by Dwight Furrow
Why do we value successful art works, symphonies, and good bottles of wine? One answer is that they give us an experience that lesser works or merely useful objects cannot provide—an aesthetic experience. But how does an aesthetic experience differ from an ordinary experience? This is one of the central questions in philosophical aesthetics but one that has resisted a clear answer. Although we are all familiar with paradigm cases of aesthetic experience—being overwhelmed by beauty, music that thrills, waves of delight provoked by dialogue in a play, a wine that inspires awe—attempts to precisely define “aesthetic experience” by showing what all such experiences have in common have been less than successful.
The best-known definition of aesthetic experience remains Immanuel Kant’s view that a genuine, aesthetic experience requires disinterested attention, a suspension of any personal interest one might have in the aesthetic object so we might experience it free from the distractions of desire. But perhaps Kant’s view is so well known because of the fusillade of objections launched at it over the past several centuries. It is peculiar to argue that what is distinctive about aesthetic experience is the absence of any desire to find the object appealing or satisfying.
Others have tried to define aesthetic experience in terms of the kind of properties apprehended in such an experience such as beauty, elegance, or unity. But objects that lack such properties can induce an aesthetic experience. Furthermore, the apprehension of a property is not a sufficient condition for having an aesthetic experience. We can recognize beauty or unity in an object without having a moving or distinctive experience at all, especially if one is tired, bored or preoccupied with a task. In the contemporary art world, any kind of object can be a work of art. Thus, an infinitely disparate list of properties can at least potentially provoke an aesthetic experience. It is unlikely that a definition that appeals to such a list of properties would be successful. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
If a rectangular canvas splashed with paint and lines can express freedom or joy, why not liquid poetry?
Works of art are pleasing but they are also intended to communicate or express something. Something is shown or made manifest through a work of art. In many cases what is communicated is some feeling or attitude that in some way belongs to the artist. But not all art is about self-expression. Some works are intended to reveal something about the artist’s materials when worked on in a particular way. For instance, many Impressionist works by Monet and others expressed a singular relationship between color and light, although these works also communicate something about the artist’s point of view regarding what is being expressed. Some works reveal something about their subject matter when placed in an assemblage with other subject matters regardless of whether they reflect anything about the artist. A landscape may express the relationship between a building and an atmosphere, without expressing something important about the artist’s psychology or biography. To express is to reveal something hidden or not obvious but that need not be restricted to human psychology. Works of art invite us to feel something about them but that feeling need not be something possessed by the artist. Hamlet expresses uncertainty and ambivalence independently of any feelings Shakespeare may have had and there is no need to investigate Shakespeare’s biography to grasp what Hamlet is expressing.
Even when art is expressing some human quality, the expression reaches far beyond facts about an individual artist. The 19th Century German philosopher Hegel argued that art expresses a shared sense of “the deepest interests of mankind, the most comprehensive truths of the spirit”. Art’s role for Hegel is to express something whole cultures can share when brought to light and put on a pedestal.
What about wine? Can wine be expressive in the way works of art are expressive? I’ve argued that wine can express emotion, although only occasionally is that related to a winemaker’s feelings. But here I want to focus on other dimensions of wine’s expressiveness that go beyond the expression of an individual’s emotions or attitudes. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
In giving an account of the aesthetic value of wine, the most important factor to keep in mind is that wine is an everyday affair. It is consumed by people in the course of their daily lives, and wine’s peculiar value and allure is that it infuses everyday life with an aura of mystery and consummate beauty. Wine is a “useless” passion that has a mysterious ability to gather people and create community. It serves no other purpose than to command us to slow down, take time, focus on the moment, and recognize that some things in life have intrinsic value. But it does so in situ where we live and play. Wine transforms the commonplace, providing a glimpse of the sacred in the profane. Wine’s appeal must be understood within that frame.
Thus, wine differs from the fine arts at least as traditionally conceived. In Western culture, we have demanded that the fine arts occupying a contemplative space outside the spaces of everyday life—the museum, gallery, or concert hall–in order to properly frame the work. (A rock concert venue isn’t a contemplative space but it is analogous to one—a separate, staged performance designed to properly frame music that aims at impact and fervor rather than contemplation) With the emergence of forms of mechanical reproduction this traditional idea of an autonomous, contemplative space is fast eroding, allowing fine art (and just about everything else as well) to invade everyday life.
But wine, even very fine wine, is seldom encountered in such autonomous, contemplative spaces. It is usually encountered in the course of life, in spaces and times where other activities are ongoing. Formal tastings exist but are the exception. It’s rare to taste wine in a context where casual conversation or food consumption is discouraged as would be the case at a concert hall or museum. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
Wine writers often observe that wine lovers today live in a world of unprecedented quality. What they usually mean by such claims is that advances in wine science and technology have made it possible to mass produce clean, consistent, flavorful wines at reasonable prices without the shoddy production practices and sharp bottle or vintage variations of the past.
This general improvement in wine quality is to be welcomed but I would argue that for wine aesthetics a more important development is the unprecedented diversity in our wine choices. What wine writer Jon on Bonné, recently referred to as “weird wine”—natural wine, orange wine, wine in cans, wine from unfamiliar locations—is an important part of the wine conversation. Wine is now made in every state in the U.S. and most of those states have their own indigenous wine cultures with distinctive varietals and unique terroirs. Throughout the world, emerging new wine regions from Great Britain to China promise to add to the stock of diverse tasting experiences. Wine grapes are increasingly grown in extreme environments—from high in the Andes, to the deserts of the Golan Heights, to the chill lake sides of Canada. Projects such as Vox Vineyards in Kansas City, Bodegas Torres in Spain, and Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, California are rediscovering lost or ignored varietals while the University of Minnesota develops new varietals that can survive Northern winters. If you’re willing to navigate our spotty distribution system, most of this diversity is widely available. Although the best wines from the storied vineyards of France are now available only to the super wealthy, new generations of wine drinkers are growing tired of the hamster wheel of Cabernet/Chardonnay/Merlot and are seeking something more adventurous.
This focus on variation has not always been an intrinsic part of wine culture. As I described in my column last month, in the early 1990’s the growing wine culture in the U.S. was dominated by trends that would tend to increase homogeneity. Excessive ripeness, a reductionist approach to wine science, overly narrow critical standards, and most importantly rapid growth in the wine industry were poised to transform wine into a standardized commodity like orange juice and milk, serving a function but without much aesthetic appeal.
So what happened? How did we avoid that monotonous landscape of homogeneous juice? Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
The wine world thrives on variation. Wine grapes are notoriously sensitive to differences in climate, weather and soil. If care is taken to plant grapes in the right locations and preserve those differences, each region, each vintage, and indeed each vineyard can produce differences that wine lovers crave. If the thousands of bottles on wine shop shelves all taste the same, there is no justification for the vast number of brands and their price differentials. Yet the modern wine world is built on processes that can dampen variation and increase homogeneity. If these processes were to gain power and prominence the culture of wine would be under threat. The wine world is a battleground in which forces that promote homogeneity compete with forces that encourage variation with the aesthetics of wine as the stakes. In order to understand the nature of the threat homogeneity poses to the wine world and the reasons why thus far we’ve avoided the worst consequences of that threat we need to understand these forces. I will be telling this story from the perspective of the U.S. although the themes will resonate within wine regions throughout much of the world.
The modern wine world in the U.S. that began to emerge and solidify in the 1950’s was built on five pillars, all of which contributed to the remarkable quality revolution that transformed wine into a readily accessible symbol of refinement that graces even middle class dinner tables throughout the world. Those pillars include: the adoption of the French image of wine as a dry (i.e. not sweet), food friendly, nuanced aesthetic object; advances in wine technology that enabled clean, consistent wines and extracted more flavor; an increase in ripeness levels encouraged by that improved technology as well as the emergence of warm climate wine regions; and the adoption of independent standards of wine criticism that put pressure on complacent traditions to increase quality. All of this took place in a context of expanding demand and the resulting need to ramp up supply and develop more consumer friendly marketing. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
It is fashionable to say that great wine is made in the vineyard. There is a lot of truth to that slogan but in fact wine is made by a complex assemblage with various factors influencing the final product. Last month I argued that the wine quality revolution in the U.S. was a result of a fascination with the French image of wine, new technology, a focus on varietal expression, and the benefits of California sun that enabled grapes to ripen more consistently. However, an additional factor influencing wine quality is the feedback from wine critics who influence consumer tastes as well as production styles. How much do critics influence wine styles and how is that influence transmitted?
Any discussion of the influence of wine critics must start with the iconic Robert Parker who is widely credited with rousting wine production from its complacent slumber in the early 1980’s. Yet, he is also widely blamed, rightly or wrongly, for making wine more homogeneous and less interesting by (1) encouraging more alcoholic, riper wines that lacked nuance while (2) introducing a scoring system for wine judging that made wine more accessible to consumers by suppressing its complexity. Regardless of which side of this fence you’re on, Parker was no doubt extraordinarily influential, and it’s worth looking at the sources of that influence to better understand how wine styles change. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
The wine world is an interesting amalgam of stability and variation. As I noted last month, agency in the wine community is dispersed with many independent actors having some influence on wine quality. This dispersed community is held together by conventions and traditions that foster the reproduction of wine styles and maintain quality standards. Most major wine styles are embedded in traditions that go back hundreds of years and are still vibrant today. Although the genetic instability of grapes and their sensitivity to minor changes in weather, soil and topography are agents of change, most of these changes are minor variations within a context of stability. We create new varietals, discover new wine regions, and develop new technologies and methods but these produce minor deviations from a core concept that sometimes seems immune to radical change. There are, after all, only so many ways to ferment grape juice. Red and white still wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine have been around for centuries and are still the main wine styles on offer. Every wine we drink is a modification of those major themes.
Nevertheless, sometimes wine styles change, often massively. In a community so bound by tradition how does that change take place? One example of a massive change in taste took place in the U.S. in the decades following WWII, where in the course of about twenty years American wine consumers changed their preference from sweet wine to dry. How did such a revolution in taste occur in such a relatively short period of time? Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
Discussions of the factors that go into wine production tend to circulate around two poles. In recent years, the focus has been on grapes and their growing conditions—weather, climate, and soil—as the main inputs to wine quality. The reigning ideology of artisanal wine production has winemakers copping to only a modest role as caretaker of the grapes, making sure they don’t do anything in the winery to screw up what nature has worked so hard to achieve. To a degree, this is a misleading ideology. After all, those healthy, vibrant grapes with distinctive flavors and aromas have to be grown. A “hands off” approach in the winey just transfers the action to the vineyard where care must be taken to preserve vineyard conditions, adjust to changes in weather, plant and prune effectively and strategically, adjust the canopy and trellising methods when necessary, watch for disease, and pick at the right time.
Such modesty about winery interventions has not always been the norm. For a brief moment in time, beginning in the 1970’s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century, the winemaker as auteur, a wizard at winery tricks, was ascendant. During this time, new winemaking technologies, viticultural methods, and remarkable advances in wine science were introduced into a formerly artisan practice. Only the wealthy, educated, and connected had access to these advances so the flying winemaker, a globetrotting consultant who made his knowledge and expertise available to the wider community, was common. Grapes were a blank slate upon which the winemaker’s vision could be implemented. This too was misleading; despite new technologies you cannot make good wine from bad grapes. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
From its origins in Eurasia some 8,000 years ago, wine has spread to become a staple at dinner tables throughout the world. Yet wine is more than just a beverage. People devote a lifetime to its study, spend fortunes tracking down rare bottles, and give up respectable, lucrative careers to spend their days on a tractor or hosing out barrels, while incurring the risk of making a product utterly dependent on the uncertainties of nature. For them, wine is an object of love.
But why is fermented grape juice worthy of such devotion? What is the secret of its allure? It’s not only because it tastes good or gets you drunk. Orange juice tastes good but it is seldom an object of love, and there are far more efficient and cheaper ways of getting drunk. My answer to this question is that wine, unique among beverages, displays some of the characteristics of a living organism. This “vitality” exhibited by wine in its production and appreciation has a distinctive aesthetic appeal that accounts for its capacity to draw people to its orbit. Of course wine is also pleasing to drink and a source of alcoholic cheer, both of which contribute to its aesthetic appeal. But it is wine’s vitality that makes it an object of devotion.
What reasons do we have for conceptualizing wine as a living organism? Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
Traditional aesthetics at least since Kant has been focused on the form of a work of art. It’s the design and composition of a work that strikes us beautiful. In a genuine aesthetic judgment, according to this view, we do not enjoy Van Gogh’s Starry Night because it contains our favorite color or reminds us of the night sky in our hometown. It’s the arrangement of colors and shapes that compels our pleasure and warrants the judgment of beauty. Even pre-Kantian, classical conceptions of aesthetics were focused on form in that they emphasized symmetry and harmony as criteria for beauty.
Despite the continued influence of formalism in the 20th Century there were currents of dissent that took an opposing position. Thinkers as diverse as Heidegger, Whitehead and Deleuze were arguing that genuine aesthetic appreciation is not about form but the unraveling of form. Despite their considerable differences, each was arguing that the most important kinds of aesthetic experiences are those in which the dominant foreground and design elements of a work are haunted by a background of contrasting effects that provide depth. It’s the conflict between foreground and background, surface and depth, between what is known and what is mysterious that give art its allure. The uncanny is the key to art worthy of the name. For example, for Heidegger in his famous study of Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes, it’s the seemingly insignificant brushstrokes in the background of the painting that allow amorphous figures to emerge and begin to take to shape as we view it. The background figures preserve ambiguity and allow the concealing and unconcealing of multiple interpretations to take place, which Heidegger argues, are at the heart of a work of art. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
Although wine writing takes diverse forms, wine evaluation is a persistent theme of much wine writing. When particular wines, wineries or vintages are under discussion, at some point the writer will typically turn to assessing wine quality. The major publications devoted to wine include tasting notes that not only describe a wine but indicate its quality, often with the help of a numerical score, and most wine blogs and online wine magazines include a wine evaluation component that is central to their mission.
But if, as readers, we are to make a judgment about whether an evaluation is legitimate or not we must know what its purpose is. What are these evaluations aiming to achieve? Is wine criticism similar to film, book, or art criticism? Or is it more akin to the evaluation of consumer products? The practice of using a numerical score to indicate quality is controversial and much has been written about it. But an assessment of that practice depends on answering this question about the goal or goals of wine criticism. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
Although frequently lampooned as over-the-top, there is a history of describing wines as if they expressed personality traits or emotions, despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally have these characteristics—wines are described as aggressive, sensual, fierce, languorous, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to these descriptions or are they just arbitrary flights of fancy?
Last month on this blog I argued that recent work in psychology that employs “vitality forms” helps us understand how music expresses emotion. Will vitality forms help us understand how wine could express feeling states or personality characteristics?
Vitality forms are “the flow pattern” of human experience, “the subjectively experienced shifts in the internal states” that characterize sensations, thoughts, actions, emotions, and other feeling states. Discovered by Daniel Stern and described in his 2010 book Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development, vitality forms constitute the temporal structure of experience, the duration, acceleration and intensity of an experience. Importantly, vitality forms are not tied to a specific sense modality. All five senses as well as thoughts and feelings exhibit vitality forms. “A thought can rush onto the mental stage and swell, or it can quietly just appear and then fade”, as Stern notes. So can sounds, visual experiences, tactile impressions or emotions—anger can explode or emerge as a slow burn. In short, a vitality form is how any conscious experience emerges and changes over time. Read more »
INTERVIEW BETWEEN ANDREA SCRIMA (A LESSER DAY)
AND CHRISTOPHER HEIL (Literaturverlag Droschl)
Novels set in New York and Berlin of the 1980s and 1990s, in other words, just as subculture was at its apogee and the first major gentrification waves in various neighborhoods of the two cities were underway—particularly when they also try to tell the coming-of-age story of a young art student maturing into an artist—these novels run the risk of digressing into art scene cameos and excursions on drug excess. In her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, second edition 2018), Andrea Scrima purposely avoids effects of this kind. Instead, she concentrates on quietly capturing moments that illuminate her narrator’s ties to the locations she’s lived in and the lives she’s lived there.
When she looks back over more than fifteen years from the vantage of the early 2000s and revisits an era of personal and political upheaval, it’s not an ordering in the sense of a chronological sequence of life events that the narrator is after. Her story pries open chronology and resists narration, much in the way that memories refuse to follow a linear sequence, but suddenly spring to mind. Only gradually, like the small stones of a mosaic, do they join to form a whole.
In 1984, a crucial change takes place in the life of the 24-year-old art student: a scholarship enables her to move from New York to West Berlin. Language, identity, and place of residence change. But it’s not her only move from New York to Berlin; in the following years, she shuttles back and forth between Germany and the US multiple times. The individual sections begin with street names in Kreuzberg, Williamsburg, and the East Village: Eisenbahnstrasse, Bedford Avenue, Ninth Street, Fidicinstrasse, and Kent Avenue. The novel takes on an oscillating motion as the narrator circles around the coordinates of her personal biography. In an effort of contemplative remembrance, she seeks out the places and objects of her life, and in describing them, concentrating on them, she finds herself. The extraordinary perception and precision with which these moments of vulnerability, melancholy, loss, and transformation are described are nothing less than haunting and sensuous, enigmatic and intense. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
That music and emotion are somehow linked is one of the more widely accepted assumptions shared by philosophical aesthetics as well as the general public. It is also one of the most persistent problems in aesthetics to show how music and emotion are related. Where precisely are these emotions that are allegedly an intrinsic part of the musical experience? Three general answers to this question are possible. Either the emotion is in the musician—the composer or performer—in which case the music is expressing that emotion. Or the emotion is in the music itself, in which case the music somehow embodies the emotion. Or the emotion is in the listener, in which case the music arouses the emotion.
I suspect the most popular view among the public, since it draws on the romantic views of the self and creativity which is still very much with us, is that music expresses the emotional state of the artist. But this is implausible. I doubt that song writers when writing a sad song are in a state of sadness. At best the song could be expressing a composer’s understanding of sadness or perhaps a memory of a previous emotional state. But even if that were granted, we usually know little about the emotional states of composers, song writers, or musicians and so the listener is forced to somehow “read off” the emotion from the music itself. The emotional state of the artist just seems irrelevant to the process of determining the emotive content of the music. No doubt some composers and musicians are expressing their emotions in specific cases. But the only way to know that, short of inferring it from biographical details, is to infer it from the music itself, which seems to locate the emotion in the music. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
Beauty has long been understood as the highest form of aesthetic praise sharing space with goodness, truth, and justice as a source of ultimate value. But in recent decades, despite calls for its revival, beauty has been treated as the ugly stepchild banished by an art world seeking forms of expression that capture the seedier side of human existence. It is a sad state of affairs when the highest form of aesthetic praise is dragged through the mud. Might the problem be that beauty from the beginning has been misunderstood?
The Ancient Greeks were the first to define beauty. Using the perfection of geometrical bodies as a paradigm, symmetrical, perfectly proportioned objects connected the world of finite human beings to the infinite, divine world. In the Symposium, Plato has Diotima regale Socrates with stories of the soul ascending towards beauty, driven by Eros, the god of love, leading from the sensible world to the intelligible world and ultimately the discovery of Beauty in itself. In theory, beauty could be extracted from objects via reason if we were sufficiently expert geometers. Beauty is a concept, a ratio, a specific proportion between parts which gives us insight into the ideal structure of the cosmos, a manifestation of something eternal. The neo-Platonists emphasized that such an ideal harmony must exhibit unity, all difference and multiplicity swallowed by an intelligible whole, a state of pure integration governed by a principle that organizes the elements and to which the elements must conform.
However, conceptually, these notions of perfect symmetry, unity, and harmony are problematic. Read more »
by Dwight Furrow
Wine language often suggests that wines express emotion or exhibit personality characteristics despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally possess these characteristics. There is a history, although somewhat in recession today, to refer to wines as aggressive, sensual, fierce, grand, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to such talk or is it just arbitrary flights of fancy?
Last month I argued that it's perfectly intelligible to conceive of wine as expressive. Wine expresses the geography and climate of a region or vineyard, the vintage characteristics, and the winemaker's idea of those. More importantly, wine can sometimes express the winemaker's feelings about wine, especially the inspirational experiences that explain their love of wine that they wish to communicate to their patrons. But the aforementioned wine language suggests a broader notion of expression, one in which wine, perhaps like art, can express fundamental features of human experience.
In aesthetics, this question of how art can express feelings has typically been pursued using music as the prime example, because there is a broad consensus that music is deeply connected to human emotion. In trying to answer this question about wine, it makes sense to use these resources developed in the debate about music. So bear with me as I go on about music and the emotions for a bit; wine will get its due towards the end of the essay.
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by Dwight Furrow
Can we make sense of the idea that wines express emotion?
No doubt wine can trigger feelings. Notoriously, at a party, wine triggers feelings of conviviality via the effects of alcohol. But the wine isn't expressing anything in that case. It's the people via their mannerisms and interaction encouraged by the wine that are expressing feelings of conviviality. The wine is a causal mechanism, not itself an expression of these feelings.
The concept of expression need not be restricted to feelings. To express is to externalize an inward state. In a very straightforward sense some wines express the nature of the grapes in a particular vintage and the soils and climate of the vineyard. But for better or worse, in aesthetics, we tend to be more interested in the expression of psychological agents rather than pieces of fruit. Perhaps that is a mere prejudice, but one we are unlikely to dispense with given the importance of human emotions to our sensibility. If wines are expressive in the sense that is of interest in aesthetics, it will be because they express some human quality.
Of course a wine expresses the winemaker's idea of what the grapes of a particular vintage and location should taste like. But that is an idea, not a feeling or emotion, and at least historically, the concept of expression in aesthetics has focused on feelings as the central case. Thus, although wine expresses ideas and nature, it will be via emotion that it earns any expressivist credentials.
The most discussed expression theory was formulated by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, and we can begin to unravel the sense in which wine expresses feelings by considering his theory. While implausible as a general theory of artistic expression, Tolstoy's "transmission" theory has the virtue of being an intuitively plausible account of how some works of art express emotion, and I think it directly applies to at least some wines.
According to Tolstoy, a work of art expresses emotion when an artist feels an emotion and embodies that emotion in a work of art in a way that successfully transmits that emotion to the audience who then feel the same emotion as the artist. Thus, for example, a composer might intend to express sadness via her music using a minor key and lugubrious rhythm. If the audience then feels sad as a result of hearing the composition, the work is successful as an expression of sadness, according to Tolstoy's theory.
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by Dwight Furrow
The wine world is never short on controversy. Among the most persistent are worries about how wine quality is assessed. Are scores the best way of assessing quality? Why do I disagree with wine critics so much? Why do price and quality often seem unrelated? Are cult wines worth their cost? And what about those florid tasting notes and esoteric descriptors wine critics use that seem to have nothing to do with what I taste?
We need some distinctions to sort out these issues.
Begin by distinguishing two distinct objects of evaluation.* First, there is the process by which we become aware of the aesthetic properties of the wine. This is the process of appreciation, and the object of attention is an experience which is of course guided by the wine. Secondly, instead of evaluating the experience of wine, we could evaluate the wine itself. This might sound odd. How can I gain access to a wine without experiencing it? And indeed, sometimes there would be no difference between my evaluation of the experience and my evaluation of the wine. However, sometimes there is an important difference because each is focused on a different kind of value. When we focus on evaluating an experience we are focused on intrinsic value, the value of an experience independently of how it is used or for what purpose. We enjoy experiences not because they are useful for some purpose but because they are good in themselves. By contrast, we can evaluate a wine for its instrumental value in causing our experience. Wine is good if it brings about an experience that we enjoy.
Here is why this is an important distinction, although I will use something less esoteric than wine as an example. Most of us value cars because they get us where we want to go. Some people value cars because they are fast and can win a race. In both cases the value of the car is instrumental and there are reasonably objective criteria for evaluating cars as a means of transportation. But some people value cars because they like to drive them or look at them. This is also instrumental value but in these cases the car is useful at causing an aesthetic experience.
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by Dwight Furrow
Turner's The Fighting Temeraire
Beauty is not solely in the eye of the beholder so I argued last month. This month I can't resist taking on the other platitude that harms our understanding of beauty—that beauty is only skin deep.
The word "beauty" has fallen on hard times in the art world despite occasional signs of a revival. Yet, in everyday conversation the word "beauty" is so ubiquitous it has fallen into cliché. Perhaps these two phenomena are related. It is routine to say a flower is beautiful; and almost all flowers would seem to qualify regardless of how ordinary. But that just reduces the concept of "beauty" to meaninglessness. I want to rescue the term by arguing that to grasp the nature of beauty we need an aesthetics of depth, not of surfaces, which is to say that beauty is not skin deep.
There is, it would seem, an obvious counter example to my thesis. I suspect the word "beauty" is most often applied to women largely because throughout history most people who publicly wrote about or depicted beauty were men. And this seems to apply to physical features especially in the way the beauty industry uses the term. But this is not because beauty is superficial; it is because beauty is an object of longing, especially the kind of "ideal", unattainable beauty portrayed by the beauty industry. It's the depth of something out of reach, illusive, a consummate idealization, of satisfaction infinitely deferred that is at work in this form of allure. The whole process of cosmetics is to make something desirable and is thus no longer only about appearances but rather something more subterranean.
The idea that beauty is about superficial qualities readily apparent in our experience is an assumption adopted by much of modern aesthetics since Kant and Hume. Aesthetic experience is made possible by a bundle of qualities and if the qualities are alluring enough we call the object beautiful. Yet to report that a painting is red, rectangular, depicting figures of a certain shape, and suitable for hanging tells us nothing about its aesthetic appeal.
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by Dwight Furrow
In philosophy the most important development in the last 300 years has been the idea that what can be intelligibly said about reality is constructed out of our subjective responses, suitably constrained by social norms and intersubjective communication. This is the essence of Immanuel Kant's so-called Copernican Revolution in philosophy which converted us from naïve realists who took reality at face value to sophisticated anti-realists constructing reality via the structures of consciousness and language.
Kant's argument is sound but preposterous. One would have thought that reality's stubborn resistance to our ideas and expectations and the fact we are often surprised by this resistance might lead us to take the idea of a real world more seriously. The performative contradiction of claiming all reality is a social construction while traipsing off to the doctor when ill renders truth and knowledge the exclusive purview of scientists who have never shown much inclination toward anti-realism. But once these "naïve" realist thoughts are cast out in favor of Kant's fastidious, critical skepticism, common sense can't find a way back in. And so for 300 years we have been denying what to non-philosophers seems obvious—there is a real world out there with which our senses put us into contact.
In light of this revolution in thought we were, by now, supposed to be basking in the friendly solidarities of intersubjective agreement, a consequence that unfortunately appears to be increasingly remote. This idea that reality is a social construction ebbs and flows outside the philosophy class but in today's "post-truth" society it seems ascendant. Perhaps a new way must be found to anchor truth in something more substantial than contingent, collective agreements.
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