A Book on Art (Extract from Chapter II) By Tecola W. Hagos
Philosophical Interlude of the Beautiful and the Sublime:
In Large Brush Strokes
I. Eternity Within
It is impossible for me to imagine any creative person without a framework of some philosophical guiding principle. No philosopher, or writer, or politician, or painter worth his or her mantel, could get much of respect from me without having read Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. I have read and reread this little book countless times with increasing admiration of the courage and insights of Boethius. No less is the impact of that book’s bone crushing factual content on me taking into account the fact that the book was written under extremely difficult situation. And soon after the completion of the book, Boethius was brutally tortured and bludgeoned to death. The very existence of this little book represents to me the triumph of Philosophy/Art over barbarism. Neither art historians nor art critics would ever be able to reach into the depth of the level of inquiry about art and aesthetics as would philosophers, thus my emphasis on philosophical interlude than on any other source of discourse on the arts. It is also true that art historians are not necessarily the best art critics.
Fig. 1: Self Portrait – Wodaje Libé (detail), by Tecola W. Hagos, oil on Canvas, 36in x 24in, as a young University student, 1969. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Having declared the triumph of Art over barbarism, I will attempt further to draw some “definitional” reach of the meaning of “the sublime,” with the understanding that such attempt is only meant to give some guidance rather than exhaustive and all inclusive definition, meaning and/or explanation.
“Our words sublime and sublimation are based on the Latin word sublimis, a compound of sub- ‘under; up to’ and limin ‘threshold,’ so etymologically having the sense of ‘as high as the top of a door.’ It could literally mean ‘lofty; raised up’ but also had a figurative sense in Latin of ‘exalted; eminent, aspiring.’”
“At the beginning of this century sublimation was borrowed by the students of Freud to mean the diversion of some primitive impulse, such as sex, into a culturally higher or socially more acceptable activity. This generated a new verb, to sublimate, which is only used of this transition, not of the change of state in chemistry (though the noun has for long been used in this sense, as corrosive sublimate of mercuric chloride). Slightly earlier, the same Latin elements were borrowed again with a different slant to create subliminal, something that is below the threshold of consciousness.”
The main attraction and fascination for me in visiting the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum on the grounds of the Arboretum was the fact that sublime beauty could be created in living things and could come even in small physical stature too. Ever since I saw some forty years ago pictures of strange and unusual gardens made of sand, pebbles, and stones, with no greenery at all that was tended by Zen Buddhist monks, I was fascinated with the gardens of China and Japan in general. I am still amazed how with very little greenery and with controlled chaotic arrangements, on such little patches of land, those highly skilled “gardeners” could open a whole panoramic vista to the imagination. Nevertheless, despite my fascination and great appreciation of the awesome beauty of the Bonsai trees, I could not help juxtaposing such exquisite beauty with cruelty, pain, and suffering. Nevertheless, while I was admiring those miniature exquisite trees, I was also experiencing something disconcerting anxiety about the Bonsai trees, especially looking at those in training. For example, the White Pine Bonsai no taller than a foot and a half on the dais in front of me, in real life is a touring giant, and its great majesty could only be matched by the Great Sequoia tree. What type of process must have been utilized in order to render such a majestic tree to a size I could hold with little stress in one hand? What indeed happened to the immensity and majesty of all Bonsai trees that I admired that day at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum?
Fig. 2: Black and White, by Mezgebu Tessema, oil on canvas, 2000. (pending permission)
Later at home, I realized why I was feeling anxious and apprehensive at the same time I was overwhelmed with the exquisite beauty and individuality of the Bonsai trees I reckoned with at the Bonsai Garden, for each Bonsai tree was a grotesque deformity no different than the hideously deformed feet of courtly Chinese ladies who had to undergo that torturous tying of feet from their early childhood in order to create tiny feet prized in Chinese culture of the time. It may be compared also to the molding of the skulls of infants with tightly tied ribbons of clothing into elongated shapes in some Inca and Aztec cultures I have read about. Although such things happen after death, the shrunken heads of enemies killed in battles adorning the heroes of such conflicts in some Amazonian head hunters is also such grotesque activity. The sever disciplinary treatments of children in societies, such as that of Ethiopia, clipping their wings, deforming their personhood, destroying their youth et cetera is no different than all those horrors of history and botany.
There was this Elm tree in training from 1955, with sturdy wire wrapped tightly around its trunk and its fragile branches. Although I did not bring up the subject with Abraham, I felt that the little tree was crying out to me with excruciating pain and needed liberation from the confining wires around its trunk and fragile branches. All the Bonsai trees were on starvation diet. The troughs that are holding those trees are very shallow barely three or four inches deep. The soil is minimal and mostly dry with pebbles and jagged rocks where those Bonsai trees hang on for deer life with roots that must be in some form of frenzied twisted mass. It was both a horrible and disconcerting sight to behold how tenaciously those tiny trees hang on to their lives. I kept wondering how I thought of such grotesque sight as something beautiful even sublime at all. The awesome and terrible beauty of these Bonsai trees is not describable in words in full; one must visit and stand in awe in front of such marvels of nature and the hands of man in order to have a first-hand experience of the “sublime.”
II. Experiencing Art
The question of beauty has preoccupied philosophers from the pre-Socratics to date in every generation of philosophers. I suppose that early in mankind’s communal life, the creative impulse was solely decorative and the enhancement of the physical presence of the individual, and maybe part of the mating ritual. In our own time there had been a real revolutionary process that may be compared to a philosophical convulsion. Among those who shaped the way the art of the West is looked at were art critics from the Victorians such as John Ruskin, from the Romantics such as Kenneth Clark, and from the modernists such as Guillaume Apollinaire, and later Clement Greenberg. Greenberg is a serendipitous find, for his pitch to discredit and discount the effort of “socialist realism” in art as the corner stone of the Soviet Union’s World of Art, while in the pay of the CIA, had unexpected outcome—in a very talented and successful art critic.
There is no denying that experiencing Art is an emotional event, and in few instances with depth that touches the very core of the individual. The question of the creative process may indeed be the one question that might be the most important question that is unresolved from generation to generation of artists. The closest one may come to answering that question might be the exhilaration one gets in creating art works of what ever nature. This same sentiment of personal experience of exhilaration in the creation of works of art is expressed in so many ways in many of his books and numerous articles by the Philosopher Teodros Kiros where he discussed his love of writing and his search for meaning in the beautiful. In my Self Portrait my aspiration at that young age was not the rendition of physical likeness but experiencing my youthful and naïve personhood in just few lines and shades and tones. [Fig.1: Self Portrait – Wodaje Libé] The outcome of such process is far more than the mere assembly of paint, oil, brush and canvas. Color may not even be that important, the monochrome effect in that painting is a clear indication of the fact that harmony and illumination are as important. However, simple arrangement in black and white with a touch of some tint (staining) could be as effective and as abstract as any non-representational work. [Fig. 2: Black and White, by Mezgebu Tessema, oil on canvas, 2000.]
The history of art does not tell us much about aesthetic beauty or artistic beauty or about the sublime as an intrinsic subject matter, but as standards presumed by observers not from the point of view of the artists themselves—thus, its great deficiency. Whether it is political history or art history there are certain expectations in the discipline itself. History should minimize the personal normative judgment of the historian/writer subsumed in the narration. If there is a need for judgment or opinion it must then be spelled out as such and distinct from the narration. Such safeguards are necessary in order to give a chance to the reader unbiased or an account of events that is not slanted or diddles with deceptive analogies. Of course, it is impossible to be a mirror to events objectively reflecting back events. Even then we know that there is a reverse position and about five to ten percent unaccounted for atmospheric reductions in mirror images from the reality. Nevertheless, philosophers seem to have the more authentic and profound discussions of such subjects than art critics or historians.
It is alleged that of all the philosophers Hegel had written the most on the philosophy of art. It is true that Hegel was a great critic as well as theoretician on art and the philosophy of art, and his opus is immense. That does not come as a surprise to me, for Hegel was fortunate to have as references and role models giants who came before him, such as Kant, Mendelssohn, and his own teachers Schelling and Fichte. Sadly his immense capacity did not protect him from premature assumptions of racist theories of developmental history of civilization. The more recent approach is declaring the end of art, as the philosopher Arthur C. Danto did in an article in 1984, but later somehow tamed that earlier bold statement, away from its crudeness or provocative assertion, in a book he wrote a decade later.
Fig. 3: Bale Gariw, by Behailu Bezabeh, oil on canvas, 1997.
I believe that the history of art shows at varying paces a movement from the thematic to the anecdotal [See Fig. 2: Black and White, and Fig. 3: Bale Gariw.] As an aside, let me state here that Artist Behailu Bezabeh’s Bale Gariw is exquisite in its abstraction, if one had experienced the rickety ride on an Ethiopian gari, where there is no such thing as a straight-line; one can understand why this piece is a masterpiece. One can say also similar level of abstraction is achieved by Artist Mezgebu Tessema in his Black and White even though the painting is rendered in realistic form. I may throw in, as an item for comparison and contrast, the early classical ideas on beauty, the different movements since the time of the impressionists, and the art-for-art sake concepts. Then I would have covered most anything in the history of Western Art. One may even be cynical by saying that what I have stated is no different than Hegel’s idea of the evolution of the spirit through time ennobling mankind, and in no way entertains the most important earlier distinctions made by Hegel of aesthetic beauty (pertaining to the senses) and artistic beauty (pertaining to the intellect). Hegel’s distinction may be unfortunate, for it implied the reality of two forms of beauty, which to me is impossible. I suggest that artistic beauty be understood to mean strictly the craftsmanship or virtuosity of the artist. Beauty in general is a state of mind and the Platonic system of disembodied Form of the beautiful will not do for me. Here it seems I am back to square one to the same position I started out with in my discourse with Abraham that beauty or the sublime is all in the mind.
III. Longinus, Kant, and Mendelssohn
I presume that we all have read that Longinus (AD 213 – 273) is allegedly the pioneering theoretician about the idea of the “sublime” in his discussion of the subject of beauty in literature. [The manuscript was attributed also to two other individuals from the same era as Longinus.] The distinction between the concepts of beauty and the sublime is absolutely made clear by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) [Grandfather of the composer Felix Mendelssohn] in his philosophical writing. “We have seen that what is genuinely beautiful has definite boundaries which it may not overstep.” However, wrongly Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is often credited for the distinction between the “sublime” and the “beautiful,” in which the main feature of the “sublime” he seems to contend to be the fact that it is not bounded, whereas the “beautiful” he identified as limited by the very individuality of the object or the thing. Although Kant in his book Critique of Judgment did make references to Burke, Batteaux, Lessing. Lessing who is mentioned by Kant was Mendelssohn’s great friend and co-editor of their literary series called Briefe, die neuesteLiteratur betreffend (referred to as Literaturbriefe).
This neglect or oversight by Kant of Mendelssohn is strange indeed since Kant knew Mendelssohn quite well, for they competed on some essay writing contest in 1763 where Mendelssohn won over Kant. Mendelssohn wrote his piece on the subject of “beauty” and the “sublime” starting sometime in 1754 and reworking it in 1760 for inclusion in his book Philosophical Writings; whereas, Kant produced his Critique of Judgment in 1790, some twenty five years later. In order to be fair to Kant, I sought to find explanation why Kant did not find it necessary to make references to Mendelssohn. So far I did not find any. At any rate what comes through is that the quality of being “beautiful” seems to involve both the act of judgment and the sensation of the thing or object of perception, which seems to support Abraham’s views. At any rate, I prefer Nietzsche and Schopenhauer’s approach than either approaches of Kant or Hegel. Nietzsche has the most expansive interpretation of art for he equates art with life (historic) as a process, except for his nihilistic ultimate fate of all values and beliefs (humanity). In Schopenhauer I find measured elements of the Platonic Ideas/Forms—a universality mediated by individual minds. Even more important is the fact that Schopenhauer holds that to be involved in the creative process of art is a process of liberation from the ever present and terrifying “Will.” In other words, art is liberating. This is in contradistinction to Hegel’s absolute idealism where art plays a supporting role to the “Spirit” progressively knowing itself that is distinct from that of Plato’s conception of the Forms that do not require any such process, as well. In summation, I must state that my brief philosophical diversion here should not be taken as an underhanded and sever criticism or delegitimization of Kant on the subject of the beautiful, the sublime, or the tastes. Most artists, historians, even philosophers I talked to seem to find Kant dense and very difficult to understand on those subjects. I believe, one fails to understand or fails to appreciate the depth of Kant because one reads him wrongly, with misplaced context. One can understand Kant much better if one reads him in his Critique of Judgment simply by looking at his views as an extension of his extensive work on the categorical imperatives and his moral writings.
For all my huffs and puffs on almost all social and political issues and questions dealing with Nietzsche’s work because of my serious aversion to his worship of power and his disdain for the common man, however, I am totally mesmerized and awed by his treatment of art and its role in the lives of human beings. In his books and essays, Nietzsche is unparalleled in the depth of his understanding and in the intensity of his passion dealing with art and aesthetics. Even in translation one cannot escape the beauty and clarity of his thought in these two books compared to his other works where he tends to be dense, often repetitious. It seems Nietzsche killed God [or declared God as dead] and replaced him with Art—not even Schopenhauer would approach such adulation of art as Nietzsche did. Here is also my weakness for Nietzsche.
There is much gobbledygook written both in the arts and the sciences. To wit consider the following: “Though often taking architectural and geographic concerns as her foundational images, Mehretu’s oeuvre offers answers that cartography and geography cannot. By fashioning a notation out of meditations on phenomenology, her epic oeuvre has shown us the internalization of burgeoning worlds.” I have read countless books on the arts, and what I learned from all that exposure and numerous discourses over a span of forty years or more is that writing or speaking about art authoritatively is dangerous and limiting. It seems to me that the creative process in art might have Platonic ideations, but the execution and delivery is firmly an inductive process because life ultimately is the experienced-reality that is the sine qua non of all artistic input/output. I cringe when critics or philosophers speak in terms of what is “right” or “wrong” about art. My approach to art is deceptive, in the sense that it is the subjective “apprehension” and the pleasure of such creativity of that which is apprehended in the World as “representation.” In this I find Schopenhauer far more enlightening on the subject of “beauty” and the “sublime” than the views of any of the other philosophers including Hegel. And Nietzsche simply went overboard.
It seems to me that Schopenhauer saw in the “self realization” or “absorption” of the artist in his creation of art/beauty a great liberation from the terrifying ever presence of the “Will.” This means beauty is in the creator or beholder, which seems to support my views. Of course, the philosopher that one may think of as the personification of that view is David Hume. Hume devoted his second volume of his Treaties to the “passions” that dealt with the issue of the way man “form” his or her emotion or aspirations. A more pointed presentation about art by Hume are his works titled “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” and “Of the Standard of Taste.”
Both Hume and Kant believe that the value of artistic creation cannot be deduced from rational processes. Even though Kant seems in discussing his categorical imperatives far more closer to the Platonic “absolutes” compared to Hume (who had completely rejected such ideas), he still seems to be not free of the pull of the weight of the physical reality all around us in his philosophy. At any rate, Hume focused only on “beauty” and never mentioned the idea of the sublime. What Julie Mehretu was attempting in her statements on art was what Schopenhauer articulated centuries earlier, there is really nothing original about that. Describing the technique of painting or the steps of the execution aspect in the creation of the art object is not a good substitute for the discussion of the nature of the beautiful or the sublime where one has to take into consideration the reality of our individual personal agony. Despite the fact that Hume too often unfairly is accused of sterilizing (in essence, but not so much in such exact words) human reality due to his claim that reality is either relation of ideas or matter of fact and any other claim is not just unreal but nonsensical. But mind you all, who do you think is the only philosopher who stated bluntly that “reason is or ought to be the slave of the passions.”
Tecola W. Hagos
May 11, 2012
Text Copyright©2012 by Phineaus St. Claire