Saturday, November 29, 2014

Arts of the Beautiful: Part I

This is a post I began back in August but have worked on only at long intervals. For a time I decided to abandon it, because, really, who cares what I have to say about art? But trying to figure out what people would like to see me write about has never really been the point of this blog. So here it is, in three parts, imperfect and unformed, but as good as I could make it in the given format.

Some time ago I happened to disagree with a sentiment expressed by the author John C. Wright on his blog. This sentiment concerns ART, particularly PAINTING. The exchange had to do with something I've thought a great deal about and concerning which I've held, at different times, a number of conflicting opinions. But my interlocutor made it plain in no uncertain terms that he did not wish to continue the conversation, so I'm continuing it here, with myself, as a way of clarifying my views. I've written about these things before, and shall not scruple to plunder my earlier posts, so some of this will be repetition.

The ideas I here express are merely my personal opinions. Art is by nature manifold, and doesn't admit easy generalizations; I think there is plenty of room for a multiplicity of views on the subject. It's not a field in which someone can be shown to be definitively right. If you disagree with my views, I can only say that I've probably thought the way you do before, and may very well do so again.

Before I begin, I should mention that this is merely a vulgarization – or popularization, if you will – of ideas formulated by Etienne Gilson, the great Thomist philosopher, in his books Arts of the Beautiful, Forms and Substances in the Arts, and Painting and Reality. I've studied a number of Gilson's other books, including The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and The History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, though I don't pretend to be any more than a dabbler in such things. In particular, the second volume, a synthesis of Thomas' philosophy, has been to me the key to the Summa Theologica, a great deal of which I have also read.

Any modern who considers himself a follower or fanboy of Thomas Aquinas would do well to pause and at least listen before rejecting outright an argument put forward by Gilson. I don't appeal to him as an authority, mind you; I'm just conscious that many of those likely to disagree with my views would be inclined to receive his arguments with more patience than my own. Though Gilson has some appreciation for what many apparently find so ridiculously stupid as to be unworthy of comment or criticism, namely, abstract art, those whose modus operandi is to attack every aspect of modern culture will find solace in reflecting that his views are now very much out of style in the art world.

Arts of the Beautiful, by the way, was written partly as a rejoinder to Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, which I happened to encounter first. I was introduced to both authors by Thomas Merton, whose Seven Storey Mountain I read as a graduate student. Merton was very taken with Art and Scholasticism, and it apparently helped him formulate a thesis about William Blake; with Gilson, I admire the work, but find that it doesn't match the practical experience of the artist.

An Internet Debate

The exchange follows. It is lightly edited so as to match the preferences of my humble blog, with some omissions made for the sake of brevity and to avoid repetition with what comes after. Bear in mind that this is a comment thread on a blog post, a form of communication lending itself more to the generation of heat than of light.
Mr. Wright (in a comment on his blog post): Someone who looks at Picasso and sees art is a nutbag.  [This is similar to many other statements Mr. Wright has made concerning modern art.]
Me: I must confess to liking a number of Picasso pieces. His early work (e.g., his Blue Period) is, I hope, beyond dispute, but if not I can only say that some of these, e.g., The Old Guitarist, are to me quite lovely. I also like some of his cubist pieces and collages, and I think that Guernica is beautiful for its arrangement of visual elements.
     I find it helpful to keep in mind Etienne Gilson’s simple definition: "A picture is a solid surface which the artist covers with colored forms whose arrangement is pleasing to the eye through the unity of the form, the harmony of the parts and the perfection of the execution."
     I see the rise of abstract art in the twentieth century as revolt against the idea of art as imitation or art as communication, and an attempt to return to art as beauty. [...] On the other side, I see conceptual art, Dadaism, etc., as being diametrically opposed to these ends. [...] 
Mr. Wright: I would dismiss the idea of beauty divorced from natural representation as a chimera, if not a logical absurdity. It is like trying to find a bride without a woman. 
Stephen J: Does "natural representation" have to mean something that already physically exists? The patterns, shapes, symmetries and colours of a Persian rug represent no real thing other than themselves, but I find many examples of them quite beautiful; perhaps what is being "naturally represented" there are the phenomena of colour and symmetry in themselves. 
Me: I don’t see it as a chimera, because it is possible for a non-representational arrangement of colors and shapes to be beautiful. As Gilson says: "To speak of non-representational, non-imitative or abstract painting is not to speak of an amorphous painting. No painting is more abstract than Mondrian's, but this geometric painting is also the most formal of all. Like formal logic itself, it is form without content."
     I think there's a distinction to be made. A painting’s beauty as a painting is distinct from the beauty of what it represents. Otherwise a faithful photograph would be more beautiful than any painting. Take, say, Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I've seen the painting, and I've hiked in the canyon, and found them both beautiful; but my enjoyment of one is different from my enjoyment of the other.
Also, as Stephen J. points out, just because a painting doesn’t look like something doesn’t mean it’s not drawn from Nature. No tree could live without its roots in the earth; but we also needn’t expect the crown of the tree to resemble the roots in a strictly photographic (or pantographic) sense. The painter abstracts from Nature – this is what goes on in the trunk of the tree. As with mathematics, some abstractions are further removed than others. 
Mr. Wright: No one here is arguing against this point [concerning abstraction from nature].
     A group of repeated pleasing colors of simple geometric shapes may be nice as decoration, but it is not art. It evokes no emotion and refers to nothing. Art requires craft. Craft means skill. 
Me: I didn’t imagine that anyone was arguing against the point. You had said that the idea of beauty divorced from natural representation is chimerical. I was therefore pointing out that even very abstract paintings – even "geometric" paintings – are drawn from Nature, hence are, in some sense, representational. So perhaps we are in agreement there.
     The paintings of Paul Klee, which are quite abstract, evoke in me very great pleasure, because they are beautiful. That is the only emotion relevant to the question. A painting that is beautiful as a painting evokes the emotion of pleasure which comes from seeing a beautiful thing made by hands.
     I would say that decorative arts, such as wallpaper or tile, differ from painting in that they are never meant to be viewed as a whole. They don't form a unity. A painting forms a unity. And when the viewer sees such a unity, and something "clicks" in his heart, and he says, yes, this is, then that is art.
     Consider music, though the comparison is perhaps dangerous, since music is a liberal art whereas painting is a servile art. There are pieces of music that tell a story, or that aim to imitate something (a thunderstorm, a typewriter), but there are plenty of pieces that do neither. To call the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor a mere string of pretty noises because it refers to nothing else is to admit that music is to be enjoyed principally for something other than its audible qualities. To lump it in with modern attempts to mock the idea of beauty through cacophony is unjust.
     Beauty is truth, and truth beauty, but the beauty of truth is not the truth of beauty. Truth and beauty are each transcendentals in their own right, and not reducible to one another. To say that art must imitate something or refer to something or communicate something is to let truth usurp the place of beauty.
     You say that art requires skill. I say that many of the great abstractionists had great skill. It was honed through years – decades, sometimes – of tutelage under Nature. They mastered the technical virtuosity that allows the craftsman to imitate what he sees. You can see this in their early work. But their artistic skill lay foremost in the fitting arrangement of color and form. They each moved on to abstract various elements from Nature in varying degrees. In the end someone who has no taste for such things might call their works facile. The Nazis did, when they showed Klee’s work alongside that of the deranged. But truly, no child or lunatic could have produced Ad Parnassum.
The work of the great abstractionists of the twentieth century is a far cry from the products of modern art schools who never learned from Nature, and splatter canvas with paint, and call it art.
     To sum up, sir, I must disagree with your assessment of certain modern masters, though I respect you as always. I wish only to make the case that even a person who is not a lunatic, a fool, or a knave might revere such works.
Mr. Wright: You sound very reasonable, but then I looked up the works of Paul Klee, and they were so abominably ugly and deranged that I admit the gulf between us can never be crossed. Artistically, it is the same as trying to reason out the sound of one hand clapping: you are looking at something meant to hinder the ability to admire art, to blind the eye and benumb the brain. It is garbage, pure and simple, and even simple drawings by comic book artists or commercial artists doing magazine covers show far more skill, sanity, proportion, color, composition, and execution.
     It is as random as the image in a kaleidoscope. The images in a kaleidoscope of necessity are colorful and show a radial symmetry. But art, if it is truly art, cannot be produced at random. Anything produced at random is random.
Me: I can only say that I don’t think them abominably ugly, or deranged, or garbage, and I haven’t found that they hinder my ability to admire art, or blind my eye, or benumb my brain. They are not random. They were painted with an eye toward beauty. This is apparent in their composition and use of color, though you are, it seems, insensible to it. I enjoy them much as I enjoy certain symphonies. I was not trained to do so. No one told me I ought to be attracted to them. [...]
     If what I say sounds reasonable, then why not apply reason to argue against it? I have paid you the only compliment which I, as a Vulcan, know how to pay, which is to calmly and rationally argue with your position. In return you merely tell me that what I like is garbage, and that I am suffering from a form of insanity, and that this should be so obvious to everyone that no further comment is necessary. 
Mr. Wright: If you do not think these things are ugly, you have no ability to judge ugliness. I challenge you to find a picture that is ugly by your standards and point me to it. I doubt you can.
     I have applied reason to argue against it, and you have flatly stated that you do not accept the conclusion. Why do you vainly tell me to ignore the evidence of my eyes, which I trust, and believe the conclusions of your judgment, which even the limited experience of this exchange proves is execrable.
     Had you pointed me to some painting that was merely odd or incomprehensible to me, my reaction would be different. I could continue to give you the benefit of the doubt. Instead you have pointed me to the most absurd, ghastly, and disproportion bits of ugly lunacy imaginable, pieces that make me physically sick to look at, and call them good work.
     I did not merely dismiss you argument with an insult, as you claim, but gave you my reasons, which concern proportion, perspective, representation, symmetry, and skill of craftsmanship.
     I am an artist. I know what art is because I can do it. I also know when I am looking at something far better than I do because I lack the skill, and I can see the garbage you like and I know I could draw as well with my left foot after my foot was run over by a tractor and I was pumped so full of painkillers that the lower half of my brain was sloshing.
     It is also obvious that no further comment is needed. Why do you think words can make me see beauty where there is nothing but filth?
Let me first point out that we are at cross purposes here toward the end, for it was not my intention to argue for the beauty of any particular artist's works. Such arguments can be made, of course, but they will never be wholly satisfactory, because, however it scandalizes critics and pedants, there is an element of the subjective in all judgments concerning beauty. The field doesn't admit of axiomatization; "rules" of composition are of necessity ad hoc.

My only point in bringing up Klee's work was that, if I, as a reasonable person, well-informed about the ends of art, could find his and Picasso's paintings beautiful and worthy of being called art, then it is false to say that someone who thinks that Picasso is art is a "nutbag" or a "lunatic." I was only providing a counterexample to the general statement; the counterexample is myself, not Klee or Picasso. I thought I made this clear, but perhaps I did not.

I would also like to point out that, despite claims to the contrary, our interlocutor has hardly argued against my position at all. He has chiefly argued against the beauty of certain pictures, under the impression that I was attempting to prove them beautiful, whereas I was merely citing the fact that I (and many others) find them beautiful, and that they were produced with the intent of creating beauty, which is an historical fact, however much he may dispute the success of the endeavor. Further, his argument against their beauty is to assert that they are ugly (an opinion) or merely random (an error of fact), that they violate what he considers the laws of composition (these laws are not enunciated, nor are their universal applicability established, nor in what ways the pictures violate them), and that their production was part of a conspiracy to make man call the ugly beautiful (the conspirator being an isolated artist driven out of Germany by the Nazis as a "degenerate" and a "Galician Jew").

Paul Klee's Revolt of the Viaduct:
speaking truth to power.
But again, my intent was not to convince anyone of the beauty of any work in particular. The thesis which I am putting forward is not that this or that artist produces beautiful work, but that the end of painting as an art of the beautiful is visual beauty, as opposed to the communication of ideas or emotions, or the representation of natural objects, however beautiful these things may be in themselves, and that the idea of non-representational painting is not madness or subversion of the ends of art.

Despite all of this, since the challenge was issued, I shall endeavor to justify the art of Paul Klee, or at least to indicate how it might be justified. I shall also use his paintings as illustrations, but no argument shall depend on the reader finding them beautiful.

Views of Art

Let us begin, then, by listing some of the qualities our interlocutor seems to require in a work of art:
  1. The work must require skill.
  2. The work must represent an object from nature.
  3. The work must evoke an emotion.
  4. The work must refer to something.
Perhaps he requires all of these qualities all of the time. Perhaps he requires only one or two or three at a time, depending on the work. It doesn't really matter, as we shall consider them each in turn.

Consider the first item. Our interlocutor speaks of skill, presumably because he regards the pictures I mentioned as not requiring any skill in their execution. There are, of course, many kinds of skill that go into making up a good painting, but the skill of the painter as such is not exactly the same as the skill of the draftsman. We shall return to this point presently. First, though, I'd like to discuss a related point that was not specifically mentioned, but which I think is often a cause of trouble: some viewers tend to be suspicious of works that appear to have been executed with ease.

Difficulty of execution is, of course, an accidental quality, as I assume our interlocutor would grant. Any true work of art must have cost great effort, but at the same time there is nothing logically absurd in imagining a natural virtuoso producing the Mona Lisa in a matter of hours, without any training or discipline, through a kind of artistic miracle.

Christoph Schönborn's God's Human Face: The Christ-Icon, a theological work, contains some discussion of images reputedly "not made by human hands" (acheiropoieta), such as the Image of Edessa and the print on the Shroud of Turin. There's also the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the tilma of Juan Diego, and the icon begun by Luke the Evangelist but finished by angels, which is at the Lateran Palace in Rome. Surely such images might be considered works of art on their own terms?

Very well, so difficulty and discipline are accidental, though probably humanly necessary, qualities. Now, a painting that took years to create, or required extreme precision or technical skill or highly developed powers of observation, commands interest for that reason alone, apart from its beauty. But such paintings can be ugly; and some beautiful paintings were done in a single day. In my opinion, a mere squiggle drawn by someone who has perfected his art is more beautiful than an elaborate drawing by someone who has not.*

It is true that, absent any sensibility to purely visual beauty, the viewer may suspect that a painting which appears to have been executed with ease is simply another case of the Emperor's New Clothes. However, each of the great abstractionists of the first half of the twentieth century – Picasso, say, or Klee, or Mondrian, or Matisse – spent decades honing his skills. Their great skill insofar as they were artists (as opposed to draftsmen) lay in the fitting arrangement of color and form, not in trompe-l'oeil effects. As it happens, they were, in fact, accomplished draftsmen, but their true interests lay elsewhere.

Let us suppose that some of their later works were painted relatively quickly and with ease. In much the same way, an accomplished pianist makes piano-playing look easy. The tyro looks on and says, I could do that! But just let him try. And if he does try, and is pleased with his performance, then we shall know how to think of him. If he tells us that there is no difference between what the pianist produces and the noise made by a cat running down the keyboard, then we shall simply have to reply that perhaps he is not a good judge.

Mozart, as everyone knows, was a prodigy. There is a memorable scene in the movie Amadeus in which the Mozart character is dared at a masque to play upside-down. This he does, making it look no very difficult thing, to the enchantment of all. He then begins to do comic impressions of various composers. When the envious Salieri, masked as everyone else, calls out for him to do Salieri, Mozart assumes a pedantic air and proceeds to labor over the keys with a look of intense concentration, farting with dramatic flourish. This (minus the fart) is the image of the artist that the philistine respects; Mozart he would regard as a trousered ape who puts "too many notes" in his pieces.

Philistines with jackboots: Goebbels
at the Degenerate Art Exhibition.
A parlor trick the philistine often plays is to place an abstract painting side by side with a drawing by a lunatic or a child, and demand that you judge between them. This is the trick the Nazis, who were philistines with jackboots, played in their Degenerate Art Exhibition. Personally, I've never found myself unable to pass the test, though putting the reasons for my choices into words is not easy. My response to art takes place on an intuitive level. Generally, my response to a work of art is joy, the joy of seeing a beautiful thing, while my response to the drawing of a lunatic is a mixture of disgust and pity. Such judgments are subjective, and by their very nature cannot be infallible, but the one who demands that I decide between a Kandinsky and a Koko usually strikes me as having rather poor taste in such things.**

Consider that many a mathematical genius has boldly leaped to unforeseen conclusions without being able to justify themselves. Some of the greatest mathematicians in history have left such things to the pedants and textbook writers. The situation isn't perfectly analogous, of course, because in mathematics we have axioms, whereas we lack them in art. The viewer's reaction to a painting is essentially intuitive. No one can deduce from first principles that such-and-such a painting is beautiful or ugly. In the end it boils down to, "I like it," or, "I don't like it." This bothers some people. We'll return to the matter in a moment.

Incidentally, since I'm using the word "philistine" rather freely here, and it tends to be an offensive term, I should mention that I don't intend to use it in a pejorative sense.*** To me (as to Gilson) it refers to a person who is insensible to the beauty of art as art. The philistine is perhaps to be pitied for missing out on what gives so many people joy, but he is not to be despised, for it is not a moral failing. Of course, upon being called a philistine, even by implication, a person will often become extremely angry, especially if they pride themselves on their taste. So might a person who can't distinguish between red and green, and who in fact denies that there is any difference, grow angry upon being called color-blind, and show you a red picture and a green picture, and demand that you explain the difference.

"Is it modern?"
But this needn't be. There is nothing shameful in admitting oneself to be a philistine. I, for one, am a philistine as to modern dance. I've known several professionally trained practitioners of this art, and have witnessed a number of performances. I can appreciate the beauty of a human body, but, when I watch such a body swaying and gyrating and gesticulating as they generally do in modern dance, I find myself merely bemused. Even classical ballet leaves me tepid, unless, of course, I'm interested in the story or the accompanying music. Otherwise it's just a lot of people tiptoeing about. I accept that there is such an art, because people of sound judgment tell me it is so, but, for whatever reason, I am insensible to it. Now, it may be that, with some guidance, I could form my taste, and slowly come to grasp the essentials of the art, and at last truly perceive beauty in it. This isn't to say that the perception of beauty can be learned by rote. It's only to say that, like perception of truth, it must sometimes be drawn forth by a midwife.

I personally suspect that many of the people who visit museums and galleries are utterly insensible to the purely visual qualities of paintings. One person enjoys learning about the history of art and the lives of the artists and the occasions behind their paintings; another person marvels at the technical skill apparent in carefully rendered details; a third takes pleasure in viewing pictures of things he likes, such as religious images, or nature scenes, or beautiful women; a fourth likes solemn, quiet places with a transcendent purpose. And there's nothing wrong with all of that. It only becomes dangerous when the philistine arrogates to himself the right to condemn the products of a culture to which he has not been inducted. When this philistinism acquires power you get brownshirts.

To be continued in Part II and Part III...

* Our interlocutor somewhere mentions Picasso's sketch of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in tones of disdain. However, I recently saw a large print of this sketch in the office of the border-town body shop where I take my truck, which is also adorned with humorous off-color signs, a clock with hands mounted on a picture of a whitetail deer, a poster montage of the Dallas Cowboys, and an old-fashioned barber chair, so it can't be that such art appeals only to elites with warped tastes.

** Not that I'm enthusiastic about Kandinsky; there are some works that many people apparently find beauty in, but which don't strike me as being particularly attractive. Of course, an artist might deliberately strive to produce art that is indistinguishable from a lower primate's, and in this case I hope I may be excused from judgment, though I still suspect that the mark of the rational animal would be plain. But I aver that Klee and his colleagues were not so striving.
     It occurs to me that a fitting revenge might be to place a picture by a child and a picture by a lunatic (or a lower primate, or an artist) side by side before our modern art skeptic, demand that he state which is which, and label him an inhuman monster if he chooses wrongly, or a hypocrite if he refrains from judgment. (And we can certainly arrange for him to choose wrongly; even well-adjusted children can produce some pretty bizarre things!)

*** I also don't use it of any person in particular, because one never really knows what is in another person's heart or mind.

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