Thursday, August 9, 2012

Art and Logic

At the beginning of the movie Joe vs. the Volcano, the protagonist Joe, enters an office. In the background a man is arguing on the phone.  The man is Joe’s boss, Mr. Waturi, who is shouting repeatedly over the phone, “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job!” Interestingly, in his book, The Republic, Plato seems to be asking his audience much the same question about the Philosophy and Arts. That is, while philosophers may talk about what art is, or what art does, it is very careful to point out that art and philosophy are fundamentally different.  Thus, in Book 10 of the Republic, Plato bans artists from the Republic not because art is mere imitation but because he is afraid that people will confuse the art of an artist with the art of the philosopher.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the average reader found this confusing. After all, isn’t there a substantial difference between art and philosophy? Philosophy is a study of the nature of knowledge. It is rational, it is orderly, and it is systematic. Art is a study of the human condition. It is emotional, it is empathic, and it is messy. So why does Plato expel artists from his Republic, his ideal city? Perhaps he fears the competition that artists will give philosophers, since both disciplines aim at a revelation of some type of truth, one about logic and knowledge the other about the human condition. However, Plato believed that the type of knowledge that artists communicated was an inferior type of knowledge. And even if we put that aside for a moment and admit that there are types of “truth” that each discipline espouses, at first glance these two types of truth seem very different from one another.

Plato states quite plainly that artists are solely concerned with the particulars of appearance, and as such they do not fit into the broad scheme of universal ideals that Plato believes to be the penultimate goal of the philosopher’s quest. Plato calls the refinement of knowledge aimed at revealing "universal ideals" phronesis, a word loosely translated into English as "judgment". In other words, refining our judgment is the definitive intellectual virtue. I suppose then, for Plato, there can be no match between what the artist does and what the philosopher does.

Aristotle, on the other hand, divides our knowledge of understanding into three different parts, and while part of our understanding of the world is theoretical (i.e. Plato), it is also productive and practical. Thus phronesis or judgment is not an unqualified intellectual virtue, but only in matters regarding human conduct.  Furthermore, because humanity exists as a multiplicity, and the judgment of the individual is subjective the individual can share his or her aesthetic appreciation of an art object with the community. Thus I can contemplate an object of art, appreciate it, critique it and discuss it with others and arrive at a universal understanding that reflects the multiplicity of the community.

It is interesting because, aside from judgment, the overlap between the disciplines of art and philosophy may take the form of moral virtue, by which I mean that artists goal is to create a work of art that reveals some truth about the nature of the human condition to elevate the viewer, and in the same way the philosophers the aim it to arrive at a kind of moral virtue through a refinement of phronesis. That is both discipline ultimately strive to reveal truths about the nature of existence that will ultimately better human kind.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Universals and Particulars

When discussing the definition of portraiture with my students, I always begin with this, “Good portraits convey likeness; great portraits convey personality.” Surprisingly, no one ever seems to argue with this statement. I mean, what is a portrait if not a likeness? Also in an attempt to glamorize the sitter, wont an artist make the characters easily excitable and colorful? Don’t these additions subtract from the reality of the individual? Isn't the only reliable identification of the sitter their likeness?

At the same time don’t actions speak louder than words, and don’t we know a person by their moods, their peculiarities of habit and so forth, and isn’t an individual's personality just as important as what they look like? I mean, how do we recognize a person? By their looks? A face in the crowd? Or by the memorable quirks of character that are so defining?

Interestingly the Greek word for mirror, katoptron, is at the heart of an analysis of the purpose of artistic activity in Plato’s Republic. Just as a mirror reflects the details of life as it appears to us, says Plato, so an artist imitates all things. In contrast to the artist is the artisan or craftsperson, like a cobbler or a carpenter who are also creative, but who, in Plato’s esteem, occupy an invaluable place in society. The artisan, unlike the artist, doesn’t simply reproduce mere representation, but creates something useful and valuable to society.

Unlike the artist, who creates an imitation of reality, the artisan holds a specific idea in view, like the pattern of a shoe. In this way, the artisan works from a universal ideal and creates a particular that is contained under it.

One might object that once the artisan has created an object, for example a shoe, the artisan has created something sensible, no longer ideal and that this is an inherent contradiction in Plato’s logic. However, I do not believe that Plato was as concerned about shoes as he was about a paradigm of thought. Plato calls possessing the highest form of thought “phronesis”. It is a knowledge both scientific and theoretical and works from universals to particulars.

Aristotle, of course will invert this relationships. Whereas Plato confines artists to narrowly reflecting particulars, Aristotle insists that the artist is not concerned with the factual, but with the possible. Aristotle defines the activity of art making as a process of composition, bringing together different particulars in order to form a cohesive plot. What is more, because the effort to link particulars to universals is forever potential, there is no universal way of teaching art or rules for implementing art.

I suspect, though I am not certain, that when one looks at a portrait in search of a series of personality traits that make up the individual, that portrait is going to vary from person to person, and that each person is going to bring their own understanding of particulars and thus the understanding of the portrait will be different for each person who looks at it.  This is the anathema to Plato’s understanding of aesthetics, because it relegates beauty to an open ended series of judgments that have nothing to do with the ideal.

At the same time, there are works of art that are often agreed upon as “masterpieces of art.” Which suggests that while these works may not be taken from universal blue prints, so to speak, there are, none the less inspirations, works of art that are familiar, historical references, and other likenesses that allow us to appreciate both likenesses and differences in a universal way.  A balance must be struck between genius and taste, between universal and particular, between the likeness of sitter, and their personality. And really this is what makes a great portrait, or any great work of art.

Beauty is Divine

Years ago I was glancing at the headlines on a paper in a newspaper vending machine when one tagline caught my eye, Science Confirms Plato, Beauty is Absolute. Unfortunately I did not buy the paper and subsequently did not read the article. For all I know it was an op-ed piece on gardening tips. Still, my interest remains piqued. I have tried to Google variations of the title but have never found any writing that presents definitive proof demonstrating categorically that Beauty is an Absolute.

When talking about Plato’s term “absolute” it might be more appropriate to say “beauty in itself.” Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Plato’s theory of ideal forms understands that Beauty is not tied to things that we would describe as beautiful, like a flower or a woman. Instead beauty leads us to a love of truth, which for Plato was the divine. In Plato’s world, everything that is good or noble must be beautiful. The lover of truth purifies the mind of desires and appetites and focus instead on knowledge that wells up from within.

You might ask how can beauty be thought of as objectively separate from the thing that we call beautiful? Shouldn’t beauty be a relative value instead of an absolute principle? Isn’t what I call beautiful and what you call beautiful necessarily going to vary? Beauty changes over time. The flower wilts.

Plato says that the absolute is independent of thoughts existing in men's brains. At the same time Plato identifies his universal Ideas with characteristics of a particular objects, such as the chair-ness of a chair, which would not appear to have an independent reality. I suspect this is the character of the divine that is necessarily resident in Plato’s understanding of the Absolute. These absolutes must exist as some emanation of God’s thought, otherwise, if they are just the stuff of our thoughts they are mortal and not eternal.

So beauty is divine, and if the newspaper headline is to be believed, science has proven it.  I begin to think that my memory may not be as accurate as I once imagined, and that the article might be less about Plato’s world of heavenly forms than I once believed.

Another possibility that occurs to me is that we may be dealing with a problem of semantics, and just as the Eskimos had a hundred words for “snow”, or as C.S. Lewis had his 4 loves, shouldn’t there be many types of beauty, one for every taste and imagination?

Anyway, I was talking with a friend a few days ago and she suggested I start dusting off my writing skills when it comes to the topic of aesthetics. Mainly because I have been thinking about going back to school again to study the philosophy of art know as aesthetics. So be warned faithful readers, the next few blog posts will probably be more of the same.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

having a human expereince

One of my earliest memories involving prayer took place in my then eighth grade study hall. I remember leaning over my desk, taking a deep breath, and as I exhaled I uttered the words “Dear God, why do you hate me so much?”

I don’t know if this qualifies as a pray per se, but of all the times that I have talked to God since, it certainly counts as one of the most sincere prayers I have ever made.

I wouldn’t call myself a religious man, or even profoundly spiritual, but I do like to contemplate my relationship to the divine from time to time.  I suppose I should categorize that by saying that I prefer to focus on personal, inward discoveries, rather than speculations about the nature of God or other supernatural entities.

I suppose it is nature to question our spiritual existence. Evidence suggests that people have been asking questions like “Where do we come from? Who are we? And Where are we going?” For about as long as people have walked the earth. Archeologists are quick to deduce that, while the exact nature of cave drawings can never be completely known or understood, they seem to represent the same kinds of questions that the artist Paul Gauguin was asking in his great masterpiece.

As a young man I was drawn to the idea of “enlightenment.” I liked the idea of having a goal towards which one could strive. I have long since abandoned this notion in conjunction with spirituality as “enlightenment” no longer holds the allure of being some far away mystical state. Anymore when I think about the word "enlightenment" to me it just means “paying attention.”

I do not believe that a spiritual experience is connected to thoughts, feelings, emotions or any dogma or system of morality. The problem with these things is that they tend to ground us in ourselves and our existence, that is, thoughts and feeling tend to be about our selves and our lives, and really have very little meaning outside of the reality of our existence while by “spiritual experience” I mean any experience that transcends our meager existence. Among those spiritual experiences I would include, Love, Creativity and the Sublime.

I first learned of the Sublime while studying art history. In art the term is typically used to describe Romantic landscape paintings of the nineteenth century.  In a general way the terms refers to “greatness beyond all possibility of expression.“ Anyone who has ever experienced and extraordinarily deep sense of joy or sorrow has touched upon the threshold of the sublime.

In my own spiritual practice I frequently substitute the word “Universe” for any suggestion of divinity. I do this for a couple of reasons. One, because invoking "the Universe" reminds me of the sublime nature of existence, from the lace-like intricacy of a snowflake to the vast emptiness of interstellar space, the Universe is one amazing place.  Another is that it reminds me that I am mortal, and that no matter what my personal religious beliefs, this does not change the fact that I am merely a human being among human beings and that I should approach all beliefs with humility and compassion. Pretty much everything thing else can be summed up in the poem “A Guest House” by Rumi in which he states in the opening line “This human being is a guest house” and that all experiences are transitory and should be welcomed with gratitude.

For me spirituality is a never ending and evolving process. It makes sense, considering the fact that everything, the universe, is constantly changing, and that if we are going to keep up, we need to constantly pay attention. It changes, and we change and so our understanding changes. I think my only regret is that I will never have the chance to explain this to the eighth grade boy crying at his desk. Still, I am glad he began to understand this, however gradually, despite my being there to comfort him.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Watching the Watchers

Sitting at my daughter’s swim lesson I watch a cloud as it drifts across the open blue sky. Hovering low, it appears as if it is going to encounter a nearby water tower. I want to climb the tower, or even the branches of the nearby trees and extend my hands out into the velvety softness of the misty haze. I imagine the cloud passing over farms and cities, looking down as it soars on the trade winds, spying down on people like me. Wondering, perhaps, why we stare back.

Long before the movie American Beauty showed us the image of a plastic trash bag dancing on currents of wind in a small alley I have wondered about the about the life behind ordinary objects. 

Take, for example, the tomb of Tutankhamen. His tomb was robbed in antiquity, but based on the evidence found in the tomb it is entirely possible that these robberies took place within several months at most of the initial burial. Antiquarians suspect that eventually the location of the tomb was lost, forgotten, perhaps buried from the debris of subsequent tomb constructions, or covered over by the sediment of floods.

As I sit here thinking about this I imagine those robbers resealing the tomb. Behind those locked doors lays a vast treasure that is theirs for the taking. I can see the hand of the last robber departing the scene. He gently pats the walls in farewell, a treasure enough to sustain his family for lifetimes, envisioning the time when he will soon return. History suggests he never will.

I think about the lock on my garden shed, hanging there in the heat of the day, in the rain and the night and the dew of the morning. I think about the things contained with, sitting there in the dark; a mower, a few children’s toys, a bag of fertilizer. They sit there in the dark, slowly aging. As I press the lock together I am sure that I will be back in a day or week and that the things I left behind will be waiting there for me.

Authors sit in front of screens describing the world, even as readers patiently make there way across lines of text. I wonder, does the screen look back? Long before I had ever heard of Alice and her looking glass I imagined that the face in the mirror, the one that looked so much like mine, might actually be alive, and that as he turns his back on mine and walks through the bathroom door, he enters into a world surprisingly familiar.

“Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.”

Walking down the bike path I am suddenly struck by a thought, what if I am not looking at the world at all? What if all that I am seeing is nothing more than the world’s gaze reflected off of me and in reality it is the world that see me long before I see it? Thinking this way I feel entirely surrounded by things: the air, the trees, the grass and stones, all of them patiently watching me as I walk by. Their gaze like a warm blanket envelops me holding me in place. There is a comfort here, and quiet to as all the world is stillness.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Name the behavior

Yesterday I got a comment on my blog from a post that is almost four years old. It is hard to imagine that I have kept my blog that long. I am not what you would call a steady blogger, but only because I set up my blog for myself, as a record of my thoughts, my interests and my experiences, and not for any greater altruistic ideas.

None-the-less, occasionally people stumble across my blog and some even leave comments. For the most part the comments are discursive; some insightful and others brilliant. Other times they are strange, even ugly, like the time I received an angry rant of a comment from a guy claiming to be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

They say there are topics that one should avoid in polite company. I think the list is sex, politics and religion. Though I am not sure. Either way my blog doesn’t really shy away from these topics, so I am bound to get a little push back from people that hold contrary opinions. Different opinions I can tolerate, though it is hard to swallow negativity, and I am never sure how to handle these situations gracefully. In the instance involving the individual claiming to be Ahmadinejad I deleted the comment because, in my opinion, it was disparaging against certain religious groups and I really don’t tolerate that kind of behavior.

I suppose that brings me to the comment I received yesterday.  It is not a very well written comment, and in reality I should probably just ignore it. But the problem is that I think there is something veiled in the comment that is disparaging of others and, as I said before, I don’t tolerate other people’s bad behavior.  In fact I could let the whole thing go with a shrug if it hadn’t been for the last line in which the speaker says “You can keep your warm fuzzy.”

In one sentence the speaker has summed up what I believe is the problem with most organized religions, namely that statements of faith can masquerade as an argument, and that this argument once presented should be understood as incontrovertible.

I have no problem with the statement that the speaker makes regarding his faith in Jesus, however to suggest that this somehow negates or otherwise refutes contrary opinions is a fallacy and worse, it subtly disparages other groups who may hold differing opinions. While it falls short of outright condemnation of others, it does fall dangerously close to a discriminatory attitude towards people of differing ideas and beliefs.

Sadly, intolerance always seems to be the answer to intolerance. Which is why these debates seem endless and never appear to reach resolution.  I say that I find the speakers position intolerable, and then they counter with an equally entrenched attitude until we are so far from common ground that any reasonable settlement seems impossible. You see it in the Middle East and Western Europe, you see it in the politics of the United States and countries of the orient. Things cannot get better this way, they cannot.

There are many challenges to addressing contrary opinions, especially when they are entrenched in topics that are so loaded. Still I believe that one can refuse to accept unacceptable behavior without intolerance or violence. I think that it is important to name a behavior that we find unacceptable, to call it out, lest we allow these attitudes to perpetuate themselves unchallenged. That is why I would say that I am glad that the speaker has found Jesus, and would ask him to remember that “God is Love” and not wield the name of Jesus like a sword in a conversation about how ridiculous the generic use of the word “green” has become.

Friday, July 13, 2012

love what you do

My fascination with brewing beer began when I was working in bars and restaurants. Though I was in management, I was much more at home in the kitchen or standing behind the bar learning to mix different cocktails. Eventually I began cooking, learning how to recreate different dishes that I had tasted and developing a pallet for different varieties of wine to accompany each meal. A creative personality, I imagine the kitchen and bar appealed to some primal need of self-expression.

The explosion of microbreweries in the 1990’s, hip little restaurants that also brewed and served their own particular styles of beer, caught my imagination, and on a road trip to Dallas, I stopped into a homebrew shop and purchased a kit. I tried a few times to make a decent batch, but never really got the hang of it. Circumstances changed and the kit ended up back in the box, there to be forgotten for the next fifteen years.

Flash forward to about a year and a half ago, I was talking with a friend of mine when I discovered that he was a seasoned home brewer. Bit by the bug, I asked my brother to retrieve the kit from my parent’s attic and ship it down to me, in Dallas of all places. I began visiting the old homebrew shop and before you knew it I was making a few half decent batches of beer.  Making beer, it turns out, is like everything else, you have to do it a few times before you get good. Persistence, and a willingness to accept occasional failure are sure fired recipes for moderate success.

Most of the things that I love to do I have taught myself, and while I doubt I will ever win awards, I firmly believe that if you do what you love to do you will always be happy.  Not surprisingly, most of the things that I love to do involve making something: Painting, cooking, brewing. Though I am not sure I would say that I love to brew, as much as I love the idea of drinking my own home brew. In fact, this is an interesting quirk of my personality. In the same vein I wouldn’t say that I love to cook or paint either. But what I love to do is eat things that I have made in the kitchen, and to look at paintings that I have made.  What I really love is the moment that comes with the satisfaction of having done something well.

(I suppose one could make the argument that I love cooking or painting or even brewing more than I love, say, yard work, or hunting. And to that I would agree.)

I often say I love my work because I do what I love, namely teach art. I don’t get the same satisfaction at the end of the day that way I do with painting or cooking, probably because teaching itself doesn’t appeal to the creative aspects of my life. However teaching affords me other luxuries like talking about history, philosophy, and, in short, about the world of ideas. In this way, teaching allows me to be creative and to feel that moment of satisfaction indirectly and thus is a source of great content for me.

Ultimately, I suppose that is why I blog as well, not so much because I love writing, but because I can look back on the myriad subjects that I have written about and feel some satisfaction that I have lived a well examined life. And a pretty good life at that!