Saturday, July 02, 2011

Aesthetics as a Form of Ethics

Arts movements arise and fail for the same reason: there is no neutral set of ideals.

Aesthetics: do you know this or do you believe this?

When looking at literature, should we just look at what people write, or should we also look at what (we think) they believe?

An aesthetic stance cannot be proven.

The unexamined art is not art.

Art must ask questions first, stated or implied. If there is no question there can be no engagement toward conclusion. Once you know what it is, you will better understand how to behave with it.

Must the empirical follow from the reasoned? The reasoned from the empirical? A reciprocal economy? Or need they not cohabitate? (Is there an outside implied in aesthetics?)

Because aesthetics is posited as a perfection, it exists outside of the work at hand. The work then, as empirical evidence, will never attain it. The work is excluded from it, and must be.

Outside of aesthetic groups, people participate with aesthetics. What categories go unannounced from these personal encounters?

Aesthetics can only function as something to which one can aspire or deny. It is not a description.

Group aesthetics is as much a corrupting force as a utopian force. It functions in a reductive way for any who espouse it too strongly.

There are no benign aesthetics.

The desire for group aesthetics is a combination of the desire to establish friendship bonds and a marketing strategy.

Aesthetics participates with living-in-the-world. It has an empirical foundation. This means that aesthetics can affect that experience as well as being affected by that experience. Art doesn’t change but still it changes = how many Hamlets have there been by now?

Is it important to articulate a personal aesthetics? A personal aesthetics will be a desire. The work then can legitimately be called “experimental” as it attempts to reach the aesthetic desire.

Aesthetics can become a duty, and one can lose sight of its constructed nature.

Aesthetics falls between doing what comes naturally and resisting what comes naturally.

Aesthetics is irrational.

Aesthetics is a useful generalization.

One cannot prove aesthetic positions.

Aesthetic positions are psychological, not logical.

Aesthetic positions are bound between IS and OUGHT.

Aesthetics is no more than people expressing their feelings.

Is there a form of aesthetic knowledge? If so, where does it come from? Is there a way of talking about it that doesn’t posit another world?

Aesthetics is a recommendation or an order (in several senses of the word).

An aesthetics, because it is in language, is never severely unconventional.

Is aesthetics nature or nurture? Can one choose to be something else? To me it would seem so, but I’ve seen others bristle at this. If we are free to choose a different aesthetic position at any given time, does this debase aesthetic positions? Are we saying they are equal in some way?

Do different aesthetic positions carry different values? The answer to that would have to be yes, at least implicitly. But if so, should we then attempt to force others to adhere to those we endorse? Who decides?

No freedom to choose is ever total. How free to choose are we then?

What does it mean to say “I produce art the way I want to” when one has long learned from others and studied art?

As aesthetics is a subjective, emotional utterance, and not knowledge itself, it can’t be verified outside of a subjective rightness one feels between it and one’s experience of something else: prior art, culture, politics, religious belief, etcetera. There are no guarantees, therefore, that aesthetics will produce anything useful, or that what is produced will in any way continue to feel subjectively right.

Art objects are ideological artifacts.

Art objects suppress other (possible) art objects.

Aesthetics is a layer over one’s artistic inclinations, accentuating them, clarifying them, focusing them, deforming them, obscuring them. It is difficult or impossible to know which.

Most artists are relatively unaware of their inclinations, and most aesthetics are rationalizations of larger personal desires.

Thinking of aesthetics as reasoned can lead to untenable and reductive certainties.

Are artists to become consumers between aesthetic products?

The fact that mainstream aesthetics goes untheorized is a sign of its hegemony. It considers itself natural, embedded, fixed, common-sensical. It manufactures consent, the air we all must breathe. It pretends to be outside of questions.

Once the foundations of aesthetic positions are shown not to exist as such, how then to continue, as all aesthetics must have a foundation? Again, the idea of the Necessary Fiction arises.

Does the distrust of large-scale truths have to manifest as ironic detachment? The answer to that would seem to me to be “no.” One can behave “as if” as a way to circumvent the belief in the objectivity of an aesthetic position. What if one were to foreground the subjectivity of one’s aesthetic position instead? Subjectivity, known as such, need not be an ironic stance.

“All aesthetic positions are on the table” can also be coercive as the bewilderment of stances can become a kind of white noise over which the mainstream will continue to float, seemingly rational and true.

Still, no matter what age, interesting art continues to be made. Isn’t that something.

Without grand narratives, can one have great art?

Can ambivalence achieve grandeur?

Has aesthetics become hopelessly privatized?

Without a grand narrative, there is freedom to pursue whatever one wants, but with the uncertainty as to what is worth pursuing. Will this make us more or less tolerant of the competing aesthetics of others?

Do we, as individual artists, need group aesthetics?

Aesthetics pretends to be work centered (the art object), when really it mostly functions as a friendship economy. What if we were to posit an aesthetics, then, directly toward the behavior of artists as a community, and not about the work they produced? An aesthetics of sympathy and communal endeavor, not of what the art, specifically, should look like or address? How long would that last? Minutes? A week?

Because there is no stable base to work from, artists can now spin the wheel of fortune once, or as many times as they wish, to create art or to construct an aesthetics. Like the imaginative power of surrealism, but want the personal weight of confessionalism? Fine, do both at the same time. Want to be Wallace Stevens but also William Carlos Williams? There you go. Want to be a language poet? You’re a language poet.

But what about the need for mutual agreements? We make them, even as we know they have no real foundation.

We will never discover an aesthetic truth.

Aesthetics is perhaps a branch of politics and not a metaphysics after all.

I typed “meatphysics” above and almost left it.

Is it futile to invent elaborate abstract systems and then impose them where they don’t really fit? Is it futile not to?

Aesthetics is essentialist in nature. What then might a pragmatic aesthetics look like?

And then what of the needs of the art objects themselves? Is that too silly or abstract to consider? because we are not outside of the art but are immersed in it, perhaps this isn’t as odd a thing to think about as it first appears.

Can art objects suffer?

What would a good person do?


At 7/03/2011 6:01 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"No freedom to choose is ever total." Right. Aesthetics come (comes? "Politics IS death"?)post facto. You irrationally do what comes naturally (what you like to read, or one of the things you like to read); ideas about art come later to provide a theoretical underpinning or justification for what you've done. "Most aesthetics are rationalizations of...desires." Desires precede rationalizations. Your freedom to choose is limited, perhaps severely, so you should never try to force others to assume an aesthetic position you espouse. Others have to be what they are, just as you do.

At 7/03/2011 6:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, there are difficulties with that very right-sounding position. One is that aesthetics (and taste, and criteria, and such) is espoused, as it must be. We want to do what we've done, and we want to do again what we have done (or we want others to do again what they have done).

And there is this continuing problem with "you irrationally do what comes naturally" when what comes naturally is not a natural act. One reads other things, one studies (in different ways), one practices. All these lead to a problematic realtionship with doing what comes naturally.

And there's always the further flipside, where perhaps one's study and practice DOES get one closer to what comes naturally . . . and then one sets it as a position that others might be enticed by, though it doesn't come naturally for them. (Which is your second point, with which I want to agree [but, being human, I'm skeptical of].)

Do we choose our aesthetic positions or do they choose us?

At 7/03/2011 8:44 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

John, thanks for these aphorisms, I've printed out to read with more time, there is a lot here. Generous thinking from you.

Reading a series of poetic aphorisms like this is a bit like reading a translation into one's language from another language one knows: There's almost always something to disagree with or qualify... Really, it might be that the best translations or aphoristic lists are the ones that prompt such reaction. So here's just one, for now, a qualification, for what it's worth. You write:

>>Group aesthetics is as much a corrupting force as a utopian force. It functions in a reductive way for any who espouse it too strongly.

I agree, so far as it goes. We have our contemporary examples, obviously. However, it might be that the force of obsessive reductivity, if that's a word (I doubt it), may be what's needed to engender future aesthetic outflows, to cut fresh tributaries into new channels, to keep sub- aesthetic watersheds moving. That without the "corruption" of "strong" ethics at particular conjunctures in poetic time, in other words, without nodal surges of belief and even polemic, we don't end up in the space from where we can stand and say, Oh, why did they have to be so partisan and moralistic? Why couldn't they just write in Hybrid ways like us?

Do you see what I'm saying? I could get more specific with some recent cases, well, old heroic-stage Language poetry, for example, without which we can't explain certain things now, which some might call an interregnum or denouement, not any kind of dialectical advance (not that I think, like the Langpos and Conceptuals, that there IS a general teleology that operates in poetry, I don't, it's more multilayered, like a nine-dimensional game of Go). Or Pound, obviously...

well, losing the thread, but thanks for these.


At 7/03/2011 8:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree! Aphorisms are glimpses of a parade passing the window . . .

You write:

“However, it might be that the force of obsessive reductivity, if that's a word (I doubt it), may be what's needed to engender future aesthetic outflows, to cut fresh tributaries into new channels, to keep sub- aesthetic watersheds moving.”

Yes, that could be helpful to future artists, to look back on and measure with, but it seems deadly to the art of the ones doing it. I would guess that its future use value might be a solace, but I doubt artists would willingly sacrifice their own art to such a purpose. Pound is a good example. He didn’t realize then that he was destined for the footnotes, but looking back, it seems obvious now. Of course, I could be wrong. There could be some new version of Pound that rises, Melville-like.

At 7/03/2011 9:38 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Yes, that could be helpful to future artists, to look back on and measure with, but it seems deadly to the art of the ones doing it. I would guess that its future use value might be a solace, but I doubt artists would willingly sacrifice their own art to such a purpose. Pound is a good example. He didn’t realize then that he was destined for the footnotes, but looking back, it seems obvious now. Of course, I could be wrong. There could be some new version of Pound that rises, Melville-like.

Hm, let's see. I should qualify my own statement. I didn't mean that poets writing in the thrall of an (acknowledged) aesthetic ideology (and healthy to remember that poets who claim to not have any Ideology may arguably be the deepest subjects of it) can't produce important, even great work. Pound, for example, is much more than a footnote!! I hope you don't dismiss him wholesale in that way...

Nor did I mean that belated, typically hybrid work (think the dominant scenic-mode conflation style of the later 70s and 80s, amalgam of earlier Confessional and Deep Image bands) produced under the sway or wake or aftershock, what have you, of earlier, self-consciously partisan aesthetical ethics (in latter case think the classical avant-garde, obviously, or the New Criticism, or the New American poetry, or Langpo) is in any way necessarily an advance. It's a movement or flow, sometimes leading into fresh currents, other times leading to stagnant swamps. Right now, with our so-called "innovative" poetry, we're in a swamp period, I would argue, a mannerist lull (conservative, Georgian-like Hybrid wing and belated "radical" Neo-Neo A-G recyclings, alike).

So it's a complicated negotiation, this matter of historical unfolding. The source is not this and the result that. Because dialectics is weird.

At 7/03/2011 9:40 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Sorry, meant to highlight that first paragraph in last comment as quote from John's previous. My response begins second parageraph.

At 7/03/2011 10:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

We might or might not be in a mannerist lull (I would argue that most of the art created in any age is mannerist, which complicates the subject for me). As we're in this context, it's difficult for me to imagine myself outside of it to regard it in that way. You could be right. But even if you're wrong, the argument against the contemporary is always important to hear; it keeps the waters agitated, which I feel is important for art.

Aesthetics, like ethics, doesn't really advance so much as basic principles change with the perceptions of the historical moment. So, for now, I will make no agrument for Pound. I find little of value there. But who knows, there might be some future where it's necessary to reclaim him. In that same way, some of the poetry you dismiss as mannerist might also (or instead) come to mean the future. I hope so, at least, as some of what you dismiss is important to me (at least I think that is the case).

At 7/03/2011 5:02 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

John said:

>So, for now, I will make no agrument for Pound. I find little of value there. But who knows, there might be some future where it's necessary to reclaim him.

John, really, truly?

Cathay? Imagism? His poetic dictums which change everything? His ideogrammic composition, which brings parataxis full blown into American poetry as method and seeds a whole current of poetics that is still unfolding from that gesture? There might be "some future where it's necessary to reclaim him"?

I know he was odious in many ways, some utterly unforgivable. He was troubled, clearly, a madman. And a genius in poetry, who also happened to author some of the most gorgeous and luminous moments of modern poetry!

At 7/03/2011 5:07 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"Imagism" & "his poetic dictums which change everything" are absolutely important. That's just what I'm talking about. Other than a few of his pre-cantos poems, I find little to go back to in his actual poetry. It can just be my blind spot, that's fine with me. We all have blind spots. I'm cool with that.

At 7/05/2011 7:28 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Does aesthetics here mean "what one finds beautiful"? Not picking nits, I'm just wondering whether I need to unpack my Kant, Santayana, Kierkegaard, or all of the above.

At 7/05/2011 7:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Oh, you're right. I'm pretty fast and loose with the concept. I was trying not to be too narrow, and I see by your question, perhaps I was too broad. I was thinking of the philosophy of art, art theory and/or art criticism. I was thinking how, when people talk about aesthetics in this sense, how much it sounds to me like ethics. And then, how close "ethics" and "aesthetis" seems at times. That's a lot of weight, which explains (in my mind) why so many of us get so invested in our arguments.

At 7/05/2011 7:43 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I want to like Pound, I really do, but his legacy, aside from a handful of poems, is more as a thinker and aesthete than poet.

That being said, I will finish Personae and The Cantos one day. Just not today. Or tomorrow.

At 7/05/2011 8:18 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>I was thinking how, when people talk about aesthetics in this sense, how much it sounds to me like ethics.

Not that the two haven't interfaced before(!), and not that by principle they shouldn't, but understanding the Why and Character of that current "how much" has a nice bit to do with now-foxing titles like The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, Content's Dream, Total Syntax, North of Intention, and The Politics of Form. Which were so quite militant about the whole thing, remember? Now, the notion's become something like inherited trait, sort of top-tier MFA program genetic ideology: Assumed and unspoken, part of the reproductive drive. It makes "advanced" poets feel great.

And Fuzz, this: "Pound....his legacy, aside from a handful of poems, is more as a thinker and aesthete than poet."

As you say, you MUST finish the Cantos one day (it gets better toward the end!). And you should finish Cathay, too. Because if it weren't for Cathay, say, we might all still be writing something like Rupert Brooke (not that he doesn't have some good lines).

At 7/05/2011 9:35 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

OK - so I should unpack Either/Or I and II and Stages on Life's Way, then.


3. No Name
2. Living / Loving / Partygoing
1. Either/Or II

At 7/05/2011 10:00 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Jordan, why would you ask what aesthetics *means*?

Where are you, in the 18th century?

Aren't you the Poetry Editor of a Left publication with some "History" behind it.

And on this new fascination you have with Kierkegaard, apparently: Isn't it interesting how all of Western Existentialism kind of flows out of texts where assumed identies are (according to SK himself) "the very vehicles of Aesthetic Production"?

At 7/05/2011 10:02 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Ethics and aesthetics are one. Our moral (I'm using moral and ethical interchangably)judgments are based on a sense of beauty and ugliness in human conduct. Integrity, for example, is both an aesthetic and an ethical value.(Is this irritatingly sententious enough?)

If you're unpacking thinkers, you might unpack Mencken. I encountered the above idea in Mencken before I ever looked into Wittgenstein or Dewey.

At 7/05/2011 10:13 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

This is almost as good as his Author Photo in brooding Benjamin pose, the opening of a paragraph in an essay by Joshua Clover on Conceptual poetry and Flarf, more or less, at the premier issue of The Claudius App, called "Generals and Globetrotters":

"And yet ('and yet' will be our code here, marking the turns in the trail of dialectical thought)...

Hoo! Aesthetically speaking, I do hope that's meant as ironic poach.

At 7/05/2011 10:33 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

a bit off topic, though I guess still Either/Or, but does anyone know about Bill Knott?

I heard a rumor that he's been missing for quite some time and is feared dead?

At 7/05/2011 10:39 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Knott posted something on his poetry blog yesterday, so I guess he's okay.

At 7/05/2011 10:42 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Jordan, have been meanting to ask, I've been distracted, but have you ever seen that painting (there are many reproductions) of the little Duke in really tight clothes, holding his ball on the hip, and pouting?

At 7/05/2011 10:46 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Thanks, David, this is the only single-poet blog I read anymore, so wouldn't have seen that. Maybe my informant was thinking back to his rumored death in 1970, or whenever it was...

At 7/05/2011 10:50 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Oh, and Jordan, meant to say, too, since I'm on a Comment Box roll:

We have all the letters.

At 7/05/2011 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Johnson,

Don't you mean "troll" instead of "roll" above?

At 7/05/2011 10:59 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Yes, yes. Johannes Climacus, etc.

So, and may the Hongs of St. Olaf College come bearing brickbats if I'm getting this wrong, but SK sees aesthetics and ethics as stages on life's way -- stages toward the religious state.

At 7/05/2011 11:01 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

John's married, isn't he? Mine is a single-poet blog.

This is hardly a blog to bruit about my marital status, however. Women are scarcer here than penguins in Borneo.

At 7/05/2011 11:05 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Oh, Anonymous, come now, what could be more trolly than a cowardly Anonymous squeal?

Though I do admit my happy roll today is something of a troll... A trolling for deep-lying fish.

Like the one EB pulled up, with ten hooks hanging from its fat lip.

At 7/05/2011 11:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard he was married to Ashbery, or was it Armantrout?

Johnson, on the other hand, married his other hand.

At 7/05/2011 11:09 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>SK sees aesthetics and ethics as stages on life's way --

Great, OK, isn't Wikipedia fabulous?

Jordan, how do you see aesthetics and ethics? And (to paraphrase a question from a few days back) what is the Way that leads from them to lawsuit threats, O Poet?

At 7/05/2011 11:16 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

OK, Time to go home for the really pressing Either/Or this afternoon:

I just heard the Casey Anthony verdict is going to be read at 2:15 CST.

At 7/05/2011 11:24 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

$32/year for print, or online only for $18.

At 7/05/2011 12:07 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Yes, yes, Kent. Not guilty. Letters. Persecution. 18th century portraiture. Pseudonymous/anonymous authorship. Bravery. Cowardice. Freeriding. Namecalling. Whew! It sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.

So. Yeah, John. I take your point. Your post prompted a flashback to all my conversations with analytic philosophers all at once, and there was no call for taking that out on you.

At 7/05/2011 2:59 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7/05/2011 3:08 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...


There is a new trade edition of the Koch/ O'Hara book planned by a bigger press for next year. It will be an expanded edition, numerous new documents and essays: I think you will find it interesting. You don't seem to have read the first edition, given that you still seem to think the lawsuit threat to which you and Padgett and Berkson and Towle sadly added your names was justified. Anyone who has read the Punch Press limited edition of the book can see that nothing could be more bizarre and pathetic than your (and pals) bullying attempt--backed by a giant publishing conglomerate--at preemptive intimidation of a tiny, impoverished publisher. More about this in the second edition, I'm sure.

At 7/05/2011 4:47 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Well, Kent, you've worked hard. It must feel good. Enjoy it.

At 7/05/2011 4:52 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Well, the work was a pleasure, really, no sweat broken.

The anxious work and scramble behind the scenes, Jordan, seems to have been done by you.

At 7/05/2011 5:06 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

So, anyway, hi everybody! I hope everyone's enjoying the blog comment stream this evening!

Remember, two shows a night and no two shows the same. Well, OK, all the shows are the same. But still, it's free!

At 7/05/2011 6:15 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Would that I had that kind of time.

At 7/05/2011 6:25 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Speaking of court cases, what do people think of the Casey Anthony verdict?

At 7/06/2011 7:54 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This court case reminded me of the two NYPD officers accused of raping a drunk woman in the East Village. They were found not guilty, despite lots of murky details and signs that foul play happened.

The deciding issue in each case was that there was no DNA evidence.


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