Saturday, 5 December 2015

“if purpose is present in art, it must also be present in nature”

Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle once wrote “if purpose is present in art, it must also be present in nature”. But before we can begin discussing art, we need to address the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Their doctrines have been profoundly influential in western culture. These two great minds have pervaded our society, our way of life, and still influence how we create art. Artists through the ages have been, and continue to be divided along this philosophical line. Aristotle wrote many centuries ago “if purpose is present in art, it must also be present in nature”. Artists of Platonic and Aristotelean influence have each explored this question through a discovery of their art by building bridges in different directions to answer questions about meaning and purpose. Plato and Aristotle’s respective theories of ultimate reality are polarized, yet in some ways they share similarities. Art too share this polarization and similarity in its different approaches. Plato holds that there is a world of abstract forms which are more real than the world of our experience. His pupil, Aristotle, rejected this notion and argued that the individual and the world of our experience are the most real. Both philosophers share a hierarchical structure of ultimate reality, but they differ with respect to what is at the top of said hierarchy. 

Plato was concerned with the concept of the "eidos" or the forms. ( He believed that behind everything we perceive, there exists a world of perfect forms hidden within mathematical structures. Theses mathematical structures then become a window for us to perceive the forms which, as far as Plato was concerned, are the only representation of true beauty. This philosophy in many ways has an important impact on christian theology. (Solomon 70) And as a result, in a general sense, the art associated with the western christian theological tradition places great importance on symmetry and form. Plato held that it was this world of the forms which is the most real, and that the world we live in is a kind of illusion. His greatest critic, and pupil, Aristotle, felt that he was entirely wrong about this notion. 

Aristotle was interested in this world we exist in. He felt that the true beauty was in every individual because we they are capable of thinking about ourselves. This idea of a purposeful universe was central to Aristotle’s philosophy, and the ultimate goal called “the prime mover” ( is the reason for existence and change. He interprets us as true beings, who are embodiments of this principal. Aristotle did not feel that the forms were separate from the things themselves. He understood them as substances which influenced change, and also maintained stability. For him, these substances, the species, and other abstract categories were far less real than the individual capable of pure thought. We will see from artists in the 20th century, that this emphasis on simultaneous change and stability becomes very influential. 

Art and Greek Philosophy

Artists have always required something in their work that unifies it. In music, painting, and literature, one way of achieving this is through motifs that remain constant. It is the variation and recombination of these motifs in new and beautiful ways that creates the masterpiece, but there must always be a seed from which it grows. In musical composition, arguably the most abstract of the arts, there is even greater need for this in pieces without a text or narrative. Fragments of musical line are sewn together from an initial small idea with increasing complexity, as in Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony.  The result is a magnificent cloth that retains the imprint of the initial idea, but now the resulting fabric is fully developed and realized. 

Artists create using different philosophical approaches. Some composers, as we see with Arnold Schoenberg, believed that incorporating the integrity of the initial idea throughout the piece (perhaps, even if it is imperceptible to the ears) is of the highest importance to the art. In many of his pieces there is mathematical symmetry and motivic unity that was unparalleled before his time. His development of the technique of musical serialism brought about a new approach that could safeguard the motivic unity of a piece of music. From this axiom, other composers continued to carry the torch until a point that music became more like an experiment in mathematical organization of sound. The serialist organization of sound was so rigorous by the early 1950’s that the structure and organization of some of this music was almost incomprehensible by human ears. With composers like Milton Babbitt, and Pierre Boulez, there was no compromise to motivic integrity. It needed to be as sound as a complex math equation. And in many cases, it was just that. Every element of the music was serialized, form the dynamics, to the rests, note duration and timbre. The performer in type of music becomes almost an inconvenience to the purity of the idea. This led to many composers of this period being interested in electronic composition. Much like Plato’s philosophy, this sort of music creates a similar problem—what is the purpose of this abstract form if we cannot interact with it meaningfully? And what is it’s relationship to influencing change?  This philosophy about art is similar to Plato’s idea that it is the abstract form which is the most beautiful, and the most real.  But as Plato had his Aristotle, the serialist composers had others pushing back from another metaphysical idea. 

Around the same time, the American composer John Cage was emphasizing that most real and the most beautiful came not from an abstract form buried within the art. For him it is the resulting sound of the performance, and the influence of chance and change that are the most real and beautiful.  Much like Aristotle, Cage began his education in the schooling of his predecessors. He learned the techniques of serialism and other cutting edge musical innovations. He then rejected this, and went on to adopt a musical philosophy which he called aleatoric music. This music was based on chance. The composer relinquished control of the music, and merely created circumstances by which beautiful musical events and change could take place. His famous (or infamous) piece “4′33′′” is considered the peak of this philosophy. The performer sits at the piano for exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds and does nothing. This piece is s statement that it is not always about the performer with access to some other-worldly realm of abstract beauty; beauty exists around us constantly in the sounds and changing environment we exist in. The sound of an old lady coughing, someone dropping their cup in the room, or the angry muffled conversation about how ridiculous it is so call sitting in silence for 4 and a half minutes art are all beautiful and more real according to John Cage. It is important to mention that these events in the development of western art, are just that. They are not the only examples of this dichotomy. Similar parallels exist in other cultural movements, but the chosen example illustrates the point very clearly. 

Obviously not all art is so polarized. Many composers have swung back and forth from hard serialism to post-romantic tonality. The beauty of art is that it is able to have it’s cake and eat it too. It can share qualities of organized abstract form, but also be expressive in ways that involve chance and development, whilst maintaining it’s essence of stability. 

The philosophical positions of the ancient greeks does not seem so ancient when we consider how influential it has been in our modern cultural society. Not only in art, but in the many ways we seek to answer questions about existence. Both interpretations of ultimate reality are beautiful in their own way, but I remain fascinated by the concept of being. There is something in the music and art over the centuries that has not changed. I can listen to J.S. Bach’s Chaconne, and be profoundly moved without understanding anything of it’s structure, symmetry, or mathematical proportions. There is something in this art that connects these elements to my human experience. Thus, I am compelled to believe that change is illusory. The same elements can exist in a piece written in my own time. The music seems indistinguishable from a piece written 400 years prior, but my emotional response is the same. Yet when this bridge extends too far into the world of forms that it becomes unrecognizable to me, I am no longer moved. So I am forced to conclude that it is me who changes, and that my knowledge and experience creates beauty. For me, art is about finding the place that exists in the middle of these two philosophies.

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