You are on page 1of 8

Joshua Stika Final Paper PHI 223 Phenomenological and Hegelian Aesthetics Among cultural conversations, the question

of what art is seems to be a perennial puzzle. Once a definition is reached, a new work of art throws it into doubt. Marcel Duchamps readymades caused such confusion and controversy in the early twentieth century. His most notorious work is a urinal that he signed and put in an art exhibition, titling it Fountain. Among contemporary philosophies, Hegel and phenomenology offer two accounts of what art is. Both philosophies define art primarily as a mode of cultural expression. Using Duchamps Fountain as a case study for controversial purported works of art, this essay will look at both aesthetic theories definition of art and apply these two theories in determining whether Fountain is indeed a work of art. A brief introduction to phenomenology is necessary in order to understand the phenomenological approach to aesthetics. Phenomenology as a philosophical movement was founded by Edmund Husserl at the beginning of the twentieth century. It deals with appearances and how the mind understands objects in the world. The core doctrine of phenomenology is known as intentionality. Basically, each act of consciousness is directed toward, correlated with, an object. Consciousness is consciousness of something.1 With the conscious mind apprehending and knowing things outside itself, phenomenology shows that the mind is public and able to interact with the world outside it. This stands in opposition to Cartesian, Hobbesian, and Lockean traditions of modern philosophy, which state that the mind is isolated. They conceive the mind as existing in a box, and its awareness it directed toward impressions and concepts occur[ing] in this enclosed space.2 Consequently, one cannot know of anything

1 2

Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 8-9 Ibid., 9.

Stika 2 beyond the mind except by making reasoned inferences based on ones internal concepts. This egocentric conception of the mind results in a predicament when experience shows that minds can indeed interact with the world outside itself. It is this predicament that phenomenology answers. Additionally, it is important to note, for aesthetics, that phenomenology distinguishes between two attitudes when the mind interacts with the world. First is the natural attitude, which is simply ordinary life in the world. It is when people are caught up with the various things in the world.3 There is also the phenomenological attitude, which is where philosophical analysis takes place. To enter the phenomenological attitude, also called the transcendental attitude, one suspends his beliefs and observes the world as an onlooker. A phenomenological approach to aesthetics uses this perspective. In his set up of a phenomenological aesthetic theory, Brough surveys the traditional approach to aesthetics, which phenomenology seeks to correct. Traditional aesthetics has been a Platonic search for a timeless essence which is usually identified with some prominent feature of the art of a particular period.4 Once the essential feature has been discovered, the philosopher is then tempted to wield his discovery, this single essential feature, to judge individual works as art or not. Becoming such a philosophical dictator is what Brough argues against when proposing a phenomenological approach.5 Additionally, Brough notes that traditional objectivist aesthetics do not see the artist consciously interacting with the world as phenomenology does. Rather, they see a creative process within a kind of Cartesian self.6 The work of art is actually in the mind of the artist. The external work is a redundant manifestation

3 4

Ibid., 42. John Barnett Brough, Art and Artworld: Some Ideas for a Husserlian Aesthetic, in Edmund Husserl and the Phenomenological Tradition: Essays in Phenomenology, ed. Robert Sokolowski (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 28. 5 Ibid., 32. 6 Ibid., 31.

Stika 3 of the real artistic event, which is locked away within the artists self.7 This is a manifestation of the very egocentrism that phenomenology opposes. Phenomenology naturally asserts that the artistic process is an instance of intentionality, with the outside world fully engaged by the mind. To this traditional method, Brough recommends a change in approach. Brough asserts that traditional aesthetics has taken place in the natural attitude, along with all creating, displaying, appreciating, studying, and criticizing of art.8 A true philosophical study of art must take place in the transcendental attitude; the philosopher must be detach[ed]from the plane of ordinary life in the world.9 This attitude allows one to focus on how the work of art presents itself as a work of art in experience, instead of focusing on a work of art itself.10 Additionally, the phenomenological approach is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Brough observes that a work of art presents itself as an artifact; it is something that has been made. Being an artifact is an essential feature of art. Brough specifies that artifactuality is a status rather than a property that is achieved through human activity.11 It cannot be conferred by convention or context. Additionally, an artifact is something that is presented. This may not be obvious, as with the making of realistic representations of things in nature. Also, a work of art must also be made out of something sensible. The work must be sensible itself. Finally, not all artifacts are works of art, though all works of art are artifacts.12 The difference between artifacts that are works of art and artifacts that are not is the horizon in which the work of art appears. Brough uses Arthur Dantos term artworld to

7 8

Ibid., 31. Ibid., 29. 9 Ibid., 30. 10 Ibid., 30. 11 Ibid., 33. 12 Ibid., 35.

Stika 4 describe the horizon in which works of art are presented. The artworld is the background or framework in which an artifact can achieve the status of art.13 An artifact can only be a work of art when it is made and presented within the artworld. It is the cultural horizon of the artworld that confers the status of art to a work.14 The artworld consists of a community of roles. Primarily, there are the roles of the artist and the public experiencing the work. There are also curators, collectors, critics, and art historians who facilitate the presentation of art.15 The artworld is community-oriented in that the artist must consider the public, critics, and other artists. The artist may resent this and desire isolation, but he is bound to define his solitary activity in terms of its connection with the activities of others.16 The artworld is also dependent on history. Brough describes traditions as becom[ing] sedimented when they arise.17 Traditions are taken and transformed as they are handed down. Therefore, the artistic present emerges from the artistic past. The artworlds history is necessary for artistic innovation. Brough also notes that works of art often reference things in the life-world, that is, ordinary life.18 Such references may even profoundly constitute the meaning of an individual work of art, but these references are not necessary for a works status as art. Additionally, the materials and instruments used to make art are provided by the life-world. With such overlap of the artworld with the life-world, works of art are not hermetically sealed from other aspects of life.19 Works of art may associate with the cultural worlds of religion, morality, politics, technology, science, and others. However, if a work of art did not relate to other cultural

13 14

Ibid., 35. Ibid., 36. 15 Ibid., 36. 16 Ibid., 37. 17 Ibid., 39. 18 Ibid., 42. 19 Ibid., 42.

Stika 5 horizons, it would not be deprived of its status as art. The artworld is the only necessary cultural horizon. Finally, Brough suggests that the purpose of art is contemplation. A work of art, despite any other purposes it may have, is presented in order to be looked at, listened to, and so on by an audience.20 It is presented for contemplation. Although Brough refers to a sort of basic observation, this point on contemplation provides a link to G.W.F. Hegels theory of art. Like phenomenology, Hegels theory corresponds to a specific philosophical system. Hegels system is structured and conceives the universe as rational and harmonious.21 For Hegel, art provides a perception of what is godlike.22 Contemplation of art reveals truth: what is unconditionally true.23 Hegel sees art as a form of cultural expression. Hegel sees cultural expression move from sensation to conception. Therefore, culture passes from art (purely sensible) to religion to philosophy (purely conceptual) in its expression.24 This is hardly surprising, considering the absolute idealism of Hegels philosophy. Hegel also divides art history into three periods. Each period corresponds to where the culture sees the divine, which art is an expression of. The first period is known as symbolic or pre-Greek. The culture saw the divine in nature but could only grasp it indirectly. Its art, thus, only symbolizes the divine.25 The next period is known as classic or Greek. This period saw the divine in the human. Since self-consciousness separates humans from nature, self-consciousness entered into the conception of the divine. This led to a

20 21

Ibid., 44. Robert Wicks, Hegels aesthetics: An overview, in The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, ed. Frederick Beiser (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 348. 22 Ibid., 349. 23 Ibid., 349. 24 Ibid., 251. 25 Ibid., 353.

Stika 6 more accurate conception of the divine. The third period is known as romantic or Christian. Christianity understands the divine as an inward, nonempirical conception. Unlike the Greeks, Christianity separates the divine from the body. With this understanding of the divine, artistic expression, which is sensuous, becomes limited.26 The Christian era, therefore, begins to move to the other modes of cultural expression. This prompts Hegels end of art thesis. Basically, art eventually leads a culture away from itself to other forms of expression. Art reaches a point when it no longer expresses the deepest interests of humanity at large.27 Hegel saw this happening in the Christian era, stating for us, art belongs to the past.28 However, this does not mean that art will never again be produced. Every civilization moves from art to religion and philosophy, but civilizations rise and fall. Each new civilization starts over again at artistic expression. The progress form sensible to conceptual expression, then, is cyclical in the history of humanity. However, Hegel did see humanity as approaching a perfect rational state; conceptual understanding increases gradually in humanitys approach toward it.29 In this sense, the change in cultural expression is progressive with a real end of art in the future. Hegels preference for the conceptual over the sensible informs his ranking of five fine arts. Hegel recognizes five fine arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry. This system is limited compared to the present, for many more classes of art are recognized as fine arts. Architecture is at the bottom of Hegels hierarchy, for it inadequately expresses the mature conception of the divinerational human subjectivity.30 For Hegel, sculpture expresses the

26 27

Ibid., 354. Ibid., 369. 28 Ibid., 369. 29 Ibid., 370. 30 Ibid., 356.

Stika 7 divine in perception perfectly. However, since painting, music, and poetry rely less on sensuous beauty, they better present the divine, which is purely conceptual. Painting, being twodimensional, is a step away from sensible reality and thus better able to express the divine. Music is even higher because it does not have a material form. However, Hegel associates music with the emotions. Therefore not rational, it ranks lower than poetry. Poetry, being rational and immaterial, is the highest form of art and most accurately expresses the purely rational and conceptual divine.31 So what of Duchamp? Is his displaced urinal a work of art? According to Broughs phenomenological approach, Fountain is an artifact presented by Duchamp as a work of art within the artworld. By the phenomenological observation, it is a work of art. Indeed, Brough prefers generosity when recognizing citizens of the realm of art.32 However, he does note that Fountain may be a marginal work of art. Fountain and similar works could be marginal if they are barely artifacts, their purpose is mainly rhetorical rather than contemplative, or they are not much worth contemplating. However, this does not mean they are good art, but that is another issue. Brough concedes that Fountain is (minimally) a work of art, but what would Hegel think? In as much as Fountain presents the divine, Hegel would probably not consider it to be a work of art. If Hegel would concede its status as art in light of it being a cultural expression, he would rank it very low in his hierarchy of fine arts. Fountain would be considered lower than architecture. Hegel may consider it a work of art, but he certainly would not have a high opinion of it. In as much as Hegelian and phenomenological aesthetics observe art as a cultural expression, they will both likely consider Fountain and other controversial works as works of art, if marginally so.
31 32

Ibid., 257-8. Brough, 45.

Stika 8 Bibliography Brough, John Barnett. Art and Artworld: Some Ideas for a Husserlian Aesthetic. In Edmund Husserl and the Phenomenological Tradition: Essays in Phenomenology, edited by Robert Sokolowski, 25-45. Washington: Catholic University of American Press, 1988. Sokolowski, Robert. Introduction to Phenomenology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Wicks, Robert. Hegels aesthetics: An overview. In The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, edited by Frederick Beiser, 348-77. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.