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Thursday, October 20, 2011


Jerry Fresia [who also, it turns out, has a doctorate in Political Science from UMass!] asks two very interesting questions, which I shall try to answer. Here is what he says:

"Two questions: Regarding Marcuse, you seem to be suggesting (or perhaps it is Marcuse) that the very presence of constraint is necessary for the "sheer, sensuous beauty" that follows from their transcendence. Is this so? If so, why?

Second, when you write about the practice of making art (I'm a painter), both here and in your tutorials on Marx, you seem to suggest that the art in question stems from an idea and that the quality of the result itself (a painting, a fugue, a book, etc) is the payoff or measure of the expression. There seems to be no emphasis on the process and what it does for the artist or no sense of praxis. When I paint, I am having a visual conversation with what I see; it is sensual. The measure of the painting is the feelings I have as I do it. The payoff is in the moment of creation (I feel "larger, more powerful, more beautiful" to use E. Goldman's words. The product (painting, score, book, etc) is a by-product.) The "life better than the network of compromises in which I am enmeshed" is precisely that sense of being larger as I do the activity. The measuring of the results, awards, etc, happen along the way, but not only are not thought of during the process, they must not be thought of if I am going to experience the liberation Marcuse seems to be referring to. What am I missing?"

With regard to the first question, the answer is that Marcuse is saying this, and I agree with him. Why? The infantile fantasy of instantaneous, perfect fulfilment of one's desires is repeatedly frustrated by reality, which imposes limits, requries deferral of gratification, demands effort to achieve even partial gratification, and so forth. Artistic creation can overcome those real-world constraints while simultaneously satisfying them, thus keeping alive the hope of liberation that fuels real world struggles against surplus repression. Seemingly effortless gratification unassociated with the overcoming of contraints, as for example through the use of drugs, does not have this character, and hence leads not to political action but to inaction.

The second question is fascinating. I think I understand what Dr. Fresia is saying, and insofar as I do, I am certainly prepared to acknowledge the truth in what he says. The act of artistic creation is itself fulfilling, just as -- Marx would argue -- the act of production can under the right circumstances be satisfying, in addition to the satisfaction obtained from the completed artwork or the product of the process of production. That is why merely commanding, with money or some other form of power, that food or clothing or shelter be made available is not fulfilling in the way in which engaging in the production process can be. The ultimate corruption or debasement of this central human experience is, of course -- shopping.

Would you agree, Jerry, that in the activity of artistic creation, there is a process of externalization, of making real on the canvas or in the stone or in words of music what starts as ideas in mind? Perhaps you would not. If you have a mind, write a comment and explain how you experience the activity.


formerly a wage slave said...
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formerly a wage slave said...

You are after several conclusions or claims-- that Marx was right to think us all capable of creativity, that this can come out in productive activity of an unsupervised nature, that the fundamental insight is in some sense characteristic of the Romantic period and along the way you seem to suggest a picture of creative activity that is not central to thr other claims. As well there is a psychological claim about something like primitive drives-- something more or less Freudian. Your recent commentator focuses on the picture of creative activity for its failure to do justice to the creative process and its sensuality. Now it happens that the psychologist and novelist has Keith Oatley has proposed something like an account of creative processes which emphasizes the thought that art expresses emotions and claims -- if I remember correctly -- that such a claim is characteristically romantic. But what Oatleys artist - a writer- does with emotions is the equivalent of that painters sensual experience, only with imagined lives, and -- here disagreeing with philosophers -- the real emotions those imaginings stir for readers and writers. A somewhat overlap with your frustrated human being account comes with the thought that emotional experiences are overwhelming and hang around-- but it is not so dark as what I get from you. Also I have the impression that the finished work for you has a different status, and I wonder to what extent that might not simply be due to the influence of Marx's economics, which, after all, is simply not an aesthetics. Yes, i agree, that Plato's dialogues have an amazing quality, but Plato himself, as you know, complained about the way that written words cannot answer a question, but only repeat the same thing. And in that I see once again an indication that the key thing here is a process or activity-- not merely an appreciation of symmetry or a momentary sense of overcoming a frustrating sorrounding environment, but rather a genuine acquisition of self- knowledge, improved understanding of ones self, the inevitable complexities of what one has done, and the multifarious ways in which one is connected to others. After- thought: now maybe that remark about Marx's economics is off-- because if we develop a parallel with what I have said there will be questions about how the things we make fit into our lives-- which is to say a question about justice. Be that as it may, my dissatisfaction is not with you politics, but your psychology.

Anonymous said...
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Dan Hicks said...
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Dan Hicks said...

I have some concerns about the kind of social movements this Marcusean picture supports. If I understood the tutorial correctly, these movements are driven or stimulated by arational and anti-social impulses. (Anti-social not in the sense of being a loner who prefers quiet nights at home, but in the sense that there is a deep antipathy between social standards of good behavior and acting on these impulses.) But then aren't these movements themselves arational and anti-social -- a pure, infantile expression of frustration and rage against social constraints, rather than a project, deliberately undertaken by at least somewhat rational adults, to improve society?

Jerry Fresia said...

Would you agree, Jerry, that in the activity of artistic creation, there is a process of externalization, of making real on the canvas or in the stone or in words of music what starts as ideas in mind?

Because the question has two separate elements within it, I would say yes to the first (yes to the “externalization”) and no the second (no to the “starts as ideas in the mind”). I fully embrace the notion of “human life as expression” in that I believe it is in the very act of expression, in that choice of color or word or note – all external, that one is completed or made determinant. In those expressive acts or choices, I realize a feeling and/or a power. So for example, if I am riding in a bus, looking out at the world around me, I might imagine that I am painting what I see and so I go through the process in my mind. That experience, however, is wholly different from the experience of seeing when I’m actually expressing myself by making marks with a brush on a canvas. In that moment (and this may be conditioned by the fact that I am working from nature) I am absorbing and responding to the sensation of light – becoming one with my subject, as it were. And it is in precisely the externality of making marks that I realize, not just a feeling, but an ability to see that I could not have possibly realized had I not been caught up in the sensuous activity of seeing and acting. In fact, I often say that I really can’t see unless I have a brush in my hand.

So with regard to the second part, for me it doesn’t start with an idea as much as with a sensation (hence I prefer Marx’s language of “sensuous human activity” to “ideas;” could Descartes have made his point by saying “I taste, therefore I am”?)

I wonder if you might find a parallel with the viola. If you listen to a recording of a Brahm’s sonata, for example, and imagine how you might play it and then compare that experience with one where you actually draw a bow across a string, as you play the sonata, do you hear with a greater power as you actually pull the bow or is the moment more intensely pleasurable, as compared to the passive listening? In the actual playing, did the “artistic creation…start as ideas in the mind” or, as I’m guessing, as a rush of sensual pulses, perhaps not separate from an idea, that rage through the entire body? All of which may beg the question is, what is the relationship between ideas and sensations? (By the way, the treatment of human life as expression in the first chapter of Charles Taylor’s Hegel – forgive me! - is exceptional.)

formerly a wage slave said...

After writing the above I had some worries that I had misunderstood you ( RPW); but I just have not had the time to check up on it-- to re- read what you had written. So, I will apologize now if I misunderstood. I believe that in some parts of cyberspace they call a person a " troll " when their contribution is unhelpful, and I would not like to be a troll.