Wednesday, 12 December 2012

"Hey Guys, Look At This!"

I was listening to a "Philosophy Bites" episode earlier (they're podcasts, lasting 15-odd minutes, with Nigel Warburten (until recently, a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the OU) interviewing a working philosopher on a particular topic, and discussing it at the layman's level. They can't possibly deal with all the complexities of a particular philosophical issue in 15 minutes, but they give a good overview and some insight into a single, specific issue each episode. I enjoy them, I find they remind me of the philosophy that I love, and I feel like they could be enjoyable to those who don't have a formal education in philosophy but do have an instinctual warmth toward it (such as, though he tries to pretend it ain't so, my fella).

In these posts, I'm not even going to manage a "bite" - I want these posts to be quick and dirty - but I do want to put down my own thoughts on a topic. So these make no pretence at being rigourous arguments, or even a real defence. It's very simply a smidge of background (if that), my own perspective and a brief explanation of why that's my perspective. That really is it. I'm gonna call it a "nibble" :-)


Nigel spoke to Derek Matravers about art: "What is art? Can anything be a work of art?"

Derek mentioned Duchamp's Urinal as being a critical piece in challenging philosophy's existing conception of what art is; he also mention Emin's Unmade Bed and Hirst's shark in formaldehyde (a piece which I cannot pretend to know the title of, and I ain't looking it up right now). These pieces were not created by the artist in order to cause pleasure in the viewer on account of the beauty of the piece, which was the pre-existing conception of art (as in Monet's or Rembrandt's work). Derek suggested the notion that something is art if the "art world" called it such (giving a broad definition of the "art world", such that if someone claims to be an artist then they are). But he referenced a counterargument that, even if that were so, it's an empty claim - if what makes something art is that an artist says it is, then there must be a reason why they call that thing art and not other things, and the reason why they called it art is the interesting thing here, not simply the bald fact that it has thus been named.

Derek counters that there are many reasons why people call something art, just as there are many reasons people get married (but "they have been through the process of getting married, and the marriage has not for any reason ended" is still a satisfactory definition of who we do call married). Yeah... but I think there is a common thread in why people - artists - call something art. The "hey guys, look at this" of the title.

I think when someone calls something art, they are saying that it is worth looking at (if physical art), or listening to, or whatever, and focusing one's full attention on, for more than just the time it takes to evaluate it. It's an item worthy of consideration because it is expected to produce in the observer an emotional or cerebral reaction (usually some of each). It should be, in some way, surprising. It should be inspiring - but it doesn't necessarily have to inspire simple pleasure (in fact, pleasure alone may not be enough to admit it in my eyes; anything that is insipid, that is too cheaply commercial, though it may be enjoyable in the moment, is not art if it does not inspire deeper consideration).

By this definition:
Mad Men is sometimes art. There is one episode (set in California) in which Don is approaching a swimming pool, and I've often paused watching it and considered that shot for a moment, struck by Don in his suit - a patch of grey surrounded by lush colour. I could pick other times also - Joan's rape, for example - but I don't want to spend too much time on this. I think the famous pace of Mad Men - it's as packed with plot as many soaps, but the pace of each scene tends to feel leisurely - gives the viewer to reflect more deeply on what they are seeing, and gives the show time to inspire. By contrast, I would say that, say, Hollyoaks, is seldom art.

Jackson Pollock's paintings, so I hear (I'm sorry to say I've yet to see one physically) stop many people in their tracks and take their breath away. So: art.

However, the "modern art" so often hung in restaurants and coffee shops to make them feel less soulless, but not challenging or inspiring the observer - background stuff, muzak or dance music, tables to put your mug down on and demanding no further thought, entreating no deeper appreciation - these things are not "art" according to the definition that I am proposing.

I guess this is the cause of my antipathy for poetry - to my mind, it's self-indulgent and pretentious. However, it clearly is inspiring to others, so it ought to be considered art and I must name myself a philistine with regard to it, rather than deny its worth.

And yes, by this definition, I do consider that an idea, an argument, a mathematical proof, may be art also.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Some random thoughts on relying on others to validate your reality.

I've really come to recognise in the past couple of years how much I value being able to check in with my friends. How often I go to certain specific ones and say "This happened and I thought this..." or "I feel this..." or "I'm considering doing this..."

" that ok? Normal? Human?" being the implicit question to that. I'm seeking validation on my own perspective.

And I know that (or I feel that) I do this more than the people around me seem to. I dunno, mayhaps I'm comparing my insides to their outsides and labelling what I do one way and when they do it, I call it  "conversation". I know at least one very close friend who uses me for this function (which I'm extremely happy to perform).

I do think, though, that doing this to some extent is a fundamental part of human socialisation. We watch what others are saying and doing to tell us what we should be saying and doing. Hell, I use this tendency at work - the students at my school are trained to stand behind their desks until invited to sit, but they've yet to be trained that I always 100% expect that, so typically 1-2 will forget and sit down. And I will look at them and wait for them to look at me or around the room and jump back up again.

Asch (1951) had a bunch of folk in a room, showed them a question with a clear answer, and had several stooges give the same, wrong answer before the participant was reached. And the participant would go along with it. Because that's what we do. What I'd be really interested in is whether the participant actually distrusted their own reality in that circumstance.

It reminds me of two things. I'm only going to discuss one here - the other's the focus of its own post at some point.

I used to be friends with a woman. We met at the very beginning of doing the same double-major university course. She gave me a Hell of a lot of guidance on social interaction... I think. I feel like she did. I'd never felt particularly socially competent before I knew her and she certainly gave me lots of instruction. I valued her opinion massively. I don't clearly recall ever having other friends [I did when we both had semesters abroad, seperately - I had several friends just for those few short months]. I think I had it in my head that I didn't need other friends, if I had her. I was extremely attached to her, and I know that I put her on a pedestal. I had a view of her as extremely socially astute, and extraordinarily good at telling what others were thinking or feeling. 

So when, 3 years ago, she started saying that I was acting in a way that indicated that I didn't respect her, I had some serious cognitive dissonance. Because I didn't think that I did respect her less... but if she said that it was so, then how could it not be? I spent a lot of time and emotional energy trying to unpack my feelings towards her. In the meantime, the arguments that we'd always had were getting to be a higher proportion of our conversations (these arguments were always overlaid strongly with a sense that I didn't know the way out of this conversation. That I didn't know what to say to make things better). And, for the first time, I had LOTS of friends that weren't her. Intimate friends, friendly acquaintances and everything in-between. I was getting along better with my family than I ever had before. I was having dozens of conversations every day, and never feeling that trapped, "what the hell do I say now?" feeling that I did with her. My disagreements with friends were civil. My boundaries were respected.

She said, on a trip we took to Bristol together at this time, that there were so many things that she "wasn't allowed" to talk about with me. That I would cry if she wasn't careful enough about what she could say.

I cried a lot in my friendship with her.

She'd always said that she didn't have these kinds of arguments with anyone else in her life. For the first time, I was able to say: I have lots of friends who I talk to about lots of things, and neither do I!

And, in truth, I do have some arguments. I remember one with a girl I was friends with my one year in junior college. I remember a few I had with a friend when I was in teacher training - the friend who looked at me with distrust when I said my hair needs washing daily, who said that she doesn't believe that men can be expected to stop having sex partway through at their partner's request. I've certainly had several with my boyfriend. But in none of them did I feel like there must, somewhere, be an invisible hoop that I need to jump through for this to be over.

Maybe I'm making it sound worse than it was. I found a lot about the friendship deeply rewarding. She was the first person I found that I could have abstract, philosophical discussions with (and I crave that). We enjoyed a lot of the same things. She was important to me.

But then maybe the friendship was always fucked up and unhealthy.

My point is: I'm never going to know now. My memories are too scattered and too weak (from my POV) to deconstruct the entire affair. I don't have a third party to check in with. And I'm out of contact with her now - likely permanently - so I couldn't ask her if I wanted to. I'm never going to get that information, and I have to deal with that lack.

But I can say, with sureness, that I am the ultimate arbiter of what I am thinking and feeling and what I have thought and felt.

Was her life off-course from what she wanted, three years ago? Yes.
Was my life going suspiciously well? Yes.
Did I respect her less at that time?