Friday, February 21, 2014

Venn Diagram

dein aschenes Haar Sulamith
Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith, 1983
If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I’d have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.

— William Butler Yeats, “Before the World Was Made”

De gustibus non est disputandum.

— Latin maxim

Man believes that the world itself is filled with beauty—he forgets that it is he who has created it. He alone has bestowed beauty upon the world—alas! only a very human, an all too human, beauty.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Many, many circuits of this small blue planet around its dim yellow star ago, O Dearly Beloved, I remember helping my college rowing teammates put away the boats and oars one evening after practice. As we bent over exhausted to collect and carry our equipment, a few of us were suddenly struck by the beauty of a lovely sunset, which spread rosy fingers of gorgeous color across the sky and water around the dock and boathouse. Some mischievous wag, no doubt with an eye to provoking exactly what followed, starting proclaiming loudly “Art! Art!” while pointing to the scene, and several of us joined in in boisterous agreement. One upper-class oarsman of distinctly aesthetic and artistic persuasion (who was clearly the wag’s intended target) objected loudly, however, exclaiming that a natural phenomenon such as a sunset could never be art. This, of course, only spurred us jokesters to redouble our banter and offer all sorts of spurious rationales for our baseless badinage. The put upon aesthete was satisfyingly frustrated by our feigned obtuseness, and the rest of us enjoyed a temporary respite from the long, thankless business of training aching bodies for distant races far in the future. In other words, a pleasant time was had by all.

What recalls this memory to mind is a recent peroration by Antipodean philosopher and author John Armstrong, who penned a piece which claims that beauty, or at least the contemplation of beauty, can and should spur humans to become better people. He takes his guidance in this regard from German Romantic philosopher and aesthetician Friedrich Schiller, who Professor Armstrong claims attributed beauty’s appeal and importance to us to its capacity to unite two conflicting psychological drives we all possess—the “sense” drive which “lives in the moment and seeks immediate gratification,” and the “form” drive which seeks order and coherence in the world—into a harmonious whole. Dr. Armstrong does not specify where we should seek this therapeutic, personality shaping beauty, but one may sensibly assume from the examples he uses and the title of a book he has co-authored, Art as Therapy, that he looks primarily for such models and guides to harmony in the realm of art.

Now, while Your Humble Bloggist is an admitted devotee of beauty of all sorts, and an enthusiastic champion of the power and value of Art—which characterizations anyone who has followed my writings here should have no trouble admitting—I simply cannot agree with our earnest Professor that beauty is capable of creating better people, no matter what psychological, emotional, or intellectual mechanisms he might propose. For my reasons, I would point you to the following diagram, which I have constructed out of the goodness of my heart to illustrate the logical conundrums Dr. Armstrong’s assertions entail.

A Comprehensive Theory of Art, Beauty, and Morality in One Microsoft Word Diagram

A quick perusal of same will acquaint you with my own views, which boil down to the hopefully uncontroversial contention that the spheres of Art, Beauty, and Morality in human experience, while they do indeed overlap, are neither coterminous nor coextensive; that is, there is more to each than either or both of the others can comprehend. To defend this argument, I would simply point you to easily identifiable counterexamples to the opposing view: beauty, empty of morality, which is not art (like my oarsman's sunset years ago); art, empty of beauty and morality, which one might find in abundance at any Biennale; and morality, devoid of beauty or aesthetic construction, which one can enjoy in unlimited quantities in the arguments of our politicians and the jeremiads of our paid and unpaid commentariat. That there can be beautiful art, empty of all but the most tenuous and vague moral sentiments, I would point you to a great deal of the Western World’s artistic canon (including, for example, almost the entire oeuvre of Henri Matisse) and most classical music. That there can be unhandsome art of deeply moral intent and impact, which can inspire harrowing, uplifting, and life altering thoughts in a sensitive soul I can illustrate with the paintings of Anselm Kiefer (q.v. above) and numberless examples from world literature. And that there can be moral beauty without aesthetic selection or artifice I would demonstrate by the exercise of courage under great threat, as perhaps we are currently seeing among the citizenry of Kiev and Venezuela.

The happy confluence of all three spheres, Art, Beauty, and Morality in one whole, as designated by the comely asterisk in the diagram above, I contend is only a small portion of the map of human experience. As well as, more importantly, a relatively rare occurrence in most of our lives. And this is not even to address the complications and confusions introduced to a morally therapeutic program of appreciation of art and beauty by the undeniable fact that each, and perhaps most especially the latter, are indeed seen in the eye of the beholder. Which means they are culturally determined, cognitively limited, and far too idiosyncratic to hang a plan of human betterment upon. Frankly, it makes me wonder what sort of wooly headed nonsense Professor Armstrong is blathering on about. There is far too much amoral art and amoral beauty floating around out there to think their contemplation is a reliable source of moral improvement for anyone.

Then one can trot out all the horrible examples of cultured monsters who have perpetrated horrific acts upon their fellow humans throughout the ages notwithstanding and often at the same time as they enjoyed the fruits of artists’ labors and the pleasures of natural and manmade beauty. All one need do is read Paul Celan’s Todesfuge or contemplate the orchestrated theft of fine art from around Europe by Hermann Göring to realize the ability and desire to appreciate art and beauty can in fact be completely divorced from any impulse toward moral betterment or even basic humanity. And I would not be the first to point out that some of the most egregious of such atrocities were committed by denizens of the same nation which produced and idealized such figures as Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, and, if we are being complete, Friedrich Schiller. Not a good scorecard in support of Dr. Armstrong’s hypothesis.

* * *
If pressed, I would propose a different formulation. What I believe is that a sensitive, open soul in the presence of art, morality, or beauty may be able, if she concentrates, to extract meaning and value from the experience. But this meaning and value will not necessarily convey simple, uplifting lessons or moral improvement. Rather, these lessons may be something different entirely: in the case of Art, ambiguity, complexity, and obscurity may illuminate certain open-ended pathways of thought; in the case of Beauty, awe, desire, and uncanniness may give rise to fear, frustration, and a feeling of loss. Surely there are certain lessons to be learned, and moral growth to be had, in the contemplation of beauty and art. But I would contend these lessons may not be comforting ones to learn, and in the case of Great Art and Great Beauty, they are almost certain to be neither simple nor clear.

Perhaps that is the biggest moral lesson to learn, after all: the world, and our experience of it, is too big to be shoehorned neatly into any coherent system of belief. That the world, in many respects, is completely indifferent to our own personal lives and fates, and there are meaningful, awe-inspiring, and wonderful things out there which have nothing at all to do with our petty concerns. Perhaps that is the real power of Beauty and Art and Morality: writ large, they are a reminder of our own insignificance, and a spur to the sort of radical doubt that encourages us to seek harder for the meaning and value—the sources and guides to morality—in our own circumscribed lives.

That is a good lesson, but I’m not sure how you’re going to print it in a textbook.
“I see no justice in that plan.”

“Who said,” lashed out Isaac Penn, “that you, a man, can always perceive justice? Who said that justice is what you imagine? Can you be sure that you know it when you see it, that you will live long enough to recognize the decisive thunder of its occurrence, that it can be manifest within a generation, within ten generations, within the entire span of human existence? What you are talking about is common sense, not justice. Justice is higher and not as easy to understand—until it presents itself in unmistakable splendor. The design of which I speak is far above our understanding. But we can sometimes feel its presence.”

— Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

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