Friday, December 16, 2005

The Divided Line in Art

"Why are numbers beautiful? It's like asking why is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don't see why, someone can't tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren't beautiful, nothing is."

Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös thus articulated his view on the sheer aesthetic of mathematics. Theories of art centrally rely on the idea of beauty which is usually characterized as the 'perception of balance and proportion of stimulus, harmony of form, rhythm or colour, fineness of artistic quality, candour, and originality'. It is the conception of such a symmetric, perfect, consistent harmonious world that the Pythagoreans conceived of through numbers.

For Plato, art is unreal appearance, because it lies in the realm of perception, changing, disintegrating in the world, almost like illusions. He says all this because he already has a framework of reality in mind, that is, ultimately reality is that which is invariant, spaceless, timeless, consisting of absolute essences. The unreality of art comes from the fact of its change, and further, from Plato’s view that what is seen is ultimately unreal. In contrast, mathematical truths are ever real because they are unperceived, pure and sublime, not vitiated by errors.

The object of art, like numbers, is abstract. In The Imaginary, Sartre speaks of the aesthetic object as the irreal. He points out that it is a mistake to think that the artist “realizes” a pre-conceived mental image onto the canvas. Rather, Sartre claims:

“What is real…are the results of the brush strokes, the impasting of the canvas, its grain, the varnish spread over the colours. But precisely, all this is not the object of aesthetic appreciation. What is ‘beautiful’, on the contrary, is a being that cannot be given to perception and that, in its very nature, is isolated from the universe.”

Further he says that the painting is simply an analogue for one to be able to construe the object of beauty, that is, the irreal whole. Clearly then Sartre has turned the talk around. He seems to be claiming that the real is in fact the physical painting. But certainly, it is not that we are engaged with when enjoying a work of art. That which is the object of our aesthetic muse is simply never the ‘real’ paint, strokes, grain of canvas, i.e. nothing of the physically perceived senses as colors, textures, etc. It consists in an entirely abstract, irreal object that is pointed towards by the actual painting. There may be nothing specific that can be pointed at to define a common notion of art. And yet, it does not follow that there is no notion of beauty or art that we can work with, which makes that what art is. This is exactly because some things do show up as works of art as against others.

What then is the criterion of art? In what way would be art accessible to us? How should we view art? If it is an abstraction, is it even worth nurturing? The question of the use value of art has been grappled with a phenomenal concern. In lashing out against such pragmatic anxieties, Oscar Wilde, long since engaged in decadent movements, famously quipped "All art is quite useless". He was, of course, a strong champion of "Art for art's sake" (l’art pour l’art) in defiance of those who felt that the value of art lay in serving some moral or didactic purpose, as social utility, etc. The view of art for art's sake reinforced that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were self justified, and that art did not need moral justification — and in fact, was free even to be morally subversive.

Now, when does something turn into a work of art?

Marcel Duchamp, perhaps one of the most important influences the post-war art scene, co-founder of a Dada group, was one of the first artists to use commonplace objects, readymades, as the basis for his artworks. His controversial work Fountain is a clear case that interrogates the conventional notions of art. Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can is another stunning break from convention, in constructing the idiom of the pop where his works profusely used dollar bills, soup cans, posters, soft-drink bottles, and garish nylon fibres. Art now seemed to have even lost the accompanying mark of artistic methods, tools and skill, employing techniques of commercial art and advertising, and thus giving a blow to the accentuated pretence of a high-culture versus low-culture chasm.

In a self styled remark he said, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." The “superficiality” is the point of Warhol’s works. He brings forth a certain anti essentialist position on what art means to him, in his emphasis on rejecting the narrative of the concealed reality of art, the work of art and the artist. No attempt is made at analysing the subjective pathos, the intention or emotion of the artist.

By the last account it seems that nothing apart from the surface and the objects was art. In a way, we come full circle, for art for Plato too is in the realm of the sensible, i.e. in the world of change. Yet in another sense this is perhaps the total antithesis of a Plato’s dream to separate the invisible/intelligible and the visible/sensible, to separate the world of abstract forms [such as Beauty] and particular objects that may be beautiful, to separate the mind and the body, to separate the original and the copy, and so on. Whether or not there are essences to art, as the form of Beauty [cf. Plato’s Phaedo] or some archetype of symmetry, harmony, etc., are questions that would simply be irrelevant on the pop account of art.

Extending this line, Jean Baudrillard brings in the imaginative notion of hyperreality to explain how things are, in his Simulacra and Simulation. The idea of simulacrum would roughly be ‘a copy of a copy which has been so dissipated in its relation to the original that it can no longer be said to be a copy’. The simulacrum referred to are signs of culture technology and media that create the reality that we perceive, surviving on its own as a copy without a model. The 1999 movie The Matrix was based on this view of Baudrillard’s simulated world as being more real than the ‘real’ world.

In The Transparency of Evil (1993), Baudrillard speaks of a situation called ‘transaesthetics’ in which the so-called independent and isolated spheres of economy, art, politics, and culture, inter-penetrate each other. He claims that art has entered all facets of existence. Thus, the expectation of the avant-garde for art to inform life [cf. Oscar Wilde’s quip ‘Life imitates Art’] has been, in many ways, already fulfilled. Yet, this precisely means that in the incorporation and proliferation of art in everyday life, art itself as an independent and transcendent phenomenon has vanished. ‘Reality is therefore just another TV channel’. Interestingly, Baudrillard makes use of Borges’ ironic fable of an empire whose cartographers create a map so minutely detailed that it covers the very things it was intended to represent. That is, the map turns out to be as large as the kingdom itself, to the scale! Now, when the empire declines, the map recedes into the landscape and there is neither the simulated copy or representation, nor is it the originally real that remains – but just the hyperreal.
This appeared in Vista 2005, Fine Arts Society Journal, St. Stephen's College.

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