The Laws of Nature

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Mile 4 ....

Egmont: I'm posting this image again for you, my friend. Hope your road travels will lead you safely back home in the near future. In the meantime, enjoy the company of your "pals" by

the campfire :) So, sit back and enjoy a glass of wine and warmth of the fire ...

Yesterday, Sheila mentioned that we've become like the artists who used to gather for discussions. She reminded me of the 1940's in New York City when "The Artists' Club" used to meet at the Waldorf Cafeteria in Greenwich Village to hash out ideas. These artists included Pollock, Rothko, Hofman, deKooning, etc. I think we ARE the cyber-version of that!

At this point of my existential journey my feet are starting to get tired and there are, as Robert Frost once wrote, "miles to go before I sleep." Undaunted, I shall continue into the 18th Century's period of Enlightenment.

In his book, Williams reveals how the combined effects of the Industrial Revolution, development of the Natural Sciences, and the American and French Revolutions influenced art. In art, there was still an attitude toward classical antiquities but a more scientific approach developed to explain the psychological meanings. Yes, folks, what we have here is the emergence of the "art critic." (curses!) But, not just any old critic, these folks wrote art critiques that rose to an elevated, high literary level. You might say that they had a BIG influence on art.

The most influential critic of the time was a French philosopher and editor named Denis Diderot. He called for more powerful emotional effects in art as well as more serious subject matter, a severe style, and the highest sense of moral purpose. This was radical! It was a demand for a full-scale reform of painting. A lot of artists listened and responded.

But, Diderot had his detractors. For instance, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German playwright, wrote an essay in 1766 arguing that the visual arts should concern themselves primarily with beauty and give less attention to narrative. Those that followed Lessing's advice began painting "sublime" landscapes. These were wild and crazy paintings of rugged scenery that typified the "unbeautiful" and became popular. This was really an appeal to break the rules and elude control. As Don pointed out on the last blog, there was reaction against the academies that began in the Renaissance. This is a good example.

But, why limit ourselves to the influence of only two philosophies? Enter Alexander Baumgarten, a German academic who invented the field of "aesthetics." That word derives from the Greek "aesthesis" which means "feeling" in the sense of physical perception. Baumgarten believed that the experience of beauty in nature and art should be seen as a matter of sense perception rather than abstract thought. And, it was his ideas that inspired the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804), who later became known as "The Founder of Modern Thought" and was a huge influence on the development of modern art theory.

Kant wrote about what it means to say something is beautiful. (Margaret, you've been waiting for this part!) He thought that beauty isn't a statement about the object being observed, but rather it's about our pleasurable interaction with the object. So, beauty is really about our own condition. Kant wrote: "The beautiful is that which, without any concept, is cognized as the object of a necessary satistfaction." As Williams' states in his book, Kant believed that because pure aesthetic judgements are conceptless, our experience of art cannot depend upon our awareness of the artist having striven rationally and mechanically to achieve certain effects; art of the highest kind must not be regarded as a product of understanding and science, but of genius." OH! So that's where the "genius" thing came from...

Additionally, Kant made a distinction between "fine art" and "mechanical art." The former is the product of original genius and not subject to rules, and the second is rule-bound and imitative. Now, here's something for an artist to live up to! Wow.

Anyway, Kant's ideas gave rise to a thirty-year period called "Radical Idealism" which established an interdependence of art and thought - art became a kind of philosophy. Hey! This isn't new - this is Renaissance theory! But, the new twist is that art began to engage in politics .. to be an expression of political freedom.

So, what theories from the Enlightenment have influenced my thoughts and work? All of them:
  • embuing my art with psychological meaning
  • creating a visual voice for the "unbeautiful" as well as the beautiful
  • assigning beauty to my interaction with what I perceive and in the act of making art
  • fighting the notion of "genius" which was imposed on me early in my training as a necessary condition for art (Kathy's Rebellion)
  • And, making political statements in some of my work

BTW - here's an anecdote to give you a little insight into my first year in college as a fine arts student: My 2-D instructor (who shall remain nameless) handed out the course syllabus on the first day and made this announcement to the class: "If you are a woman in this class I have no time for you! You will drop out of college because of one of the 3-M's: Matrimony, Maternity, or Menopause. So, why should I waste my time on you? Additionally, if you are a woman in this class you'll never receive an "A." So ... this was my introduction to studying art in college. And, I received an A-minus for a grade.

Next mile, I'll travel through most of the Nineteenth Century. Someone pass me the Hershey bars, I'd like to make s'mores!


Mark Sheeky said...

I'll get in first to simply say fascinating. I'll digest this as I rest after a tiring day.

Casey Klahn said...

Sounds like they invented the word "snotty" for your professor!

I pulled out my Alberti book for this discussion. I had flagged in reading it, but now I have your great instruction to provide some context.

Unknown said...

Two things popped out on your post today. Your mention of fine and mechanical art and that ignorant, chauvinistic professor.

I used to call my composite and reconstruction work "technical" art. Do you think it's more appropriate to call it mechanical?

Women are still very underrepresented in the art world. I'm glad to be in the presence of another pioneer who has helped break barriers for women following her footsteps. You are still forging trails by teaching the next generation, so thank you from the bottom of my heart Katharine!

Unknown said...

HI Mark - thanks! I'll be anxious to read your comments. You have good insights.

Hi Casey - I'll be anxious to hear your comments about the Alberti book. I don't own it and haven't read it. All I know is what Williams synthesized. Perhaps you could further enlighten us when you have time?

Hi Sheila - I think the term mechanical is dated, and the word technical is appropriate for today. And, although I don't feel like a trail blazer, I appreciate the compliment. I'm trying to learn, just like everyone else. :)

hw (hallie) farber said...

Great campfire salon--I'm overwhelmed after printing out and reading the past three blogs & comments. This is what you're doing and I thank you:

"Every generation enjoys the use of a vast hoard bequeathed to it by antiquities, and transmits that hoard, augmented by fresh acquisitions, to future ages."--Macaulay.

I, along with Margaret, was waiting for the part about beauty. Thank goodness I can stick with the unbeautiful.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy and Others of the Great Fire Ring!

I’m trying to relate the philosophies put forth to artists of the time. This was the time of Watteau, Boucher, Tiepolo, and later David and de la Tour, isn’t it? And, one of my favorites, Goya.

I like what Kant wrote; I like the idea of participating in what beauty is to me. I find it interesting to read how you think these theories have influenced you. It reinforces the idea that we can learn form art history.

As if educated mothers were undesirable! That sort of thing doesn’t still happen....don’t we wish! It did remind me that sometimes its the people who tell us NOT to follow art that can have a huge motivational impact. If we want it bad enough, we’ll overcome the resistance. To bad it has too be so.

I fell like a novice; it’s great to listen and think!


-Don said...

Pass the Graham crackers please ...mmmpf ...thorry ...talking miff my mouff full ...your professor was an idiot!... mmm, chewy...

As you wrote about your feet being tired I was thinking about the wide variety of people you have gathered together for this journey and my mind went to the Canterbury Tales... but, now I'm back on track...

You are an excellent guide on this trip thru art history and thought. I read this, and re-read it and come away with something new every time. Thanks!

My understanding of what Kant has to say is: 1) beauty is in the eye of the beholder, 2) genius in art describes an artist who does not show their "hand" in a work that they have produced which has a profound impact, and 3) as long as they're breaking - or not following - any rules, then they're creating fine art. Is that even close?

On a totally un-art note, I recently read David McCullough's biography of John Adams. And that coupled with what you have written today makes me realize how much all of these thinking men of the "Enlightenment" have impacted our lives on so many levels. Often for the better, but sometimes not so much so...

Well, you've done it my head is hurting from thinking too much. I'll be chewing on these delicious s'mores all night tonight as I enjoy the opportunity to exhibit my work and meet with fellow artists in our humble town's First Friday art exhibit.


Unknown said...

HW - Another great quote! Thanks. Yes, the part about beauty was interesting to me, too.

HI Peggy - yes, you mention some other great Enlightenment artists. Williams seems to limit his discourse to those who altered art theory and a few of their practitioners. However, I'd like to know more, so if you have some insights about these artists, please share!

Don - your summary is great! Makes good sense to me. Thanks for bringing greater clarity to my blogging (as usual). And, you mention the book on John Adams. I didn't read it - rather, I watched the series on HBO (lazy of me, I know). Your point about the pluses and minuses of great thinkers is well worth considering, and something I intend to address at the end of this journey in a few more blogs. When we are influenced by others we are volunteering to be influenced as I see it.
AND ... good luck with your Friday night exhibition! I hope folks have the good sense to start collecting original Michaels, Jr before the prices zoom into the stratosphere.

Anonymous said...

I’m not knowledgeable enough to discuss which artists led the way during the period of Enlightenment. Silly me, though, I'll explain a little bit of what I found.

I was looking at some sources to get an idea of the time period we are talking about. I like to orient myself to the artists of the age. This website mentions some of the artists:

I have a book I picked up some years ago on art history. It’s a series of essays written by Italian art historians, translated into English. I have been working through this book off and on over the last year or so. In the pass couple of months I was reading about Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classicism. These three art “movements” seem to bracket the Age of Enlightenment. At the back of the book, there is a timeline. Where I find Diderot, Baumgarten and Kant, I find the following artists Tiepolo, Canaletto, Chardin, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Goya and David, among others. I’m only including artists that seem familiar to me and who I understand are significant. David’s work being the trigger of the Neo-Classical movement that carried over into the 19th century.

One part I thought particularly interesting had to deal with defining beauty at the start of Neo-Classicism. The book mentions German philospher J.J. Winckelmann as one of the founders of modern aesthetics. He thought “that art should tend toward a noble simplicity and quiet grandeur. Art was no place for the representation of truth, but rather of the beautiful ideal”, (page 298).

Wow! I don’t think my art would have fit the Neo-Classical idea of beauty.

Just for reference, the ISBN of this book is 083174488X.

Phew, I feel like I've been treading water! Need to get back to the campfire!

Unknown said...

Hi Peggy ... Nice treading! Thanks so much for the great info. I'll have to find that book. It's great that you took the time to further inform us! I'm taking notes....

M said...

Without knowledge of the whole context of Baumgarten's writings , I would like to comment on his belief that the experience of beauty in nature and art should be seen as a matter of sense perception rather than abstract thought.

When I respond to something I would classify as beautiful, my first responses are always sense ones. It is the visual intake, the imagined smell, the tactile tingling just looking at it and sometimes it's imagined sound. It is only later that I begin to apply meaning to the experience. I will admit that the gap between the two might not be great. I respond to pattern in this same way. I visually follow the routes and they give me the same feelings as certain types of music- sometimes calming and sometimes chaotic. Remember I was lovingly described as a hedonist.

Kathy, I cut and pasted your blog into the response to write my comment. I've been reading and responding as I go. I'm very excited to read the statement about Kant's feeling on beauty. This is really how I look at it. I find the oddest things quite beautiful because of my sense reactions and sometimes cognitive connections to them, E.g. layers of ripped wallpaper, rusting objects, pieces of weather beaten wood, bits of fabric that are well worn.

Stopping here for now because I'm off to work. More later.

Unknown said...

Margaret - I had a feeling you would connect to Kant's ideas. Thank you for expressing your sensory response to beauty and how it applies to your work. Sometimes it helps to articulate these things - to bring them to the front of our consciousness. Don't work too hard!

Mark Sheeky said...

Still fascinated, before I've read today's Mile. I don't think that meaning or understanding is important in the appreciation of beauty. It might start sensually but beauty createst a deeper emotional response that is instant and innate, even without understanding, and that emotional response comes from rapport and empathy that can happen unconsciously. Perhaps this is a sideline to attraction to things that makes life more pleasant for us, whether other people or environments. I don't need to understand a flower to appreciate it, and it can be "meaningless"... but it is a sign of a nice environment that would be good to live in for me and my descendents.

Now, another mile to go. Hee hee.

Dan Kent said...

Wow, I've been asleep for three days - too much wine, I think - and I had no idea I was part of this august fireside chat! I thought it was just a pleasant dream..only problem is that my toes are on fire.

Anyway, Kathy, you've probably read the book "Art and Fear" by Bayles & Orland. In it, they talk about Plato who maintained that all art is a gift from the gods, channeled through artists who receive that gift. From that follows the modern notion of geniuses - that only if you are a genius, can you make great art. In truth, the book goes on, those that rely upon talent alone without developing further will fade. Others can fall into the trap when the path is hard into believing that they are just not gifted, and so they quit.

The truth, according to the authors, is that making art is hard and artists get better by improving and acquiring skills and learning from repeated efforts in their work. Committed artists care about what they do and not whether it is easy or hard.

The authors call talent a snare and a delusion. When someone looks at your work: Who cares about talent? Nobody. Who would know about your talent? Nobody. What difference would talent make? None.

Tell that to your snooty professors!

Unknown said...

Mark, I agree with you. We humans have a natural attraction to the "beautiful" and derive satisfaction to that without additonal layers of meaning. However, as you'll see in future posts, we must also assess the role of art and the artist in society. Is our role only to satisfy the senses? Thanks for adding to this conversation.

Unknown said...

Amen to all of that Dan! I agree with the authors of that book. Thanks so much for bringing this to the group conversation, and we'll try to put the fire out on your toes :)