Showing posts with label Aesthetics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aesthetics. Show all posts

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Art, Vomit, and Being Forgotten

Oh the unpredictable, discursive paths of the internet. I was searching for a particular picture of the Harpies, the mythological creatures not those running for the presidency, and I naturally came upon the image to the right of Lady Gaga as, presumably, a siren. After my momentary amusement–the internet specialty–I of course wondered what had happened to her. After the noise of her meteoric rise I couldn't seem to recall anything of her. So I clicked on and to my surprise found an article discussing her present irrelevancy.

On the one hand this surprises, because who expects in the world of pop culture zombies any of the walking dead to pronounce another defunct? On the other hand, the observation is frustrating because there was never anything to celebrate in the first place. Shocking is only shocking for a brief moment, or maybe the span of a double-take, but as the urinals turn into preserved sharks and the sharks into crystal skulls and the skulls into balloon statues, at some point there are no more envelopes to push or notions to challenge. Then there is only cultivated talent, patient study, and creativity within tradition. Even modern audiences intuitively understand this in their limited way, though lacking any consent to the forces of conservatism on which their judgment rests.

Amusingly, the author of the article chides Gaga for declaring herself atop the pecking order. How lacking in egalitarian kindness. Yet this is precisely how traditionalists feel about much of modern life. How dare we pronounce anything–any piece of art, style, philosophy, or individual–which has not stood the test of time and been measured against its predecessors, with the honor of excellence. In my weaker moments I like to chide people by asking them about, "that thing they were really into ten years ago." They usually laugh, but I mean it as a serious indictment of tastelessness and soullessness. Horace and Mozart are waiting patiently at Parnassus if we are willing in humility to make the trek.

The alternative is all temporary titillation. It's all rah-rah ooh-la-la until someone is vomiting on you on stage.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bring Back the Funny Aesthetes

Complaints about a lack of diversity usually come from politically motivated quarters, but it's not a useless or inappropriate question. Is it not, at least potentially, significant when some person, group, or idea is completely excised from a medium of expression? Being sick this week I took refuge to the television and skimming around I began to wonder: where did all the funny aesthetes go?

Yes, there are plenty of intelligent people on television, in fact there is a superabundance of them, but there isn't any character I've seen in the classical, liberal, or traditionally educated mold. We have nerds, doctors, lawyers, detectives, teachers, and so on and so fort, but none of them live in the world of refined culture. In fact, they don't even visit that world. They're all brilliant philistines. While the aesthetes have never dominated either sitcoms or dramas, their complete absence seems remarkable.

The 1950s and '60 saw an aesthete in the surprising, furry form of Bugs Bunny. From the 40s to the 70s, in fact, the Merry Melodies star had hilarious run-ins with the classics, most notably musical. He fled Porky Pig to Strauss' Tales from the Vienna Woods (A Corny Concerto), became Mrs. Fudd on two separate occasions, to both Rossini's Barber of Seville in 1950 and then Wagner in 1957's What's Opera, Doc? Bugs even takes up the baton himself, the first time in homage to the great Leopold Stokowski conducting one poor tenor to a house-felling finale in The Long Haired Hare. His second turn at the podium is a satire of the conductor's histrionic gestures as Bugs conducts Franz von Suppe's Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna. Finally Bugs turns to performance himself and after a hilarious attempt to get Daffy Duck to pronounce Camille Saint-Saens, tickles the ivories of Carnival of the Animals conducted by none other than Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976.

Although it lacked persistent characters, the '70s also enjoyed the liberal erudition of Monty Python's Flying Circus, who veered philosophical in their philosopher's soccer match, and historical in their infamous sketches The Spanish Inquisition and The Funniest Joke in the World.

The '70s also saw the Odd Couple's neurotic Felix Unger, whose love of the arts ran afoul of his roommate's congenital sloppiness and barbarism. This was a revealing play of contrasts, with Felix ever hoping to show Oscar that the arts are for everyone. The show saw the duo manhandle Carmen and Swan Lake, opera club meetings gone awry, and the occasional poignant turn, like when the two quarreled about whether a multitalented protege should follow his talent for football or the cello.

Perhaps M.A.S.H had the most famous aesthete of the era, though, in the irascible Charles Emerson Winchester. Played by David Ogden Stiers, Winchester found himself the recipient of relentless scorn and pranks from Hawkeye and friends who enjoyed tormenting the major for his priggish pomposity, yes, but also for his overblown longing for the arts and civilization. This premise took turns comic, when Winchester's French horn drives his tent-mates bananas, and painful, as when Winchester treats a soldier who had lost a hand, and in doing so finds out the man had been a pianist.

On Frasier Crane, who spanned the '80s and '90s, it'll suffice to make two comments about it. First, nearly every episode featured some cultural context, whether he and his equally picky brother were arguing over a recording, they walked in singing Wagner, or they were making quips about random cultural trivia from Middlemarch to O. Henry. These touches were slight but voluminous, selling the fact that these guys lived and breathed the rarefied air. Second, there's a consistent thread of Frasier's elitism distancing himself from other people. In one episode, offended by a scurrilous graffito, Frasier tries to open up to the common man, only to find himself swarmed by the masses. One of the show's best bits, typically, is a combination of the highest and lowest brow.

Part I of Three Valentines. S06.E14

It'd be easy to let the science fiction and special effects distract from the high culture of Star Trek: The Next Generation if it weren't so frequent. Whether it's Captain Picard speaking French or even Latin–gasp!–the crew concerts of Chopin and Schubert, or performing Henry V and Cyrano de Bergerac, the Enterprise was not a ship of war but of exploration, a sort of traveling cultural capsule of Earth. Alongside, or inside, also dwelled the android, Data, with his attempts to study and mimic humanity by playing the violin, writing poetry, painting, and acting.

Alongside Frasier, the two other most influential shows of the '90s made few but significant nods to high culture. It was hilarious to see the vulgar quartet of Seinfeld, with their petty concerns, interact with the world of concerts and culture, which they always proceeded to bring down to their level, as when one Pez dispenser destroys a performance of Beethoven. Meanwhile on the Simpsons, in a brilliant but brief bit of satire, the town of Springfield votes to build a new concert hall. Success! The people fill on opening night, and four notes into the first concert, of Beethoven's 5th, everyone leaves. The people, philistines that they were, knew they had to at least make a little pilgrimage to the realm of high culture.

I'm not just talking about hoity-toityness either. There are no classical intellectuals or aesthetes on Downtown Abby, for example, despite the formality of the time and place. Aesthetes often bewail the lack of funding for the arts and the prominence of the arts in our society, and they often do so with just cause. I wonder though that the seemingly complete disappearance of the arts from representations of life, from art, in this case popular television programming, might indicate that the cause is further gone than we thought.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

All Too Simple

Ours is a complex age, contemporary wisdom advises. Everyone is so busy and there are so many people bustling about, doing different things. Manmade electronic satellites are whirling around the earth, for crying out loud. And that internet. No one ever exclaims, "What a complicated world: There are so many ideas!" The antidote to complexity is naturally simplicity, right? If we take a blade to complexity we can whittle it down to something more manageable.

This is the fool's game, for while simplicity is the opposite of complexity, its antidote is unity. People perceive the hustle and bustle of life, with all of its commerce and commotion, to be complexity because they presume there is some conglomerate entity, called society, which out to have a definitive character. The society which deviates from that character appears disordered. The phrase social engineer is often propped up by the paranoid and derided by political movers, but what does he do who attempts to move the masses of the polity?

Simplicity is harder to judge with respect to other aspects of life. Living seems complicated when it is not unified by purpose and the universe seems a maze of physical laws in the absence of a prime mover. Philosophy and physics are the tortured pursuits not for simplicity but for a principle of unification. As in philosophy and physics, though, it is challenging to comprehend the presence of simplicity in aesthetics because it is difficult to understand the unifying principle of complex art. How easily to explain that an overture is structured around the deviation from one expected note in the first few bars, or to trace out the vanishing point of a painting? Of course it is very easy to apprehend the purpose of great art and one, thankfully, need not be an expert to appreciate Bach and Shakespeare.

That nature tends to hide, however, does mean, though, that simplicity makes a dangerous mantra. Roger Scruton has pointed out that much simple modern art is simply a disguise for an artist's lack of creativity, from Duchamp's urinal to Koons' kitschy balloons. Artists have worked furiously to be creative within genres and limits; just compare Schubert's lieder, Mozart's concerti, Shakespeare's histories, or Rembrandt's portraits. And yet sterility persisted in the name of simplicity until it reached its apex, utilitarianism. One of the most egregious intrusions of this trend has been in architecture, specifically architecture with the most specific of purposes: churches.

Of church architecture, architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote that, "Every line, every mass, every detail, is so conceived and disposed that it exalts the altar, as any work of art leads to its just climax." [1] As a demonstration of this principle and the danger of adopting simplicity as a master, let us look at a church altar and its reredos, aka altarpiece.

The altar and altarpiece below reside in the chapel at Alton Towers, home to the Early of Shrewsbury in Staffordshire. Anyone who doesn't sympathize with the Crawley's of Downton Abbey and their quest to preserve the estate should know that Alton Towers was sold in 1924 and, with the exception of Alton's chapel, the property is best known today as Alton Towers Resort, "Making Britain Happy" with eight roller coasters and five water rides. [2, 3]

Anyway, Alton's chapel is beautiful and in the following images I've progressively eliminated the visual complexity of its altar and reredos. Let us see what the simplification reveals.

We could have reduced the structure further, leaving only the altar, but the points are apparent. Notice foremost that contra complaints about baroque detail distracting us, our attention to the altar fades in proportion to the removal of the detail, especially the loss of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures, namely the vertical elements which raise the parallel dimension of the altar upward. We also can see how, far from being busy, the structures neatly scaffold atop the altar. Finally, even those tiny details first eliminated serve to exalt the altar, adding contrast by their shape, direction, and texture, and a unity by their symmetries. All of the detail points to one purpose: Soli Deo gloria.

In contrast we may say paraphrasing architect Duncan Stroik, [4] that architectural reductionism reflects a liturgical reductionism. While we have examined diminution, the opposite is true too, for neither by addition or subtraction can we impose meaning irrespective of form, but must pursue through creativity, with existing forms and in tradition, an exalting unity.

[1] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 84
[4] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 153
–– H/T to the Modern Medievalism blog for the picture of Alton's chapel.

Monday, October 14, 2013


The philistine is one of the most curious species of our happy hominidal tribe. Sure, Erectus might impress with his haughty posture and Neanderthal may wow as the new man wanders his valley, club in hand, but for all these two brutes have fascinated scientists and pulp directors and authors, they do not fascinate me because they rose to the modest heights of their limits. Even they had wondered enough to paint their caves. No, they have my respect but not my interest. Their and our relative however, the philistine aka homo ignavus, perplexes me with his sensate indifference to his world and ultimately himself.

The most obvious characteristic of the philistine is an ignorance which resembles stupidity but in fact is simply a lacuna in his reference. This lack of tutoring is less about education, though, than about protection and conservation. No one appreciates Bach because of a predilection for counterpoint, Caravaggio because of a love of shadow, or an English garden because of a deep desire for symmetry. Instead one approaches them as an initiate who has grasped some sliver of secret knowledge and taken a step into a larger world. The philistine differs then from his wise brother simply in being asleep. The tutor's task then is less of education in the modern sense as in the ancient of ducens, of bringing up. The role of tutor is less to instruct, i.e. to equip, or to inculcate, i.e. to impress upon, than to protect and cultivate. It is of course a terrible irony that schools accept tuition from parents in exchange for exercises in "beating the SAT" and getting, "college ready."

The barrier to the high forms of expression then, is not so high. The philistine of course asks then: Why do we need to engage with any expression at all besides our own? The response on the one hand is the utilitarian reply that the expressions of others help us cultivate and resolve our own woes. On the other, though, is the need to elevate human life to realm of the beautiful. Human life is fairly ugly even in its most beautiful moments. How ugly are not birth, sex, and death in corporeal terms? Who finds joy in the sight of the old and infirm? In a terrible fight with loved ones?

Yet art presents us the possibility of raising activity to, or perceiving activity in, the world of perfected ideals. Who would not call beautiful the birth of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, the intercourse of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, or the death of Homer's Hector? How much beauty is there in the hands of Rembrandt's woman, and joy in the eucatatrophe of Mozart's Figaro?

These expressions signify as both human and sacred the experiences around which man's life turn, rendering them at once personal and universal. It is something human, or better something of human to partake in them as experiences, and something transcendent to see the activity elevated to the beautiful.

Yet all this talk of elevation and transcending is rather patently offensive to modern sensibilities and actually ripe for perversion, for high expression still implies a hierarchy. You need not think hard or long for an image of the cultural guardian who towers on an imagined Parnassus above his fellow man, or perhaps some misanthropic Hitchcockian villian, or worse. Instead, the role of cultural elite should take that form of that tutor which we discussed, conserving and cultivating high art and apprehension of it. What we have seen in the West today, though, is not the evolution of cultural elite into totalitarian guardians, or even upper crust bullies. We have not seen old ways mutate as the old Roman system of patronage, from traditions of pragmatism and beneficence into rent-seeking and degrading toadyism, but rather the elite taking on the ways of the popular culture. Far from their tailors' tutors, nobles have traded custody for celebrity, with what concern remains focusing on endeavors to improve physical health. We know the fear of disease and exercise our technological and economic powers by "declaring war on" them, but we cannot even contemplate our artistic impotence. We will not understand that creation cannot take place in slumber, and that awakening cannot be funded.

Does religion then point the way today? If instruction has replaced cultivation in education and the arts, what of religion? Should not the jettisoning of the old high forms, in practice if not print, have flung wide the gates? Where are the faithful now that the alleged aesthetic barrier has been lifted? It would seem that excluding the aesthetic has had an unexpected effect: without transcendent form, the beauty of the act relies alone on comprehension instead of apprehension. Robbed of its "poetry, mystery, and dignity" [1] it is now an intellectual enterprise. If you agree, of think you do, then you go to mass and as long as a few choice things take place, all is well. If you disagree, you disregard it as you do any unpalatable bit. The invitation to mystery, which might even persuade the skeptical more than the didactic, has been rescinded. The people are left grappling in intellectual terms with what, as Romano Guardini wrote, "Actually. . . is not difficult but mysterious." [2]  Exeunt.

It's a slick point of argument the moderns make which faithful philistines corroborate in deed: that it matters not what happens around the sacred acts. It's still mass. It still counts. Yes, of course it does. Theodore Dalrymple shares a thought about architecture which we might borrow:
Suppose you are in a restaurant and your meal is delicious. Suddenly the diner at the next table vomits copiously. Do you continue to eat with the same delectation as before, just because the food on your plate remains unchanged? [3]
No, plenty of its details don't render a mass illicit. So we pass over the disposable missalettes which render the words cheap and disposable. We pass over the microphones which distort our voices. We pass over foreign gestures from handshakes to unity candles. We pass over Bach for Marty Haugen. We nod off during ad libbed sermons. And in our arrogance we assume that because we understand the mass and because it "counts," that all is well. We look to our borrowed and reconstituted gestures and pretend that we see and feel what we think. Speaking of art and institutions in general, Roger Scruton writes how,
We're joined together to pretend. . . that we really are feeling the deep and serious things. . . even though underneath, the measure of self interest is taking things over. [4]
It's an easy leap, though. We believe in the faith and we're at mass. What else is there? I feel satisfied. I have the whole thing figured out. (The fault for empty pews and coffers, for listless immiseration amidst historic prosperity lies with the liberals, hippies, atheists, Sandinistas, and all foreign ills.) Instead of being awed, though, by the Cosmic Christianity of Titian, we're dulled by the soft kitsch like that of Thomas Kinkade, the self-described "painter of light" who boasted that, "We have found a way to bring to millions of people, an art that they can understand." [5] What a familiar argument. No mystery needed. Just add understanding, a few gestures, and poof! Mass? Faith? Religion? 

Never mind searching for the proper articulation of ideas, that'll frighten off the contingent of philistines without which the church will crumble. Never mind searching for receding meanings and reconciliations of life and faith, Roger Scruton again explains,
In a world of fakes, the public interest is constantly sacrificed to private fantasy, and the truths on which we depend for our rescue are left unexamined and unknown. [6]
Rod Dreher in his recent Time piece, picked up on the same diversionary vibe of fantasy when he wrote about how, "The 'spirit of Pope Francis' will replace the 'spirit of Vatican II' as the rationalization people will use to ignore the difficult teachings of the faith." [7]

Thus all faith and expression are smeared into a pastiche of smarmy coziness which can be molded into whatever shape we wish. The work of the progressives and conservatives is done: not the "triumph, yea the resurrection, of the Philistines." [8] The poor in spirit are pastured into dolorous ennui. The aesthetes recoil.  Exeunt.

Magnificat: Esurientes implevit bonis

[1] Waugh, Evelyn. Diary Entry, Easter 1965. A Bitter Trial. Saint Austin Press. 1996. p. 79
[2] Guardini, Romano. Meditations Before Mass. 1939.
[4] (2:46)
[5] Leung, Rebecca (December 5, 2007). "60 Minutes interview". CBS News.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sum and Part

Daphnis ego in silvis hinc usque ad sidera notus
formonsi pecoris formonsior ipse.
–Vergil. Eclogue VI. 43-44

The connection between man and deed is a curious one, not nearly so obvious and finite as it seems. Philosophy asks if what we do is ethical, most often approach the question from the perspective of agency, focusing on ethics and effect. The natural sciences are concerned with cause and process. Similarly, psychology asks us why we do something and history asks who did what, when. There is between these pursuits, though, the strange phenomena of how deeds and ideas adhere to man, who exists as he fashions himself, as his deeds form him, and how he is perceived by others. None of these factors is predictable or permanent. What do we make of men, then, when each one is Proteus?

History hands down as it transforms. On the one hand, we inherit Heraclitus as the weeping philosophy and Haydn as the laughing composer. Cicero is the model republican, Pericles the model statesman. Like Cleobis and Biton, these figures are frozen in time and honor as epitomes of virtue. On the other hand, Julius Caesar varies from age to age. Is he the tyrant, the betrayed, or the commander? Why do some deeds seem to shake right off their perpetrators? Caesar doesn't take much flak for the Gallic War, Pericles for the Peloponnesian, Cicero for being pompous, Augustus or Napoleon for police states, and so on.

The famous, however, stand exceptions to the rule that it is man's fate to be forgotten by this world. Even we mortals style ourselves, though. Sometimes we identify with our profession, sometimes by our faith or ideas, sometimes by one virtue or other. We act one way with one person, and another with others. We wonder about or avoid our motivations. It is often noted that only the individual ever knows himself, but less so that there's an element of perpetual uncertainty even for that endeavor.

When I act, then, is it the intellectual, the Catholic, the teacher, the man, the friend? Do I act from principle or as some grand whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Strangely, that which escapes man attains a unique grandeur. I speak not of natural phenomena such as caverns, sunsets, and great trees, but works of man which seem not to have been authored but rather in anonymity gifted into nature's domain. Consider the nameless medieval cathedrals and the chants which echo through the ages. How different is it reading Aristotle than Plato, the latter's thoughts being bound up in the curious character of Socrates whom we come to know while Aristotle's colorless, humorless treatises seem sprung from logic itself. (All for that quirk of fate that his other writings were lost.) How different is it to read Vergil in the context of 1) Vergil's art, 2) the politics of the early Roman Empire, 3) Augustus, and 4) the influence of other authors, than it is to read Homer, who reaches out raw but pure from the darkness. There seems such a freedom in the figures on those Greek jars, created not in some academic paradigm for a museum, but for living.

Like the ambiguities about ourselves, those of nature often do not obscure but refract and reflect us in our attempts not at analysis, not at use, but at contemplation. They invite not study, but a, if not pure then primarily, aesthetic experience.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fine or Beautiful

Something curious happened to many NYC neighborhoods during the last five or so years. Houses once characterized by aluminum awnings, concrete steps, and little patches of green underwent a sudden process of prettification. Aluminum awnings were replaced with shingled ones, concrete driveways were ripped up and replaced with spiffy paving stones, and iron fences yielded to chromed replacements, because you always want your front yard to have that cozy, automotive feel. Many lawns were paved over in part or whole in deference Convenience, queen of the modern Pantheon.

Unfortunately, most of these upgrades proceeded in poor taste, resulting in prettification instead of beautification. The chrome is shiny and garish, and where once yards sported subtle sections of green, they now extend a sea of paving stones, dizzying and offensive to the eye. The materials are finer, but they're no more pleasing. The pictures over here are a prime example.

Look at all of the beautiful decorative work around the windows and doors. How subtle, pleasant are the detail and decoration, and how loud and flashy the chrome. And that deck...

My thinking is that the impetus came not only from new, younger residents bringing newer fashions but from older residents, having just paid off their mortgages, not knowing what to do with accumulating dollars. One often hears the conventional wisdom of "adding value" to one's house. Is this notion not perverse? Houses are for living, not profiteering.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila explained the phenomenon:
The bourgeoisie is any group of individuals dissatisfied with what they have and satisfied with what they are. [1]
I hope that the home of my senile self is more a simple, kept, library than a collection of congealed frippery. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Charm

I vaghi fiori
Giovanni Palestrina
A heated debate followed one of The Atlantic's puffy articles this week when Benjamin Schwartz's The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men rang in the next bout of history's longest-running conflict. In fact the wrangling in the comments impresses, given the lightweight nature of the piece, and to me highlight a few points. First, no one is sure what charm is. Second, everyone thinks charm is desirable. Third, charm is lacking today and no one knows why. Let us see if we can lighten the befuddlement.

First off, while Schwartz never defines charm, the dictionary seems adequately to have done so as, a power of pleasing or attracting, as through personality or beauty. That's not half bad, for charm is certainly a magnetic force of attraction. Another definition clarifies further, saying that to charm is, to act upon (someone or something) with or as with a compelling or magical force, a property which emphasizes the natural, seemingly mystical, pull toward the charming.

A still better definition we find, though, in the more obscure source of a Renaissance treatise on beauty. Here, Florentine poet and man of letters Agnolo Firenzuola, leaning on Petrarch and Boccacio, calls our mysterious property vaghezza. From these poets he isolates three properties of what we broadly call charm: wandering, desire, and beauty. I'll depart from Firenzuola's analysis but consider myself these properties, which seem to me wisely discerned.

Rembrandt Laughing
Wandering is perhaps the most surprising of these traits, for why should that which moves itself, move us? Firenzuola wrote that what we see at ease moves us less than what we must work for, an observation which might figure into the raging gender war, but this seems at best a secondary property. First, though, we must clarify that it is not simply movement which charms us, for no one finds a swinging pendulum or spinning fan charming. Nor do we find sunsets or blowing leaves charming, although we might describe their motion as beautiful. Rather we find charming that which seems animate, that is, alive, and full of vitality. Too this is a property particular to people, for although animals move themselves we do not find them charming. It is the self-possession of an individual, moreover an awareness of his place in the world and an ease in that place, that we find charming. The charming man neither hurries or tarries, speaks too much nor too little, or suffers from want or excess.

He exists with joy in the order of the world, or even seems himself to order it, and thus we rejoice in the apparent excellence of both him and "his world." Such is why the charming are so desirable to others. The charming man extends his apparent good order around us, hence the propensity for the charming-and-devious to use their power for swindling others. We comply with charmers because we are so persuaded that the ease with which they move signifies the rightness of their order. Even the man of intelligence may be persuaded by a charming man, for in seeming to find the mean in personal conduct and himself to be happy, the charming man approximates wisdom. For this reason, charm may conceal a lack of wisdom, lead to wisdom, or flow from wisdom, and hence the various disputations about its essence and goodness.

In speaking of beauty I will quote Firenzuola, who writes that charm is, "a beauty that attracts and sparks the desire to contemplate and enjoy it." [Eisenbichler & Muray, 36] As alluded, at the personal level we seek to enjoy the company of the charming. We find enjoyment in their apparent harmony with the world and with us. Not inappropriately, we call this harmony beautiful, although not friendship per se, which has other requirements. Hence again the propensity to abuse charm, for it may simulate the appearance of friendship with simple friendly feeling.

At the aesthetic level too, though, we seek beauty. The beauty of the human face which charms us and moves eros through us may move us either toward love, friendship, and giving, or to lust and utility.

Finally, although we described charm as appropriate only to people, we might attempt discuss two potential qualifications. The first is for certain places, which are not properly called charming because they are not vital or self-possessed, but which draw us into their order and beauty. We call them charming nonetheless because we project ourselves into them and in doing so feel a part of order and beauty, and thus at peace. Hence the charm of a well-ordered farm, a cozy cabin, or a simple nook in nature where we feel at home.

The second potential qualification is for music, because a musical idea 1) exists in time, 2) has shape and character, and 3) seems to act and react. The seems there is the catch, though, for the musical idea is the will of the composer and not self-possessed. Still, though, but for that one qualification would we not call both the seductive and sensuous Adagio and the bumptious Rondo themes of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto KV.622, like Rembrandt chuckling above, charming?

Does that theme not seem at peace with itself and the world? Does it not call us?

Charm may be misconstrued and misused, but it's a call to something greater, for to charm one must know oneself and cultivate the good, and to be charmed we must be open to goodness and beauty. If we wish charm to return, that is where we ought to start.

Eisenbicher, Konrad and Murray, Jaqueline (trans. & ed.) On the Beauty of Women, by Firenzuola, Agnolo. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1992.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Put More Arts

In the great taxonomy of baffling statements a special place is reserved for those which guarantee that the author has no idea what he's talking about. Since the article in question reads more like press release, I'm not sure the author is so much to blame here. He does, at any rate, open with a doozy.
Increasingly, many colleges and universities are looking to put more arts at the center of campus life and in the process, foster creativity.
So short, so innocent, no? If only he were talking about park benches or lamp posts and not art. What galls me about this sentence is its flippancy, its subtle arrogance. What disrespect is there for nearly each of its words. Please, read the sentence a few times and pause on the words. Now see if the following definitions are familiar to it.
  • College - a col-legium, a speaking together, a collaboration of scholars for learning and fostering the liberal arts and sciences, involving the sharing of ideas in the presentation of lectures and debates. 
  • University - a community of colleges with various purposes whose sum total offers the corpus of knowledge of the day and some unity of pedagogy.
  • Art - techne, poiesis, expression of concept, outgrowth of spirit, through craft.
  • Create - to bring into being
Though the words are the same, the article uses not the language of philosophy, but of bureaucratese. There is no debt to ideas, only utility. Such a statement has more in common with an interdepartmental memo requesting a 2.5% increase in paper production for the month than any artistic credo. Here, college means "place where classes are taught" and university means "big college." Art means "anything called art" and create means "result of activity." The goal here is not love, virtue, beauty, honor, piety, or any such principle, but the cliche art. Art must be put in so art can come out and we'll have more art.

It's a Keyenesian approach to art, really. Never mind the details of life, human nature, and philosophy: put something in so something comes out. It doesn't matter what it is. More is better, so if you need more something put more something. What does anyone with an emotional reaction to art, a love of and fear for its power and fragility, make of such irreverence?

Of course the statement is perfect prelude to what follows where the really gobbledygook starts flowing.
[the] Creative Campus Innovations Grant Program was created "to seed innovative, interdisciplinary programs that brought together artists with a range of community and campus-based partners in order to stimulate arts-based inquiry and elevate the role of the arts in academic life."
So you seed a program to get artists partnered with people to "stimulate arts-based inquiry." Wait, what? What is that, how do you do it, and why would you? And they're elevating the arts on what principle? And why does bringing people together automatically elevate it?

Now it gets real.
While Creative Campus projects fell into both (cooperative and collaborative) categories, the truly collaborative projects proved most transformative for both participants and the larger campus.
Transformative? What did they transform into? Badgers? Muffins? I guess when you have no point to a project, whenever you're done you just say that you "did art" and that it "transformed you." Yay art. Because art.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Art's Mirror

It is often remarked that tough times try men's souls, and that in such times they are found firm or lacking. True enough. Less often but as truly, observers of God's curious creatures find that peace tries souls too. In the absence of strife, does a man choose to create or does he find a way, or fulfill a need, to destroy? I would note that art tries the soul, that great works of art thrust man into profound realms, and what he does there, if not what he is, what he aspires to.

Years ago I went to the movies with a new acquaintance. After the show, as per my way, I began to prod her for a response. And prod, and prod, and prod. Should said prodding have been of the electrical variety she surely would have perished, but I persisted in stupefaction at her indifference. Of course excellent and terrible movies provoke us, but nothing is so middling that one can't weigh in.

Today I again risked discovering someone by touring a few halls of the Met with two fellow educators and intellectuals.  Not that I feared for them, but it was a risk, as experiencing art with someone must be. Who will they turn out to be? Well, I couldn't have been happier. Who has an eye for perspective and tone, who gesture and proportion. Spiced with my own wit and wisdom, we strolled the halls a trio of élan and perspicacity. Naturally the experience brought previous Met ventures to my mind, different times with different friends and no two trips ever the same. It is a curious realization how much of one's life revolves around the arts, how much life revolves around the arts.

How ingrained in how many minds the hand of Socrates' grasping his cup of death, how deep and far now run the currents of his thought. How many friends were made playing musical poker with Haydn, how many conversions in the halls of Bach's polyphonic cathedrals.

Of course, what's reflected back isn't always flattering, and not just the secret delights man takes in the obscene, but all manner of perverse responses to art. Who is not somewhat thrilled by the devastating finality of Hamlet or Antigone, regardless of the tragedy, or the fleshiness of an ostensibly chaste painting? Yet while some reactions reveal our unsavory natures, others illuminate our uniquely cultivated vices. Prominent among these is inconsistency. Who raves in detail about the genius of Orwell, pops in V For Vendetta for a Saturday night movie, and then votes for statism. Even more curious is what I notice in some performers who don't like to attend the performing arts, which I take to mean they can't be bothered if they're not involved. Take away too the dilettantes, I beg you.

There is power in expression, but it requires an agent. Dare a man sieze it and turn it on himself? The end, though, ought not be reducing artistic encounters to navel-gazing exercises, but respect and gratitude for craft, and awe at what can be unlocked, or unleashed.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hughes & Krier: The Architecture of Power

This WSJ review of a new book architect and urban planner Leon Krier brings a considerable question into relief: can an idea inhere in a work of architecture. This would be a heady, esoteric, and generally uncontroversial question. . . if Krier weren't discussing the Nazi architecture of Albert Speer.

The author of the review summarizes Krier's thought as follows:
Mr. Krier correctly objects that there is no clear congruence between architectural form and ideological meaning. Washington, D.C., he points out, has modern façades that would have been welcomed in Hitler's Berlin. Classicism, he thinks, has been unjustly tainted by association with fascism. At the other end of the spectrum, sleek modernist design was deployed under Mussolini and a forward-looking capital like Brasília, built to signify democratic openness, perfectly served Brazil's military regime.
Yet what does he mean precisely by "congruence" and "ideological meaning?" Yes, you might not be able to express certain ideas in architecture, but that does not mean one cannot express any. Similarly, although classicism and modernism have been put to varying purposes we can't assume there is no commonality.

And what is the commonality in question? Renowned art critic Robert Hughes put it well in his 1982 exploration, "The Shock of the New," that it is the architecture of power, devoid of particular ideology.

Is there no difference, then, between the Flavians' amphitheater and Mussolini's Palazzo della Civiltà?

Surely one could argue for the refinements of the former, but is the force of impact any different? Did a Roman citizen look up at the amphitheater humbled by imperium? Was he proud of the conquests which funded it? Did he simply feel he was getting his "money's worth" from the government? Was it fundamentally for him, even his, as a citizen, or was is foremost, or only, a symbol of power from above?

Yet if we lump modern democratic facades from DC to Brasilia to Lincoln Center into the "architecture of power," is there, as Hughes asks, one of free will?

What comes to my mind is not quite a perfect answer. Take the Greek amphitheater-style, which, in putting the dramatic action at the center of all attention, elevates the activity and agency of the players and thus the drama and thus individuals of the plot.

Likewise and putting aside the competing theories about the significance of its ratios, the Parthenon is a point of mediation for man as individual, man as citizen, and man as created.

These are not styles of force or power, however refined and channeled, but styles which embrace if not the free man, the whole man. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Aesthetics of Scale

After today's early tea, I came across an illuminating comparison of the two largest ocean liners of their ages, the infamous HMS Titanic and her modern counterpart, the Allure of the Seas. The image, alas for me, says most if not all: standards for size have changed. This at first might seem like progress. Surely Allure achieves commendable economies of scale which allow travelers of modest means to book passage. Too, today's sea queen boasts finer amenities and luxuries for all on board than the most posh of Titanic's rooms and decks. Look at the picture to the right, though. Isn't something amiss?

I think so: beauty. Allure of the Seas is a massive, ungainly vessel. Look how she seems to overflow from her prow and how the decks look slapped and storied atop one another. Look, below, at the carnival of bulbous, glassed-in theaters that festoon the top deck.

In contrast, observe the relative austerity of Titanic, how the top decks, protruding forward slightly, seem to cap off the prow. What dignified simplicity in the contrast of colors. Each ship is massive, but Allure looks overgrown, whereas Titanic looks consistent with itself: harmonized. Titanic impresses where Allure imposes.

What irony in the names, then. Titanic is a frank attempt to denote gravity and immensity, yet her design reflects an aesthetic. The name Allure is supposed to entice us, to charm us by natural appeal, and yet beauty here has been overlooked, or worse, disregarded.

Maybe the difference is of purpose. Titanic had just one, to carry passengers in luxury, whereas Allure is a floating amusement park attempting to be everything to everyone. Where Titanic achieved a noble simplicity of purpose and elegance of execution, Allure is a meretricious cash cow. Perhaps that's why, for all of their engineering feats and affordable accommodations, we take today's luxury liners for granted. They don't allure, they don't capture the imagination. They simply roll on, servicing the bourgeois as hi tech testaments to the tawdry and tasteless.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Architecture of Justice

This week I spent three days on jury service. It is of aesthetic crimes, however, that I wish to speak. The court sits a horrendous glass-and-steel monstrosity (lower right) next to its sibling, the Family Court, a horrendous concrete monstrosity (lower left.)

These buildings replace or expand their Neo-classical predecessors built 1914 (left) and 1934 (right).

Each design is typical of its time. The 1914 building is a mix of traditional elements, hearkening back ultimately to Greece and Rome. The 1934 building is stark and intimidating with an authoritarian overtone, although it ultimately nods to the past with its friezes, columns, and symmetries. The 1977 version is a $30,000,000 concrete slab, and the 2006 is just as ugly but carries the pretension of improvement. The design of this new building, unfinished but opened over-budget and over-time in 2007, however, comes with a philosophy. Architect Rafael Viñoly,

What interested me was transforming the public’s perception that the building represented an institution that was seen as closed and in need of protection from the community. The [new] building speaks to the participatory and the democratic nature of the judicial system and its fundamental and constructive mission in our society. [1]
One might append, "So I made it glass," which apparently fulfills the above criteria. Never mind that you cannot at all see inside from the ground floor, or into any court rooms at all. Never mind either any question of scale or form

I always find it interesting when you can't find a flattering angle of a building, when there's no place from which its shape and purpose feel unified and wholly expressed. My local church is like this. Two sides stand flat brick walls, one a vast pointed protrusion, and the fourth a series of stained glass panels, obscured by trees, oblique to the entrance, tiny doors beneath vast, brown, steel, rectangular columns. There is not a single point, and I have sought it, from which the exterior is intelligible. The Bronx County Hall of Justice shares this fate.

Above the jury room, whose design owes more to the "War Room" of Dr. Strangelove than the town halls of Franklin or Jefferson, sits, well, this (right). On the arc is inscribed,

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
My take was that the chairs represent the jurors and the lone figure is the judge pulling the trigger of the crossbow of society, aiming at justice. Apparently, the lone figure is the accused and thus I have no idea what he's standing on. Also, the little doohickey beneath the lone figure reads "state" and "country," although I have no idea how its shape and placement fit in.

So why are the jurors on the bow? Does that imply some of them are further away from justice? Why is the accused so far away from justice? Aren't the jurors technically in the way, then, or are they leading him to justice? And what about the judge? What does the quote even mean?

To my understanding, the statement implies activity, motion towards justice, but individual acts can only occur at a finite time so mustn't they occur at a finite place on the arc? The only alternative is that the acts move along an arc, but if you're moving along an arc wouldn't you eventually hit justice and then start moving away from it again? Unless you stop at justice? Then why does that have to be an arc? Why is the piece titled Equilibrium? Does that mean there is an average of justice? How can there be an equilibrium if things tend one way? I give up.

Lastly, though, why didn't the artist give the figure of the accused some arms? I understand that he didn't want to portray any specific individual or group or gender, but everyone has arms. I mean, I guess some people don't, but some people don't have legs either. Hey, if you were sitting in that room for 13 hours you'd start thinking a few odd thoughts too.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Heretical Mind

T. S. Eliot famously observed the nature of the heretic as, "a person who seizes upon a truth and pushes it to the point at which it becomes a falsehood." This generalization strikes me as especially perspicacious and indeed indicative of a particular mode of thinking in which one observes events and attributes them all to one, or even a few, central causes. This cause-seeking reasoning is of course useful and fundamental to understanding the natural world, yet it is a potentially myopic approach.

Dr. Jeroen Vanheste in his study of classicism similarly observed that
Theories that consider everything to be a construction or a convention or the expression of a specific ideology, are a radicalization of an intuition that in itself obviously contains some truth. [1]
We are all liable to such a preoccupation and we see the generalizations everywhere when we read the
philosophically-untrained simplifying the world for us. We read of historical slights like "the essence of Greek culture" and political drivel about "the three ways to fix. . ." We see scientists struggle with  what occurred before time and anthropologists and now neuroscientists trying to make sense of human action. The fruits of such thinking often seem to come in the form of prescriptions, and Dom Prosper Guéranger, speaking about antipathy toward the Roman liturgy, observed:
All heretics without exception start out by wishing to return to the customs of the early Church... they prune, they efface, they suppress–everything falls under their hatchet–and while we await a vision of our religion in its pristine purity, we find ourselves encumbered with new formulations, fresh off the press, and incontestably human, for the men who created them are still alive. [2]
All other values, principles, and accidentals are stripped away and replaced by those of the observer, which are usually invisible to him and those of his age. The whole has been destroyed, but what has been revealed and what has simply been lost?

It seems, perhaps, that while both are necessary, learning by observation and learning by deconstruction (all too often "murdering to dissect"), are the lesser and lower, or better, preliminary, forms of learning. The ideal, then, would be learning by creation, no longer looking or digging but learning about the nature of things by purposeful making and being.

Now the creative act surely seems the most radical for it is no small matter to change the world, let alone make one, yet all three approaches change or make, yet only the creative admits to its purpose. Too it is just as systematic, built on rules and laws, and as well fuses past, present, and future just as the overtly fact-seeking sciences seek to contribute to one true knowledge.

The heretical mind is the philosopher as hunter-gatherer. The creative mind is the philosopher as man.

[1]Vanheste, Jeroen. Guardians of the Humanist Legacy: The Classicism of T.S. Eliot's Criterion Network and Its Relevance to Our Postmodern World. Brill Academic Pub. 2007. p. 437
[2] Institutions Liturgiques 1.399

Monday, August 13, 2012

Robert Hughes on Caravaggio

Art critic Robert Hughes wrote and narrated this documentary on Caravaggio in 1975. The section below begins Part III, the film's highlight, in which Hughes shares his perspicacity with a series of lucid and illuminating descriptions of Caravaggio's best works. Beside Hughes' lively comments is a soundtrack of wisely chosen music complementing Caravaggio's masterpieces.

Part I  | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tolkien on Nature: Cultivation vs Coercion

"The modern world meant for [Tolkien] essentially the machine. . . He used ["machine"] very compendiously to mean. . . almost any alternative solution to the development of the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings. The machine means, for him. . . the wrong solution: the attempt to actualize our desires, like our desire to fly. It meant coercion, domination, for him the great enemy. Coercion of other minds and other wills. This is tyranny. But he also saw the characteristic activity of the modern world is the coercion, the tyrannous reformation of the earth, our place." – Christopher Tolkien

These thoughts from Christopher Tolkien on his father's work touch on one of the more fascinating yet tantalizing inchoate strains within J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, that of a philosophy of nature. He draws primarily from a letter Tolkien wrote in the early fifties clarifying the underlying themes of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and readers are encouraged to seek this enlightening letter of some 10,000 words in the Houghton Mifflin volume, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Let us start by considering Tolkien's broad and unconventional definition of "machine" as "almost an alternative solution to the development of the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings." We must assume he means not simple machines such as levers and wheels but rather complex machines. Simple machines simply balances the loads and direct the energy applied by man. The lever puts his energy where it is most effective, the wheel balances a load so it may be pulled and so forth for simple machines. How do simple tools, "develop the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings?"

A hammer and chisel develops a man's coordination between his hands and his eyes and develops his visual sense of proportion and the rightness of what he cuts, such as the stone of a sculpture. The same is true for a brush which requires him uniformly to cover a material such as a canvass. Knives and scythes require him to know where and how much and how to cut, such as the stem of a flower. A whip requires him to know where and how and how hard to swing, such as in spurring a horse. Shaping the sheets with the lines on a sailboat requires careful attention to the geometry of the sail and the direction and strength of the wind. Even almost passive simple tools like lenses help man focus his attention on acute details.

All of such simple tools have in common two things. First, they develop a specific, unique individual faculty. Second, the demand a specific, unique, and firsthand knowledge of the materials with which you are working, such as the density of a piece of wood or the strength of a piece of stone.

In contrast machines alienate the user from the material. They do not require the use of cultivating any talents for interacting with nature, only for interacting with the machine. (This may not be quite so true for the inventor of the machine but it certainly is to the disinterested user.) The motor on a boat allows you to sail with disregard for currents and winds. Jackhammers and spinning saws cut without asking him to know how strong it is what he hopes to break. A glider falling gains speed and thus lift by its wings where as a a powered plane forces air across the wings. An unpowered mower requires you to know what you are cutting and thus how fast to go, how hard to push, and how high to set the blades. A powered mower simply cuts down everything in its path.

Machines have in common distancing the user from knowing by his senses what is the nature of the material he disturbs and purports to use and this prevents him from knowing the processes by which to use them. He learns only to use the machine. Complex machines, like the process of skill specialization, of course do liberate man from certain tasks and free him to perform others. They also allow him more liberty to manipulate nature. According to Tolkien's definition, though, despite this gain we see man does lose something.

Notice it is here not only concerned with nature itself but the effect of machines on man. In the Silmarillion, Tolkien, discussing the Ents, the shepherds of the trees, writes that while the Ents will guard the trees, "there will be need of wood." Tolkien is, I think more than is obvious in the Silmarillion which does not seem to revolve around man, concerned also with man and that he harms himself in coercing nature instead of cultivating himself. As his son Christopher points out in the above documentary the One Ring is the machine mythologized. The Ring allows the individual to bypass the means and simply and immediately actualize his will. It is this distance from, or blindness of, the means which, in part, dooms any attempt to use the ring, whether for good or ill.

Yet Tolkien does express disapproval of wantonly changing, "bulldozing" he says, the real world. Yet the theory we just discussed is mostly centered on man. By what principle ought man change his world?

Tolkien contrasts mechanical "re-creation" with artistic "sub-creation." Whereas mechanical re-creation seeks to make without regard for means, that is to say with no limiting principle, artistic sub-creation is content to create a secondary world which does not infringe on the primary world. The world of a symphony or painting reflects some truth of the primary world but does not replace it, moreover it derives its significance from it. Recall that the great jewels, the Silmarils, are not merely works of art but  composed of the light of the Two Trees of Valinor. They are in a sense containers or distillations of the best of nature while they are the unique fruits of their artistic creator. In contrast, philosopher Roger Scruton has observed, "The ugliest of modern art and architecture does not show reality but takes revenge on it." We may conclude then that beauty is the principle by which man's actions as creator and crafter are governed. His highest pursuit is not after the useful, which becomes a tyranny over nature and himself, but "useless" beauty. Man cultivates the beautiful in himself by himself cultivating the beauty of nature.

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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.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sacred Music V: Of Praise and Petition

Sacred Music: Part I | II | III | IV | V

I'm guessing that Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man got your attention just now. Doesn't he look happy? Look at those flailing arms and that big grin: he's ecstatic! He's ecstatic and he wants everyone to know. He just can't contain himself. Look at him!

In the course of affairs I have often heard the charge that Catholic sacred music is dolorous and depressing. It is not celebratory enough. Chant in particular is too serious. In place of such music Catholics should use big loud happy pieces during mass. Preferably this music should be in four parts and feature as much tinkling and thwacking accompaniment as possible. Mass should be HAPPY. After all we are "celebrating" the eucharist. Psalm 43.29 and the "sacrifice of praise" is then duly trotted out.

Now this sentiment is surely not to be condemned in toto any more than, say, the happy heart of Joseph Haydn that wrote his great symphonic masses should be castigated. The sentiment must, however, be moderated and for two reasons.

Foremost we must be reminded that prayer, all prayer, fundamentally maintains an element, even a prevailing element, of petition. We never simply praise God but always ask and hope that He be praised both to the utmost and per omnia saecula saeculorum. We hope that our humble offering of praise, subject as it is to our foibles, exalts. We hope that our love is pure and our craft refined. Thus even a laudatory prayer is not simply an effusion of joy but a hopeful request. All prayer, then, should maintain some spirit of supplication even as it exhorts or expresses.

Modern man of course has difficulty with this necessity because requesting implies submission and submission humiliates him, that is, it makes him humble. Petition seems to provide no vehicle for him to express himself or demonstrate the extent of his own genius and vast material resources but rather forces him to acknowledge his smallness and weakness.  Such an admission is uncomfortable for the modern man who has conquered so much and such brings us to our second reason that one must praise as supplicant, that otherwise the offering becomes a vehicle for the aggrandizement of the individual than of pure praise for God. This is a problem for much great music simply because the music is forever tied to its composer. In some way when we hear Handel will always hear not just music but Handel. Only the church's ancient and anonymous chants overcome this hurdle.

Now this imperative that prayer praise and petition God alone, what we might call the SDG imperative after the famous saying Soli Deo Gloria that  Bach appended to all of his music, has a profound implication, namely that all elements must focus on and only on a divine end. In other words, Christian worship is the worship of God. This means each element of sacred music must either directly contribue to a divine end by way of its overt meaning or by way of beautifying the work. For example, a text might worship in words and music might beautify it.

All else, by definition, serves another purpose. This implication itself has another: such music must be excellent. That which fails to be excellent contains, perhaps only in part, what is extraneous. Such is extraneous by virtue of having what is purposeless, and it is purposeless because it does not solely address God, is not beautiful, or accomplishes one of these aims but at some greater expense. For example, we might add words which unbalance the musical phrase or we may add notes which obfuscate the words. Too we may add either notes or words which are redundant and therefore undesirable as disruptive to the work's overall symmetry and logic.

The greatest works of sacred music contain the most excellent texts with no poor or extra words, the most excellent music in which all elements are necessary and meaningful, and harmony between these two elements.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also enjoy:

Theological Problems of Church Music by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Liturgy and Church Music by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

The Anonymous Artist
Causa Pulchritudinis
On Gratitude
Music and Community
Would You Sing it on a Boat?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Causa Pulchritudinis

"At any time between 1750 and 1930 if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied: beauty."

So says philosopher and author Roger Scruton in his 2007 documentary Why Beauty Matters. The radical purpose to Scruton's work is the classical notion that beauty matters, that, contra postmodern cacophilia, beauty is a value in itself as much as truth or goodness. He makes an honest and convincing case for beauty while tracing its genealogy from Plato through its banishment in the 20th century.

I would like, however, to trace and amplify a point slightly glossed over in the documentary. Scruton calls up Wilde's phrase that, "All art is absolutely useless," by which Wilde meant that art is more than useful. Scruton continues, applying Wilde's pointed compliment to mean that today we suffer under the "tyranny of the useful." We have more than utilitarian needs and suffer in not fulfilling them, he argues. I would like to return to Wilde, though, and ask: is all art absolutely useless?

Yes, and I would add that it is even more obviously useless than it might seem.

Let us begin by looking at the famous work of Hamlet since it seems to have a point. For our purposes permit a gross, obscene even, simplification: that the moral of the story is that indecisiveness and delay are bad. (Gasp! Alack! if you must, but stay with me, I beg.) If that is your goal, to demonstrate that indecisiveness is bad, why would you fulfill that goal by writing a four-hour play filled with complicated dialogue? It would be much easier, much clearer and more apparent, to write a simple morality story. What is gained by pages of complicated dialogue, shades of meaning, and a complex plot? Let me put it this way, why is:
To be, or not to be,--that is the question:--Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
so much more full of meaning and portent than
He screwed me! Should I suck it up or kick his ass?
Well, Shakespeare's verse is more meaningful because it is more persuasive and it is more persuasive because it is more beautiful. The logic is the same, but the structure, diction, imagery, syntax, and figurative language of Shakespeare make it seem more important. The ideas take on greater scale and meaning when they are beautiful.

Let us look at another example in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We must first observe that the entire fourth act is unnecessary to the plot since Figaro and Susanna are married at the conclusion of the third. Why conclude the opera titled The Marriage of Figaro with the Count being forgiven by his wife, then? Because all of the distrust and running around of the first three acts is well and good, but it only adds up to the rather uninspiring fact that everyone outwitted the Count. We want a bit more.

Unfortunately, the final scene of forgiveness has only a tenuous element of contrast to tie it to the plot. After all of the intrigues and fits of anger and distrust, even by Susanna and  Figaro, the Countess' act seems different, but why does it seem important somehow? Susanna and Figaro aren't villains, and neither are Bartolo and Marcellina, so why is this contrast necessary? Besides, everyone's mistrust is more heated than malicious. This simple element of contrast, then, is a relatively thin thread with which to conclude a three-hour endeavor whose main plot is already resolved. Mozart makes this finale relevant, to the plot and to us, by making it beautiful. This brief moment of sublime beauty takes on extraordinary dimensions and significance far disproportionate to the plot. This scene does not demonstrate that the Countess does the moral or just thing or that the Count will reform and be a better man or that Susanna and Figaro learn a lesson about marriage. The opera simply says that forgiveness is beautiful and the scene says this by being beautiful.

In the above examples we look at beauty acting as the element of persuasion in art which attempts to make some other point. Beauty persuades us that Hamlet's dilemma is grand and that the Countess' deed is good, but what about art which exists purely to be beautiful?

Take the fifth fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Why is that string of thirty-second notes followed by the dotted figures so full of meaning? More importantly, why does it take on so much more when developed? In fact, why should any figure played in canon, or augmented or what have you, be meaningful? Who cares if something is in inversion? Because the symmetries, rhythmic and harmonic, are beautiful.

Below Botticelli's point is not to describe the birth of Venus or even to show it, but to show beauty. Do we actually care about Venus or her birth?

Why are such symmetries and consonances pleasing to man? Why is, as Marcus Aurelius observed, the cracking of bread and the bursting of a fig a pleasing sight? Marcus' answer was the classical one that such things are naturally beautiful. I'm not sure what scientists hope to discover in asking that question today but is it likely to result in more beauty? The more experiments confirm that people prefer certain shapes and ratios the more the findings, oddly, are interpreted to mean that the pleasure we derive from contemplating and seeing beauty is meaningless. The more some preference is thought to be evolved the more one hear that we "only" prefer it because of such and such.  Yet in truth little seems to hinge on the question. Beauty by nature cannot be made vulgar, unnecessary, or undesirable. Because of its "uselessness" it can never be replaced or outdated. Fragile though it is in our hands, in this respect beauty is indestructible.

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