Monday, November 30, 2009

Santayana's take on Aesthetics

George Santayana is a pragmatist from the 20th century, he offers a very different explanation for our conception of aesthetics, and taste than our previous authors. He argues that aesthetic value is subjective and created through experience. The different social structures and cultures a person lives with affect their judgment of artwork. When contrasting Santayana’s philosophy with Kant’s, there is a clear distinction between the two aesthetic philosophies.
He explains that we recognize and learn things based on “how they look and what they do to us” (Santayana Animal Faith 104). This would mean that as animals our experiences shape our attitude about the way certain objects appear to us. For example one person that had a dog growing up might see a painting of a dog to be cute and pretty; however, another person who was attacked by a dog at an earlier time might find the same painting of a dog to be terrifying. Santayana claims that every time we experience something our brain stores everything we sensed and learns from it. Like in the example, the person who was attacked by the dog at a young age is afraid of the dog because of his past experience with one. His animal self tells him that he needs to beware of dogs. His judgment about that artwork in the present stems from lessons in the past about what is good or bad for his well being. Another example would be food poisoning. If you ever get food poisoning from a restaurant like Chipotle, even after you recover, the thought of that food makes you sick. Your body associates the food at Chipotle with all the sick feelings you experienced. Your body forms a taste to help with its betterment. Likewise the things that we find beautiful are things that our animal selves find to be beneficial almost according to the lessons it learned. These experiences form our later judgments. Life experiences are not shared by everyone. Because of this, there are no universal standards of beauty. “No two men have exactly the same faculties, nor can things have for any two exactly the same value” (Santayana 42). Therefore the aesthetic values of art works are subjective, and can change over time with experience.
This idea of subjectivity with art seems very similar to Hume’s idea of “taste”. That different people can hold different values for the same work of art. Hume says that there is no point in arguing taste no one will win the argument. Santayana is able to give an account of why people have different tastes, and why it is futile to argue about the value an artwork. People may have different experiences, some may be similar, like they all had to go to school as a child, however there are many experiences that are unique to individual people. These experiences cause people to form judgments on the things they see according to those experiences. The only way to cause someone to agree completely with your assessment of a painting is to somehow change their life so they had all the same experiences you had. Some people might agree about the value of certain artworks; however that might stem from the fact that they might have had similar experiences in the past.
The idea that experience molds our value of objects around us also helps to explain why our ideas of what qualifies as good art has changed over the years. The social structures and the way society functions as a whole have changed over the years as well. It seems every time society has changed art has changed as well. Benjamin had noted how technology has drastically changed the world of art. Santayana believes artworks in general are symbolizations of the environment and social structures, meaning works of art are merely a reflection of society. This depicts the reason why art has changed throughout the years, and is different throughout cultures. People in a society have many similar tastes in works of art because they have many of the same experiences living the same society.
The greatest contrast to Santayana beliefs on making aesthetic judgments would be the Immanuel Kant. Kant claims that a person has to be disinterested in the object in order to make a value judgment. One has to be disinterested in their contemplation of the thing. He says that a judgment of beauty comes from disinterestedness, while things like the agreeable come from bodily desires or interest. For example Kant would say that when you look at a glass of water when you are thirsty, the sensation you feel is the agreeable. Your desire for water has caused this sensation to feel good when you see water. Your self interest caused those feelings. The utility the glass of water would serve caused those feelings, not your disinterested contemplation of it. You were not disinterested enough to make a judgment of aesthetic value. If you were not thirsty and disinterested with the existence of the water than you would be qualified to form an unbiased opinion of it’s aesthetic value, you would probably discover the glass of water does not have aesthetic value. Kant demands that people abandon every preconceived bias and experience when viewing art.
Santayana offers a very different view of how we should value aesthetics. He claims that “beauty is a pleasure regarded as the quality of the thing” or pleasure that comes from the quality and value of an object (Santayana 49). He explicitly disagrees with Kant’s concept of disinterestedness. Santayana claims that it is impossible to perceive a new object without applying past experiences. Kant believes that a person can, and should, abandon everything they learned from their society and culture when they view an object. Santayana claims that we do not do this. He says that our admiration of art comes from our past experiences and the effect perceiving those objects has on us. To give art any kind of value, we have to apply our personal judgment which comes from our experience in life. Back to the example of the portrait of the dog people make different values because of the experiences they had in their lives. Santayana says that the standards of art are subjective and cannot be conceived without bias, nor can it be conceived merely through the intuition.
Some people might argue that Santayana’s definition of the beautiful is the same as Kant’s concept of the agreeable. That Santayana’s idea of beauty is merely something that creates pleasure. Santayana makes a clear distinction between the pleasures resulting from the perception of the object and the idea of the agreeable that Kant mentions. “Most of the pleasure which objects cause are easily distinguished and separated from the perception of the object: the object has to be applied to a particular organ, like the palate, or swallowed like wine or used or operated on in some way before the pleasure arises” (Santayana 48). With normal pleasures the feelings of pleasure we receive come from the effects those things have on our body. Not from merely perceiving the quality of the object we see. Santayana says that the value of beauty is an intellectual pleasure that comes from perceiving something that is good according to the judgment formed by past experiences. He says that “beauty is a value… it is an emotion, an affection of our volitional and appreciative nature” (Santayana 49). He says that the pleasure gained from beauty “must not be in the consequence of the utility of the object” (Santayana 49). Santayana says that the pleasure gained from beauty does not satisfy some pleasure of our body; however it satisfies some fundamental desire or need from our minds. Therefore a person cannot make the claim that Kant’s idea of agreeableness and Santayana’s idea of beauty are the same thing. Kant’s idea of the agreeable is that of an object that has a utility or purpose that it fulfills for our body; which differs from Santayana’s conception of beauty, which is that beauty is something that fulfills the desires of our mind.
Santayana argued for evolving standards of art. He argued that the value of an artwork a person has stems from their past experiences. When contrasting this idea with Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics, there is a clear distinction between the two philosophies.
Works Cited
1. Santayana, George. The Sense of Beauty. 2. Chicago: Charles Schribners Sons, 1896 . Print.
2. Santayana, George. Skepticism and Animal Faith. 3. New York: Dover Publications, 1955. Print.

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