March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
That the ancient 3rd century Neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus should choose to first write about beauty is in itself a beautiful thing. Why couldn’t one falling for a beautiful object, idea, or virtuous living, also be a person who falls in love with wisdom? It is in his introductory treatise, “Beauty” from the Enneads, that Plotinus makes the uncommon (yet entirely relevant) connection between aesthetics and ethics. This affiliation is relevant if we accept that the ethical life or better yet, the virtuous life is one that is beautiful to our universal conceptions of how one aspires to virtue. The spare objectives for this paper will be to first look at Plotinus’s opening sections of his treatise on the beautiful that analyze various qualities concerning a physical conception of beauty, and then continuing through the treatise to examine his way of transitioning from physical matters to an all-important aesthetic of virtue. In closing, a few ideas will be offered by which to contemplate Plotinus’s departure from the material.
Without any unnecessary forgoing, in §§1-3, Plotinus presents us with a few basic notions that have to do with a sensory perception of the beautiful, as visual, auditory, etc. These are immediately sketched in tandem with the idea that a virtuous life is also something of beauty. “Dedicated living, achievement, character, intellectual pursuits” are themselves beautiful (I, 6 , 1). But what of these things in relation to one another?—how is the virtuous related to a beautiful object? Firstly, Plotinus has to get us to understand what he means by a beautiful thing, a “bodily form,” this has to be done before one can know how appreciating virtue is aesthetical. A reason why this arrangement is valuable is that one might forget that to consider something beautiful might mean to go beyond the sensual. In our media saturated culture, it’s easy to forget that the beautiful can be something other than (commercialized) sight, scent, sound, touch, or taste. It is just as well that in Plotinus’s time there were those who thought that beautiful things had only to do with symmetry. In our own regard, this simple idea should not be cast off too quickly, since it does stand to reason that a beautiful face is one that is supposedly more symmetrical. Or in another vein, that a handsome building such as Michelangelo’s St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is beautiful due to its symmetry. Certainly too, a butterfly’s wings are beautiful in their symmetry. It’s easy to see why the ancient thinkers would have thought of beautiful things as possessing symmetry, yet it becomes clear for Plotinus that this is not the only trademark of beauty. Held within this notion, that beauty is tied to things that are symmetrical, is also the idea that these things must be composites—that they be made up of parts. To be sure, of the examples mentioned, these things are composite, a butterfly has a body in the middle of two wings, and St. Peter’s Basilica has a central dome flanked by two smaller domes on either side, and so on. Can one not find beauty in a non-composite thing? “But is not gold beautiful? And a single star by night?” (I, 6 , 1). In agreement with Plotinus, it will be said that gold’s power is beautiful all by its self, and that it doesn’t always need any of the aforesaid symmetry for us to cherish it all the same.
Along with these issues, there is another more pressing question. Since Plotinus privileges the virtuous with his consideration of the beautiful, this begs the question as to whether or not the soul’s ways can be said to be symmetrical. How can one suggest that, for example, an altruistic deed is symmetrical? There is much talk these days about living a ‘balanced’ life, implying a kind of symmetry brought about by weighing the good with the bad, or a life where good healthy living is made to be balanced with what?—equal measures of a bad, unhealthy life? It must be better said that such a life of ‘balance’ is instead, one made of careful moderation, temperance, and kindness, all attributes of virtue, but not a life measured into symmetrical components whereby the good is balanced with the bad, into neat, even proportions to be measured. “What yardstick could preside over the balancing of the The Soul’s potencies and purposes?” (I, 6 , 1).
Already, one gets the feel for what Plotinus wishes for his readers to see, issues of beauty are tough to define as is the very pursuit of a good life. One thing is already clear: symmetry doesn’t necessarily define the beautiful. But the beautiful in bodily forms has to be more than that, and it doesn’t just mean that bodily forms (physical objects) aspire to the virtuous either. For a physical object to be beautiful as with an artistic expression, it has to be “in accord with Idea” (I, 6 , 2). In §3 Plotinus writes on the way an object’s beauty relies on the Idea and the intelligible. This is given the metaphor of fire, whereby fire’s beauty inhabits physical matter much as an Idea inhabits a physical, created form. “Always struggling aloft, this subtlest of elements is at the last limits of the bodily” (I, 6 , 3). Fire is destructive as much as it is life supporting, and just as well, our ideas and concepts of things can destroy or create the man-made objects of this world. Plotinus cherishes this kind of connection from the mystical to the physical. The things of the physical realm, when touched by the hand of an artist whose soul is in alignment with the intelligible realm, partake in the discernible, laudable, and beautiful qualities of the Idea. A beautiful house is not only beautiful in its aesthetic composure, it is beautiful in the way that it is engineered to be a comfortable home that has ease of movement, organization, and is structurally sound.
And another profound thought is brought about in §4, here one finds out that if we are to recognize beauty, we must be able to find it as an aspect of our own soul. “Seeing of this sort is done only with the eye of the soul” (I, 6 , 4). How can one judge the character of others without already having a sense of what it means to have an upright character as a potential in ourselves? It’s easy to misunderstand honest virtue when we have fallen in with the depravity of the body’s lusts. This idea smoothly transitions into §5 where one can foster the beautiful from inside, providing oneself with such qualities as “largeness of spirit, goodness of life, chasteness… [etc.]” (I, 6 , 5). But when the soul is sullied, it likes to wallow it its decrepitude. That paradoxical human trait the French call nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for the mud) is not far from this downgrading of man’s soul described by Plotinus. How often does one hear of the variegated humiliations of desire, or the voluntary servitudes of the flesh, in which a man is willing to subject himself to when he is overly enamored with the body’s filiations? In spite of these hungers, what this suggests is the idea that the soul is already pure, and that when it wishes to taste earthly filth, it can still purify itself beyond that, “the soul is ugly when it is not purely itself” (I, 6 , 5). The beauty of gold now serves to metaphorically symbolize the purity that a soul can become when un-pure dirt is filtered from it, and then washed away.
Too close of an easy concession with the body draws the pure soul downward. To ascend up toward the beautiful the soul has to succumb to certain rejections of the bodily, e.g. “what is magnanimity except scorn of earthly things?” (I, 6 , 6). For Plotinus, the Good is beautiful as much as the “intellective” is beautiful. This has to mean that intelligence and the learned are forms of beauty, thus speaking mystically: The Soul is made beautiful in congruence with The Intelligence. By extension, a person’s soul is made beautiful in correspondence with the intelligible—with what is typically called wisdom.
For Plotinus, the beautiful souls have been “stripped of the muddy vesture with which they were clothed in their descent” (I, 6 , 7). Once man’s soiled habits have been cast off, he can again seek to become unified with the Good. His seeking for the Good will not be easy, since the comforts of the degraded body drag him away from it all the time. It is at this point, in §7, where one is not completely sure if the bodily has anything worthwhile to offer the soul, other than as mere vehicle. One is also led to wonder if rejecting the material world will be as beautiful as we are led to believe. Still, the beauty of an ascetic life is one where our goals are grand while our body is kept humble. The virtuous is kept alive in this direction upward. There is something to learn. The body is limited. To aim upward to the virtuous, what must be done? “We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing…” (I, 6 , 8).
Plotinus is good to remind his readers again that if they wish to be beautiful “by the virtue of men for their goodness” they will have to look inside themselves (I, 6 , 9). To become virtuous, one will have to look inside and work the soul as one who would sculpt fine marble. This kind of work is spiritual work, making the soul pure, emulating pure action, becoming a better person, and delimiting the pangs of the corporeal. To repeat, one cannot do any of this until we come to a closer comprehension of our own role, our own problems, and our particular shortcomings. When these virtuous thoughts are put into action, perhaps there will be time to take notice of Plotinus’s hierarchy, where Beauty resides with the Intellect, but does not completely reach the heights of the One, which is in closer proximity to the Good (from where Beauty originates).
But is beauty really as internal, rather than external as Plotinus suggests? It is clear that in our day-and-age, physical beauty is a quality that is highly valued. And it is also clear that being virtuous is highly valued. Of course, whether one takes the moral-high-ground, physical beauty will have to be subordinate. Who would voluntarily claim that physical beauty is better than virtuous action? Not many would say it with words outright. However, it can be observed that such dichotomies are not so obviously binary, and again how can such things be measured? Philosophically speaking, these sharp divisions between the body and spirit, matter and idea, figure prominently in a philosophic discourse beginning with Plato and beyond. It is because of this problem, between the mind and body, where one looks for the places where the two are reconciled, say with Phenomenology or other such ideas. With this said, one mustn’t become too cynical to discard Plotinus for his priorities, his hierarchies, and his divisions. Even though the world around us might privilege the beautiful face over the beautiful action, it continues to make sense that vain thinking is shallow. Plotinus’s way of placing the physical below the spiritual is idealistic without a doubt. This is problematic if one is to assume that such idealism is flawed, such cynicism prevails only if we repeatedly propagate it ourselves. Plotinus’s teachings are beautiful when one is ready to hear them. This is an idealistic effort, but a key factor will be what happens once the virtuous is put into action in the day-to-day of our lives. Only then will our idealism be actualized. Being good does not happen in a vacuum, it has to be meted out dynamically. The beauty of the good life is made possible by action. Plotinus was not only contemplative, he was wise and intelligible. If he had never put into words his beautiful thoughts, philosophy would be less pure, less wise.
Inge, Wiliiam Ralph. The Philosophy of Plotinus: The Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews, 1917-1918, Vol. II. New York, New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1968.
Pistorius, Philippus Villiers. Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes Publishers Limited, 1952.
Plotinus, The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. New York, New York: Faber and Faber, 1969.
—. The Essential Plotinus. Translated by Elmer O’Brien. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964.
 Elmer O’Brien mentions that “Beauty” is “the earlier of the treatises” and that “for centuries Beauty was the sole treatise by which Plotinus was known.” Plotinus, “Beauty,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964, 33.
 O’Brien attributes this idea, where the beautiful was mostly about the symmetrical, to the Stoics.
June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
rineke dijkstra“bull fighter vila franca de xira and montemor o novo, portugal” / 1994/ c-print
adorno is famous for saying (in translation) that “to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.” this was notably said after the horrors of world war ii & therefore after reason’s demise. his statement is rather tough for us to listen to, considering the fact that we evaluate most things with a capitalist’s measure—that is ‘does it sell?’ because of our one-dimensional rationalism, we tend to think that to buy comfort, pleasure, privilege &c. is the rule. all the while, we forget & ignore the tangible value of ever noticing our own day-to-day suffering & that of others. when suffering is to be done away with (when it is to be purchased away), we also recoil when it stares at us (as it usually does), and as it posits itself in the unnerving manner of artistic expression. so, if we can’t look to suffering as way to understand our own struggles, then how can we see what we’ve done to ourselves by distancing each other from the very nature we pretend to love? art shows us these enigmatic problems & it is this hard-to-recognize expression that often scares us away & it suggests the very natural discomforts we run from. again, we look to art for answers, but we should be critical of the wholeness we seek, since the whole is never what it might seem to define completely without pain & without essential mystery. with this said, I offer gratitude again to reinaert de v. for showing us how adorno magnifies what we can’t see & what we’re afraid to know about art & aesthetics.
“Authentic artworks, which hold fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature by making themselves completely into a second nature, have consistently felt the urge, as if in need of a breath of fresh air, to step outside themselves. Since identity is not to be their last word, they sought consolation in first nature.” (AT, p.63)
Adorno distinguishes two separate though overlapping ‘worlds’ or spheres. On the one hand there is the mediated world of social convention we live in, which he terms Second Nature, and which consists of all we have made our own and has thereby become an extension of our-selves. And on the other side of the divide there is First Nature, consisting of everything unmade, unmediated, and thus outside of our reach, that “has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70) Authentic artworks express this duality. They reveal the tension that exists between these two opposite poles, which lets itself be felt as a fundamental divide between what ‘merely is’, and what could, nay, what should be. Accordingly, these works express that there will always be something missing, something that eludes our grasp, and does not conform or bend to our will. Namely, something to be found out there, in First Nature, and in particular in Natural Beauty which appears alive (AT, p.5) – “luminous from within” – as though something more. It is the difference or contrast between these two worlds that ‘animates’ and brings to life natural objects. But by holding “fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature”, authentic artworks come to find consolation in the knowledge that, as Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) so pointedly put it: “never the twain shall meet”. The longing of artworks to reconcile themselves – become one – with First Nature, stems from the “immediacy” (AT, p.70) of the mediated world of conventions that suffocates them. It is their need of fresh air that makes them go out in search of new forms that allow them to ‘bridge the unbridgeable’ and ‘express the inexpressible’, in order to escape a world closing in on them – and to open it up by re-establishing contact with what is ‘outside’ of it. But in the process of doing so, they reveal themselves to be in fact Second Nature, because by aiming and ultimately failing to become First Nature, artworks fully crystallize undisturbed into Second Nature. After all, as we saw, the nearer one gets to it, the more elusive and ephemeral it becomes: “fleeting to the point of déjà vu…” And more importantly, following from the above, everything at the work’s disposal, content as well as form, can never escape being conditioned and determined beforehand, for all of our experiences are by definition mediated. So it is in their “immanent problems of form” that they bring out the “complex of tensions” and “unresolved antagonisms of reality” which “converges with the real essence” of the work (AT, p.6). Through the drama of the struggle between First and Second Nature, as embodied in great works of art, it finally manages to let go. That is, the admittance of its failure, as exposed in its inherent shortcomings – its authenticity –, allows the artwork to open up and surrender itself to First Nature, “as if in need of a breath of fresh air”. And it is this beautiful failure, a gesture at something more, outside itself, that makes First Nature enter the work and illuminate it from within . Thus revealing the limits of our reach and the vicissitudes of reality, as well as its transience (AT, p.70).
“If in keeping with Hegel’s insight all feeling related to an aesthetic object has an accidental aspect, usually that of psychological projection, then what the work demands from its beholder is knowledge, and indeed, knowledge that does justice to it: The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped.” (AT, p.15)
And here we come to the heart of the matter, where Natural Beauty, history, and the development of art grab into each other like cogs. Because on the one hand Natural Beauty seems to suggest a purely random process of continuous growth and development, while on the other hand certain objects and artworks light up as if they have got something to tell, while others lie dormant. So the question becomes: what is it about these particular works and objects that makes them flare up in the first place? The answer may lie in the mechanism of projection. For even though nature feeds and sustains us, in its materiality it remains indifferent to our affairs, it thus provides the perfect foil for our endeavors. Not only does art share this indifference to the extent that – for it to stand out and create an opening – it is continually forced to split-off and run counter to “reality’s compulsion to identity” (AT, p.4), freeing the artwork “to model the relation of whole and part according to the work’s own need” (AT, p.4) through which it gains its luster. But in its very effort to fend off reality’s compulsion, art is compelled to ally itself with the non-identical – with what resists and does not bend to our will – linking it even further to nature. Because for it to distinguish itself, merely changing its appearance will not do when everything has already been conquered and mediated by spirit, it would only be more of the same. Which is why, to be truly challenging the work needs to be non-identical as well, or to identify itself with what is suppressed – that is nature. However, art, like everything else, can only sustain itself by retaining its self-identity, or as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) says “one paints a painting, not what it represents.” (AT, p.4) Yet, due to its alliance with the non-identical, art’s identity is by its very nature unstable, so much so that art and artworks are “right into the smallest detail of their autonomy […] something foreign and opposed to it” (AT, p.4) and therefore prone to self-annihilation. It is in this sense that art’s development closely resembles and mirrors that of society’s, since both are driven by the same dialectic of nature and its domination. To survive in a hostile and unaccommodating world, man had no choice but to slowly detach himself from his immediate surroundings, and subject them to his will, but by severing those ties one by one, he became more and more estranged from his humble beginnings. Art, owing to its sympathy for the non-identical, followed man in his detachment from nature – essentially a process of disenchantment – which has culminated in his autonomy and self-mastery. This autonomy art achieved by separating itself from the imprints of nature’s heterogeneous material, freeing it from its cultic roots and religious aura, and allowing it “to take every possible object as an object of art […] and expunged from it the rawness of what is unmediated by spirit.” (AT, p.63)
[coming up] more on the role of projection in the dialectic of art and society.
 The “beautiful failure” of an artwork exposes a lack. By showing ‘how things are’ in their endless variety and complexity, authentic artworks simultaneously show how things should or could be. After all, ‘the way things are’ never quite matches up with our expectations thereof. This sense of longing for something “more” – for something that will in fact ultimately fulfill our deepest desires and highest hopes – and which is felt through its painful absence, is exemplary of the works of James Joyce (1882-1941), especially his haunting masterpiece “Ulysses” (1922). But one can also see something similar at work in Charles Baudelaire’s notion of beauty. The fullness of an artwork thus springs forth paradoxically from an experienced lack. Since it cannot be directly stated or ‘brought out into the open’, only indirectly alluded to: it enters the work from the outside, as it were. Therefore, as with man’s autonomy, an artwork can only be considered art, if it appears to be more than the sum of its parts. Adorno uses the metaphor of a child sitting at a piano “searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything new suffers from.” (AT, p.32). However, to achieve the desired result – of showing ‘how things are [and were]’ – a thorough mastery of the subject matter is required. For precisely this mastery will allow the artist in his work (and the beholder of it) to overcome and be free of ‘all that is’: “Subjective pleasure in the artwork would approximate a state of release from the empirical as from the totality of the heteronomous. Schopenhauer might have been the first to realize this. The happiness gained from artworks is that of having suddenly escaped, not a morsel of that from which art escaped.” (AT, p.15) – and thus, it is “the totality of the heteronomous [i.e. ‘all that is’]” “over which, for their happiness, [artworks] must soar and back into which at every moment they threaten once again to tumble” (AT, p.6). Unsurprisingly, art’s “beautiful failure” also points to a continuous frustration with ‘how things are’, being that it is what prevents art from fully expressing itself, destining it to pull back the curtain on reality’s inevitable shortcomings. This inherent tension or ‘critical tendency’ of art is the reason why Adorno warns not to rest in the pleasurable feeling it affords, since it would amount to a state of release and a dissipation of energies. Instead Adorno promotes poetry that retreats “into what abandons itself unreservedly to the process of disillusionment. It is this that constitutes the irresistibility of Beckett’s work.” (AT, p.16) For the modernist poetry of Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906-1989) is no longer satisfied with mere spielerei, because, in a sense, there is no more room to play – no more outside. The absurd and fragmentary style of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is another instructive example of what, according to Adorno, constitutes modern art. For Kafka’s writing not only successfully captures the modern subject’s complete alienation from self and society in its depictions of rampant bureaucracy. But due to its radical idiosyncrasy – “the subject thrown back on himself” (AT, p.63) – it also creates these cryptic self-enclosed worlds that reflect in a negative or inverted way, modernity’s ever-expanding reach: “artworks as windowless monads “represent” what they themselves are not” (AT, p.5). The question however is, if art has to forever discard the beautiful in favor of anguish and disillusionment, or if instead there will come a time when there will be once again room for wonder and beauty – as Adorno himself notes: “It is outside the purview of aesthetics today whether it is to become art’s necrology.” (AT, p.4) For further reading on this latter issue, I strongly recommend Sir Ernst Gombrich’s highly original and beautifully written study of “The Preference for the Primitive”.
[Footnote 7] By “severing those ties” which bind us to nature, man in effect ‘blinded’ himself. For ‘Reason’ needs something that resists in order for it to keep its bearings and stay its course, a “rawness [that] is unmediated by spirit” (AT, p.3). Because the downside of being able “to take every possible object as an object of art” (AT, p.63) is that art fully sides with the subject, and in doing so becomes subservient to man’s (arbitrary) will. From that moment on decisions on what to depict and how, are made irrespective of material necessity, which leads to a subversion of “the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71) And with the object thus demoted and dismissed, art merely mirrors the personal taste of a solitary subject, detached from its surroundings. Meanwhile the surroundings, in their turn, are transformed to fit the needs (as well as the wishes and whimsies) of this newly liberated subject, further suppressing the ‘otherness’ of the object. After all, the subject only becomes liberated through newly advanced techniques of control and ‘repression’: methods and techniques that are the direct result (and expression) of the distancing of the subject. It is important to recall in this respect, that every transformative act – that engages the subject – is in fact a creative act, and, as such, one of artistry. Which is why, as we will see, religion more fully absorbs and reflects its immediate surroundings, its locality, than modernity does – to which it is a precursor. The reason for this is that during this ‘intermediate phase’ of development, man has not yet gained the upper hand. He is still unable to fundamentally transform and control his surroundings. So that, in order to make them more hospitable to human endeavors, he can only hope to ‘bribe the gods’ and ‘meet them halfway’. Religion therefore, represents the first colossal effort by man to come to terms (and grips) with his environment, and to establish some kind of relationship or ‘rapport’ with it, if only to make sense of it all – or to orient himself. All this, of course, by hopelessly inadequate means, and driven in large part by fear. Yet, in an important sense, the values thus created are thoroughly informed by their circumstances and more expressive of man’s needs. Basically it is this ‘respect for the object’ or “attitude to objectivity” (AT, p.3) that Adorno thinks is crucial for us to retain, or re-attain. Not simply to affirm a new or better state of affairs, since by definition “suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject.” Quite the contrary: its aim is to “let suffering speak” for it “is a condition of all truth.” (Negative Dialectics, 1966, p.17-18) In other words, “the primacy of the object” functions both as a whetstone for the mind, in that it keeps us sharp, critical of our conditions – i.e. reflexive – and free. And as a marker, providing us with directions. Thereby protecting us from a potentially devastating blindness. For as we have seen, with the arrival of modernity everything has become extremely malleable and cloaked in our (self-)image, due to technological advances. Slowly turning modernity into a ‘singularity’, or a place where – because of the resultant loss of resistance – things start to lose their meaning and bearing, and eventually run the risk of collapsing in upon themselves. Similar to the tragic myth of Oedipus therefore, ‘Reason’s’ ascendancy or its ‘coming of age’, was only possible at the high prize of self-immolation: i.e. a loss of critical reflection due to a repudiation of its origins. For more information, see footnote 12 on the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” where this Freudian aspect – the hidden cost of self-preservation – is explained in detail. The prescient writings on exoticism by the French poet, surgeon, and interpreter Victor Segalen (1878-1919), may shed additional light on the complexities surrounding modernity and the magnitude of its impact.
May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment
lily van der stokker / money / 1999 / silkscreen print
…& here is the 2nd installment on adorno’s aesthetic theory by reinaert de v. …reinaert de v. writes: “Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery.” this line exemplifies one of adorno’s challenges to place art in a semi-indefinable range of possibility & potential. once we are able to view & think of art as unclosed & “non-identical” & with parts that are essentially “irreducible”, we can then start to see how this leads to adorno’s important concept of “negative dialectics” which unravels the rational closure of hegel’s speculative absolutions & propels us away from the surety of the enlightenment. again, this is unlike the way we commonly think of aesthetics, but where would critical theory be without it?
“Natural beauty is suspended history, a moment of becoming at a standstill. Artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension are those that are justly said to have a feeling for the natural. Yet this feeling is – in spite of every affinity to allegorical interpretation – fleeting to the point of déjà vu and is no doubt all the more compelling for its ephemeralness.” (AT, p.71)
Sentences like these are commonplace when dealing with Theodor W. Adorno. His fragmentary or aphoristic style, combined with a highly cerebral and condensed way of putting things, while often exhilarating, can also be quite daunting at times. Every single sentence seems super charged with meaning and part of a complex circuitry that aims to shock and electrify. With the way themes get introduced and developed, it would not be stretching the truth to say that Adorno – who after all was a musicologist too – ‘composes’ his philosophy. But even though everything is intricately interconnected with everything else, making it very easy to get stuck or lost, one obviously has to start somewhere. So I wish to begin my exposé by unpacking this first cluster of sentences, which I believe is crucial because it lies at the centre of his finely spun web of subtly interwoven layers of meanings. By gently pulling this thread – which I have to admit, is more like a lifeline to me – I hope to get hold of, or make sense of “a voluptuousness for the mind in a train of thought he can never fully unravel…” (AT, p.63)
By defining Natural Beauty as “a moment of becoming at a standstill”, one can almost picture it, and indeed one should ‘picture’ it. Because “artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension” – be it paintings, photos, novels, movies or whatever – are not unlike snapshots of a process. Albeit, a very elusive and peculiar kind of process, one that needs an unwavering eye to capture it, the eye of a true artist. It is by no means by accident that Adorno speaks about “suspended history” in this context, for it is actually human history, or our historical development in relation to nature, as mirrored in art, that is the subject of his aesthetics. Which brings us to the second part of his definition: the affinity of the feeling of momentary suspension to “allegorical interpretation”. On the one hand, and despite this affinity, he contrasts it with allegorical interpretation, due to the ephemeral nature of this feeling. What he means by this, I think, is that through allegorical interpretation meanings have usually become fixed or stabilized, and thereby appropriated. While the affinity he has in mind has to do with allegory’s potential for creating new meaning, which happens when something stands in for something else – or, as happens in nature, when something changes or seems to change into something else. So it is the allegorical intention (AT, p.71) that creates the momentary suspension – a state of reverie – which functions like an opening for an associative or kaleidoscopic process to take hold. Every artwork that successfully captures or duplicates it, basically turns it into a still, or ‘distills’ it, by tapping into but only capturing part of it, because in actuality it is a natural process of recurring and continual change. Thus, while sharing in it, in the end it is a richness the work can merely evoke or allude to. And it is this ephemeral process, which feels like déjà vuthat makes artworks resonate with Natural Beauty.
“According to the canon of universal concepts [Natural Beauty] is undefinable precisely because its own concept has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70)
Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery. Due to nature’s inherent indeterminateness, as being essentially non-human, or something foreign and sealed-off from thought, it makes ascribing a priori statements about what Natural Beauty consists in into a futile enterprise. Nonetheless, without these efforts Natural Beauty as a concept would remain empty and silent – like an empty canvas or a blank screen with nothing to project on. Leading Adorno to conclude that if Natural Beauty is to be sought in anything at all, it must be in the way that natural ‘non-man-made’ things, and those things taken back into nature’s fold, tend to speak to us, or “resonate”. In other words, beauty is to be found in their eloquence (AT, p.70), in that which enables these seemingly random objects to reach out to us, and makes them shimmer as if “luminous from within” (AT, p.70), and appear as “more than what is literally there” (AT, p.71). It is through the spell they cast, binding us to them, that ignoring, or denying their individual worth and uniqueness, becomes impossible. Gaining in voice to the degree that they are foreign, other, new, or left out – in proportion to which they elude us. It is this feature that makes them stand out and that lets us experience them. And yet,
“Without receptivity there would be no such objective expression, but it is not reducible to the subject; natural beauty points to the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71)
Adorno takes great pains to point out there is something, though mediated, that is irreducible in its foreignness and externality, that is doing the talking – albeit, through us. There is a good reason for this, for without what he terms “the primacy of the object”, there would not be any ‘talking’ going on, in fact there would not be anything to convey. There would solely be the subject caught in a gilded self-made cage, built around pleasurable and self-congratulatory feelings. And according to him, such a life, cut off from the outside world, would not simply amount to self-amputation, but eventually end up being, to quote Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” – a fact Adorno believed two World Wars had borne out. Luckily for us, the “objective expression” found in Natural Beauty implies “receptivity” on the part of the subject, for without it there would be nothing to receive, nor any reaction to it. At the same time though, this receptivity should not be taken for granted, because there is a threshold: in order for the object to be received it should not be merely external to the subject but non-identical (AT, p.4) as well. What he means by this, is that through familiarizing ourselves with the world, which at first appeared to us as a chaotic and heterogeneous whole, we not only came to master it by dividing it up – making it more manageable – but we re-created it into our image along the way, expulsing what could not be accommodated. We quite literally ‘subjected’ the world around us, making us lose track of it in the process. In this sense, objects identified as ‘part of this world’ are not really external anymore but have become extensions of the subject, making receptivity – since they would be ‘more of the same’ – superfluous. For the potential to relate implied by receptivity, demands conscious effort on our part. It suggests responsiveness, and a need to grapple with what is ‘outside’. It implies a challenge.
[coming up] more on Natural Beauty and its relationship to Art.
 Since Adorno’s philosophy is essentially about ‘openness’ and the creation of what is wholly new and original. Thinking, especially in the free and undelineated form of an essay – which has a certain artfulness about it – is (his) philosophy put into action, because it is a thought processor an experience in and of itself: a place where the particular and the personal are allowed to speak, where variety and the fragmentary are not shunned.
 “Allegorical interpretation” in this way is closely related to Adorno’s concept of mimesis. Because even though ‘nature’s continual and recurrent change’ speaks of a wealth that man can merely allude and aspire to, it was while being under nature’s mercurial spell – a state of dreamlike reverie – that he was forced to imitate its cruelty and fickleness to stay afloat. And so it is through our original interaction with nature – a complete surrender to the outside – that we absorbed a plethora of forms through which we learned to express and externalize ourselves, thereby gaining an abundance of idioms. In other words, “allegorical interpretation” in this sense, is a kind of imitation without full understanding, that has allowed man to acquire nature’s formal language. “Déjà vu”, however, points to the fact that each expression seems to contain a reference to something else, outside itself, from which it originated and sprouted forth. Given all this, we can conclude that man’s slow but steady progress resembles awakening from an often frightening and fitful sleep; after all, we only become fully conscious of our actions after initiating them.
 There is a subtle dialectic of binding and unbinding at work in “Aesthetic Theory”. Where, if pushed to excess, both nature’s binding and society’s unbinding can blind us – see footnotes 7 and 12 on detachment and survival. It is therefore all about finding the proper balance or critical distance. Even so, both nature and society cast their respective spells, for though we are driven in the arms of society to escape nature’s bonds, we can only hope to resist society’s universal bondage by offsetting it with the unique and particular found in nature. Hence, at first sight art seems to function as Aufhebung of thesis (nature) and antithesis (society), by carrying both to another level. Yet on closer inspection art turns out to be both nature’s and society’s “pure anti-thesis” (AT, p.62), since society is actually the sublimation and adaptation of nature’s drive to domination and objectification. “The song of birds is found beautiful by everyone; no feeling person in whom something of the European tradition survives fails to be moved by the sound of a robin after a rain shower. Yet something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune. With regard to its content, the ambiguity of natural beauty has its origin in mythical ambiguity…” (AT, p.66)
May 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
folkert de jong / chop chair / 2005 / styrofoam, polyurethane & silicone rubber
…this post is the long awaited 1st installment of reinaert de v.’s comments on theodor adorno’s book “aesthetic theory.” adorno’s philosophy might be perceived by some to be difficult & obscure, but reinaert de v. easily brings us to his brilliant & radical ideas with fresh eyes—indeed a way to think of art & aesthetics as ever more then we’ve normally imagined. …& yes, thanks again to reinaert de v. for this fine work. we look forward to learning more.
“In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.”
(G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, 1: 11)
This bold but brilliant statement by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was like a flash of lightning, its legacy, an ominous thunder that has reverberated throughout modernity ever since. In a single stroke Hegel had made it impossible for artists, thinkers, and theorists alike, to approach – or look at – art in the same way as they had done before. Whatever one might think of the statement itself, or of Hegel’s idealist argumentation underpinning it, no one can deny it has set the agenda for generations afterwards, or that art has never been quite the same since. Merely walking around any modern museum today suffices to illustrate that point. Which brings us to “Aesthetic Theory”, Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno’s (1903-1969) masterful meditation on art and society, which opens with the famous first line: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Clearly Adorno, like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) before him, – whom he vociferatedagainst – took Hegel’s challenge to heart, and thereby situated himself firmly in its tradition. And how could he not? After all, the future of art was at stake and even, as we will see, that of modernity itself.
“Aesthetic Theory” (AT, University of Minnesota Press, 1997) is therefore an attempt to meet this challenge head on. For in contrast to Hegel, who simply thinks of history as a stage for Spirit’s inevitable development towards emancipation, Adorno, influenced by two World Wars and the Holocaust, does not share his optimism. Instead Adorno believes that one cannot have a healthy society without art “maintaining its earlier necessity”. Even so, he does subscribe to Hegel’s thesis that art ‘contains the seeds of its own demise’, because as he says: “the revolt of art, teleologically posited in its “attitude to objectivity” toward the historical world, has become a revolt against art: it is futile to prophesy whether art will survive it.” (AT, p.3) The reason for this, however, does not lie in the fulfillment of its historical role as a carrier of Spirit, but in the fact that art is first and foremost a product of history, and as such must have its substance in what lies outside itself: in the constellation of historical forces which at each separate moment brings art, in all its singular splendor, into being. This is why there is nothing about art itself that guarantees its continued existence, and yet it is precisely this fragility – its intrinsic transitoriness (AT, p.3) – that not only helps individualize each historic epoch, giving it its own distinct look and feel , but at the same time grants great works of art their invaluable and irreplaceable uniqueness, and thus makes art, art. Furthermore, the “revolt of art” which follows from its “attitude to objectivity”, shows that true art is not simply a passive ‘registration’ of a historically conditioned state of affairs, but rather a conscious reaction to (or even rebellion against) it. Art, in this way, signifies both society’s capacity for self-awareness as well as its sense of direction and development, and thereby not only mirrors society, but becomes intimately and indissolubly bound up with it – sharing a common fate with it. Which means that, the worrisome ‘disconnect’ between art and society that seems to have occurred with the advent of modernity – as Hegel’s statement clearly illustrates – left society senseless, rudderless and ultimately defenseless, with, as we saw, devastating results for both. Because, according to Adorno, this state of malaise or disorientation, found its climactic conclusion in the unimaginable catastrophes of the 20thcentury.
This “revolt against art” therefore, points towards a reaction that aims to remedy the situation where art seeks to resist man’s tendency to transform the world into his image, i.e. to make art subservient to man’s needs  – which finds its strongest expression in idealist aesthetics (AT, p.14). Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay. I would like to argue, in line with Adorno, that it is in some way thanks to its very success – if one can use such a word in this context – that modernity has grinded to a halt: locking the subject up in itself and cutting it off from the outside world, precisely because the aim of society was to ensure man’s autonomy by releasing him from the bonds of nature. But in doing so, it has caused man to become estranged from his origins, with the result that he no longer knows how to relate to himself, his fellow man, or the world outside him – leaving him disorientated and isolated. And this development, instigated by nature itself, has led to the dire situation art now finds itself in – merely subsisting in its diminished state. At the same time, art also points towards a way out, because in its very structure it embodies that relationship with the outside which we had to sacrifice in order to attain independence from nature. Art, however, contains it in such a way that it does not require us to give up our hard won autonomy, because on a fundamental level, art is our autonomy as put into practice. And so, modernity can only be revitalized by reclaiming via art that connection which had been lost – it would be modernity, albeit in a wholly new and profound way: “artworks recall the theologumenon that in a redeemed world everything would be as it is and yet wholly other.” (AT, p.6) What art speaks of therefore is of a new engagement, but an engagement for its own sake, for the betterment of humanity – and not only for the limited purpose of self-preservation. Perhaps it is a promise art can never fully fulfill, but at least it compels us to action and to start living again.
In the next few weeks we will be taking a closer look at this alternative approach to aesthetics.
 See in this context also “The Rise of Modernity, part II”for the many similarities with Charles Baudelaire’s conception of beauty.
 ”The revolt of art [against art]” is a direct consequence of man’s growing influence and control over his environment, which led him – almost unconsciously – to transform and suffuse it in accordance with his needs and desires. A process at first abetted by art since it coincides with man’s (drive to) freedom and autonomy, as well as his artifice. But this newly arranged and artificial environment – molded into man’s image – becomes the new “objectivity” against which art has to rebel in order for it – and man – to remain free. For it is through art that man regains control and the freedom to shape himself. You could therefore say that art functions as a dialectical motor, which mirrors nature in its continued demand for change and growth – for what is dead is petrified. Another way to keep this motor running, as we will see, is that art never fully matches up with our idea of nature – nor does nature for that matter.
October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
Dear Reinaert de V.,
…it’s been so long reading a post from you (The Rise of Modernity, Part 1) & now together we’re back continuing to think & write about philosophy again. I feel that your philosophical interests are akin to my own, with obvious variance here & there. Yet, as our ideas have converged before, we’ve overcome our differences & now I’m struggling to recall who brought up G.W.F. Hegel first. I think it was you who about a year ago spoke of writing on his aesthetics & that inspired me to read & then write on his Phenomenology of Spirit—followed by looking & writing a little on his Aesthetics. Part of my interest also came to the fore while researching, reading & writing about Althusser’s ideology. Althusser openly rejected Hegel, since whole aspects of Hegel’s metaphysical ‘excesses’ were sloughed-off by late Marxist materialism. Let it be known that the more I found Hegel’s thought to be reviled by nineteenth & twentieth century thinkers, the more I wanted to embrace him. With this said, I’m not of the mind to simultaneously let go of Althusser & the others, as I see that this impulse is too narrow-minded & not inclusive, nor wide ranging enough to adequately engage philosophers that are of opposing views.
I needed to know what Hegel was all about & I wanted to try to grasp this imposing figure, who has always represented a special kind of insurmountable thinking. The only obstruction I discovered had to be overcome in my own mind. The resolve had to do with the work it takes to climb the rocks & to prepare for the inevitable confrontation with a failure to comprehend & to then re-read & to then strive for his kind of knowing that always includes the discomfort of not knowing. This continual task of re-reading is itself a kind of knowing. The conscious acquisition of knowledge has to confront what it doesn’t know in order to learn & then know better then it did before. Our eventual goals to know can be held alongside Hegel’s rushing toward absolute knowledge, absolute idea & absolute spirit, all of this is with the knowledge that philosophy should help us to be more capable of getting set on this journey of knowing & with the admission that this philosophical path is also Hegel’s way to absolute knowledge, that will include self-knowing & as a way to know the world as without the typical constraints that divide subject & object—as a pure unified knowing, that we’ll never truly know altogether.
Of course, we’ll be forced to see this drive to know & to know Hegel as fraught with many frustrations & these frustrations are often mistaken as flaws with Hegel’s un/intended obscurity. I’ve decided to think of the pain felt with these obscurities as a way of confronting & comprehending the dialectic & more specifically coming to terms with the central pivot of the dialectic, known as the sublation, the aufheben. This is noticed after the very beginning of any presuppositionless sense apprehension that is being & nothing sublated, then becoming thought & that could become a moment of conceptual thinking—this process of spirit coming to know is sometimes lovingly referred to by Hegel as a way to science (we’d be good to think of this too as thinking that’s onward to philosophical conceptualization & idea). Aufheben is a unique German word that roughly means to bring up, as well as to preserve & also to cancel out, to do away with, perhaps to bring back again. I like to think of the word as a reconciliation. This strange self-contradicting word: aufheben—which for Fichte & our usual understanding of Hegel’s dialectic—is defined as the contradiction &/or the antithesis. It can then be thought of as related to the fundamental negation within Hegel’s dialectic. Another word we can’t ignore here is speculation, or the speculative, which is certainly linked to the above mentioned word as a reconciliation that happens within the aufheben. The speculative is a reconciling of oppositions that thereby brings things, concepts, ideas, problems, philosophy &c. into the whole of the absolute, all in the name of the Hegelian dialectic. I’m sure Hegel thought of the whole of his philosophy as speculative, which again underscores the word aufheben. In short, we have to pass through, push down, bring up, & preserve the aufheben to really know Hegel.
From this initial confrontation of mine & back to the actual point of simply thanking you for your interest in Hegel, we’re drawn to a conclusion that when we sit down to study Hegel, to think about Hegel & then to sometimes reject Hegel, we’d be amiss to not take notice of the dialectical & speculative logic he laid for out us. This urges us to take notice of how he could’ve predicted his own negations, his potential demise, whereby the absolute spirit of our contemporary way of knowing has included & possibly grown out of this foreboding presence known as Hegel’s philosophy. This way of thinking about the dialectic includes his own speculative end, but never an end absolutely, as any ending has to include Hegel coming before us. We must not confuse this with the potential to lead us nowhere, since we can remember that his telos leads us to a transformation of the whole that once was, to the whole that can be & that won’t be overlooked as brought forward by Hegel.
It’s with friendly admiration that I’m happy to say you’ve done fine work to continue Hegel’s concepts into a fresh now. It’s worth noting that whenever we focus on a specific idea of Hegel’s ideal, we must not lose sight of how this transfers to the bigger picture of his entire oeuvre (the absolute). You have looked at the aesthetics of Hegel, citing passages form his Lectures on Aesthetics & I couldn’t help but thinking that your selections sound very much like his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. For example you write: “Thus the enlightened individual is able to move about freely & realize himself fully by partaking of the substantiality that is the state & thereby becoming more than what was his own.” When we compare this statement of yours to one found in Hegel’s Philosophy of History, we are reminded that the individual is fully actualized (as you indicated) in the state: “The worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect & represent the national spirit…” But, perhaps this is not in a totalitarian way, as the individual is realized within the a state of mutual freedom with other individuals. These other individuals are allowed their differences & particularities as features of their freedom, since this freedom is not really about the impulsive free reign of desires. When we continue moving from this idea that the individual is actualized in a state—a state of freedom with others—we come to the thought that you point to that directly echoes Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” … reading this next Hegel’s statement from the Philosophy of History shows a distinct similarity: “The individual can certainly make the state into a means of attaining this or that end. But the truth is realized only insofar as each individual wills the universal cause itself and has discarded all that is inessential.”
As you already know, what we’re talking about is spirit, absolute spirit. The realization of reason is universal & it is spirit as the realization of the idea. The spirit is a determination of the self as it is also a determination of science, religion, knowledge & art. The goals of history, its telos is reason & it is the idea as it’s manifested via the spirit of man as an individual & as a collective. All of this can be thought as the expression of freedom. The objects of thought are what spirit contemplates as consciousness. Freedom is not something that the spirit merely strives for, it is also contained in the basic structure of thought as it knows itself in a self-determined way & not in a pre-ordained, deterministic way. The limitations of the world are what cause our own determinations to become what we are. It is the idea that becomes a goal for the knowing subject, the idea where the concepts of subject & object become sublated, a kind of pure knowing to eventually be without the subjective/objective distinction, the two are conflated as a free idea. There are seeming contradictions that arise from the idea that man is free, while he’s also confined to the rules of the state. Hegel addresses this in the Philosophy of History: “The concept of freedom is such that justice & ethical life are inseparable from it…” & later in the same paragraph we find the conclusion: “…such restrictions [of the state, laws, government &c.] are the indispensible conditions of liberation; society & the state are the only situations in which freedom can be realized.” It has become evident that Hegel’s thought was consistent throughout the Aesthetics, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Right & many other places. What I find intriguing is that while you outline the details of how you read his Aesthetics, absolute spirit emerges, in the way it manifests itself through the individual & how it includes the expression of man’s spirit, freedom & idea that are communicated into art & also into world history.
We already know that Hegel designates in the Aesthetics that philosophy supersedes the arts & just about everything else. Thus creating a kind of philosophical bird’s-eye-view where Hegel can then look to the pattern of how art has expressed itself in a religious context & that this religious context for art has passed. The apogee of art as a religious expression has been superseded by ‘lesser’ ideals. In the introduction of Hegel’s Aesthetics we find this put in Hegel’s words: “We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine & worshipping them.” & in a couple of sentences later we find: “…art, considered in its highest vocation, is & remains a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth & life & it has been rather transferred into our ideas…” What’s of note here is that “art’s imminent demise” (as you put it) is also due to this observation of Hegel’s that’s brought together with an implication that the individual is sublimated into the apparatus of the state & that this is a condition of art’s demise as it stand today. I believe that this can be maintained, while at the same time retaining & integrating an idea of an art that values thought, conceptualization & reflection.
Little did Hegel know that this would hold true & we’ll be sure to include the all-important ‘concept/idea’ as the driving force behind much of art created recently. As vital as concept is for Hegel’s philosophy, it is also just as intrinsic for a comprehension of artistic practice today. Once religion took ultimate precedence & now it’s thought, reflection, idea & concept. Hegel wasn’t too far off, especially if we consider this within the dialectic, whereby we can see that the self-negation of art has been happening over & over, throughout most of the 20th century (continuing into the 21st). The so-called death of art as a practice & theory has been a (now stale) recurring theme for decades now, yet artistic practice continues to negate itself & to push man’s spirit onward. Art occupies a curious place in today’s world & in that bizarre presentation we’ll see it as a glaring reflection of our own thought, questioning, pain & suffering. Our own pain is addressed in ways that make art appear to be too honest, too brutal. These confrontations are certainly the aufheben for us to bring a fresh re-reading into the world as a free expression of where we’re at in our world, in our spirit, in our minds & universally. We are called upon to conceptualize ourselves thinking about an art that struggles a great deal to let it self be known, as much as we are placed with the responsibility of knowing ourselves how to comprehend just a bit more of it than we did yesterday, till tomorrow places us within a new challenge to think of art again & to not know what we’ll eventually never know absolutely. Hegel leaves us with known & unknown pieces of his wisdom to carry on with the work of thinking that will observe the beauty of striving to know something/someone once more.
Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics, Lectures on Fine Art Vol. 1. Trans. T.M. Knox. New York: Oxford U. Press. 1975. print.
Hegel, G.W.F. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction. Trans H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press. 1975. print.
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Trans. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1993. print.
Magee, Glen Alexander. The Hegel Dictionary. New York: Continuum Pubs. 2010. print.
February 11, 2010 § 4 Comments
Richard Tuttle “Section IV, Extension A.”, 2007
mixed media 7 1/4″ x 3″ x 4″
(…continuation from Reinaert de V.’s comments on the previous post)
Dear Reinaert de V.,
Thank you for the additional reply. I love that you brought these thinkers to me with more of your nice conversation/dialogue.
The frustration I have, is that Luigi Pareyson is not translated enough to find much written in English, of (or on) his philosophy. I did locate Umberto Eco’s The Open Work, that includes a nice chapter on (his former teacher) Pareyson.
So, between you & Eco, I’ve had to piece together this little understanding of the philosopher’s work.
I can see that Pareyson was an existentialist who dealt with themes of liberty, ontology & aesthetics from a hermeneutical (perhaps even a phenomenological) perspective. The hermeneutical nature of his theory of “form” helps to bring even more of a refinement to the/your overall discussion of art & art appreciation (while not excluding larger questions on the nature of objects, ideas, creation, expression, work &c.). His particular way of interpreting the way we see, consider & understand “form” as more of a universal expression (of not only the arts, but) of all human endeavor—is breathtaking. If we start to see “form” as a kind of window into the human spirit, then we can take the liberty to face (engage & challenge) our intrinsic suffering–hence: my suffering is palliated by active aesthetic appreciation/questioning.
What if we really could look at objects of art as less recalcitrant objects that refuse interpretation? Pareyson seems to suggest, the art-object (& it’s “form”) fully contains the physical manifestation of that artist’s life &/or spirit. Then if we see what is at work (in this frame of mind), then we can start to transfer this from an aesthetic study, to our everyday life, that is, how does: FORM + SPIRIT = LIFE? How does this “form” in-form our life? It seems that when one engages this kind of question we could possibly have a fuller (& Pareysonian) interaction with the world around us, particularly the man-made world. It’s with this notion that we can have a great appreciation for work in all its forms.
The form I create now is the truest expression of me at this moment.
When thinking & trying to understand Pareyson’s ideas I can’t help but think of Richard Tuttle’s wonderful art. Let me know if you agree with what I mean. Tuttle’s work always appears to be asking: “what is this–what am I?” Because his art objects “look” to be of such little effort, one instantly wants to have it validated, to give or impose a meaning onto the strange object. We’ve never seen such an odd little object. We automatically question its form (its right to exist). It might be within this bewilderment that (as we’ve discussed) we see shades of Lyotard’s sublime, but also we start to see Pareyson’s “forms” (formativity?) too. Tuttle had to make any number of decisions, changes, revisions, selections & whatever else, to produce any of his quirky little objects, hence a segment of his life is embedded within each object, and in fact we’ll call it a Richard Tuttle! That art object is a Richard Tuttle. What does that say about his life & the culture that produced him? Tuttle’s artwork represents existential-liberty, a liberty as a consequence of existence to make such an odd expression, a freedom to have such a tiny gesture, a stubborn, whispering object & in this simple form. The artwork is intrinsically linked with Tuttle’s life & ours, as bizarre as that may sound, since we are not separate from “form,” in all its infinite manifestations (& interpretations).
All of this is sidestepping (or at least not mentioning) what I see as the presence phenomenology in Pareyson’s thought. We already know that he has a background in the discipline & as you deftly draw-out a Pareysian similarity to Kant & his ideas on the noumena (or the thing-in-itself – ding an sich). This concept of Kant’s is tied up with phenomena (things as we perceive them). What is striking to me, is how much this feels like an incipient thread of phenomenology, where the way things appear & the things in & of themselves are of critical (indeed central) importance when doing phenomenological research. Remember Husserl’s famous dictum: “Go to the things themselves.”
What I’d like to know is how Kant’s ideas on phenomena/noumena are looked at now, in the light of phenomenology now? Also within these ideas, we see Pareyson urging us to experience the form in the fullest way possible (beyond science or beyond physics). The world (& its creative forms) around us is not separate from our way of perceiving it (according to phenomenology). The objective & the subjective modes of experience are made to join. The way we intend an object, the way it is given to us is not a simple object vs. mind problem, rather the way we perceive & understand the objects around us has everything to do with understanding perception, memory, experience, understanding &c. This all appears to be linked to Pareyson’s view of “form.” Form seen in this way is the fertile ground on which we can examine our own minds at work. Form as work in the world put under the lens of a hermeneutical-phenomenology (a way of interpreting how the world presents itself to our consciousness). How explicitly Pareyson really embraced this assumed phenomenological reading is unclear to me now.
“Interpretation is a form of knowing in which receptivity & activity are inseparable & where the known is a form & the knower a person.” –Luigi Pareyson
Your comments are always welcome!
January 25, 2010 § 8 Comments
(click on image to enlarge)
This additional dialogue was brought to be after I wrote the post Thantic Modernism. This was a short critique on the work of the Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl & his explorations of modern art. I also brought in some quotes of the philosopher Jean Baudrillard because of the philosopher’s ideas on “the end of history.” Baudrillard proposed an idea that society is doomed to continuously repeat & rehash the end, over & over, as with our pre-millennial paranoia, the (so-called) coming apocalypse, the (ostensible) death of painting, the (forecasting of a future) death of the novel, the end of modernism & so on. This idea of Baudrillard’s might be seen as the end of Enlightenment ideals, the end of a rational progress, the end of a rational ideal that sees history as linear. He also famously spoke of the “simulacra” (which is a consequence of the illusory end of history), as a phenomenon that replaced our notions of the real with the media-saturated image of what is “real.” The real (as Baudrillard saw it) is no longer real, rather it’s a simulacra of reality, or it’s hyper-real (more real than real). I wanted to connect Pumhösl’s art to this because it seemed that his project is primarily concerned with looking-back, repetition, re-visioning & revising modernism (“modernologies” as he has it).
My friend Reinaert de V. dropped by to comment & brought in Jean-François Lyotard, of whom I was aware of, but unable to speak of, since I hadn’t read much of his work. Now thanks to Reinaert de V.’s wonderful comments, I’m brought close to Lyotard’s thoughts & ideas. Reinaert de V. also posted this commentary on his blog.
As I later learned, Lyotard was well known for attempting to do-away with “meta-narratives” or the “grand-narratives.” Basically these are “rationalistic” leftovers, such as the idea that reason rules everything, or that we’re all moving toward progress, ad infinitum (which is slightly reflected in Baudrillard’s ideas). What we’re left with, is post modernism— & at the end of the meta-narrative.
Reinaert de V. also introduced me to Lyotard’s notion of the sublime. Lyotard borrows Kant’s sublime & updates it to mean something much more than Kant intended, thereby connecting a Kantian idea to his post-modern theory. The sublime in Lyotard’s hand helps us to see the un-representable, the unknown, that which cannot be expressed with words. When modern art approaches this sublime, Lyotard calls it the post-modern.
Of course, Reinaert de V. does a much better job elaborating on Lyotard’s idea/s & that’s why I’ve decided to post this additional exchange, sharing with you this important concept of the sublime (& much more), which I believe might help to understand better the difficult terrain of modern & contemporary art—now, then & into the future.
Where would I be, if not for the following comments by Reinaert de V.? Here are our Thantic Modernism comments:
Reinaert de V.: Nice work, I love the sentence: “[...] we learn to understand that a contemporary art of the NOW, is simply a thing of the past–gone to be revitalized later.”
It’s an interesting article, because F. Lyotard actually sees the Postmodern as a moment that comes before the Modern, and makes it possible. Lyotard describes this sublime moment in Postmodernism as disrupting the tranquility of representational art, by ‘not saying anything’, but just ‘being there’. He saw the Avant Garde movement as representing that moment…
According to Lyotard, Modernism basically capitalized on the inherent plenipotentiary of the sublime, by crafting a new Grand Narrative ‘on top of it’. But the way I see it, the Modern and the Postmodern need each other, and feed of each other. This follows from what J. Baudrillard writes: “When everything can be seen, nothing can be seen anymore. What is there beyond the end?”
Even though Modernism ‘transgressed’ the postmodern moment, by smoothing over what can’t be (understood). This transgression actually harnesses the energy of that moment – or else it dissipates. Clearly Baudrillard’s statement gives demonstration of this dissipation. The momentum is gone and we awaken in the desert of the so-called real: “When everything can be seen, nothing can be seen anymore.”
But it also shows Grand Narratives always tend to creep back in, under-cover, because his statement indicates we now supposedly understand and ’see everything’. This can only mean we’re caught in a new (commodified) web of meaning and Truth. It shows we’re a long way away from that sublime moment which beckoned us to make a leap…
Aurelio: Can you explain the detail on Lyotard’s notion of post-modern as “before” the modern? I understand what you’ve outlined in terms of his anti-meta-narrative as self-contradictory &c.
Reinaert de V.: Lyotard’s thinking isn’t only postmodern but also has many neo-Kantian elements within it. For example, in his aesthetic theory, Lyotard has revived Kant’s theory of the beautiful and the sublime, and made it his own. That’s what I meant in the comment above, when I mentioned the ‘sublime’ of the ‘postmodern moment’. I’ll explain in some detail below.
According to Kant’s theory of aesthetics, a judgment of taste depends on the ‘free play of our cognitive faculties’. All rational beings are capable of cognition, which requires the connectibility of two faculties: Imagination (to gather together the manifold of sense-intuition) and Understanding (to unify these representations by means of concepts). Particular acts of cognition involve the connection of particular representations to particular concepts. But these acts presuppose an indeterminate general relationship – an underlying harmony of the two faculties. Put (too) simply: Beauty produces a spontaneous harmony, without being tied to anything particular. The sublime in contrast means disharmony between the two faculties, because it is aroused by objects that seem “as it were to do violence to the imagination”. They are characterized by a boundlessness that exceeds any form. The judgment of absolute greatness is non-conceptual and non-cognitive. Nothing observed by the senses permits this description, only something within: The Ideas of Reason (Vernunft), which reach beyond all possible experience…
So for Lyotard the sublime refers to the emancipation of art from both the classical role of imitation (mimesis) and the canon of the beautiful. The art object no longer bends itself to models and no longer testifies to a truth that can be conceptualized. Thus the role of (true) art should be to critique the social, and the idea of unity and communicability (of unproblematic accessibility). Speaking like a Marxist here, he thinks it should expose the inherent disharmony within social life, between the individual and society, and give witness to the unrepresentability of the Idea of ‘reality’ – so as to release the manifold of ideas. If instead, art tries to give consolation by way of establishing a sense of harmony and transparency in its use of form, it runs the danger of becoming mere propaganda. When this happens it becomes a tool in the service of something else, as has happened with ‘Social Realist’ art in Communist Russia.
Lyotard saw the Avant-Garde movement, at the beginning of the 20th century, as championing the sublime. Its exponents were no longer interested in faithfully representing (and so reproducing) ‘reality,’ instead, it was much more like an ongoing search, and an experimentation of the non-figurative kind. Even though some (like Proust and Chirico) kept a nostalgic longing for a lost unity in their work, others (like Cézanne, Delaunay, Duchamp, Mondrian, and Joyce) went all the way in their celebration of this ‘disconnection’ and farewell to form.
Now, Lyotard claims, that the Postmodern when it comes to art, is that sublime moment within modernity which reveals the limits of representation, but which denies itself the consolation found in the beauty of form. Put differently: It is a search for the limits of our imagination through representation, and exposing this lack in all its terrifying glory! But this radical and original artistic impulse (the full potential of art) gets silenced by modernity through the reestablishment of the rules of form: The dictates of Beauty, if you will. Curbing, or checking this freedom of art and imagination, which by its very unrestrained nature must necessarily precede modernity and makes it possible. These ‘super-imposed’ strictures simultaneously sooth our anxiety in the face of such ‘radical freedom’ – which is a recurrent theme in Existentialist philosophy as well.
Aurelio: …nice of you to follow-up with your additional insight.
“…says Lyotard, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism at its end but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the un-presentable, ‘and this state is constant’. The postmodern, then, is a repetition of the modern as the ‘new,’ and this means the ever-new demand for another repetition.”
I’ve found the above quote from the postmodernism entry at Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia. It also answers my question (in addition to your fine explication) on how Lyotard saw the relationship between the modern & the postmodern. Apparently the two are differentiated by the sublime (de-void of the omnipresent meta-narrative). The sublime as addressing the un-presentable (&c.), (I’ll call it an enigma, or even a kind of Buddhist Myo , generally meaning: essential mystery). T/his idea of the sublime is very useful with regard to works of cutting-edge art nowadays, with all its “difficulty,” its resistance & its unforgiving opacity.
The trouble I was having, had to do with thinking of the idea of the Postmodern as preceding the Modern. The issue might be resolved when we let go of this as chronological & place it in a Lyotard’s terms. Conversely, it is worth noting that Lyotard does use Burke & Kant’s 18th century sublime to address the Postmodern & this might lean toward a chronological perspective after all. The Enlightenment (sublime) was more Postmodern than the Modern (re: Lyotard)?
Reinaert de V.: Yes, your quote perfectly captures the essence of Lyotard’s thought in this regard. You’re also right in your comment about the chronology. Lyotard speaking as a Hegelian-Marxist has a teleological view of history, but with all such views there must be an underlying ahistorical principle. A dynamic principle that finds its development within history. It is no surprise we come across that hidden principle in his aesthetic theory, where the chronological view of history is suddenly transformed into an ahistorical one. Since art, being closely related to religion, simply takes the place of the former – which has been left officially dead and buried since Nietzsche. About your remark about the Enlightenment, you might also be right. Not in the sense of a ‘chronology’, but about it being the proper postmodern moment in Lyotard’s sense of the term, or start of the modern movement.
With all the foregoing in mind, I’d like to end by briefly returning to the project of the artist as described above. For I don’t think Lyotard would describe this art as properly postmodernist as he understood the term. Take for example the sentence: “This new art is a memorial to an idealized time gone by, now perhaps, with an unrecognized hum of nostalgia.” This clearly shows the nostalgia Lyotard accuses some modern artist of harboring when it comes to their hesitant use of the sublime. A nostalgia for an unproblematic, but unreachable – because forever lost – sense of Unity (Transcendental Totality). While the true (post)modern artist, according to Lyotard, celebrates the fracture of ‘reality’, so as to release form from its formal constraints.
Of course Lyotard doesn’t approve of Baudrillard’s commodified world, where everything is obscene and superficial, a mere play of form in the service of commerce. Where signs stop referring and become self-referential objectified commodities themselves (read: simulacra). He does want to keep (true) art focused on this inherently broken nature of modernity: the Anxiety of the Un-presentable. The fracture at the heart of modernity that keeps the engine going (forever renewing itself). But he does want them to stop longing and start accepting!
Pumhösl’s art, in this respect – apart from the question of the inherent value of his work as objective visual artifacts – is clearly a step backwards, because his whole project is about a sense of loss, namely: the nostalgia Lyotard is speaking about… You could argue Pumhösl thematizes time itself or the problematic of memory & history etc, but he does it in a way that betrays the bankruptcy of the so-called ‘postmodern’ art of today. To put it differently: postmodern art seems to me to be all out of Ideas: it can only look back, in an “endless proliferation, or “necro-spective” of the past”. And this is what I meant with dissipation: by not properly harnessing the energy of the sublime, as modernity did, art ultimately fell victim to big money (as Baudrillard clearly shows). For in the end art was left defenseless, not able to retreat any further, because all the big Ideas had been systematically shot down. The last of which was Lyotard’s very own: the Existentialist Heroic Confrontation with a Constant Crisis (Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus”), which simply wears you down…
“Instead of first existing, works of art now go straight into the museum. Instead of being born & dying, they are born as virtual fossils.” Indeed, this is not something we should be celebrating, but a sad statement of fact. We simply have no idea anymore what to put on display.
Aurelio: What another incredible reply you’ve written!
Once you present the idea that Lyotard might be coming to this with an ahistorical perspective, you contextualize for me, the notion that postmodern thought reflects an enlightenment sublime—re: a neo-Kantian Lyotard.
When I set out to write this post, I wanted to write about art now, 2009. Pumhösl’s name arrived in a recent review in Artforum & I thought I’d write about his interesting project. I started to look at how his art was a gesture of looking back &c. I then thought to connect the art with the philosophy of Baudrillard & perhaps Lyotard. Baudrillard seemed a good fit, since he spoke of the “end of history” & its illusions of “the end.” I couldn’t on the other hand, tie in Lyotard because it seemed out of balance & because I don’t have enough Lyotard’s ideas within reach (I’m brought closer, now thanks to you). So, Baudrillard was workable. Needless to say, writing about art of today caused a looking back, which could not be avoided or overlooked. I was looking at time & how it reverberated through this art.
That Pumhösl is (a) post-modernist is anyone’s guess. If you go into the Modernoloigies link that I’ve provided at the end of the post (which was an exhibit by the same name in Barcelona). Pumhösl has a podcast on his work in the exhibition. Oddly enough, I don’t think he mentions of the term post-modern—he only calls his art post-conceptual. The introductory notes for the exhibit write that artists in the show are now looking to how “Modernism attempted to illustrate the experiences and ramifications of modernity in artistic forms – and in undertaking this project it was almost post-modern.” I feel the show almost had a certain shyness around the term (post modern). Perhaps it is simply out of fashion. I tried to use the term reluctantly, knowing that again, Pumhösl never uses the term post-modern. From there, we’re left outside of the term.
Now, the way that you have found to bring Lyotard in, is just right, you felt his influence lingering in the ideas.
As for the nostalgia, we shouldn’t say that Pumhösl uses this as a motif–this was my interpretation of his work. His work is about remembering & with that, I feel nostalgia is not too far away. This is why I thought his art wasn’t cynical enough to bypass a slight feeling of nostalgia. However, your term (Transcendental Totality) seems to get very close to the vision of modernism as Utopian & this brings us closer to an issue Pumhösl might/would agree with. Basically looking at how the project of Modernism was over-idealistic &c. all presented in his typically dead-pan way.
Also, the last parts of your reply get to a problem with contemporary art (since the use of the word post-modern is in question) & its exhaustion of ideas. This is the core of what I’m trying to point to in the post. There are so many examples of this exhaustion in the art-world (I’ll spare you a list), I mean a sort of spiritual exhaustion that’s very close to the feelings & anxiety Baudrillard describes. Believe it or not, I’m not sure one should be too disappointed with art that is like this. If we say that art is a reflection of ourselves & that art is spiritually bereft, it is safe to say society is somewhat spiritually bereft. This observation is not new & we know this, but do we admit it to ourselves, when we look at art? Do we, allow art to be spiritually bereft, especially if it can nudge us to consider our lives & our own problems. This is part of its value. It is an expression of our condition—as mournful as it is.
…& to question all this again, I’ve found this quote:
“There shall be no mourning” (il n’y aura pas de deuil) –Jean-François Lyotard
Reinaert de V.: I am in absolute agreement with your comment above, and I find your defense of Pumhösl more than fair.
I’ve to be honest: it was your post that first gave me an impression of his work, so shame on me for criticizing it in arm-chair-fashion But on a more serious note, this is an illustration of what you might call the general problem of ‘Art versus Art Philosophy’. They both exist and operate in a dialectical fashion. Art Philosophy always tries to analyze and orientate itself according to particular works of art and artist, that it sees as representing a certain way of experiencing or thinking about the world. Even though the particular artists in question might sincerely disagree with the labels they might get, claiming they didn’t have any such intention, or that their work shouldn’t be read that way but in a certain other way etc. Those are fair points to make, and they’re free to argue so, but for the art philosopher those objections are basically beside the point. The artwork simply exist out there as an artifact, free to be interpreted any which way that seems to fit. Of course there should be argumentation and explication, but an artwork does exist in a context and in that sense it is a certain expression or comment on that context. Of course artists in their turn, make use and comment on those theories and philosophies (that influence art and society) in their artworks, hence the dialectic.
To tie it all back to Mr. Pumhösl and your excellent piece on his work. He might very well not be – or consider himself not to be – a postmodernist, I leave that up to him. But I was responding on the postmodern context he’s placed in, and how could he not be? We still live to an important extent in the ‘postmodern condition’ and he’s responding to his times, like you rightly point out.
I see my role as art philosopher to struggle with the theory surrounding art, and of course the struggle of theorizing about art itself. I don’t do this (only) for fun, but because art calls out for interpretation. They are ‘artifacts’, or man-made creations that, because of that fact, express something about “man” who made it and the society it was made in. After all, in the creation of an object, all sorts of ‘decisions’ have been made and those imply intelligibility. Art in this sense is simply a more fundamental mode of communication to me – one that reaches beyond language. This doesn’t mean my reading is the final reading, but that I should make my reading as persuasive as possible by taking as much into account as possible and bring it all to some kind of synthesis – that is: including reasonable views that differ from mine.
Well, I’m glad we agree on the spiritual exhaustion bit, but many out there would still disagree, or remain too attached to the ideas that make this exhaustion a fact. What I mean, is that postmodern theory as it has developed, is the main culprit for the critical state art finds itself in. I’m not altogether against postmodern theory, but when you look at what it has to say about art it won’t make you a happy camper. In fact, postmodernists content the very term ‘art’ not to mention their outright hostility towards the museum as an institution… To me postmodern art is a highly conceptualized form of ‘art’ where academics or theory seems to come first, and art a distant and pale second. I won’t go into all of that here, cuz it will take way too long to substantiate, but I’ll be writing on that somewhere else soon. In the sense that this ’spiritual exhaustion is an expression of our condition’ we should of course put every effort in changing that (postmodern) condition, and that means analyzing what it means and how it can be changed, if at all…
Aurelio: I agree with your point on the dialectical nature of the (Pumhösl’s) art objects as artifacts to philosophize over. I also agree that this is an aspect of a possible dialectical relationship we decide to have with the artifact/s, aside from the issue of whether Pumhösl positions himself (& his practice) as a post-modernist. After all, it is surprising that he seems to have this hesitancy with the term. As I’ve alluded to already, the term post modern (in contemporary art practice, criticism & writing) has fallen out of currency. It is not clear to me why this is. Perhaps it is simply no longer fashionable. The term nowadays has a kind of negative connotation that implies a sort of academic posturing &/or affected pretense. Please, please don’t get me wrong, we ignore the term at our own peril, since as you have so concisely illustrated, the term is very useful, especially when it brought closer to its main philosophical advocates, Baudrillard & Lyotard.
As for philosophy & art writing, I’ve come across an issue of the art magazine “frieze,” where Jörg Heiser writes on some of the problems of this combination (art & theory). In it he addresses & questions how art & philosophy are in conflict. He also looks at how philosophers like Baudrillard & Lyotard have been aligned with the moody & often hard to pin-down art world.
I’d like to also thank you for presenting Lyotard’s ideas on the sublime in aesthetics. Any diligent reader should learn something from your excellent explications of the philosophy. That the sublime in art can bring us closer to understanding fracture, confusion, un-reason, impossibility & the un-representable, is key to having a better understanding of art today.
I am looking forward to reading anymore of your aesthetics & philosophy. From what I can see you are in Amsterdam which has plenty of cutting-edge art to think about & experience.
Please continue…the future is bright!
Reinaert de V.: First off, I don’t mind if you have a negative (or positive) opinion about postmodernism, since everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion. My own feelings on postmodern philosophy are very ambiguous… So feel free to write whatever you like. In fact the more honest the better! In the ‘arena of ideas’ the most valid will (hopefully) win out in the end, and of course that ‘ideological battle’ will ultimately be won with the soundest arguments. Anyways, the points I wanted to clear up had to do with the ‘chronology’ or ‘ahistorical perspective’ of Lyotard’s ideas on the sublime and a ‘nascent postmodern moment’.
I was perhaps a bit to hasty in my analysis on that point, by ‘explaining it away’ as a hidden Hegelian-Marxist principle working in the background of his philosophy. I think, his idea of post-modernity as a moment that is closely linked to the modern, is in fact one I would subscribe to and find very illuminating (even though I don’t agree with every thing he says). The Enlightenment was in a sense the ‘postmodern moment’, I think (even though Lyotard himself clearly restricts this notion to art only, not society). Not only was it the birth of modernity, but as such it was a highly creative and liberating moment in western history. Of course Burke and Kant’s “sublime” were in important aspects very different from Lyotard’s use of the term, but Kant did furnish the conceptual basis for it (more so than Burke). Secondly, Lyotard as I read him clearly illustrates the close symbiotic link between modernity and post-modernity as being two sides of the same coin. Like I tried to show in the beginning, I think his mistake is in discarding the modern as being a mere fossil of a dynamic postmodern principle. My idea is perhaps closer to Kant’s original idea, because I think the one needs the other. You can’t have pure ‘postmodernity’ (in Lyotard’s sense) or just fossilized ‘modernity,’ instead they should be working in tandem!
A useful (Kantian inspired) aesthetic theory by Luigi Pareyson’s will demonstrate what I mean by this. He makes a distinction between forma formata and forma formante, or ‘formed form’ and ‘forming form’. According to Pareyson when judging a work of art you can’t make use of any ‘given’ criteria. Instead the work of art should be able to be judged according to it’s own form, it’s forma formata so to speak, or to put it differently: the rule that’s incapsulated in its objective form, that ‘informs’ its form. But also, we shouldn’t exclude criteria external to the work of art, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to explain why (or how) the artist decided to alter or change aspects of the work during the creative process. This is a dialectical process similar to the problem of ‘art vs art philosophy’, I mentioned above. Society influences (both directly and indirectly) the creative process of the artist and thus the created artwork, but once the work of art is created and ‘out there’ it exists in opposition to society and because of that fact – and its social origin – it is able to ’speak’ to society indirectly (also because it’s a ‘useless’ object). This is the forma formante, and also an important idea in Adorno’s aesthetic theory. In both cases, the work of art falls under a rule that it established by its very creation, even there where it becomes something it ‘didn’t want to be’.
Coming back to the relationship between modernity and postmodernity: I think their relationship should be viewed along similar lines. First, with the establishment with modernity the influence of religion and tradition falls away, so to the ‘givenness’ of things. Humanity no longer has a direct line to the ‘things in themselves’ but is from then on fundamentally cut off (from the cosmos). Reason was now confronted with a blind uncaring, and ultimately absurd – because inhuman – outside world (beginning of psychology). This process of secularization or de-sacralization – which led to an endless (analytical) fragmentation of everything – has been slow and painful, but the decisive blow fell with the Enlightenment. Well, the “split” Lyotard mentions and posits in ’sublime of the postmodern moment’, is basically a process of alienation. Even though artworks ‘liberated’ themselves in one sense (mainly from the ‘referrent’) and becoming everything they wanted to be, they also ran the risk – by that very fact – of becoming nothing (meaningful) at all. Since in essence art’s ‘unconscious’ rebellion was against meaning; that is against making sense of the whole, by being dominated by the ‘referrent’ (or referring to something outside of itself = meaning), thus freeing the ‘object’ of art.
So modern art is a very complicated and unique phenomenon to say the least, but not a very healthy one… Lyotard is of course right in signaling that this tension or split, is a huge source of creative energy and has the potential to endlessly inspire and motivate artists (in the sense of the famous Rorschach test). At the same time though, if ‘modernity’ disappears from the scene completely this energy dissipates, or perhaps you should say, the energy isn’t used. Because we need a creative project, so we can have a creative process, so as to create something. Such as the project of modernity…
Humanity is ‘doomed’ to make sense of the whole/world, even if it can’t. The artist has a need, corresponding to that of humanity, and that is finding meaning in everything around him and the means to do that, is subjecting the ‘object’ in art to his will. Of course this isn’t even a choice we have to make, because we can’t not do it. Which brings me back to what’s wrong with postmodernism as it exist now: Baudrillard shows the logic of our age and shows the lie – or denial – that is postmodernities Cloaked Grand Narrative.
Like you said, art reflects our current situation, and civilizations come and go, when cultures grow jaded and become retrospective… (read this excellent article!!!) Yet the fact we’re now experiencing a lack of inspiration doesn’t mean we are dead, it just means we’re on a dead track and should get back on track – to use a nice modern metaphor.
(Between these two comments we had an e-mail exchange where I asked about Lyotard’s term the differend & how it relates to the sublime.)
Reinaert de V.: I must say my friend Aurelio, that I really enjoyed our philosophical conversation! Even though I’m very critical of postmodernism (perhaps even biased to some degree), I do think every tradition and every art-form deserves recognition and is entitled to the best defense. Something you did with flair and an open mind in your piece on Pumhösl’s art. I’ll also try and answer your email-question on Lyotard’s “Differend” and how I think it’s related to his notion of the “Sublime”.
The loose threads I mentioned, have to do with Luigi Pareyson’s (Kantian inspired) aesthetics, which instead of clarifying my point, confounded it (since I left it untied to my main argument). His ideas of the “forma formata” (formed form) and “forma formante” (forming form) fit in perfectly with Kant’s (obviously) and Lyotard’s philosophy. If you see the ’sublime of the postmodern moment’ as an “event” that essentially disrupts the space-time-continuum (forgive my spacy choice of words , it thereby shows the inherently broken nature of our experience of reality. When you define “reality” as that what can be shown to be true (through scientific method), than it can never be in harmony with the Ideas, because these ‘Ideas’ always have to do with the totality of things. In this case the ‘world’ we inhabit, but it can also refer to other essentially unrepresentable things. We can only suggest such Ideas, for example: standing at the foot of the pyramids of Giza, gives you the impression (and sensation!!!) of grandeur, ‘the infinitely big’, and a feeling of being over-powered. These are characteristics of the sublime. It is related to the feeling of fear, in that the sensation is over-powering, absorbing, too much to register, and/or because it’s literally a force that assails you (think of horror and disaster movies). Yet at the same time it gives a certain form of pleasure, because you are able to experience all these sensations safely. But more importantly: because it shows that these Ideas are bigger than everything that effectively surrounds us, bigger than everything we can make or think of, even ‘bigger’ than that our cognitive capacity is able to process (at that moment) and yet we can still “sense” them, despite or because of that! This is how Kant’s famous dictum must be understood:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily reflection is occupied with them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me. Neither of them need I seek and merely suspect as if shrouded in obscurity or rapture beyond my own horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with my existence.” – Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
It always makes me think of Monty Python’s excellent “Live Organ Transplants” sketch in “The Meaning of Life”, where you get more-or-less with tongue-in-cheek the same logic (albeit a bit cynically). Where the gruesome, mindless murder of the husband is (perhaps) too much for the wife to take in, and the ‘doctors’ use Kant’s notion of the enormity of ‘the starry heaven above’ to legitimize, trivialize, and even distract from the absurdity of the moral-disaster taking place in the living room.
Anyway, the point is (as I explained above) that with the advent of modernity (Enlightenment) this ‘rupture’ took centre stage. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t noticed it before that time, but it didn’t use to be such a problem traditionally. Remi Brague throws some unexpected light on this problem, in his fantastic and meticulously researched book “The Law of God”. He traces it back to the evolution – and ultimate fracture with the arrival of physics – of the concept of law within the Classical & Christian traditions. Confrontation with this ‘rupture’ (“beckoning us to make a leap”) used to be experienced as a mystical rapture, which led to a reaffirmation of God. But as existentialism shows this is only one of the possibilities, namely a solution theorized by S. Kierkegaard. A. Camus on the other hand saw this confrontation as one that shouldn’t be overcome, by reaching a synthesis on a higher level (Aufhebung). According to him: the modern mind should acknowledge the ultimate meaningless chaos that is life, thus it shouldn’t jump to conclusions to alleviate its fear of the unknown, and it shouldn’t overstep the boundaries of science. With science one should always remember that to do science one can’t explain ‘everything’ but one has to break a problem down to manageable elements and focus on solving those one at a time. So science in its endless specializations is fractured as well, and it admits that it can’t give us the meaning or purpose of life. Some people even consider these notions (to be dangerously) nostalgic, and others, of a more positivist nature, would say a notion of God is meaningless to begin with, since it cannot be proven nor disproven. Well, with the first blow, the cracks slowly spread, wider and wider…
If we agree on this fundamental “break” (cut off from tradition) or “fracture”, we can see how it animates modernity’s program of the progress of reason, by slicing up everything in manageable pieces. Postmodernism on the other hand can be understood as an endless, ahistorical “now”, namely the repetition of this moment of fracture through history: a moment of existential crisis on a personal or cultural level, and of endless creativity. A crisis which can be (re)solved in many different ways… Modernity and its program being one of those solutions. Modernity kept close to its source of origin (the moment of rupture), by endlessly repeating it, trying to pin it down or perhaps to get over it, and yet at the same time alienated by it, because of its rationalist attitude.
This turned into quite a little story I see, lol. Let’s bring in Luigi Pareyson’s aesthetics now and close off with Lyotard’s “Differend”. If what I said above is more or less correct, it follows that modernity and postmoderity are closely linked and have a certain structure. Now, the sublime is the postmodern “moment”, and reveals itself as such, but in order to recognize it for what it is (a rupture) you’ve to have a clear and steady gaze, and not make the ‘leap over the abyss’ too soon. The idea of the “formed form” is essentially ‘the postmodern’ from the perspective of the critic, applied to art: “when judging a work of art you can’t make use of any ‘given’ criteria. Instead the work of art should be able to be judged according to it’s own form”. In other words: don’t jump to conclusions but let the object of art speak for itself. But more importantly: there’s a structure that’s revealed, namely one that follows from its own form, and that revealed structure corresponds to modernity… This “forming form” is the effective force that moves us in a certain direction – without us consciously knowing it – and follows from the original form of the postmodern moment. Which modernity’s progress by constantly repeating it, has slowly but surely led us to recognize or acknowledge, namely: that the moment of fracture is the postmodern within modernity – animating it throughout… Thus the question should be: what comes next? Is it possible with this insight to renew modernity, or jump-start some other “program”, or does it only work when it’s working in the background, structured unconsciously? Are we now able to ‘jump’ wherever we like, as if in one big creative experiment, limited only by our imagination? These are the interesting and important questions I believe, because postmodernism itself is essentially a never-ending “now”, beckoning us to make that leap, and start something…
Finally, to come back to Lyotard’s “Differend” and what it means… Basically it’s a fundamental difference of opinion or a controversy. According to Lyotard such a dispute cannot be resolved through consensus as the parties speak radically heterogeneous languages (a sublime characteristic). To translate or paraphrase the terms of such a dispute would therefore prejudge the issue for one party (creating a false harmony). The only way out of this conundrum is by making use of Kant’s notion of the “Reflexive Judgment” which is similar to the idea of the “formed form” (since the second is inspired by the first). This means taking the time and effort to judge competing language-genres (like science, rhetoric, erotics etc) according to their own form. It is the capacity to detect the commonalities on basis of what is given, but in a critical fashion: by not neglecting the irreducible differences. Lyotard believes like Kant that it is essential for people to develop this (moral) capacity or sensibility, by remaining open for the eventualities and slight – but important – nuances of language. He suggests that this “Bildung” (through literature and the Humanitas) of a cultured person is necessary, but under serious pressure from the modern capitalist economy. Since economy is about winning time (efficiency) and thus not taking the time to develop (culture). The capitalist mentality of making money is at odds with the other genres and slowly taking them over, creating a “differend”. With enough time the other language-genres are judged on its terms by its rules, something they can never win. “Money” is the sign of the time-won and turns into the measure of everything, meaning that only everything which has the potential to make money has value and counts as something. So, like with Baudrillard and Marx, Lyotard focuses on the leveling and indifferent character of money.
…and that is that!
Aurelio: Wow, more incredible ideas, you’re in a rapid-fire philosophical pace now!
…& as we keep saying, this’ll be my last comment.
Starting with Lyotard as neo-Kantain, (again & after/during our discussion), I’ve come upon a couple of salient points in reference to the sublime & Kant. In “The Sublime & the Avant-Garde,” Lyotard writes:
“Even before romantic art had freed itself from classical & Baroque figuration, the door had thus been opened to inquiries pointing towards abstract & minimal art. Avant-gardism is thus present in germ in the Kantian aesthetic of the sublime.”
Before Kant we had Burke, Longinus & others of whom Lyotard draws on for the sublime. When I wanted to look at art of the NOW, I had to look at the unavoidable past (a kind of obvious paradox of the new). I like that you do not want to disregard Kant’s influence. This is perfect, because we can still find value in the genius of Kant for his sublime, as differentiated from beauty, the sublime as the sensation of awesome grandeur & so on. Lyotard also says that Kant compared the sublime to the biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…,” to this Lyotard writes: “optical pleasure when reduced to mere nothingness, promotes an infinite contemplation of infinity.” Amazing, now we’re at the Bible, geez, who would’ve guessed? But we’re also at an understanding that’s very today, now, of the moment, questions of representation of the profound, & representing faith (as contrasted or understood with reason).
You also have me thinking of Pareyson & I’m wondering if there is any phenomenological thread in his work? From the little I’ve found, he’s hermeneutical & with what you’ve written here, I’m slightly hesitant to compare him to Clement Greenberg (the well-know art critic who championed formalism). His writing basically tried to strip the art object down to its basics—the clarity of form, any thing outside of that was moot. He wrote on postmodernism too, but I’m not sure he was all that much in favor of the term, in fact I think he was disdainful. He wanted to appreciate the medium, the shapes, and the forms of art, but he became too rigid & bossy in his later years & was dethroned as the ultimate expert, the last word was no longer his. His famous term was “post-painterly abstraction.” Following Greenberg was minimalism which moved into form with wild abandon & in fact we see minimalism’s spirit in Pumhösl’s forms.
As for Pareyson’s notion that the work of art should be judged only by it form, this idea is intriguing, I’ll have to look out for his work. From what you’ve described I want to read more…
Some of my abstract work was very formal, with respect to materials as the “subject.” It was a way of looking at the object (hanging on a wall) with attention to the structure of the physical object, but I was also aware of the “meaning,” as subordinate. The art object is first an object, and then it’s art (when finished by the viewers/audience gaze). So writing about all this, makes me want to create with a newly informed enthusiasm. I suppose I’m doing that right now as I write—this is the (post-modern) creative act, we are right here–taking a ride though the sublime, approaching the un-representable!
(click on image to enlarge)
I’m very interested in your comments where the sublime/post modern art object threatens to become meaningless—which is where a lot of people still would argue, that this IS the state of art today. But, it is valuable for us to see & observe the mysteries of life—or that mystery is essential & fundamental. It is in this arena that art can summon energy–& it does. It’s a kind of courage one has to face, when faced with the unknown, the unexplainable, and the outer edges of logic (reason). Contemporary art is always on this borderline, this rupture, the absurd, ironic, cynical, offensive, & yes, just outwardly insane.
I agree with you that these are stressful times & that the art object is not always an answer, rather it’s usually a question. How am I regarded, how far can I push an idea, or how far can I push the imagination & how far can I push a convention (a norm)? Everyday culture doesn’t know how to regard this troublesome art, because it’s challenging them to think & react in new ways that are uncomfortable & highly specialized. Philosophy can help with this since some of its job is to look at perception, judgments of taste, aesthetics &c. &c.
“From the sublime, springs a lot of reflection” –Longinus
…we’ll speak again
Later, I asked Reinaert de V. about his studies now & he sent this:
“The thesis I’m writing is on Pragmatism and Critical Theory, and using their major proponents (John Dewey & Theodor W. Adorno respectively) with the purpose of arriving at a new synthesis.
Well, I won’t go into the technical details and the immense work that it turned into… I’m not sure if you need to put all that into my bio. You can leave it at me majoring in philosophy, specialized in the subject of aesthetics. You can of course mention these two important currents in modern thought as being of special interest to me. But my love for philosophy reaches across the centuries and isn’t clearly demarcated. I love the 16th and 17th century in philosophy with it’s clear prose and socialcontract theorists, but Postmodern philosophy can also be very exciting in its sometimes obscure and convoluted way (it goes without saying that the Greeks are of great inspiration as well.
Why Aesthetics? I can be very honest with you, and you might be very surprised ;-) I always had a love of cultures, customs, religions and books. Early on I used to read big books in English, these were mostly fantasy novels (starting with JRR Tolkien), and though of course I also read serious literature. But my love for fantasy used to run deep! Except the books would always end and then it would be back to reality… Now, the thing I love about philosophy is that you can use your imagination to create new ways of seeing and thinking about the world, but in order to do that forces you to struggle with the (real) world. So, even though I love escapism in all its forms (and don’t think it’s unhealthy), I’m also very pragmatic in my thinking, probably due to my upbringing and Dutch culture. Nothing is so exciting as trying to follow someone’s wild fancies (like Lacan’s) and see them slowly crystallize into something new and meaningful, or gawk at a crystal clear deliberation of great thinkers like B. Spinoza or T. Aquinas.
Thus I chose aesthetics, because I think it’s one of the more practical branches of philosophy. Not only because the battle in philosophy at the moment is basically a cultural battle (Postmodernism, Crisis of Western Identity), but also because philosophy (and imagination) has the most freedom to operate in a domain like art. The role of philosophy as a way to orientate oneself (and speculate and meditate) will never go away as long as we remain human, and even though it isn’t a ‘science’ humanity can never do without it because of that. In the end we’re all naïve philosophers, like we’re all naïve psychologists, since we all have access to the same ‘material’, namely: our human nature. Which means the domain of art will always be free of science and thus always be a last bastion for philosophy.”