An Exploration of John Berger’s The Look of Things

In this article I will explore John Berger’s The Look of Things, and identify the formal attributes that shape his argument. I will identify the context – historical, political, social, and personal – that attributed to the texts formation, with the purpose of understanding the aim of the text. In this article I will first explore the ideas, arguments that Berger is presenting. I will then open out the context behind the text. Within this I will highlight the difference between Berger’s aims and the aims of the Abstract-Expressionist movement. I will also pay close attention to the theories behind the text, paying close attention to Berger’s defence of realism.

John Berger argues strongly in The Look of Things that drawing is essential to the construction of the artist and art; not just through the physical act of drawing, but also through the spiritual, emotional journey. Berger explains that drawing is a discovery of oneself; he sees this as an essential act required if you are to call yourself an artist. Berger also argues that the constructive nature of drawing, one that doesn’t necessary lead to a painting, is essential for art so that it mirrors society realistically, and that this enables the spectator to gain an understanding of the artist. Berger is therefore arguing for a realism that reflects the individual through representation of common emotions, actions and objects, the antithesis of the then popular and individualistic American Abstract-Expressionist movement.

John Berger’s first statement in The Looks of Things is that ‘For the artist drawing is discovery’ [1955: 165] Here he outlines his position that through drawing, and we can suppose basic artistic technique, the artist begins a journey, which he feels essential in the process of art. Berger explains that the process of drawing ensures that the artist dissects the properties of the object he wishes to capture [1955]. This could be the physical attribute of the subject, the redness of an apple, or something deeper. So drawing is therefore like a doctor examining a patient, running several diagnostic checks before bringing judgement. If we suppose that the subject the artist is examining is the human form, then the artist, through the act of drawing, is forced to dissect the properties of ‘being human’.  Berger explains this position when he is describing the process of shaping the first outlines of a sketch. He believes that:

‘You find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it’ [Berger: 1955:165]

And once inside your sketch of the human form you are forced through your selection of shades and lines into understanding the essence of humanity. Berger believes that this process is important as it forms ‘an autobiographical record of one’s discovery’ [1955:166] which is significant because the ‘drawing is essentially a private work’ [Berger: 1955:166] the antithesis of the finished canvas. So Berger is arguing that drawing is essentially a dialectical process. The drawing is the private discovery of the subject, and the act of painting the communication, or externalising of the discovery, which produces the presented work. This journey is essential to the artist as the process of discovery builds the frame of a finished piece, like the scaffolding prepares the building site for the construction of a house. Berger explains that a ‘spectator… in front of painting or statue tends to identify himself with the subject… in front of a drawing he identifies himself with the artist’ [1955:166] He is arguing that the process of drawing is important as it ensures the spectator can relate to the artist directly, the drawing and its autobiographical element ensures the spectator can look beyond the subject to see the motivations and emotions that the artist has felt along their journey.

This argument is a cornerstone in Berger’s defence of realism as an art form, but also a cornerstone in his attack against the contemporary Abstract-Expressionist movement. The Abstract-Expressionist movement was immensely popular in critical circles as it stood for individualistic freedom; the paintings were typically freed from structure and subject. The artist Jackson Pollock was famed for placing grand canvases on his studio floor and expressing his emotions and moods upon the canvas through splashes of paint.

Pollock explains ‘On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it… and literally be in the painting.’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] This technique can be seen as the antithesis of the journey or discovery that Burger argues for. Pollock places himself literally in the painting, so that the painting becomes him. Berger’s method could be seen as the opposite; Berger argues for a slow evaluation of emotion and experience; built layer upon layer. Pollock prefers to paint first, and as he remarks ‘get acquainted’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] later. Berger’s drawings are meticulous studies, constant restructurings of an image on paper. Pollock’s painting technique comes from the unconscious, a direct and unstructured attempt at portraying the emotion that is felt at the time of painting.

This unstructured, unconscious approach to painting is the exact style Berger is arguing against. He feels that Art is in the mirroring of society. Berger explains that no one line is unconnected in his drawing, in the same way that no one person is removed from his society or culture. This Humanist argument is a rallying call for a style of painting that reflects the society that the individual is born within. Berger explains that ‘A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see’ [1995:165] here he reveals his understanding of a realism he wishes to communicate fitting within the Marxist-Humanist tradition. A realism that doesn’t just, as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton explains, ‘photographically reproduce the surface… of society without penetrating to their significant essences’ [2002:28] but a realism that reflects the complex metaphysical side of human nature and human society.  This secondary vein could be easily disposed of by describing it as light rhetoric placed within a text written for the London left paper The New Statesman. But this would be too much of a reduction, and a reduction that doesn’t explain Berger’s position against the Abstract-Expressionist movement nor does this position adequately shed light upon the last few statements Berger makes in The Look of Things.

Berger’s last few thoughts are upon the nature of realism, directly the sketch he has just drawn. ‘I looked at my drawing to see what had been distorted’ [1955:170] here he seems to commenting upon the illusionary nature of any art. After he has checked over his work, touching shades, and lines he sees the ‘drawing and the actual man coincide’ [Berger: 1955:171] Berger is tutoring the reader in the way which they can create that realism he has called for, he is arguing for an art that goes beyond the look of things.

The Look of Things is a text that shows John Berger’s tutorial instinct, his argument is not aggressive, as it holds a constant vein of instruction. It is in essence a reminder of a skill that shouldn’t be lost, the skill of drawing. The Skill of drawing is argued strongly for in metaphysical terms. The regular use of metaphor ensures the reader maps out Berger’s discovery in their own mind. Experiencing his journey, learning the lessons he had learnt simultaneously. Regardless of this ambition, Berger in The Look of Things is quite reductive, even the most subject-free painting can still reflect contemporary culture and  its concerns perfectly – painting is not only a mirror; art is not just a mirror held beside the society that produces it. Art, all fine art, not only mirrors the society, but also defines the way we conceptualise it; the way we see the world. A painting of fragmented and distorted figures can not mirror our physical attributes, but it can mirror our Ego, our state of mind and conceptualise the way we understand those forces. Berger’s argument is formally sound – the process of drawing brings you closer to the subject, and the drawing brings the spectator closer to the artist. But a realist painting solely relies upon reflecting the world it is surrounded by, and although the paintings may induce a metaphysical experience from a spectator, it does not challenge the perceptions of the spectator and society in general. Berger’s reliance upon realism to reflect contemporary society fails to adequately challenge systems that control our perceptions, and in that way Berger’s plea for realism is flawed.

1. Currently we are struggling to locate an exact bibliographic reference for the paper this article is looking for however, John Berger’s paper can also be found in John Berger, The Look of Things, (London: Viking Press, 1972).

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A Study of Gustave Courbet’s “Realism”

Gustave Courbet’s work can partly be seen as a Realist as he attempts, in his paintings, to represent the reality of life and the reality of social situations in a direct and un-glorified way.In this paper I will show how aspects of Courbet’s paintings are Realist by analysing his paintings, and in doing so present the way that Courbet conforms to the generic conventions of Realism but also how he may in-fact be termed more accurately as Socially Realist

Realism, or Realist paintings can be described concisely as art that has at its main concern the representation of fact or reality and rejection of paintings that are regarded as visionary or romantic [Honour, H and Fleming, J. 2001].  The word Real means not artificial or illusory, so Realism, or a Realist painter would be a person who attempts, in their art, to present which is genuine and authentic. In a historical context this meant that a Realist would be reacting against Iconic art, Ideal or Romantic art. Realism therefore can be regarded as a representation of the real, the current and the happening (the contemporary); and in turn as a reaction against the illusionary, the unreal and the iconic [Gombrich: 1972]. Courbet said that ‘painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things’ he went onto say ‘an object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of [realist] panting’ [Cited in Cavendish N.D: 619] and here we can tap into the manifesto of Realist painting. So what would the generic definition of Realist paintings be? We would look for a naturalistic representation of the subject in hand, the human body in its unformatted reality for example. We would also look for the unromantic representation of contemporary life, the un-idealisation of subject matter and the loss, or reaction against the symbolistic.

The first of Courbet’s paintings I wish to look at is his early work The Hammock (1844). The Hammock is a painting that owes a lot to the paintings that Courbet would have seen at the Louvre, and to the Neo-Classicists that were prevalent at the time [Cavendish: 1985: 611].  The unimposing tones and lines that mark the painting present the scene to be classical and pastoral. The painting doesn’t fit within the conventions of Realism, yet it does show Courbet’s progression. Courbet subverts the ideal nature of the classical model by giving her an ungraceful double chin; though not Realist the painting shows a hint of what Courbet was to continue with.

In 1849 Courbet painted The Stonebreakers, this shocked the Salon with its harsh, direct look at the life of peasant life. Courbet employed ‘coarse paints, often mixed with sand’ [Cavendish: 1985: 618] and used Bitumen instead of more traditional black paints. This created a rough, dark and intense canvas that was the antithesis of the smooth, finished paintings preferred by the Salon. Here we find Courbet at his most blunt, not only with his use of paint but also with the subject matter. The stonebreakers have ragged clothes, patched together, the total opposite of the accepted pastoral image of the peasant that the Salon demanded. Here we are presented with a representation of concrete and real things, an un-romantic vision of contemporary life of France in the 1800’s. The toil of the stonebreakers is presented without romanticising their work either, they are not seen to be building anything in particular and the lack of visible goal only reinforces their pointless and futile activity. Courbet said that ‘in this job, you begin like the one and end like the other.’ [Cited in Cavendish: 1985: 618] from this attitude it can be inferred that The Stonebreakers was a work that was meant to shock the Salon, and indeed the French Middle class by portraying the realities of contemporary life and the reality of social inequality within France.

Courbet continued his look at contemporary life with the Burial At Ornans (1849-1850). The painting is on a grand scale, approximately 124” x 263” a size normally left to historic or religious paintings. Courbet included real people from the town of Ornans. This caused an upset within the Paris Salon community not only with its grand nature but with its direct representation of the working class of Ornans. Courbet continued his tradition of painting what he knew, or saw with the Burial at Ornans, this paintings contains Courbet’s family, friends, local dignitaries and country people all in traditional catholic dress and again, like with The Stonebreakers, Courbet by committing this normal and contemporary scene to paint challenges the ideals of the Salon and French Middle classes. The outcry was that Courbet’s Burial at Ornans  glorified vulgarity [Cavendish: 1985]. We can see Burial at Ornans is a reaction directly against the sensibilities and formalities of Neo-classicism and Romantic art. Instead of using lofty, historical or religious matter he uses the plain, bleak realities of contemporary town life, he presents the townsfolk in a dark un-pastoral way and shows the wrinkles on the mourners’ faces. Courbet’s influence could be seen as ranging from the Dutch portrait painters of the seventeenth century to Caravaggio. Burial at Ornans is very much within the normal conventions of the Realist painting, though he does hint at the symbolic. To the right of the grave opening and bellow the two villagers dressed in Jacobin attire from the revolution of 1793, is a faintly painted skull. This could represent the failure of the revolution in 1793 or even the failure of the 1848 revolutions around Europe. A further inclusion of the symbolic is the appearance of Courbet’s grandfather Jean-Antoine Oudor on the far left. The painting is commonly seen as the burial of his grandfather, if true, then how could Courbet be truly representing what he saw. This inclusion of the imaginary continues to appear in his work and hints that Courbet’s work maybe more Naturalistic in style, then extremely realist.

The next Painting I wish to look at, and the final piece, is The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life (1855).  This is Courbet’s largest and grandest of all of his paintings but it is also his least Realist and most symbolic. The painting centres around Courbet painting in the middle in his studio, surrounded by figures on his left and right. The figures on the left represent all of the people Courbet said ‘lived on death’ [Cited in Cavendish: 1985: 627]. The figures on the right are said to represent those who support him or agree with his ideas.  The figures on the left are said to include all the supporters of Napoleon III and the French Emperor as well.  Napoleon III is portrayed as the Poacher; Courbet portrayed him as such as he thought that Napoleon III had taken possession of the presidency purposely as a route to imperial power. Several revolutionary groups of Europe are portrayed as well on the left side, the Hungarian freedom fighters as the farm labourer, the Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi as the huntsman and the Russian socialists as the Labourer; all groups that Courbet felt were supported by Napoleon III or were in opposition to his beliefs. Here we can evidently see that Courbet is relying heavily on the symbolic, he is not producing the matter of fact, the real; Courbet is using the allusionary and the symbolistic. This painting isn’t realist at all, it doesn’t rely solely on the ‘real’ as its influence; it is more of a visual manifesto for Courbet’s opinions and political beliefs. As with the hinted at symbolism in The Burial At Ornans Courbet had used the allusionary and illusionary to portray a deeper and more profound point.

Courbet set out to portray the real and the existing. Courbet achieved both these aims at times; the early work of The Stonebreakers achieved a perfect balance of both contemporary life and social message. He achieved the wish of portraying the unpolished truth of contemporary life without relying on the symbolic. As I have shown he soon moved away from this, this could be that he found it constraining to solely rely on the ‘Real’ and included symbolic messages in an attempt to explore and expose the inequalities of the world he saw around him. So as Courbet continued to paint he moved away from a strict Realism to a Naturalistic Realism; Naturalistic as he painted that which he experienced and saw around him and his paintings were confined to contemporary settings. So to conclude; Courbet’s work can’t be termed as fully Realist, although he relied on the contemporary and the real, Courbet still ended up using the visionary and the illusionary and in turn that makes him Socially Realist. Therefore Courbet portrays contemporary life in a Socially Realist manner, i.e. contemporary setting, naturalistic colours, forms and dress, and in turn his artwork is not confined by the exclusion of the visionary. So Courbet’s work can be seen as Realist in the manner that he presents contemporary political/social life in a real way, rather than Realist in the sense that he presents everything as it exists without the symbolic or illusionary.

Modernist Art: Carlo Carra’s ‘Funerali dell’anarchico Galli’

Futurism was an important and vibrant art movement which was founded in the early 20th century in Italy. This article will explore one instance of a futurist artist’s work.

funeraloftheanarchistgalli

Carlo Carra’s ‘Funerali dell’anarchico Galli’ depicts a scene in the funeral of Angelo Galli. The painting is typical of the futurists in its colours and technique of painting. Carlo Carra is believed to not be an active anarchist at the time he painted this picture. Although he still believed in some of their ideas and dream of political justice. Galli was shot during a general strike in Milan in 1904. His funeral became a violent engagement between the police and Galli’s supporters. Milan was at this time a city fractured by industrialization and politics. Sylvia Martin explains: 

Around 1890 Italy found itself in a difficult position due to the effects of industrialization. The aristocracy as much as the upper bourgeoisie cleaved to traditional power structures, while the growing proletariat developed a popular movement that fought for social justice. In this political situation, repeated and often bloody conflicts took place, especially in Milan, where the workers were well organized. The crisis reached its first culmination in 1898.(1.)

The police were ordered to restrict Galli’s mourners access to the graveyard because the state felt that Galli’s grave would become a site of political resistance and demonstration for the Anarchists. Neither side backed down, the police were ordered to keep the Anarchists away from the graveyard, and the Anarchists saw the police as the iron fist of an unjust regime.

The artist Carlo Carra, an Anarchist at the time of the funeral, witnessed the confrontation. Carra wrote in his autobiography:

In front of me I saw the coffin, covered over and over with red carnations, which rocked threateningly back and forth on the shoulders of the bearers; I saw how the horses began to shy, how sticks and lances clashed, such that it seemed to me that sooner or later the coffin would fall to the ground and be trampled on by the horses.(2.)

Carra, inspired by this vivid scene, recreated the funeral seven years later in the painting ‘Funerali dell’anarchico Galli’. The painting illustrates the violence and energy, both important concepts to futurists, in the clash between the Anarchists and police. The loose representation of the bodies intertwining gives an impression of the infinite number who attended. The bold movement and position of the man in the middle is a representation of the body language and mood of the crowd. It shows the counteracting force of the people against the police. Carra utilizes bold, sweeping strokes with the brush to illustrate the energy and fury of movement. This technique captures the clashing sticks, lances and bodies. The use of the colours red, black and brown are powerful in effect and vivid in aesthetic. The red and black, colours of death and passion, also represent the traditional colours of Anarchism. The use of a reddish brown meshes the suits of the anarchists with their dark shadows, ensuring a sense of movement and confusion. The use of the reddish brown also refers to the industrialization of Milan. Using the colour of rust and iron seems to indicate that the workers are defined, coloured by their work and the emerging industrialization of Milan. Carlo Carra’s artwork is a vibrant, interesting recollection of an important historical period of Milan. Exploring not only the nature and form of movement but also important social events in Italian history.

1. Sylvia Martin, Futurism, London: Taschen, (2006), p. 36.

2. Carlo Carra in Sylvia Martin, Futurism, London: Taschen, (2006), p. 36.

Culture/Cultivate

Culture is the cultivation of organisms for study and use.  And the product or growth resulting from such cultivation.

To grow (organisms) in or on a controlled or defined medium; Artist/Actor/Director.

To subject to culture; to introduce (living material) into a cultural medium; The Viewer/Audience/Consumer.

If no one can tell two works of art apart, can there be an aesthetic difference between them?

The remit of this journal will be expanding slightly to include the disciplines Aesthetics, Art, Critical Theory – although this will still be primarily a film journal, the odd article and analysis of Art and other cultural texts will be included. This expansion is added because it allows me to add my work concerning the institutional theory of art that i will concentrating on in the summer and to provide a forum in which to work through this – as well as other articles.

In this article I will attempt to answer the proposed question by exploring whether an identical forgery shares the shame aesthetic properties as an original. I will answer the question in the negative and argue that there cannot be an aesthetic difference between two visually identical pieces of art. I will indicate that this is not necessarily a negative outcome because it is an indicator that art is appreciated for more than just an artwork’s form. I will explain that art is appreciated both aesthetically and for its innovation: its position in the history of art. In this essay I will first explore N Goodman’s position that there can be an aesthetic difference between the two identical pieces of art. I will come to the conclusion that Goodman is incorrect in his belief that aesthetic appreciation is affected by knowing that an artwork is either a forgery or an unoriginal artwork produced by someone other than the artist. I will then illustrate why there is not an aesthetic difference between a forgery and an original piece of art.

Goodman proposes that there is an aesthetic difference between a forgery (B) and an original (A). The original (A) is a work of art by a historically important artist such as Henri Matisse and the forgery (B) is an identical work produced by a knowledgeable art student. Goodman contends that knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery ensures one perceives (B) differently. Goodman claims this difference to be aesthetic. In the article Art and Authenticity Goodman explains that once one is told that (B) is a forgery then ‘the pictures differ aesthetically… even if no one will ever be able to tell them apart merely by looking at them’.1 Goodman contends that being told that an artwork is a forgery affects the way we are able perceive it; he explains that knowing (B) is a forgery ‘makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my experience’.2 Goodman believes that aesthetic appreciation is the complete experience we gain from our interaction with art and that this experience is distorted by the knowledge an artwork is a forgery. Goodman believes that although both (A) and (B) are visually identical they differ in the aesthetic experience they offer – once one is told that that (B) is a forgery.

One major problem with Goodman’s position is his understanding of the aesthetic. The aesthetic is not the whole lived experience we feel we when engage with art but an appreciation of the formal qualities of an artwork. The aesthetic experience is produced by appreciation of the art object’s intrinsic formal qualities. Goodman falsely attributes the object, artwork (B), with his knowledge that it is not artwork (A) the original. Goodman’s aesthetic difference is produced not in the art object but in the subject. If we tell Goodman that (X), A late period Picasso, is a forgery he would be forced to say that it is inferior aesthetically. However the knowledge that (X) is a forgery is external to the aesthetic nature of the work; it doesn’t affect the brush marks, colours and shapes that produced the artwork. Goodman’s understanding of the aesthetic is at odds with the way we appreciate an artwork aesthetically. The art object (B)’s colours, shapes or brush marks are not changed by the knowledge that it is a forgery; evaluation of (B)’s aesthetic quality is not affected by the knowledge it is a forgery. Goodman’s aesthetic is flawed because he asserts that anything that affects his perception of an artwork constitutes an aesthetic difference. In his article it is not clear why drunkenness, short-sightedness, colour-blindness or even racial prejudice would not entail an aesthetic flaw on the part of the artwork. It is evidently incorrect that an artwork should be seen as aesthetically inferior just because the viewer is drunk or colour-blind. Lessing explains that knowing that an artwork is a forgery ‘is a fact about the painting which stands entirely apart from it as an object for aesthetic contemplation. The knowledge of this fact can neither add anything to nor subtract anything from the aesthetic experience’.3 Knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery does not alter the form of the object; (B) still contains its original aesthetic features.

What changes when one knows an artwork is a forgery is that one approaches the artwork with a different understanding of the artwork’s place in the history of art. The knowledge that the artwork (B) is a forgery alters our perception of the artwork as a whole: it does not alter the artwork’s aesthetic features or our appreciation of them. Lessing continues to explain that ‘the fact that a work of art is a forgery is an item of information about it on a level with such information as how old the artist was when he created it, the political situation in the time and place of its creation’.4The aesthetic quality of (B) would not be said to be diminished if one gained knowledge of the place of (B)’s creation, or the political situation it was created in. The knowledge that artwork (B) is a forgery is on par with biographical and cultural information; information unimportant for appreciation of the artwork’s aesthetic qualities. The aesthetic quality of artwork (A) and (B) are equal; there is no difference between them in that category. The category which produces a different valuation between artworks (A) and (B) is the judgement made from knowledge of the historical, biographical and sociological background. As Lessing points out ‘A few authentic pen and ink scratches by Picasso are for more valuable than a fine landscape by an unknown artist’.5 Aesthetic judgement of an artwork is only one category or aspect of evaluation of art. Artworks are also valued for their historical significance, moral position, social critique and biographical matter. A painting of Descartes may be aesthetically uninteresting, however being a painting of an important historical figure the painting is valued for its historical and biographical significance. Artworks (A) and (B) contain the same aesthetic value because knowledge that artwork (B) is a forgery is not an aesthetic issue; there is not an aesthetic difference between the two identical pieces of art.

In attempting to answer the proposed question “If no one can tell two works of art apart, can there be an aesthetic difference between them?” I explored whether an identical forgery shares the shame aesthetic properties as an original. Goodman argued that they do not share the shame aesthetic properties. To Goodman the artworks (A) and (B) differ aesthetically because (B) is a forgery. According to Goodman’s position aesthetic appreciation is affected by the knowledge that an artwork is a forgery. I illustrated that this position is flawed. The aesthetic is not altered by knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery; the way we perceive the artwork in relation to the history of art is. Goodman’s position argues that the difference in the aesthetic valuation is because the way he experiences the aesthetic is altered by knowing that artwork (B) is a forgery. However Goodman does not make it clear why being drunk, short-sighted or colour blind would not also entail an aesthetic flaw on the part of the artwork. It is evidently false that an artwork’s aesthetic evaluation should suffer because the viewer is drunk, short-sighted, colour blind or racially prejudiced. Artworks (A) and (B) are visually identical and I illustrated that they do not differ aesthetically because (B) is a forgery; therefore there is no aesthetic difference that arises between (A) and (B). However this does not entail that we judge (A) and (B) equally as artworks. (A) would be seen as more important in regards to the history of art. In response to the proposed question there is no aesthetic difference between two visually identical pieces of art, but there may be historical, biographical, social or moral reasons why one piece of art is seen as more significant or important.

Footnotes

N, Goodman. ‘Art and Authenticity’ in N, Goodman, Languages of Art, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976) pp. 99-112. p. 106.

N, Goodman. ‘Art and Authenticity’ p. 105.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 4, (Summer, 1965), pp. 461- 471. p. 464.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ p. 464.

Alfred Lessing, ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ p. 463.

  

Bibliography

Goodman, N. ‘Art and Authenticity’ in Goodman, N. Languages of Art, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976) pp. 99-112.

Kennick, W.E. ‘Art and Inauthenticity’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 44, No. 1, (Autumn, 1985), pp. 3-12.

Kulka, T. ‘The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries’ Leonardo, Vol. 15, No. 2, (Spring, 1982), pp. 115-117.

Morton, H. L. and Foster, T. R. ‘Goodman, Forgery and the Aesthetic’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 49, No. 2, (Spring, 1991), pp. 155- 159.

Lessing, A. ‘What Is Wrong with A Forgery?’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 23, No. 4, (Summer, 1965), pp. 461- 471.

Sagoff, M. ‘The Aesthetic Status of Forgeries’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 35, No. 2, (Winter, 1976), pp. 169- 180.

Wreen, M. ‘Goodman on Forgery’ The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 133, (Oct., 1983), pp. 340-353.

 

 

 

Are There Limits To What We Can Believe In Fiction? If So, What Determines These limits?

This relates to film but is really more to do with aesthetics. However i wrote it and felt it was relevant enough to post in my journal.

 

The imagination is a powerful tool that helps us look beyond possibilities. In the real world we are bound by possibilities and forces such as gravity.1 When we leap out of the window we fall ungracefully to the floor with terrible life-threatening consequences. Yet we freely accept that Superman is able to achieve flight and all because an author tells us that he can. Possibilities and impossibilities are open to our imagination; time travel, spaceships, travelling at speeds faster than light and talking animals are all accepted as proper items of imagination. Although the imagination is a powerful tool there seems to be a limit to what people believe in fiction: a moral limit. I will firstly explain why morality may impose a limit in our imaginative abilities. I will then explore Kendall L. Walton’s position that the limitation in imaginative abilities is due to the impossibility of imagining an opposing moral position as possible. I will then illustrate that Walton’s position is incorrect. I will then come to the conclusion that it is due to an unwillingness, rather than an impossibility, to imagine an opposing moral position as a possibility.

 

The imagination has a great ability to conjure up fantastical events that couldn’t otherwise ever be performed in the real world. However there does seem to be a limit to what people can imagine freely in fiction. This limit seems to be a moral consideration. Tamar Szabo Gendler explains that ‘When it comes to make-belief… I have a much easier time following an author’s invitation to imagine that the earth is flat than I do following her invitation to imagine that murder is right’.2 What we accept in the real world as a scientific impossibility we can accept as a possibility in the fictional world – we easily accept time travel in Back To The Future (1985). Yet when people are faced with a moral code they find disgusting, that paedophilia is really harmless or that infanticide is good, they resist the fictional world to the point where they stop reading the text entirely. This seems to be due to the exportability of morality. When a film asserts that pigs can fly we know that pigs cannot fly in the real world. When an author asserts that abortion is murder in a novel we know that this belief is applicable and exportable to the real world. The exportable and transferable nature of morality means that the moral position of a novel or film affects the readers ability to fully participate in imagining the fiction world. This is indicated by the inability of many viewers of Triump des Willens (1935) to admire the aesthetic qualities of Leni Riefenstahl’s film due to the moral and political position the film advocates [A further film, and maybe one more problematic, is the film Birth of a Nation (1915)]. One position holds that it is conceptually impossible to believe one moral position while accepting in a fictional world an opposed position as a possibility. This is advanced by Kendall L. Walton.

 

Walton believes that there is a limit to what we can believe in fiction. Walton believes that it is an impossible task to imagine a morally objectionable reality as good, such as that rape is in fact good for women, in the fictional world and still hold that rape is not good in the real world. Walton states ‘there are limits to our imaginative abilities. It is not clear that I can… imagine accepting just any moral principle I am capable of articulating’.3 Walton explains that, because of his moral beliefs, he is unable to imagine accepting a moral belief contrary to his own. Walton believes slavery to be wrong and cannot imagine accepting it as a possibility. Walton’s moral position is that slavery is morally impermissible. That position requires the belief that slavery cannot ever be morally correct. Therefore, because of his moral position, it would be contradictory to suppose or make-believe that slavery could ever, in any possible realm, be other than morally incorrect. Therefore Walton is unable to imagine slavery as morally correct because his beliefs do not allow the possibility. Walton seems to be arguing that it is impossible for us to imagine outside of our moral position. Walton’s position is called ‘the impossibility hypothesis’ by Tamar Szabo Gendler. 4 Gendler states that the hypothesis is defined by two points:

 

  1. The scenarios that evoke imaginative resistance are conceptually impossible.

  2. The conceptual impossibility of these scenarios renders them unimaginable.5


Walton believes that holding slavery to be morally impermissible and permissible at once is conceptually impossible and therefore unimaginable. The work has become ‘morally inaccessible’ and therefore the reader is unable to fully enter into the fictional world.6


Walton’s position, and the ‘impossibility hypothesis’, fails because it relies on morality being a fixed construct. Moral beliefs often change radically when they convert or lose their faith. If morality is changeable than imagining an opposing morality as possible and true in a fictional world is not an impossibility; it is rather an unwillingness on the part of the reader. An unwillingness that arises because one doesn’t want to change or accept an opposing moral position as superior. Gendler explains ‘my unwillingness to [imagine] is a function of my not wanting to take a particular perspective on the world – [the real, non fictional world] – which I do no endorse’.7 Essentially the reader fears that accepting a moral stance in the fictional world would mean that they accept such a position in the real world. If we accept in a text that a certain man’s relationship with a young girl was permissible fictionally, then it would lead us to believe it to be a possibility that paedophilia could be permissible in certain circumstances – such as those described in the text. Therefore we opt out of imagining a fictional world where paedophilia is permissible because we fear that we couldn’t reject it, or that we would start to accept it in the real world.

 

Walton argues that it is impossible to imagine an opposing moral position as a good things. He comes to this conclusion incorrectly. For a fictional world to be impossible to image the subject’s morals must not be changeable. Yet morals are changeable. This indicates that the inability to imagine an opposing morality is in fact an unwillingness on the part of the reader to imagine an other moral position being superior or acceptable. The text may purposely challenge the morals of others, yet the resistance come from the reader. The reader is unwilling to be challenged and enter into imagining a world that they cannot stomach; it isn’t that the proposed fictional world in unimaginable, it is rather that the reader doesn’t want to imagine, and engage with, the fictional world. Because morals are transferable people fear that involvement with a fictional world may include the adoption, or at least acceptance, of an alternative moral position, such as paedophilia being permissible or that slavery is an agreeable business. When we are questioned by fictions that oppose our moral outlook our counter-argument may be just as literary and hypothetical as the fictional world we are defending our position against. Therefore rather than enter into a dialogue with our own and other moral positions we opt to ignore the problems that arise and resist the fictional world. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to what we can imagine as possible in the fictional world but there is a limit to what we will allow ourselves to imagine in accord with out moral beliefs.

 

 

1I chose real because I felt it was better than non-fictional – though the term real is not without its problems.

2Tamar Szabo Gendler, ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 97, No. 2, (Feb, 2000) pp. 55-81 p. 58.

3Kendall L. Walton; Michael Tanner ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’ in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 68, (1994), pp. 27-66 p. 48.

4Walton denies that he defends/advocates the so-called ‘impossibility hypothesis’ yet the thesis fits his arguments exactly in regard to his conceptualization of the source of the resistance, I.e. that it is impossible to conceptualize a moral state opposed to one’s own.

5Tamar Szabo Gendler ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ p. 66.

6Kendall L Walton; Michael Tanner, ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’, p. 30.

7Tamar Szabo Gendler ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ p. 74.