Monday, November 18, 2013

Life as Art: Nature’s Strangeness and the Aesthetic Attitude

My last several articles have focused on the relationship between nature-as-wilderness and the artificial worlds we create with language, culture, and technology. This distinction comes up in my responses to Brassier’s nihilism and to Scott Bakker’s eliminativism (his view not just that there’s no meaning or value, but that there’s no personal self), in my discussions of the mythopoeic mindset, the Neolithic Revolution, and the development of the autonomous self. The trick is to see the bumbling exaptations and psychological and social tinkerings that complexify biological processes and produce higher-order worlds (language games, worldviews, cultures, infrastructures, cityscapes), which are regulated by prescriptive (optional) laws and intended functions as opposed to being driven by natural probability, as being stages in the greater decay of undead nature.

Metaphysically, as I’ve said elsewhere, the universe is natural in that mental properties aren’t primary, but nature is made up of matter and energy and these come together with their mindless creativity to foreshadow the mentality that has nevertheless developed. This is the key, mysterious concept: natural (not divine) creativity. The Presocratics called this the field of becoming, the impermanence of beings, which is to say the way all things enter and exit a state of being so that the apparent world is always in flux. There are patterns in those changes, including cycles, regularities, hierarchies, and the excrescence of new orders of being, which is the process of complexification. In fact, natural creativity can be mapped on horizontal and vertical axes, in that there’s change within the temporal dimension and also an increase in the variety of game pieces, as it were, from atoms to molecules, to nebulas, galaxies of stars, solar systems, and organisms, social orders, and artificial substitutes for the wilderness. The point is that in the big, metaphysical picture, there’s continuity in the splitting off of artificial worlds which alienate their inhabitants, but there are also revolutions in nature, new starting points for more complex changes. This is because the norm in nature is creativity, the change from the earlier to the later and from the simple to the complex.

Before I move on to other topics, beginning next week, I want to consider one other implication of this picture of the role of artificiality in the creation of meaning and in the world’s re-enchantment. Specifically, I think this picture tells us why morality can be understood as an aesthetic phenomenon. By “morality” I mean the ideal of the good life which we try to achieve by following rules that govern personal growth (virtues and vices) and social interactions. Now, assuming morality is a human creation, it has much in common with art since art too is our creation. But this isn’t saying much, because not all creations are artworks, at least not in the narrow, conventional sense of “art.” So we should look closer at artistic creations. It turns out that since Marcel Duchamp’s urinal and Andy Warhol’s soup can paintings, which is to say the birth of Dadaism and Postmodernism in art, the definition of “art” has broadened to include virtually anything. This might have spelled the death of art or else the re-enchantment of nature. But this may present us merely with a paradox rather than a choice between opposites, since postmodernists may have disposed of an unduly narrow conception of art and thus revealed the fact that everything becomes art for modern naturalists (atheists).

The Sense of Nature’s Strangeness

In any case, should we distinguish between artistic and nonartistic creations? If not, is there anything that’s not art, so that “art” retains some meaning in relation to an opposite? I think we discover a clue that helps us answer these questions, when we reflect on how atheists like Spinoza and Einstein as well as Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins contend that they perceive the numinous in nature. They look at the stars or at a waterfall or at the equations that represent the natural order and they find themselves emotionally stirred; nature can seem bizarre and sublime. To be sure, science explains how natural phenomena arise, which makes the universe less mysterious and spooky than it appears from the anthropocentric, theistic perspective. But by removing God from her worldview, the naturalist implies that the ultimate origin of everything is incomprehensible, and the resulting strangeness transfers to everything that shows up in nature—however fully-explained the phenomena are as transitions within the cosmos. Theists use this point in their cosmological argument for God’s existence. That argument fails for well-known reasons; anyway, positing God as the ultimate reason for everything doesn’t eliminate the mystery, since just because we can imagine a perfect person doesn’t mean the idea of a person’s self-creation is self-evident. All theism’s personalization of the First Cause does here is assume that the world is familiar to us, but the theistic explanation obviously falls apart, since our understanding of our origin by means of sexual reproduction can’t be applied to God except in the most primitive, grotesque, and dubious myths. God’s personhood thus would only mask the weirdness of his cosmological role.

But the point is that by stripping from cosmology that theistic fig leaf which covers, in effect, our cognitive limitations, the naturalist leaves our sense of the universe’s fundamental strangeness unimpeded, and this impression of nature’s disturbing alienness seems similar to the way the aesthetic qualities of an artwork strike the viewer. To the extent that theists are able to think of any part of the world as profoundly mysterious, that’s only in spite of their theism, since theism treats every natural event as something relatively familiar, namely as a (perfect) person’s use of technology to fulfill some intelligent design. That is, only when God is depersonalized and thought of as the perfect object, as the absolute ground of Being, so that “theism” is made consistent with naturalistic atheism, does nature’s bizarreness pass through the anthropomorphic filter and challenge us, in effect, with a feel for cosmicism. Now, atheists like Bertrand Russell and many others fancy themselves able to ignore that strangeness, and so they proclaim that even if the finished scientific theory won’t be self-evident, whatever that theory says is the end of the story and the corresponding world exists as a brute fact regardless of whether that makes any sense to creatures like us. The pretense is that mature rationalists are able to live with uncertainty, whereas weak-minded folk have a hankering for mystery and so indulge in “woo” or in metaphysical or religious mumbo jumbo to comfort them—much as children require bedtime stories to distract them from the scary darkness, which allows them to sleep at night.

I agree there are such differences between people, but I deny that the so-called maturity in question is an unqualified strength of character. Compare the person who allows all manner of comedy to pass by her without her showing even a hint of laughter. Is that grim distaste for comedy the strength to perceive the real world in all its unfunny glory, without succumbing to any distraction, or is it a failure to perceive that world’s ridiculous absurdity? In other words, is comedy subjective or objective? And the same can be asked about the strange creativity of a godless universe. Is the strangeness an artifact of some people’s self-indulgence or is it instead an inherent part of reality which is ignored only thanks to an opposite but equally ignoble character trait?

This distinction between subjective and objective is transcended as soon as we reflect on the fact that the split between subject and object isn’t absolute, that for the naturalist a perspective is part of an objective process. So when someone who’s lost in a desert thinks he sees water even though he sees only a mirage, not even that trick of perspective is entirely in the person’s head. The water doesn’t exist, but what does exist is some appearance of a sand dune which a parched person’s brain will tend to interpret as a water source. Circumstances come together to produce the hallucination and that illusion has its objective reality: the illusion won’t feed the person but it exists as a mental representation which causes him to keep searching for sustenance instead of giving up. Likewise, although the natural world’s strangeness may emerge in the context of a certain sort of mind, that doesn’t make the strangeness “merely subjective” in the sense of being only apparent rather than in any way real. Appearances and illusions are real too; the world contains them in addition to fermions and bosons.

So the more interesting question is what sort of objective process would be at work in the fact that nature’s strangeness exists in certain minds. Again, the reason for considering this is that I want to determine the relationship between creations and artworks, and I think there’s a comparison between the sense of the numinous that pervades nature, thanks to nature’s impersonal origin, and the appreciation of art’s value. But there’s a preliminary matter, which is that this strangeness is indeed apparent only to a certain kind of mind. So who is left out of this process?

Well, for one thing, experiencing strangeness isn’t unambiguously pleasant, so those who are easily distracted won’t notice or will be able to ignore this aspect of the world. Also, assuming nature is strange because of its atheistic origin, experiencing that strangeness requires objective knowledge. Together, these two points imply that natural strangeness consists in the sense of something’s useless objectivity. We distract ourselves with thoughts of our plans, of how to make use of something, or of how one thing is associated with something else. But when we stop and examine only X’s objective features, as they are in themselves without any thought of instrumentality on our part, or without any practical preoccupations or personal projections which dilute the world’s alienness, X’s strangeness emerges. In that case, we’re left with the feeling that although we have scientific knowledge of how X works, X’s ultimate origin is perfectly mysterious. This natural X is something which comes, gratuitously, from nothing (ultimately, from a singularity or a chaotic quantum fluctuation or from some other equivalent of no thing). So the perspective needed for an experience of nature’s strangeness is that of someone who’s able to detach herself from any thought of something’s utility. Those who excel at having this experience, then, are the most alienated folks, the outsiders who are less busy and so are left to face the world as it is rather than as we intend to change it with all of our labour and cultural obfuscations.

(Note that this objectivity is consistent with what I say elsewhere, about the subjective aspect of scientific knowledge. This is because I’m speaking here of the experience of the strangeness of something in so far as it’s objectively considered. I’m not saying any of our knowledge is perfectly objective, but only that the best of our objective knowledge is liable to produce a certain subjective experience, namely one I’m about to compare to the aesthetic appreciation of art.)

Art and the Aesthetic Attitude

Aesthetic appreciation is similar to this sense of the weirdness of brute, natural facts. The aesthetic attitude, as theorized by Kant, Schopenhauer and others, is a way of approaching something as an artwork which pleases the viewer without interesting her. This requires, among other things, detachment from our practical concerns and a focus on the objective aspect of the work. For example, suppose you’re listening to a song, but you suddenly realize that the sad lyrics are hitting a little too close to home. In that instant, you slip out of the aesthetic attitude and you take up a more utilitarian stance towards the song, treating it as a piece of self-help or as a challenge to your worldview. Only when we lay aside any such practical relevance of something can we perceive it as art. Whether it’s a painting, song, dance, play, movie, novel, poem, or any other form of art, the work should entertain or even enlighten—but without being so overbearing that the viewer loses the feeling that she’s protected by the aesthetic barrier. Behind this barrier, as it were, no art object can upset or enthrall her because the object is only a pretense, occupying a sort of waiting room outside of the universe of pressing daily matters. Note that a scary movie, for example, isn’t exactly art if we enter the theater with the intention to use the movie to scare us, since then our stance is an instrumental, not an aesthetic one. We can take up the latter, though, if we’re able to control our fear response and scrutinize the movie more objectively, noticing how one piece of acting relates to another, or how the music skillfully accompanies the use of lighting in a certain scene. Notice also that this aesthetic attitude is a product of idleness and decadence, which are hallmarks of post-Neolithic civilizations.

The upshot of this comparison is that if aesthetics is an appreciation of something’s useless objectivity, both natural and artificial things can be regarded as art. Indeed, natural, that is, wild or pristine parts of the world are supremely aesthetic, because they’re stranger than intended fictions, which is in line with the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. When we look up at the stars and have a giddy sense of wonder as we realize that ultimately we have no idea what they are or how they came to be, because our scientific knowledge is necessarily limited to narrower questions, there is no cavalry that can rescue us from that beginning of angst; all we can do is become distracted with something else. But when we encounter a conventional form of art, such as a painting, we have other, autonomous modes of explanation which provide us with complete answers as to the artwork’s origin and meaning, namely the psychological and social ones. We know the painting was produced by a person for this or that purpose, such as that of making money or of applying some theory of art. To be sure, we also know the painting is a metaphysically natural object and thus just as ultimately inexplicable as everything else that’s made of matter and energy. But artificial things are subject to more comforting higher-level explanations, whereas natural (non-artificial, or entirely impersonal) things aren’t so, given atheistic naturalism.

Thus, it’s harder to perceive an artificial work’s sublimity, its strangeness which reminds us that our cognitive powers are limited, that by living we’re only along for a ride which we can’t control, that life might as well be just a dream. These existential impressions make up the odd pleasure of viewing something from the aesthetic perspective. When we gaze at a painting, it’s hard to forget the postmodern knowledge we have of the painting’s historical context, theoretical relevance, and sociopolitical role—all of which make the painting relevant and useful and thus not, strictly speaking, art. This is the way in which postmodern irony seems to kill art, by oppressing us with doubts arising from excessive self-awareness, which spoil the aesthetic mood and deprive us of the experience of wonder.

So is everything an artwork? I think anything can be viewed as art as long as the thing is subject to the aesthetic attitude. If there were no life forms in the world, natural things would still be ultimately inexplicable, but they wouldn’t be actually strange since strangeness depends on the emergence of a certain perspective. Strangeness is an existential experience, a humiliating proof of our cognitive limits and of our existential homelessness in nature, which nevertheless relieves us instead of afflicting us. Art appreciation is haunting in that the artwork channels the mystery of the universe’s undeadness by way of a bemused impression of the work’s completeness unto itself, which is to say its irrelevance to any of the viewer’s practical concerns.

The Prescribed Life as Art

How, then, does morality fit into this? Well, normativity is just the prescriptive aspect of all artificiality. Historically, the earliest people regulated their behaviour as soon as they gained self-control through language, abstract thought, and the technological reconditioning of their environments. Moral laws, like the prohibition of killing or the imperative to seek happiness, are thus just as regulatory as an artist’s techniques, which makes the regulated life a work of art. Again, the key point is about creativity. Nature changes itself in scientifically understandable ways, but also in a philosophically, religiously, or otherwise ultimately bizarre one, leaving us with existential angst along with the psychological and cultural countermeasures. And we mimic the wilderness by recreating our environments and ourselves. We replace the natural landscape with an artificial one and we shape our character and the trajectory of our life’s path, according to moral principles, society’s laws, and the like. This isn’t to say, though, that we constantly experience ourselves as artists. On the contrary, we seldom take up the aesthetic perspective towards us, since we’re usually pressed with the instrumental one. We see ourselves as means or as precious ends, but not as weirdly complete and ultimately inexplicable creations. However, we can perceive ourselves that way; moreover, the process of making art, of experimenting with our freedom and resorting to optional regulations to pass the time after we’ve detached ourselves from much of nature, is objectively similar to that of developing ourselves, for the reasons I’ve just set out.  

Still, this raises a couple of puzzles. First, if everything can be viewed as art, what’s the difference, if any, between good and bad art? Answering that question would help explain how a prescribed life could count as artistic, since such a life involves a choice between right and wrong. Second, what’s the difference between natural and artificial creations of art? Beginning with the first question, I’ve already laid the groundwork for part of an answer. The more mysterious something is, due to its completeness or anomalousness when viewed from a detached, anti-instrumental perspective, the greater its artistic value. This assumes that the experience of strangeness is central to the appreciation of art. And again, this implies that conventional, human-made art is aesthetically inferior to the impersonally-developed kind, that is, that paintings and films and novels are artistically less worthy than rocks, twigs, stars, and the like. This is because the relevant kind of uselessness is that of something which surpasses our understanding, so that we can’t make heads or tails of it, in which case we’re confounded, we can’t intelligently use the thing but can only stare at it agape. That’s what happens when we adopt the aesthetic attitude and put aside utilitarian concerns: we perceive something as complete in itself, as being unrelated to anything else and thus as anomalous and eerily reassuring, since we’re thereby given an excuse not to take life so seriously.

But we can also apply this point about completeness and strangeness to conventional art. Skill is required to produce good art of that sort, because poor execution calls attention to the artwork’s purpose of achieving some social or theoretical ideal. The failure thus distracts the viewer with that teleological context, which makes it harder to adopt the aesthetic attitude with which we renounce such matters on a trial basis. When an artist is highly skilled, the process used to create the work is hidden from view or left behind, so that the work is a free-standing analogue of any natural phenomenon that's the result ultimately of the miracle of nature’s undeadness.

Moreover, we can derive the aesthetic value of originality from the preceding arguments. Originality is valued because a revolutionary work differs from everything else, and its discontinuity invites the aesthetic assessment. By contrast, hackneyed or clichéd work is derivative and thus not so strangely new or complete unto itself; again, its status as a cheap copy distracts the viewer with those background connections and obstructs the sense of the work’s strangeness or ultimate absurdity. Again, the experience of art, as such, is a feeling of wonder, which is a peculiar mix of delight and fear, admiration and longing. We enjoy the harmony, balance, and proportion of a creation of matter and energy, but we naturalists are taunted with unanswerable questions about the creation’s ultimate origin. Art thus pleases and terrorizes us. This is in contrast to the idea that art is all about the superiority of beauty to ugliness. On the contrary, to the extent that a representation of female beauty, for example, is meant to arouse the viewer, the representation will be hardly treatable as art at all, since the obviousness of that pedestrian purpose will prevent the work from channeling the strangeness which I’m positing as the aesthetic commodity. Likewise, to the extent that a building’s exterior is beautified by decorations that are meant to attract a buyer or to earn fame for the architect, the building loses any artistic status it might have had. Indeed, beauty is suspicious because we have an instinct to prefer what we call beautiful for mere sexual purposes; moreover, there is no quality of beauty shared by great paintings, songs, dances, novels, fashions, and so on. So artificial beauty isn’t the mark of great art.

As to the second question, obviously the underlying difference is that natural art is mindlessly created whereas conventional art, as well as the art consisting of any of our creations, including our lives, societies, worldviews, and so forth, is more freely chosen. By definition, minds are at the bottom of artificiality, but not of nature. But there’s also a tantalizing asymmetry, which has to do with the relationship between minds and everything else. As I suggested above, we might wonder about the objective process by which nature’s strangeness is perceived in alienated rational minds which then mimic nature’s creativity and generate aesthetically inferior works. Understanding that relationship would amount to understanding the meaning of life, so I can’t hope to answer that question here or anytime soon. In other writings, cited above, I’ve speculated that we’re looking here at a kind of defense against the horror of nature’s monstrosity, with the more soothing artificial worlds we put at our disposal.

Whatever the larger continuity between nature and artificiality, knowledge of some such underlying process would act as another barrier to aesthetic appreciation. Just as we can look at anything as an artwork, so too can we look at anything as a means to an end. These two perspectives, the aesthetic and the instrumental, compete in our minds for dominance, and the more we know of the mechanisms at work, the more we’re tempted to exploit that knowledge. In any case, as I’ve said, all human works are aesthetically inferior to natural ones, because ours are more comprehensible to us and thus not as effective at generating awe. Even a saint’s renunciation or the coolness of the most righteous counterculturalist who mocks all mass delusions with flawless postmodern irony pales in comparison with the weirdness of any blade of grass, viewed in aesthetic isolation.

And yet some human works are aesthetically worse than others. Again, there’s the issue of artistic skill, but there’s also the question of originality. Those who follow conventions are less creative than those who live in their own worlds. And so the introverts and the outsiders who choose not to fit in but to rebel against society turn their life into a greater anomaly, into a stranger, more discontinuous and self-sufficient creation. Tragically, even an ascetic’s total war against natural forces is futile, instrumentally speaking, assuming there’s no supernatural self to be liberated. Of course, to the extent that a spiritual life is intended as a means to some end, its aesthetic value is lost. But this sort of life that deals creatively with our existential predicament of being embedded in the undead god may redeem the hero with that higher aesthetic honour, as long as we stop once in a while to appreciate the art that’s all around us.

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