Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saturday - on art and hope and beauty and idealisation

I received Alain de Botton’s book Art as Therapy for Christmas, and I have sat down this afternoon with my feet up to look and read (after applying the second coat of paint to my old steriliser, which I didn’t do last weekend because it was far too hot for painting (40 degrees celcius here), and making another shocking mess with epoxy enamel – it requires solvent and is such a horrid business to clean up). I just read the section on Hope, which has a little poke at some of my attitudes towards sentimental and fluffy art (though I do very much appreciate art that portrays the ordinary, mundane and familiar things in life), but also gives some explanation of an appreciation of beauty. So here is a little piece of it for your Saturday enjoyment. Might you day include a little exaggeration of the good:

The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry, 
Angelica Kauffman, 1782, from here.
Consider the difference between a child playing with an adult and an adult playing with a child. The child’s joy is naïve, and such joy is a lovely thing. But the adult’s joy is placed within a recollection of the tribulations of existence, which makes it poignant. That’s what ‘moves’ us, and sometimes makes us cry. It’s a loss if we condemn all art that is gracious and sweet as sentimental and in denial. In fact, such work can only affect us because we know what reality is usually like. The pleasure of pretty art draws on dissatisfaction: if we did not find life difficult, beauty would not have the appeal it does. Were we to consider the project of creating a robot that would love beauty, we would have to something rather cruel, by ensuring that it was able to hate itself, to feel confused and frustrated, to suffer and to hope that it didn’t have to suffer, for it is against this kind of background that beautiful art becomes important to us, rather than merely nice. Not that we should worry. For the next few centuries at least, we have problems enough to ensure that pretty pictures are in no danger of losing their hold over us.
...
... We may worry that a person who has an idealized conception of some parts of life will be less able to cope with the messiness of actual existence ... It is hardly surprising, then, if being ‘realistic’ — the antidote to idealization— is judged a cornerstone of maturity, which in turn accounts for certain accepted artistic reputations ...

However, it is worth examining why idealization was for long periods of history understood to be a central aspiration of art. When painters present things as better than they are, they do not generally do so because their eyes are closed to imperfections ...

We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires ...

The apparent opposite of idealization — caricature — has a lot to teach us about how ideal images can be important to us. We are very much at ease with the idea, exemplified by caricature, that simplification and exaggeration can reveal valuable insights that are lost or watered down in ordinary experience.

We can take this approach and apply it to idealized images, too. Strategic exaggerations of what is good can perform the critical function of distilling and concentrating the hope we need to chart a path through the difficulties of life.

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