The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Art of Having a Lofty Perspective

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
By Michael Kimmelman (2005)

Chapter 3: The Art of Having a Lofty Perspective

This chapter is about “beauty” and covers many of the same topics we’ve already discussed here, from the Greek philosophers to Hume, Kant, and Danto. However, Kimmelman provides another perspective which he illustrates through a story about mountain climbing. At one point in his life, he wanted to scale Mount Sainte-Victoire, the same peak that inspired Cezanne (photo). Expecting a mountain-top epiphany, the author was disappointed to find that no such enlightenment occurred and so he began to speculate about why.

One clue might be in how we understand “beauty.” According to philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, beauty, if it is not to be solely decorative, should also have a deeper rationale for being in art; it should be intrinsic to the meaning of art. This removes the superficial aspect of beauty and provides a deeper meaning that must be deciphered through an effort to understand its meaning.

Danto's notion nicely coincides with David Hume’s. Hume, who separated natural beauty from beauty in art, saying that natural beauty just hits you in the face – it is plainly there, and if you fail to recognize it, too bad, no rational explanation of nature’s beauty will redress your failure – whereas beauty in art depends on reasoning and critical analysis: people may come around to seeing beauty in art through reasoned argument.

The author uses two examples to support these philosophies: Duschamp’s “readymades” which have been critically accepted as art, such as “The Fountain” (a urinal); and, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapping of the Reichstage which was, during the planning stage, met with outrage by Berliners but later embraced as “the symbolism of turning the new seat of a reunified Germany into a chrysalis and then unwrapping it.”

Continuing his quest for enlightenmnet, Kimmelman hikes a second peak. This time, he has an epiphany of sorts. He realized that all deep understanding of beauty may in fact be acculturated. That is, “art becomes our entree to the sublime. It illustrates that beauty is not something static and predictable and always there at the top of a mountain, but an organic, shifting, elusive, and therefore more desirable goal of our devotion, which we must make an effort to grasp.
Personally, I agree. Isn't this why "beauty is in the eye of the beholder?" If beauty were a standardized, quantifiable entity arrived at by formulaic means or limited to only one set of standards wouldn't it become ordinary and lacking the "sublime"? Don't we bring our individual thoughts, ideas, and experiences into play when we deem something to be beautiful? Yes, emotions play a role, but not without cognitive processes.

What are your thoughts?


Leovi said...

Estoy de acuerdo, "la belleza está en el ojo que mira". Una cosa insignificante que vemos todos los días, en momento dado, podemos encontrarla bella y ver en ella aspectos no vistos con anterioridad. Pienso que el estado de ánimo de las personas en cada momento es determinante.

Unknown said...

Hi Leovi - Gracias por tu comentario. ¡De acuerdo!

Casey Klahn said...

Danto needed to climb Mt Rainier.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - in light of your earlier comment, I think you're right!!

Mark Sheeky said...

I'm a relatively recent believer in beauty. Quite simply you can represent ugliness using beauty but you can't represent beauty using ugliness.

I think that some aspects of beauty are partly learned or matters of taste but also I think that some aspects of beauty inhere. A tree is more beautiful than a building. Red is more beautiful than brown. Smooth shapes are more beautiful than rough ones. I think that stuff is built in to us. Perhaps it worn't do us any good to prefer buildings to trees! That said I'd rather see a beautifully painted skull than a slap-dash princess.

Of course as a reasonable thinker I don't have unshakable opinions on anything. This subject is worthy of a book itself! I wonder what beautiful replies the others will type.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - I take a broader view about what's beautiful, since so much of it is internal to us and not necessarily external. Certainly, there are sights, sounds, touches and tastes that please us that we could deem "beautiful" or "ugly." But, there are also "meanings" that are beautiful or ugly. For instance, a mother's love or war. We all have a different sensibility about that. An architect might find buildings more beautiful than trees, and an arborist would probably disagree. This author's point is really about what is beautiful in "art" and not in general. It's a lot ot think about and, as you say, there's more than enough to fill a book. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

Anonymous said...

Cezanne's Mount Sainte-Victoire are among my favorites of his paintings.

Interesting discussion Kathy. I think my idea or concept of beauty grows as I study. Maybe it's linked to understanding and knowledge; that's what I think I'm reading here. Oh, and beauty and understanding may be linked, hmmm, there's a powerful idea!

Unknown said...

Hi Peggy - you make a profound point by linking beauty and understanding!! Thank you.