Prof. Doris Sommer came and gave a talk here the other day, on the value and importance of art and beauty, and boy was it inspiring. The topic, ostensibly, was related to the defense of the humanities, the defense of the importance of the arts, as fields such as STEM, economics, business, continue to gain greater and greater traction with students, parents, university administration, and lawmakers alike.
Above: Not apparently a true quote. But a powerful and important notion nevertheless.
We so often don’t know what it is we have until we lose it, and shifting from an Art History department to a department of History, I never suspected that a cultural, or aesthetic, view of the world would be so lacking in the latter. Or that I, who had been steeped in such a view for so many years, would so quickly and so easily forget it, lose it, and become adrift. Some art historian I am. I adore my colleagues, and faculty mentors, in History, but whereas that love of the value of the aesthetic was so taken for granted in my Art History program, here I feel it’s left up to me to keep that energy, that perspective, in my work, as my professors can’t advise me in that direction … and so I am struggling to retain that art/culture aspect to my work, amidst (even unintentional) pressures to focus on “real” political concerns, and more than that, subtle pressures simply to see the world in a different way, a way other than that of the aesthetic or cultured lens.
The Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote on this aesthetic view in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” In one section, he writes:
Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, … Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important…
(Emphasis added.) Reading this quote, I cannot help but think of Chinese landscape paintings. For centuries and centuries – and most certainly after the writings of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) were taken up as the orthodoxy – painters in China rejected realism as a mere parlor trick, embracing as the true artist’s talent the ability to paint things not merely as they appear, but as they truly are. In other words, capturing the spirit of the thing, or the place, and not just its visual perceived appearance.
And I do think there’s something wonderful and powerful and inspiring about this notion of seeing things not merely as they appear, but as they are – thus cutting through to a deeper sense of the character or nature of a thing – as well as this notion of making objects unfamiliar and forms difficult, so that we might better recognize and appreciate the vibrant aesthetic world of colors, shapes, and textures all around us, rather than taking these for granted and thus allowing them all to fade to grey. To be sure, Shklovsky’s aesthetic lens makes everything we encounter in life new, novel, and interesting by alerting us to color, form, texture. And I imagine we could extend this too to the modernist art of the 1890s-1960s, that put aside realism, or naturalistic illusion, to ask viewers to consider the materials and forms themselves – the texture of the canvas, the thickness of the paint, the greenness of the pigment, the squareness of squares, the coldness of stone, the warmth of wood. But I don’t think we even need to go that far to simply say, let us appreciate the vibrant, colorful, exciting, cultural diversity of our world. Let us revel in, and take some enjoyment from, the myriad forms that things take, and not focus only on their function.
As wonderful as Shklovsky’s quote is, I think I like Prof. Sommer’s paraphrase (as it appears in my notes, likely somewhat misquoted) even better:
“Habituation kills everything – it kills my relationship with my wife, it kills how I dress, it kills my fear of war. Art makes me fall in love with the world again.“
After all, when we get bogged down in our daily routines and personal family obligations, and when we get caught up in all the great many political and social ills in our world, it can be severely demoralizing. But, thinking about all the beauty in our world, the power of human creativity, can really revive our love of the world, and our desire to contribute to it, or even just to keep moving forward.
I did not get into the study of history so I could think about oh-so-grey things like economic forces or political structures, policy papers or ideological writings. I got into history because I was excited by, enthralled by, enraptured by, the sights and sounds of the culturally diverse worlds of the past. The architecture, the costumes, the admittedly rather romanticized imaginings of what it looked and felt like to be there, in that time and place. I want to highlight the colorful, the vibrant, the musical, in order to contribute to enlivening the world, by introducing my reader to something beautiful and exciting. Our world is full of such beauty, and I think that highlighting this, emphasizing it, getting my reader, and my students, to see that beauty and to expand their love of the world, is just as important – if not, arguably, even more important – as making some argument about our interpretation of political or social structures or patterns.
I have written things like this on this blog so many times – I am ashamed to have forgotten it, to have lost that vision, and the passion for that vision. And so I am so thankful to Doris Sommer for reminding me, reminding all of us in that room, of the power of art and the importance of aesthetic vision.
I don’t know if I will be taking the time to read Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Hannah Arendt’s lectures on Kant, Friedrich Schiller’s Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, and Doris Sommer’s commentary on all of these. But, I do think I will continue to struggle, with renewed determination, to find ways to include the color, the vibrancy, in my work in a way that centers and foregrounds it, and in a way that my advisors find is essential enough to my argument for it to be allowed to remain included within the paper (the dissertation).
Thanks to Flickr user duncan c for making this image Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 licensed.