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From Ethics to Aesthetics

MrMisterMrMister Jesus dying on the cross in pain? Morally better than us. One has to go "all in".Registered User regular
edited December 2009 in Debate and/or Discourse
Introduction:

We were discussing aesthetics for a bit in chat, and I thought I'd make a thread about it. In this thread, I would like to defend a somewhat controversial thesis--namely, a weak realism about aesthetic value. On my weak realism I want to be able to say certain things, eg that some works are devoid of value, and that literature is, on the broad view, improving over time. I expect that most people here are strongly of the contrary opinion.

In order to set the stage, let us consider aesthetic anti-realism, and some of the thoughts that tend to motivate it. Aesthetic anti-realism, as I use the term, is the position that there exist aesthetic judgments, but that all such judgments are of equal value--it is impossible for one person to have better taste than another (or even better taste than themselves at a younger age). It is just a fact that tastes diverge, and there is nothing more to be said.


Anti-Realism

There are some real insights motivating aesthetic anti-realism: namely, the aesthetic anti-realist is class and culture-conscious. The anti-realist rightly rejects the notion that the Western European tradition has produced works of unique and unparalleled beauty, as well as the notion that the works of high culture are essentially superior to the works of low culture. In the past, the English-speaking critical establishment was dominated by these sorts of thoughts, and they were wrong thoughts. So the insight that these are wrong thoughts is, I think, a good one.

The first thing to note, however, is that these insights alone do not establish an anti-realist conclusion. They only establish that our considerations of value should not be blinded by adherence to a particular tradition. One could acknowledge class and culture consciousness while still thinking that some aesthetic judgments are absolutely better than others--all these insights require is that we not be blinkered about which are which.


Weak Realism

Now that I have made some initial concessions to anti-realism, I would like to go on to describe my own view: weak realism. In order to do so, I will have to say some preliminary things about storytelling. I think that these comments also apply to art more generally, but that it is more difficult to make the case in other areas. So I will stick to what I see as my strongest point, because if you aren't convinced here it's doubtful that you will be convinced anywhere else.

Stories inevitably express value judgments on the part of the author. In some works, these judgments are so central that they can be read as arguments: for instance, Paths of Glory decisively shows the senselessness of the French command in the Great War, and The Death of Ivan Illych is essentially a protracted promotion of Tolstoy's particular brand of crazy religion. Parables and fairy tales explicitly fall into this category. They have a point.

But it is not only stories with a point that express value judgments. The way that a story is told is the product of a world-view: consider, for instance, Raymond Carver's A Small Good Thing as contrasted with his editor's telling of the same story, The Bath. A Small Good Thing is sentimental. A Small Good Thing involves overcoming a senseless tragedy through coming together and literally breaking bread. The Bath is not sentimental. The Bath is about how a heartless and random world can grind salt into your wounds. Simply put, these stories are the expression of very different world views.

On my weak realism, I want to say the following things: stories which express bad, or irrelevant, values and world-views are aesthetically poor. This is also an appropriate place to make the following disclaimer: if you think that there is no such thing as a bad or irrelevant value, then you will not find this argument compelling. I'm okay with that; this argument isn't for you. So I will simply take as a given that at least some values can be evaluated as good or bad.

Let's open with an example. In one of my fiction classes, we had to read a story with the following plot: a woman gives birth to a clearly mixed-race baby. Her husband concludes that she cheated on him, and despite her protestations, rids himself of her. Disgraced, she downs herself in a river. Later, he discovers that, in fact, he has a black parent, but by fluke has very white features. It was precisely because it was his child that it looked mixed-race.

Now this is a story with its heart in the right place. But it's dated. The revelatory point is one about race, and the cruel and arbitrary notion of racial purity. But that point is not revelatory to a modern audience: at least, not as told with a heavy hand. Because of the time in which it was written, the author went through great hoops to make us understand. It is what we would now call overwritten. Because now, that point need not be written so heavily; we are already receptive to it. This is the sort of story which I want to say expresses irrelevant values, and is thus aesthetically poor--at least, for us, now.

(An aside: it is not the story, in essence, which expresses a value--it is the conjunction of the story and the telling. Or, in other words, it is not the plot alone which expresses a value. The plot I described could be the basis of a great modern story. But it would need to be told in a different way).

Next, let's consider Kirk Cameron's Fireproof. This movie expresses bad values. It is about a troubled couple saving their marriage, but the way that they save it, and the resultant union, only makes sense in a deeply misogynistic worldview. So that movie is aesthetically poor. By contrast to the earlier story, which is merely dated, and hence not good for us, now, I would say that Fireproof is not good for anyone ever (at least, barring an exceptionally far-fetched scenario). It's just bad.

So here are the two types of judgments that I want to be able to make, and which characterize weak realism: I want to say that stories with irrelevant values are not aesthetically good in the modern context, and I want to say stories with wrong values are aesthetically bad period; if you like Fireproof, then you just have bad taste. As an upshot of these dual claims, it turns out that literature, in the long run, is only getting better. I think our worldview is getting better in general, but for one specific example, we are lucky enough to be living in a world, or at least a part of the world, where women's rights are on the march, and that improvement in our values translates into an improvement in our aesthetics.

I call this position weak realism because it enables at least some aesthetic judgments to be good or bad. And I call it weak realism because it only expresses a limited set of judgments, and includes at least some relativist component--namely, the notion that a story might be good for one audience, but not another. Furthermore, even if the content of a story's claims forms some basis for some aesthetic evaluation, as I have argued, it still does not form a complete basis. There is more to aesthetics than that, and whatever more there is might turn out to be completely arbitrary. So again, weak realism.


Executive Summary!

Stories express claims and world-views. The judge-ability of these claims results in a subsequent judge-ability the aesthetic value of the stories that express them. So there are at least some grounds on which we can get our aesthetic judging on.


Important Re-iteration:

This is not a thread for talking about whether ethical judgments can be objective! Don't do that! We've been down that road, and we'll probably go down it again later. But let's not go down it right now.

Also, the thread title is blatantly ripped off of Frank Jackson's "From Metaphysics to Ethics."

MrMister on
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Posts

  • QinguQingu Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    I think I agree with you.

    It reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Lewis had a huge boner for Tolkien's work, but Tolkien never liked Lewis' work. Tolkien thought that basically the way Lewis wielded Christianity in his stories was too bluntly allegorical for Christianity, despite being a hard-core Catholic himself.

    It's not hard to see his point if you compare LoTR to the Narnia books. LoTR grew out of a mythology that is, ultimately, very Christian (the Silmarillion's paganism is still steeped in Christian metaphysics; Tolkien never comes close to shaking his fundamental Christian worldview), but that growth is natural, self-contained, "realistic" in the sense that it seems to emerge as a real history that's buttressed by parallels in real history. Whereas the Narnia books are just out-and-out moralizing; the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe isn't supported by parallels to the gospels, that's the entire point of the book.

    So in what sense can we say that LoTR is a "better" series than the Narnia books? The world of the books seem more authentic, less slavishly tied to allegories?

    Qingu on
  • IncenjucarIncenjucar VChatter Seattle, WARegistered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Nope.

    As with any action, you can only determine its value based on the values and goals you have set.

    There is no compelling argument for the innate correctness of behaviors outside of goals set either by instinct or design.

    You can decide "My values are as follows" and you can determine if it reaches or falls short of it.

    Incenjucar on
  • DrezDrez Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    What do you mean by "bad" and how do you determine "relevancy"? Aren't these both (well, at least "bad") subjective concepts? And as such, isn't it difficult to use these concepts in discussing any degree of absolute quality of one artistic expression over another?

    I could accept the premise that a work express a "bad" or "irrelevant" value is aesthetically poorer than one that doesn't, sure, but it seems to me that you or I would decide what values are bad or irrelevant - or do you believe there are absolutely bad and absolutely bad expressions in literature and the like?

    Drez on
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  • MrMisterMrMister Jesus dying on the cross in pain? Morally better than us. One has to go "all in".Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Wow, it's almost like you both didn't read the part where I said this thread wasn't for discussions of ethical relativism.

    MrMister on
  • IncenjucarIncenjucar VChatter Seattle, WARegistered User regular
    edited December 2009
    I didn't mention ethics. It just happens to fall under the same category of you making shit up.

    Incenjucar on
  • Silas BrownSilas Brown That's hobo style. Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    I appreciate that you don't wish to bring the issue of objectivity vs. subjectivity in the discussion, MrMister, but it seems like that does nothing but simply "patch up" the hole in your argument. Yes, excluding the issue of subjectivity, one could argue that ethics alter the value of the work. But this exclusion is artificial. The issue still exists and it still demands that one's view of ethics is going to alter the value of the presented message of a piece, whether or not another individual deems it "just bad taste."

    Silas Brown on
  • Grid SystemGrid System Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    MrMister wrote: »
    (An aside: it is not the story, in essence, which expresses a value--it is the conjunction of the story and the telling. Or, in other words, it is not the plot alone which expresses a value. The plot I described could be the basis of a great modern story. But it would need to be told in a different way).
    If I'm reading this right, then you can still talk about plot and writing separately, right? I am receptive to the notion that stories qua stories can be evaluated on the basis of their value expression, but I dislike the idea of being unable to evaluate the writing separately and on more than a purely technical level.

    Grid System on
  • IncenjucarIncenjucar VChatter Seattle, WARegistered User regular
    edited December 2009
    MrMister wrote: »
    (An aside: it is not the story, in essence, which expresses a value--it is the conjunction of the story and the telling. Or, in other words, it is not the plot alone which expresses a value. The plot I described could be the basis of a great modern story. But it would need to be told in a different way).
    If I'm reading this right, then you can still talk about plot and writing separately, right? I am receptive to the notion that stories qua stories can be evaluated on the basis of their value expression, but I dislike the idea of being unable to evaluate the writing separately and on more than a purely technical level.

    You can choose all options at the same time.

    The beauty of being educated is that you can view things in several different ways.

    Incenjucar on
  • DrezDrez Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    MrMister wrote: »
    Wow, it's almost like you both didn't read the part where I said this thread wasn't for discussions of ethical relativism.

    But you use relative verbage as a foundation for your claims. That's like saying "let's talk about making a house but doooooon't talk about the materials used to make the house."

    But I'll go ahead and leave the thread then. Maybe I'm too stupid for the thread but I don't know how to proceed if you're going to reject a simply request for clarification on the foundation of your points.

    Drez on
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  • MrMisterMrMister Jesus dying on the cross in pain? Morally better than us. One has to go "all in".Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    I appreciate that you don't wish to bring the issue of objectivity vs. subjectivity in the discussion, MrMister, but it seems like that does nothing but simply "patch up" the hole in your argument.

    The argument I give is essentially that you can go from general value judgments to aesthetic judgments, at least in some cases. If you think that general value judgments can be false or correct, then this gives you a reason to think that, at least in some cases, aesthetic judgments can also be false or correct. If you think that general value judgments can never be false or correct, then this argument does nothing for you.

    But that's okay. Arguments proceed from premises, and not every argument has to appeal to everyone.

    If you are a hardcore relativist about values generally, then you can just read my argument as making the case that if there were such things as correct values (which there aren't), then they could also form the basis for correct aesthetic judgments (which there also aren't).

    MrMister on
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2009
    While I think it is absolutely a worthwhile question to ask of any work, "does this promote ethical values?" I know I, and I believe many other aesthetes, would argue that this is still a moral question and not an aesthetic one. A knife can be used in moral or immoral ways, but this will never have a bearing on the question of how sharp it is.

    In other words, what I am saying is that I do believe that we can assert ethical values, yet I still disagree with your argument.

    Jacobkosh on
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  • IncenjucarIncenjucar VChatter Seattle, WARegistered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Mr^2, exactly how would you propose one determine which values are correct?

    At what stage of the formation of the universe did these values form?

    Is Picasso correct art based on an event that happened during star formation?

    Incenjucar on
  • Silas BrownSilas Brown That's hobo style. Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Hmm I'd like to discuss more about your ideas of right vs. wrong value judgements, but I guess this isn't the place.

    Silas Brown on
  • MrMisterMrMister Jesus dying on the cross in pain? Morally better than us. One has to go "all in".Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    MrMister wrote: »
    (An aside: it is not the story, in essence, which expresses a value--it is the conjunction of the story and the telling. Or, in other words, it is not the plot alone which expresses a value. The plot I described could be the basis of a great modern story. But it would need to be told in a different way).
    If I'm reading this right, then you can still talk about plot and writing separately, right? I am receptive to the notion that stories qua stories can be evaluated on the basis of their value expression, but I dislike the idea of being unable to evaluate the writing separately and on more than a purely technical level.

    You are reading that correctly, although I don't think that plot and writing are ever fully separable.

    I am also only claiming that value expression is one ground for aesthetic evaluation. I think that there are other grounds of evaluation, such as both beauty and proficiency of prose, but it is more difficult to make the case that such evaluation can be correct or incorrect. So I stuck to the former.

    MrMister on
  • DrezDrez Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    MrMister wrote: »
    MrMister wrote: »
    (An aside: it is not the story, in essence, which expresses a value--it is the conjunction of the story and the telling. Or, in other words, it is not the plot alone which expresses a value. The plot I described could be the basis of a great modern story. But it would need to be told in a different way).
    If I'm reading this right, then you can still talk about plot and writing separately, right? I am receptive to the notion that stories qua stories can be evaluated on the basis of their value expression, but I dislike the idea of being unable to evaluate the writing separately and on more than a purely technical level.

    You are reading that correctly, although I don't think that plot and writing are ever fully separable.

    I am also only claiming that value expression is one ground for aesthetic evaluation. I think that there are other grounds of evaluation, such as both beauty and proficiency of prose, but it is more difficult to make the case that such evaluation can be correct or incorrect. So I stuck to the former.

    Define "writing". If I make up a story at a campfire - extemporaneously - it can most certainly have a plot. Have I "written" it in real-time, as a I tell the story?

    I would argue that "plot" and "writing" are two completely independent concepts.

    Drez on
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  • IncenjucarIncenjucar VChatter Seattle, WARegistered User regular
    edited December 2009
    The interesting quirks of oral histories and the like fill books.

    And audio tapes. :o

    Incenjucar on
  • Silas BrownSilas Brown That's hobo style. Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Well now it's semantics. Perhaps one should clarify when they mean "grammar or structure" vs. "plot and ideas"

    Silas Brown on
  • MrMisterMrMister Jesus dying on the cross in pain? Morally better than us. One has to go "all in".Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    jacobkosh wrote: »
    While I think it is absolutely a worthwhile question to ask of any work, "does this promote ethical values?" I know I, and I believe many other aesthetes, would argue that this is still a moral question and not an aesthetic one. A knife can be used in moral or immoral ways, but this will never have a bearing on the question of how sharp it is.

    In other words, what I am saying is that I do believe that we can assert ethical values, yet I still disagree with your argument.

    I wasn't asking whether the work promoted ethical values, though. Works can certainly promote ethical values and be dreadfully terrible aesthetically. I was discussing whether the work reflects ethical values (as well as other, more general values): namely, is the work interesting, moving, and etc., when put in the context of an actually correct worldview?

    I agree with you that aesthetics and the promotion of ethical values is separable. I'm not so sure that aesthetics and the possession of ethical values is so separable, though.

    MrMister on
  • DrezDrez Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Well now it's semantics. Perhaps one should clarify when they mean "grammar or structure" vs. "plot and ideas"

    When you get down to it, philosophy and semantics are intertwined more than "plot" and "writing" are.

    Drez on
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  • Silas BrownSilas Brown That's hobo style. Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Drez wrote: »
    Well now it's semantics. Perhaps one should clarify when they mean "grammar or structure" vs. "plot and ideas"

    When you get down to it, philosophy and semantics are intertwined more than "plot" and "writing" are.

    I agree, but it would keep discussion a little more relevant and keep the pace a little more agreeable (objectively? maybe not) if we tried to stay as clear as possible. Too often discussion gets bogged down in arguments that could be simplified or avoided if we just made it exceedingly clear what we meant. That way the actual relevant semantic discussion could shine.

    Silas Brown on
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2009
    MrMister wrote: »
    I am also only claiming that value expression is one ground for aesthetic evaluation. I think that there are other grounds of evaluation, such as both beauty and proficiency of prose, but it is more difficult to make the case that such evaluation can be correct or incorrect.

    I actually emphatically disagree with this. I think it is very much possible to make somewhat "objective" aesthetic judgments by taking a results-based approach. Assuming that a work's goal is X, how successful is it in producing that result? Does a tragic story make people cry or do they inadvertently laugh? Does a documentary or a nonfiction book leave its audience demonstrably better-informed about its subject? These are things where we can reach beyond relativity and make reasonably confident assessments.

    Jacobkosh on
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  • IncenjucarIncenjucar VChatter Seattle, WARegistered User regular
    edited December 2009
    First you have to make a value judgment as to which results are desirable.

    Incenjucar on
  • MrMisterMrMister Jesus dying on the cross in pain? Morally better than us. One has to go "all in".Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Drez wrote:
    I would argue that "plot" and "writing" are two completely independent concepts.

    This is quite tangential, however, I tend to think that plot and writing aren't fully separable for the following sort of reason. Take the plot point:

    1) He shot a man on the street.

    and now consider it re-described as:

    2) He killed a Nazi collaborator.

    These may describe the same event, but the manner of description is essential to the significance of that event. So I would say that the writing is not fully separable from the plot. But again, this is a fussy point, and I don't think anything in the original argument turns on which way you answer.

    MrMister on
  • MrMisterMrMister Jesus dying on the cross in pain? Morally better than us. One has to go "all in".Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    jacobkosh wrote: »
    I actually emphatically disagree with this. I think it is very much possible to make somewhat "objective" aesthetic judgments by taking a results-based approach. Assuming that a work's goal is X, how successful is it in producing that result? Does a tragic story make people cry or do they inadvertently laugh? Does a documentary or a nonfiction book leave its audience demonstrably better-informed about its subject? These are things where we can reach beyond relativity and make reasonably confident assessments.

    Sure, I don't have much problem with that. You're just saying that, on top of the criteria I gave for aesthetic evaluation, there are all these additional criteria. But I acknowledged that when I said there was no possible way that I had given a complete account of aesthetics.

    In the specifics, though, I would want to add to what you said that a work that aims low and achieves it's goal is lesser than a work that aims high and partially achieves it's goal. Furthermore, a work can accidentally succeed along a metric it was not aiming for, and such success can contribute aesthetic value. So I don't think it's all about hitting self-set targets.

    MrMister on
  • Grid SystemGrid System Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    jacobkosh wrote: »
    MrMister wrote: »
    I am also only claiming that value expression is one ground for aesthetic evaluation. I think that there are other grounds of evaluation, such as both beauty and proficiency of prose, but it is more difficult to make the case that such evaluation can be correct or incorrect.

    I actually emphatically disagree with this. I think it is very much possible to make somewhat "objective" aesthetic judgments by taking a results-based approach. Assuming that a work's goal is X, how successful is it in producing that result? Does a tragic story make people cry or do they inadvertently laugh? Does a documentary or a nonfiction book leave its audience demonstrably better-informed about its subject? These are things where we can reach beyond relativity and make reasonably confident assessments.

    That position has some intuitive appeal, but it also kind of looks like an appeal to popularity. By that set of criteria, Twilight could be a great book because it has goals (portray a compelling vampire romance) and it certainly seems to be successful. People are very taken by it. You might argue that there are also people who hate it, but then it seems like aesthetics are replaced by statistics. That can't be right.

    The nice thing about MrMister's approach is that it files books like Twilight in the "garbage" category--I think we can all agree that the values they express are pretty terrible--which is where they belong.

    Grid System on
  • DrezDrez Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    jacobkosh wrote: »
    MrMister wrote: »
    I am also only claiming that value expression is one ground for aesthetic evaluation. I think that there are other grounds of evaluation, such as both beauty and proficiency of prose, but it is more difficult to make the case that such evaluation can be correct or incorrect.

    I actually emphatically disagree with this. I think it is very much possible to make somewhat "objective" aesthetic judgments by taking a results-based approach. Assuming that a work's goal is X, how successful is it in producing that result? Does a tragic story make people cry or do they inadvertently laugh? Does a documentary or a nonfiction book leave its audience demonstrably better-informed about its subject? These are things where we can reach beyond relativity and make reasonably confident assessments.

    That position has some intuitive appeal, but it also kind of looks like an appeal to popularity. By that set of criteria, Twilight could be a great book because it has goals (portray a compelling vampire romance) and it certainly seems to be successful. People are very taken by it. You might argue that there are also people who hate it, but then it seems like aesthetics are replaced by statistics. That can't be right.

    The nice thing about MrMister's approach is that it files books like Twilight in the "garbage" category--I think we can all agree that the values they express are pretty terrible--which is where they belong.

    While I DO agree that Twilight expresses awful values, to suggest we all agree on it is also an appeal to popularity. At least insofar as this message board is concerned.

    Drez on
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  • Grid SystemGrid System Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Nice catch ;-)

    Seriously though, I only say that because I want an example of something that would avoid a tangential discussion of whether or not the values are actually bad. I'm not saying that the values are bad because we all agree, I'm saying that the values are bad, and we all agree that they're bad, so let's not argue about that particular point.

    Grid System on
  • Silas BrownSilas Brown That's hobo style. Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Drez wrote: »
    jacobkosh wrote: »
    MrMister wrote: »
    I am also only claiming that value expression is one ground for aesthetic evaluation. I think that there are other grounds of evaluation, such as both beauty and proficiency of prose, but it is more difficult to make the case that such evaluation can be correct or incorrect.

    I actually emphatically disagree with this. I think it is very much possible to make somewhat "objective" aesthetic judgments by taking a results-based approach. Assuming that a work's goal is X, how successful is it in producing that result? Does a tragic story make people cry or do they inadvertently laugh? Does a documentary or a nonfiction book leave its audience demonstrably better-informed about its subject? These are things where we can reach beyond relativity and make reasonably confident assessments.

    That position has some intuitive appeal, but it also kind of looks like an appeal to popularity. By that set of criteria, Twilight could be a great book because it has goals (portray a compelling vampire romance) and it certainly seems to be successful. People are very taken by it. You might argue that there are also people who hate it, but then it seems like aesthetics are replaced by statistics. That can't be right.

    The nice thing about MrMister's approach is that it files books like Twilight in the "garbage" category--I think we can all agree that the values they express are pretty terrible--which is where they belong.

    While I DO agree that Twilight expresses awful values, to suggest we all agree on it is also an appeal to popularity. At least insofar as this message board is concerned.

    I suspect this thread is meant to bank on a certain shared set of values. It's certainly the only way you could get past the issue of subjectivity and maintain civil discourse on the matter.

    Silas Brown on
  • MrMisterMrMister Jesus dying on the cross in pain? Morally better than us. One has to go "all in".Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    I suspect this thread is meant to bank on a certain shared set of values. It's certainly the only way you could get past the issue of subjectivity and maintain civil discourse on the matter.

    Not necessarily. Two people with wildly divergent values could agree with everything I said in the OP, with perhaps the exception of the specific examples I used. And they are dispensable to the idea that general value judgments can entail some aesthetic value judgments.

    MrMister on
  • Silas BrownSilas Brown That's hobo style. Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    MrMister wrote: »
    I suspect this thread is meant to bank on a certain shared set of values. It's certainly the only way you could get past the issue of subjectivity and maintain civil discourse on the matter.

    Not necessarily. Two people with wildly divergent values could agree with everything I said in the OP, with perhaps the exception of the specific examples I used. And they are dispensable to the idea that general value judgments can entail some aesthetic value judgments.

    Giving it further thought, I agree. I stand corrected. :)

    Silas Brown on
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2009
    MrMister wrote: »
    I wasn't asking whether the work promoted ethical values, though. Works can certainly promote ethical values and be dreadfully terrible aesthetically. I was discussing whether the work reflects ethical values (as well as other, more general values): namely, is the work interesting, moving, and etc., when put in the context of an actually correct worldview?

    I agree with you that aesthetics and the promotion of ethical values is separable. I'm not so sure that aesthetics and the possession of ethical values is so separable, though.

    I probably misspoke by using the word promotion. I'm certainly not saying that you're saying that art is like a door-to-door pamphlet for somebody's values.

    But yeah, I absolutely think aesthetics are separable from the possession of ethical values. Art, to me, has value inasmuch as it allows us to bridge the impossible gap between two conscious human minds. To me there is something magical happening when the mere act of cracking open a book allows me to commune with another human mind from an utterly different time and place. If that mind believes things that I believe to be repugnant it doesn't devalue the importance or significance of that communication. (In fact I would argue that that makes communication more necessary and valuable, not less.)

    The other thing is that, in practice, a piece of ethically unsound art (for an easy example, I'll toss out the films of Leni Riefenstahl) can often communicate the same information to me as a piece of ethically-sound art about the unsound artist. I can learn about Leni Riefenstahl's disagreeable worldview and values by watching her films or by reading a critical essay or fiction piece about her, so I find it hard to accept that a bright line can be drawn between the two where one has aesthetic value and the other doesn't.
    MrMister wrote: »
    Sure, I don't have much problem with that. You're just saying that, on top of the criteria I gave for aesthetic evaluation, there are all these additional criteria. But I acknowledged that when I said there was no possible way that I had given a complete account of aesthetics.

    Basically I think those other criteria constitute the sum and whole of aesthetics; I'm uncomfortable with letting ethical judgment join them as one.
    In the specifics, though, I would want to add to what you said that a work that aims low and achieves it's goal is lesser than a work that aims high and partially achieves it's goal. Furthermore, a work can accidentally succeed along a metric it was not aiming for, and such success can contribute aesthetic value. So I don't think it's all about hitting self-set targets.

    I agree with all of this.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2009
    jacobkosh wrote: »
    I actually emphatically disagree with this. I think it is very much possible to make somewhat "objective" aesthetic judgments by taking a results-based approach. Assuming that a work's goal is X, how successful is it in producing that result? Does a tragic story make people cry or do they inadvertently laugh? Does a documentary or a nonfiction book leave its audience demonstrably better-informed about its subject? These are things where we can reach beyond relativity and make reasonably confident assessments.

    That position has some intuitive appeal, but it also kind of looks like an appeal to popularity. By that set of criteria, Twilight could be a great book because it has goals (portray a compelling vampire romance) and it certainly seems to be successful. People are very taken by it. You might argue that there are also people who hate it, but then it seems like aesthetics are replaced by statistics. That can't be right.

    Well, there are several potential responses here.

    Firstly, the "popularity contest" thing is a bugaboo that is easily dispellable. These books are popular at least in part because they are the beneficiary of an enormous mass-cultural apparatus designed to make them that way - advertising, word of mouth, wanting to keep up with the water-cooler conversation - there are all these non-aesthetic factors that make it difficult right now to take a true reading of the impact they are having on their readers. But the cool thing is, these other factors always fall away eventually, leaving behind the edifice of the work itself. Critics have long acknowledged this; it's why periodic reassessment is such a fundamental part of the critical process.

    Secondly, while Twilight may be successful at its goal, we can (and should) ask ourselves if the goal is a worthwhile one. This doesn't even necessarily need to be an ethical or moral question, by the way. We can frame it as one of difficulty: writing disposable childrens' entertainments is a fucking gimme, writing something that makes readers sympathize with a foreign culture halfway across the globe, or a book that somehow causes a scandal or affects real social change, is something harder.

    Thirdly, we can swallow our pride and acknowledge that maybe there is something there that we are just not getting. Maybe the Twilight books speak to hopes and fears in their audience that aren't being adequately addressed elsewhere, and maybe if we suck it up and look at them in a cold and clinical light we could find out what that is. I think this is sometimes (if not always) the path to wisdom.

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  • saggiosaggio Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Why are we considering that literature has aesthetic value at all?

    You are predicating your notion of storytelling of having aesthetic value on the notion that language by way of meaning can have beauty (aesthetic value) or that history itself can be manifestly beautiful. I do not think that is proven, and I would tend to disagree with notions of it even if you did provide an argument in its defense.

    Since I'm a devotee of a Nietzschean or Schopenhauerian view of music, I would suggest that beauty is not linguistic, and that things which reference things other than themselves are suspect, aesthetically speaking. I would further suggest that while art that references things can have aesthetic value, it is generally inferior to those artworks which only reference themselves.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2009
    Who is the you to whom you are speaking, saggio?

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  • cyphrcyphr Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    I was so confused when I saw that it wasn't Podly who wrote the philosophical debate du jour.

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  • AtomikaAtomika Live fast and get fucked or whatever Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    I think all media inherently has two questions to be answered by virtue of its own existence: does it accomplish the goal set by the author, and does that goal serve a purpose?

    I would think it hard for anyone capable of arguing for aesthetic (and/or academic) value to dismiss the importance of requisite intellectual interpretation, as that's the very thing that determines those values.

    But then again, I'm a curmudgeonly bastard that thinks anyone who spends time enjoying things that hold no value are wasting their time, and should be judged thusly. Animals have visceral reactions; humans articulate.

    To ignore academic judgment of a thing is to inherently discard any potential value it may add to the body of work of the human race. The fact that so many of the things so defensive of judgment are also typically unworthy of entry into that said body of work is sadly neither here nor there.

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  • Grid SystemGrid System Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    jacobkosh wrote: »
    Well, there are several potential responses here.

    Firstly, the "popularity contest" thing is a bugaboo that is easily dispellable. These books are popular at least in part because they are the beneficiary of an enormous mass-cultural apparatus designed to make them that way - advertising, word of mouth, wanting to keep up with the water-cooler conversation - there are all these non-aesthetic factors that make it difficult right now to take a true reading of the impact they are having on their readers. But the cool thing is, these other factors always fall away eventually, leaving behind the edifice of the work itself. Critics have long acknowledged this; it's why periodic reassessment is such a fundamental part of the critical process.
    Great responses. I pretty much agree with everything you said, but I want to note that it's important during the process of "periodic reassessment" that the historical context of a piece not be lost. It's actually one are where I kind of disagree with MrMister's examples, if not his overall scheme. I don't think you can evaluate a work fairly without considering the context in which it was written. Now, the kinds of issues you raise are obviously not relevant to the quality of a piece, just its popularity, but I wouldn't want the relevant bits to be lost as the "other factors ... fall away".

    Grid System on
  • AtomikaAtomika Live fast and get fucked or whatever Registered User regular
    edited December 2009
    I don't think you can evaluate a work fairly without considering the context in which it was written.

    True, but unless you're talking about a PSA or television commercial, a work can't be dependent on context alone and still be academically successful.

    Poor constitution is poor constitution; the only difference is that "poor" is a culturally and chronologically variable value. Then again, standards always are.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2009
    jacobkosh wrote: »
    Well, there are several potential responses here.

    Firstly, the "popularity contest" thing is a bugaboo that is easily dispellable. These books are popular at least in part because they are the beneficiary of an enormous mass-cultural apparatus designed to make them that way - advertising, word of mouth, wanting to keep up with the water-cooler conversation - there are all these non-aesthetic factors that make it difficult right now to take a true reading of the impact they are having on their readers. But the cool thing is, these other factors always fall away eventually, leaving behind the edifice of the work itself. Critics have long acknowledged this; it's why periodic reassessment is such a fundamental part of the critical process.
    Great responses. I pretty much agree with everything you said, but I want to note that it's important during the process of "periodic reassessment" that the historical context of a piece not be lost. It's actually one are where I kind of disagree with MrMister's examples, if not his overall scheme. I don't think you can evaluate a work fairly without considering the context in which it was written. Now, the kinds of issues you raise are obviously not relevant to the quality of a piece, just its popularity, but I wouldn't want the relevant bits to be lost as the "other factors ... fall away".

    Well, unfortunately, I think they do. Not quickly, but over time, they absolutely do.

    If we posit that one of the things that art does is that it communicates, it follows that it's easier to communicate with people who are closer to your historical/political/cultural context. You have shared assumptions, shared points of reference, idioms, similar concerns and hopes and values, et cetera et cetera.

    As time goes by, one by one those things begin to slough off. History makes your points of reference more and more remote ("mom, who were Huey Lewis and the News?"). The language changes. Values change, and with them the pressures they exert on people ("I don't get it, why couldn't she just divorce the guy and have the baby?"). The work recedes into the distance as the amount of effort required to appreciate it increases. Eventually it may as well be a block of Sanskrit for all the relevance or utility a modern reader might find in it.

    But. But but but. Despite all these pressures, some works endure. Either because they are about something central to the human experience that can't be eroded by mere time, or because they say what they're saying so well - so beautifully - that they compel our attention anyway. That's why I don't think The Canon is something imposed on us from the top down by the dead white male masters of the world from their secret base underneath Area 51; I think time selects its own canon, and when a book or a song or a poem can speak as clearly to its audience today as it did centuries ago, that is a powerful testament to its aesthetic worth.

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  • AegisAegis Fear My Dance Overshot Toronto, Landed in OttawaRegistered User regular
    edited December 2009
    Could you (Mr^2) elaborate on what you mean by Aesthetics? I think I understand the OP well enough but I'm not entirely sure whether my understanding of aesthetics in the context of the debate is similar to what your use of the term is.

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