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Sunday, 17 January 2010

Illumination or Illusion?

Is the artist a genuine creator or merely a copyist who narcissistically reflects reality?
With the current primacy of the hyper-reproduced image, it may appear that we have wandered into a hall of mirrors, unable to distinguish between the reflection and the thing reflected. But perhaps it has always been so; there is a strong argument to suggest that all art tends toward the condition of verisimilitude;

"When we take up a work of poetry or prose fiction we begin with that which literary critics commonly call the poetic suspension of doubt. We resolve that during our reading  we will believe that whatever the author tells us actually happened, and that we will vicariously be present when it happens and will experience the emotions that we would experience if we were physically present: when we read tales of the marvelous and praeternatural, we make a temporary act of faith and accept the world that the author has created." [Oliver]

Any public cynicism towards the arts may have been compounded by the artistic love of masks. Pound's first collection of poems was appropriately entitled Personae;- by adopting the personae of various songsters and rhymesters from the past, he sought to define his own fugitive self;

If thou hast seen my shade sans character,
If thou hast seen that mirror of all moments,
That glass to all things that o'shadow it,
Call not that mirror me, for I have slipped
Your grasp, I have eluded.
[Pound, The Flame]

Ezra Pound

So if artists are dishonest and their audience made up of willing dupes, how can art be evaluated objectively; are not those who see it as their place to critique the arts somehow charlatans by association?
Nietzsche, a philosophical lover of masks, derided Wagner for being 'an actor', with a 'talent to lie', who had brought about an "overall change of art into histrionics which is no less an expression of physiological degeneration (more precisely, a form of hystericism). 'The Lohengrin Prelude' furnished the first example, only too insidious, only too successful, of hypnotism by means of music: the actor Wagner is a tyrant; his pathos topples every taste, every resistance;- 'What is meant to have the effect of truth must not be true' - this proposition contains the whole psychology of the actor. In declining cultures, wherever the decision comes to rest with the masses, authenticity becomes superfluous, disadvantageous, a liability; only the actor still arouses great enthusiasm." [CW]

To Pound, art had been corrupted by bourgeois values. Now the artist had become a salary man, a stooge, a flunky. For this reason he made his Anglo-Saxon Seafarer jibe at the burgher's contentment, while his 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberly' presents a mordant attack on the mediocre values of the middle-class;

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;
No, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the Classics in paraphrase!
The 'age demanded' chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the 'sculpture' of rhyme.

There is an overwhelming sense here, of the concept 'artist' having fallen from a once 'Golden age'; and that the modern 'business artist' [The phrase was one of Warhol's self-appellations] is a typical product of the 'mammon worship' that prevails in modern society. However, this conflict between the artist and society has been a part of Western culture at least since Plato, who in the Republic set this view out plainly enough;

"The things that a painter creates are not real; what he produces is not the essential Form or the Ultimate Reality, but something that resembles reality." [Book X]

And this is the charge to be laid against the arts: do they just imitate reality - and are therefore ephemeral, or even pernicious - or, to speak in their defense, do they reveal far more, making artists in Shelley's words, "the unacknowledged legislator's of the world". 

Aesthetics and Counterfeiting

The Platonic dichotomy between a (mystical) Real-World of Absolute Truth, and the world of quotidian 'appearance', has had a huge impact on the history of Western thought.
To Plato, "those who see beauty in only one area, for example the arts, are not true philosophers, because they do not see the Absolute Beauty. - Such a one is 'dreaming', for they see the image of truth, and not truth itself."

On this basis would Plato outlaw poets from his Ideal Republic. The 'Absolute Beauty' he talked of "is not itself identical with reality, but is beyond reality and superior to it." It is in fact the 'Ultimate Reality', "the Absolute Unchanging realm of knowledge;- Reality itself."

This 'realm' was given a Godly moral supremacy;

"The mind as a whole must be turned away from the world of change, until it can bear to look straight at 'Reality', which is what we call 'The Good'."

Tolstoy, concurs;
"I think that every reasonable and moral man would again decide the question as Plato decided it; let there be no art at all than continue the depraving art or simulation art, which now exists."

To Tolstoy art had "become a prostitute, always adorned, always saleable, enticing and ruinous." But unlike Plato, who had condemned art per se, he considered that 'true art' had indeed existed once, only it had since been "replaced by imitations of art. It has in course of time ceased even to be art at all, and has been replaced by counterfeits."

The terms 'simulation' and 'counterfeit' are applied repeatedly by Tolstoy [even to the art of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe, Bach and Beethoven, to name but a few!]. This is reminiscent of Baudrillard's work a century later, who felt that Western culture had gone beyond the 'imitations' castigated by Tolstoy, and had now substituted the "signs of the Real for the Real itself: the Real is no longer the Real."

He lays the fault for this at the door of Capitalism, "which was the first to feed throughout its history on the destruction of every referential, of every human goal, which shattered every ideal distinction between true and false, good and evil, in order to establish a law of equivalence and exchange."

Similarly, Tolstoy has said that the cause of 'counterfeit art' was "the remuneration of artists and professionalism", and also indicted 'Schools of Art', finding it unthinkable that art could be 'taught'. Likewise he attacked 'art criticism', the purveyors of which were "erudite, perverted self-confident individuals", seemingly unaware that "to a good work of art, all interpretations are superfluous."
These critics "pay most attention to, and eulogise, brain-spun invented works, and set up these as models worthy of imitation."

Tolstoy places much emphasis on that product of 18th century Neoclassicism, the discipline of 'Aesthetics', which sought to define 'the Beautiful', saying that such a mode of study is not only harmful to art, but is also a waste of time because it defines 'nothing at all' save the truism that beauty causes a 'kind of pleasure.'

'Aesthetics' was seen as a symptom of the modern 'alienation' of the artist;
"The 18th century marks the development of the strictly modern institution of the museum. It is no accident at all that museums should begin at a time when philosophers were elaborating a separate discipline of aesthetics: the two events flow from the same historical condition of man, in which from beginning to end all human thinking is rooted." [Barret]

To Heidegger, "when Aesthetics achieves its greatest possible height, breadth and rigour of form, (2) great art comes to an end."

This is a position no less extreme than that found in Tolstoy and Baudrillard, but are we really to accept that great art is dead?
The 'movements' of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Dada, may certainly indicate to some that there is a serious malaise. As Honegger exclaimed; "have we lost the arts?"

(2) Heidegger pinpoints Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics 1828-9.


Romanticism and Pessimism: The Artist as God

To name an object is to take away three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem, which consists in the happiness of guessing little-by-little; to suggest it: that is the dream.

Both the despair and decadence of Romanticism, and the violence and nihilism of Modernism, are quite proper to counterfeit art according to Baudrilliard because it "always connotes something diabolical: the uneasiness before the mirror image. There is already sorcery at work in the Mirror. But how much more so when this image can be detached from the mirror and be transported, stocked, reproduced at will: all reproduction implies a kind of Black Magic."

A growing technological mastery of nature meant a concomitant ruthless exploitation of her resources, both animate and inanimate;

"It is with Romanticism that a strange new chord of anxiety is sounded: man has entered upon some new and uncertain turning-point in his history in the course of which he will become severed from Nature so that the voice of the poet will not be heard and poetry itself become a dead art of the past." [Barret]

The severance of art from life becomes painfully apparent as the great Romantics struggle to heal the schism and return to a Golden Age. Lord Byron wrote that;

"'Art' comes over me in a kind of rage every now and then ... and then, if I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad. As to that regular, uninterrupted love of writing ... I do not understand it. I feel it as a torture, which I must get rid of, but never as a pleasure. On the contrary, I think composition a great pain." [Letter to Moore, 1821]

Here we see two extreme views of the artist. On the one hand the inspired, primal, shamanic; and on the other, the level-headed contractual maker of product. The Symbolist poet Rimbaud gave the best known formula of the former in his Lettre du Voyant (1871), where the poet as 'voyant' or visionary claims abrupt access to new horizons of consciousness, which contrasts with the rational Newtonian ascent 'on the shoulders of giants'. The first is a Wotan-like self-sacrifice for the Unknown, while the second is the gradual discovery of 'Nature's Laws'.
The Romantic view that poetry is 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' [Wordsworth], also marks its aversion to the art of Realism where;
 "Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word 'mimesis'; that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting or figuring forth - to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture."

But to Schlegel, 'mere representation' was 'not enough'. It was necessary for there to be a 'spark of divine enthusiasm'. From this, the artist came to see himself as a God, while art developed towards abstraction.

Against the background of such movements as Surrealism and Abstract-Expressionism, Camus wrote that;

"Periods such as ours, which are bent on unity to the point of madness, turn to the primitive arts, in which stylisation is always found at the beginning and end of artistic movements; it demonstrates the intensity of negation and transposition which has given modern painting its disorderly impetus towards interpreting unity and existence. Van Gogh's admirable complaint is the arrogant and desperate cry of all artists: 'I can very well, in life, and in painting do without God. But I cannot, suffering as I do, do without something that is greater than I am, which is my life - the power to create."

Art as Will to Power

We have art in order not to die of the truth.

Following the Pre-Platonic practice of positing an arche to characterise, in Heidegger's phrase, 'the basic occurrence of all beings', Nietzsche saw art as the metaphysics of existence, which was itself, fundamentally, 'the will to power'.
It is only through art that we can acquire the clearest glimpse of the basic configuration of the will to power.

Nietzsche eschewed the Platonic segregation of the world into Appearance/Reality, because to him the apparent world was the only reality, and therefore of course, the realm of art.
It was the task of art to give form, and to provide a 'stimulant to life'.
The life-denying decadence of a Schopenhauer or Buddhism was poison, because the artist must needs be a yea-sayer: Art is Absolute Affirmation.

Here Nietzsche moves beyond the pure irrationalism and death-wish fantasies which are found in the Romantics. Art was rather to be a 'counter-movement to nihilism'; and the basic physiological and psychological state of the artist was one of rapture [Ger. 'Rausch'].
But this was not the pure subjectivism of the Romantics, but instead a radical synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
Rapture was not only inward, but an opening-outwards and an 'attunement' with 'Beings in the world'. As Heidegger interpreted it, "we ascend beyond ourselves. Such ascent beyond ourselves, to the full of our essential capability, occurs according to Nietzsche in rapture.
"Thus the beautiful is disclosed in rapture.
"The beautiful itself is what transports us into the feeling of rapture.
"From this elucidation of the essence of the beautiful, the characterisation of rapture, of the basic aesthetic state, acquires enhanced clarity. If the beautiful is what sets the standard for what we trust we are essentially capable of, then the feeling of rapture, as our relation to the beautiful, can be no mere turbulence and ebullition. The mood of rapture is rather an attunement in the sense of the supreme and most measured determinateness."

This brings us to the importance of form. Nietzsche again;

"What it takes to be an artist is that one experience what all non-artists call 'form' as content, as 'the matter itself'. With that, of course, one is relegated to an inverted world. For from now on one takes content to be something merely formal- including one's own life." [WP]

As Heidegger tells us, Nietzsche's 'method' was one of reversal, or rather re-valuation. By this process, 'Art is now worth more than the Truth.'

The Grand Style

Grand Style: when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject.

'Grand Style' [der grosse Stil] was how Nietzsche referred to the Classic form which he saw as the basic structure of existence. It was 'where the extremes of chaos and form advanced under the same yoke. Grand Style disdains to please or to persuade: rather it commands; it wills. Art 'erupts' in he body as rapt-ure; yet it paradoxically has to impose values. 'Being Stamped onto Becoming' is the formula for The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, and this is the essence of the will to power. There is no question of a 'letting go'; in order to cultivate the 'rare protracted, measured victory over plenitude - that is Grand Style - man must be made 'hard, natural strong; more wicked.'

The theory of the 'grand style' went back at least as far as Longinus and his 'sublime'. The distinction between Great and Mean style had its root in the nobility - or its lack - of the artist himself. Grand Style was typified by 'noble diction' and 'elevated composition'.
Renaissance theory differentiated between base style, middle style and high or grand style. Grand Style was only to be used for epics and tragedies.
In 18th century art, Racine's work is seen to exemplify Grand Style, and in Neoclassicism Grand Style usurps all others. 19th century Romanticism sees a reaction against Grand Style. In English literature Matthew Arnold forcefully argued for Grand Style [see his Preface to Poems of 1853 and his 'On Translating Homer' of 1862], putting forward Homer and Pindar as his touchstones for Grand Style amongst the ancients.
Arnold distinguishes between the 'grand style simple' - as in Homer, and the 'grand style severe' - as in Milton. [cf. Perminger ed. for the above]

Arnold's own poem 'Balder Dead' aimed at the Grand Style;

So on the floor lay Balder dead; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts, and spears,
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierced or clove;
But in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough
Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw--
'Gainst that alone had Balder's life no charm.
And all the Gods and all the Heroes came,
And stood round Balder on the bloody floor,
Weeping and wailing; and Valhalla rang
Up to its golden roof with sobs and cries;
And on the tables stood the untasted meats,
And in the horns and gold-rimm'd skulls the wine.
And now would night have fall'n, and found them yet
Wailing; but otherwise was Odin's will.
[opening of Balder Dead]

 For Arnold, the Greeks "are the highest models of expression, the unapproached masters of the grand style." [Preface to Poems]
This is because "they want to educe and cultivate what is best and noblest in themselves." [ib.]

In a discussion on Arnold's use of 'grand style' [in 'Essays and Studies' by members of the 'English Association', Volumes 1- 2, 1948-9] Bailey says that the grand style "belongs rather to the calm than to the storm, though perhaps no calm will give it but that which the storm has preceded." Compare Nietzsche's Zarathustra's, 'the stillest words bring the storm'.
Bailey goes on to say that the grand style is "the style which takes the spirit from the poet's overpowering consciousness of the presence of greatness ... a thing of fine line than of rich colour; sculpture rather than painting; with nothing voluptuous or even overflowing, in it, quiet, austere, with a kind of stern simplicity."
Here we hear the sound of Apollo's lyre and realise that the dualism of Apollo/Dionysos is once more at work in this characterisation of the Grand Style.
Bailey makes a Nietzschean claim for the amorality of the Grand Style;
"The essential quality of grand style is greatness, and the point is that greatness is not the same thing even as beauty and goodness."

Much of the controversy in the above discussion was due to Arnold excluding Shakespeare from the Grand Style. Arnold and Nietzsche were in agreement that Shakespeare's work is too mixed [i.e. of base and middle styles along with grand] to be Grand Style per se. Another point of agreement, given Nietzsche's extolling of the gaya scienza, was Arnold's view that "the poetry of the langue d'oc, of southern France, of the troubadours, is ... the first literature of modern Europe to strike the true and grand note." ['On Translating Homer']

Important for the present essay is Arnold's assertion that poetry is "thought and art in one."
And that;

"The substance and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing, in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness." [ib.]

The British poet John Wain decried the lack of grand style found in modernism;
"The throwing away of form in contemporary poetry and the arts generally is the result of that jelly-bellied democratisation - in a mass society only the lowest level of finesse is acceptable - and partly of sheer mental confusion."

For Heidegger, poetry is the art form par excellence for the Grand Style, because it "is not mere ornament of culture, but the primary and essential form of language. Hence, the thinker who exposes himself to poetry may gain through it some unique access to the meaning of Being." [quoted in Barret]

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