Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

What Is Deep Aesthetics?



Still from The Tree of Life (2011), dir. Terrence Malick

In what follows, philosophers Tom Mulherin and Fred Rush talk about deep aesthetics
and Rush’s nearly finished book,
 Film’s Experience.

TOM MULHERIN: Film’s Experience is a contribution to what you have called, in On Architecture and in some of your work on Adorno, “deep aesthetics.” As I understand it, deep aesthetics is a commitment to the particularity of both the artworks and the disparate arts that confront us as aestheticians. These should be understood in their particularity and, consequently, the philosophical tools we use to engage with them should be fitted for that purpose. As you say in “Adorno after Adorno,” “If understanding a particular work of architecture, say, requires an idea of embodied experience, then one will investigate the resources available in the phenomenological literature stemming from Merleau-Ponty and the emerging field of consciousness studies.” Perhaps you could start us off by saying a bit more about this approach to aesthetics and its place within the discipline.

FRED RUSH: Dewey begins Art as Experience with a call for general aesthetics. He is concerned that the cultural prestige of some art obscures the purported fact that art, at least as to the aesthetic experience it affords, is different in degree but not in kind from everyday human experience. Experience or, more precisely, what Dewey qualifies as having an experience, itself is structured aesthetically; art is an intensification of that. One can grant the thought but be impressed with the utter plurality of human artmaking and of “aesthetic experience” broadly construed. There are many social manifestations, much history, and legion modalities within both. Generality of claim implicates consideration of proper scope. It is always appropriate to ask after the bounds within which a theory enjoys cognitive power—in this case, to which art it applies and under what social and historical conditions. It strikes me that any approach to cover it all at best is going to radically underdetermine all manner of crucial things and will be of very limited use in spelling out what is philosophically significant about the art such an approach is meant to explicate. Philosophy has to be general of course, but one must be circumspect about suitable domain. Philosophical aesthetics as it is currently practiced is often less concerned than it might be not to over-idealize the processes or objects it encounters in order to fit them into a given theoretical framework. Of course, that does not describe all the work done; nevertheless, there are degrees to which we all fall into this.

Here are some things to keep in mind on this front. First, cock an eye to other intellectual disciplines. Aesthetic phenomena are bounded psychologically, socially, and historically. There is very little work that can be done isolated from other humanistic and social scientific research. Second, take on hard cases. In the philosophy of art, that would mean complex, demanding works both as to their specificity and in relation to other works of the artist. Attention to artform, artifactuality, and a host of other possibly relevant matters is key. Third, take advantage of a full range of philosophical resources. In Film’s Experience I am working at close quarters with three films and have found that Noël Carroll convinces on certain issues while Deleuze offers insight on others. For all the differences of approach, both are scrupulous with individual films. When one turns to other aspects of aesthetics—e.g. to nature, to the everyday—the same challenge presents itself: never underestimate the things themselves.

Who are the philosophical antecedents to this project? You mention Carroll and Deleuze, but in deep aesthetics, their thought is applicable only as refracted through particular films. Adorno comes to mind, of course, but his aesthetics is often surprisingly general for a thinker so insistent on the importance of particularity. (There are exceptions, of course—the Mahler book and his essays on literature come to mind.)

Right, theory makes way for the object, but there are difficulties formulating matters quite so simply. In the first place, the kind of object that is involved is an artifact and, like all artifacts, is itself a product of interpretative and creative activity. It is not a datum in the way physical theories think of an object. So, when one says that theory has to be sensitive to the demands of the object, that cannot mean “pre-interpretative object.” There will always be a proper theoretical role for general thought in understanding what amounts to the specificity of an object in a particular domain, but that is very different from preadaptation to a given theory. So, what I have in mind is a shuttling back and forth between acute perception of the object and whatever theoretical resources one wants to argue are relevant to understanding the work as significant. If one thinks that the conception of objects that is at home in the physical sciences and mathematics has a stranglehold on what the term “object” means in all domains, perhaps one should steer away from talking of aesthetic or art objects. That sort of slippage is a Heideggerian concern that I believe one can handle well enough by exercising circumspection, i.e. without having to change vocabulary.

Deleuze’s two film books are, as you suggest, strongly adapted to his general metaphysics. That said, it is striking how well he discusses films in their own terms. The test is how illuminating the approach is to thinking about those things. The second volume especially is compelling even for one who does not accept hook, line, and sinker his process metaphysics. Carroll is a powerful debunker of pretension in film theory and that forces him to the films themselves, and his training in film theory and film history put him in an excellent position to talk about structure on a case-by-case basis when necessary.

Adorno: what to say on that count? He is obsessively concerned with false generalization to the point of sometimes saying that all generalization falsifies. His philosophy of mind and epistemology not only give experiential priority to non-conceptual capacities, but are committed to holding that thinking of the significance of objects merely in terms of their common properties distorts thought. I would not go that far as a general matter and find Adorno’s arguments for that conclusion problematic, to say the least. He attempts to fashion a form of theory that takes care not to run roughshod over the specificity of objects, and art works, especially those of high modernism, are his favored objects since they push categorical boundaries by their very nature. You are right that the theory is hard to work out rigorously and that Adorno’s twisting and turning on a general theoretical level often sacrifices the very specificity the theory is supposed to vouchsafe. Some historical context can help—attention to his contemporary Walter Benjamin, to early German Romanticism, to his interpretation of Hegel—but that goes only so far. Adorno’s is most at home in the aphorism and short Nietzschean paragraph; Minima Moralia remains the crucial work. The musical monographs, and for me especially the Mahler book, are exceptions to the rule that he cannot work in long form.

In sociology there used to be a distinction made between so-called “grand theory”—Talcott Parsons’ “action theory” was the main target, but sometimes functionalism more broadly—and theory of “middle range.” I think Robert Merton coined that term. Middle-range theories are sensitive to state-of-play restrictions on scope. At any given point, the sociologist is presented with a previously integrated domain over which hypotheses can work. To either exceed the domain (e.g. give a theory purportedly good for all societies) or constrict it (e.g. only proceed with segmented data on a piecemeal basis) would be incorrect. The results of middle-range theories are conceived as ultimately provisional but explanatory within context. Aesthetic theory is not (mostly) explanatory, it is interpretative; still, the analogy is apt. Books in philosophical aesthetics that seem to me especially rewarding in this light are Richard Wollheim’s Painting as an Art and Lydia Goehr’s Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, to name just two. Danto’s ontological arguments start out paying close attention to Duchamp and Warhol but, because he was not mostly interested in aesthetic effects and because those works are in his estimation “non-aesthetic,” the power of the argument was abstract in the end. Danto could write in the other vein: his book on Mapplethorpe and some of the reviews in The Nation, like that one of the Vietnam Memorial, are “deep” in my sense.

Let’s talk more specifically about Film’s Experience. The project rests, as the title indicates, on the idea that certain films afford a specific kind of filmic experience. Which films are you concerned with and what kind of experience do they offer their viewers?

My claim is not that there is one kind of experience that is filmic. What interests me is the plurality of ways that films formally intensify the experience they depict. This is both narrative and non-narrative; as a matter of fact, I am most interested in the interplay between narrative and non-narrative filmic experience. What I mean by “filmic experience” is not merely experience that happens to pertain to film, but film-experience as such. This draws me to films that conceive of themselves as being experiential in this way, to films self-consciously structured to reflect on their experiential power and instantiate that in an especially pointed way. Given the stress I place on attending to specific structure of the films, I do a good deal of shot/take analysis, some film history, and some straight aesthetics and philosophy more generally. And given that hands-on approach, I thought that taking on three films of the above sort in-depth was a reasonable way to proceed. My choices were Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois couleurs: Bleu, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.

With Tree I am looking at issues concerning episodic memory, one’s narrative memory of one’s past. The spin of the film as I see it is in a broad sense “oneiric”. What we see are the imaginings of the principal character at a moment of self-reckoning. This in turn implicates a host of intricate technical issues having to do with perception, imagination, self-interpretation, and the ontology of filmworlds. Bleu is allied in a way, but different. Its protagonist, Julie (the indelible Juliette Binoche), attempts the existential high-wire act of forgetting her past, including the accidental death of her husband and child. She wants to live “clean,” with no attachments, no memory. All she desires is a radical break, une coupure. Little by little—sometimes by a play of contingencies, sometimes more intentionally—she is pulled back into her past by the music she hears. She is a composer, but does not take credit for her compositions, which are instead “authored” by her famous dead husband. The music’s claim on her works contrary to her disclaiming the past.


Still from Bleu (1993), dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski

Bleu is not so much a film about the past as it is one about carrying one’s self into a future and, as the titular color of the film suggests, into a form of freedom. Nostalghia is the most demanding. The central issue there is the nature of temporality, the human experience of time, and its relation to being displaced. The protagonist is a Russian abroad, away from everything he might root himself in. He is “translated” into Italy and, like all translations according to him, is an impossibility. The viewer is presented this out-of-place character as out-of-place by means of temporal glitches in the film that gesture towards a form of timelessness, eternity, to which he ends up dedicating his life. It is a film about self-transformation and the ontology of moods.


Still from Nostalghia (1983), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

Were there any films or modes of filmic experience that were left on the cutting room floor?

Nice! Yes, plenty. Robert Pippin’s wonderful book on Vertigo is a good example of a different approach than mine, but one that still operates in detail with film structure. One can argue for one’s personal favorite, but there is not really serious doubt that Vertigo is the apex of Hitchcock’s achievement. Of course, Pippin chose that film to work with because of the thematic structure he sees in it having to do with misrecognition, but that theme is in a lot of Hitchcock, as he points out. Maybe it is merely best present in Vertigo, but I suspect that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s best film because misrecognition is present in it. Perhaps The Tree of Life is Malick’s best movie. I’m open to that thought, although one would have to contend with Days of Heaven. Neither Bleu nor Nostalghia are their filmmakers’ most powerful outings. Surely Kieślowski’s greatest achievement is Dekalog. And Tarkovsky—well, he is working on another level altogether—many would argue for Stalker, but I would pick Mirror. I chose the films because each is most characteristic of its filmmaker’s overarching preoccupations, even if (or perhaps just because) it is not the best of the lot. I do discuss other films in passing in the book, but there is no discussion of great substance of, say, Tree against the background of Malick’s other films in it.

As for modes of experience left on the table, there are too many to list. One that occurs to me is improvisation. You’re a performing jazz musician and philosopher, so the nature of improvisation is something you are bound to think about. Improvisation is native to any art, conceptually speaking. Improvisatory architecture? I wouldn’t want to rule it out. In any case, it is not extraordinary in the least to have improvisation in film. Acting is the case everyone will think of first. Take the lovely scene in Roman Holiday in which the character Audrey Hepburn plays sees the character played by Gregory Peck stick his hand in the mouth of a statue, the Bocca della Verità, to see if he has been telling the truth. The mouth is said to bite the hands of liars. Apparently, Peck ad libbed yelling in pain, pretending that that his hand truly was wedged in the hole and being bitten by the spirit said to inhabit the stone. Hepburn—this was her very first role in a major picture— reacted quite naturally by, in fact, screaming. Peck had improvised and, in a way, so did she. There are directors who attempt to incorporate improvisation across a great swath of film, Cassavetes for instance. What about improvised shooting? There’s a lot of that in Tree; most of the footage is Steadicam and unscripted. But it is heavily edited. Does the editing somehow subtract the improvisatory character of shot and take? Can editing itself be improvisatory? I don’t see why not. Talking about improvisation, especially with memory, dreaming, and temporality in the mix, might have been fruitful. But one can’t do everything.

If I understand your position correctly, a film concerned with improvisatory experience would have to instantiate that experience for the viewer. Interestingly, I’m not sure that a film could make that experience available without considering the kinds of experience you’re already tracking through Bleu, Tree, and Nostalghia. After all, improvisation (at least in the contexts I’m most familiar with) is about constructing something coherent in real time; you’re reacting to the past and trying to carry those reactions into the future. (I’ve been on plenty of gigs where I’ve had to react to temporal and consequently musical displacement, but the less said about those, the better.) Is this as personal a project as constructing or integrating a self? It seems so to me.

I have ideas about what we might call improvisatory editing, but would be interested to hear what you had in mind. (And I’d add that I doubt that Teo Macero and Miles Davis would have thought that editing subtracted anything.)

Instantiating for an audience, but not necessarily in an audience. There is a distinction to be drawn between a work representing X, instantiating X, and causing X to be instantiated in the viewer. The conception of the filmic with which I operate in the book has it that a film representing something and almost being that something are closely related in filmic films, at least in the ones I am talking about. Whether, in addition, a film representing or instantiating something causes that something to be instantiated in the audience is a separate matter.

I think you are right about the preconditions for talking about filmic improvisation, a kind of improvisation in a film that would be tuned specifically to film’s hardest hitting modalities. One would have to track what I am trying to get at with regard to filmic experience, and more. Tree is the most improvisatory film of the three—Bleu and Nostalghia are controlled affairs. As is the case with all of Malick’s films from Days of Heaven forward, he shot a tremendous amount, much of it on the fly, and sorted out continuity in the edits. If you look at the original script of Days of Heaven, for instance, significant portions of the narrative were left on the cutting room floor. What I had in mind about improvisatory editing is, I’m afraid, not as developed as I would like. Something like what director Stan Brakhage tried when he was aspiring to the condition of jazz. Perhaps the most general thing to say is that editing would be improvisatory to the extent that one would treat exposed stock more as material to be formed than something that delivers hard and fast form that dictates cuts. So, a matter of degree. One might think that John Cage-like “chance procedures” governing editing techniques would count as ‘improvisatory’ in a loose sense. But recall that Cage was against improvisation; he held it to be inherently willful and wanted to evacuate out as much intentionality as was possible in his art. According to him that’s what the I Ching was for—submission of the will. Might there be a film analogue to automatic poetry? But now we drift away from fictional narrative film and into more experimental sorts.

I suspect that readers will be able to extrapolate at least some of the philosophers you find valuable for thinking about film from what you’ve said above. However, you’ve also recommended that philosophers interested in deep aesthetics turn an eye to other disciplines. As such, what works in film studies (theory, history, or criticism) do you think a philosophical audience looking to engage in the deep aesthetics of film might find valuable?

There’s a lot out there. Most philosophers working with film will know the stock works: Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Balázs, Kracauer, Bazin, and others. There is an interesting literature, mostly by directors, that surrounds the unfairly ignored French impressionist film. Contemporary film theory can also be philosophically rewarding. Miriam Hansen is a standout here—extraordinary thinker. David Bordwell’s book on film style and the recent collection on “poetic film” are outstanding. Also some younger scholars, like Daniel Morgan at Chicago, are doing exciting work. Film history is also not to be discounted. Excellent journalistic criticism that can open up material in new ways. And some filmmakers write well on film. I just read Paul Schrader’s new introduction to the revised edition of his Transcendental Style in Film. Suggestive.

Finally, can you tell us what’s next on the docket for you, philosophically or otherwise? (I know, for instance, that you have recently reviewed a traveling exhibition of Sally Mann’s photography.)

I was very glad to be able to see Mann’s recent show at the National (it’s now traveling in the US and Europe). Her power of seeing, her devotion to the world through the image, moves me. And the sheer photographic ability is breathtaking. As for what’s on deck, after I finish up the edits on Film’s Experience, I plan to bring together some of my essays over the last 20 years into a collection that I want to call Deep Aesthetics. The genre of the collection is what one might call “historically informed philosophy of art.” There are straight-ahead essays on, e.g. Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Adorno, Danto, and Sontag. Others look more specifically at philosophical implications of the work of artists, e.g. Thomas Bernhard, Ibsen, and Kafka. And there are more programmatic essays, in which I step back to set out what deep aesthetics is and how its approach informs the essays as a whole. After that, it is on to another monograph. I have a few projects sketched out, one in the history of 19th-20th century European philosophy, and two in social and political theory.

Notes on the Contributors

Tom Mulherin teaches philosophy at Georgetown University and is a jazz musician.

Fred Rush teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Irony and Idealism (Oxford UP, 2016), On Architecture (Routledge, 2009), the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory (Cambridge UP, 2004), and the past editor of the Internationales Jahrbuch des Deutschen Idealismus.

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