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Art and The Urban Kaleidoscope
Timothy O'Leary

The modern city is a shocking place. A simple walk in the street, and our senses are assailed with a surfeit of stimuli. Most striking is the visual stimulation: crowds of people mill around us; an endless series of shop fronts passes the edge of our field of vision; neon signs assault us with messages. Faced with this barrage, our attention flits from stimulus to stimulus, while we struggle to resist the sounds and smells that underlay the sights. The traffic, the jackhammers, the music, the smell of the street vendors' food, the cigarette smoke, the exhaust fumes, the perfume, the sweat. An unpleasant experience perhaps; an uncomfortable experience; but at least it is an experience. An experience that is very different from the one of walking in an air-conditioned shopping mall, quietly lulled by its anodyne muzak. My suggestion here is that this experience of shock is similar, in many ways, to the experience we have in the face of works of art. It is, quite literally, an aesthetic experience - at least if we understand aesthetics in its original sense, as 'sensory perception'1. It is, therefore, a valuable experience, one that may even be capable of changing us and the way we approach the world. However, it is not a simple experience. Alongside the shock and activity, it combines elements of passivity, isolation, and, most importantly, consumption.

The idea that there is some connection between the city and art is a very old one in the Western tradition. Even the English word 'urbane' implies that culture, or at least sophistication, is inherently urban and metropolitan. According to this idea, it is only in the city that wealth and leisure combine in such a way as to allow the development of the arts. My focus, however, is on a connection at the level of experience. Walter Benjamin, the 20th century critic who wrote a history of Paris as "capital of the nineteenth century2," points out that in the 19th century the experience of the city was confronting and unpleasant. "Fear, revulsion, and horror," he says, "were the emotions which the big-city crowd aroused in those who first observed it3." According to Benjamin, it was the French poet Baudelaire who first gave a positive account of the experience of this crowd. Against the writings of other 19th century thinkers such as Engels and Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire speaks approvingly of "a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electrical energy4," and he describes this man as "a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness5." The emblematic figure of this crowd was the flaneur, a person who seems to be idling, doing nothing, but is really observing and absorbing - he is, in Benjamin's phrase, "botanizing on the asphalt6." For Baudelaire, the modern city - with its anonymous crowds and mass consumption - was an essential source of energy and inspiration for the poet and the artist. For him, as one of the earliest exponents of modernism, this shock-effect of the city was precisely its attraction.

This was a city in which the individual was, in an important sense, more free than ever before. The medieval German cities that made up the free-trade organization called the Hanseatic League, adopted the motto "Stadt Luft macht Frei" ("the air of a city makes people free"7). This referred primarily to economic freedom, but the phenomenon is broader than that. George Simmel, an early 20th century German sociologist, recognized that the anonymity of the modern city crowd gives people "an amount of personal freedom which has no analogy whatsoever under other conditions8." It is for this reason that even the feeling of being lost in a large, uncaring crowd can be experienced as liberating. But what about the suspicion that, on the contrary, the modern city is a vast machine whose function is to deaden our senses and pacify us? On this view, the growth of suburbs, transport networks, and shopping malls all conspire to turn us into isolated consumers; automata who, precisely, are not equipped with consciousness. In a recent book on the history of the Western city and its relation to the body, Richard Sennett forcefully argues that the key features of the contemporary urban environment - at least in First World countries - are "sensory deprivation" and "tactile sterility9." Since the 19th century we have striven for comfort, which is to say absence of sensory stimulation, in our own homes, in our modes of transport, in our places of work and consumption. And this comfort is linked, as Benjamin had argued, to modern forms of production and consumption: "Comfort isolates," he says, and "it brings those enjoying it closer to mechanization10." Sennett suggests that this anaesthetizing of the modern city is a phenomenon that accelerates in the 20th century. It is a development which he sees spreading through all areas of the urban environment.

This effect is undeniable, but it is not a total phenomenon. No city, even in the First World, is completely sanitized. Returning, for a moment, to the example of Hong Kong, there are of course many malls with empty, white expanses, gleaming marble, and carefully presented luxury goods. These are the contemporary versions of the 19th century arcades that Benjamin studied, and of the 20th century department stores and supermarkets that Baudrillard singles out in his early work The Consumer Society11. They are, almost literally, modern-day cathedrals in which we worship the empty signs of wealth. But in Hong Kong these spaces are the exception rather than the rule. Much more prevalent are the crowded streets, smelly and noisy, packed with shoppers and idlers even at 11 o'clock at night. Places like Causeway Bay, the most expensive retail location in Asia, where on a Saturday or Sunday evening it seems that all Hong Kong's 7 million people have come to watch. Here one can imagine the 19th century Baudelaire plunging into the crowd, being exposed to the kaleidoscopic array of sensations - what he called the phantasmagoria of the modern city.

These people, however, are not just engaging in a carefully orchestrated consumption. In fact, their very idleness seems to be a form of resistance to consumption. Let me give a personal illustration. I live in Causeway Bay, and I regularly go out in the early evening to one of the local supermarkets, or the specialist food court in the Japanese department store Sogo. I go with the intention of participating in the globalized economy - I want to buy Japanese cucumbers, Australian beef, and Italian cheese. But to do so I have to battle my way through casual browsers, those people who look but don't buy. And on the way home, suffering from the same frustration, I walk down the middle of the street rather than on the pavement, because I can't maneuver my bags through the crowds. "Down with dawdling!" was the slogan of Frederick Taylor (inventor of the industrial production line): a terrible slogan, unless you're trying to shop in Sogo on a Saturday afternoon.

So we should be careful not to reduce either the sanitized post-modern shopping mall or the chaotic modern street to the needs of a consumer economy. At the level of sense-experience - which is to say, at the level of aesthetics - something else is going on. But how are we to understand this? What exactly does it mean to have an aesthetic experience - or any kind of experience?

The American philosopher John Dewey developed an account of aesthetic experience that broke down the barrier that we imagine to exist between our everyday lives and art. The distinctive feature of Dewey's philosophy of art - which is presented in his 1932 lectures Art as Experience12 - is the idea that the aesthetic is continuous with our everyday forms of experience. In other words, art cannot be isolated and confined to a special realm in which we use special faculties such as imagination and creativity to produce and discern objects of beauty. Rather, according to Dewey, art is "a quality of doing and of what is done" (AE, 214). In his aesthetics, as in the rest of his philosophy, Dewey was resolutely opposed to hypostatization. Any abstract term such as art, mind, or imagination which took on the form and solidity of a substantial entity or faculty was open to his criticism. In all such cases he urged us to rethink the concept as an adjective or a verb, rather than as a noun. In aesthetics, he criticizes the way imagination is treated as a special faculty with "mysterious potencies." If we view imagination, however, in the context of the creation of works of art, we will see, according to Dewey, that it is rather a quality, a way of making and observing things. What Dewey wants us to notice is that the substantive nouns art, imagination, and even beauty, get their meaning from the adjectives that qualify the way we engage in certain activities. And the point that these are activities is crucial:

It is no linguistic accident that 'building', 'construction', 'work', designate both a process and its finished product. Without the meaning of the verb that of the noun remains blank. (AE, 51).

What we must remember is that the work of art engages the activity of both the artist and the audience. And experience, in general, has this same quality: it is not something that happens to us, it is not something in which we are a passive recipient. It is a form of activity. In its broadest sense, experience is "a matter of the interaction of organism with its environment" (AE, 246).

The central idea here, and the image that Dewey returns to again and again, is that experience is a matter of doing and undergoing. In experience, he says, "the self acts, as well as undergoes, and its undergoing are not impressions stamped upon an inert wax but depend upon the way the organism reacts and responds." The organism, therefore, "is a force, not a transparency" (ibid.). Every interaction between the human organism and its environment - both natural and social - is constitutive of experience.

How does this help us to understand the experience of shock, the kaleidoscopic experience, of the city? To repeat, the crucial point is to emphasize the active element in every experience - especially in the aesthetic experience. If we take a long-term perspective, our experience of the world around us is not historically constant; it changes, not only because of external modifications, but also because of our active involvement in responding to that experience. Many artists and critics, since the end of the 19th century, have spoken about the changes which modernity has brought about in human experience - from Marinetti and the Futurists to Breton and the Surrealists. The idea that the human perceptual apparatus has a history, the idea that we do not see and hear in the same way as our ancestors did, may be shocking, but it is something which is attested to by many inhabitants of the modern city. George Simmel, for example, argues that the "intensification of nervous stimuli" in the modern city produces a new type of "metropolitan" individual13. In the 1930s, Benjamin, in his essay on the work of art, makes a similar claim. "During long periods of history," he suggests, "the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity's entire mode of existence. 14" The most recent such change has been brought about by the conditions of the modern city characterized by shock, over-stimulation, and distraction. These have led, according to Benjamin, to "profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus"changes which at the individual level are experienced "by the man in the street in big-city traffic 15."

One artist who was perhaps more aware than most of this historic change is Fernand Léger, a French painter of the early 20th century who was closely associated with the Cubist movement. On the subject of the relation between art and modernity, he said, "present-day life, more fragmented and faster moving than life in previous eras, has had to accept as its means of expression an art of dynamic divisionism." This, I would suggest, is exactly the experience of shock and sensory overload that the contemporary city offers, and one of the first forms of art to try to respond to this experience was the dynamic divisionism of Cubism. Hence, Léger suggests, "if pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it." Nowadays, "when one crosses a landscape by automobile or express train, it becomes fragmented... the view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things. A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century artist16." One of Léger's best-known works, The City (1919), illustrates this new sensibility by conveying the apparently chaotic dynamism of the city. The painting is bright, bold, fragmented, and, as Benjamin might have expected, distracted. In fact, one recent critic has complained that Léger's canvasses are too "noisy"17.

It is clear that, in response to changes in environment and modes of perception, new forms of art emerge. Benjamin, for example, identifies film as the art form that, more than any other, responds to the changes in modern perception. But whether we identify film, painting, or literature, the question arises as to what is the relation between these forms of cultural creation and the conditions from which they arise. Before trying to answer this question, we need to return to Dewey, and to his account of the different forms of experience. Because, not all experience is equal in Dewey's view. There are experiences which are qualitatively different, and of greater value, because they constitute a unified, whole experience. In other words, it is sometimes a matter of having an experience, rather than just experience. And it is this type of experience that art, among other things, can provide. The living organism is continuously in the midst of a flow of experience; a flow that springs from the constant interaction between the organism and the environment. In general, this flow of experience is inchoate. In contrast with this, we have an experience, Dewey says, when "the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment," and is "integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences." This kind of experience "is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience" (AE, 35).

If, to use one of Dewey's examples, playing a game of chess can constitute an experience because it begins, develops, and is consummated in a certain way; then we can say that reading a poem, listening to a piece of music, or looking at a painting can do the same. But these experiences - the experience of an artwork - are different from the experience of a game of chess, firstly, because of their expressive nature (an artist has tried to express something through the work) and, secondly, because of their ability to enter into and modify the experience of their audience. If experience in the most general sense is a matter of doing and undergoing, then the experience of works of art is equally active on the part of the audience. Of course it is possible to be passive in the face of a work of art, but for Dewey any such experience is not aesthetic. To have an aesthetic experience is to re-create the work in one's own experience. "A new poem," he writes, "is created by everyone who reads poetically" (AE, 108). In the same way, a new work of art is created by everyone who views "aesthetically". And, we might even say, a new city is created by everyone who actively experiences its sights, sounds, and smells.

Returning to the question of the relation between such a work and the reality from which it arises, we can now formulate an answer. This relation can be understood in terms that Seamus Heaney, the Nobel-prize-winning poet, used to discuss the relation between poetry and society. Heaney always rejected both the naïve politicization of poetry, and the equally naïve insulation of poetry from social reality. Rather, what is needed are works in which "the coordinates of the imagined thing correspond to and allow us to contemplate the complex burden of our own experience." Such poetry "can be hung out," Heaney says, "on the imaginative arm of the balance to take the strain of our knowledge of things as they are18." A work of this kind, whether a painting, a sculpture, or a poem, would neither determine the social reality, nor be determined by it, but, to borrow Dewey's phrase, would play a role in the constant "doing and undergoing" that constitutes all experience. It would, in other words, offer the active audience the opportunity to gain a stronger foothold in the reality that they inhabit.

Finally, the point I want to make here is not that we are still undergoing the same kinds of change as in the early 20th century, but simply to emphasize that such change happens, and that the urban environment, which itself is in a constant state of flux, is today one of the most important elements in forming the way that we experience the world. When Baudelaire, in the mid-nineteenth century, described the city inhabitant as a "kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness," he gave us a metaphor that encapsulates, above all, the energy and activity of the urban experience. And also its beauty. There is no doubt that this energy and activity is threatened by the sterilization that occurs in the suburban ideal. But it is equally certain that the process of urbanization, of modernization, which is rapidly encircling the globe, has already changed the perceptual apparatus of much of 21st century humanity. Rather than retreating to the anesthesia of the shopping mall and suburban sprawl, or to a pre-modern rural idyll, what is important is that cultural practice - especially the visual arts - should respond to these changes in an equally active and dynamic way. By doing so, they will help us to carry the ever-more complex burden of our urban experience.

Timothy O'Leary
Department of Philosophy, University of Hong Kong


1 The 18th century philosopher Baumgarten was the first to use the term aesthetics in its modern sense - which he defined as a 'science of sensory cognition'.

2 Benjamin never finished his "Arcades Project", but fragments (including "Paris - the Capital of the Nineteenth Century") can be found in Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Verso, London, 1997.

3 Walter Benjamin, "Some Motifs in Baudelaire" in, ibid., p.131.

4 Benjamin, ibid., p.132.

5 Charles Baudelaire, cited by Benjamin, ibid., p.132.

6 Benjamin, ibid., p.36

7 Reported in, Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, Faber and Faber, London 1994, p.155.

8 George Simmel, "The Metropolis in Mental Life", reprinted in Art in Theory: 1900-2000, Blackwell, London, 2003, p.134.

9 See, ibid., p.15.

10 Benjamin, op.cit., p.131.

11 Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, Sage, London, 1998.

12 John Dewey, Art as Experience, Perigree Books, New York, 1980. Henceforth cited as AE, with page references to this edition.

13 George Simmel, op.cit., p.132.

14 Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, Pimlico, London, 1999, p.216.

15 Benjamin, ibid, p.243, fn.19.

16 See extracts from Leger's writings in Harrison & Wood (eds), Art in Theory: 1900-2000, op. cit., esp. pp.159-161.

17 See online review, by Frances O'Connor, of a Leger show at MoMA in 1998: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/L/leger.html

18 Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry, Faber and Faber, London, 1995, p.10, 13.