Kant, Simmel and Fashion.


 

        The French philosopher and sociologists Pierre Bourdieu argued against the Kantian view of pure aesthetics, noting that the only permissible taste was that of the ruling class. He also rejected the idea of good taste as he believed there was only one choice in taste to be had.  This idea was previously expressed by Georg Simmel [1858-1918] who gained an interest in fashion believing that the upper classes changed their fashion taste as soon as the lower classes copied it.   Indeed, the middle classes copied much of the ruling class taste in an attempt to raise their social status, something they never managed to achieve.

 

      Simmel’s contribution to social theory went far beyond fashion and taste. He was one of the first German sociologists to challenge the Kantian view whereby he put down the foundations for the school of anti-positivism.  Simmel took Kant’s major question of what is nature and reframed it into what is society?    Simmel’s aim was to locate some form of individuality  in the context of a given culture in order to show that individual taste was declining.    Simmel firmly believed that culture moulded individuals by usurping free agency and embedding people into belief systems which they had no say over.  Simmel referred to “the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history”.[i][ Simmel set the foundations for the structuralist view of society using the terms  “forms” and “contents” to discuss social relationships, categories he believed were interchangeable.  With this in mind Simmel had a great influence of early urban sociology.

 

       Simmel’s ideas were somewhat influenced by Max Weber whereby Simmel used to topic of “personal character” to emulate Weber’s “ideal type”.  He also wrote extensively on the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as well as on the works of the artist Rembrandt. [ii] Simmel’s books include such topics and emotion and love and his views held particular sway with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School.     

 

 

 



[i]  Donald Levine (ed) (1971)Simmel: On individuality and social forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 6,]   

[ii][Simmel Georg [1916] Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art 

 

Bohemia,Taste and Capitalism.

     Bohemianism remains difficult to define, it borders on the notions of the eighteenth century Romantic Movement without the ties of privilege enjoyed by the landed gentry.  The Romantic Movement was largely concerned with the conservation of lands under threat by modern industry.   Bohemians were opposed to property ownership and although their views differed on many things they did share one very firm belief in the inappropriateness of the bourgeoisie class.   Immanuel Kant, in much the same way,  also took the trends of his contemporaries into account.   He warned against the divisions that might overwhelm society with the taste of one group usurping the taste of another.  Indeed, in many respects Kant set the groundwork for what would become a system of modern aesthetics.  In his aesthetic philosophy Kant noted how a particular category of good taste could set apart the majority in any one social gathering.   Kant’s aim was for cohesion.    In Kant’s view beauty could never be the object of property ownership or the realm of a superiority of class.  Aesthetic judgement was instead based on subjective feelings.   Further, Kant’s idea of taste could not be empirically judged.  Good taste was not to be found in any one value or way of life; nor could it be had in generalisations that often applied when issuing judgements.   Kant continually emphasised that the validity of good judgement could not belong to preferential group[s].   Taste then is deemed by Kant as being beyond reason.  It is a highly experiential phenomenon that is personal rather than universal. 

       Importantly, Kant stresses that our tastes, even on seemingly unimportant things, can never fully account for our judgements.  Of course contemporary modern culture might present as being in opposition to Kant’s view since there is a general feeling that modern technologies have overwhelmed what we understand to be the individual’s independent judgement, not to mention unique subjectivity.  Kant would probably have argued that this cannot be the case because every judgement of taste depends on the senses [sensus communis].   Here we see Kant’s assumption that while the senses are a very individual experience there is a general consensus amidst communities which allows judgements of taste be shared at a spiritual [transcendent] level of their existence.  In this concept not every member of a community has to agree with a judgement of taste, but every member of the community share in its proposition.  Moreover, Kant is not concerned with trivial matters of taste. Rather, he aspires to a universalism of harmony and consensus.  With this in mind Kant set the mood for a modern society of a mass consumer taste that unifies populations under the banner of bourgeoisie capitalism.

Art as Symptom.

      Art is a symptom of the way we live our lives.  As the philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek noted, art is also the panacea for preventing the symptom from becoming a full blown illness.[i]  At the same time it produces a wonderful array of ideas, objects and possibilities.

  In order to better understand the historical adaptations of culture and taste we need to turn to the works of Immanuel Kant [1724-1804].  It was Kant who gained the most influence in determining style because he linked it to reason and judgement.  Plato, Hume and Kant believed that aesthetics had to portray something pure and beautiful, which led to a lengthy inquiry that was designed to find the ‘essence’ of beauty, otherwise referred to as, the ontology of aesthetics. [ii]   In Immanuel Kant’s major work Critique and Judgement [1790]  aesthetics were determined in relation to the pleasure people acquired from objects and/or events and this was viewed through the ideal of what appeared exquisite and pleasing to the eye, whereby pleasure and beauty where interchangeable and one could not exist without the other. 

     Kant’s idea of essence and beauty remained steadfast until the beginning of modernity in the 19th century.  Social relations also began to change at this time.    The 19th century was the period in which the new sociological and psychological sciences were born.   Researchers made attempts to understand the social relations that gave rise to culture and taste in order that undesirable traits might be altered.  The working class culture was of particular interest to academics because the working class were the biggest threat to the still young and fragile capitalist class.   The European Enlightenment was well established, but it was not without contest.   The already bitter divide between the labouring class and the landed gentry was to be mediated by the bourgeoisie.  

      The whole concept of a class was encapsulated in a pyramid of good and bad taste that rendered Kant’s dictate that pleasure and beauty must coexist highly problematic.  The middle class bridged the gap between the very rich and the very poor and this led to ongoing tensions.     The working class who were largely uneducated and perceived as uncouth were said to be in need of constant constraints.  Small misdemeanours could land someone in jail or in many cases a mental asylum.   However, the authoritarian state was no solution to keeping people in line because the lower classes were needed as labour in Europe’s bourgeoning manufacturing economies.   

      The church stepped in with reforms aimed at taming the spirit of the working classes, which in turn deprived them of their culture. The church provided a visual learning experience, which contained metaphysical and spiritual interpretations of the canons and this contributed to a shift in the values and tastes towards more contemporary forms of aesthetics.  As time progressed this change in taste was set in place by growing trends in consumerism.  It also led many gifted people into a style that was known as Bohemianism.

     Bohemians were a diverse group that rejected the bourgeois values.  They deplored the ownership of private property and demonstrated this by not having any permanent abode or affiliations with the acquisition of material wealth.  They rejected the strict moral codes preferring to live their lives in freedom. This often led to drug and alcohol use and open sexual relationships.  They refused to tie wealth to the pursuit of art and literature, art had to exist for art’s sake, it needed to be pursued regardless of whether it generated income, which generally meant the Bohemians were poor and forced to live on their wits for the sake of art and the contentment it brought with it.    Bohemian groups consisted of writers, artists, political and philosopher thinkers as well as intellectuals; people who had much to give a society so divided across class lines.

 



[i] Slavoj Zizek [1989]  Art as Symptom in the Sublime Object of Ideology.

[ii] Immanuel Kant [1781] Ontology of aesthetics in Critique of Pure Reason.

Picture:  Octave Tassaert’s The Studio, painted in 1845, when the bohemian began in Paris.

 

Consciousness.

 

      Our conscious lives are only a miniscule part of our mental world.  Our mind has learned to adapt consciousness in accordance with an established paradigm that resides in a pre-conscious state.  Freud [1929] first identified a pre-consciousness as an area in the brain that stores information that can be recalled as opposed to the unconscious where information can not be known and consciousness where we make what is believed to be known decisions.  Our brain’s play tricks on us, but we can also play tricks on our brains.

    Let me give you an example from the research of the renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who tells the story of how a patient after having his leg amputated was experiencing dreadful pain because his brain believed the leg was still present and badly injured.  When Ramachandran put a mirror next to the good let and told the man to look at the reflection in the mirror, what he saw was two legs, one real and one reflected.  The brain  interpreted the images as two good and very real legs and the pain subsequently ceased.[i]        

     What can we learn from Ramachandran’s mirror experiment?   Nothing can be changed from within an old paradigm we must change the paradigm, which in terms of the individual or whole communities requires a kind of rebranding.  We need to be able to trick the adaptive unconscious in much the same way ‘it’ attempts to trick our consciousness into thinking we have control over our decisions when almost everything we do is, in part at least, already scripted.    

 



[i]V.S. Ramachandran. Phantoms in the Brain.

Picture by Du Brae 2014.

Taste.

 

 

Art by Yishkah

     Outsider art is not included in the general category of aesthetics because society has adopted a single minded approach to beauty and taste.  Some theorists have put this down to an adaptive unconscious, [i] or to put it differently our conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg almost all of our feelings, decisions and behaviourisms are the product of information stored in the unconscious which constantly adapts our perspectives of the world.  Indeed, most people still view art as an accessory to their home furnishings and have tastes that are influenced by comfort and liveability; hence they often prefer the soft tones and lines of the classical product.  Historically, classical taste has been a way for the middle classes to demonstrate their entrepreneurial values against those of the upper classes, principally the aristocracy. The middle classes have always aspired to be like the upper classes and have expressed this by replicating their tastes.   The social class systems have a lot to answer for when it comes to the divisions in art.  Outsider Art, for instance was considered to be beyond normality a view that supposedly matched the people who created it. Taste, then is not a neutral phenomena.

      Taste is said to be an individual’s personal and cultural patterns of choice and preference.[ii]    Most of us subscribe to some form of taste that allows us to make distinctions between things we like and those we do not like or find inappropriate and distasteful.    Taste relates to most of our choices in life and it usually governs our actions, but taste is not just targeted towards ‘styles, manners, consumer goods and works of art’ [iii] taste is also about social protocol and rules.  We are taught from a very early age to obey the rules of taste so as not to offend anyone.    Social and cultural phenomena, or taste, are closely associated with the acquisition of power and social relations as well as the way in which we have all been conditioned to live within the prescribed normality.   This in turn can be linked to status, education and social origin.    Taste also relates to our mental status.  People with different abilities are likely to have different tastes as are people from different socio-economic levels.  In other words aesthetic preferences are governed by what we have been taught and believe, which in turn guides many of our life-world experiences. 

       The Outsider artist does not fall into the mainstream levels of taste because s/he abides by a different level of consciousness.   It is not the case that the artist has chosen to be  Outside the mainstream of society and its prescribed structuring; it is just the way it is.  If one takes the adaptive unconsciousness to be a reality then all logical conscious decisions are subject to adaptation by an unknowing pre-conditioning.  This makes understanding and accepting Outsider art very difficult for very many people.  We cannot simply offer a quick pill fix to alternative behaviour; albeit many have tried.       People often fear the unknown and the misunderstood qualities of the Outsider artist.  It is true also, that the Outsider artist might not be an easy person to deal with. Temperament plays a crucial part in all creativity.  What is not familiar and comfortable to the individual can impact on the senses in a negative way because it plays havoc with the established feelings and emotions – patterns that have been set in place since early infancy – or what the sociologist Pierre Bourdeau has called the habitus. [iv]  When the subject is so fixed into the habitus any change sends a warning to the brain that something is wrong whereby the fight or flight mode of operating will cause reaction and recoil.

 


[i]Timothy D. Wilson [2002] Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.The Belknap Presss of Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts and Londond England p107.

[ii]en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taste_[sociology]

[iii]Ibid

[iv]Bourdeau Habitus.

Picture by Louis Lament.