Emotions and objectivity
The major problem in esthetics is the question of whether esthetic knowledge can be objective, and whether or in what sense it gets us at actual facts about the world. Ever since Kant, it has more or less been taken for granted that of course it doesn't, and when artists claim that they are "making a statement" then this itself is taken to be poetry, and if there is any truth in it, the truth of the statement is some kind of "inner" truth about ourselves as perceivers, and certainly isn't on a par with scientific truth. Art is fuzzy, mushy, glorious, outrageous, what have you; but it can't be factual.
Having perpetrated some art of various types,(1) I know that what I was trying to do, at least, was to show people something; and whether they "liked" it or not was as irrelevant to me as whether you "like" this book. The question is whether after reading it you know something you didn't know before; and I, at least, think that that same question is behind what artists do. And if artists think that this is what they are trying to do--and they certainly talk that way--then the theory that explains why they're not wasting their time or lying to themselves and the rest of us has priority over theories that make it all nothing but subjectivity.
So much for self-justification. I think some of it was necessary at the outset, because what I am going to say is the exact opposite of what so many esthetic theories have to say, from the days of Plato on down to the present.
Let me then first discuss the esthetic understanding and see the difficulties connected with objectivity due to the fact that it uses emotions as its "receiving instrument," and how these difficulties can be overcome. Then I will talk about beauty as what esthetically corresponds to goodness, and will give the characteristics of beauty based on its being the object of an esthetic evaluation; and finally I will talk about art as being an esthetic statement, and say a little about the artistic process.
If you remember what was said about emotions in discussing the sense faculty in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 3.2.5, they are the conscious aspects of the built-in "program" of the brain activating some drive or other. Instinct monitors the state the body is in and links this with the information coming in from the sense organs about the environment; and it is constructed in such a way that comparisons are made, and energy flows into the motor nerves indicated by the drive, while this flow shows up in consciousness as a particular emotion of a certain type and intensity and so on.
Thus, when your blood sugar drops below a certain level, you become hungry and start looking for food (feeling a rather complex emotion, depending on the circumstances, of desire, anxiety, eagerness, and so on); and then when you get it, you feel not only the taste of the food but the emotional satisfaction connected with the accomplishment of the goal of the drive, as your blood sugar rises to the level where the drive turns off.
Notice that when you are hungry, seeing a cooking steak evokes quite a different emotion from the same sight when you have just eaten, which shows that the emotion is not only reacting to the steak, but to the state of the food needs of your body; hence, there is a subjective element in the emotional reaction that is not present in perception (the steak looks the same whether you're hungry or not).
There is also the fact that the drive of which the emotion is the conscious aspect tends toward behavior. In animals, as I mentioned, instinct is the controlling factor, and the behavior is inevitable based on the strongest drive (or some combination of them), with the emotion just a conscious epiphenomenon of it--a kind of superfluous property of the drive itself as it does its work. But precisely because human beings have spiritual acts in addition to sensations, instinct is, to some extent, controllable and can be arrested before the actual behavior, so that we can evaluate the fact that we have the emotion as information on which to base a choice for our action.
It is this arrested state that makes esthetic understanding possible. The first requirement for esthetic understanding, in fact, is precisely this removal of the emotion from its tendency to cause behavior and a keeping it before consciousness as a source of information.
Arthur Schopenhauer made this stage the key point in his The World as Will and Idea. His notion of "will" was derived from Kant, who saw the will as "behind" the phenomena justifying ethics by creating the categorical imperative. Hence, for Kant, the will and freedom were "noumenal," unknowable by understanding (which only correlated phenomena--sensations--into objects--what I would call "perceptions"), but needing to be "postulated" because we can't escape the moral command. If the will was the "noumenon," Schopenhauer argued, then it was the unknown "thing in itself" out there that we couldn't get at by understanding; and since it was "will," it was basically the drive (a kind of cosmic instinct) that (a) created the phenomena out of which we made our objects of experience, and (b) destroyed them, ultimately succeeding when we died and all phenomena ceased. The phenomena and consciousness were created simply to be destroyed; the will was at bottom (from our point of view at least) malicious, cheating us into thinking of this wonderful world only to snatch it all from us. Not what you would call an optimistic philosophy.
There are a couple of ways, according to Schopenhauer, of getting back at this noumenal will, at least temporarily, one of which is by committing suicide--which is what the will wants but before it has had a chance to prolong our torture. The most nasty, however, is esthetic contemplation, because it arrests the will and at the same time doesn't create misery in us, but an intense pleasure that is totally divorced from desire and longing.
Obviously, I don't think much of Schopenhauer's development of one of Kant's errors into a complete Weltanschauung. He has, however, had an enormous influence on the thought of artists of various types after him, such as Richard Wagner. I don't think this is too surprising. Artists, who base their understanding on emotions, tend to handle this sort of thing much better than perception-based understanding; and so they have an aversion for science and cold logic, and tend to think of it as meretricious in comparison with what they understand (just as scientists, for their part, think that artists are playing games, not seriously thinking). But let's face it, we live in a world much of which can only be dealt with in terms of perception-based understanding; and so the artist's experience is apt to be (a) that the things he knows profoundly to be true are sneered at by the philistines, and (b) he needs to deal with the philistines in order to eat. This is a pretty depressing prospect; and it is made more so by the fact that artists have to cultivate their emotions and "let themselves go" to a much greater extent than other people.(2) To the extent that an artistic person found life a struggle against seemingly impossible odds (a very common experience indeed), to that extent Schopenhauer's philosophy of esthetic contemplation's being the only release would ring a responsive bell. But this doesn't mean that it's true.
To get back to where I was, when you stop the emotion before letting it lead to action, you have two possible ways of using it: (1) you can use it as information on which to base a choice; and this is is to consider the emotion in relation to the action it leads to, and is the ethical use of emotions as information. Or (2) you can look on it in relation to what it is "out there" that caused it, in which case you are using the emotion esthetically.
The ethical use of emotions destroys the esthetic function they have, because the emotion then becomes personal and evaluative, and one's interest is in oneself or at any rate in changing the world toward some goal, not simply in learning a fact about the world.
This is, I think, why William Wordsworth called poetry "emotion recollected in tranquility." He realized that if you were under the grip of the emotion, you wrote bad poetry. It is the extremely rare "hortatory" work of art that succeeds as a work of art; because it is rhetoric, not art. Its function is to make you feel an emotion, but to direct that feeling toward some action, not to let you use the feeling to understand something fact by its relation either to some other feeling or to some other object that evokes the same feeling. Understanding facts is not deliberation about actions; and art is about understanding facts.
Hence, in order for the artist to produce art and not rhetoric, there has to be what estheticians now call "esthetic distance." Neither you nor your audience can become so involved that the emotion leads to action, or you or they miss the point (the fact) that is what art is all about.
Here, I might say, is where pornography fails as art. There is nothing in itself wrong with depicting, even vividly, sexual activities (even kinky ones)--as long as the emotions evoked are calculated to be arrestable by the viewer or hearer so that he can see the fact that you are driving at. If the work is so erotic that the viewer is likely to become aroused, then he's not going to be interested in some abstract statement you are making (about the human body, say, or about human relations); he will be thinking about what he could be doing in this context, and won't be able to get your point. Or if the depiction is such that it evokes disgust in most people, then--unless disgust is intended as the emotion that reveals the fact they are calmly to understand--you have failed to get across your fact. It would be analogous to going up to someone and shouting in his ear, "Cause is the true explanation of what would otherwise be contradictory!" The person is so annoyed by the loudness of your voice that he's not going to understand what you are saying. And I must say that shock and disgust are very difficult emotions to evoke and expect people to stop at and simply contemplate the interrelations based on them; they are two emotions which almost inevitably are looked on in relation to action.
I am saying this because as I wrote the original version of this, our city of Cincinnati was recently visited with a "controversial" exhibition of photographs by one Robert Mapplethorpe, who certainly knew how to use a camera. But there were some of them--showing, for instance, a man's arm up another's rectum, a man's finger in another's penis, a man urinating into another's mouth, and so on--in this exhibit entitled "the perfect moment," which definitely caused great feeling among the public--but not a feeling that had anything to do with any "perfect moment." I submit that they were pornographic, not because they depicted sex, not even because they depicted homosexual sex, and not even because they depicted far-out, kinky homosexual sex,(3)
but because you either had to distance yourself so far from any emotion and just pay attention to the technical details like composition, lighting, depiction of skin texture, and so on, that you missed the point (art isn't technique), or you had to be one of that very very small group who could contemplate getting someone's fist shoved up his rectum as a positive experience. And even those people are apt not to look on such a picture as a statement of a fact, but as either anticipating a repeat of the experience or just wallowing in the re-evoked memory of it.
In any case, if Mapplethorpe was trying to teach anyone anything about a "fact of life," he singularly failed, at least in Cincinnati.
Incidentally, the curator of the museum was overjoyed that so many came to see the exhibit--far, far more than had ever come to anything else the museum had shown. But that wasn't because it was art, I submit, because the people were all crowding into the X-rated room, and not paying attention to the other pictures. In the days of hanging, drawing, and quartering (which I will not describe), crowds flocked around the gallows, and raised huge cheers as the hangman-butcher did his grisly thing. Plus ça change, plus la même chose. If audiences are what you want, this is the kind of thing to draw them.
Now it is true, that for a very few select individuals, Mapplethorpe's "controversial" photographs are perhaps not either either disgusting or pornographic--for those who can have the kind of emotions Mapplethorpe himself evidently had, and can have them at a low enough level so that they could see what he was driving at (if anything, of course; it is possible that he made the photographs not because he understood anything new, but either to shock or to use as technically good pornography). But that number is so small, as we will see, that it doesn't make sense to call what is being done "art" and exhibit it to the public, any more than it makes sense to give public readings of the General Theory of Relativity. We reserve the esoterica of science, however valid they might be, for those who can understand them; but the present age for some reason wants things that are bound to be misunderstood to be thrust before the public.
So already our investigation has told us something that can be useful for distinguishing good from bad art: if the emotions can't be held in arrest, but are strong enough to tend to make us contemplate the action they refer to rather than the source that produced them, we won't have an esthetic experience but one in the general area of ethics.
The next thing to notice is that emotions not only react to the environment as reported by the sense organs, but simultaneously to the state of the body (its needs) at the moment. If the esthetic experience is going to tell us something about the outside world, this added subjectivity has to be circumvented.
Can it be? You will recall from Chapter 4 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.4 how the subjectivity of sensation itself is circumvented. Given constancy on the part of the receiver, then relationships among the perceptions as effects of the energies "out there" will be the same relationships as obtain among the energies themselves that caused these effects. There is no need at all to assume that the sensations are "like" the energies in any way.
But that supposes constancy on the part of the receiver. You can't get identical patterns on your computer screen by pushing the same keys on your keyboard if the computer has a program in it that, depending on the distribution of data on the disk, changes the keyboard layout (like those "key redefiner programs.") One minute you will push the "p" and a "p"-shape will appear on the screen; the next minute you will push it and a "K" will appear. How can you know what you are typing in?
Obviously, if it can be done at all, it is more difficult. But it is something like what we discussed in the preceding chapter on probability, when we allowed the sides of our die to vary, but only within a certain range; there was still a way you could get an answer.
And so there is here. First of all, if you get two different emotional reactions to two different objects at the same time, then obviously this has to be due to a difference in they way they affect your emotions. The reason for this is that at any single moment, your body is in just one state, and so at this moment, the subjective component that instinct is monitoring is the same.
So when you are talking to Frank and John, and you feel pleasant feelings toward Frank and loathing toward John, then something about them is causing the different reactions. Hence, there is a real esthetic difference between them. That is an objective fact; they are not in fact acting as a whole on you in such a way that your emotional apparatus receives what they are doing in the same way.
Now this is not necessarily to say that Frank is lovable and John is hateful, in the sense that Frank has some permanent property of "lovability," and John has the opposite property. It might be, for instance, that at the moment you have a splitting headache that neither of them knows about, and Frank happens to be talking quietly, and John is shouting and giving you playful punches in the shoulder, which you generally respond favorably to. All you know from this is that in the state you are in, the two of them are esthetically different.
But secondly, you can talk about esthetic properties of a given object that are (relatively speaking) permanent if you discover that, no matter what state you happen to be in, you react in more or less the same way to Frank. Obviously in this case, the subjective component of the "input" into the emotion is what is now varying, and yet the emotion remains the same one; and this constancy in the emotion now must be due to the objective component. Thus, you can say that Frank is what the Spanish call simpático, which means something like "genial" or "pleasant to be with."
The point is that this aspect is objectively in Frank, even though you got it through your subjective emotions. But again we must be a little careful here. All you know is that Frank has something about his personality (his way of relating to you) that is something that makes you as a person react favorably, and enjoy being with him. You've got beyond your emotional state at the moment, but you haven't got beyond yourself as an emotional receiving-set.
And it is clear that as emotional radios, we seem to be tuned in to different stations. You tell someone how pleasant Frank is, and he says, "Oh, really? That snob? Are we talking about the same person?" You think he's simpático, and he thinks he's disgusting.
Before analyzing this, note how common esthetic understanding is. We tend to equate it with going to Florence and standing in awe before Michelangelo's David; but it's all around us. Every time a person uses an emotional word like simpático or "disgusting" or "pleasant" or "terrible" or "boring," he is using an esthetic, not a perceptive, concept. So, somewhat like Molière's bourgeois gentilhomme, you have up to now been speaking poetry half your life without realizing it.
But the difference we have confronted is the one that makes most people think that esthetics is subjective. Even if you can say that, objectively for you a person has an esthetic aspect of "pleasantness" about him--because he always makes you react this way, irrespective of the vagaries of your emotions--still, your general emotional condition is not necessarily like anyone else's, and so what is objective is objective just for each person personally. That is, the same set of traits that you find generally pleasant another person might very well find generally unpleasant.
How do we get around this?
There is no absolute way around it. But let us suppose that the person you are talking to is just about the only person you know who can't stand Frank. Everybody seems to speak highly of him, and enjoy having him around, and so on. The fact that your present companion can't stand Frank says more about your companion than Frank.
And what does it say? The basic program built into our bodies for adapting them to various environments is the same, because it is genetic. All cultures cry at a loss, smile when pleased, laugh when finding something unthreateningly incongruous, break into a cold sweat when frightened, and so on; so these things, unlike forms of address and whether you switch your fork and knife after cutting your meat, are not due to the culture, though they are, to some extent, modified by it.
So there is a fundamental constancy of emotional reactions, just as there is a fundamental constancy of the shape of the human face, in spite of the millions of variations on this basic pattern. Hence, if just about everyone reacts in the same way to Frank, then you can say that Frank has an esthetic property that is calculated to evoke a pleasant reaction in the human being as such. And if your companion can't stand him, this is because your companion's emotional reaction to him is abnormal, not because Frank has the esthetic property "for you" and doesn't have it "for him."
That is, you're talking about two different senses of "having an esthetic property" in that case. In the sense in which an object's esthetic properties differ from person to person but remain constant for each person, to that extent the property as a property is different from whatever it is about the person that evokes the same reaction in "the normal human being," which is discoverable in practice by finding out what the reaction is in most people.
Emotions are quite flexible, of course, and are modified by our experience as well as the personal differences in our genes. Hence, no individual person will fit the definition of "the normal human being" for all esthetic aspects of things--and, of course, at some times won't be what he himself normally is. But by finding out where your reactions differ from practically everyone else's, you can then, like the colorblind person, write this off as a special characteristic of yourself, and so can then look at your reactions as objective, but personal, and not consider that you have found something out about reality that you can share with anyone. I, for instance, don't much like Mozart's music; to me, it is pleasant but repetitious and predictable. But I know that Mozart was a great innovator in music, and that the things I find annoying are just conventions of his day which don't have much to do with what he was really saying. I understand all this, and can see what others see in Mozart's music; but I can't appreciate it esthetically the way practically every person of any sophistication in music is able to. Well, that's one of my esthetic shortcomings.
But the point is that, based on my personal reaction, I don't then say "Mozart was pretty mediocre as a composer." I have no grounds for making a statement like that, because I would be talking to other people, and assuming that they ought to give assent to it as something objective; but it is objective only for myself, not for everyone. It would be like the colorblind person saying "The stop and go light are the same color." This is true for him, if it means "They have what makes my eyes react in this way." But if he means it (as everyone, of course, does) "They have what makes eyes (and instruments) react in the same way," then his statement is no longer objective and true.
Where are we, then? There are objective esthetic facts, which we can discover. Some of these are very abstract, such as the fact of esthetic difference between John and Frank based on my momentary state (they are esthetically different at the moment), but this doesn't allow me to attribute any quasi-permanent esthetic property to them; it is like saying that a cloud is shaped like a horse's head, which might be true, but only for the moment you are looking at it, and only from the angle you are looking at it from; it doesn't say anything about the cloud as a cloud.
Secondly, there are objective and personal esthetic properties, based on the peculiarities each of us has as an emotional receiving instrument. These properties are "out there" in the objects (how else could we be affected by them?), but are not aspects of the objects that you can "share" with others in general, because they won't understand what you're referring to, because they don't get the same reaction.
To make myself perhaps a little clearer here, if you think of an AM/FM radio, you generally find it with a single tuning dial, and a switch to change from one type of modulation to the other. If you have it tuned to AM, you get a totally different reception from what happens if you leave the dial in the same place and switch to FM. You are picking up a different signal.
This is what happens in these personal but objective properties. You and the normal person are actually responding to "different signals" from the same object, because you have your emotional apparatus tuned differently. So there are things about the object "out there" that are making you react this way; but the complex of acts of this finite object because of difference in emphasis or even ignoring some acts (as we don't see, generally, what is to our side), starts a different subroutine working in you from what happens in the normal person.
The point I am trying to make here is that to make objective statements based on the peculiarities of your personal emotional receiving-set is a waste of time, because others will not understand you. Statements are public, and are spoken, not for self-expression, but to be understood by others; but if you have reason to believe that your emotional reactions are different from other people's, then they won't be able to understand the facts you are trying to tell them (the relations among emotional overtones of objects) for the simple reason that they won't get the emotional reaction you do to the objects, and so the relation you see won't be there for them.
This is what is esthetically wrong with Mr. Mapplethorpe's "controversial" photographs. Let us assume that he understood something profound from them, based, perhaps on a very intense emotional reaction that the photographs evoked. The trouble is that the normal human being (at least based on the title of the exhibit) gets an entirely different (though evidently fully as intense, to judge from the furor) emotion upon seeing them, and cannot understand what Mapplethorpe was trying to say with them.
To say, then, that Mapplethorpe was an artist (certainly in his other photographs, even many of his erotic ones of lesser degree, he was), and that therefore, "we should educate ourselves" to have the proper emotional reaction and so understand what he is trying to tell us is to say that it is incumbent upon us to train ourselves not to feel disgust but pleasure at these acts, so that we can understand how these fit into the "perfect moment."
But in order to do so, one would have to train oneself to overcome repugnance to an act that not only is objectively morally wrong (sorry, but it is, as I will try to show in a later part), but is damaging to the body, and very conducive to diseases like AIDS. All this in order to understand a fact? As well might Hitler's generals ask us to "train ourselves" to feel pleasure at making lamp shades out of people's skin so that we could understand facts based on this pleasure. We repudiated the scientific knowledge that was gained by the Nazis from torturing people (such as how much cold water a person can endure being exposed to before he dies). The same veto ought to obtain for esthetically known facts; the price to be able to understand them is too high. (Mapplethorpe himself, by the way, died of AIDS.)
Given that moral and prudential stricture against turning oneself into a copy of the emotional receiving instrument that is similar to Mapplethorpe's, then it follows that his statements are personal statements in his own personal language, which not only cannot be but ought not be understood by the normal person. If you want to invent your own private language and then speak in it, who is to stop you? But when you speak to others, you owe them respect as hearers, and you don't expect them to understand what you alone hold the key to.
That makes, as I will point out later, this kind of thing not art, because art is a statement of fact to other people, and this sort of thing simply does not state a fact to other people. In most cases, where sex--our present age's holy object--is not involved, these "statements" based on personal emotional aberrations are received as just funny. A bulldozer operator of poetic bent, who writes a tender ode to his machine, may be expressing facts about it that mean a lot to him, but others reading "Your tender lips curling round the gas pump's teat" are going to pain him by their "insensitive" guffaws. Let him write his poetry and read it to himself or to the Society of Dedicated Dozer Drivers; but it can't be called art, because it's not objective and public in the only way esthetic knowledge can be.
This is, of course, one of the problems artists have, and we will come back to it later when we discuss art. The artist never knows whether what "works" for him does so because of what his emotional apparatus has in common with mankind in general, or whether it is due to some peculiarity of himself or his culture. Ultimately, it is time that tells. He knows a fact. Can anyone else understand it? That he doesn't know.
One of the reasons for this is that there is not, as there is in perceptive knowledge, the further stage of objectivity I mentioned in Chapter 5 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.5, where you can "consult" a scientific instrument or something totally different from a human being, to find out if that object also reacts in the same way to acts that give humans the same reaction. For instance, I mentioned that we see light and feel heat, but that instruments built to react to the electromagnetic spectrum record them as being the same kind of activity.
But there is no such thing as an instrument that reacts to the same things as our emotions react to, because there is no instrument that includes the state of the body in its input, and without that the emotions are not emotions. Hence, since emotions necessarily involve the human body as part of their input, with both the external data and the state of the body combining to produce the emotional reaction, this stage of consulting an instrument is simply out of the question.
But what that means is that the esthetic experience on its most objective level (the one where our emotional reaction is in tune with "the normal human being's" emotional reaction) tells us as much about human nature as it does about the fact "out there." The fact is what it is because the objects in question are such that they affect human beings in the way indicated by the relation. The meadow is smiling on a sunny day, and everybody understands what you mean by this, because the meadow is objectively such that it makes people feel more or less the same way as they feel when smiled upon. And people are objectively such that they react in this way both to sunny fields and smiling people. One who does not is abnormal.
I hasten to say that this is not to be taken as meaning that the person who is not affected in this way has something wrong with him. I mean "abnormal" in the sense that left-handed people are abnormal; they are just not like "most other people." There is no reason why human beings should be like "everyone else"; in fact, one of the functions of freedom is to free us from the fetters that the lower animals are chained with, in acting according to type. Eccentricity is perfectly permissible; but one who is eccentric is different, that's all.
What I was saying above about art is that it taps the "common core" of our ability to react emotionally; and this is why it is a "universal language," and is both international and transhistorical. Indian ragas, for instance can be appreciated by other than Indians; Japanese paintings, though made on entirely different rules from Western ones, are immediately recognized as breathtakingly beautiful by Westerners; and even the prehistoric cave paintings discovered in the last century show that human beings have been esthetically the same as long as there have been human beings.
Now this is not to say that cultural modifications in emotional reactions to things can't produce "culture-specific" art. I mentioned that there is probably a subculture in which Mapplethorpe's photographs can be contemplated as we contemplate Goya's majas. I was trying to say earlier that it is a very special subculture, and my point was that it was not worth it to belong to that subculture to understand what Mapplethorpe was driving at.
Similarly, my own generation enjoyed The Green Pastures and The Taming of the Shrew, but now, I hope, would have misgivings in seeing these, because we see more clearly the condescension toward the Blacks in the first and in the second we react adversely to a man's training his wife as if she were an unruly dog. In that play, Shakespeare was not at the truly human level, I think--at least, I hope not. We cannot, and I think should not, be able to understand esthetically what Shakespeare was driving at in Shrew, because it is disgraceful to feel what he expected his audiences to feel because of their callowness toward women.
Now it's quite possible to give a kind of prose summation of the play, and understand that. The theme is that it is possible to train people the way animals are trained, and that the people might turn out to be happier for it. Then, it can be shown that Petruchio was basically benevolent, and that the indignities he foisted on Katharina were with a view to making her more human, and so on. Further, you can give the plot.
But that kind of "translation" of a work of art into perceptive statements doesn't translate the esthetic statement itself. The understanding that Shakespeare was trying to share with his audience comes through the relationships based on the emotional overtones of what the characters say and do and what they look like and so on; and this is simply not sayable in perceptive terms, because these relationships are not the same relationships as the ones between what affects our external sense organs.
Hence, if you "restate" a poem in prose, to try to divorce it from the "mushy stuff" and just "say what it says," then you have said what it precisely doesn't say. It could only be restated as another poem; but that wouldn't be a restatement, probably, because the emotional overtones in the restated version would be quite different, and so the fact to be understood would only approximate what the original says.
This is one of the reasons why it is vital to read works of poetry, drama, or fiction in the original language. Translations are either prose restatements of the words and are like hearing a recitation of the lyrics of a song and pretending that you've listened to the song, or they are attempts to re-create the emotional climate of the original, and are therefore new works of art in the new language, works whose esthetic statement is fairly close to that of the original. I remember reading Don Quixote in translation years before I learned Spanish, and wondering what people saw in this ridiculing of a person of good intentions. Fairly recently, I read it in Spanish, and was introduced to a completely different book. I had more or less the same experience I had on reading what Swift actually wrote in Gulliver's Travels after having read the children's version of it when I was young.
There is nothing wrong with translating works of art; and I am grateful to many translators. However much the translations of Dostoyevsky and Sigrid Undset and Dante differ from the originals, I would have been able to get no glimpse of them at all without the work of the translators. You can approach somebody's statement if you understand what he is trying to do, just as conductors can approach what composers are trying to say; but the approach is asymptotic; you'll never hope to duplicate it; because it means what it means, and the sound of its words, the cultural background giving emotional overtones to its words, the rhythm of the sentences, and so on, can't be preserved in the other language; and so the translation has to mean something different esthetically.
People familiar with Kant can see in what I have been saying something that relates to his "judgment of taste," where he says that a person expressing an esthetic judgment states something subjective but universal, in that he expects others to react the same way he does.
What is behind Kant's notion of esthetics is that for him everything is what I would call "subjective," since it is the human mind's organizing of the data of sensation that is responsible for all knowledge. I mentioned his view in the section on subjectivity in Chapter 1 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.1. For him, "objective" knowledge comes when the "understanding" collects the raw data into a coherent, lawful, whole by applying various rules of organization that he called "categories."
His esthetic theory takes its point of departure from one of the conditions for understanding's being able to do this. Before one actually understands (applies a category) the imagination, according to him, "collects the data" into a kind of bundle (not yet coherent) under various "schemata" or patterns. The difference between what the imagination does, I think, in Kant's philosophy, and what understanding does can be seen in the illogic of dreams (where anything goes) and the demand that what is objective be reasonable. So what imagination does is not bound by reason, and hence it is subjective, not objective.
So there is this intermediate stage of gathering up the sense data into a kind of set before applying the category that makes a unit (an object) out of them. At this stage, what is going on is subjective and the work of imagination; but since our imaginations, like our intellects, are the same, then just as the laws of nature (what is produced by understanding) are the same for you and me, so your applications of the schemata of the imagination will be the same as mine.
Hence, when I appreciate something beautiful, I utter a "judgment of taste," meaning that I have applied some schema of imagination to it, but have not yet understood it, and so can make no objective statement about it. But since I know that we are the same, I make a subjective but universal judgment about it, and expect others to appreciate it just as I did.
It's a brilliant analysis--if all of our knowledge knows only itself and never knows anything about what is "out there." But in Chapters 3 and 4 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.3 1.5.4 I tried to show (a) how Kant's difficulty with knowing what is "out there" is solved by understanding relationships among sensations, and (b) how on his own showing, it would not be possible to explain on the basis of the mind plus the raw data of sensation why one object differs from another (i.e. why this set of data must be taken as an object and the data surrounding it cannot be included in it).
My explanation of the subjectivity--or rather, the relativity--of esthetic judgments is outlined above. They don't base themselves on imagination, but emotions, first of all; and emotions have a subjective component to the data themselves, but this can be circumvented in the ways I said. We make esthetic statements when we think that our emotional reaction is one of the ones common to human beings as such; otherwise, we keep silent.
Hence taste in the sense of "There is no accounting for tastes," or perhaps better, "chacun a son goût," recognizes the fact that people's personal lives and their culture modify their emotional apparatus as receiving instruments, and hence everyone's emotional reaction to things is bound to be to some extent personal. And in this sense, there is no correct or incorrect taste. If I like ice cream and you don't, if you like Mozart and I don't, then tastes differ, that's all.
But there is a sense in which you can talk about "good taste" and "bad taste." To the extent that one's personal taste differs from that of the "normal human being," or even to the extent that the culture's taste differs from that of the "normal human being," to that extent his esthetic judgments cannot be understood by others, and the facts he understands are inaccessible to others. Since we are talking about facts here, not just the emotional reactions themselves, then these personal facts just don't exist for other people, while there are public facts that can be understood by people who have their emotions in normal working order.
That is, it is possible to educate your taste so that you will be able to react emotionally in this "normal" way and then have the riches of some of the world's most profound statements available to you. You do it, actually, by viewing or listening to what are recognized as great works of art, with the idea that there is something worth while here, and if you don't see it, then that's because you're not looking (emotionally) in the right place, not that there's nothing to see. As time goes on, your boredom with Dickens or Mahler gives way to an appreciation of the deep insights they had into what we and the world are.
What you have done is trained your emotions so that they more closely approximate the emotional reactions of "the normal person" (the way you trained them to feel pleasure at eating olives, say), and trained your eyes and ears to notice and react emotionally to many more details than at first you could detect. Once you become skilled in this, you wonder how you could have appreciated the "2 + 2 = 4" of pop music or been able to stand the Harlequin romances that fill supermarket bookshelves. You now have taste in the objective sense, and can actually learn something about the world as well as what it is to be human.
So Kant was wrong. Esthetic judgments are not "subjective but universal." They are objective, and at the superficial level personal, but at the level of our common humanity, valid for all human beings.Next
1. In case you are interested in my "credentials" as an artist, and might be skeptical based on my claim in the preceding section to know something of science, I have actually made money selling odd-looking paintings, giving a one-man dramatic performance, and have sung in a high-class amateur chorus with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under, among others, Leonard Bernstein, have written a couple of novels and plays, have composed a Mass which was actually sung in a church I wasn't in, have sculpted a couple of things, and written some poetry. Whatever the esthetic worth of any of this, at least it can be said that I've had "hands-on" experience with art, and am not up in my ivory tower looking at it from the outside.
2. Is this one of the reasons why so many artists are homosexual? No, I am not just uttering a stereotype, I am speaking from the point of view of one who has been among them. Homosexuals seem over-represented in the arts. Possibly this could be due to the fact that emotions that lead to acts that have such great social pressure against them (even tolerant "straights" tend to find the acts themselves disgusting) have to be quite strong not to be suppressed; and so homosexuals would probably be more emotional than ordinary people. And, of course, if that is the case, then it would follow that homosexuals would be more apt than ordinary people to use the emotional overtones of things as the basis of their understanding; which would make them gravitate toward the arts. This is not to say that there can't be emotional heterosexuals, by any means. I am not saying that artists tend toward being homosexual, only that homosexuals, if what I said is true, would tend toward being artistic rather than scientific.
3. A homosexual of my acquaintance was concerned about the exhibit, because he thought it would "give homosexuals a bad name," and reinforce the thought that this kind of thing was what homosexuals routinely did to each other.