Saturday, May 26, 2012

Art vs Beauty

Pious men of strict observance can hardly see in art an obedient maidservant. . . rivalry begins, first, in rivalry between the religious spirit and the aesthetically. . . oriented man. . . Religion is always imperialistic. . . but science, art, and ethics are also imperialistic. . . and yet, the paths of religion, art, ethics, and science not only cross, they also join. (Gerardus van der Leeuw) [1]
In 1770 Doctor of Music Charles Burney left England for France and a grand tour of Italy. On this excursion he sampled the music of the French court and Italy's ancient cities, writing upon his return The Present State of Music in France and Italy. The thought of such a journey consummated by a prestigious work of scholarship is enough to make any intellectual a little jealous but over ten years later the good doctor would publish a pamphlet and fulfill every intellectual's nightmare: writing a brilliant and persuasive argument which is completely and plainly wrong. You see in this pamphlet Dr. Burney declared Handel a superior fugue writer to Bach. (Yes, your wincing reaction is quite normal.) Several years later an anonymous German critic came to Bah's defense with a most perceptive observation that, "[Bach], the deepest savant of contrapuntal arts (and even artifice), knew how to subordinate art to beauty."[2][3]

This praise cuts deeper than any musicological comparison of fugue types could for it is no small philosophical proposal to set art and beauty at odds. How should we approach such a loaded premise? We should being clarifying that by "art" we mean three things. The first is poiesis, that is, art as something brought into creation by man. The second is techne, or craft, that is, art as the concerted act of crafting by the hands of men. The third is form, that is, the traditional structures of art such as sonnets, fugues, or portraiture in which artists work. The German's critic's statement is significant for it subjugates all of these aspects of art to beauty. Is he right to do so?

Let us begin with poiesis and remember that any work of art would not exist without the artist. This creative aspect of art is probably the most considered today, if only for our vague appreciation of the word "create." When we say "create" we usually mean "express oneself," with some vague debt to Freud's ego.  There is, though, an honest aspect to this conception, more nearly Hegelian than Freudian, which is that of art as an expression of genius, that is genius in the Roman sense of one's innermost spirit. If we recall the Latin verb gigno, to bring into being, from which genius is derived, its full meaning becomes clear.

It is not hard to think of great art across genres and cultures which is the peculiar expression of a particular artists joys or sufferings. One might be tempted, or at least a philosopher would be tempted, to negate this individualistic aspect of art and say such works are only significant because they have, perhaps unwittingly, revealed some universal principle. He might be tempted to say that the individuality of an individual expression is only significant to the artist who made it. This is not a criticism to be scoffed at but it can serve the unhelpful purpose of obfuscating, or worst eradicating, the truth of a man's authentic and unique spirit. Here we are not speaking of deliberate elements of style or the fruits of labor or products of intellectual power but traces of spirit. Anyone who has studied the work of a great artist sees amidst the forms and structures of his age notes and strokes, sprinkled dissonances and slices of light, which belong, which still belong only to the artist. Such is the truth of the saying that one can write in the style of Bach, but one cannot write Bach.

Is this element, however, the central aspect of a work of art? We have already spoken of its traces so we may already sense that it is not. No work is strictly the product of an individual as no individual is strictly the product of himself. In a similar way no work could be wholly made up of unique elements or it would not be recognizable to others as significant. It would move from being a unique variation to an incomprehensible anomaly.

Now we may look at techne, which includes the aspects of a given piece as a crafted work, for example choice of words, pitches, color, material, plot, length, tempo, et cetera. As these elements constitute the work they surely cannot be done away with, but are they the most important part of the work? On the one hand it seems each element exists for its own sake but of course it also exists for the purpose of the whole work as part of the unfolding of the whole work. Alone any given element is at best limited in meaning. Individual materials are just that. Individual notes, words, and colors may have meaning alone but if so then such meaning by nature exists apart from the intentions of the artist. We see now that we have a missing element of art: form.

Form most of all amongst the elements we have discussed is inherited. Forms are developed slowly over time and handed down. They give shape to the elements which without a larger structure would be amorphous but for this reason they also limit the artist. One can only make so many changes before the form ceases to be the form. An artist can only break so many conventions of the sonnet, the hexameter, or the canon before it becomes unrecognizable as a sonnet, and so forth, and becomes a free structure incomprehensible to anyone but its creator. Yet while some structures suit certain materials and expressive elements, structures are also empty vessels. One may write a very nice sonnet with perfect scansion or a canon in perfect accord with the rules of stretti and each may be utterly meaningless.

We see then as our anonymous critic observed that the great artist must subordinate the constituent elements of art to its animating principle. Now, you might ask, "Why beauty?" Can another idea, such as liberty or wisdom, not be the animating force of a work? Indeed such ideas can animate a work but only to an extent.

For example, suppose you wanted to make a movie about wisdom. You could decide on the words, music, and visual elements, you could choose the appropriate length, and so forth, all to promote the idea that wisdom is good. This is well and good but it does not eliminate the aesthetic dimension to the work. Aside from the plot which must be logically coherent, why make any element a given way? Well, one makes it a certain way because that way is beautiful. Why make it beautiful? Because beauty persuades and beauty persuades because it signifies rightness and appropriateness in accord with its nature.

Art without beauty, of only poiesistechne, and form, is simply an argument and since we would no more call an argument art than an equation, for both are in fact theories not being, we must say that beauty is an essential element of art. Beauty is the proof, the existence, the being of the good.

We have seen also that the other elements of art, poiesistechne, and form, apart from being insufficiently significant on their own, can overwhelm the aspect of beauty. We also saw that while another idea, such as wisdom, might animate the elements of poiesis, techne, and form, that idea itself would be argued for but not fulfilled without being beautiful. It is therefore desirable to subordinate all artistic elements to beauty, the only element which can unify and vivify them all. To man, then, art is not the mistress but the handmaiden.

[1] Butt, John. Bach's Metaphysics of Music. in The Cambridge Companion to Bach. John Butt. (ed.) Cambridge University Press. 1997. p. 46. 

[2] Stauffer, George & May, Ernest. (ed.) J. S. Bach as Organist: His Instruments, Music, and Performance Practices. Indiana University Press. 1986. p.133.

[3] David, Hans T. & Mendel, Arthur. (ed.) Wolff, Christoph (revised) The New Bach Reader. W. W. Norton and Company. 1998. p. 367-368.

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