There is a newly-discovered version of
the legend of Pandora's Box. In this third version insanity,
despair, and hatred had overrun the world and Pandora, driven by
a sense of hope, opened the box by unlocking it with a key. Out
from the box rose up all the glories of humanity and they spread
throughout the world with undiminished splendor. Pandora
discovered that the glories had never disappeared, but it was
humankind that had lost the key to identify the magnificence
that lay before them.
The form of art and its function in
human life are central to the debate between postmodern art and
art. In the first two parts of this series I essayed 1) how
postmodern art shocks your epistemological processes through its
anti-art means, and 2) how it
shocks your psychological processes by expressing disturbing
content as the ends. Along these lines, I will go deeper in
examining the theoretical basis of postmodern art and then, I
would like to show you that an alternative to postmodern art
exists, today, in the here and now.
To start I would like to address a few
of Kant's concepts of the sublime. These concepts are important because he
introduces some profoundly radical concepts into the history of
aesthetics that have, in a fundamental sense, become the
blueprints for postmodern art.
Kant states: "The beautiful in nature
is a question of the form of the object, and this consists in
limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object even
devoid of form."
Kant is contrasting the beautiful with
the sublime. He connects, quite reasonably, the beautiful with
the form of an object but, oddly, he attaches formlessness to
the concept of sublime. To give you two examples, think of the
Venus de Milo and Duchamp's Fountain. The Venus de
Milo derives her aesthetic value because of the sculptor's
superlative skill in creating a fluid, graceful female form
in stone. The Fountain, on the other hand,
is a urinal. It derives its postmodern aesthetic esteem because
Duchamp exercised no skill and used no means; it is the
antithesis of making sculpture. In a very true sense it is
aesthetically formless, it represents an idea but the actual
urinal is of no aesthetic value in itself.
Kant's view is that a concept
communicated through a formless means is superior to a concept
communicated through the form of sculpture or painting. In other
words, it is the concept that counts and not the artwork.
|The Venus de
Milo is an example of a concept communicated through the form of
beautiful sculpture, requiring great skill.
Beauty, however, is inferior
to the sublime, which can be communicated through
formless artlessness, requiring no skill, by Kant's reckoning.
urinal. It is also an example of postmodern
Kant's concept of the formless nature
of the sublime is the ideological birthplace of the postmodern
aesthetic that art, visual art, doesn't need to be expressed
through the means of representational painting or sculpture. In
practice, this aesthetic opened up the floodgates of a nihilistic
revolution in the 20th Century in which postmodern artists
deconstructed art and/or substituted any object but
painting or sculpture for art, i.e. arranged rubbish, excrement,
An opinion voiced by many people in
response to postmodern art, such as Andre's bricks arranged on a
floor as exhibited in the Tate, is "my eight-year old could do this." It is easy to
understand their perspective; their assumption is that a value
is something that takes effort and skill, the higher the value
the more it would require superlative skill, not something
assembled at random.
|Arranged bricks at
the Tate Modern.
This attitude, in part, echoes
Aristotle's comment that "art is identical with a state of
capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning." The
idea is that a sculptor sculpts and a painter paints and they
remain true to their arts forms, to the means of creation. There
would be no room in his concept of art to include assemblages of
factory-made objects. "All art is concerned with coming into
being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may
come into being and whose origin is in the maker." An
Aristotelian definition of a person who scattered bricks would
be a brick arranger, not an artist.
A contemporary take on the nature of
art comes from Rand, who connects humanity's need of art to the
process of translating concepts, through painting or sculpture,
into an immediate perceptual concrete. She observes: "An artist
isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential
and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents
an embodied abstraction."
In Delacroix's Liberty
Leading the People, we literally see a woman leading people
forward, an immediate perceptual concrete, and this scene projects concepts such as fighting for
one's values, overcoming barriers, and life or death struggles. Experiencing this phenomenon is what
can give humans the
sense of the reality of their possibilities. The idea is that
artistic visions can and do inspire our dreams and goal directed
actions in real life.
nature of art is to be a beacon to guide one's path in
life. In what direction does your path lead?
Both Rand and Aristotle keep aesthetics
grounded to art. On the other hand,
Kant, through his concept of the formless nature of the sublime,
divorces aesthetics from art.
As the means of an artwork deals with
the form, the end deals with the "point", the intellectual and
emotional expression of the art. In Kant's view the end point of
the sublime should "excite[s] a feeling of an outrage on the
imagination, and yet it is judged all the more sublime on that
Kant's theory of the sublime is the foundation
for all the derivative theories of shock aesthetics that find
realization in such postmodern works as: meat grinders for
humans, Hatoum's Mouli Julienne; the irrelevant
defacement of the Mona Lisa image by the inclusion of a
moustache, Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q.; canned shit, Manzoni's
Merde d'artista; empty room as art, Creed's The Lights
Going On and Off; etc.
On a basic human level there is a touch
of nastiness in all these works. They are displays that take us
to states of mind that are either envious, grotesque, or
The Dalai Lama by contrast believes that your happiness is threatened if you embrace
negative states of being. He eloquently states: "...hatred,
jealousy, anger, and so on are harmful. We consider them
negative states of mind because they destroy our mental
happiness; once you harbor feelings of hatred or ill feeling
towards someone, once you yourself are filled by hatred or
negative emotions, then other people appear to you as also
hostile." Though he is not making an aesthetic statement, his
idea serves as an ethical stance in which happiness is a proper
aim for one's life.
The question arises: what role does
human value, as a subject matter, have in aesthetics?
Kant has already shown us his negative
stance by the idea of an "outrage on the imagination". In
contrast to Kant's aesthetics, Rand and Aristotle have
benevolent views of what the end point in art should be. In
Rand's case she thinks art can/should create the experience of
"a moment of metaphysical joy--a moment of love for existence."
And Aristotle thinks that: "Every art is thought to aim at some
good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to
be that at which all things aim."
Rand and Aristotle come from the
standpoint that every act of human creativity has a human value
as an end point, including art. The converse would be that if an
act has a negative state as its end, it would be destructive or
meaningless for a healthy humanity.
So let's start afresh, away from Kant's
malapropos use of the word "sublime", and find out what the
dictionary definition of it is. The American Heritage Dictionary
defines sublime as 1) characterized by nobility; majestic. 2) a.
Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth. b. Not to be
excelled; supreme. 3) Inspiring awe; impressive. 4) Archaic.
Raised aloft; set high.
Keep those definitions in mind as we
look at the following work.
Feldman's sculpture group, The
Future In Our Hands, 1992, Reservoir Park, Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania, is four life-size bronze statues placed around a
large outdoor fountain. There are two males and two females,
life-sized, each playing with a child.
Instead of looking at each sculpture
separately, let's first look at their common features.
Each adult is standing with one leg
solidly anchored on the ground, giving us the sense that they
are grounded in real life. Their other leg is relaxed and
slightly extended, giving them a sense of balance and flexibility.
Each adult is intently looking at their child and, more, their
entire body language is directed to and in support of the child.
Notice how each adult has an extended free arm poised for
maintaining balance. Their free arm is also extended in an
expression of care.
Each child is in a moment of freedom;
they are rising, reaching, or flying.
Notice that none of the children are
held or held back.
There is an intensely intimate physical
connection between the adults and the children.
Aside from the one child literally in flight, the other children
are balancing themselves on their parents. As well, in beautiful
exchanges of tenderness, the parents are balancing the children
with little more
than a touch of a finger, the support of a palm, or the tip
of a nose.
If we continue to look more closely at
the sculptures, we will notice that each adult is a unique body
type: the lithe girlish figure contrasts with the full womanly
figure; the men's figures are similarly contrasted between
slender and solid builds.
individual features merged with a theme of benevolence,
perhaps meaning that goodness starts with the
Notice the face of the mother tossing
the child; the line of her mouth and the tilt of her nose are
distinct features. We have the sense that if the model walked by
we would recognize her. Each figure has these unique
characteristics, which marks them as individuals. But common
among them is the elegance of the proportions of their body
parts. Not a hand, head, or foot seems out of sync with the
whole body. Here Feldman has stepped away from the generic
prototypes of the ancient Greeks, where, for example, youths'
heads look very much alike.
In each sculpture notice the flow of
the surface skin and how it moulds the underlying anatomy from
the hips to stomach up to the chest to around the shoulders.
Look at the natural shape of the knees; we can sense how they
are either locked into place or totally relaxed. This is a
virtuosic display of modeling clay. It also shows the breadth of Feldman's
anatomical knowledge from the delineation of a neck muscle to
the hardness of an elbow.
It might be easy to overlook the simple
naturalness of the children. But there are several very
difficult technical things going on here. One is that their
proportions are true to little children: the largeness of their
heads and the fullness of their torsos. Another aspect is the
modeling of their flesh, which gives us a sense of a malleable
plumpness. The third is that these toddlers are in incredibly
Children, throughout the history of art, from the Egyptians to
modern times have often looked, simply put, weird. It is
refreshing to find in sculpture children that look like
Stepping back, let's take in the
sculptures from a distance and look at their big forms. The big
form is, in contrast to details such as ears, the essential
"sweep" of the whole sculpture. If you use your imagination it
is like waving a magic wand in ascending arches, in large
flowing curves, or in shooting diagonal exclamation marks. And
imagine that your gestured arches, curves, and diagonals
magically turn into wildly arching backs, shoulders pivoting
against thrust hips, and ecstatic children soaring.
Looking at the sculpture of the lithe
woman with the flying child, follow the bow-like sweep from her
right shoulder through her left hip down through left leg that
ends at the curve of her left big toe. Notice how the child is
flying diagonally off the sweep of the mother's body, like an
arrow shooting off a bow. Feldman is using this big sweep to
dramatically accent the child's flight.
Parenthetically, Rodin's greatest
historical innovation was his integration of big sweeping forms
of the human body, which he used to give a sense of immediacy,
of living in the moment, to the expression of the figure. His
figures never feel "posed", like the melodramatic poses you
might see in silent movies. It is outside of the scope of this
essay but it could be argued that Rodin sacrificed proportions,
the flesh-like texture of the modeling, and the completeness of
the entire figure so that he could achieve the big sweep of
immediacy and form. On the other hand, Feldman has integrated
this technique without sacrificing any of these other sculptural
A swirling twist of space is the big
form in the sculpture of the child who is raising himself off
his mother's shoulder. She is taking a step, rotating in the
direction of her turned head, following the direction of her
child, whose back enhances this line and whose head is turned in
such a way as to continue this sweep out towards his furthest
sight. The whole composition is like a waltz of balance.
Looking at the sculpture of the child
balanced on his father's shoulder, we can sense a flowing "S"
sweep from the father's right leg, swinging up through his
torso, curving through the tilting torso of the child, ending in
a burst of joyfully flung arms and legs, much like the ascent
and explosion of fireworks.
Perhaps the most impressive of the four
sculptures is the one in which the father has raised the
delighted child on high. Notice the soaring line from the
father's right shoulder through his arm up through the child's
high flung leg.
The Future in Our Hands has a
lot to take in: the theme of joy of supporting human growth with
its sub-themes of individuality, flight, comradely, and equality
of the sexes. There is its multi-faceted execution of intimate
detailing, naturalism, dynamic movement, and big forms all of
which underlie and support the theme. In one way it simply looks
natural but the aesthetic construct is a tour de force of
I don't know if contemporary critics,
curators, and collectors have lost the capacity to feel awe for
good things. Whether they have or have not, it would be hard to
miss the qualities in The Future in Our Hands of
nobility, value, excellence, and rising the human spirit aloft,
in essence those things which make the sublime.
The Postmodern project substitutes
exaltation for rage, visual means for formlessness, and
sublimity for nihilism, but it can not destroy the existence and nature of art, or
other human accomplishments. But these anti-art definitions can
and do destroy our general ability to identify important
aesthetic values in
works of art; if we are not careful we could lose the
language to distinguish the good from the absurd.
The antidote to postmodern and
the key to understanding the dilemma
posed by this Pandora's Box series is
identification: open your eyes and name it for what it is.
All three versions of the legend of
Pandora's Box are true: the swirling demons and the diseases of
insanity; the hope; and, as well, the magnificence of human
creation. But it is the third version of Pandora's Box, the one
in which "out from the box rose up all the glories of humanity
and they spread throughout the world with undiminished splendor"
is the real one. It is the version that has value for those of
us wishing to achieve a flourishing existence on earth.
2002, first published in the Free Radical #54
All rights reserved.