Friday, August 24, 2012

Adultery as Art (Part I)


No, I have not turned my title around backwards. I did not mean to say "art as adultery" but rather "adultery as art." Art as adultery is, indeed, a common and longstanding idea. Plato asserts that art adulterates reality because it is twice removed from ultimate reality: 

Ultimate Reality- The idea of a chair - The World of Forms

Immediate Reality - The chair - The Material World

Artistic "Reality" - Artistic rendition of a chair, the Aesthetic World

As we know, Plato thought the material world only shadowed a higher, spiritual world, the "world of forms." Therefore, to Plato, not only was the material world one step removed from ultimate reality, but the artist's representation of anything material, such as a paining of a tree, a musical composition, or a poem, was an even vaguer shadow, two steps removed from reality. For Plato, moreover, art inherently posed a double danger. First, Plato considered art a natural deceiver that misled its viewer or listener to focus upon something less than real and perhaps even accept this unreality as reality. We certainly see this malady of art-delusion throughout our culture with its inordinate fascination upon fictitious books, television programs, and movies. We read and view fiction as if it were real. And not only do we often mistake fiction for reality, our fascination with fiction probably indicates that we are a people not happy with reality, not happy with our own jobs, marriages, and lives and therefore endeavor to escape our mundane existence by living vicariously through some fictitious character or situation. Art, for Plato, also held a second danger in that the character of the artist was necessarily and always behind and within his art work, and therefore the viewer of, or listener to, art was momentarily brought under the artist's control, necessarily exposed to, and usually influenced by, the artist's character. If the artist's character was not temperate, just, compassionate, and generally good, but rather intemperate, evil, crass, and lecherous, his art would have an evil influence upon his admirers whether they knew it or not. St. Peter implies the same artist-admirer dynamic when he says, "whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved."

Art as an adulteration of reality has even more profound implications today than in ancient Greece. According to Aristotle, art should be mimetic; that is, art should faithfully imitate reality. This is what we call realism, and realism's highest achievement was perhaps in the paintings of artists such as Raphael, whose portraits and landscapes faithfully and beautifully look like life itself. But since the impressionists, such as Manet, Monet, and Renoir, art has diverted from the path of realism. Indeed, something fascinating attends Monet's canvas of opaque lights, diffuse forms, and pastel colors. But impressionism ultimately does not represent reality but rather distorts it. Obviously, impressionism alters the fine lines that define form and also obscures the natural patterns and images of humans, flowers, water, trees, etc. Whether impressionism is a "beautiful distortion" or not shall be left to another discussion., but impressionism is not, as Aristotle said art should be, an imitation of life but rather an interpretation of life. Now perhaps someone could argue that impressionism imitates life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the historical and philosophical context of Darwinism, Biblical criticism, Marxism, existentialism, and nihilism, perhaps impressionism faithfully represented its zeitgeist. But even if we admit that impressionism faithfully depicts the relativism of its day, are we ready to admit that 19th-century relativism is truth, or do we not rather say that 19th-century relativism is a lie that impressionist painters attempt to "beautify"? Whatever the case, impressionism marks the starting point from which art departed from absolute form and has now led us into the unreality of Picasso's mutilation of the human form, particularly woman; Thomas Kincaid's melodrama; and Serrano's Piss Christ. Who will deny that much of what we call "art" today is both corrupt and corrupting? 

In conclusion, we remind our reader that, although the above discussion focuses upon "art as adultery" from a Platonic-Aristotelian perspective, those remarks are only prefatory to our main topic, "adultery as art," which we shall discuss tomorrow in Part II, God willing.

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