aesthetic theory

From: Bernard Roddy (email suppressed)
Date: Sun May 06 2007 - 10:02:03 PDT

Liam Dale's request for reading on aesthetic theory is one of those wonderfully simple stumpers. I picture an undergraduate pursuing lines of thought not necessarily prescribed by course readings. Jack Sargent mentions several excellent writers, but for aesthetics? I am in teacher mode here . . .
  Suppose we start with sections out of a couple of introductory textbooks. Henry Sayre's A World of Art, one of those glossies used heavily in hundred's of humanities programs, has chapters on line, space, light & color, and the "Principles of Design"). Let's then read the comparable textbook in film, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art, which has a chapter on the "Significance of Film Form" and a section of a chapter on "Experimental Film." These comprise our formalist readings.
  J. Hoberman's "After Avant-Garde Film" appears in Art after Modernism (1984), edited by Brian Wallis and Marcia Tucker. Here we confront a comparatively dismissive tone toward our great experimental film history's aesthetics. Something's awry.
  But let's turn to art history, a discipline that has undergone a traumatic rethinking of its own project. In Heinrich Wolfflin's Principles of Art History (originally 1915, Dover, 1950) the love of the aesthetic in painting is palpable. Wolfflin discerns in the history of painting between 1400 and about 1700 a linear or draughtsmanly vision and a painterly one (painterly even in drawings). He compares compositions that are planar with ones that are recessional. And you can really see it! He's right. Another beautiful meditation I ran across (thank God for used and independent bookstores!) is Michael Podro's Depiction (Yale, 1998). Chapter 1 is titled "Sustaining Recognition," and in it he examines the relationship between our recognition of what is represented in a painting, print, or sculpture and the material qualities of surfaces and techniques that we have to see past. I thought this was very cool.
  So what's wrong with aesthetics? Why can't we just keep doing that? It felt so good! Here it will be most useful to switch medium's again. It seems to me to be with the rise of photography (and cultural developments associated with it) that things get troublesom, and film is, after all, successive photographs. Someone mentioned Rosalind Krauss, and I would recommend at this juncture two essays she includes in her book, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1986). The first is the essay after which the book is titled, the other is "Photography's Discursive Spaces." Along with these let's read Douglas Crimp's essay, "The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism," published in October 15 (1980) and reprinted in a collection on postmodernism that I forgot the title of. Reading these essays on photography one senses that the terms are coming from other disciplines, that we can no longer talk about representation without choosing a discourse from
 another discipline. You begin to feel a bit out of the loop. (What else is new!)
  So, being rather out of line already, why not seek out the bad dogs and academic miscreants? For the aesthetic taste, there's always Dave Hickey. In a little pamphlet called The Invisible Dragon ('93) he tries to defend the importance of beauty in Mapplethorpe's maligned photographs. He knows he is in poor taste in post-whatever academic circles, he identifies with the shop keeper who has to turn over stock, and he'll relish showing up at the wrong parties to predict the return of beauty.
  But suppose that in the meantime we have joined up with organizations like Amnesty International, participated in a couple of protests over the draconian laws against migrant workers and the like, and we are trying to figure out how the hell anyone can afford to make a film today. Suppose we start dabbling in books like Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather or we read an essay by bell hooks. We're totally out of control now, and we need new ideas with which to talk about aesthetics. The art historian Keith Moxey published a short but dense book in '94 called The Practice of Theory. In his Introduction he lays out the theoretical groundwork for a complaint against an art historical focus on aesthetics. He's way out there and gettin' political, but he's still pretty coherent, his style is still accessible.
  And since Liam has proven so game for adventure, why stick with art and film? Another writer who, admittedly, makes a lot of references to people you may not have read, but who still stays within a familiar writing style you can follow, is Andreas Huyssen, whose book After the Great Divide ('86) includes chapters titled "The Hidden Dialectic: Avantgarde - Technology - Mass Culture" and "The Search for Tradition: Avantgarde and Postmodernism in the 1970s." Huyssen covers literature as well as art history, and like Krauss and Crimp introduces some reservations about Modernism and the Avantgarde. This is way cool, because anytime something pompous gets exposed it means more fun for us - and more opportunities to make a connection between the way we live and the art we make.

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