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Cinematic romanticism: sketching the ethical, cognitive and aesthetic value of art

FOUR BY THREE MAGAZINE

Cinematic romanticism: sketching the ethical, cognitive and aesthetic value of art

RAFE McGREGOR

Rafe McGregor


What is the relationship between authenticity and the value of art? Rafe McGregor examines Murray Smith’s latest book Film, Art, and the Third Culture, in order to propose a new form of romantic film-philosophy with reference to Martin Heidegger's theories of death and Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of authenticity.


Murray Smith’s Film, Art, and the Third Culture: A Naturalized Aesthetics of Film is a powerful intellectual force whose impact will be difficult to reckon due to the depth of its analysis and breadth of its scope. At the basic sub-disciplinary level Smith’s theory is, as the subtitle implies, a sophisticated theory of cinema, a study of the art form of film from the perspective of philosophical aesthetics. As such, the monograph has the potential to change the way in which aesthetics is researched and written and is, along with Bence Nanay’s Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception, the most influential publication of the new century so far. At the disciplinary level, Film, Art, and the Third Culture provides philosophers with a new methodology that takes phenomenology, psychology, and neuropsychology as complementary rather than competing modes of explanation. Finally, at the cultural level, Smith provides a model for a genuine third way between art and science as two different – and often opposed – means of revealing reality, setting out a blueprint for a Third Culture that maps the relations between the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. What is particularly impressive about a work of such ambition is that film, as an artistic medium with a firm basis in modern technology, unites all three levels in a coherent whole. As Smith demonstrates, a full appreciation of cinema requires a combination of knowledge of both artistic and scientific method, of the aesthetics of painting, poetry, theatre, and music and of the disciplines of phenomenology, psychology, and neuropsychology.

Smith’s intellectual USP is not the way in which he employs cinema to illuminate questions about aesthetics, philosophy, and culture, but the way in which he triangulates the phenomenological, psychological, and neuropsychological explanations at the philosophical level. He employs numerous examples to demonstrate how the experience of mental phenomena, the information processed in relation to mental phenomena, and the physical realisation of the mental combine to clarify features typical of the cinematic experience, such as suspense and empathy. Cinematic experience is constituted by both top-down and bottom-up processes and Smith’s insight is that the numerous cases where phenomenological, psychological, and neuropsychological explanations intersect provide a hitherto unacknowledged degree of certainty about that experience. What I want to do is apply Smith’s methodology – the search for triangulation among competing modes of explanation – to the question of value in the arts. I shall show that aesthetic value (the value of a work of art as a work of art), cognitive value (the value of a work of art in providing knowledge), and ethical value (the virtue of the perspective embodied by a work of art) cohere in the concept of authenticity. In a parallel with Smith, I shall demonstrate this coherence in the art form of film, sketching a blueprint for a new theory of cinematic romanticism.

Socrates was concerned with the genuine self, St Augustine with the true self, and the slow shift in emphasis from divine to human values during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic Era produced Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche’s complex conceptions of authenticity, understood as being true to oneself

The concept of being oneself has a long philosophical and psychological pedigree in the Western intellectual tradition, from Socrates to Frantz Fanon in the former discipline and Abraham Maslow to Martin Seligman in the latter. Socrates was concerned with the genuine self, St Augustine with the true self, and the slow shift in emphasis from divine to human values during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic Era produced Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche’s complex conceptions of authenticity, understood as being true to oneself. In the twentieth century, Maslow offered a model for authenticity with his influential hierarchy of needs: self-actualisation is not just being all one can be, but becoming more and more what one is. More recently, the dominant philosophical conception of authenticity – Martin Heidegger’s Eigentlichkeit – has been adopted by the positive psychology movement and appears in the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman. Like most of Heidegger’s concepts in Being and Time, authenticity is multi-layered and has an everyday, philosophical, and phenomenological meaning.  He distinguishes these by using the terms being-towards-death, freedom towards death, and anticipatory resoluteness, but the idea is neatly captured in the phrase being-ever-at-the-point-of-death. Because death is life’s only certainty and because no one can die for anyone else (acts of sacrifice merely delay the inevitable), one’s own death is what individuates one from others. Dying is the attitude one takes towards one’s demise and dying is therefore, paradoxically, a way of life. Most people avoid thinking about death most of the time and in failing to project towards their own demise fail to give their lives meaning. Dying is both the way in which one becomes oneself and the way in which one achieves self-constancy, which links Heidegger’s philosophy to the psychology of self-actualisation. Being-ever-at-the-point-of-death is not living as if there is no tomorrow, but living in recognition this day might be the last day.  In this way, one accepts the past and future contingency of one’s projects while nonetheless asserting one’s identity and making one’s life meaningful.

Dying is the attitude one takes towards one’s demise and dying is therefore, paradoxically, a way of life

The priority Heidegger accords to the death of the self leaves very little room for the value of interaction with others and guarantees the amorality of his conception of authenticity. There were several subsequent attempts to address this moral vacuum, most notably by Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity, Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, and Jacques Derrida in The Gift of Death. My preference is for Beauvoir as her conception of moral freedom is both faithful to Heidegger’s emphasis of the significance of death and compelling in the simplicity of its argument.  Beauvoir maintained that authentic human agency projects towards ends of its own choosing rather than towards choosing its own end and that the projects which make an authentic life meaningful transcend death. In consequence, authentic life is either absurd or is made meaningful by others when they appropriate one’s projects post-mortem. In contrast to contemporaries such as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, Beauvoir believed that human being is not absurd and that the ends towards which human being projects must therefore be other-regarding if they are to be meaningful. The involvement of the other in authenticity recognises the human as an essentially social animal and meaning as essentially inter-subjectively created. As such, authenticity is not transformed into an ethical theory, but a goal with an ethical dimension. Being true to oneself is therefore either absurd, in which case it ceases to be a philosophically interesting concept, or involves ethical relations with others.

In contrast to contemporaries such as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett, Beauvoir believed that human being is not absurd and that the ends towards which human being projects must therefore be other-regarding if they are to be meaningful

If authenticity in philosophy and psychology overlap in terms of the notion of being true to oneself the truth in truth to oneself suggests an overlap between the authenticity of human being and the authenticity of works of art. In “Authenticity in art”, Denis Dutton identifies two distinct conceptions of authenticity relevant to art, nominal and expressive.  Nominal authenticity is contrasted with forgery and plagiarism. In the former, an artist creates a work in the style of another more famous artist in order to sell the work as the work of the other artist and maximise profit.  Plagiarism occurs when one author appropriates the work of another author without permission or disclosure of their source in order to pass the work off as their own and may be committed for a variety of motives. Expressive authenticity is the kind with which I am concerned and refers to the authority of the artist, truth to the character of the artist, or a combination of the two. Expressive authenticity is most closely associated with Romanticism, the intellectual and artistic movement that underpinned the Romantic Era and focused artistic value on the artist, specifically the artist’s unique individuality and genius. The Romantics had a specific conception of genius in mind, what Immanuel Kant defined as the natural capacity of an artist to produce works of art that meet the criteria for beauty established in his Third Critique. In Romantic criticism, authenticity is a value of art and the authenticity of a work of art is the extent to which it expresses the character, individuality, and emotion of the artist. This is the sense in which one might, for example, praise the poem “Yew-Trees” as an authentic expression of Wordsworth’s reverence for Taxus baccata.

The relation between individuality and subjectivity on the one hand and artistic authenticity on the other hand is related to the question of the cognitive value of art. The sense in which authenticity refers to the real and the genuine foregrounds the different ways in which art provides knowledge about the world. These are often described in a bewildering variety of terms, which include but are not restricted to: accuracy, correspondence, lifelikeness, likeness, mimesis, naturalism, representation of the world as it is, resemblance, truth to life, verisimilitude, and vividness. The descriptions can be separated into two types. In the first, the artist attempts to achieve likeness in representation by means of transparency and objectivity, i.e. the creator recreates the objects of perception for the audience. Colour photographs are (typically) paradigmatic in this respect, providing (relatively) objective knowledge about the world, knowledge that is as transparent as possible given the filter of the artist. In the second, the artist attempts to achieve lifelikeness in representation by means of opacity and subjectivity, i.e. the creator recreates his or her experience of perceiving the objects for the audience. Impressionist paintings are (typically) paradigmatic in this respect, providing (relatively) subjective knowledge about the world, knowledge that is opaque as deliberately filtered through the artist’s experience. Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at the Moulin de la Galette both provide information about the world, but they do so in dramatically different ways. One can thus distinguish two types of cognitive value of art, accuracy as truth in art and authenticity as truth to lived experience or truth to life.

The cognitive value of authenticity is usually, although not necessarily, more significant than the cognitive value of accuracy in works of art. In contrast, scientific practice is usually, although not necessarily, intended to be accurate rather than authentic. Microscopes and telescopes reveal reality in a more accurate manner than paintings and drawings. Similarly, discursive texts usually provide a more objective representation than narrative texts, even when the latter are classified as non-fiction rather than fiction. This is not to say that accuracy cannot be a value of art or that accuracy should not be a value of art, but that works of art standardly have a greater potential for authenticity than accuracy. The aesthetic techniques and devices typically employed by artists result in works of art being able to represent and reveal lived experience in ways that are not open to scientific inquiry. In other words, the practice of science is better at providing accurate knowledge and worse at providing authentic knowledge and the practice of art is better at providing authentic knowledge and worse at providing accurate knowledge (although both practices are cognitively valuable in both ways). An advantage of adopting this approach to the cognitive value of art is that it establishes art both as a complementary practice to science and as an equal rather than inferior means of accessing reality. As such, this approach overlaps with Smith’s cultural level of inquiry, furnishing a further parallel in the relationship between the humanities and the natural sciences.

Thus far, I have discussed the following two conceptions of authenticity: (1) truth to oneself in human being by projecting towards shared ends of one’s own choosing and (2) truth to life in an artwork by providing knowledge of the artist’s experience of the world. The two are similar in that they both prioritise individual subjectivity while recognising and acknowledging the subjectivity of the other. In the same way that the ethical subject must select projects that are other-regarding in order to avoid an absurd life so the artist must represent his or her subjective experience in a manner that can be understood by his or her audience in order for the work to succeed. The conceptions are also complementary rather than contradictory: returning to the Romantic celebration of genius, there is no inherent conflict between the expression of one’s projects and character by means of sharing one’s experience of the world and as long as the authenticity expressed in the work of art is true to the life of the artist, then the ethical value does not detract from the cognitive value. One might also expect that a rich and complex projection towards carefully-considered ends is expressed in an imaginative and sophisticated manner by an artist, which introduces the third conception of authenticity with which I am concerned: (3) truth to the mode of representation.

Romantic film-philosophy argues that cinematic works can provide knowledge about either their own mode of representation or broader ethical issues in virtue of their style and form

Aesthetic value is often conflated with artistic value, but Nanay offers a refreshingly simple definition when he states that aesthetics is about ways of perceiving the world that are really rewarding and special. For Nanay, this involves both a particular kind of attention in perceptual psychology and Kant’s claim that aesthetic attention is characterised by disinterested pleasure. In The Value of Literature I described aesthetic value in terms of the satisfaction derived from the simultaneity and interactivity among the sensory, affective, imaginative, and intellective aspects of the experience afforded by a particular work of art. In New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images, Robert Sinnerbrink contrasts two approaches to theorising film, the romanticist and the rationalist. Where the latter seeks to explain film experience by using the resources available to philosophy, the former seeks to interpret film experience as an alternative way of thinking. In other words, the romanticist approach draws on Romantic epistemology, which includes authenticity as a cognitive value of art, to situate the experience of film in a dialogue with philosophy. Sinnerbrink acknowledges his debt to Stanley Cavell, upon whose work Stephen Mulhall also draws, and the three can be classified as practising Romantic film-philosophy. The essence of the approach is the focus on the aesthetic aspects of cinema and the claim that these stylistic and formal elements contribute to the cognitive values of cinema, a claim that is also described as cinematic philosophy. Romantic film-philosophy argues that cinematic works can provide knowledge about either their own mode of representation or broader ethical issues in virtue of their style and form. Given Smith’s emphasis on the aesthetic and technological means employed to produce suspense and empathy (two examples selected from many), Film, Art, and the Third Culture places him firmly in this category. The approach provides the third conception of authenticity mentioned above, the way in which the cinematic work engages in dialogue with philosophy by cinematic means, i.e. truth to the mode of representation.

Romantic film-philosophy – or cinematic romanticism as I shall call it – therefore triangulates the three values of art with which I am concerned: ethical, cognitive, and aesthetic. Ethical and cognitive values are linked by the authentic emphasis on individual subjectivity on the one hand and cognitive and aesthetic, and ethical and aesthetic, values are linked by the realisation of authenticity in its ethical and cognitive instantiations through the aesthetic dimension of cinematic works on the other hand. The values are complementary rather than contradictory, as a brief example will show.  Kelly Oliver sets out to examine the relationship between technology and ethics in Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment. Her analysis includes a brief discussion of René Descartes’ notorious claim that non-human animals are machines, which leads to a discussion of determinism and the suggestion that psychoanalytic theories represent human animals as marionettes – as human puppets whose actions are determined by the unconscious conflict between id and superego.  Oliver thus establishes a link between the human animal and the non-human animal in terms of a machine that operates within the puppet: genetic inheritance in the case of non-human animals and psychological conflict in the case of human animals. Oliver’s proposition that humans are machines is explored by cinematic means in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The film problematizes the concept of humanity by representing a future where robots called replicants are identical to human beings in appearance and behaviour. In the terms I have been using above, Scott expresses his project to destabilise the standard view that there is a necessary relation between the virtue of humanity and humanity as a species. Given my brief comments on Oliver’s ethics, one can therefore evaluate the film positively on an ethical basis. Blade Runner also provides knowledge of the subjective experience of the protagonist, who thinks he is a human being but is – in the last few seconds of the narrative – revealed as a replicant to himself and the audience. This knowledge is communicated by aesthetic devices, most notably in the drama of the last film sequence, where anagnorisis (recognition) and peripeteia (reversal of fortune) are combined with devastating effect. The film exploits both visual and audial cues to heighten the drama and represent the brutal severance between the ought and is of humanity such that the knowledge provided is not merely knowledge of the represented world, but knowledge of the real world, where there is a similar distinction between the virtue of humanity and individual human animals.  The film can therefore be evaluated positively with respect to both aesthetic and cognitive value. Blade Runner is thus authentic in its ethical project, in its truth to life, and in its truth to its mode of representation.

If one conceives of authenticity as having three dimensions, then truth to oneself, truth to life, and truth to the mode of representation align the ethical, cognitive, and aesthetic values of works of cinematic art

My overly-condensed summary of the content and form of Blade Runner is not intended to be persuasive, merely to draw attention to the benefits of the threefold conception of authenticity for which I have argued. If one conceives of authenticity as having three dimensions, then truth to oneself, truth to life, and truth to the mode of representation align the ethical, cognitive, and aesthetic values of works of cinematic art. The approach employed to articulate cinematic romanticism may well be applied beyond the art form of film – in imitation of the Romantic poets, painters, and composers – but I have restricted my claim to film because the Romantic film-philosophy of Cavell, Mulhall, Sinnerbrink, and Smith completes the triangulation of values among the ethical, cognitive, and aesthetic. The centrality of authenticity to these three values draws this essay to a neat conclusion, which is that in the same way that film links Smith’s contributions to aesthetics, philosophy, and culture so authenticity links the ethical, cognitive, and aesthetic values of film in my considerably less ambitious theory of cinematic romanticism. At the very least, however, I hope this essay will cause others to seek out Film, Art, and the Third Culture – a work which is truly revolutionary in insight, method, and scope.

References

Murray Smith, Film, Art, and the Third Culture: A Naturalized Aesthetics of Film (Oxford: OUP, 2017).
Bence Nanay, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford: OUP, 2016).
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (NY: Harper & Row, 1927 [1962]).
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman (NY: Citadel Press, 1948 [1976]).
Dennis Dutton, “Authenticity in art,” in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics (Oxford: OUP, 2003), 258-274.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer & Eric Matthews (Cambridge: CUP, 1790 [2001]).
Rafe McGregor, The Value of Literature (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016).
Robert Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).
Kelly Oliver, Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment (NY: Fordham University Press, 2013).
Blade Runner: The Final Cut, directed by Ridley Scott (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 2007), DVD.

Rafe McGregor is the author of nine books, including The Value of Literature, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews.  His most recent book is The Adventures of Roderick Langham.  He can be found online at @rafemcgregor.

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