On Sentimentality

March 15, 2009

Anthony Savile’s commentary on ‘sentimentality’ proved to be somewhat problematic while being correct at times. Savile states that sentimentality is a “gratification by false-colouring an object in his thought.” Thinking back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment, one is left to wonder if there is such a thing as “false-colouring”. Would it be false to declare that judgment and perception are largely dependent upon the subject and his or her right to subjectivity? Savile’s phrasing of his thoughts merely allows it to seem that anything can be thought to be ‘sentimental’, depending on how the critic views the situation. If this were to be the case, then what right do we have to view ‘sentimentality’ in such a negative light? That is not to say that a certain act out of sentimentality is necessarily ‘good’, but it is not necessarily ‘bad’, either. An overarching statement like Savile’s is too broad and general to be heard as truth.

-Anna Choi

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On “The Dematerialization of Art”

March 13, 2009

“The Dematerialization of Art”
-Lucy Lippard and John Chandler

Lippard and Chandler bring up very relevant arguments in their essay [“The Dematerialization of Art,” on conceptual art practice of the 1960s and early 1970s].  With the advancements in technology and media since the 1960’s, art has become much less of a material art form.  Now, we see corporations like MTV mastered the combination of the audio and visual arts and are using it as a catalyst to perpetually promote and market their own brand.  They have found a way to manipulate art and audiovisual aesthetics to make it so appealing to a generation of kids that has grown up under the MTV influence.  Once again, the artist has been revolutionized, and we owe it all to technology.

MTV places a lot of emphasis on exhibiting sexual images that society has chosen as a whole to be beautiful.  Something about a body’s contour and a face’s symmetry have its hold on the modern day general public.  Other companies have taken notice of the undeniably philosophic assertion that beauty is captivating or, “sex sells.”  The soap distributor, Dove, has taken notice of society’s infatuation with the beautiful and targeted females that have been rejected by society’s unrealistically disproportionate standards of beauty.  Art has been dematerialized significantly and society’s new perceptions have turned it the art of love to the obsession of lust.
-Todd Dockery

On ‘Art that is Pornographic is Pornographic Art’

February 19, 2009

My primary objection to Jerrold Levinson’s categorical denial of the existence of pornographic art stems from the very structure of his argument.  He spends a great deal of time providing reasons to separate that which he labels ‘erotic art’ and that which he deems ‘pornography.’  To Levinson, the central differences are the aims of the two categories.  Pornography, he asserts, “induces you, in the name of arousal and release, to ignore the representation as to get at the represented.”  ‘Erotic art,’ however, “induces you, in the name of aesthetic delight, to dwell on the representation and to contemplate it in relation to the stimulating or arousing qualities of what is represented.”  Thus, the aims of either pornography or ‘erotic art’ have a bearing on the aesthetic qualities of the object itself, namely its ‘transparency’ or ‘opaqueness’ in terms of aesthetic quality.  While this in itself seems like a fair distinction, it is when it is applied to actual art-objects that it loses traction. Take, for example, the Venus of Cnidus, a marble sculpture of ancient Greece formerly the centerpiece of a temple in Cnidus but now known only in Roman copies.  It is an image of a nude woman—a beautiful and sensual one, at that.  However, when the sculpture is discussed or critiqued in this day, we do not focus on it as a pornographic image, instead our focus lies on its formal and aesthetic qualities—its pose, texture, proportion, the obvious skill needed to render such a gentle, compelling likeness of the human body, even—within reason—we comment on the beauty of the figure itself, at least in terms of it being an example of the Ancient Greek tendency to idealize the human form.  Levinson could not deny that the Venus of Cnidus is art, and its place as a religious image in the Classical canon would make it interesting for him to classify as ‘erotic art,’ though I have no doubt that this is where he would place it in his categorical understanding of art objects.  However, the sexually stimulating quality of the artwork—a factor which he claims pushes an art object beyond the realm of erotic art and breaches the pornographic—cannot be denied.  The Venus stands in half nudity, revealing her expertly carved curves in all their sensual suppleness.  The skill of the artist in veristically rendering the female body, which allows us to better imagine her as real, thus allows us to more easily be stimulated by her image.  In this case, the quality of transparency that allows us to become more aroused by the sculpture is also the very reason the sculpture is so compelling and exalted as a masterpiece of sculpture—thus, this same element of transparency is functioning to two different ends, and not unsimultaneously.  This example serves to illustrate that Levinson’s conception of pornography and erotic art is founded in the all-too-modern understanding of art for the sake of art.  Of course, in our post-Modern times, the medium of an art object and the process of art-making are foregrounded in the formal qualities artwork itself.  Thus, pornographic images could be seen to fail as art objects because their attempts at transparency for the sake of arousal remove or reduce that which we understand to be the very essence of contemporary art—the way in which a thing is represented, not the thing that is represented itself.  However, this is a very young aesthetic school, and though it dominates now it was once unknown.  Certainly the Ancient Greeks had never thought the vehicle of the image was itself the most important thing.  What was important was making a likeness of the god or goddess; the vehicle of sculpture merely the logical means of fulfilling this goal.  Then who is to say that, in rendering an image of a god or goddess, a Greek sculptor would avoid making the image erotic for the explicit purpose of stimulating at the same time as it serves to represent a religious icon?  This is especially true when the goddess being depicted is the goddess of beauty and sensuality; the goddess Aphrodite.  Why not make her likeness an effective demonstration of her supernatural powers; her ability to tempt and to seduce, but never give in? As described in Lucian of Samosata’s Erotes, the Venus of Cnidus does just that, and in her beguiling, all-too-real form is the intersection of pornography and art of the highest order:


“Filled with admiration, we noticed behind one of the thighs a stain like one on a robe, which only brought out the whiteness of the marble. It seemed a flaw in the stone. This kind of defect is not uncommon, and fate thus tends to thwart that which otherwise would reach perfection. Supposing this dark stain was natural, my admiration for Praxiteles only increased, for having so skillfully hidden it where it would least be noticed. But the groundskeeper, who had stayed by our side, recounted an extraordinary and barely believable tale on this subject. “A young man from a distinguished family,” said she, “but whose act has made the name unspeakable, came often to the temple, where an evil spirit had made him fall in love with the goddess. As he spent his whole day there, it was first believed to be due to a faith bordering on superstition. In fact he was up way before the dawn, and only went home after sunset, having spent all his time seated before the goddess, his eyes constantly fixed upon her. You could hear him murmuring sweet nothings to her.

….His passion only grew stronger…finally, the violence of his desires made him lose his reason, his audacity serving him for pimp. One evening, at sunset, he slid unseen behind the temple door and hid in the darkest corner, holding his breath. The keepers closed the gate as usual, and this new Anchises found himself alone inside. Who would dare recount the sort of deeds he consummated that wicked night? In short, at daybreak this sign of his amorous embraces was discovered, a sign which ever since has marked the goddess as a reminder of her suffering. As for the young man, they say he threw himself upon the rocks, or into the sea. In any case he disappeared forever.”

-Elliot Reichert

On Sentimentality

February 18, 2009

In Newman’s analysis of sentimentality, the presence of artworks that present a more truthful or “sobering” account of the empirical world mitigates the potential harms that stem from the existence of sentimental works.  Specifically, he juxtaposes the comparatively sentimentalized version of war in the Iliad against Wilfred Owen’s account of World War I, “Dulce et Decorum Est.”  I think that Newman has a point here: artworks that deal with similar issues exist in dialogue with each other in the public sphere.  Still, I find that this particular example is problematic.  The Iliad and Owen’s poem do not exactly represent different accounts of the same violent phenomenon.  Homer’s epic may present an exaggerated or “falsified” version of warfare, but it could never glorify the sort of horrific atrocities of World War I.

In his book “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Paul Fussell examines the effects that World War I had on artistic production.  One of his central theses is that the war caused a level of disillusionment that made sentimental accounts impossible.  Going back to Newman: I think that different artworks can only create a “balanced” dialogue if they have similar contextual origins as well as thematic continuities.  After the Great War, glorified views of war seemed ridiculous; sentimental language became an insult to the victims of the tragedy.

I think that the discussion on sentimentality could benefit from the historical considerations seen in work like Fussell’s.  Sentimental artwork produces different effects, and creates different problems, during different public crises.  The public’s tolerance for sentimental art probably depends on the cultural moment.  I don’t mean to say that it is easy to predict how an audience will receive sentimentality in a given moment.  World War I produced the Lost Generation, but the tragedy at the World Trade Center opened a space for what was arguably a highly sentimental patriotism.

– Michael Baum

On Horror

February 18, 2009

The theory put forth by Kendall Walton and Alex Neill [in Berys Gaut’s article “The Paradox of Horror”] on why people may enjoy horror films and other experiences which provoke negative emotions is absolutely fascinating. It essentially separates the emotion from what it is actually happening, thus it is not the emotion which is negative but occurrence which prompted it. In the case of the death of a loved one, it is not that we are sorrowful because we feel sorrow, but rather because we have lost someone close to us. “That is, it’s the situations rather than the emotions which are distasteful or undesirable, which we (metaphorically?) describe as painful or unpleasant.” (Gaut, 323) The idea of separation of emotion and event is interesting in that it inherently questions the meaning of any emotion. Perhaps we have been conditioned to feel certain ways after certain events, through witnessing other people go through them or simply through pop culture, but who is to say that the emotions of sadness or grief are objectively the correct emotions to feel after an event like the loss of a loved one? Would it be unimaginable for someone to feel elation consistently associated with death if at a young age death was presented in a positive light instead of negative? Is our opinion of what is good/pleasant in life simply a matter of conditioning put on us by our culture and more closely peers and family rather than an objective realization? All of these are feasible, which puts us on notice to wonder why we feel that ways we do, and if that is the only way we should feel, or if there are other possibilities.

– George Stoichev

On Horror

February 18, 2009

As far as the topic of horror goes, I think the analyses we read [by Noël Carroll and Berys Gaut] go too far in assuming that because horror inspires negative emotions like fear and disgust, and yet is sought out by people anyways, that some key element of it must block or transmute those emotions in a way that allows for enjoyment. Personally, though, I have a pretty low tolerance for even the milder horror films, and I’m pretty sure I dislike the feelings I experience during (and after) viewing them. However, I also am extremely interested by them, and love reading plot synopses or watching “Top 100 Scariest” countdown shows–I’ve never seen even a minute of The Shining, but I’m familiar with almost every scene. I think it might be more of a moth-to-flame issue, in that the negative emotions associated with horror are essentially unchanged when it crops up in film or other media, but are key to fueling a particularly strong overriding attraction. I think that when a horror film inspires fear, it dimly puts the safety of our own person into question (through the crucial veneer of knowing that no actual threat is present), which in turn gives us a strong personal stake in getting to the bottom of what in a detective genre would be the mystery. Thus normal curiosity and interest go into overdrive, to the point of overcoming the repellence of fear and disgust. There are many categories of horror fans, though, and this explanation only seems to apply to some.

-Dillon Styke

On Pornography

February 17, 2009

A&O Productions will be showing Pirates 2 this quarter. All of us on exec had to screen it together about a week ago (an interesting bonding activity, to say the least) to make sure there was nothing particularly offensive in it. Pirates 2 was the biggest budgeted porn ever made. It has incredible graphic effects, impressive costumes, some sort of plot, and elaborate sets. Reading [Matthew] Kieran’s “Pornographic Art” in light of this recent experience was fascinating. He makes a distinction between the erotic, which is almost always artistic, and the pornographic, which is different than the erotic in its sexual explicitness but can also qualify as art. “Pornographic representations are characterized as having the sole aim of eliciting sexual arousal. By contrast, although erotic representations might have this aim, they can also have other aims, including artistic ones. Hence, an erotic representation can qualify as art…” I don’t know if Pirates 2 has broad moral aims, but it certainly wants to impress in manners other than just sexual.  Kieran writes, “A work produced solely in order to be sexually arousing, without any artistic intention, may yet artfully suggest an insight, view or attitude toward what is represented.” Pirates 2 is not insightful, but it does present a stunning graphic view. The animations and visual presentations are breathtaking, even when they don’t take place in a bedroom. Back the film with so much money implies that producers’ goals were loftier than just arousal—perhaps they wanted to prove that porn itself could show more of an artistic bent.

Radin asserts, “The argument against pornographic art based on the problem of purposiveness fails. Pornographic works can make imaginative use of non-standard and standard formulaic elements in order to be artistically expressive and thereby afford a qualitative high imaginative experience. Pornographic purpose does not preclude meaningful artistic aims.” Again, Pirates 2 is a perfect example of imaginative elements mixed in with sexually explicit material. Porn stars turn into skeletons, become hypnotized, and embody extreme characters. He notes “In order for sensuous thoughts and arousal to arise, far from being uninterested, we must usually be interested in the subject in some way.” We are not just watching a montage of sex acts and genital, but becoming immersed in the lives and actions of characters onscreen. This sort of imaginative exploration makes Radin’s thesis that “the possibility of pornographic art cannot be ruled out…” believable and realistic.

– Katherine Halpern

On Horror

February 17, 2009

While I agree with [Noël] Carroll [in his article “Why Horror?”] that the pleasure of horror is linked to feelings of curiosity and fascination, his argument only really engages the scenario of the unknown, particularly the subject of monsters.  His concern centers on the discovery of the identity or explanation for the creature.  Though his observations are perceptive, he fails to address other avenues of the genre.

Rather than the subject of the unknown and the curiosity viewers have for the fascinating yet horrific creature, I find the concept of horror of the common and the repulsive much more interesting.  Fascination with an unnatural being is not exactly a bold idea.  But why do people derive pleasure from the murderer, the serial killer, the gory violence?
I think the central feelings that allow these things to become pleasurable still revolve around the basic fascination and curiosity that Carroll suggests, but they are achieved differently than in the imagination-stimulating monster.  Here, the fascination focuses on the possibility rather than the impossibility of an event.  The idea that something so horrifying actually could happen in a non-fantastic scenario is a thrilling and terrifying thought.  The curiosity stems from the questions of why the killer kills, will the killer be caught, and how he will kill the next victim.  The last question in particular is interesting because it deals with the fascination of the repulsive.  The viewer’s curiosity is aroused by wanting to know the extent to which horrible deaths can be contrived.  A movie like Saw, for instance, creates a fascination and curiosity for the next level of disgustingness.  This sort of curiosity is far more disturbing and, I believe, more complex than the essence of the monster narrative.

– Nick Maranto

On Winckelmann

January 26, 2009

In reading Winckelmann’s “Essay on the Beautiful in Art,” I found it difficult to look past his sweeping opinions about certain works and artists and really focus on his theories about art and beauty in general.  Statements such as “The epitome of beauty in architecture is to be found in the most beautiful building in the world, and that is St. Peter’s,” really bothered me as I read through the essay.  I felt like his rants against certain artists and about their work took away from his ideas and his arguments.  With his discussion of the inner and outer senses, I feel like Winckelmann builds up a space in which he can make sweeping statements such as these, because of his assertions that his senses are so exquisite.  However, I could not come to terms with this tone.

With that said, I was surprised to find myself touched by the end of Winckelmann’s essay.  His admission that “not everything can be taught in writing” and his suggestion to “Go hither and look” felt more in tune with his general conception of art and beauty.  While his volley of opinions built up a pretentious air, this final moment of the essay placed some importance on the observations and opinions of the essay’s audience.

–Jessica Saltiel

On Kant

January 26, 2009

Kant differs strongly from the other philosophers in stating that there is a universal standard for beauty, but that each individual’s judgment of artwork is subjective. This idea is complicated because it creates an ongoing relationship between the individual’s perception of the work and the community’s perception of the work in order to judge the art. Neither component can be missing if beauty is to be defined. What is deemed beautiful relies on the collective experiences of the community. However, does this not mean that the standards shift depending on the audience? What if a group of more highly educated people were placed beside ones of less education – would both come to the similar conclusion of artwork X as beauty? And if two groups with equal numbers of educated and uneducated were asked to judge artwork X, should they not come to the exact same conclusion?

–Jessica Chu