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The Quality Quest

[The following is a letter I wrote a while ago to the editor of Chicago’s NEW ART EXAMINER responding to an article by Betty Ann Brown badly vitiated, if I may say so, by postmodern political flimflam.  As might be expected from the low quality of Brown’s article, Brown’s only response was to engage in some perfunctory hand waving.]

Betty Ann Brown (“A community self-portrait,” NAE, December, 1990) would have us return the word “quality” because she believes that the concept the word expresses has built into it standards which improperly and objectionably tend to exclude women and artists of color from museums, galleries and exhibitions.  (I will put “quality” in double quotes when I am talking about the word, and in single quotes when I am talking about the concept.)  That is to say, the concept is constructed along class/race/gender lines.  She seems to identify ‘quality’ with the concept of formalistic quality, i.e., a work’s excellence or lack of excellence considered as hinging on such factors as line quality, tough, handling, composition, spatial balance, relations between forms, relations between colors, and so on.  ‘Quality’ interpreted as ‘formalistic quality’ is the concept, she asserts, whose use excludes women and artists of color.  Instead of the word “quality,” she would have us use “worthy.”  According to Brown, a work is worthy when its content “…authentically [accurately?] reflects the artist’s social/historical/political moment.”  She prefers work that grates on her, reflects experiences beyond her own, and concerns issues of race, gender, and class.

I very much doubt whether Brown is really rejecting the concept of quality at all.  If she uses “worthy” in such a way that “This work is good or excellent” follows from “This work is worthy” (surely the word means nothing if this does not follow), then the concept of quality has not been done away with.  For if a work is high in quality, it is good or excellent, and if it is good or excellent, it is high in quality.  Thus I suspect Brown is really just advancing a different theory of what artistic quality (worth, merit, excellence, being good) consists in.  She thinks that a work’s quality hinges not on its formalistic values, but on its authentically reflecting an artists’s social/historical/political moment.

However, Brown’s theory of quality (or worth, merit, excellence, or whatever) is obviously false.  Consider all the dull, heavy-handed, poorly observed works stemming from the nineteenth century that use vicious stereotypes to depict African Americans, male and female.  Surely these works reflect their artists’ social/historical/political moment in the most authentic way possible.  They even grate on me, reflect on experiences beyond my own, and concern the issues of race, gender, and class that Brown holds so dear.  Brown is not about to value them as worthy.  If her theory of quality is true, however, there is no way one could escape the conclusion that they are worthy, their shoddiness and viciousness notwithstanding.  Brown could try to avoid this unappetizing conclusion by claiming that the content of  work must reflect the correct politics if it is to count as excellent, but such a move would be clearly ad hoc, if not laughable.  The only reason to make such a move would be to save Brown’s theory.

In the absence of any plausible alternative, one is left with the formalistic theories of quality.  Do these theories in fact have built into them standards that improperly and objectionably tend to exclude women and artists of color?  Consider the following theory, and see if it has any such standards built in.  I submit that the concept I describe below is the one operative in most critical discourse.

A work of art is a symbol that both expresses and sometimes denotes (to use Nelson Goodman’s terms) a content or subject matter.  The work’s excellence or lack of excellence is a function of both its formalistic values and what it expresses.  If what the work expresses is of low value, the work itself is of lesser value, even if (and in fact partly because) its formalistic values express its content perfectly.  Suppose, for example, that Jones, a critic, becomes convinced that Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings express the same types of feelings expressed by New Age music.  Since Jones holds those feelings in low esteem, she values the paintings less than they are usually valued.  Similarly, Smith, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, holds in low esteem what Anne Ryan’s collages express, namely, a sense of intimacy and pleasure (usually regarded as feminine) in materials and fabrics.  The fact that the formalistic values of the collages expresses those things perfectly hardly commends them to him.  He therefore places the works in storage.

Clearly, Smith’s application of the concept ‘quality’ has been guided by his gender attitudes.  He regards feminine stuff as minor and of lesser value.  I take it this is the sort of case Brown has in mind when she claims that ‘quality’ has built into it standards that improperly and objectionably tend to exclude women.  In what follows, I argue that the claim is nonetheless false.  The argument focuses on the expressive content of an artwork.

There are two possibilities concerning the value of what an artwork expresses.  1) Conventional, relativistic, folk wisdom is correct.  Conventional folk wisdom would like to relativize value the way Einstein relativizes motion.  In Einstein’s theory, of course, the speed of an object is relative to a frame of reference.  In one frame of reference, the speed is 60 mph, and in another it is 1 mph.  Folk wisdom treats Smith and Jones as on-person frames of reference.  In the Smith frame of reference, what Ryan’s work expresses has a low value, while in the Jones frame of reference, say, it has a high value.  Just as there is no absolute measure of speed, but only the speed in this frame of reference and the speed in that one, there is no absolute measure of value for what Ryan’s work expresses.  There is only its value for Smith, and its value for Jones.  2)  What an artwork expresses has a value that is not relative to particular individuals, and Smith and Jones can measure that value accurately or inaccurately, correctly or incorrectly.

Assume that 1) is right.  Suppose also that Jones is a feminist who wants to believe that Smith’s exclusion of Ryan (and the exclusion of other women artists on similar grounds) is improper and objectionable.  Jones, however, cannot cogently criticize or object to Smith’s exclusion of Ryan’s work.  For surely the following thesis is true:

A) If an artwork is of low value (is not good, excellent, worthy, etc.), excluding it (putting it into storage in a museum, not exhibiting it in a show, not buying it, and so on) is not objectionable or improper.

This is, I suspect, an intuition everyone shares.  Even Brown’s view commits her to it, since if a work is worthy, it is surely not low in value.  Now in the Smith frame of reference, Ryan’s collages are low in value.  It follows from A), then, that Smith’s putting her work into storage is not improper or objectionable.  The mere fact that in the Jones frame of reference the collages have a high value does not make the exclusion objectionable.  For disputing the exclusion on those grounds would be like disputing a measure of speed made in another frame of reference on the grounds that it does not match the measure one has made in his own frame of reference.

So if the relativism outlined in 1) is correct, Smith’s exclusion of Ryan’s work is not objectionable.  I assume, by the way, that Brown objects to ‘quality’ because it allegedly leads to cases of objectionable exclusion.

Assume now that 2) is right.  Smith has either correctly or incorrectly valued the expressive content of Ryan’s work.  If he has valued that content correctly, then Ryan’s work is of lesser quality and therefore of lesser value.  It follows from A), then, that Smith’s exclusion of Ryan’s work is not objectionable or improper.  Smith’s exclusion has not resulted from biases and prejudices that have prevented him from valuing the work correctly.  So the concept ‘quality’ is not open to criticism in this case because it has not led to an improper or objectionable exclusion.

Suppose now that Smith has valued the expressive content of Ryan’s work incorrectly (presumably because of gender biases).  He was wrong to put it in storage.  (This is, incidentally, the view I hold, and I suspect Brown would prefer to hold it as well.)  In this case, however, the fault does not lie with the concept ‘quality,’ but with a bad and misguided application of that concept to a particular case.  The application of ‘quality’ went afoul because prejudice prevented Smith from valuing correctly the expressive content of Ryan’s work.  In cases like these, then, the concept ‘quality does not have built into it standards that improperly and objectionably exclude women; rather, it is particular application of the concept that can objectionably exclude women (not all women, by the way) when the expressive content of a work gets wrongly valued.

In each case, then, either the concept ‘quality’ is not the culprit, or the exclusion in question is not objectionable.  Contrary to Brown, it turns out that ‘quality’ does not have built into it (through some kind of white male conspiracy) standards which improperly and objectionably exclude women.  If women are underrepresented in museums relative to their population, the fault lies not with ‘quality,’ but with other factors, including bad applications of the concept (assuming that relativism is false and that female concerns are incorrectly assigned a low value — if relativism is true and female concerns are correctly given a low value, cases of the sort discussed above, which I take to be bad applications of the concept, are in fact not objectionable), prejudice, and social discouragement.  The same analysis applies mutatis mutandis to artists of color.

Cliff Engle Wirt                                                                                                                                        Chicago, IL

Today’s homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM takes the form of James Dean and Sal Mineo.

James_Dean_SalMineo_4

‘Look at me the way I look at Natalie Wood,’ James Dean reportedly told Sal Mineo during the filming of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.  Mineo, having a crush on Dean, needed very little prompting to heed this instruction.  Homoerotic expression is, I dare say, something that in the past has been given an incorrect valuation.

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“How Can We Know What The Probability Is?” And Other Objections And Remarks

The following, of course, is not yet developed.

“Where did you get that 99% probability from?” someone may object.  “Did you pull it from your ass?”  Well, I did stipulate it.  But the general objection remains valid nonetheless:  it would seem that there is no way to come up with an objective evaluation of what the probability actually is unless it is 0 or 100%, these figures being based on the physical laws of the universe or the laws of probability.  Deal with this.  See if Dretske’s discussion of this works.

Inductive:  probability of less than 100% but greater than 0.  Deductive (or what supports deduction):  conditional probability is 100%.  Absolute reliability, absolute safety.  What makes the transmission a case of information is also what makes it something supporting deduction.

IF p THEN p — either a complete lack of transmission of information or the exact opposite — a complete surfeit of “transmission” (quote unquote) at the “zero point”.

 

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The Problem

The Problem:  What Does Relevance Consist In?  Following Relevant Logic, we can avoid Classical Logic’s paradoxes (or at least weirdnesses) of Material Implication, according to which the following statements are true…

1) If Cliff lives in Houston, Texas, then the earth has just one moon

2) If Cliff lives in Orange County, California, then Paris, Texas is the capital of France

…by insisting that the antecedent p be relevant to the consequent q.

But what is it that makes p relevant to q?  What is relevance anyhow?

 

 

 

Back To The Main Page

Next Snippet:  What Is Relevance Anyhow?

 

 
 
 
Edit Log: June 04, 2017: Made some minor changes.


Berkeley’s Direct Tactile Realism In His NEW VISION

Oddly enough for those of us used to thinking of Berkeley as a thoroughgoing idealist, Berkeley maintains in his AN ESSAY TOWARDS A NEW THEORY OF VISION a direct realism regarding tactile perception.  Whereas the objects of vision — for example, the visible moon — do not exist outside the mind, the objects of touch — what is touched, tangible objects — do exist outside the mind in external space.  As George Pitcher puts it, speaking of what Berkeley is claiming in black and white in the NEW THEORY OF VISION:

What we feel are the tangible objects — i.e., the objects that are spread around us at various points in physical space.  What we see are objects that exist only in the mind.

George Pitcher, BERKELEY: THE ARGUMENTS OF THE PHILOSOPHERS  (Routledge, London and New York), p. 28. Henceforth BERKELEY

Tangible objects, in the system of the Essay, exist around us in real physical space.

George Pitcher, BERKELEY, p. 43.

And from the Master himself:

For all visible things are equally in the Mind, and take up no part of the external Space.  And consequently are equidistant [in the next sentence Berkeley says ‘Or rather to speak truly…are at no Distance, neither near nor far…] from any tangible thing, which exists without the Mind.

George Berkeley, AN ESSAY TOWARDS A NEW THEORY OF VISION, paragraphs CXI and CXII, in The GEORGE BERKELEY COLLECTION: 5 CLASSIC WORKS, Amazon Print-On-Demand Edition, no pagination.  Henceforth A NEW THEORY OF VISION. 

 

Perceiving for Berkeley (I will venture now…though I may end up chipping away at this claim) is always a two-place relation between a Mind that perceives something and the thing that is perceived.  In the case of vision, this relation is for Berkeley a two-place relation between the Mind and an entity that exists only in the mind, a visual Idea.  In the case of touch, this relation is a two-place relation between the Mind and a hard or soft or rough or smooth or sharp or rounded…object existing in external space (or at least this is what Berkeley cares to state explicitly in black and white in his NEW THEORY OF VISION.)

In the case of vision, I perceive extra-mental object existing in external space only indirectly, or mediately, in a three-place relation between my Mind (me), the Visibile Idea (e.g., the Visibile Moon) to which my Mind is related directly, and the external object (the physical, tangible Moon) for which the Visibile Moon serves as a sign.  So with regard to vision, Berkeley maintains (at least in what he sets down in black and white on the page) a representational theory of perception.  He is an indirect realist with regard to vision:  we see the physical object in external space just indirectly, in a way mediated by the mental object of color and shape that we do see directly.

But with regard to touch, Berkeley is a direct realist.  We perceive the physical object directly through touch.  We don’t perceive it by ‘touching’ or ‘feeling’ a mental object that represents the physical tangible object.  We are in contact with the object itself.  Put another way, our perception reaches all the way to the felt object.  In the case of touch, the perception is a two-place, not a three-place relation.

This direct realism in the case of touch comes as a bit of a surprise to those of us who think of Berkeley as a thoroughgoing idealist who thinks that everything is mental.  And in fact Berkeley apparently claimed in later writings that he theorized touch this way only to prevent his readers from freaking out from far too much counterintuitive idealism (Pitcher, BERKELEY, p. 28) which would only have served to distract his readers from what he wanted to focus on, namely, vision. In his own thoughts, ostensibly kept to himself at the time of A NEW THEORY OF VISION, he regarded the objects of touch as in fact mental.  But regardless of what the historical George Berkeley thought or did not think inwardly as he wrote that tract, treating touch in a direct realist fashion as involving direct perceptual contact with the touched/felt physical object is strongly motivated by how he conceptualizes the (ostensibly just mental) objects of vision.

As I have discussed in a previous post, The Truth Of Bishop Berkeley (Part 0),  Berkeley treats the visible object has properties.  The Visibile Moon, for example, is round, flat, luminous, and of a certain pale cheese-like yellow. If we think of the objects of touch as having analogous properties, those properties would be rough, smooth, hard, soft, and so on.  But surely no mental things can be rough etc.  Only physical objects — for example, the bark of a tree, the cool smoothness of marble — can have these properties.  Thus conceptualizing Ideas as having properties puts Berkeley straightway on the road to regarding physical objects existing in extra-mental space as the objects of touch.

Touch lends itself to a direct realist interpretation in a way that vision does not.  The seen object at least seems to be at a distance from the sensing surface of the see-er.  How can the visual experience include anything at a distance from this sensing surface?  It would seem prima facie that anything away from that surface would have to be outside the experience. The visual experience would therefore be confronted with the impossible-to-fulfill need to “reach out” to the seen object.  This, at least, is how I try to articulate the intuition that vision poses a problem for a direct realist interpretation of the seen object.

By contrast, there is zero distance between the sensing surface of my skin and the rough bark of the tree as I run my hand along the bark’s surface. Through touch, I am in contact with the physical object itself.  There is no question of the tactile experience having to “reach out” to the object because a physical me, engaging my physical hand, has already done the reaching out.  Touch is the direct realist sense par excellence.

And, as I hope to show (soon, or at least sometime before I die), the visual experience actually does reach out (in some sense of ‘actually does reach out’) to the physical object (Merleau-Ponty), or at least seems to so reach out (Berkeley) because of the way touch is implicated in the visual experience.  Touch informs the direct realist character (real or ostensible) of visual experience.

 

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This time my homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM takes the form of Brad Pitt in THE FIGHT CLUB.  This image seems appropriate for a disquisition on touch and brutal physical reality.

Brad-Pitt-Fight-Club

If Plato can have a thing for Alkibiades, I can have a thing for gorgeous rednecks.  This particular redneck needs to stop smoking, however.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Evolution And Being Gay

Based on identical twin studies, being gay seems to be about 50% genetic.  Gay genes get passed on from generation to generation.  But the persistence of these genes poses something of a problem for obvious reasons.  One would expect these genes to be selected against, since (it would seem) they make reproduction less likely.

What follows is my rendition of one evolutionary theory that attempts to explain how gay genes could have a selective advantage in a population.  This rendition is a bit humorous, of course, but it may not be too far off from the gist of the theory.

There are a bunch of genes that make it more likely that your brain will develop in a more feminine direction.  If you have any one of these genes, or just some of them, you will not be likely to be gay.  If you have enough of them, you are considerably more likely to be gay, though the chances still aren’t 100 percent.  Let’s step through the possible cases.

Case 1:  You have no gay genes at all.  Your brain has developed in a completely masculine direction.  You are a completely hairy gorilla, and you pee in the sink.  Women say ‘Ew, yuck,’ and avoid you at all costs.

Case 2:  You have just a few gay genes.  Your brain has developed in a slightly more feminine direction.  You are slightly less hairy, and  you usually remove the dishes before you pee in the sink.  Women still say ‘Ew, yuck,’  but they also say, ‘Well, given that I am stuck on a desert island with you and you are the only male available, I guess I will hold my nose and have a kid with you.’

Case 3:  You have more gay genes.  Your brain has developed in still yet more of a feminine direction, with the result that you are reliable, and stick around to support your children.  You pay attention to your partner.  You never pee in the sink.  Women go up to you and say, “Please, I want to have your baby.”

The gay genes get passed down through the generations because of this selective advantage.

Case 4:  You have still more gay genes, and your brain has developed in even more of a feminine direction.  You go up to guys and say, “Please, I want to have your baby.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 730 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 12 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


A Jesus Joke A Nun Once Told Me (2)

“They now have definitive proof that Jesus was actually Italian, not Jewish.”

“How do they know?”

“He didn’t leave home until he was 30, and his Mother thought He was God.”