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Dead White Male Philosophers

January 29, 2015

I had a second look at the image that accompanied my last post which was a page out of the Modern Library’s edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited, in 1964, by Hofstadter and Kuhns from their chapter on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics concerning what is art. I find what Aristotle had to say about art still holds water. It was written sometime before 322 BC or, to be politically correct, BCE; a long time ago. I first read this text in 1966, forty-nine years ago. I’m not sure which came first, the high-lined or underlined text or why I did either. It’s likely that I underlined the text while I was using the book in a course on art theory I took from Albert Elsen in 1966 at Indiana University while at graduate school and the high-lining was when I used the book as a text in my own course on art criticism that I taught many times during my teaching career. But that’s beside the point. What is important is what Aristotle had to say around two thousand four hundred years ago and how our understanding of the problems of art remains pretty much the same. So much for progress.

Aristotle tells us that all is art: “…whose origin is in the maker and not the thing made; for art is concerned neither with things that are, or come into being, by necessity, nor with things that are so in accordance with nature…” Makes sense to me. You can’t really have art without the artist. Of course, once you have a work of art, it can pretty much stand on its own without the artist. It’s a chicken and egg thing. The big deal is the idea. Mind you, this is where Plato and Aristotle part company. Is the idea in God’s hands or the artist’s mind? I’ll stick with the artist, thank you very much, and leave God wherever he, she, or it may reside. I really don’t believe that art is several times removed from the ideal. I don’t like the idea (Plato’s in The Republic) of art, and the artist, coming in third place after the idea of a bed.  Art is it’s own thing and certainly not an imitation of the real. And art can be an improvement over nature.

Ideas, even good ideas, are, of course, a dime a dozen or twelve cents Canadian and good ideas that result in good art are rarer still. In Metaphysics, Book IX, 25, Aristotle states the obvious: “…for he who does a thing well must also do it, but he who does it merely need not also do it well.” Therein lies my problem; most of my good ideas, intentions, have gone undone. Which leads up to the last sentence on the illustrated page from his Nicomachean Ethics: “Art, then, as has been said, is a state concerned with the making, involving a true course of reasoning, and lack of art on the contrary is a state concerned with making, involving a false course of reasoning; both are concerned with the variable.” Ah, the variable, but that’s the subject of another whole post. I’ll stick for the moment with the ‘making’.

plato

Aristotle also states in his Nicomachean Ethics, this time in Book II, that: “…we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work.” Yes, too much is too much and too little is too little. What is needed in a work of art is balance. Finding that balance is the difficult part. In my life drawing classes I often had my students erase as much as they could from what they thought was a finished drawing and still have it hold together. The result was almost always a better drawing. The reverse was telling them that they had a certain amount of time to produce a finished drawing, say ten minutes, and then when the time came, tell them to continue drawing. The result of this exercise was mixed. Sometimes the drawings got better and sometimes worse. Believe it or not, my idea for these exercises did come from my reading of Aristotle. Talk about applied philosophy.

If dead white ancient Greek and Roman male philosophers teach us anything it is that the problems surrounding the making of art have changed very little since the fifth century BCE. We, or at least I, have failed to find any solutions. Yes, times and media have changed. I don’t want to debate here about the sex or race of who makes art; only what it is art and what it is that drives human beings to make it. Whether people picked up sticks and drew animals on a wall or whether they make videos, some do it, or did it, better. They made art. Many thousands of years ago or yesterday doesn’t seem to make a difference. The why and what questions remain. I think that art is more than shadows on the wall. There is something in human nature that gives us the will, as Aristotle thought, to do something well. I just wish that I knew more about that something that does gives us the will to make art. It’s all questions and few answers. Damn.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, January 27, 2015.

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