An Artist's Voice

 

 

 

Aesthetic Commentary

Pandora's Box Part 3
by Michael Newberry

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.

The Fountain is a urinal. It is also an example of postmodern sublimity.

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, installations, etc.

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.

The 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 account."

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 senseless.

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.

Unique individual features merged with a theme of benevolence, perhaps meaning that goodness starts with the individual?

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 dynamic poses. 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 children.

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 values.

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 integration.

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.

Michael Newberry
2002, first published in the Free Radical #54


2012  Newberry, All rights reserved.