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some thoughts on aesthetics (2) : “contemplation”

This post is the second part in a series, sharing some of my thoughts and investigations on aesthetics. Click here for a link to Part 1.

I talked in my last post about Anthony Gormley’s Another Place, and how the figures on the sands at Crosby seem to be cut off from the world. Gormley refers to this private “other place”, or “the darkness of the body” as “a human place of possibility”. It seems to me that he is reaching for solace through this piece of work, and I ended my last piece by saying that I would try to investigate that thought.

Gormley’s work seems to belong to the kinds of art works which are specifically inviting us into a state of “contemplation”. There are several aspects of the structure of the work which suggest that he is doing this quite intentionally.

Firstly, Another Place includes, as part of its structure, the whole beach and the passage of people in and through it. The artist describes the figures in the landscape as creating a “field”. The viewer, first experiences the figures’ fixedness, their stillness. This is through perceiving a contrast with the transient environment of moving people, and passage of time, ships, weather and waters. Siri Hustvedt helps us with understanding how this impression of stillness might work in us, in her writing on the neurological or psychological processes of visual perception, where she says that:

“Anne Treisman, a scientist studying perception, has proposed a sequence for visual perception – a pre-attentive process: we are quickly able to scan a scene when elementary properties such as colour, brightness, or an orientation of lines are present that make it possible for us to distinguish figure from ground…. Pre-attentive vision encodes qualities such as colour, orientation, size, and motion. It is then followed by an attentive process which proceeds serially and more slowly.”

Siri Hustvedt (2012) Living, thinking, looking : 236

In other words, the identification of figures and motion happens unconsciously – so the stillness of the figures is experienced at the level of an immediate feeling when we encounter the work.

And secondly, at a conscious level, the figures prompt the viewer to an outwards “contemplation”, by their orientation to the horizon; drawing attention away from everyday concerns or desires, out to the wide sea. Jeanette Winterson writes about a similar work by Gormley very positively, saying that it pushes her out of herself, makes her pay attention to things around her, and to the act of perception itself:

“Stand where they stand, look where look, what do you see? Looking is an act of renewal. What have you really looked at today? What did you notice? Art slows us down because we have to stop and spend time with it.”

Winterson (2017) Why Antony Gormley’s iron men are broadening our horizons. The Guardian.

Jeanette Winterson is right that this kind of prompting and slowing down is a good thing. But I do not find solace in this work overall (if that is what Gormley intends to offer). I find it very difficult to get past these human figures that are set out as fixed points, distanced from one another and from their world (and I just plain don’t like it that they are all of one body type, one man stamping himself out again and again). The work, especially in its reliance on this idea of contemplation, reads as an illustration of the work of Immanuel Kant on aesthetics, which I am not alone in finding problematic.

I’m going to rely on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to help me here with understanding and relaying something of Kant’s work. Kant published his Critique of Judgment in 1790. In it, he discusses what he thinks happens when a person makes a judgment of beauty based on pleasure:

“The pleasure… is of a distinctive kind: it is disinterested, which means that it does not depend on the subject’s having a desire for the object, nor does it generate such a desire.”

Ginsborg(2013) Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology: 2.1, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Kant says that the pleasure of “disinterested contemplation” of beauty comes from the “free play” of imagination and judgement. And he thinks that to the extent that different people share and agree on pleasure in beauty (and he thinks that we do, that there are universal experiences or standards of beauty), this is evidence that human minds are similarly structured. “Disinterested contemplation” is therefore a key idea, because it is the idea which can open the way to a common moral life and shared values based in freedom:

“Kant describes the faculty of judgment as bridging “the great gulf” between the concept of nature and that of freedom … making clear that it is not only judgment in the context of empirical scientific enquiry, but also aesthetic judgment, which plays this bridging role.”

Ginsborg(2013) Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology: 2.8, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

It is Kant’s hugely influential thinking which, above all, has given us our familiar image of a passive viewer of art. The person who stands and contemplates the formal properties of a beautiful object, independent of values (moral judgement), ideas or emotion, and somehow standing outside of history, ethics and politics.

It may help to remember that Kant’s overall project is not so much concerned with art or beauty as ideas in themselves, he worked to promote the elevation of ‘reason’ as our highest capacity. Speaking in an essay about Kant’s ethics and his aesthetics, Iris Murdoch says that his aim was to show that :

“In so far as we are rational and moral we are all the same, and in some mysterious sense transcendent to history.”

Irsi Murdoch (1997) Existentialists and Mystics : Writings on Philosophy and Literature: p.214

And she offers this insight :

“Kant is afraid of the particular. He is afraid of history.”

Iris Murdoch (1997) Existentialists and Mystics : Writings on Philosophy and Literature: p.214

And perhaps we are all afraid of history, and perhaps rightly so. But oddly, history has also taught us this one thing : that we are none of us transcendent to history. The past is always here with us, in the room.

There are strong currents taking contemporary art off of the path of ideas that separates out art from history, ethics and politics, and I think for good reason. The Arte Útil book “Toward a lexicon of usership”, for example, criticises the widespread idea of “spectatorship” in the discourse of aesthetics, and in conventions of display of contemporary art (and I think that “spectatorship” here is a close relative of “contemplation”). The lexicon claims that although “disinterested spectatorship” has been and remains extraordinarily influential and long-lasting, a paradigm shift is “well underway” in which “spectatorship” is being replaced by “usership”. I’ll return to some of these approaches and discussions in a later series of posts.

Perhaps we can summarise for today by saying that although Kant arguably wanted to show us an image of ourselves, through reason, stepping out of history and its tangles, and wanted to locate what is moral outside of the messiness of the particular; there are others who actively reject this view, and take an alternative approach. We’ll start to look at those directions in my next posts in this series.

Sources, & resources for further research and reading:

Ginsborg, H. (2013) Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-aesthetics/

Gormley, A. (1997) Another Place [Sculpture / Installation]. Crosby Beach, Sephton Metropolitan Borough Council.

Gormley, A. (2012) Sculpted Space, within and without: http://ted.com/talks/antony_gormley_sculpted_space_within_and_without

Hustvedt, S.(2012) Living, thinking, looking. London, Hodder & Stoughton.

Murdoch, I. (1997) Existentialists and Mystics : Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London : Penguin.

Winterson, J. (2017) “Why Antony Gormley’s iron men are broadening our horizons”. The Guardian. 3 March. Available at https://theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/mar/03/why-antony-gormleys-new-iron-men-are-broadening-our-horizons

Wright, S. (2013) Toward a Lexicon of Usership. Available at : (https://www.arte-util.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Toward-a-lexicon-of-usership.pdf)

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