Thursday, July 31, 2014

Art & Beauty - Part I, Section I: Formal Foundations

Preliminary note: The following six Sections that constitute the first Part in what will eventually be a trilogy are the result of on and off studies in the past couple years on art theory, particularly from the perspective of the 'traditional world'.  I have happily grown acquainted with many stalwart thinkers who have increased my knowledge not only of art, but of history, ethics, theology, and assorted metaphysical premises as well. This knowledge has in turn helped organize my own worldview, which I hope has produced a more involved, intimate report, and not merely the imitation of a textbook. 

This sixfold Part will cover the more principal bases of art philosophy, dealing with such elementary things as mimesis, symbolism, myth, and creativity. We will discuss the traditional art-world not so much in contrast with contemporary theories & practises, but in itself; we will thereby gain a surer footing when we confront the second Part, in which we will investigate how art theory has devolved from its original foundations to the chaotic and arbitrary phenomena that emerges from modern theories of art. The third Part will then utilize what we have discussed in the first two Parts to take a more hands-on approach to art, concerning ourselves with particular artistic material in recent history, and more importantly looking at how to impose on new art the steady principles of the old art. This ambition consists in neither a nostalgic idolization of the orderly ancients nor a categorical condemnation of the impetuous moderns; it will, on the other hand, hopefully consist in a helpful integration of the two, wherein we might find the creative business of the modern mind backed by the eternal traditions of the classical mind.

The first Part is already written; we will post its six Sections on here in intervals of roughly one week. The next two Parts will, God willing, be written some time in 2015, as I have other plans for writing material in the remainder of 2014. Thank you for taking the time to read what is really a labour of love, and I earnestly hope that you might glean something from it.

Formal Foundations

It is impossible to understand the arts of creation without understanding Plato's doctrine of mimesis and Aristotle's contributions and counterpart to it, and how a unique synthesis of the two philosophers came to dominate medieval artistic theory and practise. So, naturally, as the foundation for all that came afterwards, this will be our starting point as well. As an introductory chapter, there will be several ideas in this Section which will be mere glimpses of their more complete development at later stages in this project. This is also the Section in which anyone studied in classical philosophy will be the most familiar with, as these ideas are all elementary ones, and they are for that reason necessary.

First of all, as an example of the philosopher's consistency and thoroughly integrated worldview, Plato's doctrine on art derives from his metaphysics, his doctrine on the fundamentals of reality. Plato supposed that there are two realms that make up our universe: the tangible, 'every-day reality' which is made up of senses and is therefore called the 'sensible realm', and the intangible, conceptual realm that represents the primal reality, and is called the 'intelligible realm'.

These two principles are often criticized as a nefarious 'duality', an intransigent system of opposites with no apparent solution. What it really is, however, is an accurate model of our reality, and suggests the necessary divide that derives from 'the Fall', from the disintegration of original, paradisal man; what is more, the two are coöperative, so that the duality is not so much an antithetical opposition as one of a quasi-harmonious relationship. The intelligible realm is immaterial, but without it the sensible realm would be completely disorganized, a purely chaotic state in which nothing would be recognizable or capable of definition, because that would require the power of conceptual organization. Everything that we experience on a sensual level is accompanied by a mental experience; they are infact one experience. That we do distinguish between them is due to the fact that we have a thinking mind and sensitive nerves, i.e. two valves for the same source.

In the Republic, Plato provides us with the famous example of the table to account for the existence of things according to this model. There can conceivably be, he says, a very wide range of different tables that we can make and use, but, regardless of whether they have four or eight or twenty legs, we will recognize every one of them as a table. This is thanks to our conception of the table and our agreed understanding of what a table is. We have a general consensus that (1) the table is something raised from the floor on however many legs, (2) is typically used to support someone who needs to sit down to work or eat or play, (3) is something which is universally recognized by all members of our civilization to be a table; but even beyond this there is the Idea of the table that exists intelligibly whether we perceive it or not, whether we make a table or not. There are many kinds of tables, but they all share in the same form, which we call 'table'. Insofar as a table is a table, it has 'tablehood'; it participates in the intelligible that Plato calls the 'table itself'.

Plato and many after him taught that a thing well-made materially will correspond directly to its idea, and the thing which is made best will be the thing which most resembles our idea of 'table', i.e., which table performs its 'tableness' best. Thus, insofar as a table does what we ask of it to do, as it does what a table is meant to do,  it will be well-made, something whose sensible nature corresponds to its intelligible nature. If the table is inadequately made, however, for example if it wobbles on its feet or if it has an uneven number of legs on either side to the effect that the table's top board is sloped, it will be lacking sufficient 'tableness' to be truly called as such. It is an impaired product, something which is not perfectly represented materially as it is in the intelligible world. It is a broken table, and, strictly speaking, not really a table at all.

This is where we can apply Plato's metaphysics to the traditional understanding of art, which holds an integrated position on the quality of a work of art as something simultaneously good and beautiful. Just as the Vedic maxim Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram synthesizes into one trinity the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and as Plotinus suggests their inherent complicity in the Enneads, the Medievals interpreted this quite directly, their art being at once something good and true and therefore beautiful; if a thing was not good and true, it could not possibly be really beautiful. Something was good if it performed its proper function, and it was true if it was an accurate material representation of its formal nature - we can presently perceive how this relates to Plato's example of the table. Studying St. Thomas Aquinas, Umberto Eco elaborates for us, and therein offers a more Aristotelian perspective:

'The efficient cause constructs a thing in accordance with its end. For this reason, a work of art is beautiful if it is functional, if its form is adequate to its scope. ''Every craftsman aims to produce the best work that he can, not in a simple manner, but by reference to the end''[Aquinas]. If an artist made a saw out of glass it would be ugly despite the beauty of its appearance, because it could not fulfil its cutting function' (Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, p. 78)

Every thing has its telos, its specific end to which it is destined to be; if a thing is made with its telos in mind, and it is made perfectly, it is good and therefore beautiful. But if a thing is made with some other purpose, say a boat made of red brick, it is dysfunctional, and therefore bad, and therefore ugly. This applies equally to the 'fine arts', something which we will return to later in this Section. In the meanwhile, Plato also offers us the essential points by which we must judge music (and by extension art in general):

'[He] who must be a competent judge must possess three things; - he must know, in the first place, of what the imitation is; secondly, he must know that it is true; and finally, that it has been well-executed in words and melodies and rhythms' (Plato, Laws, 669a-b)

This substantiates what we have already covered. The artist is imitating something, whether it be a high ethical ideal, an historical event, or what have you, and the judge must know both what it is, and whether it is true or not; the judge must determine whether such an ethical ideal is good and whether it actually exists, or that the historical event is not merely some fantastic patriotic revisionism. Finally, he must judge whether such an ideal is imitated correctly - if it is the masculine virtue of bravery being imitated, the work of art must
necessarily be suggestive of bravery; if it is comprised instead of a weepy, sentimental melody or languishing female chorales, the work has been a failure. This is the fundamental theory of art in the traditional world, a theory which is concerned not merely with something's 'beauty' or its 'aesthetic' qualities, but with how beauty proceeds from something rightly and truly made. This is moreover expressed in the Book of Exodus ('Lo, make all things in accordance with the pattern that was shown thee upon the mount', 25:40) and in the Aitareya Brahmana ('It is in imitation of the divine forms that any human form is invented here', VI. 27), which helps show the underlying concordance between not only the philosophy of Classical Greece and Hebrew scripture, but between the seemingly estranged traditions of East and West as well.

It should not go unsaid that Plato himself is often castigated for his apparently negative and dismissive treatment of poetry, which comes from his infamous advice to remove the poets from his sancta civitas, his ideal Republic. This is somewhat unfair, and is deserving of an explanation, however brief, on our part on why that is. Plato's problem emerges not so much with the poetry, which he sometimes calls 'divine madness' since it comes from the gods, but with the irrational poets who do not know what to do with this 'madness', and more often than not abuse its power instead of directing it reasonably. The problem is not with the poetry, but with bad poets, who in turn make bad poetry out of good. Sir Philip Sidney said: 'So as Plato, banishing the abuse [of poetry], not the thing, not banishing [poetry] but giving due honour unto it....'. It is only when the pleasures of art are corrupted into serving illicit, immoral, and anti-social ends that the artists are to be exiled, for they have betrayed the legitimate end of art, which is moral instruction. For the ideal city, art that distracts from the good for merely delectable delights is a negative influence; it acts as a harmful opposition to the righteous education of the city's teachers, and for that reason it is banished:

'[When] any one says that music is to be judged of by pleasure, his doctrine cannot be admitted; and if there be any music of which pleasure is the criterion, such music is not to be sought out or deemed to have any real excellence, but only that other kind of music which is the imitation of the good....' (Plato, Laws, 668a)

In Julius A. Elias's estimable book, Plato's Defence of Poetry, the author demonstrates with sufficient credibility that Plato answers his own critique of poetry through several poetically-infused myths that nevertheless teach a high moral or metaphysical point. The problem of the fickle, all-too-human poets transmitting the messages of the divine is solved by the philosopher's own myths, which Josef Pieper, following St. Augustine, believed to be directly inspired by God. For Plato, 'inspiration may propose, but reason disposes; it is the naive poet's uncritical and undifferentiated acceptance of his inspiration that is offensive, not the fact of inspiration itself' (Elias, p. 212). It is what the poet does with what his muse gives him that we must celebrate or more often criticize; the honest and helpful poet will transmit the message in ways not conducive to the merely pleasant portion of his art or his selfish well-being, but in ways that genuinely ameliorate the welfare of his fellow man. Plato defends against his own attack by being that poet he wants to see in the world: the philosopher who acts as poet and philosopher receives the divine message and presents it with all of the genius that his own intellect affords him. Again, Sidney leaps to the defense of the 'philosopher-poet': 'Plato's name is laid upon me, whom, I must confess, of all philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence, and with good reason: since of all philosophers he is the most poetical'.

Plato's theory of mimesis started out as a theory against poetry, because he argued that the 'fine arts' could only be an imitation of an imitation; thus, he asks, why bother painting a picture of a table when the table is already an imitation? It would be merely the imitation of an imitation! This is where Aristotle stepped in to fill some of the gaps that Plato left open, especially in his Poetics, in which he answers Plato's question by supposing that man is a mimetic being by nature, and consequently needs to recreate things in reality to fulfil his inner artistic needs, namely the need to create. Aristotle led the way in a long line of learned men to eventually complete the traditional Western understanding of art that culminated in the end of the scholastic era; Plotinus, Ss. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and numerous other schoolmen were all positive contributors to this tradition, but it all really started with Plato, who in turn was the legitimate successor to Pythagoras. It is the complementary partnership of Plato and Aristotle, however, that did more for Western Civilization than any other two men with the solitary exception of the holy friendship between Jesus Christ and St. Peter.

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