in taste. However, old-fashioned subjectivism does not allow for much discussion about differences in taste, they are simply different and discussions end there.

Furthermore we expect some consistency in taste: if you like this piece of pineapple does it imply that you like most pineapples? If taste were simply a matter of subjective it would not be surprising if someone like Abba, Motley Crew and The Beatles; I once meet a man who told me that these were his favourite bands but he was a sailor working along coast of Borneo. We also observe consistency in the tastes of others, for if taste was subjective it would make it impossible for artists, designers, chefs, cosmetologists and other professionals to work.

Old-fashioned subjectivism doesn’t really explain taste any better than it explains moral perception. Better subjectivist positions on beauty require defining competent observers.

The first alternative to consider is some kind of objectivism. After all it seems natural to assume that others will agree with what think is beautiful and it is much easier to expect consistency from objectivism. It certainly appears that there are objective qualities to beauty that could be explained by biological/genetic driven tastes.

Given that the idea of beauty may also be a product of the environment and experiences with differences in age, background and other factors explaining differences in taste. This could explain some variations in the apparent objective qualities of beauty and this is occasionally tried in the area of evolutionary aesthetics. However, what if we aren’t attracted by what is objectively determined to be beautiful, what if we finds it repulsive, at this point objectivism completely fails.

Any attempt to find a biological basis for beauty ignores that ‘beauty’ is a word from a particular culture. It is like expecting to find a genetic difference between dogs and wolves because there are different words for them.

Beauty is also a recommendation that is often presented as prescriptive; my friend Geoff is always telling me that I must watch this TV series. Also in a prescriptive is the 1001 books etc. that you must read before you die meme. Cannons are prescription, the required reading for future critical discussion. What is it to recommend art? My friend, Geoff was trying to encourage another friend, David to watch the HBO series, Deadwood. “You must see it.” David didn’t think that it was necessary and a moral or existential imperative to movie watching is very difficult point to argue. So Geoff changed his argument to “It is very worth while because of the plot, attention to historical details, etc.” David replied that there were better things to do besides watch a TV series, like looking after his young children. Do we really mean by ‘beautiful’ simply a recommendation of its aesthetic quality? Was this what Geoff was really trying to say about Deadwood?

Does the beautiful require that we are cheer squad for it? To some extent this is true; encouraging others to experience something beautiful is a natural response to eating beautiful food or hearing beautiful music. However, the idea that beauty is only a combination of endorsements, recommendations and prescriptions creates a kind of conspiracy of definition. The emperor’s new clothes, and, although this may sometimes be the case, it lacks the objective quality that we associate with beauty.

So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?

This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.

So how can beauty be both variable between people and apparently objective and consistent? How it can be both a description and a recommendation?

This is the subject of meta-aesthetics.


Against Naive Idealism

Or, why contemporary artists need to study philosophers, such as Foucault. (Yes, this is blog post is written specifically for my most recent subscriber – yes, I do look at your blog when you subscribe – but I know that there are other readers who should think about this.)

There are people who naively think that things are predefined and that a knowledge of English (or whatever language) is sufficient to know what the word means. That the meaning of words is inductively learnt as a child. For example, that they know what ‘art’ is because they speak English. This creates a world where the idea of words exist outside of people’s minds, in which there are true and false things according to how they fit with a predefined definition.

These people have been encouraged to think this way from an early age by conservatives because it helps them to hold onto power. They are told that things are the way that they are and that any attempt to understand why is futile sophistry. They are encouraged to be idealists and Socrates’s story of the cave is endlessly repeated as if Parmenides had never rebutted Socratic idealism. This is for the benefit of conservatives because it discourages any examination that might reduce their power.

The definition of the word ‘art’, like other words (‘men’, ‘women’, ‘marriage’ etc.), is not fixed. Definitions are mutable; the word ‘art’ has changed meaning several times in the last few centuries and will continue to change as society changes. By examining how the words are used and defined the political structure of society can be understood. This is why reading Foucault (or Chomsky or other philosophers) is important; or if you are conservative, why you should dismiss them without examination.

If it is impossible to change the meaning of the word ‘art’ then if you want to be a popular artist then you should make images of girls with big tits (see my post Sexy Girls, Girls, Girls) and refuse to believe that these images have anything to do with the position of women in society. If you want to be a wealthy artist then make images that supports and flatters those in power and refuse to believe that they could do anything wrong. If the meaning of the word ‘art’ cannot change then why do you think that your art can change anything?


Persons of Interest – Philosophers

The first philosopher who interested me was Bertrand Russell but I was a young and foolish teenager at the time. Then, at Monash University where went on to major in philosophy, I read, was lectured by and met Peter Singer. I appreciated both of these philosophers not only for their writing which clear and often aimed at the wider public and because of their political engagement. Russell’s popular writing engaged many issues from atheism to nuclear disarmament.

Philosophers are persons of interest. I don’t want to see them as secular saints, or exemplar human beings but just people who think too much or, at least, harder than most people. Often philosopher’s theories are wrong but that is what you learn in philosophy – how you can be wrong about what you might think is right. After majoring in philosophy at Monash and doing an MA in philosophy at La Trobe I had met and read a lot of philosophers

One thing that interested me about philosophers was that most philosophers are very interested and involved in things other than philosophy, unlike many other academics. Many philosophers are interested in science or politics and some are interested in the arts. This might appear just to be a point of trivia about philosophy but it is also one of the strengths of philosophers. (This can also be one of the great strengths of art, the wide-ranging interests and involvement of artists in other things.)

As I have noted on my About page, my art criticism has been influenced by Arthur Danto. I started to read Danto in my post-graduate studies and, as with Russell and Singer, I was also impressed with Danto’s activities outside of academic philosophy. Danto has been the art critic for The Nation, print making and running a New York gallery. Danto has been associated with the institutional theory of art but that would be a kind of mistake to associate him too closely. I have to agree with Carlin Romano in “Looking Beyond the Visiable: The Case of Arthur C. Dantwo” (Danto and His Critics, ed. Mark Rollins, Blackwell Publishing, 1993). Romano argues that a second Arthur Danto exists Romano’s “Dantwo” who is identical in almost every aspect to Danto but is not a Hegelian and more pragmatic. Would the real Arthur Danto please stand up?

On a serious note, I didn’t imagine when I started writing this post that philosophers would be topical subject but with the Federal Member for Mayo, Jamie Briggs attacking the work of Professor Paul Redding’s “The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian Idealism” as a waste of taxpayer’s money, I am unpleasantly not surprised. (Read more about this on Ockham’s Beard.) The Federal Member for Mayo is not a philosopher, has no serious academic qualifications and represents the anti-intellectual, anti-science, sports-obsessed, religious and conservative Australian mob.

Finally, I would like to thank John McKenzie for his PH227.04 Introduction to Aesthetics at Monash University for introducing me to a critical way of thinking about art. Ultimately it was that course that lead to me writing this blog. (Melbourne artist Julian di Martino also took McKenzie’s course – anyone else?) It was McKenzie who first put some photocopied pages of Foucault into my hand; a rare event in a department dominated by Anglo-American philosophy. And why I’m on the subject of the interests and activities of philosophers; Foucault worked as a journalist, wrote literary criticism and was involved anti-racist campaigns, anti-human rights abuses movements and the struggle for penal reform.


Person of Interest – Marcel Duchamp

Many millions of words have been written about the art of Marcel Duchamp – I wrote my Master thesis about Duchamp’s readymades. I was wrote it in the unlikely setting of Philosophy Department of La Trobe University. I was interested in the impact of philosophy on Duchamp and Duchamp’s readymades impact on the philosophy of art. Anyway that was decades ago and this blog post isn’t about my thesis – it is about the extensive influence of Duchamp on my life.

Many people still regard Duchamp as the anti-Christ of art, others as the godfather of contemporary art. David W. Galenson ranks Marcel Duchamp as the 3rd most important artist in the 20th Century by mean illustrations in a sample of texts on the history of 20th Century art. Duchamp is such a large an influential on contemporary art because he was a major influence on Man Ray, John Cage and many other artists. Duchamp is so influential on contemporary art and myself that at the top of my word.doc for drafts of this blog I have this admonition: “I will not use any excuse to mention Marcel Duchamp.”

Duchamp was at first interesting to me when I was an undergraduate studying aesthetics and other philosophical issues concerned with art because he created difficult examples for any theory. His art was about ideas and so was easily transmitted in art history books. It wasn’t until years after I became interested in Duchamp that I encounter my first actual Duchamp readymade, Hat Rack (1917) in the collection of Australian Nation Gallery Canberra and by then I knew that this was one of an edition of 8 that Duchamp made in 1964. The examples of Duchamp’s art that I have encountered are like curious relics. I really enjoyed playing with a reproduction of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel because I could touch it and see the pattern of light created by the spokes.

When I came to writing my thesis Duchamp’s readymades lead me to the writings of the philosophers Arthur Danto and Max Stirner as Stirner’s philosophy influenced Duchamp and Duchamp’s readymades influenced Danto’s thinking about art. And both of these philosophers have continued to influence my thinking.

Studying Duchamp gives a good perspective on the art world and the many and varied roles in the art world. For most of his life, Duchamp wasn’t a full time artist there was a lot of chess playing and giving French lessons. When he was involved in the art world he was more often an art dealer (he represented Brancusi in the US), judging a panel for an art prize, and other exhibition organization work like catalogue design. And this is what most people forget, or don’t know, when they think about what Duchamp did – it’s like that internet meme, about what my mother thinks I do, what I think, what my friends think etc.

Duchamp reminds me that there are more positions on the chessboard of the art world than the mass of artist pawns working their way up the board to become Queens. Perhaps I am playing the position of the critical knight and art galleries as castles, bishops are collectors etc. to keep the metaphor going, even though I’ve largely played it out. Anyway the point of my metaphor is that you don’t have to be an artist in order to participate in the art world, most of the participants are not. They are the other player at the other end of the board.

Most of the participants in the art world are viewers, responders and Duchamp’s art depends on the minds of others, for the responder to join in and continue the game. (For more on Duchamp see MarcelDuchamp.Net.) It is his understanding that art exists in the minds of other people that invites people to respond to his art, to write millions of words about it or to create art inspired by him. Duchamp’s epitaph reads: “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent” (Besides, it’s always the others who die.)


CCTV or not CCTV (Act 1)

Melbourne City Council’s plans to spend $60,000 on installing two CCTV cameras in Hosier Lane and Rutledge Lane could destroy a world-class cultural asset. The street art in Hosier Lane is Melbourne’s 3rd most popular tourist attraction. You can read in The Age about the council meeting where Fletch (of Invurt) spoke to Melbourne City Council and got them to defer the decision.

Rutledge Lane, September, 2012

There are so many levels to this issue that need to be discussed from the philosophical, the political, the aesthetic, criminological and the practical, empirical evidence. After so many meetings, emails, phone-calls and other communications… I don’t know where to start.

Concerns for the future direction of Hosier Lane emerged after the departure of Andy Mac, who lived above the lane for over a decade and established Until Never Gallery in the same building. Andy Mac acted as an unofficial curator for the laneway, a moderating influence on the madness of this graffiti tolerance zone. It is a beautiful and dynamic place. There is often someone painting in Rutledge Lane when I visit. Earlier this year I was showing my parents the lane and my mother started talking to a guy spraying the wall. The guy, Wons proved to be an excellent cultural ambassador for graffiti, explaining that: “the work underneath had been ruined with tags…‘capped’ is the correct term”. (Cheers Wons – see Arty Graffarti for the piece that Wons was doing at the time.)

Looking up Hosier Lane with wedding party arriving. Hosier Lane is a popular site for wedding photos.

On Friday the 7th I was listening to a paper by Prof. Saul Newman, Reader, Dept. of politics, Goldsmiths, University of London at the Victorian College of the Arts. Prof. Newman argued that there is a need for anonymity in the coming politics, considering Giorgio Agamben’s state of exception, and the desire for governments to have a monopoly on appearance. Issues including Foucault’s interpretation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon were being discussed. Philosophy is not isolated from the world and current events; it is, in away scouting out new territory, way ahead of the frontline. This time philosophy proved prescient and on the weekend I plunged into this current issue of trying to stop the installation of CCTV cameras in Hosier Lane.

What are the problems that the CCTV hopes to solve? The most important issue on the mind of Mayor Robert Doyle was assaults – there have been several assaults in the two lanes and reducing assaults should be a high priority.

Will CCTV cameras do this? I’ve been looking at systematic reviews of the effectiveness of CCTV cameras; a systematic review is an independent assessment of all the evidence gathered from multiple studies. According Skinns to “the introduction of CCTV had no effect on the personal crime offences such as assault.” (Skinns, D (1998) ‘Crime Reduction, Diffusion and Displacement: Evaluating the Effectiveness of CCTV’ in Norris, Moran and Armstrong (eds.) (1998) Surveillance, Closed Circuit Television and Social Control, Ashgate) The only strong evidence for crime reduction due to CCTV cameras is when they are used in car parks to stop vehicle crimes.

There are a range of other problems with installing CCTV cameras include the targeting of minority groups by police and the supply of data to US intelligence via TrapWire (see Darker Net). Trapwire has prompted Anonymous to call for the destruction of all CCTV cameras (see their video) adding another problem to this mix – the likely destruction of these expensive cameras. This is not the ravings of a conspiracy theory blogger; the residents of Hosier Lane are concerned about damage to their property as a resident’s window was broken when the mirrors installed in the lane were broken.

What would be the likely outcome of installing CCTV in Hosier or Rutledge Lanes? Even though there are street art permits for some part of the lanes the artists that worked in there will not feel anonymous and worry that they will be tracked through the network of CCTV cameras in the city. The consequence of this will be to drive the better artists away leading to a reduction in quality of the art in the lane and ultimately the loss of this unique cultural location without any reduction of assaults.

Various artists, Hosier Lane

Wisely Melbourne City Council has already installed lockers for bins to prevent fires being lite in them and budgeted for increased street lighting in Hosier Lane (a parallel systematic review about street lighting found a reduction in crime by 20%). This is a complex the political, the aesthetic, criminological and social issue and there must be a better way to spend $60,000 (plus maintenance and the cost of staff to monitor the cameras) to reduce assaults in Hosier and Rutledge Lane. The story continues in CCTV or not CCTV (Act 2).

Security camera (artist’s impression)


Does Australia need a culture?

“To begin uncontroversial: some philosophers live in Australia. The question is whether that fact makes any difference to the way in which they philosophise. It is sometimes said that it cannot, since philosophy is a cosmopolitan subject. But we talk without hesitation about ‘British philosophy’, ‘French philosophy’. Is this just shorthand for ‘philosophy in Great Britain’, ‘philosophy in France’? Let us suppose that it is not. There might still be special difficulties in talking about ‘Australian philosophy’. Should we take special steps to cultivate an indigenous philosophy, or, at least, to link philosophy in Australia more closely to other forms of culture in Australia.”

John Passmore, “Australian Philosophy or Philosophy in Australia” abstract of paper, Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, Uni. of WA, 1988. The paper has since been published in Essays on Philosophy in Australia ed. Jan T.J. Srzednicki & David Wood.

Some artists, fashion designers, writers, etc. live in Australia but this does not necessarily mean that there is Australian art, fashion, literature, music, etc. An arbitrary political boundary does not imply that a different culture exists within that boundary.  I have serious doubts that there really is an Australian culture, many more doubts than I have about the existence of Anglophone or Francophone culture or, even, hippy culture. And the more that the politicians try to manufacture one, with Australian citizenship tests, “Australian values”, etc. the more dubious I become because cultures grow organically and cannot be manufactured.

When ever the need for a national style is mentioned I always think of art nouveau, which was intended by the architect Victor Horta to become the national style of Belgium. As a successful style of architecture it inspired many other architects and designers and became a successful international style. Local styles and traditions are only the marginally successful styles, surviving due to local traditions and tastes, but unable to successfully spread any further.

A culture is more than just an identity, as you can have identity without an accompanying culture. A culture is “not a heap of unrelated phenomena but an organic whole” that “is extended in time”, conscious of its past and present and projecting itself into the future. (R.A.D. Grant, A Companion to Aesthetics ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992, p.100) A lifestyle is a temporal heap of unrelated phenomena that may be more or less manufactured. Traditions are not a culture, as traditions do not project themselves into the future but remain fixed in the past. There may be Australian lifestyles, Australian traditions and Australia slang but those things alone do not imply an Australian culture.

What does Australia need a culture to do? And, can a culture do this? Irish, Scottish and Greek culture was needed to prevent complete assimilation into larger alien empires. Hippies saw their proto-culture as a viable, competitive, environmentally sustainable, alternative to the conformist consumer lifestyle. Culture could be described is a kind of mass reaction to a perceived threat that attempts to equip its members to combat the perceived threat. In doing this it is clear some cultures support some horrible and stupid ideals, including racism, sexism, homophobia and violence; it is less clear, what good, if any, any culture does.

Although shallow nationalism might be very popular in Australia there is no taste for deeper cultural analysis. So I am asking readers to comments if they think that Australia needs a culture and, if so, what it needs this culture to do. I would suggest that instead of debating whether Australia has a culture it would be better for the people in Australia to be concerned about the extent that Australia is civilized. Civilized by having a constitutional protection of human rights, civilized in its treatment of refugees, civilized in keeping its word when signing international laws and treaties, the kind of civilization is more important than any culture.


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