17 March 2006

Good books on aesthetics

Listened to: South African Gospel (CD in The Rough Guide series)

Read: Two short stories: "The Five-Forty-Eight" by John Cheever and "Distant Music" by Ann Beattie (in Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick).

Apropos to our recent exchange about what is beauty, there's an interesting post (and subsequent discussion) on what books one would choose if teaching a university course on aesthetics, on the blog of my fellow Regent alum Gideon Strauss. I recognized and have read and agree with some of the suggestions there (Jeremy Begbie's Voicing Creation's Praise and part of Nicholas Wolterstorff's Art In Action). Click here to see the blog entry.


Iambic Admonit said...

This is great, but a little dense to wade through. How about we bring it down a little bit and just talk about what we think, as artists, for a little while? Could you, dear readers, list a few things that you think are essential to make a work of art good, great, or beautiful?

Iambic Admonit said...

Listened to (over the weekend): "Fellowship of the Ring" soundtrack
Read: The most recent issue of Ekphrasis magazine.

And I will begin. I'll add to this as I think of them.
1. The work must be made according to the technical requirement of the field. What these are is open to great debate.
2. The work must be, in some sense, original. I.e., it must show some creativity of thought, form, expression, etc.
3. [In my opinion!] It must "say things" better than someone who has not studied or practiced that genre of art. Wow, that one might be really controversial.
4. [This one is also subjective] It must conform to natural principles. Hum. These could be the overtone series, the rhythms of speech, the meters of the body or of nature, the color relationship of the spectrum, and so on. I'd like to hear someone argue in favor of art that breaks natural principles. This is just my opinion. I guess this one is necessary for art that I like, which doesn't matter much.

I'll start with those. What do you think?

Mehitchcock said...

Regarding beauty in art:
If I can take it in and it fills all my input, and allows me to think of nothing else,
If it is seamless and shows no craft,
If I can contemplate it deeply, without exhausting it,
if it gives me more to think about than itself,
I call it beautiful.

Iambic Admonit said...

Here's an answer to that question by Pastor bill Senyard, the author of the Harry Potter article:

My answer to the question—what makes art beautiful—is expounded in a series that I gave last year on the attributes of God. This is the philosophic understanding of the ancients. The more something reflects absolute beauty—the character and nature of God—the more inherently beautiful it is. Does it mirror God’s just-ness, His creative-ness, His honor-ness (speaks to His relational-ness and his glory-ness)?

Rosie Perera said...

Sorry about the density of my post.

I basically agree with your first four criteria, Sorina, but have a few comments.

You wrote that art, to be good, "must be made according to the technical requirement of the field." I might refine that a bit, since I know that a photograph can be technically excellent (proper exposure, in focus, obeys the "rules" of composition) and still not aesthetically pleasing. This is where it's hard to explain what is missing in a boring photograph, that keeps it back from the threshold of true art. There's that certain je ne sais quoi again! Perhaps my added point below will begin to answer this.

As for your #4, I can't even imagine anything that does not conform to natural principles. The way you've stated it is so general, that everything potentially calling itself art would necessarily meet that criterion, so it can't be used to weed anything out. Even visual art that you don't like cannot help but use colors which bear a certain relationship to each other in the spectrum. OK, I suppose I can think of one form of "art" which intentionally tries to break natural principles, and that is 12-tone music. The whole point of it is to fulfill a mathematical property, not make something beautiful. In fact it self-consciously tries to avoid any of the traditional characteristics of the music we love to love. I find it quite ugly myself, but isn't it still art?

My only suggestion for something to add to your list would be that great art must have something of the soul of the artist in it. I think it would be very difficult indeed for an artist to create a work that deserves the "art" label without having a real relationship with the work. I once wrote a computer program that would draw a random Etch-a-Sketch like network of lines on the screen, and then you could print it out. Some of the patterns I created with it were quite interesting and might even have been called beautiful if they'd been done by Piet Mondrian. But I wouldn't call them "art" because my soul wasn't in them; I wasn't personally involved in the creation of them. My relation with them was more like that of a "blind watchmaker" setting in motion a random sequence of events that resulted in the creation of the universe (a thesis I do not believe in, by the way; I believe in a God who was and is personally involved in every aspect of the ongoing creation of all that is).

So perhaps that last paragraph provides a tentative answer to why a technically perfect photograph could still not be great art. It has nothing of the soul of the photographer in it. Though he or she was personally involved in taking the picture, that was all. There's a difference between "taking" a photograph and "making" one.

Mehitchcock said...

Sounds like a tough position.
How do we know when an artist's soul is in a piece or not?
Also, if one piece is better or more beautiful than another, do we assume that the artist put more of their soul into it? Or maybe that their soul is deeper?
Or perhaps it's just whoever connects most deeply to God...
But any of these are quite impossible to know. Especially for Christians (seems like a sin to think one could judge another's soul in that way.).
I think to answer questions of beauty, it's far more efficacious to stick to subjective personal spirituality or concrete repeatable fact.

Iambic Admonit said...

Absolutely, to be great the work must transcend the technical requirements. But I believe that it cannot be truly a work of genius unless the artist has mastered those techniques. In other words, someone might have a brilliant inspiration--an idea for a plot, say, or a creative metaphor, or an interesting group of subjects to photograph--but unless s/he knows and has practiced skill in the mechanics of that medium, the resulting work will not be "great." It will not stand the test of time, it will not be hung in a museum, anthologized, or whatever other cultural glorifications we give such things. Yes, it must surpass technique. But technique is the bottom-line requirement.

And maybe the jugding-the-soulfulness problem goes back to what Michael said. If the work is objectively good, first of all, by being well done, and then if I resonate with it, if it strikes deep into my soul, hey, it's great!! And I don't mind saying this is subjective, but the rational side of me wants a more objective criteria, too?
For example: We went to a Turner exhibit at the Clark in Williamstown a few years ago. Wow. The first painting we saw, one of the sunsets over the sea, resonated with my soul as to greatness of power and profundity. Another one, a small one entitled "The Evening of the Deluge," also plunged its colors, motion, and feeling deep into my self. Those, I believe, are great paintings. Obviously Turner knew what he was doing when he mixed his colors, make preliminary sketches, applied paint to canvas, etc. Then beyond that was some greatness of vision, some sight and insight.

Do you think that a great work of art has to push the envelope in some way? Say something new in an old way, say something old in a new way, stretch rules, break rules, argue with assumptions, reinterpret doctrine in fresh vocabulary? Is great art always in some fashion revolutionary?

...and is this one reason that strict orthodoxy has comparatively few voices?

Iambic Admonit said...

Read: Act one of Waiting for Godot
Listened to: Liszt's "Transcendental Etudes," performed by pianist Boris Berezovsky

My comment about pushing the envelope (where did that wierd saying come from, anyway??) is basically the same as my #3, that is must be "original."

And isn't there a lot more art that choose to oppose "natural principles" Dadaism, Dali's surrealism, Picasso's perspectives, yes dodecaphonic music, also aleatoric music, strangely altered digital photography...? But then again, whoever found a sonnet lying around under an oak tree? Or a symphony complete in a cave somewhere? I need to ponder this one and write on it again....

Rosie Perera said...

Read: "The Hound of Heaven" by Francis Thompson (suggested it for Sorina's class reading list, so I wanted to re-read it to make sure I made a good recommendation; I think I did)

Listened to (so far this morning): nothing but the hum of my computer and the clack of the keys

Michael asked, "if one piece is better or more beautiful than another, do we assume that the artist put more of their soul into it?" No. There are of course many dimensions (allusion to Charles Williams not intended or realized until after the fact!) which contribute to the greatness of art. It might just have been that one artist's technique was better than the other's.

I don't think you can quantify how much of one's soul is in a work of art. But I think you can tell when there is none of it. Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree, though. Maybe if a work doesn't resonate with my soul, I assume the creator of it doesn't have a very deep soul or didn't put much of it into his work.

I agree with Sorina; technical skill is indeed a foundational requirement for good art. The "inspiration of the Holy Spirit" alone doesn't cut it, as we've discussed elsewhere.

I'm not sure we can come up with an objective set of criteria which will predict the subjective phenomenon of how a great work of art can resonate with one person but not another. And I think it might be reductionistic to come up with such a rule anyway. Wouldn't that take away some of the mystery of great art? The mystery is part of what makes it great. If you could objectively describe what makes art great, then you could design a computer program to make great art, which I don't think you can.

Here's another question to get at this fuzzy thing we're trying to understand. Have you ever seen those "paintings" done by elephants? Some elephants have been trained to hold paintbrushes in their trunks and wave them around on a canvas and make "paintings". It is quite impressive that a mere beast could do such a thing, but is it "art" in the sense we've been talking about? What I'm vaguely calling the "soul" of the artist is a big part of what's missing in a pachydermic painting or a computer-generated drawing. Perhaps "soul of the artist" is a mere shorthand for describing all of the other characteristics which Sorina has listed (practiced skill, etc.) I think intentionality has something to do with it, too. So once again, maybe my idea of "soul" is not that helpful.

The phrase "pushing the envelope" comes from aviation. An airplane's performance numbers are graphed on a 2D chart. There's a roughly wing-shaped area in the middle of the chart, known as the "envelope" (perhaps because it encloses something), where performance is best. When you try to push the airplane beyond its limits, you are "pushing the envelope."

I'm not sure all great art has to push the envelope. Otherwise, a great artist would constantly be having to outdo himself for each new work to be considered great. But the entire oeuvre of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh are considered great art, even though many of the works might be just one more variation on a theme (think of all of Van Gogh's cypresses and sunflowers or Rembrandt's self-portraits).

However I do think you're right that strict orthodoxy's unwillingness to push the envelope does inhibit it from producing much great art.

Rosie Perera said...

I also think strict orthodoxy's unwillingness to portray the reality of evil makes its art weaker. I'm thinking particularly of Thomas Kincaid's paintings (which almost give me a gag reflex when I see them). All sweetness and light, and perhaps technically skillful, but nothing real about them. I'm not saying that every great work of art must depict the results of the Fall. But if it is to be redemptive, I think it must take note of the fact that even the risen Christ still bears in his hands the marks of his crucifixion. There's a difference between "airy fairy" art and good Tolkien-like fairy stories. Every good fairy story seems to have an evil witch or goblin or some such; and people who "live happily ever after" in them still have been changed through some painful experience. Perhaps great art itself might not overtly bear the marks of the suffering of the artist, but if you know the full story (e.g., Van Gogh's mental illness and ultimate suicide were probably directly related to living out his calling), you cannot help but see more in the painting than just a beautiful sunflower. I think that art which doesn't encompass the complexity of both good and evil seems trite or gets old very quickly. (Just as a diet of worship music that is all about "I love you, Lord" and never acknowledges the full spectrum of human emotions would leave one spiritually anemic.)

What do you think? Does art, in order to be great, have to acknowledge the reality of evil in some way? I'm on the verge of adding this to my mental list of criteria for great art. Can you think of some good counter-examples?

Rosie Perera said...

Bummer! I just lost a comment I'd written because I thought I'd posted it but had only Previewed it. Here goes trying to reconstruct it...

After further reflection upon my previous comment, I wonder whether we are trying to put too much into the definition of what makes one work of art great. Art does not occur in a vacuum. Perhaps a single piece must be viewed in its larger context of the artist's collected works to determine whether it merits the crown of greatness. For example, if an artist does not encorporate a recognition of the reality [and of course ultimate conqueredness] of evil in each work, but over the whole of his oeuvre you can see that awareness emerge, then his work can be called great. I would not mind an individual painting of Thomas Kincaid's so much if they weren't all so sentimental.

I suppose the wider context of an artist's piece need not be limited to his own oeuvre. It could be the genre with which he is in dialogue, or even a whole cross-disciplinary movement (e.g., Romanticism) in the artist's era. Here again, Kincaid does not seem to get any points for greatness from the interaction of his paintings with the works of other artists. I'm not an art historian, so I don't know for sure whether his works are in serious dialogue with other painters, Christian or otherwise, present or past, but I am guessing not. They seem to be created just to hang over the fireplace and put warm smiles on the faces of well-meaning (but artistically illiterate) Christian families who would like to insulate themselves from the world around them.

Iambic Admonit said...

Rosie, it figures you would know where "pushing the envelope" comes from! :)