Aristotle, Art & Anguish

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Aristotle’s Four Causes.

Aristotle’s four causes are a way of accounting for the existence of anything in the world. We can ask of anything, how did it come to exist? His scheme can best be understood by describing a concrete example.

This is a painting I did a few months ago. It depicts a traumatic experience from my teenage years. It is almost platitudinous to regard creativity as cathartic nowadays. The profession of art therapy is based on such a premise. Let us see if this applies to this object and also if Aristotle’s four causes can account for its existence.

1. Material Cause

This addresses the question, ‘What is the object made of?’

Hardboard, white primer and acrylic paint mixed with water and applied with brushes and cardboard. I also used a penknife to scrape paint off the hardboard once it had dried.

2. Formal Cause

This answers the question, ‘What gives the material its form?’

An artist gives a work a certain form. The painting was based on sketches which experimented with various compositions. The techniques used were the result of many years’ practice and choices were made about colour, shape and so on. I scratched out the dried paint in sections of the picture. Most paintings can conventionally be described as colour, shape and line on some sort of ‘ground’ – hardboard in my case which was cut to a specific size.

3. Efficient Cause

The reason for the object existing.

I started with an idea and memory of a teenage experience. I also had Edvard Munch’s Scream to study. I did not want to appropriate it, or imitate it, but the underlying feelings of anxiety and terror were something I empathised with. The formal composition was my own although I was influenced by Munch’s other pictures where he has a head and shoulders in the foreground.

4. Final Cause

This deals with the ultimate purpose for the object’s existence.

The final cause brings up many associated ideas, some to do with the purpose of art. Does art such as this have to have an audience or could it serve a purpose limited to the artist? Does the picture represent anything in the ‘real world’? Does the ‘real world’ include mental states only experienced by the artist? Are viewers of art able to empathise with emotions which may not be immediately congenial?

My initial motivation was to explore the past, especially the painful aspects of adolescence. I did not know how the painting would turn out before I was well on with it. The interesting thing about creativity is that it is partially conscious and partially subconscious. If you over-plan a painting you will curtail the imaginative aspects of it. Not only did the formal aspects change during the process of painting but the purpose to which I put the painting also changed. Only as I started another similar-themed painting did I realise that I could do a series of four and the last one could be an epiphany. The set of four could even be seen to illustrate the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Once I’d finished all four I realised there was a website I could submit them to. This final decision shows I wanted an audience for the work. I hoped that viewers could identify with the feelings portrayed. Did I cause it to exist because I wanted to make money? No, but someone else may paint for this reason! Was the process of painting cathartic? Yes, insofar as that to objectify painful feelings is cathartic in itself, as testified by psychotherapy.

Aristotle’s four causes are sound and can be used to explain the existence of most things. The final cause explores abstract notions such as human aspiration, poetry, ethics and ontology. The material cause is more factual and is of interest to art historians, for example, when they want to analyse a painting’s medium or date it accurately.

Aristotle’s View of Art as Imitation

Aristotle’s view of art – admittedly mainly poetry and drama – that it imitates life is set out in his Poetics. Here, for example from chapter V (1)

To imitate is instinctive in man from his infancy. . . All men naturally receive pleasure from imitation. , . .Hence the pleasure they receive from a picture: in viewing it they learn, they infer, they discover what every object is; that this, for example, is an individual man etc.

Of course, Aristotle did not live to see the likes of Edvard Munch (and, anyway, I may be doing him an injustice in selecting this one quote) but it is clear that art-as-imitation is an extreme simplification of what art is about. In my picture there is no physical object in the physical world (apart from in my painting) which looks like the figure, nor is there a two dimensional oblong, unless someone were to trace over my ‘building’ and cut it out, saying, ‘look it does exist in the real world.’ (But then, aren’t they just copying my ‘representation’?) Perhaps the ‘house-object’ and the figure are re-presentations of real three-dimensional objects in the real world? However we regard the painting, the stubborn fact of its existence is that it is a two-dimensional object – causes 1 &2 in Aristotle’s scheme. Is the painting, then, more about communicating feelings? If so, how can patches of pigment adhering to hardboard convey feelings?

We can examine the nuances of this conundrum by quoting from a seminal book about the purpose of art titled, Art and Its Objects by Richard Wollheim:

In the Pitti there is a canvas (of Donna Velata) 85cm x 64cm; in the Museao Nazionale, Florence there is a piece of marble 209cm high. It is with these physical objects that those who claim that the Donna Velata and the St George are physical objects would naturally identify them. . . It can be argued that the work of art has properties incompatible with certain properties that the physical object has; alternatively it can be argued that the work of art has properties which no physical object could have: in neither case could the work of art be the physical object.

We say of the St George that it moves with life. Yet the block of marble is inanimate. Therefore the St George cannot be the block of marble.

Similarly with my painting; someone might say it makes them feel anxious yet the physical object is only pigment and hardboard. The crux of the argument comes down to the painting ‘representing’ something within a convention of aesthetics. The convention of painting is thousands of years old and we accept that the object of art can convey complex truths about the human condition. Today we are over-exposed to imagery and perhaps underestimate its power to move us. (Probably the first cave-paintings were regarded as pure magic!) My own interpretation of the painting will include concrete, subjective details no viewer could possibly have; they are to do with the narrative of my teenage years.

A viewer, however will bring their own experience to bear when looking at the painting. Is the work of art then really a symbiotic collaboration between the physical object and the consciousness of the viewer? In this notion, the viewer brings an active mind to the interpretation of the painting. Hopefully, the colour, contorted lines and subject matter of the painting can convey layered meanings – art is not like mathematics; there is never a cut and dried single meaning. And, also, the experience of looking is more akin to living a life; it is a moment-to- moment experience, and should be an active, imaginative process. People sometimes burst into tears when watching a film or reading a moving poem; this is one response any artist would appreciate from his/her audience. (Of course, we can also be moved to joy, or even laughter, when engaging with art.)

Note: Expressionism is defined as – “a deliberate abandonment of the naturalism implicit in Impressionism in favour of a simplification which should carry far greater emotional impact.” An expressionistic style is able to convey feelings, memories and dreams better than a naturalistic approach or style. It is, therefore, supremely able to suggest inner-worlds and states of consciousness such as joy, shame, sorrow, anxiety and modern alienation.

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Gauguin’s Soliloquy

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Gauguin’s Soliloquy – after Robert Browning

Gr-r-r – there goes my heart’s torment,
take your damn easel for a walk, do –
if hatred could kill men, Vincent,
God’s blood, would mine not kill you!
What? You’re going to pick sunflowers –
well, don’t bring them back to the sink,
I don’t want you painting here for hours.

Well, thank God, that lunatic’s gone –
he not only paints in oils but eats the stuff too!
Last night he went for me with a razor –
he slashed a canvas which I had to mend with glue.
He can only paint what’s in front of him;
I use my imagination as well as chrome yellow
while he complains of being a victim!

I expect you know he sponges off his brother?
Poor Theo has to send canvas and paints,
Vincent spends half the money on gin,
it’s enough to try the patience of saints,
I don’t think I can stand it much longer:
I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin
I don’t want to end up in the slammer.

Ah, I know what I’ll do, if you please,
I’ll pack up my things while he’s out –
I’ve always wanted to go to the South Seas;
the hot sun will be good for my gout!
Yes, I’ll paint native Tahitians – after they undress.
I’ll become famous for my Gardens of Eden
while mad, bad Vincent will die—penni-less!

The starting point for this was Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister from which you will see I’ve filtched the first two lines. Browning may be thought old fashioned and ‘Victorian’ but his trade mark dramatic monologues still feel original and alive to me.

It is well known that Van Gogh and Gauguin shared a house – the Yellow House in Arles – for a while and wondered about setting up an artists’ colony. The two artists were pretty temperamental characters and predictably they soon got on each others nerves!

Gauguin wrote a biased account of their time together which blames Vincent for everything that went wrong. As usual reality was more complicated. The stereotypical ‘crazy artist’  gets in the way of the actual complexities. I’ve always warmed more to Van Gogh’s paintings (than Gauguin’s ) and by reading his Letters, realised while he must have been hell to live with, he was  well- read, a visionary like Blake, intellectually and spiritually inquisitive and sensitive to suffering – but of course mentally unstable. There are many theories about this latter point. One of the more recent biographies is The Love of Many Things by David Sweetman which I have yet to read (apart from dipping into it). I would also like some day to visit the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The incidents in the poem are based on real events.

Red Kites in Landscape

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As the weather in the UK has been warm and spring-like I’ve posted this painting of mine which has ‘summery’ bright colours. I like the use of colours by the Expressionist painters, especially Franz Marc and this painting is probably influenced by that fact! Like all my paintings on my blog this was painted a number of years ago. You can click to enlarge the image.

Some of the signs of spring here are toads in pairs waddling along footpaths, chiffchaff and skylarks singing and peackcock butterflies flying.  On the quayside (on theTyne Bridge) the kittiwakes are well into incubating their eggs. It is one of the furthest, if not the furthest, inland kittiwake colony in the world.  I haven’t seen any swallows yet.

Red Kite and landscape

This is a painting I did on cardboard, using acrylic, some years ago. It is quite small, less than 12inch across. Looking at it now I’m surprised I chose black for the red kite! I don’t want to read too much into it but it was painted as an expressionistic non-naturalistic landscape, so perhaps the archetype of the Shadow is part of the symbolism.

The reason I’m posting some of my art work is that I have a pile of stuff gathering dust so I took photos of the best of the bunch and will post them occasionally on this blog. I no longer paint and thought up until now that was a part of my past; I would no longer pick up a brush. However, never say never, as they say! (The Blucher drawing was done this year but that’s a pencil drawing not a painting.)

 

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The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men was a group of men who saved works of art during WW2. The film The Monuments Men is directed by George Clooney. Hitler called most art of the time, degenerate art. This is something I wrote after reading about the ‘degenerate art’ exhibition.

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this painting is degenerate the sky is green the fields are blue. this artist of our heroic country has contaminated our culture with blatant primitivism. what we need is beauty and draughtsmanship of the highest order. this is not a poem. in this painting the artist has used an imbecile as his model. just look at her face. this is not a fitting subject for high art. this primitivism must be purged otherwise how are we to retain purity of race. ideals of harmony and beauty must prevail. this is not a poem. as a symbol or representation of all that is abhorrent in modern art look at this portrait of a soldier in which he stretches forth the bloody stump of his right arm. the eyes are empty hollow and dead. the glowing red colours and the yellow nude suggest aggression which has no part in the best traditions of western art. this is a product of a diseased mind anyhow let us have an exhibition of the worst of these daubs as ridicule is the best weapon of the truly cultured. all proceeds will go to the fatherland. this is not a poem.