This *actual* world – an antidote for academic philosophy (Chapter 3 – Chapter 5)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/26/2015

Philosophy & This Actual World – Martin Benjamin

“Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts – Charles S. Peirce

In an illuminating metaphor, social scientist Otto Neurath compares humans as knowers to “sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” We acquire our capacity for critical reflection against the backdrop of a complex network of beliefs and claims to knowledge. Some elements of the network were acquired from our families, others from church, neighborhood, school, books, televisions, and so on; still others have their origins in personal experience. This network of knowledge and belief is our ship, the vessel on which we navigate the occasionally hazardous, ever-changing, only partially charted sea of life. The “ship of knowledge” is not, however, as seaworthy as we would like it to be…It needs repair and rebuilding, but we can’t do it all at once and from the bottom up. We are, after all, on the open sea…As the mariner must use and stand on some parts of the ship while examining, repairing, and improving others, we must rely on some (fallible) parts of our network of knowledge and belief while doubting, testing, and revising other parts

…As Wittgenstein also puts it, “the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.”

…the locus of certainty is the *actions* of embodied social agents, *not the intellect* of a (possibly) lone, disembodied spectator. Certainty turns out to be practical or pragmatic rather than propositional or intellectual…

…you know from experience there’s a big difference between the world and your ideas of it. To anyone but a certain kind of academic philosopher, it goes without saying.

…What should be puzzling here [in radical epistemological skepticism] is not the lack of proof, but the *request* for one…

…We employ a wide variety of different language games or vocabularies in making our way in the world and there is…nothing to be gained and much to be lost by choosing *once and for all* between them.

…”[quoting Richard Gregory] The question need not be whether reality is material or spiritual; it can be, what follows from talking about reality one way or the other? What do we gain, and what price do we pay, for adopting one vocabulary and giving up the other?

…We keep away from fire, raise the thermostat on the furnace, lower the volume on the stereo, comfort a frightened child, commiserate with the bereaved, condemn torture, and so on. As *pragmatic* certainties, these anticipations of and responses to subjective experience are not part of a fallible theory or system of knowledge. Our certainty that we and others experience pain is not propositional – not the outcome of a conclusive chain of reasoning…that we and others can experience pain *goes without saying.* We cannot really doubt whether we and practically all other human beings are capable of certain mental states because these and related states are among the *hinges* on which language – and hence doubt and inquiry – turn.

…We should drink deeply of science, but not to the point of intoxication…*Leading* a life requires the personal perspective of an agent – tempered and informed, to be sure, by the scientific or impersonal standpoint – but not fully replaced by it…If, however, you think of yourself as *one of us* – an embodied social agent *in* the world as well as a spectator *of* it – you will see the implausibility of such replacement.

If there were a contest for the best one-sentence definition of philosophy, it would be hard to beat Wilfrid Sellars’s characterization of philosophy as an attempt to “understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term.”

…If forced to choose between a practically incapacitating, but simple and intellectually satisfying extreme, on the one hand, and a practically empowering, but complex and intellectually disconcerting accommodation, on the other, the pragmatic temperament favors the latter.

Søren Kierkegaard, in a passage paraphrased by [William] James, writes, “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it mus be lived forwards.”

Instead of a single, abstract, theoretical free will problem to be solved in one fell swoop, we are faced with a large number of free will problems – problems requiring complex, context-dependent, ambivalent choice between the vocabularies of freedom and determinism.

[quoting Mary Midgley] Getting right outside morality would be rather like getting outside the atmosphere. It would mean losing the basic social network within which we live and communicate with others, including all those others in the past who have formed our culture. If we can imagine this deprived state at all, it would be a solitary condition close to that of autism or extreme depression – a state where, although intelligence can still function, there is no sense of community with others, no shared wishes, principles, aspirations or ideals, no mutual trust or fellowship with those outside, no preferred set of concepts, nothing agreed on as important.

[quoting Kai Nielsen] Instead we weave and unweave the fabric of our beliefs until we get, for a time, though only for a time, the most consistent and coherent package which best squares with everything we reasonably believe we know and to which we, on reflection, are most firmly committed. There are some extensively fixed points, points which we *may* always in fact obtain anywhere, anywhen, but they are still, logically speaking, provisional fixed points which are not, in theory at least, beyond question, if they turn out not to fit with the web of our beliefs and reflective commitments, commitments which will not be extinguished when we take them to heart under conditions of undistorted discourse.

[quoting William James] There is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance…In other words, there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man [sic] has had his say.”…The method also responds to what [John] Dewey characterized as the “deepest problem of modern life,” namely, “restoring integration and cooperation between man’s [sic] beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values and purposes that should direct his conduct. It is the problem of any philosophy that is not isolated from that life.

what do we gain by calling something bad art? – stuff I said on Bad at Sports with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/02/2014


AFC’s post was hardly a “takedown,” more like a differing opinion. Paddy is smug, snarky, and elitist, in other words a typical art blogger. Note that my merely asserting that doesn’t make it so any more than her asserting something is “bad art” makes it true.

What do we gain by calling something bad art? Especially if non-art people like it? Paddy hyperbolically mentions “cigarettes and candy” not being good for you, but please provide plausible evidence of the harm so-called bad art inflicts – actual harm comparable to diabetes, heart disease, emphysema, etc.

One person’s “spectacle” is another’s “value.” There are plenty of folks who haven’t been *trained* to see Jeff Koons’s puppies or his Macy’s balloon as any less spectacular or insubstantial as Johnson’s piece. In fact the question of “value” in an art critical sense is mostly irrelevant to the entire discussion, except of course, for the small group of people who like those sorts of conversations. Why is the Tribune obliged to have paid staff to address them?

I’m not sure I even understand what the complaint is. Not all art requires a “rigorous discourse” does it? Does this piece? If not, why lament the coverage?
It’s “not newsworthy?” Here again, I have to wonder – says who?

The complaint I hear all too often is that ordinary/non-art people don’t “properly” understand art. Art world folks seem to think that a critic can help educate the public and “draw attention to bad decisions and art world folly while at the same time placing new developments within a larger cultural and historical context.” Surely there is truth to this, but it seems to me that the situation is backwards – rather than try to have ordinary folks understand the art world, the art world should try to understand ordinary/non-art world people. Why is it exactly that people like this sculpture or the singing cowboy? Is using the buzzword “spectacle” the best answer? Why not go out and actually ask people – the ones whose reaction is being dismissed as being wasted on “bad art?” I suspect (and will gladly wager with someone)that the word spectacle would rarely be used.

Let me leave you with Carl Wilson:
“The kind of contempt that’s mobilized by “cool” taste is inimical to an aesthetics that might support a good public life.”

Enough with the snarky my tastes are more informed/sophisticated/smarter/cooler/complexly articulated/ stuff. How about a little more humility, a little more curiosity about what makes others like the things they like?

Or quoting Wilson again (regarding music) “I would be relieved to have fewer debates over who is right or wrong about music, and more that go, “Wow, you hate all the music I like and I hate all the music you like. What might we make of that?”

Yes you were implicated in my comment, but the buzzword comment was directed more at the AFC post that you seemed to endorse – perhaps only in spirit and not in tone. And you’re right, spectacle is hardly an intimidating word, but I stand by my speculation that few would cite it as why they like the sculpture. I’ll gladly go down to the site and talk to an agreed upon number of people to count how many times the word is used.

Of course art people interact with non-art people. I never meant to imply otherwise. When looking at this coverage, and the negative reaction, it is clear that either huge assumptions are being made about the subjective experience of others or that experience was being dismissed as “bad taste.” Your implication was that if someone “qualified” had the opportunity to write about the piece they either wouldn’t (the mere fact that people *actually* like it not being newsworthy) or they might be able to contextualize it (explain why it is in bad taste or superficial to “qualified” tastes).

I don’t want to get in a tit for tat thing here but, “entrenched” is a bit strong. More importantly, ask any of the people I’m “entrenched” with how often I talk about art with them. Art is hardly the basis of the relationship. And don’t forget that I literally spend half of my life living with non-art people from all over the country. Granted they don’t live in Chicago, so maybe the point is moot, but they’re not clamoring for more or better arts coverage. In fact, the only people I ever hear clamoring for it are art people. And to this question of yours, “And for that matter, why should you assume the opinions and curiosities of non art world folks would be so radically different?” As above, it is simply my experience. Maybe this is a class and/or urban/rural thing. My small town parents certainly don’t approach art with a “probing” or “critical” mindset and neither do the guys on the boat. It doesn’t occur to them that either of those things have anything to do with art. When it comes to art, they like pretty things. They have “bad taste.”

The fact that your urban “culturally savvy” lawyers, p.r. people, social workers, and stay at home moms do bring those qualities to their art viewing experience doesn’t do much for me because that just means they already share some basic assumptions with you and the capital A art world about what features art should have. For them, you’re probably right that a Christopher Knight sort of critic might serve their interests.

My central question was never addressed – what do we gain by calling something bad art? And to follow up – What does “art” gain by dismissing the taste of people like my parents? Rather than condescendingly attempting to educate them, isn’t it humbler to assume you and I, might have something to learn from them and their taste for “pretty bad art?”

PS For the record, I did not find your post to be snarky, but you did cite two rather snarky sources for your feelings of embarrassment at the Trib’s coverage. If anyone should be embarrassed it should be Johnson and Knight.
PPS Here’s hoping this doesn’t affect Halloween – wink!
PPPS This is too much work. Hopefully nothing egregiously provocative will be said so that I can avoid responding any further…

Thanks for the suggestion ***. Now here’s some suggested reading for you that might “educate” you regarding your, to put it charitably, questionable assertion, “Art is by definition not a matter of taste…”

P. Bourdieu – Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
AND The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field
Carl Wilson – Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
David Halle – Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home
Lawrence Levine – Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
Howard Becker – Art Worlds
Herbert Gans – Popular Culture And High Culture: An Analysis And Evaluation Of Taste
Peter Swirski – From Lowbrow to Nobrow

As to the perspective offered by calling something bad art, there is no doubt that *a* perspective is offered. The question is *whose* perspective? And what does that perspective bring to public life and what does it exclude?

You are also tautologically correct that there is a difference between Britney (not Brittany) Spears and Beethoven. Unfortunately, yes, I would argue that it is largely a matter of taste (and power). Although we might disagree on what might replace it/them, isn’t the rise of the “consensus curator” precisely about the imposition of and/or blind adherence to, a certain taste, a taste saturated by power and the pursuit of cultural and social capital? Obviously you still believe in art’s autonomy and obviously I don’t which may be the crux of the disagreement…To you perhaps, not believing in art’s autonomy means not having any conception of art whatsoever?

You’re right, the difference between art and craft is important here, especially how the two notions are situated hierarchically within and across different social classes and cultures (if the distinction exists at all in some of them). The great variability between cultures appears to be an argument for the inextricable link between art and taste. This is doubly so if you look at how popular/low works morph into “high/fine” ones over historical stretches (See Levine’s (above) analysis of Opera’s transition to “high art” in the 19th century U.S.).
Finally regarding anthropology and art as it pertains to this discussion, James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art is crucial. See especially the essay “On Collecting Art and Culture” which address the West’s appropriation (while “searching out the origins of modern man” as you put it) of artifacts from other cultures and contextualizing them as art.

This diagram of his gives a quick and dirty guide to the fluidity of the categories as he sees them:

Thanks for actually addressing my question, albeit in a snarky, err, *** way.

I am going to skip my disagreement with what you’ve said and focus on our common ground as I’m one of those boring types “attempting to coexist peacefully” with others.

Yes tacit and explicit knowledge. I have a great deal of interest in this. I hate to be rattling off even more reading, but Polanyi’s Tacit Dimension is central here. I even wrote some sloppy blog posts on the notion:

My thinking has changed a bit as I unfortunately gave explicit knowledge a bit of the upper hand in art practice which you will immediately see is a mistake. I have become far more pragmatic (as in the actual philosophic tradition) since initially writing those posts so let me throw out some “chum” from that school for you that we can also agree on (especially with regard to your de Kooning comment):

Any idea that ignores the necessary role of intelligence in the
production of works of art is based upon identification of thinking
with use of one special kind of material, verbal signs and words.
think effectively in terms of relations of qualities is as severe a
demand upon thought as to think in terms of symbols, verbal and
mathematical. Indeed, since words are easily manipulated in mechanical
ways, the production of a work of genuine art probably demands more
intelligence than does most of the so-called thinking that goes on
among those who pride themselves on being ‘intellectuals.’
— John Dewey, Art as Experience

Amen. I would add to that – dialogue that is *only* critical and only takes place among “scholarly chroniclers” and insists that being “deep” is of utmost value, then that too is a problem.

I would take more time to address your thoughtful comments, but I have to go make jambalaya for my crew (jobs – ugh!)

*** – thanks for wanting me included. Given I’m the soft hearted, populist, egalitarian, inclusivist that you suspect me to be, it means a lot.

You seem to have one misperception though. I actually don’t care all that much to write about art and really don’t (care to) know much about it, especially the kind that makes its way into galleries. Aesthetic experience, on the other hand, I have a great interest in. Being the slacker I am writing about it is just too much work.

Allow me an analogy. I see you as an old line Catholic dispirited at the direction of the church (artworld). Angry at the Protestants (post-conceptualists, “bad” painters, etc.) and their heretical relationship to god (art). Now perhaps the consensus curators and the neo-cons are far more deviant to you. So maybe they’re more like Scientologists from your theological perspective. Maybe *** is Episcopalian – a dissenter, but still sympathetic to Rome in form at least. Come to think of it, maybe you’re more Pentecostal, wanting to throw out all of the middlemen (curators, critics, gallerists) between the believers and god. In this ridiculous analogy I would say I’m an apatheist – dismissing the very question of god (art) as irrelevant altogether (but no atheist). Now I must admit that I’m trending toward a more searching relationship with god (art) and maybe I’ll soon be a Unitarian Universalist an appropriately pluralist and personal faith for me. A faith rooted not in the formalities of dogma or ritual, but in personal experience.

So yeah, thanks but no thanks.

Damn you ***. I really thought I might get a chance to watch a romantic comedy tonight and now I find myself responding…

Don’t be so quick to assume my endorsement of solely crowdsourced criticism. My advocacy of pluralism is not a knee-jerk relativism nor is it to say that there are people’s opinions that aren’t worth more than others.

Earlier I was warning against throwing out data (the aesthetic tastes of others) too quickly. Being a pragmatist, it is also important to contextualize epistemic claims, and to weigh their effects – thus questions like what do we gain by calling something bad art? So I always look to see from what position a claim is being made and what how that claim might operate. Of course this is not just something from pragmatism. I also look to feminist theorists like Harstock (standpoint epistemology) and Haraway (situated knowledge). I swear I’m going to stop the name dropping!

To get back to the “worth” of opinions…If your car is broken you will likely trust the opinion (another way of saying a hypothesis) of your mechanic as to its underlying cause over the opinion of your dentist. The value of the mechanic’s opinion will be tested in experience (a pragmatist touchstone) when you authorize them to fix it. If they turn out to be wrong, the value of their future opinions may very well begin to “fade away” like the font mentioned above. In my example we have a relatively easy test of a problematic situation. In art criticism things get messier no? What is the problem we’re trying to solve when we turn to critical writing? Some possible problems:

1. I have a limited amount of time. Do I want to take the time to see this exhibition?
2. I saw this exhibition and I’m looking for some help making sense of what I experienced.
3. I will be unable to see this exhibition. Can someone give me a reliable account of what it was like?
4. I’m researching “x” and I need some useful thinking on it.
5. I am looking to be made aware of new and interesting things.

There are clearly more. If you break it down in this pragmatist spirit it becomes clearer to me what “quality” is and it also becomes easier to square the two notions you ask about ***. The “quality” of an idea is its usefulness in carrying one through a problematic situation (any of items 1-5 for instance). In the case of criticism, quality can largely come to mean trust – “I trust that Richard Shusterman will provide me with an analysis of a book that will serve my ends.” So *** just hasn’t found Knight all that reliable (despite being a mechanic) in assessing what’s broken with his car, so maybe he’s found that his neighbor (who is a “mere” tinkerer) has done a better job. The neighbor produces higher quality repairs. Of course if the neighbor does this just for *** and can’t do this for anyone else, then the quality is greatly diminished. Correspondingly, if the mechanic fails only ***, but satisfies most other, over time, the quality of his work will reveal itself as tested socially (see below in re: personal truth too).

There are also some forms of crowdsourcing that are better (again meaning more reliable at “solving” something problematic) than others. Amazon reviews are fine, but the structure is difficult to establish trusting (quality) relationships with reviewers. Delicious, Goodreads, and LibraryThing incorporate a social networking aspect that allows you to aggregate and follow a person’s reviews/annotations of websites and books respectively. On delicious for instance you can see everyone that has saved a particular link you find interesting and then you can look at all of their other saved links to determine if this shared interest was an aberration or if there’s a pattern of congruity (also quality). You can then add that person to your network thus adding another curatorial filter (had to make the reference).

Sooooo…one can certainly make claims about quality in my pluralist vision. it’s not the chaos you seem to imagine. It’s just that it limits one to small , not sweeping assertions. To be a properly pragmatist aesthetic populist ones claims must be fallibilistic and meliorist in spirit. The truth of a judgment is determined by a highly contextualized set of qualifiers. That truth is not merely personal however as experience is always part of a social context and will be tested over time. Let’s not forget that human culture has been crowdsourcing a very long time – that’s what capital C culture is right? the judgments of millions of people, some experts, some not coalescing around a set of ideas and practices to create legacies. It’s just that as post-colonialists, feminists, this process is suffused with power and a history of exclusions, thus the need to examine how “expertise” is determined and who is included in the process so that we know how much quality our quality truly merits versus obliges from us out of the laziness of consensus…

Sorry to the two of you still awake after reading my ramble!

I will concede the existence of masterpieces, but let’s not clink our champagne glasses just yet because I do so in the same spirit that I concede the existence of UFOs. That is, there certainly are flying objects that remain unidentified and those UFOs are real in a qualified sense. Masterpieces certainly exist in that there are cultures, and groups within those cultures that discuss and identify them. However there are cultures and groups within cultures that do not. So once again, context is of the utmost importance, you happen to be native (I think?) to a language and culture that has a (constructed) conception of the masterpiece and thus they are quite real to you and whether you accept it or not, I would argue that you have been trained to make the distinction between “schlock” as you called it and “genius.” I prefer Madonna to Bach, and given a certain set of values I can determine which is a masterpiece. The key being what values do I judge by? If you say a masterpiece is something that makes the dance floor fill up consistently and inspires dancing then Madonna’s oeuvre (you must be wincing at seeing those words next to each other) wins. In fact, she now has two decades of the evidence of her “genius.” Again, this leads me to ask though what do we gain by declaring something genius or a masterpiece beyond the emotional satisfaction of declaring our affection? Perhaps in the cause of preservation it is useful…but making these categorical proclamations seems counterproductive unless the ability to exclude some people from recognition is a desired end, which for me is not urgent at all!

Errrgh. Running out of time, so I’m not sure I said this exactly as I’d like…

“I really despise the strip mall/corporate chain mentality that says – in every city a Project Row Houses, in every syllabus a Grant Kester, in every program a critique…” – Even more stuff I said on facebook with the really challenging, thoughtful, responses removed

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 12/11/2013

The material below stemmed from this (January 2013):

Morning rant:

So, yesterday I saw a status update soliciting ideas for a social practice syllabus and it continues to blow my mind how unbelievably predictable the suggestions were. Foucault, Bishop, de Certeau, Nancy, Mouffe, Jackson, Habermas, Rosler, yadda yadda yadda…

What does it say about the state of education that there is such homogeneity? Sure, we can agree on some common/core texts,but isn’t *anyone* else suspicious about this? Can we really believe that the same laundry list of thinkers passed around from grad school syllabus to grad school syllabus enriches our understanding of social practice? Is everyone so (ahem) lazy? And how can academics otherwise inclined to be critical of universal narratives so readily agree on one for social practice? The global sameness of suburbanization is problematic, but reading (always *reading*) name brand theorists from school to school is essential?

I meet person after person in the field that have a really narrow point of reference clearly gleaned from “syllabus syndrome.” And why is it almost always readings? Or activist and art projects? Why not parents, neighbors, bakers, mechanics, baristas, programmers, bar tenders, clergy, restaurateurs? Do non-academics (that are not activists) have *anything* to offer social practice (other than as a grist mill for “collaboration”)? Should we tell folks to just read through AAAARG.org, check out the Creative Time Summit videos and call it a day?

And ultimately resulted in this: All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice syllabus – Or, an idiosyncratic “arty party” field guide to Vermont.

…being versed *academics* is part of the problem I’m trying to describe and I’m not sure I buy that social practice is not a “medium”, or conceived as such, or at least desired to be so by said academics.

“A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant, and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality and the pretence of finality in truth.” – William James on philosophy

Kaprow and Dewey (but Jane Addams would be even more instructive than Dewey)are near and dear to me (I’ve written about them incessantly), but mostly for the orientation they offer – Dewey pointing away from *school* and toward education as a way of life and away from *government* and toward democracy as a way of life. Kaprow for constantly pointing away from art and also for saying don’t look at my pointing finger!

not suggesting either/or…I very much believe in the value of theory, but only inasmuch as it *actually* clarifies practice. Too often it is regarded as an end in itself, and always threatens this when it becomes “essential” reading. And amen to looking at other cultures – I might offer that a visit to two week visit to Thailand would be as (and yes I admit my bias, I really think *more*) valuable as 15 weeks of readings and critique.

AMEN sister. Discourse is *one* thing, but often presented as the *only* thing. Starting with texts muddies those waters immediately and, I think, sends another message – the (extremely narrow) verbal-intellectual slice of human experience is all that is acceptable in the arts these days. Mystical experience? Nonsense. Emotions? Well, we can sneak those in by calling them “affect.” Love? Compassion? Humor? Cloak them in irony or make them “revolutionary” and we will abide.

Sticking with my James (I’m re-reading), social practice needs to widen the search for God [pardon in advance his gendered language] :

“In short, she widens the field of search for God. Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact – if that should seem a likely place to find him.”

I have no idea whether anything has “backfired” or not. On one hand I want say there is nothing wrong with being “comfortable” and that tying growth to discomfort is an old saw of the avant garde, but then again students *can* be outright lazy, and worse, completely ungenerous with their attention…never talking about the term social practice is probably a wise choice (and one I wish I was better at)…

I might agree ***** if I knew how to tell ahead of time whether such uncertainty was exquisite or not. Sometimes students find only fear/alienation…I have been thinking about social practice (the field) today as a building without an architect, vernacular architecture…and I see academia resisting that, wanting to bring in the professionals and make sure everything is built to code, properly licensed. I’d like to stick closer to the approaches of Freire’s and Horton’s “We Make the Road by Walking” or “Mercogliano’s Making It Up As We Go Along”…

And yes let’s not get stuck with the same old examples either. Being a hardcore localist (and anti-globalist), I am puzzled by people that appear to understand the value of such a perspective when it comes to food or retail/small business, but abandon it in the name of “cosmopolitan” education. This isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t learn from outside perspectives – but shouldn’t a San Francisco (social practice) education be distinct from a Chicago one or a NYC one? Not just in terms of faculty, but in terms of who is read and what projects are considered? I really despise the strip mall/corporate chain mentality that says – in every city a Project Row Houses, in every syllabus a Grant Kester, in every program a critique…I thought people took diversity seriously!

*Some* rural areas are conservative, and what exactly is wrong about being conservative? You seem to equate conservative with “racist, bigoted, sexist and homophobic” and that, of course is a highly contentious characterization. And if homogeneity is a problem, one would think my criticism would resonate. Obviously, we disagree about how heterogeneous the suggestions were. This would stem from my academic “privilege,” I suppose, given that there was almost nothing suggested I hadn’t seen dozens of time before. The funny thing about “privilege” though is that almost *anyone* is privileged from one perspective or another. And I find it as a rather lazy (ahem) way to try to negate someone’s point of view. You are “privileged” to have internet access so, let’s just ignore? Funnily though, my rant was directed not so much at privilege, but at a variant – exclusivity. I am in the middle of putting together a “syllabus” called “All we have to do is look around: toward a local social practice” and the first part of that title sums things up nicely. The idea that we need academic gatekeepers, curators, artists, academics, activists, etc. to understand social practice is troubling. Or rather what your criticism (thank you) and some comments above remind me of is that I need to be clearer about my “either/or” tone – I am not proposing an end to those suggestions that you find value in, but want very much to supplement it with the stuff right in front of us, beneath our feet, right where we are, by non-academics and non-artists. I want a broad, messy social practice, not just the tidy intellectual/political baubles of academe (oops fell back into that tone again – I’m working on it. I swear.).

Against (only) epistemological art – Sue Bell Yank’s The Constructivist Artwork

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/03/2013

“We must shift from a vision of intelligence, as a basically neutral cognitive ability, to a holistic vision of intelligence as an ability that nurtures the human spirit and enables a person’s full realization. Intelligence and love of life in this vision go hand in hand.” – Ramón Gallegos

“As Dewey says, ‘It is not experience which is experienced, but nature – stones, plants, animals, diseases, health, temperature, electricity, and so on.’ My valuing experience of an act of injustice as wrong is about value that I find in the same world where I also find plants and stones. To dismiss the importance of valuing in inquiry because it is merely subjective or a mere psychological reaction is to assume a dualism or to presuppose the supremacy of the theoretical standpoint in revealing what is real.” – Gregory Pappas

So much can be said about Sue Bell Yank’s post The Constructivist Artwork that it is difficult for me to address everything. Her piece is quite welcome as it raises many interesting questions. The quotes above hint at the crux of my response. Pragmatism, in many ways nullifies many of the “problems” posed by Yank. To start, the distinction between idealism and constructivism can be pragmatically useful, but the pragmatist believes that ideas are things, so they are as much a part of the world as ice cream. Pragmatism also preaches meliorism (which is essentially the belief that life can be improved) so it is not truth in any final sense that is sought, but a truth that “works.” Pragmatism, as William James describes it is “radical empiricism.” In his pragmatist version of empiricism, contra Locke, and Plato, the fact/value distinction (like so many others) dissolves. So if we apply some of these points of view to the piece by Yank, we see that she is correct that “constructivism is inevitable.” But, so is idealism, because the two epistemological nodes are part of a continuum.

This requires a holistic point of view to adequately address and leads to one of the difficulties with this piece. It suffers from a one dimensional understanding of what knowledge is and mistakes education as being solely concerned with this limited (intellectualist) notion of knowledge. As Gallegos points out above, knowledge and intelligence needn’t be the purely cognitive type of material Yanks seems to imply. She says, “But often, experiences that are novel and rich with ideas have an educational “potential” and therefore a position on how we acquire knowledge and what that body of knowledge is.” Note that she describes experiences rich with ideas. This point of view is similar to the proponents of academic standards in schools (which functions in somewhat the same way as Yank describes “museums, art spaces, and funding entities” engaging in.). It mistakes that which can be measured for that which is valuable. So I’m left with making two suggestions – one, is to expand what counts as knowledge, or two, advocate for art practices that do more than engage the mind. Holistic educators are a rich source of guidance here (see Nel Noddings, Ron Miller, etc.). Without this adjustment, we’re stuck in the art world academics want – one that cultivates their own specialist skills and interests rather than an art world that cultivates thinking, yes, but also joy, love, and the soul.

“Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment…What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.” – R.R. Reno

William James on why social practice hug sessions and other leaps of faith are not only wise but necessary – Or Why Claire Bishop is right that we need the affective in order to be effective

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 05/08/2013

The Will to Believe – William James

A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact, that would be an insane logic which should say that faith running ahead of scientific evidence is the ‘lowest kind of immorality’ into which a thinking being can fall. Yet such is the logic by which our scientific absolutists pretend to regulate our lives!

In truths dependent on our personal action, then faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.

I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him. “What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? … These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them.… In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark.… If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.… If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

Cultivating artful living – Understanding the difference between aesthetic experience and artistic experience – Scott Stroud

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/15/2013

Another great Dewey book, one that makes many points I have been trying to make…particularly, distinguishing between art and aesthetics…how do we make life artful, not – “artistic?”

John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality – Scott Stroud

“The promise of Dewey’s aesthetics is not merely in providing an airtight definition of art or a theoretical reading of the relationship between art and moral value. Instead, Dewey theorizes to meliorate or improve lived experience. The insight of Dewey’s work on art is that what makes art aesthetic is not any particular property of that particular human practice, but rather its tendency to encourage the sort of absorptive, engaged attention to the rich present that is so often lost in today’s fragmented world. The way to substantially improve our experience is not by merely waiting for the material setup of the world to change, but instead lies in the intelligent altering of our deep-seated habits (orientations) toward activity and toward other individuals. The purpose of this book is not to end debate on the relationship between art and morality, but instead to explore ways that Deweyan thought can guide us in our attempts to meliorate our orientations toward life in order to foster and recover the sense of enthralled absorption in the activities in which we are engaged. Life is always lived in some present, and it is here that the battle of life is fought; one can come armed with habits that foster engagement with that present, or one can bring in ways of viewing the here and now (be it an art object or a work task) as a mere means to achieve something in the remote future. Both of these approaches will affect and tone the quality of lived, transactive experience. Dewey’s point, which I will explore at length in this work, is that the former approach is constitutive of artful living.”

There is a mountain – Richard Shusterman on Art and Religion

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 03/28/2013

Art and Religion – Richard Shusterman

In advocating a pragmatist aesthetics I have criticized this otherworldly religion of art because of the way it has been shaped by more than two centuries of modern philosophical ideology aimed at disempowering art by consigning it to an unreal, purposeless world of imagination. Such religion, I have argued, is the enemy of pragmatism’s quest to integrate art and life, a quest exemplified both in the classical Western notion of the art of living and some Asian artistic traditions, where art is less importantly the creation of objects than the process of refining the artist who creates and the audience who absorbs that creative expression.

The conclusion that Dewey wants to draw from this, however, is that poetic imagination, with its “moral function . . . for . . . the ideals and purposes of life” (CF 13), should not be a mere playful, compartmentalized supervenience of art for art’s sake but rather a formative force in making social and public life, as well as private experience, more artistically beautiful and rewarding. In short, Dewey holds the pragmatist ideal that the highest art is the art of living with the goal of salvation in this world rather than the heaven of an afterlife.

… Zen Buddhist-style notions of art and religious practice offer a religion of immanence with no transcendental, personal God existing outside the world of creation; no eternal, personal, immaterial soul existing apart from its embodied manifestations; and no sacred world (an artworld or heaven) existing beyond the world of experienced flux. The essential distinction between the sacred and the profane (or between art and nonart) no longer marks a rigid ontological divide between radically different worlds of things but rather a difference of how the same world of things is perceived, experienced, and lived – whether artistically, with an inspiring spirit of presence and an absorbing sense of profound significance or sanctity, or instead as merely insignificant, routine banalities. Transfiguration, in such religions of immanence, does not entail a change of ontological status through elevation to a higher metaphysical realm but is rather a transformation of perception, meaning, use, and attitude. Not a matter of vertical transposition to an elevated ethereal realm, it is rather a vividness and immediacy of being in this world, of feeling the full power and life of its presence and rhythms, of seeing its objects with a wondrous clarity and freshness of vision. Consider this description of the path to transfigured insight provided by the Chinese Zen master Ch’ing Yuan of the Tang Dynasty: “Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got the very substance I am at rest. For it is just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.”

However we address these issues, one question must be faced forthwith: Were those transfigured drum cans art? Though clearly not part of the institutional artworld, they were just as obviously part of an installation work of deliberate design aimed at providing experiences that could be described as meaningful, thought-provoking, and aesthetically evocative. And the deliberative design of this installation suggests that it was obviously “about something” (a condition of meaning generally deemed necessary for art). But what, exactly, the drum cans were about is a question that has many possible answers: the powers and possibilities of meditation, the surprising uses of industrial detritus, the contrast yet continuity of nature and artifact, the question of beauty (difficult and hidden versus easy and conventional), even the meaning I eventually found in it – the immanent transfiguration of ordinary objects that could make them art without taking them out of the real world and into a compartmentalized, transcendent artworld whose objects have an entirely different metaphysical status. Such immanent transfiguration, whose meaning of enriched presence is to fuse art and life rather than suggest their essential contrast and discontinuity, is where Zen converges with pragmatist aesthetics.




Steven Fesmire – Moral Imagination

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/17/2012

“Central to Dewey’s approach is that ethics is understood as the art of helping people to live richer, more responsive, and more emotionally engaged lives.”

“…the central goal of education is nurturance of a child’s social curiosity into a communicative democratic faith.”

“Sequestering art and the aesthetic from everyday reflection, far from celebrating imagination, is a recipe for moral sterility, fragmentation, and alienation. Imagination cannot be democratic when it is ‘flat and toneless and lifeless,’ it has historically turned to radically individual pursuits, or to promotion of authoritarian control.”

[quoting Dewey] “Conversion into doctrinal teachings of the imaginative relations of life with which great moral artists have dowered humanity has been the great cause of their ossification into harsh dogmas; illuminating insight into the relations and goods of life has been lost, and an arbitrary code or precepts and rules substituted.”

“The moral production is not a dress rehearsal for a ready-made play, as it appears to be in many rule theories. Dewey’s moral stage is atypical. Scenes are actively co-authored with others and with a precarious environment. The acting is improvisational, the performances open-ended. The drama is experimental, not scripted.”

“What is most at stake in moral life is not some quantifiable pleasure or pain, but ‘what kind of person one is to become’ and what kind of world is to develop.”

“As a capacity to engage the present with an eye to what is not immediately at hand, imagination is more than a niche for fictional embellishment, as when someone has an ‘over-active imagination’ or is ‘imagining things.’ Nor is it the exclusive possession of fine artists. It is integrated with everyday life and learning.”

“Reason is embodied, evolving, and practical, and as such it is subject to physical, conceptual, and historical constraints. Further, reasoning is contingent upon perspectives and is characterized by an educated aesthetic response that can emerge from trust in a situation’s potentialities.”

[quoting Peirce] “Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”

“…pragmatist ethics urges that moral reflection must begin where all genuine inquiry begins: in media res, with tangle of lived experience. Dewey in particular argued that moral deliberation is not disembodied cerebration…but is a form of engaged inquiry touched off by an uncertain situation.”

– Steven Fesmire in John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics