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More Platonick speculations

Mathematics and beauty seem to give us something to admire that is independent of us and somehow ideal or spiritual. People have therefore thought that they point the way to transcendent goods and suchlike. An objection to that way of thinking is that mathematics and beauty are purely matters of form and don’t tell us anything substantive. 1 + 1 = 2 may be a wonderful timeless truth but it doesn’t show the way to a better life except instrumentally, through better bookkeeping and the like. Similarly, anything can be prettied up, and anything or nothing depicted with artistry. There are purely abstract paintings that I suppose are not about anything in particular, and there are Mayan carvings that are notably well done but to my mind have more to do with the bloodthirsty, horrifying and insane than the good, true and wise. Art and mathematics, it seems, have nothing essential to do with reality, which goes on in its own way regardless of how we think about or depict it.

Still, the radical opposition of form and substantial reality that is now effectively codified in curse words like “labelling” and “stereotyping” is mostly quite recent and probably not justifiable. It makes the world unknowable, since we know things by recognizing their general form, and it’s silly to claim the world is unknowable. Things come in natural kinds, or so it seems, and ever since Plato people have thought that what distinguishes kinds and so makes things what they are is form. A thing is the sort of thing it is because it has a certain essence or form. A table is a table because it has a particular type of design that can be expressed numerically and geometrically, and a man is a man because of his genome, which can be encoded as a string of symbols and thus mathematically, or alternatively because he has a certain bodily makeup and habitual mode of functioning, that I suppose could also be described mathematically at least in a negative way.

To the extent things come in natural kinds that are what they are by reason of form, then it seems that art could pick up and emphasize aspects of form and thus show us something about what things really are. It could engage with the world and lead us out of ourselves toward a genuine connection with reality. Constable’s The White Horse (which I happened to see last week) could, among other things, tell us something about what horses, especially agricultural draft horses, really are like—heavy, strong, patient and so on. Even Broadway Boogie Woogie, abstract though it is, could startle and please us by dramatizing something about New York life in an unexpected way.

What the latter painting tells us has to do with the spirit and experience of one side of city life in the early ’40s, and thus is not purely physical. It seems then that not only tables, horses and human beings but social settings and no doubt other human and even superhuman things—virtues, vices and for that matter holiness—have essences and therefore forms that can be made vividly present and so known to us through one sort of artistic depiction or another. The Eastern Orthodox believe that an icon is a window into heaven. Who knows but they may be right, and the forms that constitute the icon may be forms that reflect the divine? After all, if we can know heaven at all it’s through some sort of representation, and why can’t that representation be painted?

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It seems to me that the ultimate point about the difference between representation and reality is that it is always to some degree irreducibly mysterious: in one form or another, it always works to occupy our attention. So, human reality, which is coeval with re-presentation, cannot be well understood without appreciation of this deferral of a reality - primarily a human one (i.e. a deferral of political conflict) and secondarily a biological or physical reality - that art, language, and religion make possible.

Originally, of course, man does not see the human in these anthropological terms. He first sacralizes not himself but the things of nature and then slowly comes to understand himself by analogy to these totemic representations. Only in time is the sacred and sacrificial revealed as a largely human creation - distinct from a God who refuses idols - through developments like Judeo-Christianity and art history. There is always a pressure to reverse the humanizing momentum, as I think with modernist art. Perhaps the more we try to assimilate the human to the natural or physical, e.g. through certain forms of abstraction, the more violent we get. Or, perhaps, it is better to say that modernist art is the highlighting of the sacrificial and the downplaying of divine deferral.

Another consideration is that art, as Westerners understand it, that’s to say as something that has been removed from the religious or ritual context and given a life of its own, is inherently historical. We cannot fully or properly appreciate a work of art separate from art history. This reminds that the reality art depicts is ultimately a transcendent reality that has both historical and universal dimensions.

A few points:

  1. I certainly agree that representation is mysterious. To talk about perpetual deferral and to treat the humanizing and the idolatrous as a polarity outside of which there is nothing with which we need be concerned seems to be an instance of the modern attempt to reduce the mystery to the elements we think we can fully understand and so abolish it.
  2. I could draw abstract figures, circles and whatnot, as part of a geometrical demonstration, and that wouldn’t be violent. Suppose I do it as part of a discussion of good proportions? Suppose I add a little color, and develop the presentation until it seems to develop a presence of its own and becomes worth contemplating, without regard to a discussion of something else? For that matter, lots of oriental rugs are purely abstract patterns. I suppose they weren’t designed as “art objects” in the modern sense, but they can be treated as such as legitimately as any other object. I’m not sure where the violence comes in.
  3. If art is necessarily art-historical, how come Duerer was so impressed by art objects from the New World? The Impressionists etc. by Japanese prints? Lots of people, who know little of Asia and less of whatever cultic significances may be relevant, by Chola bronzes or Southern Sung landscapes?

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I’m sorry I haven’t found time to return to this sooner, or to give it its due.

First, I don’t pretend to be able to reduce the question to terms that eliminate the mystery by which representation transcends experience. I don’t think there is anything inherently violent about abstraction in general, beyond the consideration that our quest for new form is always motivated by the conflicts, but also loves, that are part of the human condition. But why do we look at abstract “art”/ritual objects from the Mayan or Aztec worlds and find them violent? It’s to do with the way the abstraction is used to point our attention to the sacrificial context. When we are entirely ignorant of the mass human sacrifice those societies depended on, the works may seem icons of some glorious civilization we romanticize in ignorance, at least they are less offensive than when we do become cognizant of that bloody ritual history.

With modern art, with its emphasis on representing each and every desire and experience in abstract forms, and foregoing the great ascetic disciplines of the romantics (that sought to make an entire life of desire into a great work of art that finally transcends desire) something similar, by way of pointing to the sacrificial context, is at work. The scene of art is made more important than its content (its potential victims). The artist becomes a great renderer, one who often belittles the banal, things/experiences of a commercial modernity that he renders, delving into abstraction in a quest to justify the heroic individual - the artist - as someone transcending the ugly creations of market society. It is the revolutionary scene, that the frequent presence of the artist guarantees, not the content rendered abstract, that is the focus of modernism.

So, some banal industrial product, a steel girder say, will serve as the basis for some great abstract work. The heroic artist, pressuring us to admire the blankness of an abstract canvas, breaking into barriers of content and form, works to toughen us up for the great sacrifices by which modern banality may be overcome by art. His political counterpart becomes the Utopianism of the twentieth-century totalitarian movements, however opposed an artist may be to one particular movement in the name of another. Liberalism, for example, was indeed superior to Naziism, though both proved Gnostic fantasies in the end.

As to your last point, it seems to me that when Western artists borrow from other cultures, they are not leaving their own stream of historical consciousness, simply building syncretic and synthetic understandings within it. But yes, we do indeed have an esthetic understanding of the world that is prior to any historical understanding. I would only claim that the latter is a way of trying to come to terms with the esthetic/ethical nature of man.