Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pragmatic Aesthetics I: Goal-Based Art

I threatened a while back to start articulating the aesthetic theories that I'm working with, that I spent the last of my college days refining.

The motivating force behind this development was when, in my freshman year, Karen Finley stood in front of all of us and declared that because there was no right or wrong in art, there was no need to study form, and that we were all wasting our time studying art. This was after an enraging performance of The Passion of Terry Schaivo that raised every hackle in my artistic soul.

The Experimental Theater Wing was definitely born out of that post-modernist moment of "What is art?" and constantly asking the question of where we draw the line. I knew that I, personally, had some impressions of what art should and shouldn't be, a critical frame, but I had no way to articulate it that was non-arbitrary.

My first strong sense about this aesthetic realm is that just because the rules are not absolute does not mean that they are arbitrary. The core assumption, so far as I could suss, of a lot of post-modernists is that since truth is relative, we therefore create it in each moment. But I don't believe that the first part leads to the second part necessarily.

So I went in search of some philosophical language that addressed how to talk about something which is relative but not arbitrary, and I fell on William James' Pragmatism like manna in the desert. His prime assumption, which is that "philosophy is rules for action" was a needed bearing. Why do we criticize and theorize? Not simply so that we can diss artists we hate and prop up artists we like. It's so that we can make better art. In other words, aesthetics help us make choices that make our artwork better.

What's better, then? I spent four years in search of what "better" means in the realm of art. This "better" is where the relativity lives.

I thought about it for a while, and I slowly came to the conclusion that there's two separate issues; there's the goal that the artist has in mind for the created work (which is a truly individual and moral choice), and how well the work accomplishes that goal. Based on the goal that the artist wants to fulfill, there are some clear rules for which choices will be more or less effective. They are relative -- relative to the artist's context, relative to the artist's goal -- but they are not arbitrary.

Because of the goal, the efficacy becomes measurable. Any rule stated about a created work should be able to predict success within a certain context; success and its context is defined by the goal.

Now, each created work accomplishes its own individual work. But if it is a work of culture, there is one common function it performs, whether it be an advertisement, a twitter feed, a play, or a blog post. The function of culture is to form a bridge between the creator(s) and the audience member(s) to convey some piece of knowledge or experience. This is how we gain knowledge and experiences without being there firsthand.

Now, what knowledge or experiences will we, the audience, want of the creator? This is where we return to Pragmatism as James put it: we will value the knowledge or experiences that help us live our lives in the way we want to live it. To put another way, we will value the knowledge or experiences that help us make effective choices in our own lives. These are knowledge or experiences that help us make accurate predictions about the world around us, so that our choices will be more effective.

So, to recap:
  1. The point of an aesthetic is to provide a means for making effective choices.
  2. Each work should have a goal with measurable success conditions.
  3. The aesthetic choice within the work is valuable to the degree that it helps achieve the goal.
  4. The function of culture is to transmit knowledge or experiences between creator(s) and audience member(s).
  5. The knowledge or experiences that the audience will value are those that help make accurate predictions about the world they live in.
Alright, that's the nut basics of pragmatic aesthetics, my attempt to use pragmatic philosophy to create a critical language for the arts. I'm hoping to lengthen my thesis into a book on the subject, which goes into more depth about the principles above and goes into more.

Anyways, the whole point of this was I have some posts I'm going to be working on that are critical responses to other works, and this is the groundwork I'm working in.

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