Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Criticism and Enjoyment

Is there any reason to think that one should find no entertainment at all, no possible aesthetic enjoyment, in those things or events that one would, under consideration, judge to be aesthetically unimpressive, of lower quality, or otherwise minor? Is it a principle of aesthetic rationality, of aesthetic game-playing or aesthetic-discourse, that I cannot at the same time judge X to be crass and yet enjoy it? I think the answer to these questions is a clear NO. Let me explain why by fixing up some aesthetic machinery. First come the moving parts.

Livelihood: there is no such thing as an object that is not, in any sense, enjoyable. Reality is made out of objects, one may suppose. And these may be either external or internal. And all that is need for a subject to derive pleasure from something is that there be such thing. All objects have their own livelihood.

Pretending: there is no such thing as an aesthetic judgment that is not part of some or other game of fiction making. Aesthetic properties, I will suppose, are not natural properties but, rather, properties we ascribe to objects as part of this or that game of fiction making. We presuppose that there is some such thing as beauty, and so we talk about it, just as we do with Santa and Hamlet. And so we may distinguish among degrees of it, approaches to it, and failures at getting at it.

Enjoying: there is no such thing as an object that is intrinsically enjoyable or pleasant. To derive pleasure form something consists in enacting a particular mental process involving beliefs, desires, predictions, and imaginings. To enjoy X is to take X to play a central role in this process, to somehow be the relevant object of our predictions, imaginings, beliefs and desires. All we need to enjoy X is to properly square our beliefs, desires, predictions and imaginings concerning X. It may be difficult to do it for some objects, as it may be difficult to change certain beliefs and or desires concerning some such object. But it is always possible.

Now, the mechanics. We judge things or events aesthetically first and foremost because we want to play a given game of property ascription. The fact that the properties are produced by our imagination doesn't preclude the ascriptions from having rules. Nothing can be both beautiful and awful for the same reason in the same context. Just like nothing can be green and red at the same spot and at the same time. This game is played seriously, sometimes too seriously. For the game to make sense, we are also forced to give reasons. We can't just go on making aesthetic claims, that wouldn't be like playing a game, but rather like simply utteraing a sequence of sounds.

I'm convinced that Bela Tar's "Damnation" is a beautiful film. I believe, in fact, that it is one of the best films, better than most other films I love. I believe it is because it has powerful, clear, yet non-obvious narrative; it has a very carefully coreographed cinematography where every single ray of light is skillfully predicted by the camera; it involves an amazing set of actors capable of becoming the representation of their characters; and it makes a strong moral and aesthetic point while taking care of all that I mentioned before. It is for these reasons, as one would like to put it, that I believe "Damnation" is a beautiful film.

If you ask me, I'd say all of Schwarzenegger's films are crap right next to "Damnation". And I am expected to give some kind of reasoning parallel to the one above to substantiate such claim.

Yet there's no such thing as an aesthetically dead object. For livelihood is true, and enjoying too. Thus, it is simply not true that Schwarzenegger's films simply cannot be enjoyed in any sense. It is not true, that no one can derive pleasure from, say, "Terminator Two". That is plainly false. Does this show that I am wrong in judging that Schwarzenegger's films are crap?

I don't think so. They are, and will remain, crap. There's some or other peculiar idea behind them. But the idea is not proeprly developed. The narrative depends highly on generating emotions by means of aesthetically cheap (yet financially costly) mediums involving special effects. They do the imagining for us. That's a down side aesthetically speaking. The cinematography is planned, but not a goal. And so on, and so forth.

How can I, at the same time, judge X to be crap and still admit that I can enjoy it? Easily: all we need to do is understand the distinction between livelihood and deriving pleasure, between criticism and enjoyment. One thing is to aesthetically judge an object a whole other thing is to be involved in an imaginative process with that object. The former is a higher order form of fiction making, the latter is a more direct form of playing. The former gives an account of the latter, it prescribes (or intends to prescribe) something about it. The latter, the enjoyment, is something that can simply, and always, happen.

Should we aim at taking our judgments to inform our enjoyments? There is, on the view here presented, no need to do this. You can enjoy "Terminator" (or any other "Hollywood" film for that matter) even though you're convinced it's crap. Some, however, may find some comfort in the thought that there are, as a matter of fact, aesthetic properties and that objects, as a matter of fact, have or lack such properties. Most of the time such individuals will try hard at creating or describing intrinsically beautiful objects. Thus, they will be willing to take their judgments to not be part of any kind of pretense and, hence, to inform their aesthetic abilities (i.e., their ability to enjoy something). But wishful thinking has never achieved more than self-indulgence. To hope that aesthetic properties are objective properties won't make it so. And to expect that only some objects will be pleasant and not others won't do either. At most, these attitudes will be projections, not the expression of truths. They are, I believe, signs of aesthetic arrogance.

Sometimes it's good to enjoy crap. It's a nice exercise in intellectual relaxation. A good way to avoid becoming a snob.