Sunday, January 26, 2014

Goodness: ethos and pathos and art

Two topics that have affected artists since the Greeks have been ethos and pathos.

In the great age of Greek philosophy and theater, 600 BC to approximately 300 BC or later, Greek thinkers suggested that pathos, the feeling and transmission of emotion, was integral to human existence and health.  Evidence of this emerges in sculpture near the end of the Archaic period, by 550 BC.  It can be seen in works such as The Dying Warrior from the pediment of the temple of Aphaia at Aegina.

It would not be enough to merely recognize the mimetic or naturalistic qualities of a human figure, we must stop and contemplate the subject's feelings and thoughts.  In such a way, we may be examining our own thoughts and feelings, a process Aristotle called catharsis.

This introduced an ethic for artists.  Is an artist obligated to capture a viewer's attention and excite emotions?

One ethic all artists recognize is craftsmanship.  There should be an integrity to the use of materials and the stylistic approach to creation.

Breugel felt an ethic to preach to his Protestant contemporaries.  Thus he placed the New Testament Bible story of The Massacre of the Innocents into his own village and his own contemporaneous times, thus forcing his viewers to experience empathy and sympathy.

Salvador Dali had attacked the projection of meaning into tropes in Surrealist art, but after a meeting with Sigmund Freud in New York during 1938, Dali painted The Temptation of St. Anthony in which he used his Surrealist painting style to affirm symbolic meaning and reference the religious topics of sin, guilt and temptation.  This resulted in Dali being kicked out of the Surrealist Congress, yet he continued to paint such religious paintings as St. John the Divine and The Dark Night of the Soul and The Last Supper.

Photojournalism probably began in the Crimean War while photographic technology was still in its infancy.  Many photographers tried to communicate pathos by the time LIFE magazine debuted in 1936 and cemented the picture story as a narrative device for news.  Dorothea Lange was a photographer for the U.S. government when she documented the plight of migrant farm workers during The Dust Bowl following The Great Depression.  How do you tell "the heart" of a story in a compelling way when people's hearts have already been wrung dry for a decade?  She did it by finding a Madonna in the dust.

Franco's fascists were impatient to win the Spanish Civil War in 1936, so they escalated the attacks by bombing a historic mountain town symbolic of The Old Republic, Guernica.  Lacking a war machine of their own, the fascists appealed to Mussolini who appealed to his allies the Nazis.  Nazi Stuka dive bombers tested their firepower during the night on the defenseless Guernica.  Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard expatriated as a Cubist in Paris, used the mythic icons of Cubism to convey the horror, heart and history of the event as a monument, a memorial, something art has been used for throughout human history.  In that way primitive means speak to primal emotions.


Plotinus codified Greek philosophy and gave us the basic foundations for a definition of beauty.  What Plotinus said is that we most often acknowledge beauty as a whole.  The harmonious arrangement of agreeable parts, which led to words such as symmetry and composition being definitive words.  Centuries before Plotinus, the Greeks had already defined some rules of proportions as seen in the works of Phidias, and the architecture of Ictinus and Callicrates, using The Golden Section and the math found in nature.  The Parthenon is a prime example of classical beauty.

Other cultures before and since have found beauty in the arrangements of parts and patterns.  Math has been the basis of great beauty as seen in Islamic art and architecture.

Precision as well as choices of shapes and colors and invention then become characteristics of art and beauty, as well as religious devotion, as seen in the cross carpet page of The Lindisfarne Gospels.

Science, observation, precision, and theory were important to the Impressionists of the 19th Century, such as Claude Monet.  He studied the color temperature of light at different times of day as well as color theory for the pleasing arrangement of color.  Thus "composition" became as important to art as it is to music and literature.

Such pleasing and scientific use of color can be elevating to the mind and spirit.  Vincent van Gogh seemed to be communicating his knowledge of color theory just as much as an elevating love of beauty.

Just because a work of art has correct theory does not make it pleasing.  Gyorgy Legeti's polyphonic musical compositions are theoretically correct, what could be called analytical music, but their lack of melody makes them seem like sounds that are not pleasing in the way that melodic or synthetic music would be.  The same can happen visually.  Analytical Cubism may be correct in theory but is practically unreadable to a viewer, especially as it defies mimetic expectations or a sense of "realism".

Thus an Analytical Cubist portrait is unrecognizable, but if a Picasso makes sense as a picture then it is a piece of Synthetic Cubism.

Personally, I find some "analytical" pieces so pleasing and readable that they may as well qualify as "synthetic", like melodic muse, such as the works of Juan Gris.

Kant, writing about classical philosophy and philosophical theory, brought the words transcendence and sublime into our vocabulary.  Some works of art transcend the ordinariness of existence and elevate us to levels of spirituality and thought that can only be described as sublime.

Many Modernists have sought to elevate people's lives and thoughts.  It was a goal of many abstract painters, such as Piet Mondrian, and architects such as The Bauhaus.

Another choice in artistic creation and aesthetic has been to combine art and architecture with nature and to emulate naturalistic forms.  That style is called Organic and can be seen in works by LeCorbusier, Gaudi, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others.

In recognizing humanity as part of the natural world such art and architecture may also be freeing and elevating.

TRUTH and Art

The Greeks had a word for the means in which art copies reality by observing nature, and that word was mimesis.  It is a term used in philosophy and criticism.  In current vernacular, we say "real".

Mimesis relegates art to a secondary status, then, as copy work, and the success or mastery is defined by how well the artist rendered a copy of the natural word.  Again, we often say "realistic" as a defining term when we regard art.

That struggle over art as "truth", meaning that it is not truth but is a trick or a mime, led in large part to Art For Art's Sake and the quest for "pure art" in the 19th Century.
The Greeks gave us linear perspective which is a subjective way of rendering what we see.  Keep in mind that this is SUBJECTIVE and depends on interpretation from a Point Of View (P.O.V.).  In terms of truth and "reality", this is not real in a scientific sense.  The road never actually narrows, and parallel lines remain parallel, they do not converge.

Other cultures, such as Japanese painting, and scientific approaches such as mechanical drafting for machine design, insist of the absoluteness of real measurements.  This is called isometric perspective.  This is OBJECTIVE.  Parallel lines remain parallel and measurements remain constant.
A great deal of art is a trick.  It plays upon our perceptions.
The invention of photography in 1828 brought the topic of truth to the forefront of art.  At last, supposedly, light could make its own images.  The subjectivity of the artist was removed.  The image above was in William Henry Fox Talbot's book, The Pencil of Nature. 
The camera and film could solve and settle many arguments, and a photograph may be used as evidence in court.
With the scientific study of the mind and personality in the 20th Century, psychoanalysis, a style of art came along that challenged our willingness to accept veracity and mimetic art.  Rene Magritte's painting is titled The Treason of Imagery and mocks us through the phrase "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," meaning "this is not a pipe."
Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory was done in that Surrealist style.  Generations of people have ascribed meaning to this painting when there isn't any meaning.  Dali chose the trope of clocks and we project meaning.  Like Alice following the rabbit down the rabbit hole because he has a timepiece and says "I'm late", we too think that there must be something important here when in truth there is nothing.  Dali was in effect making it evident to us how our own subjectivity and projection can be tricked.