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.