On Ice-creams, Van Gogh and (the power of) Aesthetics: Part Three – The Aesthetic Path Forward

1.      THE AESTHETIC PATH FORWARD FOR HUMAN ADVANCEMENT

The principle reason for the existence of human societies is the need to ensure human survival. Once we can cover our needs for survival, and only once those needs are covered, human beings are allowed to make choices. Freedom, therefore, is conditioned by the obligation of having the problem of survival properly cared for. It is enclosed in spaces of time that are not occupied by the chores required to guarantee our continued existence. These survival-task liberated spaces are commonly called periods of free-time. It is the temporal area in which we are able to apply our faculties of judgement to activities and concerns that have nothing to do with the problems of survival.

Because of this basic dynamic, underlying all complex human societies, the educational programmes of our called civilised communities have to deal initially with teaching survival skills and secondly with the fields of activity emerging in the area of freedom, which is the space of freedom to make judgements, which, in principle, are high-aesthetic judgements, by which we mean judgements that are free from the burdens of survival needs.

In our civilisation, this simple separation between the necessity for survival and freedom from those necessities, has been complicated through the development of economics. By confining our sapiens instincts to the needs of the homo economicus, humanity has been moulded into a being capable of survival in the complex structure of the economic matrix. Within this area dominated by the marketplace, time spaces enveloping survival needs and those other spaces of freedom are no longer clearly defined. Economics has spread necessity out rather than reducing it, and this of course pushes survival needs into the spaces of free time, putting stress on freedom and diminishing the system’s functionality in an anti-civilising way. If civilisation should be geared to reducing our concerns for survival in order to liberate our time for judgement, then we must begin to accept that our current civilisation is not a civilising process at all. The spreading out of necessity occurs through our dependency on money to survive. A dependency that encourages necessity to seep into the area of the superfluous. In fact, the homo economicus is never satisfied with the mere covering of authentic survival needs, he or she needs the superfluity of an ever-expanding survival-need field, and is prepared to sacrifice freedom in order to dedicate themselves to gathering the superfluous, in order to obtain more and more superfluity.

Superfluity closes doors into the area of high-aesthetics judgements and by doing so actually reduces freedom as well by enslaving us to new, superfluous necessities, many of which are falsely imagined to be necessary for survival. This is of course a decadence. The superfluous world is always a decadent one.      

To be human (sapiens) is to know that one is. The principle desire of all living things is to keep living, what we call the survival instinct and the first profoundly felt conscious desire of human beings is the first time one is consciously aware that one wants to keep living. A desire and will that is constantly with us, albeit in a subconscious way. Even the choice of eating an ice-cream has a profound, subconscious basis to it, which is incipiently one of judgement and therefore moral: I want to eat something in order to energise my existence or even perhaps survive (my hunger indicates that I must) but if this is so why not eat something that will be enjoyable; if I am going to survive in this world I may as well do it in an enjoyable way, by eating ice-creams for example, although then again, the nutritional value of ice-creams is limited, whilst the sugars and fats in an ice-cream could depreciate my health, so perhaps I should eat something else … Through this example of ice-cream eating we can see how judgement is embedded into our world of desire. We are no longer subject to the necessity of survival alone – although the ice-cream carries a vestige of survival it transcends it. Ice-cream exists not for survival but for pleasure, and so it is basically an aesthetic decision that we are making when we desire it, complicated in an aesthetic way by the decision we need to make when we choose the flavour. So, beyond the necessity for survival we immediately enter the terrain of freedom and of aesthetics. Yes, what we are asserting here is strange: no-one, surely, could seriously consider ice-cream eating an aesthetic act, and yet, really we can see no reason why it should not be.

There is certainly a great difference between Van Gogh’s decision for the colours and brush strokes applied to his Starry Night and the decision someone makes as to the topping given to their vanilla ice. A difference that resides primarily in the purpose of the result embedded in the decision, and secondly in the permanence contrasted with the ephemerality of the outcome in accord with that result.

For example, the purpose of the decisions related to ice-cream eating are related to the pleasure of the senses (primarily taste) in what will essentially be an ephemeral event. Ice-cream eating is like watching theatre, the pleasure and the beauty of it reside in the moment of its consumption (and, if it is good, in the desire for that moment to endure). Memories will linger and more ice-creams will probably be enjoyed later on, each recollection competing with an ideal reconstruction of something which is considered the best of all the ice-creams ever consumed.

For the artisan creating the ices, the ephemerality is a bonus. His or her purpose is to sell as many ice-creams as possible and his or her skill is to create a positive memory and through this a desire to repeat the experience in the minds of those who try one of these works of art.

Yes, the ice-cream is a work of art, but the purpose behind it is the profit obtained by selling as many examples as possible. It is art in the world of the homo economicus whose basic purpose is accumulation of wealth. The process strives for a permanence, but a permanence (wealth) gained through replication (commercialisation). To be successful, each batch of strawberry ice-cream must taste like the previous one. Of course, the art of ice-cream making is vastly different to what Van Gogh was doing.

Van Gogh painted in the realm of beauty, to produce that which defies the ephemerality of the experience of its discovery. In other words, he wanted to make paintings that people would want to be preserved and made available for all to see, forever. The art of Van Gogh is the art of creating an original singularity which demands to remain throughout time. The Starry Night can be copied, but it is not the same when it is, and the informed spectator knows this and will yearn to experience the beauty of the original.

This art is hugely different to ice-cream making. Its purpose lies in perfecting an original masterpiece that demands permanence. It is anti-replication. However, despite the difference in value between the Starry Night painting and ice-cream, let us not presume to say that one is more valuable than the other. The loss of ice-cream or the loss of the Starry Night would be equally disappointing for humanity. The homo economicus could make a calculation and show us that more money has been made from the selling ice-creams than from all of the auction sales of all of Van Goch’s paintings, and conclude from this that ice-creams are more valuable, whilst art lovers would demand the originality and impossible repeatability of Van Gogh’s opus elevates his art’s value far beyond that of any ice-cream, but again, let us stress the idea that the loss of either would be a tremendous disappointment and always a sad loss for humanity itself. Humanity is the sum of what it has created and managed to preserve.

However, in order to understand the real, abysmal difference between making ice-cream and the works of Van Gogh, we need to return to our original premises that: (a) artistic choices are judgements; (b) artistic choices are a demonstration of freedom; and, add a new element (c) judgements are formed through questioning.

From the latter, we can easily find the difference between manufacturing ice-cream and painting Starry Night, we merely have to ask ourselves: What questions are being asked here? Once we do, we find that we have to ask quite different ones. The questions involved in ice-cream making are centred around what pleases the senses?, whilst the questions that Van Gogh was asking were metaphysical and existential ones as Starry Night was painted during a crisis period when Van Gogh was suffering from hallucinations with acute depression and suicidal thoughts. Ice-cream needs to please us, but it will not actually change us (except perhaps to make us fat). On the other hand, Van Gogh was examining who we are and what our relationship with the universe is, and the answers to that kind of questioning can change us – they can even improve us.

Through these examples we have found two vastly different purposes for aesthetic judgements: (i) to please the senses, and (ii) to change and improve us by enquiring into our existential nature. The first has no pretensions of changing or improving us, only rather to make our experiences of the world more pleasurable. It is the kind of aesthetics that can be most profitable for business ventures and its creations are usually elaborated with the idea of a massive replication aimed at enormous sales and profits. The art of ice-cream making is profoundly commercial and aesthetically pornographic. It is a form of aesthetic prostitution.  

Van Gogh’s kind of questioning, however, hardly ever brings great profit for its creator (but then again, that was never that artist’s intention). The work involved is centred around creating original works. It does not forbid replication (in literature, for example, replication of the original is a normal and desired result), but its replication is never the main purpose behind the creation as it is in ice-cream making. If it is involved in the sensual realm, it will be erotic rather than pornographic. It abhors prostitution.

That which pleases the senses is far more successful than that which strives to change and improve us. This is due to the replicating nature of sensually pleasurable objects, and also because immediate, ephemeral pleasure is far easier to produce and its creations are more visible and perceivable than anything designed with the intention of durable satisfaction or long-term improvements. Likewise, the will to luxuriate is one of humanity’s strongest drives, and this, mixed with the capitalist system of consumerism and conservative political ideologies that concentrate on the day-to-day experience of life rather than a progressive view of the future, traps society in the present continuous moment where the ephemeral can thrive.

Our activities are heavily constrained by social issues as well as the grip that economic power has on those same factors. The societies we are born into are already stringently organised and individuals have to learn how to interpret the flow of those societies in order to be able to navigate themselves through the tricky currents of their waters. There is a public interpretation of reality that must be accepted by the individual in order to fit in. This interpretation is nearly always conservative and any artist who tries to see beyond the mask of our public-opinion created reality is rare, while the one who is actually able to step outside and truly see ways of changing and improving our reality is much rarer still.  

Our social interactions only seem possible whilst they remain superficial and this is made possible through the profusion of small talk, which is the normal way of communicating. Small talk is in fact a release, a way of interacting with others and touching on topics without ever really developing our understanding of what we are dealing with, which means that small talk protects us against the need to ever practice the most human of all our skills: our ability to know.

It is as if we are ashamed of our most original organ and the Judaic myth of the expulsion from Paradise could be seen as a justification of this otherwise seemingly inexplicable shame. Original sin lies in the act of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, which symbolically represents the human brain: “From there thou must not eat!” It is as if God gave Adam and Eve a magnificent mind and then said: “Thou must not use this mind.” To make it honest there should be a verse in Genesis that says: “And when they had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge Adam and Eve felt great shame every time they had an original thought. And God gave them Small Talk to hide their shame.

Our language is so confined by social factors and constrained by our fear of sounding too profound that it forces us to make banal conversation, full of generalisations and untruths, and by doing so, pulling us away from the essence of ourselves as human beings, as homo sapiens sapiens, the species that knows.

Most people will want a good life and, whilst the definition will be subjectively formed creating millions of interpretations, this idea of good could be generally interpreted as meaning a comfortable life, or at least one lacking in too many uncomfortable experiences. Of course, these concepts of good and comfortable are totally conditioned by relativity and their semantic inflections will change in each person’s lifetime according to the opportunities offered them, but in general it is a conservative outlook based on making the best of what is available for reproduction rather than making what can be available better and the better things that could be possible a concrete reality. To achieve the latter requires changing what is in order to produce what will be, while the former adapts to the present continuous. Only when what is seems bad or wrong, or lacking, or dangerous, will a large part of society be inspired to change it for something better. But in the rare moments when that does occur, the small talk also changes and becomes deeper, deepened by indignation and a desire for improvement.

Heidegger said that conversation was “participating in the revealing”. Through conversation we reveal what we know and discover things that others know. Even small talk participates in this revealing process. Conversation therefore has the potential to either reinforce reality or change and improve it, or make it worse. What we talk about is an aesthetic question, or a question of judgement. It can replicate what it is or change it. It can support what is, or condemn it. It can be a motor for support, or one of demolition.             

On Ice-creams, Van Gogh and (the power of) Aesthetics: Part Two Kant

… CONTINUED FROM PART ONE

1.      KANT’S AESTHETIC JUDGEMENT

Kant’s main work on aesthetics is The Critique of Judgement, which is basically about aesthetics and purposefulness and we think that Nietzsche would have had to have had Kant’s associations somewhere in his mind when using the term in Beyond Good and Evil, after all the bracketed note he makes defining the falsest judgements as that to which synthetic judgements a priori belong, is using purely Kantian terminology.

Kant’s book begins with a Critique of Aesthetic Judgement and an analysis of beauty. Kant argues that it is important to understand that something is beautiful only because we judge it to be so and that it cannot be beautiful until that judgement is made, and this is the basic idea that Nietzsche is leafing through in The Will to Power when he argues that, despite the idea that the world astounds us, we basically ignore the fact that there is nothing awesome at all in the world except that which we ourselves infuse it with. Kant attributed four distinguishing features to aesthetic judgements: subjectivity (that the beauty and ugliness we find in the world is disinterested and therefore its appreciation depends on our subjective interpretations); universality; necessity; and purposiveness.   Now what Nietzsche does in his own critique of religion, is stress the subjectivity without completely falling into the traps of Berkeleyan idealism, as seen when he ironically makes his hero Zarathustra cry out to the sun: “Great star! What would your happiness be, if you had not those for whom you shine![i] The great star, the sun, exists, but its meaning can only come through the meaning granted it by the sapiens observer, and this is what Kant was saying. The sun is only happy because we, or someone, perceives it that way, and, on a larger, metaphysical scale, this means that the Universe is given meaning through being perceived and being analysed judgementally. Or, in other words, the meaningfulness of the Universe is an aesthetic, judgemental construct that we are playing an active role in – and it is this awesome idea, not the idea of God, that needs to inspire humanity if we are ever able to overcome our indifference and incredulity towards human advancement in the world.

(CONTINUED IN PART THREE


[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA, Prologue, Section 1

On Ice-creams, Van Gogh and (the power of) Aesthetics: Part One Nietzsche

1.      NIETZSCHE

In his Critique of Religion in The Will to Power, Nietzsche begins with an original insight into the psychological nature of aesthetics (the beauty and sublimity bestowed upon real and imaginary things), calling it our fairest apology[i], and insinuating that through our admiration and worship of things we are actually humbling ourselves as we do not want to admit to ourselves that the world is as it is because we alone have created it to be that way. The idea he expounds here is a kind of Berkeleyan (albeit atheistic), subjective idealism, that the world is the creation of the (human) perceiver, and that it does not take a meaningful shape until the perceiver begins to understand and define what is perceived. But Nietzsche’s original twist to this old idea is that the awesome power granted by the realisation of this concept is, in fact, paradoxically, an ultimately debilitating force. As Nietzsche says: “it raises in him (humanity) a doubt about his own person: he does not dare to think himself the cause of this astonishing feeling – and so he posits a stronger person, a divinity, to account for it.[ii]Or, in other words, Nietzsche argues that because we cannot cope with the responsibility of our power as creators, we need to invent the idea of God as a greater than human power in the Universe. In this way, the God we make can bear the brunt of the responsibility of creation, while we humans get on with leading the irresponsible kind of life we enjoy the most.  

Now, although Nietzsche never actually uses the term aesthetics in these passages, the beauty and sublimity bestowed upon real and imaginary things should almost certainly be considered a simple definition of an aesthetic process, and so the association being made here is between aesthetics and religion, and that is another great Nietzschean insight. While he makes his proposal in order to simply critique humanity and religion, we have found a much deeper insight buried here. Nietzsche is describing a psychological attitude which not only colours our attitude to religion, it also effects the question of our capacity for freedom and, because of that, inhibits our ability to make true moral and social progress in the world.

§

If Nietzsche was right, embedded in the development of both religions and aesthetics lies an enormous irresponsibility – the denial of ourselves as supreme creators. This denial exposes a human immaturity, a fear of accepting the responsibility of the awesome nature of what we are, and a nihilistic pessimism that negates any attempts to develop our human potential to its fullest. Likewise, it is the fundamental reason behind the domination of classes: by creating a mythical idea that we are subjugated to the will of the gods or God it opens the doors to the possibility for one section of the tribe, state, empire to dominate the rest of us by taking control of that subjection and exploiting it.

This process is quite easy to discern when we compare the development of the priestly-caste and witchdoctors into the mammoth monotheistic church congregations we have today alongside the evolution of Wealth and the great class-divide between rich and poor, but while this exploitation of the human fear of our awesome creativity is easy enough to find in the history of religions, what does it tell us about the history of aesthetics and, ultimately, about what aesthetics potentially means. While in these passages, Nietzsche is merely pointing to the fact that both the religious and aesthetic sense of awe originate in the same negation of human responsibility, by doing this he opens up a can of philosophical worms that reverberate back through his earlier writings on aesthetics, creating a seemingly contradictory dialectic within his own arguments … but then, being seemingly contradictory is a typically Nietzschean trait; it is what makes his writings so interesting and awesome.

To unravel this contradiction, let us start with section 4 of Beyond Good and Evil. In that passage he discusses the virtues of false judgements: “The falseness of a judgement is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgement … The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving … the falsest judgements (to which synthetic judgements a priori belong) are the most indispensable to us, that without granting as true the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a continual falsification of the world by means of numbers, mankind could not live – that to renounce false judgements would be to renounce life, would be to deny life.”[iii] From this fragment of his earlier writing, his earlier thinking seems to be a complete antithesis of what he states later: if by judgement he is talking about aesthetics and religion (don’t worry, this link between judgement and aesthetics will be explained in due course) , instead of seeing a tragic human irresponsibility, he sees it as the most indispensable trait for humanity’s survival.

For those who know Nietzsche this contradiction probably comes as no surprise, he was antithetical to philosophical systems and his thoughts are mainly expressed in aphoristic or short-essay-long snippets which mitigate cohesion, but why are we presuming there is any relationship between the Critique of Religion from the Will to Power and passage 4 of Beyond Good and Evil at all?

If we look at the final part of passage 4 the idea seems even less plausible. The section continues with: “To recognise untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that fact alone, beyond good and evil.”[iv]

This seemingly quirky idea of the indispensability of false judgements is suddenly exalted by championing the title of the entire book; insinuating that the central idea around this collection of essays is the motivation for a new philosophical thinking that can embrace untruth and by doing so create the kind of thought that can transcend the concepts of good and evil.

However, the subtle ironies that this passage is full of become clearer when seen in light of the seemingly contradictory passage from The Will to Power: the untruth of Beyond Good and Evil is the falsity of the conventional truths created by religion and aesthetics to “conceal from himself (humanity) that it was he who created what he admired.” In this way it becomes clear that the untruth is the revealing of an older truth long hidden by the human failure to embrace our own awesome capacities.

Seen from our 21st century perspective, Nietzsche’s thoughts take another twist. The nihilism that Nietzsche had resolved himself to as a negative but necessary state that had be endured before any revolution of the Overman (Übermensch) could come about, has now become entrenched in our global civilisation with tremendously negative consequences for any harmonious development of humanity. Instead of paving the way for the Overman, the nihilist century behind us has inspired an upsurge in religious fanaticisms and evangelical crusades that threaten to become a new dominant power in the chaotic condition of this budding century. In fact, what we are witnessing now is a tendency to reverse the process of false judgements that Nietzsche envisaged. An irony over Nietzsche’s own ironies in which religions use their lies to reinstate the old untruth, injecting it into the gaping vacuum opened by the unbearable relativity of the everything-is-nothing truth of the nihilistic world. In 2020, the recognition of untruth as a way of life is now the normal state of things, but there is no positive transcendence beyond good and evil here. By embracing lies as a way of life we have thrown civilisation into an existence-threatening, barbaric state.

But the irony of this situation does not stop there: Nietzsche was right, the only way forward for humanity is its awakening into the realisation that we truly are the great bestowers of judgement on reality and that the Universe is meaningful because we are able to give it that meaning; that it is time for humanity to stop apologising for itself and be itself; but that this step forward is impeded by the nihilistic civilisation that Nietzsche himself has been an integral part of creating.         

The question now is: Can the awakening allowing a great revaluation of purpose still take place and save humanity from itself? But first we have to deal with another query: What does any of this have to do with aesthetics?   To answer that we need to look back to an older pre-Nietzschean philosophy and sift Nietzsche’s concepts through the sieve of Kant.

(But that will be dealt with in Part Two …)


[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, THE WILL TO POWER, Ed. Kaufmann, Vintage, New York, 1968, p. 85

[ii] Ibid, p. 86

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, Section 4

[iv] Ibid

Language, Meaning, Existence & Authentic Purpose

Language allows us to give meaning to our existence, and meaning is a bridge between existence and purpose.

Because of this, only sapiens organisms that possess a language can be creatures of purpose.

This does not mean, however, that the meaningful construct created by language necessarily has to produce purposiveness. Even with a deep understanding of the meaningfulness of human activity in the world the purpose of the word itself alludes us.

This is because the reasons for things are as numerous as the things themselves and all their parts, but not any of those reasons on their own give us any indication of real purposiveness.

But, how can this be? If existence and purpose are bridged by meaning, why isn’t that bridge a clear enough path to understand what lies on either side of it? What is the difference between meaning and purpose in this case?

If meaning comes through language, we are talking about the understanding of things provided by language, primarily through the naming of stuff (physical objects and mental concepts) and secondly through our linguistic capacity to formulate questions about things and find answers to those questions.

Once we have a language structure capable of providing an inquisitive mechanism we can search for an understanding of all things through the formulation of questions about them.

Authentic purposiveness is concerned with questions aimed at the totality of things as a singularity, or of the experience of the total, human singularity within the greater singularity of the Universe. Authentic purposiveness is related to metaphysics and the questions concerning the potential scope of human beings in the Universe.

We can discover what something is, and, by naming it we can preserve it and make it easy to recognise when we find it again or remember it. Likewise, by observing things or by using them or experimenting with them, or by learning about them from others with experience of them, we can know what they are for, where they have come from, or where to find them. Even things that no longer exist can be rediscovered through documents written about them or by talking to witnesses, or communicating with others who have talked to witnesses, or through photos or drawings. Some things seem easy to understand, like doors and tables; so easy that we do not even need to think about them. Their purpose is self-explanatory. Some other things of which we know beforehand what they are used for and which we take for granted, like televisions and phones, have complex technological motors that need instruction manuals in order for us to decipher how they operate. Cars need a driving course to learn how to manipulate them and musical instruments require hours of practice, study, and accumulative experience in order to make them sound harmoniously and be able to create musical forms with them. However, when we examine everything as a singularity in order to ask the big question, what is it all for?, certainty seems to crumble within our very minds.

Traditionally this is the area of gods and God; of myths and faiths, as if any answer can be good enough if you believe in it because the important thing, traditionally, is to have an answer, and really any answer will do as long as it is convincing. To make it more convincing, metaphysics turned to logic, which complicated things because logic can be complicating. Then, when any answer was now no longer good enough, we preferred no answer at all. God was pronounced dead and metaphysics died with It. If we really cannot know, then why try to know?

But let us return to the idea of meaning as a bridge metaphor. Through it we see that (i) meaning is a natural end result of existence and thinking itself, and (ii) the meaning that language invests our lives with drives us in singular direction that terminates in purpose. Meaning is dependent on a concept, object or an act making sense, but the sense of any concept, object or act can only be determined by considering its purpose.

When we stop looking for it our Sapiens qualities, of knowing, thinking, and questioning, lose their driving energy. Nihilism threatens all progress because it negates the drive that produces progress, which is purpose. As living creatures, we struggle to survive, and as Sapiens we need to know what that survival is meant for; but also, as Sapiens we struggle to give a purpose to our lives that transcends mere survival. It is because we need purpose to vindicate our evolution and progress that we need to make purposiveness a central feature of our culture and our societies.

Authentic purpose gives us a reason for language; a reason for meaning; a reason for thinking; a reason for being.

Purpose is also a measure of meaning. That which is imbued with more purpose is more meaningful and that which lacks purpose is meaningless. But, if this is the case, the difference between meaning and purpose has become muddied again, hasn’t it?

Meaning can define a phenomena and tell us what it is and even what it is for in the immediate sense of that term, but purposiveness points in the direction of an end result to the phenomena, to what it is ultimately here for, to its true vocation or destiny, if you like.

Meaning is discovered through scientific enquiry, whereas purposiveness is found through philosophical questioning via the results of the original scientific enquiry.

Meaning reveals how the world is; purpose shows us how it can progress and develop.

Meaning is factual; purpose is creative.

For this reason, purposiveness is tied to aesthetics, and through aesthetics to judgement, freedom and the eternal.    

Ugliness

Ugliness shares the element of discovery with beauty, but opposes it in the sense that it is that which cannot bear to be discovered, or that its discovery is an unbearable experience. Art can therefore use ugliness to amplify the impact of discovery – the feeling of rejection for something is more powerful and obvious than an attraction.

We want ugliness to be an ephemeral discovery and the prolongation of ugliness can have interesting psychological effects on the beholder that artists can manipulate and exploit. Likewise, as we saw with beauty[1], the impact of discovery is a waning phenomena and a lengthy exposure to ugliness begins to render it more bearable. To create horror, for example, the discovery of the monster must be as fleeting as possible. The more we are exposed to the beast, the more the discovery melts into a normality, taming the beastliness, and, if the artist wants to, the initial terror can be rendered even desirable. Perhaps the most classic example of this is the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, especially Jean Cocteau’s magnificent film version of that tale.  


[1] See our post On Beauty and Art https://wordpress.com/post/pauladkin.wordpress.com/3549

On Beauty and Art

What is beauty? We’ve seen beautiful landscapes, have met beautiful people, and have experienced the awe of standing before a beautiful art object, but what do these examples of beauty have in common? Or is beauty an illusion? From an objective standpoint this can easily be argued, for beauty (and ugliness) are subjective judgements, opinions. Beauty is bestowed by us on the objects or forms that we perceive and so to say what beauty is we have to look at the nature of the judgements being made whenever we apply the term beautiful to anything.

Beauty possesses a positive value, and it is something worthy of being discovered or experienced, but it is through its association with discovery that we find beauty’s apparent weakness for, after the initial impact of discovery wanes, so does the beauty. Nevertheless, it is this flaw that provides us with a possible definition of beauty: Beauty is an awesome discovery, the impact of which begins to dissolve upon making that same discovery.

Nevertheless, the awesomeness of the discovery of beauty defies the ephemerality of the experience of its own nature. Beauty is a discovery that wants to be prolonged, although it itself is incapable of such a prolongation, it needs a psychological and emotional effort to preserve it through feelings like nostalgia and love, or the practical effort of preservation that comes through the process of art. The creation of beauty through art, therefore, is concerned with prolonging the impact of discovery. Through love and art, beauty challenges the ephemeral, as if it has a longing for permanence. Whether or not the romantic, the existentialist, or the classical theory applies, once the artist takes beauty into consideration during the process of creation, he or she is wrestling with the struggle between permanence and ephemerality.

BEAUTY AND ART

Is beauty an essential ingredient in art? When artists reject beauty, what they are doing is rejecting the idea of whether or not their work should be considered worthy of discovery. For such an artist this question is irrelevant as they are looking for something in the work that transcends the importance of its discovery. The aim of such a work is not to be exhibited or published, and its worth might lie quite simply in the process of the elaboration. Artists can, have, and do ignore beauty. It is not essential to art. Nevertheless, art and beauty are tied together in the fact that both of them are things worthy of being discovered or experienced. The work of art can be given the same definition we gave to beauty, but its relationship with discovery may not be the same as beauty’s.

Art can revoke the need for permanence and reinforce itself in the uniqueness of the moment of discovery. This can be seen in live theatrical performance, because the experience of seeing a piece of theatre is empowered by the fact that it can never be exactly repeated. Each night on the stage is a unique, unrepeatable experience. Theatre is as much a dialogue between the actors and the audience as it is a dialogue between the protagonists and antagonists of the drama themselves. Likewise, despite the efforts to preserve theatrical productions by videoing them, the filmed-theatre is never the same kind of discovery as the theatrical experience itself. Theatre is ephemeral art par excellence.

And because of the nature of beauty, ephemeral art could also be seen as that most faithful reflection of beauty’s character, which is that once it has been discovered its impact has already started to wane. In this way we find that the ephemeral art of performance has a direct link to emotions of loss like melancholy and nostalgia.

As for the desire embedded in both beauty and art, because of beauty’s fragility it is firmly tied to the concept of love and its triangular form of appreciation, understanding, and preservation (for more on this concept of love, please see: https://pauladkin.wordpress.com/2017/10/29/love-the-real-the-ideal/ ).

Via this love the ephemerality of beauty is transformed into the ersatz permanence of art, and so emerges another triad: Beauty → Love → Art.  

Preliminary Notes on the dawning Postpandemic Era

The essence of the post-pandemic debate is that between necessity and possibility. What do we need to preserve and perfect, and what do we need to throw away in order to open space for the possible Utopia to evolve?

Postpandemic thinking is ‘anti-systemic’ because it sees through the lies of the system and the way the system restrains real progress whilst spreading deeply harmful and destructive ideologies and modes of living.

POSTPANDEMIC ART

With the confinements ordered by governments as health-security measures during the 2020 pandemic, many artists have found their forced isolation to be more of a welcome discipline than a restriction.

Discipline leads to inspiration in all creative fields, and when the discipline comes with no other stipulations other than one has to stay at home, then the scenario is perfect for the artist. The experience of pandemic confinement is the first conditioning factor for post-pandemic art. Post-pandemic production, therefore, is nurtured on the artistic values of discipline, frugality, and an autocratic or self-sufficient approach to the art form.

The postpandemic artist comes from the confinement of the lockdown.

The revelatory importance of the pandemic resides in the fact that it managed to put the entire global system on hold for several months. Post-pandemic thinking, therefore, takes this revelation as the basis for its creative inspiration. The post pandemic artist sees through the illusion of reality that says this is how the world is, in order to envision far greater possibilities of how the world could be. In many cases, the solitude of confinement has forced humanity to think about how a better future could be fashioned, and for this reason, the post-pandemic reality is forward-looking and utopian. It understands the fragility of the system and wills to change it.

The pandemic experience was one of limited consumerism and, consequently, post-pandemic art transcends all commercialism.

Aesthetically, the form is unimportant and the essence of postpandemic art is the content, which is always forward-looking, utopian seeking, anti-consumerist and deeply critical of the pre-pandemic world we are emerging from. Postpandemic art strives for depth and is cerebral in nature and because of that it rejects shallowness and cheap sentimentalism which are questions of content not form.

Subsequently, postpandemic art can adopt any form as long as its content is postpandemic.

Paul David Adkin is the author of Dismantling the Paradigm

If the dawning post-pandemic era is not going to fall into the constraining negativism and wall-building, anti-human authoritarianism of the far-right, and for the future to be a positive step forward from the disaster of the global affliction, it is necessary that we comprehend the real nature of the system we are emerging from. Dismantling the Paradigm was contrived before Covid, but it has become even more imperative that it finds readers in order to imagine the world coming next.

 Dismantling the Paradigm is now available from the Amazon online store:

At Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Paul-David-Adkin/e/B0082UK618

At Amazon.es: https://www.amazon.es/gp/product/B08B35QJ63/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3

At Amazon.co.uk: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dismantling-Paradigm-Tracking-Pendulum-One-ebook/dp/B08B1X7GXJ/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Dismantling+the+Paradigm&qid=1592128068&s=books&sr=1-2

     

THE EXISTENTIAL NEED FOR NEW KINDS OF CRITICS

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How is an objective judgement of something so personal as art possible? Or, in other words, how is aesthetics possible? Or perhaps the question is irrelevant, for even if a truly objective judgement is impossible, the critic must try and make one. If not, without criticism what would art achieve? How would the artist know how to proceed in a critical vacuum?

Once again we find that something we take for granted rests on a very shaky paradox: criticism is impossible but we need it. In a sense, the whole basis of art is absurd and unsustainable, and yet we need it. In fact, we could not really conceive of being human without it.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that we, or our artists, ignore the absurdity and the paradox and just get on with the job, and the critics keep on with theirs. Surprisingly, yes, until we start to consider that all activity in the whole of society and civilisation is based on this same paradox: How can any individual make an objective judgement of any human activity at all?

Of course, to most people the surprising thing would be that we are even trying to formulate such questions. Another paradox is that absurdity is so ingrained in our lives that we take it completely for granted and it doesn’t surprise us at all. We can’t even see the pointless nature of our lives. As Camus said, we are a kind of Sisyphus, condemned to push a huge rock up a hill, but a happy Sisyphus, unaware of the real absurdity of our condition. We just get on with the job; revealing or talking about the non-purposefulness of our lives does little to help. Or not at least until we realise that we can change things and that the most absurd thing about the absurdity is its repetitiveness which is completely unnecessary.

With an absurdity we have three choices: believe in it; not believe in it; or, ignore its existence and believe in something else. The fact that the objective system is impossible as a pure objective truth means that there are as many other impossible objective systems as we can subjectively imagine. The system as it is now, has most of us picking grass in a huge green lawn. This is not the best of all possible systems and neither is it the least worst, it is just one possibility that maintains itself purely and simply because it is geared toward convincing us that it is the only feasible possibility.

To find another possibility we need good new critics. Ones who are capable of inventing a purposeful aesthetic for the rest of us to follow. The grass on the lawn we are picking has already created too many bare and ugly patches of desolate, impotent land. A better system would be one that plants and grows much and picks little. In order to enjoy existence, we have to let it be.   

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THE GALIMATIAS INTERVIEW (PART FIVE) – POLITICS, THE NOVEL AND SCI FI

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This interview with Paul David Adkin was carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English and have published it in five parts. This is the final part. 

GALIMATIAS: In When Sirens Call, your hero Robert says: “This book is my Trojan horse, sent into the interior of capitalism to burn it down.” Was that meant to be a mirroring statement referring to When Sirens Call itself?

ADKIN: Oh no, not at all. When Sirens Call is a novel. It has no ambitions to bring the system down. Nevertheless, it was a mirroring statement. Robert is referring to his philosophical work which is a mirror of my own philosophical work.

GALIMATIAS: Which has not been published yet.

ADKIN: No, I haven’t found a publisher for it yet.

GALIMATIAS: But you think it will bring down capitalism?

ADKIN: Of course not. Yet it could be considered as one of its objectives.

GALIMATIAS: Getting back to When Sirens Call … it is a novel, but there is also a lot of politics in it. Can’t we see it as a political novel?

ADKIN: Not really … Politics is discussed by the characters, but the book itself takes no obvious political position.

GALIMATIAS: Is Art Wars political?

ADKIN: It’s critical of the system – from the artist’s point of view. It’s cynical. Was Diogenes political?

GALIMATIAS: The one who lived in a barrel?

ADKIN: Yes. Diogenes was a social critic and he would have loved to have been in a less hypocritical place, but he was not a man-of-action.

GALIMATIAS: Placenta in Art Wars does act.

ADKIN: Yes, and she also goes mad. No, I don’t think Art Wars is really a political work either. To be political, I write philosophy … and plays. I, Consul, 1808, and The Queen who could not Rule were political plays. Each one of them used history as a mirror to reflect the current political situation. I, Consul was anti-war and a satire on Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while 1808 and The Queen were anti-neoliberal plays. But plays can be political in ways that novels can’t be – haven’t I already discussed that.

GALIMATIAS: Yes, but I’m trying to clarify it. Novels have to disguise their statement and so therefore they can’t be political.

ADKIN: Something like that. Although, having said this … at the moment I’m working on a piece of science fiction, which will be a political book – that’s because I think that science fiction is an exception … as would be satire. The best sci fi is deeply philosophical and, because it writes about society from a philosophical perspective it is also very political.

Nevertheless, let me reiterate my main argument here – the literary value of sci fi writing is best achieved when it sublimates the big question as well. Once you set your book in the future, it immediately has its political connotations – whether it’s a Utopian or Dystopian vision we see a social and technological development or regression. In this way every descriptive scene has an innate political weight. The writer can just forget about politics as such – the setting itself will bring it all out for you.

If we think of the film Blade Runner, for example. That has a deeply political narrative embedded in it through the Dystopia it creates via the setting. The story itself is deeply ontological, although the depth comes through quite naturally through the existential predicament of the androids. And the big question .. which runs through all of Ridley Scott’s films … is the Oedipus complex. And that is buried in the subconscious of the film, as it should be.

GALIMATIAS: So you like Sci Fi?

ADKIN: Yes, I do. But I don’t read much of it, because the writing too often disappoints me when I do.

GALIMATIAS: And so your next novel will be a work of science fiction?

ADKIN: Perhaps, but I’ve got four things fairly well developed at the moment, I’ve no idea which will be finished first

THE GALIMATIAS INTERVIEW (PART ONE)

This interview with Paul David Adkin was carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English.

GALIMATIAS: We want to centre this discussion on essences. Your writing is quite diverse: apart from your three novels, you have a large number of plays and short stories and philosophical essays, a couple of books of aphorisms and you dabble in poetry and songs. So, my first question is: is there an essential theme running through all this work?

ADKIN: Nothing that I’m conscious of. But I’m sure you could find an unconscious link. Or, perhaps the essential theme is a search for that unconscious link.

GALIMATIAS: You’ve said that art is an invitation to the unravelling of ideas. But isn’t that the role of philosophy?

ADKIN: Yes, but art, of course, unravels those ideas in a different way that philosophy does.

GALIMATIAS: What are the questions that you as an “artist” are concerned with? Are there any central questions, or any singular central question, that you are wrestling with in your work?

ADKIN: In my philosophical writings I’m mainly concerned with why humanity has made such little progress in establishing itself as “humanity” – which implies a simpler question: why do we keep making the same mistakes? But whether that question is buried in all my work … I’m not sure.

GALIMATIAS: Let’s take your three published novels: Purgatory, Art Wars and When Sirens Call. Is the question embedded in them?

ADKIN: Purgatory and When Sirens Call are both about trying to find our way Home with a capital “h”, and both of them contain an idea that our real home is not where we are but where we are going to. Contained in this is the philosophical idea, albeit unstated, that our final destination, in order to be truly purposeful, has to lie beyond our own lives, and that its purposefulness is far greater than our own lives. An idea which, through a philosophical link between aesthetics and human purposefulness, also links Art Wars.

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Art Wars is about finding a purpose through art, or through taking an aesthetic stand point. Purgatory is about finding an aesthetic, and human position between art and the world through an alchemical search for eternity. And, When Sirens Call is likewise a debate around purposiveness and a search for life’s meaning which goes beyond our actual experience of life.

GALIMATIAS: And so we always make the same mistakes and fail to progress because we can’t see the real purpose of our existence?

ADKIN: Yes, in a nutshell, that’s it.

GALIMATIAS: Is your aim to point us in the right direction.

ADKIN: In my essays, yes. I tackle the problem of purposiveness head on. Philosophy has to be direct … like shooting an arrow, as Nietzsche said. But in the novels there is no deliberate exhibition of that idea. There can’t be. If there had been the novels would be unbearable. I think that would be a general rule in novel writing – if you’ve got something you really, passionately want to say, forget about it before you start writing. The question will remain if it’s truly important, but you need to let it sink into the subconscious and come out accidentally.

GALIMATIAS: And yet, art is about unravelling ideas?

ADKIN: Yes, but for a novel to work, the unravelling has to be part of the process of the creation itself. The big question being asked in the novel must always be the subconscious one, buried in the subtext. It’s the secret one. But a shaky secret because it’s the one that will always reveal itself whether you like it or not, and that is why it can, and should be, forgotten.

GALIMATIAS: What you mean is that all art has its subconscious question to ask?

ADKIN: Yes, and the essence of all works of art have to be found in the subject behind the image itself. They say that the essence of the Mona Lisa is her smile. But it’s not … it’s something deeper. A question between the lifeless representation and life itself. And a crying out for eternal life. The Mona Lisa, like all great art, is a bridge between the actual and the eternal.

The difference between art and philosophy is that philosophy attacks the ideas head on in a fully conscious way. A philosopher can never be shy about ideas, but a novelist must be.

GALIMATIAS: And what about the playwright?

ADKIN: The playwright is somewhere in between. Plays can be more direct than the novel. In my case they always are. I write plays when I want to scream directly at my audience, whereas I usually try to be more seductive with my novels.

GALIMATIAS: When Sirens Call is about seduction?

ADKIN: Yes. Sirens are seductive creatures. I wanted to write something that was, above all, atmospheric in When Sirens Call. But its ultimate purpose is to be useful, rather than to drive us against the rocks, as the Sirens do.

GALIMATIAS: It has very strong resonances.

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On the other hand, Art Wars is not seductive at all.

ADKIN: No, it’s not. I made conscious, aesthetic decisions in Art Wars to deliberately not seduce. In fact I consider Art Wars as a kind of anti-novel. I made very conscious decisions to make things not as they should be made. Not that this was such an original standpoint – Dostoevsky did the same with his characters. There’s always an element in Dostoevsky’s characters that makes them seem inconsistent, even wrong, but it is that inconsistency that makes them appear so human.

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GALIMATIAS: And Dostoevsky was exorcising his own demons through his characters, right?

ADKIN: Perhaps. We could analyse all art from the perspective of catharsis and it would be a very valid stand point, but a conservative one that undermines the purposive role of art. If catharsis exists it’s a cleansing and clearing process, pushing the pain of the past aside via direct confrontation, in order to clear the road for a positive future. But once we get immersed in the mess it’s not always easy to push through it. And for that reason catharsis is also a dangerous process. Kafka or Beckett probably never could get through, but the fact that they insisted and persisted with the creative act indicated the need for the positive results of the catharsis. Catharsis is an important element in art, but it is not the reason for art.

GALIMATIAS: Some of your own plays: The Clown or Hamlet Rex, for example, seem cathartic.

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ADKIN: Yes, but both of those plays are basically comedies.

GALIMATIAS: Tragi-comedies.

ADKIN: The tragic is part of the comedy. Nihilism is a tragedy in itself. In those works I was portraying, and laughing at, our nihilist society and the nihilistic direction of our civilisation.

GALIMATIAS: And yet your anti-nihilism is not obvious in those plays.

ADKIN: Not obvious for a nihilist. But really those plays were not at all subtle. Quite the contrary, I was trying to hit hard and they are full of the irony of the overstatement.

GALIMATIAS: An irony which is also crafted in Art Wars.

ADKIN: Yes, which is also overtly anti-nihilist.

GALIMATIAS: Can Art Wars be classified as a novel?

ADKIN: It is closer to a novella, and sprang out of my reaction to reading a short story by Thomas Mann, Gladius Dei.

GALIMATIAS: Which is very moralistic.

ADKIN: Correct. And Art Wars is moralistic as well. Which is why it couldn’t be developed as novel would be.

GALIMATIAS: You’re implying that there is a large aesthetic difference between the novella and novel?