Finding Humans at the APA

This past week I attended the American Philosophical Association, Eastern division meeting.  It was held in Baltimore, MD and after an uneventful, even pleasant trip on Amtrak I found myself in this city, taking a taxi to the hotel near the waterfront.  The Eastern Division meeting is a daunting mix of graduate students, eager to see what job possibilities there may be, younger faculty jockeying for attention from the “important philosophers” and the important philosophers themselves who live in an alternate universe at the intersection of Mind and Ego.

What struck me most was the imperviousness of everyone to others.  Standing in an elevator (a fairly common occurrence as I traveled between my room and the conference rooms) I would observe everyone staring straight ahead, somber, as if at some funereal observance. They were Serious People with Big Ideas, not small talk.  But surely we were all there as members of hte same cohort group?  In the journeys up or down electronic dance music reverberated in the elevator car.  Rather incongruous! The temptation to dance was strong but I resisted the urge.  Once I was in the car with one other person when I noticed that on the intercom was an entire exchange about firemen working on an elevator, as if from a walkie talkie.  He stared ahead until I piped up that it sounded like something was going on somewhere.  He burst into a relieved smile and said he thought it was my phone.  But the transformation from robot to human was quite remarkable.

In the lobby everyone was looking for familiar faces, fellow faculty and colleagues from other institutions,  but no one seemed to see anyone else.  It was a kind of blindness of the intellect:  so intent on ideas and their presentations that other people were simply non-existent.  After all, if a woman walks through the book area but you do not see her, does she exist?  I supposed it is worth noting that philosophers tend to be introverts, even to a pathological degree, so perhaps I should not be so surprised.  Shy myself, I confess to not speaking up to others very often.  But when I did make a passing comment or hold a door open (yes, I see you there behind me), a spark of person did emerge.  Somehow that gesture appeared to be unexpected and rare.

My most startling encounter with humanity occurred when I was walking down the street one morning, on the way to a coffee shop.  A woman on her way to work stopped briefly before a homeless man and reassured him that God loved him and that there was a mission to which he could go for warmth and good.  All the while he yelled and cursed at her and the world, rocking back and forth in a bitter anger at everything.  Sh smiled and continued to wish him well.  She saw him as a person and acknowledged him.  There was a lesson there for me, and perhaps all the philosophers at the APA.

Shortly after the meeting ended and I had returned home, the Daily Nous, a cleverly named website that publishes news in the philosophy profession, highlighted philosopher Bence Nanay who won a substantial award to study “Seeing Things you Don’t See.”  His study will tackle multimodal sensory experiences, for example how hearing something affects vision.  I immediately thought of those individuals who drive with their subwoofers throbbing to the point where one has to question how they can see the road at all.  But that might be too simplistic a point for Dr. Nanay.  Nevertheless, I saw an intriguing link between the title of his study and my experiences at the APA, both within the conference and outside on the streets.  And herein lies my bigger message:  we have to see one another as persons, speaking to them, looking at them.  Then we can be human.


Beauty- Day 4 Fashion

15protest.spanOn Thursday, our conversations began with a review of our experience of the Whitney museum.  How did the new buidling itself interact with its environment?  Was it a sign of gentrification, of “uptown” taking over “downtown,” a phenomenon all to real to lower and middle socio-economic classes living in New York City?  Or was this  the museum returning to its “roots” in Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s downtown studio and the disenfranchised young American artists that she acknowledged and helped?  Along a more aesthetic and less sociological track, was the building itself part of the exhibit with its wide spaces, open lighting, inclusion of the river, the meatpacking district, and the larger landscape of New York?

We then served to whether art has a purpose or whether its purpose is no other than to entice you to look/engage with it again.  Architecture came up–let’s recall the 18th century division of fine from practical arts. And then we flowed iinto:
sports stadiums: older vs the 70s which are now crumbling
New Orleans and Katrine and the ongoing attempts to reclaim the city and honor what the inhabitants endured and overcame
a jazz funeral for the sorrows: reclaiming spaces through performances
Can there be beauty in sorrow?
-the new WTC building (beautiful but sorrowful only in its evocation of memory) and the     fountains below (directly pointing to sorrow)
-sorrow in music (apparently not a topic of interest so we passed quickly on) but for me offering so many rich examples of  the highest instantiation of beauty, death, loss.)
-The Jewish Museum in Berlin as instantiating in visitors a sense of being off kilter, reminding all (even though who do not know) of what loss was suffered.  {\Susan spoke eloquently about her own experiences of oppression and anguish in simply visiting the building itself.  Brava.)

Compate the image of the new Whitney Museum in New York (celebrating American freedom and innovation, and power) with the Jewish Memorial Museum in Berlin:


And then we vieered into ugliness again.  Movies, modern artworks as in a constant dialogue with other works (no isolated meaning–only meaning with others and in juxtaposition with/opposition to others)

Are there some artiworks which are linked to too ephemeral a message to survive? Ah, think of all the works reveered in the past to which we simply shrug and move on now.

In the afternoon we attended to the idea of beauty in fashion.  Rafa introduced the idea of haute couture as artwork in both its approximation of beauty but also in its uniqueness and in an odd sense, non-apparel nature.  Mary introduced us to spray on fabric.  We discussed the rare and special pieces made on demand vs. pret a porter and then fashion for the masses (Target designers.) How does fashion move through art to tool and down through socio-economic levels? We moved on to the museum gift shop phenomena (no such things existed way back when I first went to the Met as a girl), and two documentaries were mentioned:
Exit Through the Gift Shop   and

Brian asked why we call cars and boats “she?”  While our collective reaction was to go straight to the sexist claims of ownership, domination, and ‘love,’ David suggested that language might be the real root.  Since many languages have gendered nouns, we explored the nature of the gender of words, including neuter which David said was actually a latter development in the Greco-Roman language group.  He offered us a tantalizing tour of the moods and voices of ancient Greek, including a “middle voice.”  One has to wonder if the world would be parsed quite differently if we have additional “voices” in which to articulate our selves and our relationships to the world.  Swedish has invented (or reclaimed?) a new pronoun to avoid the male/female dichotomy [hen] and Eric shared that in his college he asks students if they wish to ge called “Zee” to avoid “Mr.,” “Miss/Mrs./Ms” dichotomy.
BRUCE-CAITLYN-JENNER-SPLIT-618In the magical way our group has of crafting conversation in multi-layers and directions, we then parsed the differences or at least tensions between cosmetic plastic surgery and tattoos and body modifications for gender identity  Why do we judge negatively the older women who gets the face lift but applaud Caitlyn Jenner for her surgery?  What about the very concept of deformity and how societies define and react to it?  Eric offered an insightful observation, the gist of which I will most likely lose here–on a theory of beauty which articulates a norm but with a radical mutation in ways which surprise, engage, and ultimately redefine the very norm itself.

We ended the day with David referencing a short film, The Critic.  I was not familiar but was delighted to learn that it was the inestimable Mel Brooks.  Enough said.

And for our musical interlude today on death, suffering, and beauty…  umm, what to choose?  Where to start?  Well, if anyone were to read this post (most likely not, that is OK- I do not mind speaking to the silence), add your own example of exquisite music that is both beautiful, and also achingly sad, even tragic.  I heard this piece years ago on the radio and I had no idea what the soprano was saying (in Polish) nor was I at all familiar with the composer (Gorecki) or the name of the piece.  But I recognized death, love, and transcendence in it.


Beauty- Day 3 on the neurology of the aesthetic experience

Today we had a guesst to our seminar, Gabrielle Starr, a clearly brilliant woman whose text Feeling Beauty builds a case for the value of mapping the aesthetic experience on the brain. She explained her experimental designs, including both interviews with individuals as well as MRI scans when people read poetry. We were all a  little ( in some cases, a LOT) taken aback when she admitted to rewriting sonnets to get rid of rhyme.  Rhyme is apparently so 19th century.  She writes about the “sister arts” of literature, music, and the visual.  We did engage in a fascinating reflection on why seeing an image on the computer screen–no matter how high def- is dramatically different that seeing the work on the wall of a museum, or perhaps even more so if in a church, etc.  While we tend to think of the visual arts as  static exercise: one looks and sees.  We discussed the aesthetic experience as an event, one which can include walking around, seeing the painting from different angles, role of lighting, seeing of texture, etc.  If viewing visual art is an event, then its “sibling status” to durational arts of music and literature begin to emerge.

We also had an arresting discussion on why Plato may have rejected tragedy while Aristotle embraced it, or at least acknowledged its value  Alexander Nehamas argues that when Plato was writing tragedy was still new and in some senses too contemporary.  All current art is viewed suspiciously and we worry about its effect on us, or in many cases, we simply do not understand what it is trying to do and dismiss it.  But by the time Aristotle was writing about tragedy, it had become part of the canon, if you will, thereby honorable and accepted. I myself found that theory intriguing but surely drama was around  and established by the time Plato was writing??

We ended our morning with a sidebar look at the pricing of art.  This has always bothered me: how does an artist determine what his or her work is worth?  Or the art market?  Is it simply what the market will allow for it to sell?  We are far away from aesthetic value at this point.  Case illustration:

Thomas Kincaid

Thomas Kincaid

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney--she started it all

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney–she started it all

Our afternoon was spent at the new Whitney Museum which moved from the 80s uptown down to Gansvorrt Street down in the Chelsea area of Manhatten.  Our tour guide, Paula, was incredibly knowledgable and articulate about the works she showed us.  One thing I learned was the importance of bringing background knowledge of the artist, the movements with which they were associated, and the historical times of their production, to make the art comprehensible.  One clearly sees differently the more one knows.  This would suggest that to experience art aesthetically in a meaningful and deep way, one must know something, bring something to the art work itself. The exhibit, American is Hard to See, includes works from their permanent collection, many of which I had seen at the uptown location and lovingly (or in some cases confusedly) recalled.

Circling back to Plato and Aristotle (doesn’t everyone?), I am wondering as I look at the newest art: is this really art or a one point statement?

What we would like to do in our last two days:
1. See images or listen to some examples as prompts for discussion.
2. Explore non-Western notions of beauty

So, with that in mind, I add my musical interlude for the day.  What qualities of this music render if beautiful but perhaps not easily accessible to the Western ear?