Poetry and Its Valuating Subject: How Much Knowledge of Art can Aesthetic Experience Yield
par Tan Shi Wei
National Junior College Singapore - 2008
Poetry and Its Valuating Subject: How Much Knowledge of Art can Aesthetic Experience Yield?
Tan Shi Wei
National Junior College
This question subsumes in advance the notion that art, or poetry in this case, engenders an aesthetic experience. While debate is rife by presuming as such - with adversary and major theorists like Collingwood who conceives of art as a language and not an emotion - this remains as my choice of direction for the rest of this paper, partly because an account similar to that of Collingwood's would draw little distinction between poetry and scientific writing which many may find hard to resonate with. The very fact that art rarely conveys pronounced propositions that can be arrived at in the same way as everyone often turns us to question what aesthetic experience can offer if it is to be distinguished from commonplace experience. For the same reason, aesthetic experience lacks the qualities for justification. Can aesthetic experience then be validated the same way as propositional knowledge? This will be addressed in the first section of this paper.
Trying to arrive at an umbrella account for aesthetic experience that could hold truth for all possible art forms before ascribing it to poetry could be risking its accuracy for simplicity. Hence, focusing specifically on the relation between poetry and the aesthetic experience it evokes is a preferred course for this paper. How much aesthetic knowledge a study on aesthetic experience could yield for us would be substantiated by the limitations and resolutions that arise from elucidative accounts of aesthetic experience, constraints in interpretation and reader-author standpoints that have emerged over the recent years in popular literary criticisms. This will be discussed along with the validity of knowledge claims of aesthetic experience.
Clarifying the key characteristics of aesthetic experience obtainable from poetry is pivotal in our understanding of the possibility of how and what types of knowledge may be acquired. I shall also discuss the implications of these characteristics illustrate how justification can be carried out.
If we could clearly define the aesthetic experience we know by its own characteristics that in turn give it a functional objectivity which we can use to identify art or speak with absolute certainty about a work of art, there is a fair chance that we have constructed knowledge in the classical, propositional sense. I may then be justified in believing that p in order for that belief to constitute knowledge, where p stands for any proposition about aesthetic experience. This type of knowledge, in its strongest sense of being absolute, could well apply to every work of art of at least a particular field, or even render itself as a basis upon which other definitive claims of art could be derived from. Still, however close we might be to an idealistic vision like this - with identifiable characteristics of aesthetic experience that are plausible for at least some instances - many would agree that we cannot willingly produce an aesthetic experience, be it by making a mark on paper or imagining a painting regardless of any definitive characteristics to begin with. Aesthetic experience always presupposes a work to which we respond to and is never created ex nihilo. This already suggests a marked difference between the acquisition of aesthetic experience and that of propositional knowledge. For unlike a passive approach we take in the analysis of propositional knowledge, artists seem typically to attend to or seek to embody their own feelings about a subject matter or experience in their forms and representations, and `therein inviting us to partake in both those feelings and their expressive clarification in the work' as phrased by Richard Eldridge. This is to say that aesthetic experience is contained within the active engagement of both the artist and the recipient. This distinction justifiably narrows down the tools for justification to authoritative testimony and sensory perception, for the subjectivity of it can only be rationalized in the hope of agreement among readers.
Poetry rarely sets out to present and support facts the way a factual report does. It could however be appreciated as a consciously formed document conveying general beliefs about a subject matter. For instance, Philip Levine's They Lion They Grow appears to suggest amongst the ambiguity and tone something about the relationship between human and nature. Even though the poem commits more to the metaphorical presentation that are highly descriptive, lines such as «Out of the gray hills / Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,» seems to hint at a cause for what we might identify as a disharmony between human and nature. We can thus extract a claim that the ramifications of industrialisation harmed nature by `efferent reading'1(*). We may be justified in sharing this belief given prior understanding of how industrialisation has led to environmental problems, and might even be tempted to render this as knowledge claimed from the poem. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the main concern of the poem was not to present or argue about such claims. Does justification of any sort pertaining to `trivial' propositions like the above has any bearing upon the aesthetic experience we can arrive at? If it does not alter the poet's intention to express rather than argue, we might be left to conclude that aesthetic experience does not offer us debatable claims about what is mentioned in the poem like how we ponder over results and experimental procedures from a scientific writing. In other words, aesthetic experience harbours no agenda to tell us anything. As Noël Carroll puts it, "art and knowledge are...at best, occasions for activating antecedently possessed knowledge." It follows that poetry only presents what we already know and believe.
* 1 Louise Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration