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Ovi Symposium; Thirteenth Meeting Ovi Symposium; Thirteenth Meeting
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2013-12-14 12:11:15
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Nannery, Paolozzi and Paparella
Thirteenth Meeting: 21 November 2013

symposium01

 

Participants:

nannery01Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Mellen Press.

 

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

 

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

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Table of Content for the 13th Meeting of the Symposium (21 November 2013)

Introductory Note by the symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

Section 1: “Francesco De Sanctis. Between Romanticism and Positivism.”  A Portrait by Ernesto Paolozzi as freely translated from chapter 2 of his 1989 book Vicende dell’Estetica: tra Vecchio e Nuovo Positivismo [Events of Aesthetics: between the Old and the New Positivism].

Section 2: “Is Beauty a Classical Concept, and if so, should it be Revived in the 21st Century?” A presentation by way of a challenge to Modern Aesthetics by Emanuel L. Paparella.

Section 3: Visual samples of Three Sublime Expressions of Beauty: one Ancient Greek in sculpture (the Venus of Melos), one French Medieval in architecture (the Cathedral of Reims), and one Italian Renaissance in painting (Botticelli’s Birth of Venus).

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Introductory note: Beginning with this session of the Ovi Symposium, following the table of contents, the readers will notice a brief introductory note to the various issues tabled and discussed in each by-weekly session. This is to point out to readers the nexus between the various issues of aesthetics presented and thus help them to better orient themselves. The paradigm or the general theme of aesthetics, the context and the framework, as announced at the outset of the symposium and as displayed regularly on its heading will however remain constant.

By its very nature a symposium is a spontaneous, cordial dialogue carried out around a convivial table of friends and colleagues for the exploration of challenging philosophical ideas. The number of participants and contributions may well vary from meeting to meeting. People come and go at the party as they please. There may not necessarily be the same number of contributions as the numbers of participants, for it is up to each contributor to voluntarily participate in the ongoing dialogue on a regular bi-weekly basis (every two weeks on Thursday and Friday) or less frequently as his time and commitments permit. There may also be an increase in the number of participants in the future. I suppose at any celebration, the more the better. The important thing is that it is a convivial dialogue, an exchange of ideas, and that it remains such.

In any case, ours remains a pro bono work offered for the sheer love of the subject, as are indeed those of all other contributions at Ovi. Our avowed purpose is that of sharing our passionate philosophical interests with a wide readership. Within the symposium those interests are mostly concerned with the liberal arts, above and beyond concerns of a strictly political, economic, or scientific nature, as important as those may be.

It is worth mentioning here that from the outset philosophy has enjoyed a very hospitable and convivial welcome at Ovi magazine; I’d dare say it has enjoyed pride of place. A magazine this committed to the ideals of democratic free speech and a deep appreciation of the liberal arts, which in effect renders its cultural identity philosophical to its very core. This is due also to its editor’s love and commitment to the subject.. Indeed, the birth of what is best in Western Civilization begins with the birth of philosophy some 25 centuries ago in ancient Greece. If such a civilization, as we know it, is to survive,  it has to take care that genuine philosophy is not distorted or subsumed to other interests.    

In section one of this particular session of the Symposium, we are treated to an illuminating contribution by Dr. Paolozzi in the way of an excerpt from his book on aesthetics titled Vicende dell’Estetica (1989). In what constitutes a free translation of chapter two Paolozzi depicts a thoroughly erudite philosophical portrait of the great Neapolitan literary critic Francesco De Sanctis, a veritable genius who like Croce deserves to be better known outside of Italy and even in Italy itself I dare say, where he has at times been vilified and distorted by those who confuse ideology and political partisanship for philosophy. The background of the portrait is Positivism which misguidedly purports to be a philosophy in its own right. Indeed, De Sanctis, who exercised a great influence on Croce, was one of the first Italian critics to correctly identify the toxic flaws of Positivism and not only in Italian culture but the whole of the European ethos  To this section we have added various portraits, within the vast pantheon of European literary and philosophical figures mentioned in Paolozzi’s presentation including one of his own master on the philosophy of Croce at the university of Naples: Raffaello Franchini.

Paparella follows up on Paolozzi’s concerns in section two with a presentation meant to be a challenge to the modern avant-guard aesthetic sensibility, A unique Crocean idea, previously presented by Paolozzi in his Ovi book, is further explored and discussed; namely this: that all genuine Beauty from Plato’s aesthetics all the way to Kant, is to be conceived as classical, as an expression of sublimity and excellence (what the Greeks called arête). As a conclusion Paparella tables this crucial question: should the classical concept of Beauty, which seems to have been considerably distorted and altered within modernity (especially so by the Dada movement), be resurrected for the sake of more alive and relevant humanistic modes of thought? The question which awaits an answer or a discussion is then followed in the final third section by three illustrations conveying a visual expression of the splendor of Beauty, no doubt familiar to most readers: an ancient Greek one in the form of sculpture, a Medieval French one in the form of architecture, and a Renaissance Italian one in the form of painting.  

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1.

Francesco De Sanctis: Between Romanticism and Positivism
A Portrait by Ernesto Paolozzi as translated from chapter two of his 1989
book Vicende dell’Estetica: tra Vecchio e Nuovo Positivismo

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Francesco De Sanctis (1817-1883)

Francesco De Sanctis is the man who has lived, in the full sense of that word, the contradictions of the epochal intellectual changes that ensue between Romanticism and Positivism.

The great literary critic, not only for chronological determining factors (he was born in 1817 and died in 1883), traveled the entire phenomenology of an historical process which goes from the crisis of late Enlightenment and the academy, through the vaunted Romantic innovation, up to the birth of Positivism, which he lived in a critical and unique way. In fact with De Sanctis, the foundations are laid for a resurgence of an anti-positivistic culture which began at the beginning of the new century. De Sanctis received an education at the Neapolitan school of the purist Marquis Basilio Puoti (1834-1835), to then abandon via a rigorous critique, from both purism and the whole Italian cultural tradition, and not just Italian, which had been in the process of restricting and torturing itself in the search of Renaissance poetics or in the narrow academic 18th century philology or an abstract Enlightenment.

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Basilio Puoti (1782-1847) First master of De Sanctis

He went through the great cultural political experience of the so called first Neapolitan school (1839-48), the direct participation to the insurrections of 1848 and the dramatic experience of jail for being a liberal opponent of the Borbonic monarchy in Southern Italy which matured into a complex moral intellectual experience when he ended up in exile in Turin and Zurich.

He was one of the first Italians to acquire a deep interest in Hegelian philosophy translating its great logic while in jail, finding himself in agreement with its conceptualistic aesthetics. But soon enough his robust critical sense, his capacity to live with great transparency and intelligence the problems of art, as concrete and real problems of real and ideal life, of sentimental and ethical life, led him to the abandonment of Hegelian aesthetics without however forgetting the great lesson of the German philosopher which had been very influential in rejuvenating Italian culture and the spreading of a higher more profound concept of philosophy.

For De Sanctis, cultural commitment always went together with political commitment, not only in the sense of a critique and commentary on political life (an attitude this that in so many intellectuals of any time at times assumes the characteristics of a pharisaic and abstract sort of ethics). He committed himself as an individual at various levels. He assumed the duties of Minister of Public Culture convened by Cavour in the very first government of a united Italy and then in subsequent years after the fall of the historic right (1876). He also assumed the duties of Advisor to Naples’s municipality and the province of Avellino.

Just to remember a few events, he fought for the introduction of physical education in Italian schools. For him this issue went beyond a technical expedient or a hygienic exigency, but also a political and moral turn around in the effort of rejuvenating the old academic rhetoric which permeated the public educational curriculum. His progressivist mentality (he was a man of the year 48 on the center left, as he himself said, that is to say a moderate even if under the strong progressive impulse) together with his innate sense of the practical, led him to assume an attitude that was in favor of the pedagogic, in the best most pure sense of that word. Here one senses the influence of Vincenzo Cuoco, of the Italian Risorgimento and even Romanticism. In some aspects one can say that De Sanctis work in Italy resembles that of John Dewey in the United States (allowing for the great diversity of contents), who together with an effort of philosophical dissemination, influenced American culture, and not only American culture, toward political action (a sort of pragmatic liberalism) and an educational reform, as controversial as it may be. In any case there is no doubt that the great De Sanctis greatly influenced the political and educational commitments of the same Croce, who also assumed public political positions.

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Vincenzo Cuoco (1770-1823)
Historian of the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799

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John Dewey (1859-1930)

Therefore, political passion, was a constant in his life. In 1867 he wrote to a friend: “My life has to pages. One is literary, the other is political, and I do not intend to tear neither of the two: they are like two duties of my personal history which will last till the end.”

His masterpiece The History of Italian Literature which he wrote between 1870 and 1871, and remains a fundamental document of Italian and European historiography of the 19th century, is under many aspects a living synthesis of both the personality and the thought of Francesco De Sanctis. It portrays literature understood as a civil expression of the history of a nation, which may in some way announce certain forms of Marxist historiography (at least the most dignified) but it is quite different from this in the sense that its theory has nothing of the mechanical and the abstract; in it there is no theorizing of false concepts such as that of class warfare or social structures and over-structures. If anything it presents us with an ideal that is Enlightened and Romantic, made modern by the live force of inspiration and the style which remains simple and genuine. In fact, the personality of De Sanctis imposes itself beyond paradigms and ideologies. Every critical judgment, even the most controversial, remains original and astonishing. The reader detects in every page of the book the political and ethical commitment of the author without diminishing the clarity of the interpretations.

De Sanctis, even if he was not a systematic professional philosopher, was evaluated by Croce and by his school as the greatest Italian philosopher of art  that the 19th century possessed, one of the greatest in fact of the whole of Europe. Even if Croce’s assessment can be moderated and amplified in different directions, it remains substantially, after one examines the texts, a true one. Who continues to read nowadays the aesthetic reflections of Gioberti or Rosmini or the colleague and antagonist of De Sanctis during his stay in Zurich, Teodoro Vischer? Who continues to value the important interpretations of Mazzini and the various Italian patriots? De Sanctis’ Horizon is much wider: the ideals of his work live in him together with his particular sensibility vis a vis the world of art, which goes well beyond a mere historical moment.

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Blessed Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855)
An Italian Catholic priest and philosopher of the 19th century

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Vincenzo Gioberti (1801-1862) Italian Philosopher of the 19th century

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Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)
Architect of Italian Unification He defined the modern European
movement for popular democracy in a republican state

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Camillo Benso di Cavour (1810-1861) The First Prime Minister of Italy

So De Sanctis is the aesthetician of the form in the modern sense of that concept. In his famous essay on Francesco Petrarca, which he had already outlines when he was in Zurich and then published in 1869, one can already clearly identify his critical position. It is antagonistic with Hegelian intellectualism, the empty Romantic sentimentality and the pedantry of a certain French criticism. He writes that “The great artist is the man who can win and tame and kill within himself the ideal, that is to say, he realizes it, producing a form within which one everything is satisfied and forgotten, so that when others ask him how it feels down there he will answer: --A certain idea, some thing, I don’t exactly know what, which is to say nothing: the form is there and the form is everything. The form is like the baby of our brain, and the problem of art is to know if that brain has a productive force, and if that baby is a living creature born alive. One can argue on the quality of the form, whether it is subtle or corpulent, beautiful or ugly, moral or immoral, on its concept and what there is which is real and what is ideal; the essential thing is that it be a form. That within art one cannot admit mediocrity is a profound concept, given that there is no such thing as the more or the less live, there is only the live and the dead; there is the poet and the non-poet, the impotent brain.” (From Saggi e scritti, vol. v, p. 36)

So we see emerging with strength and freshness a new conception of aesthetics, in which De Sanctis finds more of Kant than of Hegel (the Hegel of course of the sensible apparition of the concept, not the whole Hegel), he finds Vico, but above all he finds a holistic vision which locates art among autonomous forms of experience, such as creativity so to speak, a concrete creativity not romantic ineffable. De Sanctis writes in a well known passage, which partially quotes Croce, that “If in the antechamber of art you wish to locate a statue, put there the form and in that contemplate and study, let the origins begin there. Before form one finds what was there before the creation: chaos. Undoubtedly chaos is a respectable thing, and its story is very interesting: science has not said the last word on this world which precedes the elements in ferment. Art too has its prior world, its own geology, born only yesterday and barely outlined, a science sui generis, which is neither criticism nor aesthetics. Aesthetics appears when the form appears within which that kind of world is immersed, fused, forgotten and lost. Form is nothing but itself, like the individual is himself; there is no theory which is so destructive of art as that continual filling of our ears with the beautiful as manifestation, dress, light, veil of the true or of the idea. The aesthetic world is not appearance but substance, it is itself the substance, what is alive; its criteria and its raison d’etre can be found only in this motto: --I am alive--, our senses allow us to identify what is alive and what is dead in nature. In the realm of art the sense of what is alive, real is not well developed, and it often happens that critics debate for a long time on a work of art as if it were alive when in reality it was born dead, and they call it beautiful, and find the ideal in raise it to the level of model! Let’s not argue about those who today are considered poets; but how much time has been wasted commenting on Vincenzo Monti’s Basvilliana? Could we not affirm that a truly artistic people are those who can measure the infinite distance between ingenuity and talent, creation form aggregation, and understands why the likes of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Ariosto are placed on such a high pedestal.” (Saggi e scritti, vol. V, p. 37)

If this is De Sanctis’ vision, in what sense can we say that it represents the thinker that more than any other expresses, and in some way overcomes the obvious contradictions of Positivism?

The last De Sanctis discovered realism and verismo and via its dissemination by Zola opened the doors of Italian culture to such a literary phenomenon and credo. But, has Raffaello Franchini has clearly demonstrated, what De Sanctis underwent was not a conversion ma a proof of his coherence, since he wished to confirm his own conception of the world through the experimenting with new ways. His intention is quite clear and unmistakable, given that in the same essay on Zola, De Sanctis attempts to return to an ancient and vast tradition, to the psychological and historical novel, to Manzoni and Flaubert, the opus of the French novelist. Verismo and Naturalism is the new school which reaffirms once again the genuine and enduring art, true art. As De Sanctis himself puts it: “The artist of this school is Zola. Although he opposed conventional tendencies and considering himself an innovator in art he nevertheless picks up the traditional ways and not only does not destroy but rather fulfills the psychological-historical novel, even more evident in his physiological novel. That pretended verismo was a degradation as all reactions are. Zola’s realism is a continuation, a further development of the past, and therefore a past that is in the future, a progress. He filled a gap in the critical study of man adding to psychological and historical elements natural factors, an initial life from which derive the psychic factors whose collective action creates the historical milieu. As it happens to all innovators, he makes of this incipient life the basis and the environment of his whole universe and accustoms himself to observe everything with the eyes of a doctor. Hence the moderate exaggeration and a certain artificiality.” He continues: “There is no contrast between the real and the ideal, as the vast majority of the new thinkers of the second Positivistic school would like to believe. Many debate on the real and the ideal without arriving at any conclusion because they lack the correct concept of such terms. They think that realism is the opposite of idealism, and that the ideal is a mere play of the imagination, a superimposition on reality. Beginning with those false assumptions, the arguments will not arrive at any reasonable conclusion. That within man there are obvious signs of animal nature, nobody has ever doubted. To me it appears as big waste of energy on the part of Darwin the attempt to demonstrate to me the animal nature of the human organism. Such animal nature appears more clearly in the origins of people and in the first years of each individual. The human element which distinguished man appears later when appetites and desires are purified and becomes emotions and sentiments, perceptions and sensations are transformed into images, the instincts are elevated to the level of ideas.” (From Studio sopra Emilio Zola, p. 409, 411).

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Raffaello Franchini (1920-1990) A leading Croce follower
who as professor of Philosophy at the University of Naples trained
a whole generation of Croce scholars among whom Ernesto Paolozzi 

With his great ability to grasp the very essence of an era with the typical dignity of those who feel morally offended for having been confused with the vulgarity that what is fashionable imposes, De Sanctis authors two essays which can be considered a sort of testament on the issues of the critique of Hegelian idealism, the Romantic exaggerations, the emptiness of academic rhetoric, and clearly defines his position vis a vis realism. In the note which he added to the second edition of the critical essay on Petrarca (1883) we read this: “I think that the most fanatical opposition to the ideal do not have a clear idea of such a concept and thus end up cursing what they know not. They believe that the ideal is the contrary of the real, and that one excludes the other and that the life of one implies the death of the other. It is best that we understand each other at the outset, given that often enough the most distorted judgments are born from definitions which are not precise.

The ideal is above all a multiplicity of ideas and principles which mankind has conquered in its long history, such as beauty, justice, truth, the family, the country, glory, heroism, virtue are constant objects of admiration and aspiration. These ideas represent the ongoing differentiation of man from the beast, and as we say today, the glorious evolution of man in the middle of what is alive. We call these ideas the ideals of mankind; they are like the light of a lighthouse which man keeps in sight as he represents, speculates, operates. Only those who identify with the beasts can laugh at those ideals, of ignore them, or even oppose them.

This ideal is substantial. But there is also the ideal expression which is that representation of things according to their repercussion in the mind and with them the impressions and the sentiments which reside there. Undoubtedly the great artist forgets his ego in the apprehension of things, and the more he forgets the more those emerge alive and true as from a light which is one’s own light and yet it comes from the mind. When those representations are clear and robust they give witness to the powerful impressions they have produced, and the highest ideality of expression is achieved via this agreement between things and the artist. Those who for fear of offending reality give us things that are naked and raw are rendering things as they appear to an idiot devoid of the sentiment and the intelligence of nature.

It is obvious that the ideal, in its substance as well as in its expression, is so much part of human nature, that to deny one to deny the other. This is fashionable nowadays. Today, in our search for the beast in man, we at times forget man.” (in Saggi Critici, vol. I, p. 40)

In conclusion, there is no doubt that De Sanctis is the reference point for those who wish to understand the sense of an era, or of the Positivism at the end of the 19th century. De Sanctis, without having recourse to theoretical schemes, or to historical speculations within a vast horizon, via the example of his own activity, within the concrete moral political and cultural experience, shows us what is alive and what is dead within a great and confusing epoch of our history.

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Homer (c 850 BC-c 701 BC) The first of the Great Western Poets

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De Sanctis’ Storia della Letteratura Italiana (1871)

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Francesco Petrarca: Father of European Humanism (1304-1374)

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The poet Dante (1265-1321) Author of The Divine Comedy
from a mural by Andrea del Castagno in the Uffizi Galleria

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The Triumph of Death, or The Three Fates. Flemish Tapestry (ca. 1510–1520)

The three Fates: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, draw out and cut the thread of life,
represent Death in this tapestry, as they triumph over the fallen body of  Chastity.
This is the third subject in Petrarch's poem "The Great Triumphs". First, Love triumphs; then
Love is overcome by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time and Time by Eternity.

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The Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533)
Author of Orlando Furioso (1516)

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The Italian Poet Vincenzo Monti (1754-1826)

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Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873)
Author of the first historical novel I Promessi Sposi (1827)

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Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), Author of Madame Bovary (1857)

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Emile Zola (1840-1902), father of Naturalism in Literature

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The Philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)
who considered De Sanctis his greatest literary master

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2.

Is Beauty a Classical Concept and if so, should it be Revived in the 21st Century?
A Presentation by way of a Challenge to Modern Aesthetics by Emanuel L. Paparella

In previous sessions of the Ovi symposium Ernesto Paolozzi has tabled the idea that Croce considered all art classical and conceived of no duality between classicism and Romanticsim, that is to say, he thought of beauty as a classical concept, no matter the historical juncture. The same charge of proto-romanticism has been often leveled at Vico who, if anything, is the culmination of Italian Humanism, not a proto-Romantic. Like the ancient Greeks both Croce and Vico saw a distinction between ethics and aesthetics but not a dichotomy. For them the Good, the Beautiful and the True are ultimately harmoniously interconnected to each other.

I’d like to follow-up with some brief but cogent reflections on the modern concept of beauty or the modern and post-modern aesthetic sensibility in the light of a prevalent nihilism. The question I’d like to explore is this: has beauty become a passé concept to be dispensed with within modern art? It is undeniable that the bizarre marriage of marvels and horrors that began in the 20th century and continues in the 21st , coupled with the fast development of science and art has had as its most apparent result the deemphasizing, if not exactly the obliteration, of the concept of Beauty. The shocking seems at times to replace the beautiful in our museums.

And indeed the more one rummages through the legacy of modern art the more the horrors multiply and the more the concept of Beauty seems to fade away. Ironically this assertion may itself sound shocking  to some readers, but if truth be told the final jury is still out on modern art, despite some of its widely acknowledged merits. A possible solution may be to consult the philosophers beginning with Plato, who introduces and analyzes the concept of Beauty and attempts to define art, all the way to Kant and Croce who popularize the very word “aesthetics” in philosophical speculation. Two such modern text, to be recommended to all students of art and aesthetics, is David Ross’s Art and its Significance (1984) and Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns’ Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger (2009).

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Art and its Significance:
an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory edited by David Ross (1984)           

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Philosophies of Art and Beauty:
Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger (2009)
Edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns

What I am suggesting is simply this: if we wish to at least clarify the issue, even without resolving it once and for all, we need to look back to the future. Looking forward, I am afraid, will only lead to more chambers of horrors and the attendant smell of perfumed garbage. Undoubtedly the 20th century has given us a cascade of innovations and technological gadgets in science and sociology, medicine and politics. We have gone from the horse drawn carriage to space travel and nuclear fusion in barely sixty years. The arts have kept pace, going from realism to impressionism, to dada and minimalism to post-modernism, just to mention a few trends. But can that be called genuine progress in art?

What all these trends seem to have in common as an assumed philosophical infrastructure of sort, is a cynical all pervading relativism which has its origins in nihilism. In science we have physicists who believe that progress is deterministic and inevitable, therefore we ought to try everything that we are able to do and do so indiscriminately with little if any regard to ethics: if we can create atomic bombs that kill millions of civilians in a few seconds, we should go ahead and create them and then perhaps rationalize the enterprise as needed for the deterrence of enemies.  In art, we have artists, so called, who think that just because they can, they should display a urinal in a gallery or paste feces on a canvas, often their own, and simply declare it art; or perhaps present us with an empty canvas to contemplate, a symbol of nihilism if there ever was one.

One can of course retort that art does nothing more than reflect the times in which it lives, or perhaps announce the future. Indeed, our culture invariably reflects our values. Action defines history and history determines the present. As Vico has well taught us man is his own history, whether he realizes it or not. Those values born in the 20th century follow us now in the 21st century and we find ourselves deprived of the very concept of Beauty, a concept about which philosophers of all persuasions and schools have argued and debated for some two thousand plus years. Not only has nihilism been embraced in philosophy but the sardonic relativism of the dada school has by now been fully embraced by collectors, museums, publications on art. The impact of nihilism and dada on Western civilization is undoubtedly pervasive, albeit corrosive.

Another common feature of all those trends is that Beauty has no place in art, that art has no use and purpose. Indeed the very word “art” has been rendered meaningless; anything and any action and event can be branded and sold as art. I can jump in the fountain of Trevi, or place myself naked on one of the tombs in the Roman Pantheon (as was indeed done a few summers ago in Rome’s Pantheon) and declare those actions artistic events, one can even declare one’s own very self an artistic event a la Nero: I do what my instincts urge me to do and then declare those actions art, free from any punishment and reprisal; in fact, I declare those actions part of my identity: I am art therefore “I am,” to paraphrase Descartes’ famous statement on thinking and being. But the question arises: if anything is art, is anything art?

As mentioned, the source of this cynical trend can be traced back to nihilism as expressed in Dada avant-garde conceptual art, so called. That’s where we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century. We continue with the empty intellectualism of the 20th century and its desperate need to shock and assault the sacred. But once the shocking becomes normal one needs a progressively higher dose of it to get the same or even diminishing results. It is indeed a vicious circle redolent of drug addiction. The consequences may vary, but the atmosphere around any addiction, however, remains one of decay and sadness devoid of freedom, quite normal, I suppose, within nihilism.

We have seen symphonies with no music, just silence; we have seen empty rooms declared works of art as an ideal form of purity. We have seen sheets of the artist’s used toilet paper hanging from a wall, as a sort of purported testament to being alive, a signature or a sign of existence and being, not metaphors, not allegories, not images that can be recalled, explained or expressed, but simply being there. It has echoes of Heidegger’s philosophy, but is it really? We have seen Piero Manzoni presenting hard boiled eggs as a work of art which are then promptly swallowed within 70 minutes. And then there is the same Artist’s Shit as shown below displayed in a museum as a distinct work of art. Art digested and recycled? Ironically Piero Manzoni died at the age of 30 (1933-1963) due to a rupture of the liver from excessive consumption of rich food and drink. Poetic irony? A work of art in itself? One cannot but wonder.

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A Urinal in a San Francisco Museum

Paradoxically, the customary defense for this travesty of art is that it is free, that it frees us from the constraints and hypocrisies of our societies. Often Croce or Romanticism is paraded in defense of such a position, but Professor Paolozzi has shown us that this is a veritable canard. I for one, and I think both Croce and Paolozzi would concur on this, would submit that the values we derive from a pernicious anti-art nihilistic ontology do not ultimately free us; on the contrary, they enslave and doom us.

After Nietzsche’s madman has shouted “God is dead” the search for meaning and the sacred goes on even more desperately than ever as Emmanuel Levinas has persuasively argued. Similarly, after dada raped art, the search for Beauty goes on desperately simply because ugliness remains unacceptable and unappealing to the vast majority of viewers, and our museums of modern art are a witness to that; they remain mostly empty. That search, as Tolstoy also intimated, is integral part of human nature and remains a last ray of hope for mankind, especially in a dark despairing period of human history such as ours, the era of totalitarianism and political tyranny which in the 20th century has begotten two world wars, the Holocaust, the Gulags and countless other political horrors.

As one surveys Ross’s book on the significance of Art, one invariably comes to the conclusion that indeed it is easier to desecrate something of Beauty and produce mediocre works, literally “the shit of the artist,” than to create something of Beauty. To the contrary, Michelangelo laboriously sculpting his fifth Pietà a few days before his death and exclaiming “ancora imparo” [I’m still learning], may be the genuine path of art. The deranged man breaking it up with a hammer as a sign of avant-garde anti-art is at best a sort of lazy intellectualism signifying nothing, in reality a mere act of desecration and vandalism, an ignoble devaluation of Beauty misguidedly parading as art. True art does not tolerate mediocrity and all the power and influence in the world will not an artist make. One is here brought back to Nero, that deranged Roman emperor with insane views on art and what it means to be an artist. A psychopath or a narcissist an artist does not make; the clue is the atmosphere of death and despair that surrounds those types of humans. Their artistic production is redolent of what is dead rather than what is alive.

At this point of our critique, the question arises: are those “artists” who display urinals and feces on canvas and used toiled paper in our museums and desecrate sacred symbols such as crucifixes, simply attempting to shock, or perhaps unmask people’s purported moral hypocrisy as it is claimed, or are they rather sub-consciously attempting to compensate for their temporary or permanent inability to create authentic Beauty? They say they are free and can deal with any phenomenon and that anything can become art, but are they aware that in as much as they have made their nihilistic trends an ideology in its own right, and a fetish of sort, paradoxically they have become slaves to such an ideology? Are they aware that such a trend may be the politically correct position now, but in as much as it is the popular trend it is also the status quo which will not last forever? How does this position of theirs engender freedom? One is perplexed by it all and one wonders.

 symposium172

Immersion Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano (1987)
Form separate from content? Blasphemy and desecration
a la De Sade, or “what we think of Christ in modern times”?

 symposium173

Artist’s Shit (Merda d’artista) of Piero Manzoni (1961)
This “work of art” displayed in museums consists of 90 tin cans filled with the artist’s feces,
each 30 grams produced and tinned in May 1961 and measuring 4.8 x 6.5 cm. purporting
to explore the relationship between art production and human production

 symposium174

Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Breath (1969)

Those sundry personal reflections on the meaning of art which indeed begin with Plato and continue with Kant and Croce, urging that before we throw the baby out with the dirty bath water we ought to know what the philosophers have speculated on the concept of Beauty throughout history, have been contested and will continue to be contested and even ridiculed by various brands of nihilists and positivists as superficial, simplistic, politically incorrect, naïve, romantic, idealistic, neo-classicist, conservative, mediocre, medieval, anti-modern, and so on. After all, we live in cynical realistic Machiavellian post-modern times, so the argument goes, and one has to get on with it or be left behind in the dustbin of history.

How is one to respond if at all?  Are we to consider the phenomenon of the destruction of Beauty parading as Art a mere irreverent provocation, which may all along be the subconscious motive of the artist? Should one pretend to be shocked? dismayed? outraged at this deliberate debunking of the very concept of Beauty within modern aesthetics? Without getting into the thorny issue of the judgment of the aesthetic value of the whole of modern art, an exploration which would take us too far afield and may require another voluminous tome a la Critique of Judgment, I have a more modest suggestion and it is this: for those who are truly seeking Beauty, classifications such as the above become quite meaningless.

Those who have looked back to the future and have surveyed carefully the millenarian history of art know that just as there were mediocre works lacking Beauty before Dada, there have been excellent works of Beauty despite Dada. They know with Kant (See his Critique of Judgment) and Raphael and Michelangelo that the criteria for judging art are universal, not relativistic, that Beauty is the purpose of art, just as a building is the purpose of architecture; that Beauty can bridge the frightening cultural chasms of modern societies and ought in fact be treasured by every culture; that just as philosophy and science are useful to inform us about Truth, art is useful to inform us about Beauty and as such it will survive the cynicism and nihilism of our times at the risk of placing the future of our civilization in jeopardy.

Those seekers also know with Plato and Aristotle that Beauty, Truth and Goodness are fundamental needs of a healthy human condition and culture, the very oxygen needed for its existence and survival, and that Beauty and ugliness may be complementary to each other, in the sense that one cannot be conceived without the other, but they will never be the same. Vulgarity and venality remain such, just as garbage remains such even when juxtaposed to perfume.

The seekers of Beauty know that an empty relativism naively declaring that “it is all in the eyes of the beholder” will not lead to anything truly new and meaningful.  The Greeks had already intuited some two thousand years ago that Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, were concepts harmoniously related to each other, universal and transcendent of particular societies, even Greek society; that they were and remain the sine qua non of any genuine civilization. That just as ethical actions need to be conceived as a duty and for their own sake, works of art must also be loved for their own sake and not for utilitarian purposes; for to treat art as a mere commodity to be manipulated by the vulgar entrepreneurs of this world out for profits, for whom everything is a commodity and even art has a price, is to ultimately trivialize and corrupt the very concept of Beauty. In conclusion the question naturally arises: Is it not high time to go back to the future and resurrect the concept of Beauty? As the great novelist Manzoni put it: “ai posteri l’ardua sentenza” [to posterity belongs the hard answer”].

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3.

A Visual Sample of Three Sublime Classical Expressions of Beauty:
one Ancient Greek in Sculpture, one French Medieval
in Architecture, and one Italian Renaissance in Painting

 symposium175

The Venus of Melos at the Louvre Museum (100 B.C.)

 symposium176

Rose Window of Reim’s Cathedral (13 century A.D.)

 symposium177

West End of the Cathedral with Rose Window

 symposium178_400

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1488) in Florence’s Uffizi Museum

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End of the 13th Session of the Ovi Symposium (November 21, 2013)

 

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Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting -

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