Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Aesthetic vs. The Profane: Our Judgements of Value

A while ago I had the opportunity to get to know a bus driver named Ron. For eight hours a day he drove a city bus and when ever I rode the bus home I got to talk to him, usually about how his day was going, but occasionally he would spot a large tour bus and he would begin to talk about his dream job of driving a tour bus from state to state. I never knew how beautiful a tour bus could be until I met Ron.

My experience with Ron demonstrates a principle of philosophy that governs the field of Aesthetics. In aesthetics we learn that a person's opinion of beauty reveals their judgments of value. In other words, what we consider to be beautiful we also consider to be of great value. Furthermore our value judgments are derived from our ethics, which simply put is a system of beliefs or rules that we use to determine whether or not something is good or bad, and to what degree. When we apply these personal and social rules to things that are not intended for sustaining life, but to improving the quality of it, we are creating or participating in Aesthetics, or art.

When we make these value judgments and determine something to be good we set it apart from the rest of the world to emphasize the fact that we value it more than other things. This action of setting apart can be done through language, such as Ron pointing out and talking about a tour bus, or by actions, such as framing and displaying a painting. While this setting apart can be done in many ways, it is always what we value most we set apart, and call art.

With this understanding we can look at what people call art in order to understand their system of values. This idea is not new and can be expressed in many ways, such as "You can learn a lot about a man based on art he buys." or "You can tell what someone is like by looking at what songs they have on their iPod." It is precisely for this reason the contents of President Bush's iPod became national news a few years ago. People were interested because they considered it a "window to his soul", or a way of finding out about what he values the most.

When this special separation takes place between art and the rest of the world, the rest of world, by definition becomes common and is purposefully excluded from "art". Also, to go to the other extreme, if something is considered "bad" and in our value judgment is deemed to have negative value (as opposed to merely neutral value) then that thing is considered to be vulgar or profane. Again this goes back to our ethics and what we consider to have positive value, no value or negative value. If something has positive value in our system of ethics, or morals, then it is singled out as having aesthetic value or is called art. If it has neutral value then it is called common and is largely ignored. If it has negative value then it is labeled as vulgar or profane.

This idea becomes particularly interesting when we observe works of "art" on display. This idea is not lost on artists and as a matter of fact they frequently use it to make their art more powerful. If an artist exhibits something that has high moral or ethical worth to a viewer then the viewer will respond positively and will express their appreciation or consent to the art. If the object of art has little or no value then the viewer will ignore the art, and finally if it has negative value then the viewer will exhibit a negative reaction and the "art" will be considered offensive.

Again this idea is frequently used by the media when they display pictures in news stories or show footage of events. If a media organization want to show the effects of war, they would rather show a picture of someone crying after having their home destroyed than show a picture of someone passively looking on as neighbors clean up a destroyed home. The reason why they choose to show certain pictures is because they want to maximize the moral or ethical response from their readers or viewers. The reason why this works is because in our common moral system someone crying has greater negative moral or ethical value than someone passively standing by. So while it may not produce the same effect from everyone, it will produce a strong effect in more people, thus they use it.

If we continue along this line of thought we can discover a lot about the moral and ethical system that people operate under by observing how they respond to artistic or aesthetic objects. One example that I came across recently was in a news paper article. The article dealt with a piece of performance art where the performer used "explicit language". One audience member who was interviewed by a reporter responded to the performance by saying, "because she didn't use [explicit language] throughout the entire presentation--only the performance--it really was art." Herein lies an interesting phenomena prevalent in our modern society. Something usually considered vulgar or profane, is inserted into a "work of art" and rather than be rejected because of the mixing of the profane with the aesthetic, the "art" is accepted and applauded for its "brilliance". This example demonstrates a facet of the moral or ethical rules that some people live by. This concept which I am about to explain is in no way new, and has been used many times throughout history, in many different ways, but it is important to point out so that we may understand what some people value which forms a basis of their "moral system".

As I mentioned above about the devices used by the media, there is a school of artistic and ethical thought that wants to maximize the emotional response of the participants. They have found that the easiest way to do this is to insert something with negative moral or ethical value in to something that should have positive, or even just neutral, value. The media uses this device to "shock" their readers or viewers so that they experience an emotional response. In modern art this is frequently used to justify the insertion or displaying of some rather vulgar, crude and offensive objects. The "artists" realize that some of their audience will be offended by these things and thus for them that offense has high moral and ethical value. In other words, the artists value the fact that they are offending someone. In segregating their works of art from the rest of the world and displaying them, the greatest value does not come from the object in and of itself, as it was with Ron considering a tour bus to be beautiful, but rather in the fact that they are shocking and offending someone.

Their object in all of this is to take something that is morally offensive and try to convince their audience that what they consider vulgar or profane should be classed as artistic or of great worth. When these artists get enough people to agree with them then they can change the common set of rules that we use to determine what is good and what is bad. They are in effect changing, or in some cases removing all together, the moral systems of our society. At this point I should say that changing one's moral system, in and of itself is not bad, any more than walking is inherently bad. But when this change leads us away from a stable, secure and peaceful life to one filled with confusion, doubt and despair, then these changes are destructive and in the truest sense of the word cannot be considered moral.

When these changes take place they are quite often taken haphazardly and without regard to a person's or society's complete moral system. These haphazard changes quite often result in inconsistencies in one's moral system or fallacies of logic in one's manner of thinking. These mistakes or errors can be corrected, but all too often when they are pointed out they only lead to resentment and bad feelings. Unfortunately these feelings of resentment, offense and hatred also have negative moral value and thus it is considered offensive, or even profane, to suggest that someone has an error in their moral system. Thus to compensate, those that allow for a flawed moral system must assign a negative moral value to any attempt to correct their moral system. This way of thinking is dangerous and difficult because then that person that structures their moral system to give value to contradictions, must preserve and protect their system from the criticism of others while actively trying to insert contradiction into other's moral systems.

But if we have a moral system that does not allow for contradiction, that does not allow the insertion of the vulgar or profane in the place of the aesthetic, then that system needs no defense, because the system itself is sufficient to prevent the destructive influence of contradictory or degrading material. With a self-consistent moral system our moral and ethical aptitude can only increase as we continuously learn how to apply our good morals to our experiences and existence. When we apply a self-consistent moral system to our daily lives, where we work to sustain life, we can then increase the quality of our lives, by introducing truly aesthetic art into our lives so that we can appreciate that which we value the most.

1 comment:

James Tanner said...

Great analysis and good writing too. Thanks for all the time you spent thinking about this topic.