Monday, November 26, 2007

Nature and Art

Things are beautiful, the representations of art succeed, to the extent that,through the clarity and significance of their form, they direct our attention to the 'innermost being' of the world. They are the opposite when, through the proliferation of disorganised, irrelevant and distracting detail, they fail to communicate a coherent vision of the truth. In art, as Iris Murdoch puts it, beauty consists in 'the artful use of form to illuminate truth'.

Julian Young in his book on the philosophy of Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer, in his The World as Will and Representation, recognises that art fulfils a didactic purpose, and believes that through art's deliverance of an universal knowledge, beauty will manifest itself in the process. In this respect, the association of truth and beauty seems very similar to Plato, when the latter puts forth the concept that generally, truth, goodness and beauty are closely related to one another and when one starts with any of them, the other two will be attained in the process. Apparently, such an association does not apply to the arts for Plato, when he mentions that art does not contain type of ideal truth.

However, what interests me about Schopenhauer is when he differs from Plato in the type of didactic function which art fulfils. In the Republic, Plato mentions of the existence of a tense relationship between philosophy and the arts. Philosophy, to him, imparts a significant and universal knowledge while art, on the other hand, is similar to illusion and fantasy, seducing us away from the truth and reality. As such, Plato concludes that art is unable to deliver the kind of knowledge in question. But Schopenhauer believes that art actually contains 'an acknowledged treasure of profound wisdom'. (The World as Will and Representation I) Schopenhauer makes use of visual art in his examples to illustrate this fact, but here, I shall attempt to draw similar parallels in music. Take the music of Bach for example. His choral music often have biblical titles. However, the piece of music whose significance is exhausted with a biblical title is entirely trivial (in Young's words). The true significance is never in the fact that the title reminds us simply of the historical biblical event, but in the very fact that the core values of the biblical personality or biblical principles of that event manifest themselves in the music. Like in Bach, the structure and the order inherent within the music aren't just superficial foundations upon which the entire music is formed. It does have a spiritual meaning as well. The harmony, melodic lines, counterpoint do hold symbolic meaning beyond what we study in our theory classes.

This brings us to another important aspect of Schopenhauer's argument that art expresses ideas more clearly than nature. The artist 'can express clearly what nature only stammers'. (The World as Will and Representation I) Before Schopenhauer, I have always believed that nature embodies a more perfect form of beauty and truth more than what an artist can articulate through art. I still find that true essentially, as we have to always factor human imperfection and the limitations of the artistic medium into the picture. However, Schopenhauer brought out an important aspect of the arts which I have missed out all along. The artist is able to focalise on a specific idea which may not be distinctly evident in nature, with the multiple distractions in place. A more literal example I have would be a motif. A beautiful motif can be made by random sounds in nature, but when a composer makes use of that motif which was inspired through sounds of nature, he focalises on it and develops it. For that particular instant when one appreciates the artwork, that main idea shines forth and is exalted for that special moment. And that's beauty.

Both the arts and nature are not mutually exclusive and neither can be considered more superior than the other. Both are closely related in many aspects. Schopenhauer and Plato hold opposing viewpoints with regards to this, and I don't find that either of them is strictly right or wrong, but to get a view of the entire picture of the relationship between the arts and nature and the rightful role of each of them, it will be essential to consider the views of both parties.

4 comments:

daland said...

Hi Jeff,
nice to meet you back on this blog!

Interesting topic indeed!

Since we’ve been exchanging ideas on Wagner’s works, we know that, from 1854 on, Wagner was fascinated by Schopenauer’s philosophy, that eventually influenced his Ring, particularly its conclusion.

But we also know how Feuerbach had earlier been taken by Wagner as his philosophical mentor. Feuerbach had very radical ideas on the relations between Nature, Religion and Art, and surely the early, “revolutionary” Wagner was inspired by those ideas.

By mere accident, I recently stumbled into a paper by an american scholar who has developed a very unique interpretation of Wagner’s Ring, based on the (questionable) premise that the Tetralogy is solely grounded on Feuerbach’s philosophy.

http://www.wagner-dc.org/heise_lec00.html

I found his ideas rather odd and hardly standing to scrutiny when confronted with the Ring’s body. Nevertheless, Heise’s theory is - to me - quite interesting to explore, since it gives us a new, exciting perspective under which to read the Ring. No matter if - at the end - one disagrees.

joan wing said...

"Like in Bach, the structure and the order inherent within the music aren't just superficial foundations upon which the entire music is formed. It does have a spiritual meaning as well. The harmony, melodic lines, counterpoint do hold symbolic meaning beyond what we study in our theory classes."

i agree with this point and would like to attempt to talk about how it applies to poetry, since that's my field of interest. in "poetic meter and poetic form" (still one of my favourite books), paul fussell continually points out that the form of a poem is integral to its meaning. in other words, if i understood you correctly, the metrical regularities, variations, structure, and other aspects of poetic meter and form are not merely to be appreciated in terms of a poet's technique but at a deeper level, the level of symbolic meaning.

"This brings us to another important aspect of Schopenhauer's argument that art expresses ideas more clearly than nature. The artist 'can express clearly what nature only stammers'. (The World as Will and Representation I)...For that particular instant when one appreciates the artwork, that main idea shines forth and is exalted for that special moment. And that's beauty."

the modernist in me believes that there are indeed moments of transcendence, of epiphany, of truth, of beauty in art. on top of that, i personally feel that nature (as God meant it to be in the garden of Eden) is a harmony of epiphanic moments. as the sun goes down beautiful and different pictures are painted every second. in every flower. every snowflake. every leaf. every mountain. every ocean. every stream. if art attains moments of beauty, i would like to think it is the spirit of God in us that enables the creation of those moments. a momentary, transcendental connection with our God, the God of beauty.

solitudex said...

Hi Daland, I'm terribly sorry for the late reply. It has been terribly busy these couple of months.

I have to admit my ignorance in the ideas of Feuerbach. Which is probably why I can't pick up anything about Feuerbach in that article!

I do agree that the ideas in the article are interesting but to subscribe to them completely would be an entirely different matter altogether!

-----

Thanks, Joan, for your views and extending the topic out to the field of poetry and relationship with God.

Paul Brian Heise said...

Dear Daland and other contributors to Solitude in Music.

I'm the madman of whom Daland speaks, but I have now, after 38 years' effort, finished my book on Wagner's "Ring" which is entitled "The Wound That Will Never Heal." It is the most comprehensive conceptual analysis of the libretto and music of the "Ring" extant. And yes, I have supported my Feuerbachian interpretation with over 1,151 quotations from Wagner and Feuerbach, and the most detailed analysis of the "Ring" yet undertaken. Please provide me your email addresses if you'd like to receive my book proposal and introduction. I can't post email by clicking on your names here.

Sincerely,

Paul Brian Heise