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The proposed Arizona religious freedom law

As I write this, it is uncertain whether Arizona’s governor will or will not veto the law. Still, questions remain.

This debate often centers on gay wedding cakes, which is about as trivial a civil issue as I can imagine. There is no gay marriage in Arizona. Are we to imagine gay couples lugging wedding cakes to, say, California?

Consider these cases:

  • Bob and Larry (not their real names) want a wedding cake baked in Tucson.
  • Bob and Larry want to buy a saw from a hardware store to cut some dead branches.
  • Bob and Larry want to rent a room in an Arizona hotel. They want a king beg. Proprietor disapproves.
  • Bob and Larry want to rent a room in an Arizona hotel. They want two queens. Proprietor approves.
  • Bob and Larry zip up to the grocery store line with a basket of stuff. Grocer disapproves.
  • Two fraternity brothers, wishing to share a room, ask at a certain hotel what they have. Are told only king beds are available. Frat bros say, Fine. Proprietor shoos them away.

Maybe the wedding cake infringes on religious liberty. Maybe the Bob and Larry king size bed infringes on religious liberty. Maybe. Do the others similarly infringe? A saw? Two queen beds?

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Detroit to Tucson

Two men and a dog drive from Southfield to Tucson.

First night. Ottawa, IL. A surprisingly charming little town, with a tapas restaurant. We, including Bruno, ate al fresco.

Then through Nebraska. Like being on an ocean liner, only instead of water everywhere there was corn.

On to Colorado, where we stayed the night in Manitou Springs at El Colorado, adobe cabins built in 1926, with more electric outlets than in modern hotels. Charming, picnic table outside our room and a great Thai restaurant next door.

Slight detour to Taos, which has become a tourist trap. But magnificent scenery along the way. Ended up in Albuquerque for the night. No impressions at all.

Drove through pouring rain to Las Cruces, then to Tucson where we stay with Larry’s uncle Bob, awaiting the delivery of our furniture.

“The Biblical Definition of the Family Unit”

Dan Cathy, the (in)famous president of Chick-fil-A, says that he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” “We don’t claim to be a Christian business. But as an organization we can operate on biblical principles.”

Polygamy is rampant in the Old Testament. Abija had 14 wives, Abraham 3, David 18, Solomon 700 (!), etc.

See http://www.biblicalpolygamy.com/polygamists/

Admittedly, there’s no Adam-and-Steve here (unless you count David and Jonathan). And it certainly doesn’t follow that if the Bible condones polygamy, it therefore condones same-sex marriage.

But still … “the Biblical definition of the family unit”?

Two Gaps in Hume’s Essay on Taste

In his Treatise on Human Nature (Bk. I.I.I), Hume divides the “perceptions of the human mind” into “impressions” and “ideas.” Impressions are more forceful than ideas; ideas are but copies of impressions. In Bk. II.I.I, Hume draws further distinctions. “Original” impressions can be sensations from external sources (e.g. visual impressions) or sensations of the body (e.g. hunger). “Secondary” or “reflective” impressions arise either from original impressions or from ideas. These secondary or reflective impressions are either “violent” (the passions) or “calm” (our sense of beauty and deformity). Book II of the Treatise contains Hume’s thoughts on the passions; Hume’s essay, “Of the Standard of Taste,” presents his thoughts on our sense of beauty and deformity.

In the essay, a judgment of taste is a judgment of beauty or deformity. Coupling this with the anatomy of perceptions in the Treatise, a judgment of taste is a report of an occurrence in a subject of a secondary (or reflective) calm impression. Taste is the ability to have such reflective, calm impressions, an ability which presumably everyone possesses. Delicacy of taste is another matter.

“Of the Standard of Taste” can be read as an attempt to resolve a paradox. On the one hand, it seems true that beauty and deformity are subjective: “… a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. … Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” [7][i] On the other hand, it seems true that beauty and deformity are objective: “Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.” [8] No wonder then, “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.” [3]

To solve this paradox, Hume presents first an ontology of beauty and deformity, followed by an epistemology of how beauty and deformity can be known. His ontology consists of what I will call “the true beauty thesis.” “Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ.” [12] And a bit later: “Though it be certain, that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” [16] To discern true beauty we need “A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it.” [10]

One notices the duality in these quotes: beauty belongs to sentiment, but there is a “catholic and universal beauty” which consists of “qualities in objects … fitted by nature” to produce these sentiments. In fact, Hume really does speak of beauty and deformity in two different ways: (1) as a power in objects to produces certain sentiments, or (2) as those very sentiments. The first says that beauty is objective (a dispositional property of objects); the second says that beauty is subjective (a certain sentiment of subjects). This is not a contradiction as Hume handles it, for he makes the first into an ontology of beauty, and the second into an epistemology of beauty.

The true beauty thesis is a feature of Hume’s ontology. It holds that an object is beautiful if and only if it is of a kind that will produce certain sentiments, regardless of whether these sentiments are actually produced. Here is the first gap in the essay. There is no justification offered for the true beauty thesis. And given Hume’s empiricism, it’s hard to see what justification could be offered. All we have to go on is the original impression of, say, a poem, and (typically) a secondary calm impression of beauty (or deformity). There is nothing here that supports the true beauty thesis. Indeed, the true beauty thesis seems like a claim about things-in-themselves, apart from our experience of them, as a later philosopher might have put it.

The skeptic can easily step into this gap. If we don’t know that there really are objects fitted to produce the sense of beauty (in suitably specified observers), then we don’t know that the judgments of these observers are correct reports of beauty. That true judges may agree is no evidence for the true beauty thesis. For all we know, there is nothing other than the coalescence of similar sentiments among the true judges. This coalescence of sentiment may be counted as a “standard of taste,” though the “confirming” and “condemning” of sentiment will be only a kind of sociological enterprise – at worst, an exercise in snobbery – but not a truth-seeking activity.

Hume’s epistemology of beauty follows logically from his ontology. If a poem – let it be Paradise Lost – is truly beautiful, yet some prefer Ogilby to Milton, then the taste of one or the other must be defective. This leads Hume to analogize taste (the having of secondary, calm impressions) with sensory perception. In each we can find “sound and defective states.” The man with a fever cannot judge properly of the flavor of food; the person with jaundice cannot judge properly of the color of an object. So who is fevered or jaundiced? The Ogilby-ites or the Milton-ites?

“In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of a taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty …” [12] How do we determine whose “organ” of taste is in a “sound state”? Hume’s answer to this is the Don Quixote anecdote. Two men who have a reputation as wine connoisseurs are invited to taste a hogshead of wine. Taster A pronounces it good except for the taste of metal; taster B pronounces it good except for the taste of leather. They are ridiculed for their judgments until a key on a leather thong is found at the bottom of the barrel, thereby proving that each has delicacy of taste.

Here is how Hume characterizes such delicacy. “Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense.” [16] The wine connoisseurs have delicacy of taste; the taste of the others is “dull and languid.” The problem is that Hume is talking about the wrong thing.

One would think that delicacy of taste to be located on the right; but the Don Quixote anecdote puts it on the left. It’s obviously necessary to have the sensory finesse to detect the “ingredients” in a composition before one can assess the composition as a whole. But it is the secondary impressions that we rely on to pronounce an object beautiful or deformed. If all the wine tasters had going for them was a very refined palate (sensitivity on the left above), they could well have detected the taste of leather or metal in the wine – and pronounced it quite an excellent wine after all!

This is the second gap in Hume’s essay: he neglects the “sound and defective states” of secondary calm impressions. The reader might object that Hume says quite a bit. When listing the qualities of the “true judges” Hume says they should be practiced in a “particular species of beauty,” and in forming comparisons among “several kinds of beauty”; they should be free of “prejudice” and be of “good sense”. On a certain level, this is unobjectionable (though one might want to add a feature or two to Hume’s list). The gap is that Hume never draws a connection between these features and the having of “sound” secondary calm impressions. Is it just a fact that these true-judge features eventuate in the having of sound secondary calm impressions? How do we know that? Indeed, we are at a loss to say how practice, comparison, and the rest hone secondary calm impressions.

I would like to address the following objection to my arguments. The Treatise was written when Hume was a young man; the essay on taste appears some seventeen years later. Why should Hume be saddled in the essay on taste with the distinctions he drew in an earlier work? There is some merit to this objection, mainly in the fact that nowhere in the essay on taste does Hume use the jargon of the Treatise. I’ll leave it to Hume scholars to decide how committed Hume remained to his original distinctions among the perceptions of the mind.

The larger point is that there is a fact-value gap which Hume does not fill. It is not the usual one of getting from “is” to “ought,” but of getting from impressions of something, however refined those impressions may be, to the valuation of that thing – and it is of little consequence if this is described as how we come to have “correct” secondary calm impressions based on refined original impressions.

In effect, Hume has told us next to nothing about the process of reflecting on original impressions. Kant, of course, tells us a great deal about this; the reflective judgment is the centerpiece of his theory of aesthetic judgment. But in Hume, it isn’t even clear in which direction the “arrow” is supposed to point (referring to my diagram above). I’ve drawn it to point to the original impression, which is a natural graphic way of illustrating the thought that we reflect on the original impression. It could be drawn the other way:

 

 This seems to suggest that original impressions just cause secondary calm impressions. In Book II.I.I of the Treatise, Hume describes the passions (secondary violent impressions) as arising in a causal way: “A fit of the gout produces a long train of passions, as grief, hope, fear; but is not deriv’d immediately from any affection or idea.” Possibly, he thinks that secondary calm impressions (the sense of beauty and deformity) arise in the same way. Certain objects just produce a sense of beauty.

But this just adds to the mystery. How are we to explain how impressions cause valuations? And where, in this picture, will we place the characteristics of the true judges (practice, comparison, etc.)? Do they influence the original impressions? If so, how? Do they mediate (somehow) between original and secondary impressions? What would be the mechanism of this?

I’m forced to conclude that these gaps render Hume’s essay incapable of resolving the paradox he so cogently put forward.

Robert Yanal


[i] David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” first published in 1757 as part of Four Dissertations. Cited here in its hypertext incarnation, with numbered paragraphs by Theodore Gracyk (2002). http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/hume%20on%20taste.htm

Two Philosophers of Art on Photography

Although one of these philosophers wrote thousands of years before the advent of photography, and the second addressed his remarks to painting, it is possible and, I think, instructive to apply their remarks to the practice of photography as art.

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

The main topic of Aristotle’s Poetics is the nature of tragedy. I’ll extract two remarks which are pertinent to the practice of photography as art.

“Plot,” Aristotle claims, “is the soul of tragedy.” And the (good) tragic plot must exhibit “unity.”

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. … As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

A good plot is not a recitation of all the facts; the poet must pick and choose so as to make an “organic whole” – that is, an artwork in which all the parts exhibit a structural relation to one another, and nothing is present which is unnecessary.

Here is a lesson for photographers. It is tempting when viewing something to take it all in when snapping the shutter. While this may make for a photo of some interest, it may not make for a unified photograph. Therefore, frame and if necessary crop with a view, not to showing “everything,” but to making an organic whole.

Unrelated to unity, but a comment that bears on photography:

Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.

Some things give “pain” when viewed in real life – “eyesores” we might call them. But an eyesore might make for a good photograph “when reproduced with minute fidelity.”

The contrary of this seems also true. Some objects might when viewed in reality give pleasure, but are hard if not impossible to turn into art photographs. Mountain ranges, for example, are magnificent to view, but do not always make for a photograph of equivalent impact.

Clive Bell (1881-1964)

Bell’s short book Art (1915) presents a theory of  “visual art,” by which Bell intends to include painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture. By the time of the publication of Bell’s book, photography had been practiced for about 60 years. For whatever reason, though, Bell does not include photography as one of the “visual arts.” Indeed, the only mention made of photography is to commend it for hastening the abolition of realism in painting: “But photography has made impossible any such transmutation of modern rubbish” (Bell is sneering at Frith, a prominent realistic Victorian painter). The thought is that if photography is naturally realistic, painting is therefore forced to seek another venue to exploit.

The principal motivation for Bell’s book is the advent of modern painting – Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, etc. – and the concurrent attention to so-called “primitive” pieces (pre-Columbian art, archaic Greek art, etc.). All of these works eschew exact realistic depiction. So what makes them art?

There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne?

Only one answer seems possible—significant form. In each, lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colors, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art.

So (visual) art is significant form; and significant form is the relation among lines and forms in a work, a relation that moves us.

If the essence of visual art is significant form and not realistic depiction, then an abstract or “primitive” work might have more claim to being art that the realistic paintings of William Frith (assuming, as Bell thinks, Frith’s works lack significant form).

What lessons for photography can we draw from a theorist who, by intent or neglect, excludes photography from the visual arts, and whose theory explicitly eschews realistic depiction as necessary for art – given that photography is a naturally realistic medium?

First, the photographer must consider all the elements in the frame. Second, he must consider the relations of these elements to one another. Here considerations of balance, complementarity, and contrast come into play. Third, a judge of a photograph must rely on his or her feelings – Bell terms these our “aesthetic emotions”. In this sense, a judgment of the quality of a photograph is subjective; but the judge’s feelings are to be directed towards the “form” of the photograph (what is more commonly called “composition”).

Summary and a Question

Both Aristotle and Bell are “formalists” in the sense that the most important quality of art is not what is depicted but how it is depicted. Aristotle tells us that the elements in a work must form a unity (each element making some contribution to the whole; the work containing all that is needed and nothing that is not needed). Bell tells us the artist must arrange the elements of his work so as to produce “significance” in the design alone (with significance or its lack being determined by an observer’s aesthetic feelings). To take one example, I think it is the relation among its elements, and not its subject matter, that makes Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Blast Furnaces (1927) significant:

 

Small comment: In real life, these furnaces would probably have been “viewed with pain” to use Aristotle’s words; yet in the right photograph they make for great art.

Assume blast furnaces are not in themselves art. How can a photograph – a kind of copy of these furnaces – be a work of art? In Aristotle and Bell we get one answer: the photographer imposes form, and it is this form that makes a work of art.

Now, artists have been unkind to theories of art. Tragedy, Aristotle said, must have a “noble hero.” Not so said Arthur Miller, who produced a tragedy, Death of a Salesman, with a distinctly ordinary hero. Art must have significant form, Bell said. Not so said Andy Warhol, whose soup cans and Brillo boxes have decidedly insignificant forms.

But: street photography often captures the randomness of ordinary life, thereby eschewing significant form and unity, as in the work of one of the great practitioners of street photography, Gary Winogrand. Here’s an example (American Legion Convention,1964):

 

I would say that by the considerations of unified composition, this photograph fails to make the grade. And yet, it is, I think, a photograph with great impact nonetheless.

Question: Is unity of form or significance of form to be prized and used to judge all photographs? If not, when is it relevant and when not? I think camera clubs tend to judge on Aristotle-Bell lines – at the cost of devaluing street photography.

Streets of Santiago

The Presidential Palace, but no Chilean President has actually lived there since Allende was murdered? committed suicide? during the Pinochet putsch.


Speaking of Allende, there is a statue of him outside the palace, but not, oddly, a statue of Pinochet.


Old and new.


Random street shots.


Fish and meat markets.


The goat cheese vendor was positively giddy.

Location:Santiago, Chile

Villa Grimaldi

The Villa Grimaldi was a private estate seized by Pinochet who used it as a prison, torture chamber, and place of execution for rival political opponents. (See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_Grimaldi)


The main house was destroyed by the army, so the grounds are primarily a park in honor of the victims.


There is a wall of the names if the victims, and names distributed throughout the rose garden.


The guard house, also destroyed by the army, but reconstructed, now contains glass cases with personal effects – a tie, glasses, schoolbook, etc. – of Pinochet’s victims.

Location:Santiago, Chile