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Two Writer-Teachers On Art: Langer and Kaplan

Two Writer-Teachers On Art: Langer and Kaplan

Throughout my many published writings (and, more recently, my posted video-lectures) I acknowledge frequently, with a kind of false modesty, that I never  really studied philosophy or aesthetics, and pretty much formed my beliefs about art, such as they are, on my own, by picking up ideas and references from my teachers, Max Loehr and others, and from miscellaneous  reading.  Two people, however, deserve acknowledgement as having influenced heavily my thinking about art: Suzanne Langer and Abraham Kaplan.

I read others, of course, and tried to understand them. In the late 1960s when everybody was reading Foucault I did too, explaining to my classes what lay behind his funny reference (citing Borges) at the beginning of The Order of Things to “a certain Chinese encyclopedia” on the subject of dogs. (Chinese encyclopedias don’t collect definitions, they collect references in the literature.) I tried to understand semantic theory and apply it to our subject of study. (The one writer on the subject whom I found especially helpful, whose name I forget, was dismissed by Svetlana Alpers, when I spoke to her about him, as far too popularizing and intelligible to be taken seriously.) Others in our field have read and understood far more than I: John Hay, notably, who as a good Englishman could cite Clive Bell and the rest. His near-namesake Jonathan Hay specializes in citing writers, especially French writers, whom the rest of us have never heard of. (I write this with no disrespect for either--both are people I like and respect.)

Back to Langer and Kaplan: biographical information on both of them is easily accessible on the web, so I won’t copy it out here. I never met Langer, only read her two books Philosophy In a New Key (1942) and Feeling and  Form (1953) and was deeply impressed by them, finding her ideas about how art objects function to deliver their aesthetic impact the most convincing of any I  knew. As for Kaplan, I sat in on a course he gave at the University of Michigan in 1953, it must have been--he was a UCLA professor but also taught at UM for a time. He used Dewey’s book Art As Experience as a basic text, and tried in his lectures to define the artistic or aesthetic experience as distinct from other kinds of experience--the work of art, then, being the thing that arouses or delivers that experience. He tried to define--using the teaching method of drawing answers from the class members and then submitting them to critical evaluation--tried to define, over a number of class sessions, what made some experiences of art better or worse than others: they were more or less complete (the reviewer didn’t arrive late for the concert), informed, prepared for by previous experience of related works, etc. And then, in a summing-up lecture, he delivered his punch-line: if enough people at a given time, people who are properly qualified to have and evaluate aesthetic experiences of a given kind, experience a certain object or event and give it a high rating, that means it is a fine, or even great, work of art. There is, Kaplan pointed out, really no other way to reach a collective evaluation that will hold up--we aren’t, he said, going to get judgments from God.

I may be distorting or misunderstanding his point, but that is my sixty-year-old memory of his teaching. There was a lot more, of course, based on readings of Dewey, Santayana, and others, but none of that stays clearly in my mind now.

Suzanne Langer had learned from the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer a way of thinking about aesthetic experience that recognized it as conveying meaning through what they called non-discursive symbolism--symbolism that doesn’t depend on the logical discourse of language and the thinking behind it, that is, in conveying its meaning and impact. And they recognized the need to engage in creating non-discursive symbols of that kind--in effect, works of art--as a human need as basic as the needs for eating and for sex. (Again, I may well be failing to convey her points fully--I am writing out my long-after understanding. Learned essays on her ideas can be found and read on the web.) Through a kind of symbolism that echoes real experience in a “virtual” way--virtual space for sculpture, virtual time for music, etc.--works of art present or evoke experiences that structurally parallel real-world experiences--at best, they can evoke or convey (how many times have I  recalled and quoted this phrase!) “passages of felt life.” In her Feeling and Form book she elaborates this basic idea for one after another of the arts, including, as I remember, poetry and the dance. And along the way she reveals--again I write this from memory--a deep understanding of all these arts, beyond what one might normally expect of any individual.

I remember being especially impressed at how her understanding of the relationship between artistic expression and ordinary speech and writing agreed with old Chinese ideas--for instance, their belief  (outlined near the beginning of my essay “Confucian Elements in the Theory of Painting”) that when one had reached the limits of what could be expressed in writing, one would break into poetry or song. I forget whether I quoted Langer in that article--I should have.

I used to devise ways in which I could meet and talk with this woman whom I idolized, but none of them ever worked out, alas. Alongside my list of notable people I knew during this long life, I could make a list of people I should have sought out and talked with, but failed to--Robert H. van Gulik was another. And writing in this way about people whom I never met but who influenced me heavily through their writings raises the question of the difference between knowing a person face-to-face and only reading her or his writings--another question recognized and dealt with by the old Chinese, for instance in colophons on paintings that, they say, “make you feel as though you were meeting the man himself.” Perhaps my success in making Chinese writings and works of art more accessible to popular audiences depends in some part on such fusions or correspondences in my mind between the beliefs and expressions of the old Chinese and some in our own culture--for instance, my early (and ultimately wrong-headed) argument that the expressive-brushwork aesthetic of Chinese literati painting anticipated the expressive method of Abstract Expressionist painting, or my more recent (right, I think) association of the history of Chinese painting through Song with Gombrich’s kind of quasi-progress toward greater and greater lifelikeness. We are cautioned endlessly, and properly, by sterner-minded critics against attempting that kind of association, but…

And that brings me to my final question for today: How far has my success as a scholar-writer, such as it is, depended on my taking stands and approaches that my more severe-thinking and theoretically-grounded colleagues have scrupulously avoided? I have been charged with that, and have never troubled to deny it, and certainly don’t mean to do so now, at this late point in a very long and generally successful career. And with that dangerously self-satisfied observation I end this and remain, your unrepentant blogger,

James Cahill

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