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Ovi Symposium; fourteenth Meeting Ovi Symposium; fourteenth Meeting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-12-05 10:37:47
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Nannery, Paolozzi and Paparella
Fourteenth Meeting: 5 December 2013

symposium01

 

Participants:

nannery01Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Mellen Press.

 

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

 

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

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Table of Content for the 14th Meeting of the Symposium (5 December 2013)

Introductory Note by the symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

Section 1: “Reflections on Gorky on the Power of Art.” A presentation by Lawrence Nannery.

Section 2: “Classicism and Romanticsim.” A presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi as translated from his book L’estetica di Benedetto Croce.

Section 3: A comment by Emanuel L. Paparella on Ernesto Paolozzi’s presentation.

Section 4: “On Modern and Post-Modern Art. Art for Art’s Sake?  Jagede and Appiah’s Afrocentric Art vis a vis ‘Universal’ Western Art.” A presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella.

Section 5: A comment by Ernesto Paolozzi on Emanuel L. Paparella’s presentation.

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Introductory note: this 14th session of the symposium focuses on dichotomies in aesthetics: romantic/classical, primitive/modern, universal/particular. More specifically Ernesto Paolozzi deals with the first of the three, Lawrence Nannery deals with the second, and Emanuel L. Paparella deals with the third. Consciously or unconsciously, the context remains Vichian-Crocean. Indeed, both Vico and Croce were concerned with the role of imagination within rationality and the power of aesthetics to transcend and free us from the inherent difficulties of the human condition. Historically such  concerns span two centuries (18th century for Vico and 20th century for Croce) and render their philosophy unique and very relevant to our modern concerns.

Alas, in the era of Cartesian rationalism little attention was given to Vico’s thought in the 18th century and even less, in the era of logical positivism, to that of Croce in the 20th century after his death. In section one Nannery proposes that all forms of art are “play,” explores the psychology of art, unique to us humans, a plausible reason why imagination has fallen out of use in the 20th century, and Paul Radin’s “blaze of reality” of primitive man vis a vis the psychological reality of modern man.

In section two Paolozzi explores a thorny aesthetic issue already broached and partially discussed in the previous session: namely the philosophical-aesthetic issue, as introduced in the symposium by the same Paolozzi via his Ovi e-book on Benedetto Croce’s thought, as to whether or not art can be categorized into genres and epochs (for example ancient, gothic, renaissance, baroque, romantic, modern, post-modern, etc.) or should all genuine art be  unified under the heading of classical; that is to say, is art always classical in itself when, no matter when or where it is produced, it adheres to the ancient Greek concept of Beauty as a form (Plato) together with the more modern concept of the sublime within Beauty (Kant); does the poetical unify all great art as both Vico and Croce tend to assert?

In other words, is all genuine art ipso facto classical and beautiful and poetical as long as it is imbued by arête (excellence) and sublimity and remains interrelated with the transcendental forms, the Good and the True? Paolozzi dwells on this crucial point while exploring the all-encompassing Crocean definition of what constitutes the classical in art. This intriguing discussion continues with a comment by Paparella (section three). Paolozzi in turn follows-up with a pertinent comment of his own (section five) on Paparella’s presentation (section four) dealing with the universality of Western Art vis a vis the purported particularity of African Art.

Kant, and Croce too, would undoubtedly add that art’s beauty is a universal idea and that one knows intuitively when what is declared to be art is mere art-craft or pseudo art. Hume however, as we have already examined in a previous session, would insist that beauty is subjective, it dwells in the eye of the beholder or the perceiver; it is moreover a matter of taste or “buon gusto,” to say it in Italian, and since as humans we are all endowed not only with reason but with the same general decent feelings and good taste, which either attract us to what it is beautiful or induces revulsion toward what is ugly, we generally end up agreeing on what constitutes a genuine work of art.

But things are not that simple as Hume would like to contend. As we have seen in the previous session, there are in fact disagreements, even vehement ones, on whether or not, for example, a urinal or an artist’s excrements exposed in a museum, or a crucifix immersed in urine, are to be considered works of art simply because they are in a famous museum or because the artist and/or museum’s curator have declared them so, or indeed, if the Dada movement’s anti-art stance and the wanton provocative destruction of what is beautiful constitutes art in any way, shape or form, not to speak of the disparagement with which both Hume and even Kant, in their more unguarded moments have at times portrayed non-European African races while all along championing universal ideas.

There are even disagreements within a purely Eurocentric aesthetics on whether the Baroque is a beautiful form of art, or a hideous exaggeration. Try as one may, one will find precious few post-Renaissance baroque pieces of architecture in non-Catholic northern European countries; and this remains an intriguing historical fact  even if we grant that there is such thing as good baroque and bad baroque. Obviously the baroque in those countries is associated with a particular (Catholic) culture. The same holds for the Gothic which Voltaire considered barbaric hence the name gothic which he coined as a way of disparaging that particular form of art. In Italy, for example there are very few Gothic cathedrals, most of them are Romanesque, the Milan Duomo being a notable exception. So much for the universalism of Eurocentric art! Be that as it may, historically, in the Western world, art has consistently been identified as Eurocentric and the attitude toward art produced in other parts of the world has remained condescendingly paternalistic, even contemptuous.

To explore this problematic of the universality of art judged by particular Western philosophical standards and criteria, Paparella examines, in section three, the particular views on aesthetics of three African-American authors, artists and philosophers; namely Dade Jegede, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and V.Y. Midimbe. The three artists and scholars, all professors at prestigious universities, can be designated as African-Americans in the strictly literal sense of that term: while they reside and work in the US, a country of which they are citizens, they were  born in Africa; the first one in Nigeria, the second in Ghana and the third in the Congo. The US born, more generally designated African-American novelist and author James Baldwin, and the Sudanese Yambo Ouologuem are also briefly mentioned in the presentation.

Altogether these African-Americans aesthetic theorists and artists present us with a compelling  argument, namely that the so called universality and consequent purported superiority of Western Eurocentric Art is a canard that rationalizes a traditional imperialistic cultural hubris and misguidedly proclaims that only the Western artist, beginning with the Romantic, so romanticized by Hegel’s theory of art, is a self-conscious creator.

Paolozzi has pointed out in section two of this session that Croce would not concur with such a misguided Romantic position, especially in regard to what he considers a fallacious dichotomy between classical and romantic art. Neither would Vico who at times has misguidedly been proclaimed a proto-romantic. In his pointed comment on Paparella’s presentation Paolozzi suggests that Croce’s brilliant resolution of the conundrum romantic/classical is by way of a paradox: authentic poetry is both concrete-historical and universal, at the same time; the two do not exclude each other. Here, once again, the echo of both Vico and Croce is unmistakable.

Ultimately the readers will have to decide for themselves if those African-American artists and philosophers, as examined in section four, are proposing a Humian relativistic kind of aesthetics, in effect robbing art of its potential for symbolism and transcendence, or are they simply advocating the abandonment of a single European standard purporting to be universal and applicable to all art, which on closer inspection turns out to be biased and favoring one’s own Western views, views at times supported by rather dubious and hypocritical economic motives, if not covert racial prejudice. As hinted above, even a Kant and a Hume were not immune to it.

Nevertheless, under the light of reason, we ought to be able to at least agree that the two phenomena are in this case mutually exclusive and we confuse them at the risk of discrediting and ultimately forgetting the very essence of Beauty, for a civilization that no longer recognizes the nexus between Beauty, Truth and Goodness is on its way to becoming eventually  a doomed civilization inexorably journeying toward its extinction. Here too the three Vichian cycles of the gods, of the heroes and of men is illuminative.

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1

Reflections on Gorky on the Power of Art
A Presentation by Lawrence Nannery

 symposium179

Maxim Gorky (1868-1936)

(Excerpt from The Autobiography of Maxim Gorky, Volume One, "My Childhood", Chapter Three)

Particularly vivid are my memories of …holiday evenings … [when] curly-headed, rumpled Uncle Jake brought in his guitar, while grandma set out snacks to have with tea, and vodka in a square bottle, decorated around the bottom with a wreath of red glass flowers expertly molded around the base.  In his gay, holiday getup, Tsigan was the life of the party.

Old Gregory sidled in, peering out of his colored spectacles; also Eugenia, the housemaid, her face raw and pimply, her pudgy torso round as a jug, her cunning eyes twinkling and her reedy voice piping.  Among the guests was the hairy deacon from the Uspensky church. The rest had damp and slimy shapes in my memory, like fishes and eels.  They guzzled and swilled and panted and children got treats of wine glasses filled with syrup, all of which incited an odd and rather feverish gaiety.  As he bent amorously over his guitar, tuning it, Uncle Jake shouted, always the same, identical phrase, "Come on, get started!"

With a toss of his head he curled still more caressingly around the guitar, his neck elongating like that of a goose.  A dreamy expression came upon his pouched, self-indulgent face; his shifty, sullen eyes were veiled in an oily film.  Lightly fingering the strings, he plucked scattered chords which had the effect of involuntarily lifting him to his feet.  Jake's music compelled absolute silence.  It cascaded down like a torrent from a distant spring, lapping at the heart and penetrating it with a mysterious unease.  Under its spell melancholy overcame us all, and the oldest there felt as helpless as children.  In the perfect stillness everybody sat steeped in reverie.  Uncle Mike's Sascha, sitting beside Uncle Jake, acted bewitched, his eyes glued to the guitar, his mouth wide open and drooling.

And the rest of us sat as if turned into snowmen, or as if waiting for someone to come and break the spell.  The only sound to be heard, besides the music, was the purr of the samovar in which tea was brewing, a not inharmonious sound.

A light from the kitchen reached the darkness outside through two small windows, on which passersby sometimes tapped. On the table two slender tallow candles brandished their lights like yellow spears.

Gradually Uncle Jake's body stiffened and his teeth clenched, and he seemed to have gone off into a trancelike sleep; but his hands moved as if they had a separate life of their own.  The curled fingers of his right hand fluttered over the strings like agitated birds, while his left hand swooped up and down the neck of the instrument.

Nearly always, when he had some drink in him, he sang a certain interminable song, in an unpleasant, hissing voice, as if forcing it through his teeth.

In the song he compared himself to a hound, howling over his weariness and the dreariness of the world, with its creeping nuns, its chattering crows, the monotonously chirping crickets, the crawling beetles, and beggars stealing … from each other.  Weariness and dreariness were the refrain words that ran through it.  The song wrung my heart and when the singer got to the part where the beggars robbed each other I would break into an outburst of uncontrollable grief.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

This observation, very important in Russia, is very interesting of course, but what does it show?  It shows that there is such a thing as imagination that distinguishes man from all other species. (The word “imagination” seems to have fallen out of use in 20th century aesthetics altogether, possibly on account of a hostility towards Aristotle, on the grounds that there must not be a psychology that divides operations of the mind into faculties.)

If what Gorky tells us is useful, then what I am about to say is more useful still, and generalizes what is going on in the psychology of art as a whole. Entry into this realm was provided me long ago in a book by a leading anthropologist, Paul Radin, who published a book in 1927 entitled Primitive Man as Philosopher.  In there he argues that primitive man, in contradiction to civilized man, or modern man, “lives in a blaze of reality.”  The phrase is most fecund, and is strongly related to Gorky’s observations above.  For the two are much closer in meaning than one would probably expect.  Primitive man is naïve; modern man is psychological.  But neither is clearly superior to the other in all things.  And both have the capacity to create whole worlds.

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Paul Radin (1883-1959)

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Paul Radin’s book published in 1927
The book has an introduction by John Dewey

But the phrase in a way seems to distinguish modern from primitive man, as though the primitive would seem to be naïve, and the modern man literal, a person which, to use a phrase from the 19th century English literature, Mr. Gradgrind, who iterates many times that “ a stick is a stick and a stone is a stone.”  Though many would like the division between modern and primitive to be total, such a clear distinction is not warranted.

I will say why.  The primitive man is neither superior to, nor inferior to, modern man.  To begin with, primitive man is truly human and has potentially all the powers of mind that modern man possesses.  For example, there is the phenomenon of imitation.  Imitation is possibly the first validation of the fact that things are never inert; they live in the minds of people who have minds of a human kind.  Thus, one can cause a sensation among one’s fellows by imitating another member of the primitive tribe in order just to show that it can be done, and also, something like the magical effect that Uncle Jake’s music on the hearers of his voice and his guitar.  The possibilities are endless.  Uncle Jake could have led the audience into a realm of satire, using the same instruments and voice, but showing something that could turn the meaning of the session to be the opposite what a literal reading of the performance entailed.  For example, children as a group are excellent mimes, and are well known critics of their siblings and parents through the use of double entendre, to just use the closest example that comes to hand.

In the end, the capacities of humans are almost infinite in variety, and mastery of any aspect of play, especially in the field of words, which are said one way, but meant to be taken in another, shows that humans are in a different realm from animals and other, lower species of living things.  (It is for this reason that mankind has a history, and many different histories, while animals all live in immediate proximity to the natural dictates of their kind.)  Indeed, Gorky’s uncle Jake imitates animals, meaning to find the different “languages,” and amusing his audience thereby.  Perhaps Gorky intended to talk about Uncle Jake in this way precisely to predicate that he was perhaps closer to animals of all kinds than he was to humanity.  But I think not.  For country folk do know the animals that they come into contact with on a daily basis, and it would come to mind when one is trying to impress an audience, for want, perhaps, of something “higher.”  In fact, art is basically a member of the genus “play” in the first instance.

In fact, all forms of art are examples of “play.”  There are many arts, perhaps three dozen, and they are all examples of human freedom.  That is to say, the possibilities for expression are infinite, just as so many different things can happen in history, another realm that is forbidden to the animal kingdom.

So, the phrase “living in a blaze of reality” does not mean that everything that is believed to be true is true, but something different.  It means that all men, primitive and modern and everything between are all potentially creative, critical, and reproductive. 

Let me illustrate this statement by citing a simple story.  Take Chekhov, the greatest of all short story writers, in my opinion.  In his story entitled “Misery” he produces for us an old man named Iona, who drives a drozhky, or one horse cab, in Russia.  During the course of one day, a snowy day, he encounters several different people and groups of people.  In each case, he takes the opportunity to tell the riders that he had a son, who has recently died.  But he never gets further than that.  He never gets to evince his son to others, who it turns out are not interested to hear what he has to say.  No one is listening.  No one asks him anything.  No one takes any notice of what he says to them.  No one cares.  At each encounter the same thing.  No one is listening.

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Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky in 1900

His son has been dead for almost one whole week, and yet he has not been able to get anyone to listen about the fact.  The fact is not noticed, not in the world in a sense, and he wants to speak of his son properly, the way people should speak about the death of a young man.  He also has a daughter in the country, and he wants to talk about her too.  He needs someone to sympathize with his loss, and to feel sorry for his son’s death.

Driving back to the stables, several instances of other cabs with passengers pass him by.  Indeed, they hail him and his horse, but then, when he broaches the subject of his son’s death, they just speed up and go further away.  They are not interested.

(Parenthetically, Giuseppe Verdi, who spent the later months of 1861 in Saint Petersburg overseeing the production of his opera, La Forza del Destino, noted with disgust that cab drivers in Saint Petersburg were required to wait for their patrons outside their cabins, and consequently froze to death every winter in great numbers.)

“He can not think about his son when he is alone … To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish …” And so, when they reach the stables, he begins to speak to the mare, who is munching grass.  He tells her about his son, who was “a real cabman … He ought to have lived.”  He falls silent, then tells the horse that if she had had a little colt, and all at once the little colt went and died, she would be sorry, wouldn’t she?  The little mare continues to munch on her fodder, and listens, and breathes on the cabby’s hands.  This enables him to release his feelings: “Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.”

Though the situation is tenuous in the sense that there is no clear path, and no clear resolution of this most difficult moment, Iona will have to realize that even though no one cares about him or his son, at least the dumb beast he uses to make a living can be thought to be sympathetic.

This story is very short, and yet shows a limit.  The blaze of reality contains such things as this, and few things can be thought so horrid that at the same time excite no sympathy in anyone he meets that day.  Yet the little mare is given the role of a substitute for an audience that would care about the son who has recently die.  Such is the need for some kind of redemption, no matter how liminal the case may seem to some.

It is important to take the generalizations about the human enterprise on this earth in the spirit of Radin’s  “blaze of reality” reference.  So many things are real to man; many of them may appeal to only one man, who imagines that it would be wonderful to talk about his son because women are sympathetic, and they are allowed to shed tears in public, and Iona apparently cannot do the same.  He imagines that the tears of women might be a relief in that such tears might be taken as a ceremony, an acknowledgement of his suffering.

For every instance of joy in reality there is an instance of sorrow.  For those who suffer great losses or those who are wearing away without receiving any attention or kindness the blaze of reality is harsh indeed.  But the human pageant is not a joyride, though there may be joy.  And it is not just sorrow, though there always seem to be sorrows.  It is the response of others to one’s plight that might bring many-cornered possibilities into play, but the resolution of this drama is never secure, never a given.

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2

Classicism and Romanticism
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
(As translated from his book L’Estetica di Benedetto Croce)

The distinction that Croce made between Classicism and Romanticism, in order to proclaim that genuine art is always classical, is well known. 

One could hazard the statement that Croce, having been accused so many times of being a romantic was in the end seduced by classicism. After all, wasn’t Croce a sworn enemy of empirical distinctions or convenient distinction such as that between Romanticism and Classicism? Ultimately, the philosopher wished to distinguish two mental and psychological attitudes with which he felt he could trace back some historical speculative positions.

As Croce puts it: “The principal problematic of our times, namely that aesthetics must be dominant, can be traced to art’s crisis and in the judgment of art produced by the era of Romanticism. We are not distancing away from previous eras where the crisis surfaces such as antiquity’s Hellenistic art and literature in the last years of the Roman Empire, and in modern times art and baroque poetry which followed those of the Renaissance. But in the Romantic era the crisis, in its motivations and characteristics, was quite different in its grandiosity, compared to naïve and sentimental poetry, Classical and Romantic art thus dividing indivisible art into two wholly different arts, even taking sides with the latter as the one which conforms to modern times which see in art the primacy of passion and feelings and imagination. On one hand this was justified as a reaction to rationalistic, French style, literature, which is sometimes satiric sometimes frivolous, destitute in feelings and imagination, and of any deep poetical sense…” (Aesthetica in nuce, 1935, p. 27).

Thus we see that Croce holds on to the general theoretical distinction between life’s functions which will not allow a separation of the unity of aesthetic activity. Which is to say that in this context the classicism of poetry is for Croce its universalism which has little to do with Classicism as an historical period or a distinct poetic. As Croce puts it: “The fundamental problem of aesthetics, is the restoration and the defense of Classicism against Romanticism” which is to say of the epistemological character of human feelings and sentiments not to be confused with pure passion. Again, as Croce himself puts it: “this is something that Goethe understood very well, for he was at the same time a poet of passion and of serenity and as such a classical poet.” (Ibidem, p. 29).

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Johann Wofgang’s von Goethe (1749-1832)

 symposium184

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Croce’s complaint is obviously against the years of cultural exaggerations when his book Aesthetica in nuce is published with the purpose of fighting the irrationalities and the activism of fascism.

Classicism, which is not historical temporal Classicism which is school and imitation, is integral part of the nature of art, which is not ethical action but it cannot separate itself from ethics as long as by that term we do not intend a compilation of norms and doctrines but the most profound sense of conscience’s psychological unity.

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Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938)
An Italian decadent poet sympathizing with Fascism

Therefore, classicism, cosmic approach, universality of art are all synonymous and a moment in Crocean thought, albeit, as we have seen, a problematic phase of it. It remains however an elevated moment since the philosopher was reaffirming the dominant force of the individual conscience during a rear historical moment of great psychological and moral confusion.

 symposium46

Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom
by Ernesto Paolozzi. An Ovi e-book (2012)
available for free downloading from the Ovi bookshop

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3

A Comment by Emanuel L. Paparella on Ernesto Paolozzi’s Presentation:

Thank you Ernesto for shedding light on the dichotomy classical/romantic within aestheticism. Confusion in the matter abounds and not only in regard to Croce’s thought but Vico’s too, and not only in the US where empiricism and logical positivism still reign supreme, but in countries with a proud humanistic liberal arts tradition such as Italy too. I have heard comments to the effect that Vico is not a proto-romantic philosopher of history a la Hegel, but a classical Platonic philosopher. To utter such a cavalier affirmation is in my opinion equivalent to a subsuming operation and to having misunderstood the whole opus of Vico, and pari passu that of Croce too, and ultimately rob their philosophy of its uniqueness, a uniqueness which imbues them  with historicism as well as the concepts of fantasia and the poetical. Nowhere in their writings one finds Vico or Croce claiming to be romantics or proto-romantics or neo-Platonists, for that matter.

Indeed, once the dichotomy of classical/romantic is established, as a straw man of sorts, one ends up making Vico and Croce either romantic idealists or classical rationalists, thus subsuming their philosophy to that of Plato or Strauss (a rather common philosophical operation here in America) and invariably distorting their thought and originality.

This misguided operation represents a great disservice to both Neapolitan philosophers, for indeed neither Vico nor Croce were proto-romantics, neither were they strict Platonists. While respecting Plato’s universal transcendent forms, neither of them were relativist or romantic; they could not be romantics since they held on to the philosophy of history which conceives the concrete-particular, the poetical and the imaginative as essential to their thought. Neither of them ever relinquished the notion that the rational and the imaginative (fantasia) could be harmonized and held together; for not to do so is to risk ending up with rationalizing what one ought never rationalize, as you have lucidly explained in your writings on Croce. If I understand it correctly, Croce’s famous rebuke of Heidegger’s intemperate xenophobic nationalism in tandem with his “hearing the Voice of Being” in Hitler which led him to become a Nazi for a short while, ran along those lines.

Unfortunately, not much credit has been granted to either Vico or Croce for being the first great Western philosophers to introduce into contemporary rationalist thought the needed notion of “originative thinking” and of the paradox that is the particular-universal. Those notions may be held as contradictory by those who espouse Cartesian dualisms and dichotomies but they are essential for positing a paradox within the poetical. To ignore that paradox is to embark on a slow but steady process of decline and dehumanization. In part, such is also Levinas’ contention in his ethics.  

Consequently, to make those two Neapolitan philosophical giants merely proto-romantics or anti-romantics or anti-positivists is in effect to distort the complexity and harmony of their thought and deprive them of the unique characteristics of their philosophy by subsuming it under that of other philosophers.

  ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

4

Modern and Post-Modern Art: Art for Art’s Sake?
Jegede and Appiah’s Afrocentric Art vis a vis “Universal” Western Art

A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella 

“African art has been maligned in the writings of Western scholars who have failed to understand its source and origin… In private collections, African artworks become transfixed on the mantelpiece in wooden cubicles, bathed in a caressing interplay of lights, but with very little or no reference—suggested or amplified—to their contextual use of significance. Although we derive pleasure in appreciating these objects ex-situ, there is the danger of their being unduly romanticized. It is a danger that can be avoided if we would allow the arts to lead us into renewing our contact with Africa, and into a greater and more intimate appreciation of the cultures and the peoples of the continent. It is within this context that collection of traditional African art in private, public or academic holdings derives stronger legitimacy… The arts can be used to disprove racial innuendos and to re-direct the black man and woman towards the realization of positive self-affirmation. They can be used not only as indices of aesthetic cognition, but equally as important tools in stemming the marginalization of the blacks’ contributions to world civilization.”

                     —Dele Jegede (“Art for Life’s Sake: African Art as a Reflection of an Afrocentric Cosmology”)

“…the place to look for hope is not just to the postcolonial novel—which has struggled to achieve the insights of Ouologuem or Midimbe—but to all-consuming vision of this less-anxious creativity. It matters little who it was made for; what we should learn from is the imagination that produced it. Man with a Bicycle is produced by someone who does not care that the bicycle is the white man’s invention—it is not there to be Other or the Yoruba Self; it is there because someone cared for its solidity; it is there because it will take us further than our feet will take us; it is there because machines are now as African as novelists—and as fabricated as the kingdom of Nakem.”

                 —Kwame Anthony Appiah (from In my Father’s House)

It is a well known fact that Picasso was greatly influenced by the encounter with masks and other art objects from Africa. In turn, via Picasso, modern art at the turn of the 20th century became abstract. Nevertheless, Western attitudes toward African art have remained ethnocentric and patronizing. Dele Jegede, a Nigerian artist and scholar (born in 1945), analyzes      such an attitude in his essay “Art for Life’s Sake: African Art as a Reflection of an Afrocentric Cosmology.” His main line of criticism is the failure in the Western response to African art to understand the significance that art has within the cultures that produce it. That kind of failure which is due mostly to the failure to take seriously the Vichian-Crocean historicist perspective of reality, in turn promotes demeaning attitudes toward  African art in general.

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A Traditional African Mask

Jegede sees in the term primitivism, to characterize African art, a form of Eurocentrism. It may have been coined as a mere aesthetic category, but the underlying suggestion is that those works of art lack the exquisite refinement of Western art. This is suggested by the very mode of displaying African art in museums with no particular reference to their cultural roles within African societies. This decontextualized display is antithetical to the ways in which Africans themselves experience and appreciate art.

For Jegede, art is not a cultural universal, but derives its particular meaning within the particular cultures of Africa. The practice of placing African art objects in a museum case to be disinterestedly contemplated is, for Jegede, a Eurocentric practice which leads to the labeling of “primitive.” It is that kind of decontextualization that robs the work of its most significant properties, those conferred by its role in specific cultural practices. For example, a mask is not simply an object whose form is to be appreciated; rather it is an effigy with specific ceremonial functions. As we have seen already in the Ovi symposium, Adorno, a Western philosopher, also emphasizes the importance of the role art objects play within social practices, and in that sense he is Vichian and Crocean as well as Marxian, but this represents the exception rather than the rule in Western aesthetics.

Jegede uses the term Afrocentric to characterize his approach to African works of Art. It is an intellectual stance that places Africa at the center of one’s worldview and is, of course, a reaction to the Western tendency to view everything in relation to Western Culture, taken as the norm and the criteria for judgment.

This stance can of course be critiqued in turn with this question: Has Jegege himself fallen prey to the unfortunate Eurocentric tendency to uncritically apply the label “art” to African artifacts? Is his alternative to an art “for art’s sake,” for an art “for life’s sake” (which so enthralled Picasso) superior to the views advanced in the West?

 symposium188_400

The Sudanese Novelist Yambo Ouologuem (1940-  )

 symposium189

The Western Philosopher Theodore Adorno (1903-1969)

 symposium190

V.Y. Mudimbe is the author of The Idea of Africa (1988), The
Invention of Africa (1988), The Re-invention of Africa (2013)
and several other works. He teaches at Duke University

 symposium191

Dale Jegede (1945--)
a Nigerian-American who teaches Art History at Miami University

Be that is it may, it is well known that Derrida’s most rigorous criticism of the philosophy of art in the West is the fact that, beginning with Plato, it has focused primarily on the Western tradition. The Ghanian Kwame Anthony Appiah takes a hard look at such a phenomenon in his book, In my Father’s House. Very much like Jegede, he is concerned with the way the Western artworld views African art.

Appiah begins his critique by examining the process by which pieces were chosen for the 1987 exhibit, Perspective Angles on African Art. He wrote an influential essay in 2010 titled “Is the Post in Postmodern the Post in Postcolonial?” In it he shows that the items selected were included not just for aesthetic reasons but for economic reasons as well.

For Appiah, this means that the artworld in the West far from operating on purely aesthetic principles makes judgments on art based on market considerations too. This is the dirty little secret of Western art with its pretensions of universalism and art for art’s sake. Art is considered another commodity on which to make money even when lip-service is paid to beauty and aesthetic considerations. It is what Picasso called art for decorating one’s living room, dead and divorced from life.

 symposium192

Kwame Anthony Appiah (1954-)
Ghanian-American who currently teaches philosophy at Princeton University

Appiah focuses on one particular work in the show, a sculpture titled Yoruba Man with a Bicycle, which the African-American novelist and critic James Baldwin also noted precisely because it was not an example of primitivism, the kind of African art which usually attracts Western attention. This piece is neo-traditional, produced for sale on the international art market. Appiah interprets the work within the context of postmodernism which rejects any claim to exclusivity and universality.

 

symposium186

 

Modernists had previously argued for universal criteria to judge whether something is a work of art. Objects that failed to meet those criteria are not works of art, no matter the culture in which they originate. In part, African art was discovered through the modernist assessment that it possesses the sort of “significant form” found in Western modernist works, say in the works of a Picasso. But paradoxically this is exactly what the post-modernist rejects. It rejects the assumed existence of universal criteria.

 symposium193

James Baldwin (1924-1987) 

 symposium194

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)
The foremost Post-modern Deconstructionist Philosopher

The post-modern theorist coins terms derived from Derrida’s deconstructionist’s school; terms such as “Eurocentric,” “phallocentric,” “logocentric,” etc, and with them he challenges the modernist to defend claims to standards untouched by history and culture. Undoubtedly, Appiah sides with the post-modernists. He challenges the modernist tradition by undermining the important concept of opposition between self and other. He does this by analyzing Yoruba Man with a Bicycle. Here we cannot see the work as simply the product of a radically different mentality and culture. This is due to its hybrid character: the presence of the bicycle in the work which makes it a pastiche of African and Western elements. But for the artist, both the traditional aspects of his culture and those he appropriates from the West are simply vehicles for his creativity. In the artist’s imagination Africa and the West are not others to each other.

So, Appiah’s reflections on this sculpture imply that in our efforts to understand what art is, we ought to abandon the search for one universal and single standard for the qualification of works of art. It is important to note that Appiah is not advocating full-scale relativism that would rob art of its transcendent values which reside in its inherent symbolism, as some cultural philistines we have examined in the previous meeting of the Ovi symposium (such as Piero Manzoni or the Dada movement) would advocate.

What Appiah is critiquing is the presumption and the hubris that only the Western artist, beginning with the Romantics, so romanticized by Hegel’s theory of art, is a self-conscious creator. In the first section Paolozzi’s makes us aware that Croce for one rejects this Hegelian idealist conception of art. Appiah too challenges the view that art gives us access to a genuine privileged otherness; for indeed all of us have something in common with everybody else: our common humanity.

Given that at least our humanity, if nothing else, is demonstrably universal, the final crucial questions that we propose as a challenge awaiting an answer are these: for Western Civilization to survive do we perhaps need to journey back to the future? More specifically, is Italian Humanism the Garden of Eden we misguidedly abandoned some time ago and to which we now desperately need to find our way back in our peregrinations? As T.S. Eliot inimitably renders it in The Waste Land, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

 ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

5

A comment by Ernesto Paolozzi on Emanuel L. Paparella’s presentation (translated from Italian): Paparella’s reflection on the possibility of understanding and judging the poetical generated by other people and other civilizations which are far from us, such as the African, brings us right back, in my opinion, to a consideration regarding the very essence of the poetic. To fully understand a work of art, it is imperative that we attempt to place ourselves in the spiritual conditions of those who have created it, or in the epoch or the place in which it was created if the author happens to be unknown.

In other places, following Croce, I have attempted to explain this to myself thus: were I to think that Francesco Petrarca or Giotto were born in 1970 I would be undoubtedly be embarrassed and perhaps even disappointed by their art which would at the very least appear rather naïve. It is therefore fundamental to historicize art.

But if we leave it there with mere historicity, we would not easily be able to explain how is it possible for a reader of the year 2000 to understand and appreciate works written more than two thousand years ago or, as in the case of African poetry, to understand a poetry conceived in social and psychological conditions which are so different from ours.

Given that fortunately we are able to appreciate both ancient poetry and that of other cultures, we have to try to explain this phenomenon to ourselves. Philosophy must not simply point out the absurdity of what happens, as those philosophers who seek an easy fame tend to do, but must try to grasp the meaning of what happens.

Iit so happens that we understand the poetical. Not always, but often enough. That is so, I believe, because the poetical is an eternal category of life, like thought, like our utilitarian instincts, or our ethical dimension. Therefore, Petrarca’s poetry while certainly being more naïve than that of Montale, and undoubtedly influenced by the culture and the politics of its particular time, has also elements which are universal and founded, as Paparella reminds us, on our common humanity from which derive universal feelings such as that of suffering, or nostalgia for times gone by, and so on.

Therefore, authentic poetry is always historic but at the same time it is universal. One can suffer for a particular religious crisis, or for a political battle, but one suffers and exults as everybody else suffers and exults. Poetry represents and expresses particular joys and particular sufferings which are universalized at the very moment when it makes them knowable to all of us. Thus we are able to exult and suffer with the whole of humanity, in Europe as well as in Africa, in America as well as in China.

 symposium195

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482)
A famous painting synthesizing the universal and the particular-historical
and illustrating Dante’s Earthly Paradise on top of Mount Purgatory

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END OF 14TH SESSION OF OVI SYMPOSIUM (5 December 2013)

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Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting -

***********************************************************************

 


         
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