There is nothing to stop us from regarding artworks as void of intrinsic expressive life, just as there is nothing to stop us from seeing the human face as without intrinsic psychological expressiveness.This seems sort of true but also sort of false. Don't (some) artworks themselves force us to regard them as intrinsically expressive, just as the human face (sometimes) forces us to see it as intrinsically psychologically expressive? Or rather, since I don't really want to make any claims about what does the forcing here, is the kind of blindness Rhie refers to always a live option? It doesn't seem so to me. I remember (i.e. might have dreamed) that there was once a room full of Rothko paintings in London (presumably in the Tate, but I don't remember) that you entered by going through a black curtain. As soon as I went in I felt instantly depressed. That isn't a very subtle response to art, I know, but it wasn't a response that I had any control over. Was there nothing to stop me from regarding these paintings as void of intrinsic expressive life? I suppose I could have insisted that it was a coincidence, or that I was projecting, or something. But I can't imagine honestly agreeing there and then that these paintings did not have intrinsic expressive life.
Maybe I'm misunderstanding Rhie's claim. But he goes on to say that:
Cavell’s important discovery about skepticism was that far from simply being an intellectual error in need of correction, the skeptic’s position expressed an important philosophical truth: that there is no absolute ground for the meaningfulness of our lives together (like a framework of concepts or rules), only the fragile attunements we ourselves maintain by means of our continuing investment in, and care for, our shared sense-making practices. There is thus nothing to stop any of us from withdrawing our acknowledgment of those attunements, fragile as they are, which is of course the skeptic’s tragic choice. And just so, there is nothing to stop any of us from withdrawing our mutually attuned acknowledgments (fragile as they are) of the expressive meaningfulness of our very bodies, or of the artworks we make, enjoy, and study. The aesthetic expressiveness of art will indeed be but a fiction—and artworks will be dead: mere sounds, images, and dead letters—in so far as we choose (as we always can) to see them in that way. Indeed, as I think my essay has made clear, quite a few modern thinkers have already made that very choice.This passage seems to me to move from something true to something much more dubious. I'm happy to accept that the meaningfulness of our lives together depends on the fragile attunements that we maintain by involvement in certain practices. It doesn't follow, though, surely, that we are free to choose to withdraw our acknowledgement of those attunements. Can we choose to see artworks as dead? We can choose to try to do so, I would think. And the attempt might succeed. But I don't think that we can choose in the sense that trying is bound to succeed. I can't choose not to be moved by a song or film, even if I know that I ought not to be moved. Surely this is part of Wittgenstein's suggested experiments involving trying to see children as automata or flies as no more capable of pain than rocks are. (Which relates not only to his idea of doing philosophy from within the sphere of the ethical but also to this post of Kelly Jolley's on which I would comment if I could think of more to say than Yes.)
Being moved doesn't make you right. I have twice seen and twice cried at My Stepmother is an Alien, but (not having seen the film recently) I expect this is because I am a sucker for a certain kind of sentimentality, not because I am a discerning connoisseur of cinematic drama. On the other hand, not being moved doesn't make you right either. You might be blind (or deaf or whatever). There are some things that ought to move you. That, of course, is a value judgement. But so its denial. The facts don't dictate that we not be moved. Which is, at least roughly, why I agree with Rhie's conclusion:
But what I would like to suggest, by way of conclusion, is that that choice [not to see expressiveness] need not be one we ourselves feel compelled to make, as if it were somehow philosophically truer and less theoretically naïve to see the emotional expressiveness of artworks (as of ourselves) as something that’s not really there, but rather some sort of interpretive projection, an animating fiction, or what have you.