Posts Tagged ‘aesthetics’

Socrates Knew that He Didn’t Know

January 3, 2021
Looking Forward to Occupying Studio Eidolons Later Today

Reason indeed demands unity, but Nature demands multiplicity, and both systems of legislation lay claim to man’s obedience.

Friedrich Schiller,, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Fourth Letter

I recall how flummoxed we all felt sitting in a doctoral seminar years ago when Professor W. D. Davies held up a monograph that all of us had read and deeply admired for its scholarly erudition. The professor said: “The conclusions are so clear and simple that I cannot bring myself to accept them. Nothing is simple.” A few years later, while taking a walk, another dear friend and mentor, Dr. L. Robert Stevens mused: “In a world so complex, I am convinced that it is far easier to be wrong than right.”

Now, reading Schiller’s maxim above, the words of these reflective men re-visit me forty years later. Something in our nature compels us to make sense of our complicated surroundings, and then our simplifications become canonical to us. The reason I am pondering this matter is because I have started out this New Year convinced that if I am to continue to grow in my watercolor pursuits, then I must adopt the perspective of the curious, inquisitive student in the laboratory rather than the seasoned teacher in the classroom. Being now retired, I am happy not to be called upon daily to set forth propositions that I thought were churned out by boards and committees to satisfy testing standards. I found little satisfaction over the years knowing that if I simply put numbers in the spreadsheets for grades by deadline, that I had done my job satisfactorily. Believing that educational quality could not be quantified, I remained bothered that students’ successes would depend on the damned numbers more than thoughtful letters of recommendation.

What is on my mind this morning is this: I will soon be teaching on Watercolor Wednesdays again in Arlington, Texas. And my method will be to line up steps for students to follow as they attempt to paint selected compositions in a three-hour period. I have never had a problem with that. My problem is the suspicion that I am following my own steps, convinced that the pattern is adequate for its particular subject. I don’t want to do that any longer. The next painting I pursue, once I am back in my own studio (today is a travel day–at least six hours on the road before home is reached once again), I intend to tackle a familiar subject but to try and paint it as if it were my first attempt. When I taught phenomenology, I told my students that epoché was the suspension of judgment, one’s willingness to put preconceived notions back on the shelf in order to approach a subject with more openness.

Schiller argued that nature represented multiplicity while our reasoning faculties demanded simplicity. As a teacher, I always understood the necessity of breaking complicated issues down to simpler steps for students to absorb. But I also tried to urge them that the issues were always more complex than the way we presented them. So also in making art–we approach the complexity with simpler steps, but must always admit that more is required if Quality is to be approached. So . . . in the future when I teach, I’ll try to urge my participants to stretch beyond the steps I present, to dare to explore, to stretch, to expand the possibilities.

The story is told that Socrates, when questioned whether or not he was the wisest in the land, answered this way (I paraphrase): I did not consider myself the wisest, so I went about seeking counsel from others considered wiser. When I asked about issues I did not understand, I listened to their answers and soon concluded that they didn’t know either. However, they were convinced that they did in fact know. So, I suppose that alone makes me the wisest in the land; I know that I don’t know, whereas they continue not to know that they don’t know. To know that you don’t know is the beginning of knowledge.

Beginning this New Year, I acknowledge that I know less about making art than I thought I knew in the past. With that mindset, I am ready to explore and learn. I’m excited to find out what can be discovered in the days ahead, and grateful I still have the ability to pursue this passion.

Thanks for reading, and please follow your bliss in this New Year stretched out before you.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

Back Home Soon

The Compulsion to Make Art in the New Year

January 2, 2021

But it is just this technical formulation, which reveals the truth to our understanding, that conceals it once again from our feeling; for unfortunately the understanding must first destroy the objects of the inner sense before it can appropriate them. Like the chemist, the philosopher finds combination only through dissolution, and the work of spontaneous Nature only through the torture of Art. In order to seize the fleeting appearance he must bind it in the fetters of rule, dissect its fair body into abstract notions, and preserve its living spirit in a sorry skeleton of words.

Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man

Beginning of a snowy evergreen composition

Day two of our new year finds me in a hotel room attempting an 8 x 10″ watercolor sketch of snowy evergreens. I completed a composition similar to this a few Christmas seasons ago in a hotel after I had photographed a stand of trees at the edge of the snow-covered parking lot visible outside my window. This morning I felt the compulsion to repeat the endeavor. Sometimes I do grieve when a watercolor sells so fast that I didn’t have time to look at it and absorb it. The painting above went out the gallery door pretty quickly.

I’m trying to re-read some texts that I enjoyed last Christmas season concerning aesthetics. As I’ve told friends repeatedly, I worked on my skills as an artist for years but focused exclusively on the technical aspects of painting. After a few decades of teaching art history and repeated readings of Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, I have developed a fascination with the topic of aesthetics, and have thoroughly enjoyed the letters of Friedrich Schiller written to a friend around 1795. For the immediate future, I will attempt to steer a careful course between the technical and the philosophical aspects of making art and see where the conversation takes me.

Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

The Search for Theories behind Activities

July 31, 2015

Sketch of Fiddler Crab and Catfish Skull

Sketch of Fiddler Crab and Catfish Skull

Aesthetics is for me like ornithology must be for the birds.

Barnett Newman, Abstract Expressionist painter

. . . all that can be said of Friendship, is like botany to flowers.

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

I could not have planned a more gentle morning, sitting in a comfortable chair, reading Thoreau, as the dawn light finally broke through my living room windows. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers has not been a fast read for me; I began this book years ago, and keep it bookmarked. I thought I would complete my reading at last when I was on assignment in the Texas Laguna Madre. But I still lack about seventy pages before finishing it. The reading of Thoreau’s Journal has certainly cut into my progress over the past few months.

I’ve posted the quotes above, because Thoreau’s remark reminded me of something I had gleaned from the painter Barnett Newman years ago, and the sentiments are certainly mine: I have always felt lacking as a theorist, but competent as a practitioner, especially in the realm of the visual arts. I could probably say the same about human relationships–I should be the last one to consult for advice on maintaining successful ones. But that is another story.

As I read from Thoreau, my eye drifted to the antique table beside me, strewn with shells and carcasses gathered from my stay on the island last month. And I realized that I had yet to try and sketch that nickel-sized fiddler crab, though everything else on the table–blue crab, assorted sea shells and Mermaid’s Wine Cup–had been attempted repeatedly over the past month. I enjoyed the quiet interlude of sketching, though the creature emerged on the paper, looking like a giant dog tick. The catfish skull proved to be rather challenging as well. Still, the drawing was enjoyable, and as I drew, I continually thought on this notion of aesthetics–what is it exactly that makes visual art attractive? What is it that holds the viewer’s attention, giving rise to some kind of emotional response? I still flounder in the midst of those questions, like a child treading water in the deep end of the pool, on the edge of panic. I feel comfortable with the elements and principles of design, and many of those are intuitive with me, emerging naturally as I draw and paint. Composition just seems to happen organically as I work (feeling that I am actually at play). But aesthetics still cripples me, when it comes to articulating what is pleasing about art. I’m just glad it doesn’t hinder me from making art, and certainly does not diminish my joy in the process. Still, I wish I could sit in some kind of Parisian Cafe setting and hear other artistic spirits talking over these matters. I love solitude, but crave conversation in areas such as this.

My Play Area this Morning

My Play Area this Morning

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

The Visitation

November 6, 2013

A Day to Re-Calibrate

Where “two or three are gathered together” the Gods flee away!

John Cowper Powys, A Philosophy of Solitude

This morning, the rain-soaked back yard shines in the northern light through the open blinds of my living room windows.  It is fifty degrees on this north Texas morning, and wet from the past couple of days of rain.  No sun is visible, and that makes the grey morning even more inviting for me.

Sickness has visited me, as is to be expected when one does too much and reposes too little.  Nevertheless, I had to rise at 6:00 this morning to place lesson plans on my desk for the substitute.  Returning home, I was unable to sleep further, so I put on the coffee, then printed watercolor images on one hundred greeting cards for my upcoming art festival.  I still have to print the one hundred texts on the backside, but I’ll do that later.  I’m weak now, and need some down time.

Relaxing into my reading chair with my second cup of coffee, I pulled at random from my bookcase a journal of mine from 2003 (I’ve been keeping them since 1986–over 120 volumes now).  For weeks I have been craving solitude, quiet reflective “me” time, some kind of quasi-religious “visitation” of the muses–anything to make me feel sublime and creative once more.  I have had little-to-none of that for weeks now, and I don’t like living this way.  There has been simply too much job-related responsibility and demand.

The fire fell when I read the following passage I recorded from 2003 (and have since forgotten completely!) drawn from a book I was reading at that time: A Philosophy of Solitude, by John Cowper Powys:

Only when the soul is alone can the magic of the universe flow through it.

It needs silence for the murmur of the long centuries to grow audible, for the mystery of the cosmic procession to make itself felt.

And this silence can be attained in the maddest hurly-burly of the most crowded city.  Material noises, material uproar, cannot interfere with it.

What destroys it are the crowd-thoughts, the vulgar clamour made by the thoughts that are no-thoughts.

Life is full of mysterious Presences voyaging to and fro; Presences that are god-like.  But these Presences can only be caught upon their airy journeys by minds that have learnt the secret of being alone.

To converse with the Gods you must become as the Gods; and this means that you must cultivate loneliness.  Where “two or three are gathered together” the Gods flee away!

I removed my glasses and simply whispered–“Wow.”  Then I drew out my pen and scribbled three pages of gratitude in my current journal.  What a rush!

In the midst of this Quiet, an idea began to form in my mind about my own watercolor approach, my own theory of aesthetics.  Over the past week, my Advanced Placement Art History classes have been trying to articulate the ancient Greek ideal of classical beauty as expressed in sculpture and architecture.  The exercise in that realm has provoked me to try and find out my own personal standard for beauty.  Finally this morning, something began to take shape and make sense to me:

What I love to do in watercolor composition is called “vignette” by some–I like to leave undeveloped, white areas around the perimeter of my paintings.  I often choose to detail my focal area with as much precision as possible, then as the eye moves toward the periphery of my composition, I choose to diminish detail and fade altogether into white borders.  I have often said that this is what our eye does–it focuses on one small area, while the surrounding areas go out-of-focus.  I have also read those who use the darkroom analogy of developing film–the image slowly emerges as it lays in the pool of developing flud.

Years ago, a judge who awarded Best of Show to one of my watercolors titled “Cold Desolation” noted that two of my watercolors in the competition featured surrounding white, undeveloped areas.  The judge expressed appreciation for this, saying that these undeveloped areas left room for the viewer to enter the composition with his/her own imagination free to complete the picture.

Cold Desolation

Cold Desolation

New Mexico Route 66

New Mexico Route 66

I realize now that my favorite way of doing philosophy is to enter into fragments of readings rather than complete systems, so that I may stir in my own ideas.  I prefer reading from the literary fragments of the Pre-Socratics, from the aphorisms of Nietzsche, Emerson and Thoreau.  I love reading from the Autobiography of William Carlos Williams.  I am able to move about and think freely within the poems of Walt Whitman.  How many times have I heard a guitar player express frustration when invited to jam with a band, only to find out that the band members filled up the music so completely that there was no room for him to insert a lead riff or lay in power chords–a great wall of sound, walling out any would-be musical intruders.

I think I may be on to something–I want to explore further this aesthetic theory of focal points and peripheral elision.  As my mind picks around among the truncated monuments, sentence fragments and musical phrases,  I hope to find a way to translate these ideas into a watercolor aesthetic.

Once again, drawing from Powys:

Thus in the first and greatest of all arts, the art of concentrated self-consciousness, the profit to be derived from the utterers of mystical “logoi’, from Heraclitus down to Goethe, is far greater than the value which accrues to us from any rounded and completed systems.

Thanks always for reading.  I hope this has made some sense.