Friday, October 26, 2012

Kitsch, the Anti-Cultural Commodity

The essence of art, its final end, is to explain to man his own nature, what it means to be human.   Any art which does not have this for its end cannot truly be called "fine art."  Art, however, that  is created for the sole purpose of being sold in the market cannot, in an unqualified sense, be called true art, since it does not share the same final end.  Now this sort of art, which has for its end the pure utilitarian end of the maker, is called kitsch.  Kitsch, as reader Bob pointed out, can be defined as "the reduction of art to marketable forms." 

Graceland by Thomas Kinkade
Every part of kitsch is ordered toward the end of being sold, so every part of a work of kitsch is calculated to be more palatable to the marketplace. Kitsch uses conventional forms, motifs and even symbols only in so far as they make the particular work of art more marketable.  Clement Greenberg in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (from which I draw heavily from) remarks that kitsch uses as "raw material the debased and academized simulacra of genuine culture."  The preservation of a cultural memory, or consciousness of "what we are," as I described before, is not the end of this art but rather something akin to the utilitarian end of making money.

Kitsch, Greenberg continues, "borrows from [culture] tricks, stratagems, themes...[and] converts them into a system and discards the rest."  Kitsch sees the products of a culture only as a component to be drawn from, not as a "good thing" in and of themselves.  The "art" of kitsch then is only an art of the most basic sense of making something, just like the art of pouring a concrete sidewalk, or making a chair.  This most basic sense is primarily concerned with its utilitarian end (i.e. making a place to sit or walk), and if it elevates itself to something to the level of poetry, it does so only accidentally.  Greenberg confirms this saying "nor is every item of kitsch entirely worthless.  Now and then it produces something of merit" but these are only "accidental or isolated instances."

Kitsch though may be thought of as some sort of folk art, but as Greenberg argues, kitsch is merely a replacement for the folk art lost by rural people living now in cities as a result of the industrial revolution.  "Discovering a new capacity for boredom ... the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with some kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised:  ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensitive to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide." [emphasis added] 

Kitsch, the art of a mass-culture is not something that falls on the spectrum of art as poetry, that spectrum between folk art, and high art.  By and large, even though there may be "isolated instances", kitsch cannot provide that consolation that only true culture can, through beauty and symbolism and rich traditions, that gives meaning to the important moments of our lives.  One need only think of those jarring moments when a cell phone jingle goes off in church, worst of all during a funeral. These are moments where the market cannot give us what we really need in our souls.  Kitsch does not have for its end the poetic imitation which leads to a fuller understanding of man and his place in the universe, which is the proper end of culture, both high and low.  

Catholic Mall Chapel, a fine thing,
but somehow seems out of place.
I'm reminded of a story I read about a Catholic chapel in a shopping mall.  The priests would say Mass, and hear Confession, but something about the mall made them hesitate to ever hold a wedding there, not to mention a funeral. It is as if the overwhelming materialism of the mall, entirely ordered towards consumption seems so alien to those parts of life where symbolism and culture are so essential to our very human existence.

Curiously though, this same feeling of alienation is felt less about a funeral on a city street, at least streets in our older cities.   Perhaps this is because even though commerce and all rank of ordinary things happen there, there remains something about the city as a community, that says these things are proper to this public place. The city is the product of culture par-excellance, the place where architecture, art, sculpture and public ceremony all come together where a culture can best express what we are. This notion of cultural identity, this notion of belonging, is cultivated by the arts, and is reinforced by customs and conventions, but it is today under constant assault -- first of all by the assault of kitsch, but also the assault of the avant-garde modernism. This is something I looked at briefly before, when talking about the city stripped of symbolism.  In the next series of posts, I want to look at the relation of modern art to culture, and its relation to kitsch, in so far as it too is an art which is at its essence anti-cultural.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Further Thoughts on High Culture and Folk Culture and Art

In my last post I talked a great deal about the art of "high culture" and "folk culture" in regards to their relation to the classical and vernacular in architecture.   The distinction that I was drawing was not to show that high and low culture are in opposition to each other, but rather are a matter of variation of degree.   Both high and low culture, classical and vernacular art, all deal with the same subject, namely cultural memory or the maintenance of shared ideas of self-identification.    From very simple traditions of a household, the baking of traditional meals for birthdays and holidays, to the triumphant hymn of a national anthem, the art and architecture of a capitol, every one of these things seeks to express though through varied degrees, "this is who we are."

The nature of a folk culture is of course defined by its having risen from the people itself, the folk, where local traditions, and family traditions lead to an art which is particular to a certain people, place or a even family.   High culture, which arises from the folk culture, is culture which has been subjected to intellectual and philosophical examination.   Rather than traditions of culture and art being simply passed on to the next generation, high culture places itself under to study and criticism in order to make it better, finer and more sophisticated.   Moreover, this sophistication allows it to be appreciated outside of a particular cultural context, it begins to be appreciated by everyone.

Thus art that is produced by high culture is transformed from a simple local art, into a universal art that begins to transcend the particularities of place and people, and is thus the only sort of art that can become a "national" art.   The universality of the art is what allows people from all over the world to enjoy the works of Mozart and Bach, even without having been a part of that particular central European Germanic culture from which the art arose.   Certainly though, had one come from that particular culture from which this high culture arose from, the art would be even more meaningful.

High culture produces an art that tends toward universality, but yet maintains that same goal of culture, to say "this is who we are," and consequently its art strives too for that universality.  Folk culture and its art says "this is what it means to be a Dutchman" or "this is what it means to be a member of such and such family."  High culture strives to say "this is what it means  to be man" (in other words in an unqualified sense).   This difference between universality and particularity is what I spoke of in earlier posts in dealing with art and politics.   Art geared towards politics is necessarily geared towards the particular, but it loses its meaning in the universal flow of history.  Great art, though even if it is political, is geared towards the great universals and it thus has constant appeal.

This is not to say however that Folk art loses its appeal through time, far from it.    The art of a folk culture is expressive of a particular culture's understanding of the same universal longing to understand "what we are."  This, coupled with transcendent notions of beauty which all true art strives for, for instance the same tonal system of music is found both in the folk song Greensleeves,  as it is in Mozart's Requiem, gives all true art a.   The level complexity and the precision of the music is the only difference between them, telling us they are in essence the same thing.   So too in poetry, as the works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare represent the best of a high culture, the simplicity of the poetry of those same folk tunes can tell us just as much about what it means to be a human being.

But yet this universal nature of art and high culture only goes so far, we need only look to where cultures across the globe have interacted to see the limits of cultural universalism.  So too in architecture, where attempts to introduce classical Roman styles of architecture in foreign lands with highly developed native cultures, seem severely out of place.   One need only listen in the West to traditional Japanese or Chinese music to see where the limits lie.   Certainly one can come to know and understand and even love Chinese pentatonic music (it uses only five notes instead of the Western eight) but if we were to try to introduce it into a cultural setting in America, we would only see it as a charming "theme." 

The "theme" would of course be a farce, as there would be nothing that connects Chinese traditional music as "belonging"for instance to a traditional Christmas party.  The idea of cultural "themes" can best be seen in context of amusement parks, or "theme parks" which accumulate architecture of different places all into one park.   A park such as this seems cheesy and "kitschy" because the cultural artifacts that it reproduces are all out of place.   Its like a man walking into a bar in New York in a cowboy hat, chaps and spurs, where he would be entirely silly, while doing the same in Texas might be an everyday appearance.  The idea of things being "out of place" is the essence of kitsch, which I intend to explore in the next post.  In particular, I am interested in how kitsch relates to the ideas of the avante-garde in modernist art.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are McMansions Classical or Vernacular?

In architecture there is a distinction often made between the classical, made by the most highly educated architects, and the vernacular, the common stuff built by ordinary people.  This distinction is understood most correctly as a spectrum between the two extremes rather than a simple dichotomy.  However one has a problem when trying to place particular buildings in this spectrum, especially where the building in question is a typical American suburban home, or "McMansion."

The typically overblown details in a suburban "McMansion"
The suburban house hardly fits in the realm of the classical, as it is often badly proportioned and badly detailed.  It has little thought put into its design, rarely are architects involved in designing such houses.  Nor does it seem to fall in the vernacular, as the suburban house doesn't follow any local building traditions.  Rather it picks and chooses from a number of different marketed styles.  The typical suburban house then seems to fall somewhere outside of the spectrum of the classical to the vernacular in architecture.  This is because the classical and vernacular are products of the same thing, high and low culture, and the suburban house, is a product of another thing entirely, that of mass culture.  

Folk culture, and its corresponding art, the vernacular, is the simplest expression of a culture, and its principles.  Folk culture is the expression of belonging, of home, of a sense of identity that is carried through a common understanding of the basic principles of life, those of love, family, justice and order and beauty.   Filtered filtered through generations of tradition, folk culture takes on a particular identity that is tied with a people and the places they live.   

High culture and its corresponding art, the classical, is an expression of that same folk culture, but one that is informed by an education and deliberation.   High culture is one trained in philosophy and history, and therefore is able to push the bounds of the principles of the culture.   High culture and folk culture both are reciprocally is informed and educated by the other.  One can see this in the common use of themes from folk music in the works of classical composers.  The composer takes the folk melody and expands it, makes it more complex and intricate and intellectual, but all the while still works within the culture of the folk.  Thus the classical and the vernacular fall in the same spectrum, precisely because they are expressions of the same culture, though it is the understanding by different degrees of that shared culture.

Mass culture on the other hand is concerned primarily with the market.  Mass culture often takes things from both the folk and the high culture but it jumbles them together in a mass of confusion.    In folk and high culture, the cultural artifacts that belong to the culture, that are valued by the culture, are those that are shaped by tradition in folk culture, and by reason and tradition in high culture.  In mass culture the cultural artifacts that are most valued are those that sell the most.   What sells most is usually what is marketed and advertised most, and is mass produced not by a culture interested in preserving its roots, but a company interested in its profits.

Mass culture produces products that essentially have no cultural reference, as they neither come from nor are marketed towards a culture as a culture, but as a market.  And since markets exist all around the globe, each is treated essentially the same.  This is the great problem of globalization, the marketing of products that drown out a local culture by the influx of cheap products, a local cuisine drowned out by the burgers and fries of McDonald's.  It is not folk or high culture that is globalized but mass culture.

McDonalds in Florence. 
Mass culture in the center of high culture
The McMansion is like the burger stand, it does not arise from a culture, either high or low, but arises instead from a marketing strategy.  It appeals in some ways to cultural relevancy, but not in any way that refers to a true cultural identity.  The typical suburban house is not cultural, and therefore not classical or vernacular, but is anti-cultural.  Art of this sort could pop up anywhere just like a McDonald's, as we see now in China, where American style suburbs are sprouting everywhere, but nowhere does it have any relation to its cultural or architectural surroundings.

This is the fundamental problem of kitsch.  Kitsch an art which is out of place in its surroundings, this is art produced by the mass culture.   This is art purely for the market, and mass culture is anti-culture, kitsch is anti-art.  And as kitsch is anti-art and anti culture, so too is the avante-garde.   I want to take a bit of time to talk about the avante-garde in relation to kitsch, so I will come back to this in the next post.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The De-symbolized City

"Art that points to itself but not beyond itself is bad art... the imitative arts are always jeweled with symbols that flash to something beyond themselves."   Friederich Wilhelmsen

Wisconsin State capitol, the focus of demonstrations
of every political persuation, it becomes
the symbol of the political virtues all hold.
 Symbolism is probably the most essential attribute of art, as it is the one attribute that allows a work of art to be more than just simply what it is.   Most modern art, having taken it for granted that to represent another thing is a bad thing, has systematically removed the idea of symbol from art.
There may be some argument for some modern art carrying symbols, such as Duchamps urinal, the symbolism that they contain is not readily apparent or intrinsic to the art itself.   The modern work of symbolic art is usually accompanied by a long explanation of the things it is symbolizing, as nothing in the art references commonly known cultural touchstones from which to spring from. 

There is probably no more apt example of the problems of the de-symbolization of art than in the realm of civic architecture.   As Wilhelmsen points out, symbols art point to something beyond itself, such as the civic virtues of justice and order.  By the nature of the symbolic content to be found in civic architecture, symbols tied to a cultural context and consciousness, the citizen sees that his participation in the polis is a participation in the virtues of such a place, the virtues of justice, order, duty, patriotism, etc.  Civic architecture becomes a symbolic focus towards these highest ideals, that to which all people in a society order their political life.

The modernist civic building through the embrace of the stripped down glass and steel aesthetic is an architecture devoid of symbol and meaning.   Indeed there is little to distinguish a civic building, where justice is rendered, order created and the polis formed, from the myriad other nondescript de-symbolized buildings of the modern city.  The modernist civic building has been stripped of symbolic content, and thus has stripped civic consciousness down to its barest functionality and utilitarian ends.  Without symbolism the bureaucratic state is all that is left, and what it can give the individual, or rather what it can compel the individual to do, is all that is left.   Such an institution is not something to which a sense of duty can be felt, but rather is only a sense of fear or dependence which is felt toward the modern state.

Thom Mayne's Federal Courthouse in Eugene Oregon.
Nothing intrinsic to the building tells you what it is,
words are necessary to identify it as a courthouse.

The only symbols left are merely that of the written word, and this only in the form of the merely pragmatic identifier, the words "Courthouse" emblazoned on a blank wall to identify this as a place where one goes to get sued or to be prosecuted.  The idea of justice as a virtue is not to be found in the symbolism of the building, and so too, the justice to be found inside is merely the utilitarian instrumentality of power. 

This barrenness of symbols is only to evident in our memorials as well, where proper symbolic content through the arts of painting and sculpture have long been banished.   Instead they have been superseded by the museum and interpretive center.  The materialist and desymbolized man of today cannot identify with anything but mere "facts."  The idea of a myth or symbol is entirely alien and banished in this world of pure reason, but this is a discussion for another post...


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Philosophy, Principles versus Rules

Principles of geometry used in composition, sketch by Baldassare Peruzzi
The age old debate amongst classical artists is whether or not philosophy is important to the artist as a means to creating his art.  The argument roughly is that "I am an artist, not a philosopher, so I just have to create beauty, not understand why."  To a certain extent this is true, however one must rely on something to produce an art.

In order to produce a desired effect, a desired end, one has only two choices to achieve that end, one either comes to understand the principles which operate to produce that end, or one relies on the application of a set of rules to produce that end.

The former is akin to the practice of ethics, where one seeks to understand the principles of justice, temperance and the other virtues, to put them into practice in an infinite number of circumstances.   The intention is to grasp a universal principle, which when properly understood can be applied in each particular circumstance in a way proper to that circumstance.

The alternative is the application of rules.  Rules as such are not universal, they don't refer to every circumstance but to particular circumstances, and in art are the creation of particular forms.   Rules are created according to principles, and for the greater part of circumstances they serve to produce the same effects as the application of principles.  One applies the rules, and for the greatest part of the time, they produce the exact end which you intend from the beginning.

However rules do from time to time, by an absolute rigid application, produce the opposite intended end.  The rule is not flexible as it applies absolute to particular circumstance, whereas principles applied seeking the ultimate end, allow for more flexibility, that is "breaking the rules"

When one unmoors oneself from the application of principles, the only alternative is to use rules to create the end.  If one seeks however to unmoor themselves from the application of rules, they must return to the principles to produce the end.  If however one is unmoored both from rule and from principle then the end of the artist is only randomly produced, the artist is left to pick and choose willy-nilly from any number of alternatives, and only by chance would ever produce his end.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

History According to Nietzsche and Art

Friedrich Nietzsche
History is a subject that I've touched on a little bit before, when talking about Aristotle's idea of history in relation to art, but today I want to explore the idea a bit further drawing from a text I've been reading lately called "On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life" by Friedrich Nietzsche (alternatively titled "The Use and Abuse of History")

History is to most people simply the collection of facts and dates of events past; the battles, the revolutions, and the people who shaped the world in which we live in today.  But not everyone can know the whole of all of the historic facts, but people can know for instance that Washington was the "Father of the nation", and that Lincoln freed the slaves.  These simple statements in themselves are histories, small, not very complex, but history nonetheless.  But history is not just the simple collection of facts, but rather it is the summary of those facts into a cohesive narrative.

History is not just collected memory, but collective memory that is taught, and is for Nietzsche something that ordered towards a specific end.  In the Advantage and Disadvantage Nietzsche makes the claim that history is there for a purpose, that it is put to use to promote "life" and he says they are used in so far as man:  1) "is active and striving" 2) "preserves and admires" and 3) "suffers and is in need of liberation"   The three types of history then correspond to these needs or ends, as 1) monumental, 2) antiquarian, and 3) critical histories.

Christopher Columbus Monument, Washington DC
In the following series of posts I will be looking at each of these parts of history in how they relate to art, particularly art that is created by and for the polis.  The fact that art is in itself makes use of history is not immediately evident, but upon reflecting that a great many works of art, indeed almost all art, has had people of history as its subject.  Most all of the stories we tell, through poetry literature and film  as well as monuments, memorials and public buildings we erect all tell a history.  And as such each of these works of art can make use the different kinds of history monumental, antiquarian, and critical.  How they apply those histories, and whether or not they have used the form of history proper to the subject will become clear after we have looked at each of the forms of history in detail.  Then we will be able to see clearly how a great many works of art truly abuse history to serve their ends.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Back to Writing, and a Short Manifesto

It has been a long time since I have written, due to a number of things, a vacation, a busy work schedule, working toward a more appropriate Eisenhower Memorial, and teaching students at Hillsdale College.   But I am back now, with a great deal to write on for the upcoming weeks, I hope all of you will be reading and giving good comments.

The primary purpose for this blog is not to provide commentary and criticism of the architectural issues of the day in regards to specific issues or projects.  Rather its purpose is to explore the philosophical principles underlying those artistic debates, both to provide a laboratory for my own thoughts and writing, but also to provide a foundation for others to debate these issues, today and in the future as well.  

Sadly, even at the best of schools, much of today's artistic and architectural education is entirely lacking in philosophical training.   This lack of a philosophy education leaves students and practitioners of art an architecture adrift without an anchor, giving their beliefs no more justification than their own taste or opinion.   Thus most architectural debate today is much like political debates on cable news, whoever speaks loudest and most hysterically grabs the biggest headline, but few are convinced and little is really changed.

I've embarked then on trying to discuss the arts, what they are, what they are for, in a purely philosophical manner so that we can see a real renaissance of beauty in the arts, both private and public.  What will be necessary to this task of rejuvenating a sense of beauty is to look at the principles underlying the mainstream thought both in the art world and the culture as a whole, and to refute what is false, nurture what is true and in need of growth, and to plant seeds of truth wherever we can.

So to that purpose I will be looking at a short work by Friedrich Nietzsche translated as On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life but alternately titled in English: The Use and Abuse of History.  The critical points I will be discussing will  be his the three-fold division of history into monumental, antiquarian, and critical history.    Each of these senses of history is entirely active in our public debate today about the state and future of art and architecture, though few realize how they are at work.  It is my hope that by looking at what Nietzsche means about each historic sense we might come to understand a bit better how to make the right choices in art.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Photography Symbolism and the Universal

Art communicates to us by symbols.  Symbols by their nature deal with universals.   In order for something to be a symbol it must be dealing with an abstract notion.  Abstraction deals with notions that are not tied to a particular thing.

Photographs, unlike other forms of art, are not well suited to express the universal, as they record precisely an image taken at a particular moment of a particular subject.  Problems arise however when dealing with subjects of history.   Photographs recording moments in time are rarely symbolic, unless there is some deeper meaning to the moment itself.   But recording a particular moment is not creating a symbol of a universal idea.  However photographs can be artistic, but it requires more than snapping photos of events to make art out of photography.

One way a photographer does who works symbolically is to take a photo of an event which is itself symbolic.  Photos of ceremonies or symbolic actions, such as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.  The photo doesn't just record a moment, becomes a depiction of perseverance and victory itself, symbolized through the struggle to raise the flag.   Again this goes back to the notion of history versus philosophy.  One way to look at the photo is to see the recording of the historic moment, but another is to see it symbolically, which is to see it more universally than just the particular group of men doing a particular action.

Another way photos can be symbolic is to strip them of particularity by choosing a subject which is unknown to the viewer, leaving only the expression of the portrait or an action that seems to express simply an idea, or an emotion.  Photos of objects in decay for instance can symbolize loss of hope, while a flower sprouting through the crack could express the opposite.

The focus is not on a scientific understanding of a moment but a symbolic understanding.   Bernini's David records his body twisting into action, the sling taut and ready to swing into action, his body like a spring.  He is poised but tense with anticipation, and one small detail, how he bites his lip, shows a doubt along with the confidence, an emotion that all of us can relate to.  The focus of the work is not on the moment as history, but as it relates to universal emotions and universal ideals.

Photographs can be art, but it is very difficult for them to express universals, especially when they are used to simply record the history of a particular individual.   So if for instance a monument to a person were to use nothing but photographs to memorialize a person, that memorial could be nothing more than a family album, recording the deeds, but not making any statement or conveying any universal notion beyond the particular events.  Stripped of meaning, it becomes a history lesson and not a work of art.  

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What is Tradition

Tradition is a word that gets tossed about these days without a lot of thought to what the word really means.   Depending on your point of view, one either loves or hates the word, but in the world of productive arts and indeed in the world of science, tradition is absolutely invaluable.

Tradition comes from the Latin word "trahere" which means 'to hand over'.   Tradition in a strict sense is the passing of something to another, and by extension becomes the word we use to describe the passing of objects, practices and knowledge to the present from past generations. 

In the productive arts tradition's role is to pass on the practices of that art.   In furniture making, for instance, the ways in which joints are constructed, the ways to shape and mold wood, and how to work with the grain of the wood to produce a satisfying result, are all practices that are passed from one generation of craftsman to the next.   A great deal of this art may however have been transferred to books, but still the transference of knowledge from the past to the present is active.

In science, often thought the realm of radical ideas, tradition is in play even more so.   Take for example physics, the physicist relies on what he's learned from books, these books written by generations of scientists before him, each generation building a theory of the cosmos upon the ones coming before him.   Each generation may make modifications to the theories, but each still bases its knowledge upon things proven in the past.   To throw out the traditions of the science would be to assume nothing has been proven and would demand that all assumed premises be proven again.    Now no scientist is about to throw out generations of science to start a new science whole cloth, rather they stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.   Science, rather than being contrary to tradition, is fundamentally reliant on tradition.

In science things are proven by argument and observation, in art through practice.   Traditions pass  not just what "has always been done" but rather "what has always worked."   But in compounded arts, such as architecture, the aesthetic and the practical are closely related, ie roofs take the shape they do because they shed water, eaves overhang to keep rain away from foundations, and windows are the size they are to let in enough light, etc.  However many aesthetic considerations are extrinsic to good building practice, and can take any number of forms, thus the wide variation in traditional styles.

 But radicals in the art of architecture, who despise the term tradition, falsely conflate traditional building practice in architecture with the aesthetic traditions, and throw out the architectural baby with the bathwater.    They falsely think that eaves, overhangs and sloped roofs are the self-same as aesthetic traditions and throw them all out to create a new architecture ex nihlo.   The problem is, this often leads to failure, look at the example of the East Building of the National Gallery, where the traditional methods of stone cladding were abandoned for a new method, which is now a spectacular failure.  

The entire facade of the East Building has had to be repaired.

Like a doctor who abandons established practice, letting an infected appendix burst to see if it would cure the patient, the modern architect would let buildings fail so that he could create something whole cloth new, but not realizing that traditions are the key component to his success.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

History versus Poetry

Monuments have been erected to historic figures throughout for as long as artists have been able to paint a picture or sculpt a figure.    But today we have a problem with creating monuments to our national heroes, first because of a lack of artistic talent both in architecture and in sculpture, but also because of a lack of understanding of that a monument is a work not of history, but of poetry. 

In Aristotle's Poetics (which I keep a heavily noted and worn copy on my desk) he distinguishes between poetry and history by telling us that history speaks of "what actually occurred" but poetry speaks of "things which are likely to occur."  He then makes the claim that because of this, poetry is more universal than history.  History gets caught in the details, the particulars of actual events, but poetry, speaks only of what most likely happen.  

Another interpretation would be that history deals only with the actual acts of a man, but poetry is more likely to show the true character.   If one is more concerned with the actual historic truth of Napoleon, we would never show him in painting or sculpture towering his adversaries, as he actually was diminutive in stature.   Michelangelo, when sculpting an image of a scion of the Medici was told "that looks nothing like him," responded that "in a generation no one will know."  Historically he sculpted a false image, but to poetry he sculpted the man so that his inner virtues, his magnificence, power, etc, were expressed through his physical form.  

Today in sculpture and in monumental architecture we have a problem expressing historic figures poetically.   Part of the blame could be laid at the foot of photography, as we no longer have the artist as intermediary, but then again, sculpture and painting still were expressive well into the 20th Century.  

The problem lays with our understanding of history, that we obsess over the details of a particular person's life rather than expressing the universal virtues which he possessed.  No monument today it seems is complete without an expansive "interpretive center" or museum to tell us the every tawdry detail of the subject's life.   We even go so far as to emphasize the vices and physical ailments of our subject.   A modern monument becomes so obsessed with telling the "facts" that it fails to tell "truths."  History is the telling of what was, but poetry is a telling of what is and what ought to be, and thus is how a historic figure can be alive and meaningful despite being long dead.

Return to Writing

Over the past two months or so, my writing here has been non-existent due to a number of things, but one of them has been writing in other spheres.   However a lot of that writing has been poor and has produced little, due in part to not writing nearly enough.   Writing, like any other art, is best learned by doing it, and trying to be a writer of architectural philosophy while not writing seems a bit counterproductive.  

So rather than keeping my thoughts to myself, or to dusty notebooks, I've decided I'll be using this blog as a springboard for snippets of my ideas, some of which may end up entirely in my published works (I hope) some just ways to flesh out ideas.  Hopefully also it means more here for you all to read.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Repost: How Art is Philosophical

In the last two posts I wrote about the philosophical nature of true art, and how a purely political art is rightfully labeled as propaganda.   I left off last time with the question about the use of art for propagandist purposes, or rather the misuse of art.   In order however to understand how art is misused, it may be good to understand exactly what I mean when I say that art, as opposed to propaganda, is philosophical.

In the example pointed out before, the Shootings of May Third, is the depiction of a particular historic event.  What raises this painting however to the level of art, is that also represents a universal truth about humanity.   It is not simply that the painting depicts the scene of the firing squad, that makes this art, but that it depicts the real emotion, the defiant courage of the man in the face of death, that all men feel kinship to.   This scene, which to a historian would be a mere fact, becomes through the focus on the executed man's courage, a vessel for communicating a universal truth to anyone who views it, regardless of having knowledge of the particular circumstances of this historic event.  

The historians might tell us that such a painting is not entirely accurate depiction of the events of May Third, or even that this happened some other time, but to an artist this is unimportant.   Rather than being interested in the accuracy of an event depicted, an artist is more interested in the truth, the universal truth of this man's courage.    Indeed this is why fiction is so lauded, because it tells us more truth in the telling of a story than science might ever tell us.   The novelist Patrick O'Brian points this out through the imminently philosophical scientist, Dr. Stephen Maturin.
But I imagine, sir,' - to Stephen - ' that you read books on medicine, natural philosophy, perhaps history - that you do not read novels or plays.'  'Sir,' said Stephen, 'I read novels with the utmost pertinacity.  I look upon them - I look upon good novels - as a very valuable part of literature, conveying more exact and finely-distinguished knowledge of the human heart and mind than almost any other, with greater breadth and depth and fewer constraints."  - Patrick O'Brian, The Nutmeg of Consolation.
The art of literature then tells us more about the universal nature of man than any discourse on psychology or anatomy ever could, because it focuses on what is universally true about man, not just what is correct.   Simply painting a man on his horse would tell us no more than a photograph might, but should that man be pointing and sternly riding a rearing horse, what is communicated is clearly the virtues of his great leadership and stern courage, which makes message of the painting not the man, but the virtues which can be universally known to all men.  This is what makes art philosophical, that art speaks about parts of the soul of human beings which are common to all of us.

What makes something art is that it depicts not just the events and situation of a particular event or person, but that depicts the parts of about human nature which are universal to all mankind, and through that points to something other than the mere facts of our existence. 

Posted on Beatus Est on 10/18/2011

Repost: Political vs Philosophical Art

In the last post I wrote about how art is used to promote political ends, such as the coerced composition of the 5th Symphony of Shostakovich.    The final distinction I left off with, that while art some is sometimes made to be political, all art is philosophical, deserves to be looked at further.

Politics is by its nature a changeable thing, something that despite the advent of "political science" still manages to be a fickle thing, not responding to theories of unbreakable rules.  This is because politics is related to particular, rather than universal things, particular politicians, particular issues, budgets, and voters, all of which are subject to the particular circumstances of a time.   In other words, a political campaign which one time worked in one state might not work in another, or even the same state at a different time.  

A purely political art then is a work of art that is used to promote a particular political end.   A purely political art is most properly called propaganda, it is used to propagate, promote and convince people of the goodness or importance of an issue.   After this particular issue or cause is no longer in play, the purely political art loses its moorings and becomes meaningless, art then becomes merely an item of curiosity.   The art of the Chinese Cultural Revolution comes to mind, the posters don't really move you to anything other than finding the design striking and interesting. 

Politics and politicians however are not guided simply by particular circumstances, but rather (at least the best of them) are guided by principles that are applied to particular circumstances.    The principles are what a philosopher would call universals.   The universal truths, such as justice, equality, courage, et cetera.  When we see these universal principles as the guiding force of work of a politician, rather than simply the expedient, we acknowledge this as a great thing and label such people "statesmen" rather a politician.

Art then works the same way.   The universals are at work in the best works of art, the courage of a man, the need for justice, the longing for beauty, these make the best art universally loved, thus we call it "Art."    On the other hand, art which is purely used for political ends, which has little or no value in the universal sense, but is valued as we said only for the particular circumstance of the time and place, is called "propaganda."   But yet, even in art which is intentionally political, which might be called propaganda in some sense, still can express the human virtues in a universal way.

Looking at Goya's The Shootings of May Third, we do not have to understand the particular political event which inspired the painting to be inspired by this.   The defiance of the man with his arms stretched out stands out.   He may be a radical, or a monarchist or whatever party, but his courage is what strikes everyone viewing this painting, this universal virtue turns Goya's painting from propaganda into the realm of true art.

Thus it is the universals, the philosophical, which makes art what it is, but the purely political degrades art into the realm of propaganda.    The artist stands to the propagandist like the statesman 
stands to the political hack.

But what happens when the propagandist uses, or more correctly misuses art for terrible ends?

Posted on Beatus Est on 9/28/2011

Repost: Shostakovitch, Art and Propaganda

Today I came across a very interesting show about a piece of 20th century music, which raises interesting questions about the nature of art, politics, philosophy and propaganda.    The program, PBS' "Keeping Score" with Michael Tilson Thomas, explores the history of the creation of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony and how the life of an artist in the early years of 20th Century Russia was affected by the totalitarian government of the Soviet Union.

I found the show interesting in that it explores not just the music qua music, but that music is a particularly powerful means of not just expression but of propaganda.   Every person interviewed in this program acknowledges that music, indeed all has a power greater than just to be enjoyed, but that it has a deep power that can be used to political ends.    Stalin recognized this, and before the 5th Symphony, made Shostakovitch persona non grata with a particularly scathing review of his opera, labeling the music as antithetical to the state.

To the totalitarian Soviet Regime (indeed all totalitarian regimes), all art is in a sense "political" and therefore simply a tool to be used for or against the regime, so artists are chosen for their support of the state.  This is however only somewhat true, as some art is intrinsically political (anthems, statues of patriots etc,) but some art is only political due to its adoption by a party or state.  The adoption of Wagner as quasi-politico-religious themes by 1930s Germany is a good example of this, as Wagner was dead before the Nazis came to power.   This exposes the difference between the works of art made to be political from those used for political ends. What makes this possible is not that all art is political, but that all art is philosophical.   

This is a theme which I am currently exploring further so look forward to another post explaining further that connection between philosophical art and political art.

Posted on Beatus Est on 9/22/2011