Aesthetic Judgment & Visual Thinking (Jewish Philosophy) (Polemic)

Always are the assertions bunted around that aesthetics is simply individual and idiosyncratic, with no epistemological or ethical value. What I think is more to the point is that an “aesthetic judgment” is never individual, but always shared in some fundamental way, even if we can’t come to any clear conceptual agreement as why I judge one thing “beautiful” and another thing “ugly,”  and why “I” want “you” to come to the same judgment.

This is Kant’s old line of thinking, according to which the act of aesthetic judgment is supposed to be “disinterested,” meaning it has no claim to truth, and only a symbolic relation to ethics. Hegel, of course, thought otherwise. Ascribing a low status to art, what he actually had to say in the Lectures on Fine Art is stunning. Hegel saw in art a trace of the absolute. I daresay Buber and Rosenzweig saw the same in Scripture. My own position is more than Kant’s claim and less than the one made by Hegel.

The trick is how to get around the problem of reference. In the photograph posted above, what I like is the mix of materials, the orange flower and rough concrete, the way the background frame came out more clear than the foreground subject. The picture refers to nothing, to a little scene that once was a couple weeks back when I took the photo on a warm autumn day. Not the flower, but rather the photograph itself constitutes the object around which to think in a single frame a range of phenomena, both physical and temporal.

That a picture constitutes a form of visual thinking goes back to Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking. For Arnheim, visual thinking is the act of drawing out essential [sic] features in combination with contexts and changes in contexts, filling in gaps and identifying structures, and, in the process, paying attention and discovering what matters. At the very least, every visual image is a proposition about human existence (p.296).

What I don’t like about the Arnheim is what clearly dates him in the 1960s. This would be the unwillingness to consider asymmetrical or disproportionate associations between significant and insignificant elements.

There’s a priceless, passing nod by Arnheim to Talmud in a chapter entitled “Concepts Take Shape.” It concerns how “ghetto Jews, whose minds are formed by the traditional sophistry of Talmudic thinking, ‘appear to exhibit an angular change in direction, resulting in zig-zag motions, which when reproduced on paper, present the appearance of an intricate embroidery’” (p.117). Arnhiem is quoting a comparative study of immigrant Jews by David Efron. I find both the original passage and Arnheim’s citing it charming and old fashioned.

As for the relation between visual thinking and Jewish Philosophy, I take succor in the fact  that, also old fashioned and charming, Moses Mendelssohn cared about art, as did Herder, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche, Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig…and Stanley Cavell. I’m only recommending a little more “color” to my friends and colleagues in the field. In synch with the concepts, it’s what made the Germans and the German Jews great.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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