Sunday, January 26, 2014


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.

1 comment:

  1. I was really struck by the idea that beauty is acknowledged as a whole. It's true; if we like a part of a piece of art, but not all of it, we mentally disregard it. Perhaps we struggle with the idea that an artist could produce, within one work, both beauty and ugliness. Indeed, that is something humanity has struggled with all throughout history - how is it possible that one body can possess such opposites?