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?