Review: The Sense of Beauty

Santayana.jpg

The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic TheoryGeorge Santayana. New York: Dover Publications, 1955 (originally published 1896).

Summary: A philosophical discussion of the nature of beauty, grounding it in the pleasure of the perceiver with an object and its associations.

Classically, philosophy has spoken of three transcendentals: Truth (logic), Goodness (ethics), and Beauty (aesthetics). To satisfy the requirements of tenure at Harvard, George Santayana wrote this book, based on lectures, to offer his own outline of an aesthetic theory in what was his first book. Perhaps the most striking move of Santayana was to move beauty from the realm of the transcendental to that of human perception of value in the object perceived. He contrasts physical pleasure, focused on the organ of sensation, with aesthetic sensation, focused on the object from which pleasure arises. He defines beauty as “pleasure objectified.”

He then explores this sense of beauty under three headings: the materials of beauty, form, and expression. The materials of beauty focus on the  various human senses, chiefly sight, hearing, memory and imagination, through which perception and appreciation of objects occur. Form has to do with both external realities that give rise to sensation and their mental representation. He explores aspects of these that produce pleasure including symmetry, uniformity, and multiplicity, and also the idea of “indeterminate” forms such as landscapes that derive their beauty from the perceptive interpretation of the observe. Finally, Santayana explores the nature of expression which means the qualities one associates with an object. This suggests that one’s sense of beauty develops from immediate perception to a deeper perception where past experience, imagination, and other associations shape the kind of aesthetic pleasure one has in the object.

Santayana elaborates each of these elements in a discussion that is highly abstract, that I won’t attempt to outline or summarize here. What troubles me in his treatment, which seems to me a sophisticated way of saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is the elimination of the transcendent aspects of beauty. For those who sense beyond perceived beauty an author of beauty, Santayana would say this is simply one’s sense experience, and one’s sense of the sublime is simply ecstatic pleasure. There is nothing “beyond” to which beauty points. The sehnsucht or longing that C.S. Lewis writes of in Surprised by Joy when listening to Wagner, or glimpsing a scene in nature, to Santayana signifies nothing more than the interplay between object and sense eventuating in aesthetic pleasure. When Bono says, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” Santayana might reply, “and you never will. All you may find is what you are looking at.”

I find myself wondering how much Santayana’s aesthetic has shaped both the making of and the appreciation of art. How might artists pursue their work differently when they do not compose and paint, write and dance, with the object of “Soli Deo Gloria” and instead see their work as evoking aesthetic pleasure in those who partake of them. How are we changed as we are discouraged, when experiencing what we might call the “transcendent” in a work to think of it as nothing more than a confluence of the material of our senses, the form of a work, and its expressive associations. What happens when wonder is turned inward, rather than upward?

These were some of the questions I was left with on reading Santayana.

Review: Placemaking and the Arts

placemaking

Placemaking and the Arts, Jennifer Allen Craft. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Considers the “place” of the arts in placemaking, particularly in the settings of the home, the church, and the wider society.

Urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte have pioneered a movement known as “placemaking,” the gist of which is the planning and design of urban spaces that promote the health and well-being of those who live in them. This movement has also included writers of “place” like Wendell Berry who urge loving attention to local places, their people, and their ecology.

In this work, Jennifer Allen Craft explores the role of the arts, particularly the visual arts, in placemaking, and how for the Christian in the arts, artists may both seek the flourishing of their places, and anticipate the coming of the new creation, the kingdom of God.

Her first chapter explores the “placed” character of art. Every artist works in a place. Art is an embodied practice that can only occur in a place and in various ways interacts with that place. Through all this runs a theology of creation, incarnation, and resurrection hope for the new creation. One’s art is integrally connected to one’s relationship with God, other people and creatures, and the place in which we work.

The next four chapters explore how this works out in different settings: the natural world, the home, the church, and in society. In the natural world, art enables us to understand, love and, in the words of Wendell Berry, “practice resurrection” in the creation. Art in the home is a “homemaking” practice that creates beautiful spaces that also may become hospitable places for those experiencing dis-placement. Art in the church creates a welcome “place” for community, for encountering God, and for “embodying” the spiritual in a local place, as does liturgy and the Eucharist. The arts also have an important role in the pursuit of human flourishing in society, in creating “place” for the displaced, and bringing artistic considerations to the design of places.

Her final chapter is an attempt to articulate a placed theology of the arts. This commences with six key dialectic features of art: physicality/spirituality; particularity/universality; individuality/community; given/made; beauty/usefulness; contemplation/action. It seems that part of the theological ground of this dialectic approach is the sense of already/not yet of the kingdom and the dialectic of reflection and action in spiritual practices of faith.

The author seems to primarily be writing for an academic audience at the intersection of theological studies, sociology, and art theory, an important group to engage. I found myself wondering how accessible this would be to most of the practicing artists I know, many who might be appreciative. Many are believing people but unaccustomed to reading academic prose and would struggle to read a book like this, or they would just put it down and paint.

At the same time, as an individual who participates in a local arts group and a local choral organization, this resonated deeply with me. Joining a group of plein air painters in various locations in our “place” helps me see and cherish that place more deeply–the particular light of our summer skies, the gently rolling landscape, the river valleys, the species of trees and the shades of green of each. Whether it is a local park or town square, these become intimately a part of the place where we live as we seek to render them on canvas. To study and rehearse great works of music, and then to perform them in an assembled community in our place brings these works to a particular life that enhances life. The works we and others have painted that adorn our home make it a distinctive and welcome place. Singing four-part acapella harmonies with a few friends in my church embodies community and invites worship in our local place.

What this work offers is a theological framework for thinking about both the embodied practice of making art in local places, and how faithful engagement in the arts may be a part of our kingdom callings. I hope she will think about how to articulate these ideas to a wider art and craftwork community, many whose work is indeed grounded in place, and could use the encouragement and affirmation of their work present in this book.

First Attempts at Painting

Stone Bridge (c)2015, Bob Trube

Stone Bridge (c)2015, Bob Trube

In our house I’ve always claimed that I’m the singer (albeit of modest abilities) and my wife is the artist. But one of the things about our marriage is that we enter into the things each other loves. Marilyn goes to concerts with our choir, puts up with me practicing, and even reads some of my blogs. And she’s made her peace with a house full of books and classical music on the stereo.

Art was not a happy subject growing up. I attribute much of this to a middle school art teacher who was probably fed up with middle school boys (we could be obnoxious). Once those required art classes were out of the way, I stayed as far away from art as I could–except for marrying an artist!

My wife has always loved art but really didn’t seriously pursue painting until after her mom died. She is most alive when she is in front of a canvas with her paints. Then an artist friend who encouraged her to enter one of her paintings in the county fair art show. No prizes, but she took the big step to show her work in public.

Entering into the thing she loves has meant helping frame paintings, figuring out taxes when she sells a piece, and lots of trips to the local Blick store. It has also meant picking up a sketch pad to go along with her to paint and joining a local art league and a plein air group. They call me the plein air sketcher.

I won’t pretend to any artistic talent. But in these very amateurish attempts, there has been this experience of really seeing the things I’m looking at. It is noticing the plays of light and shadow, hidden dapples of color, shapes and textures. It is thinking about composition, how a viewer’s eye will find its way through the scene you are rendering.

If I were just sitting with a book, I’d probably nod off at some point. Yet I find myself with a heightened sense of attention, fully engaged with what I am seeing, and thinking of how to render that. I’ve written in other places about practices of attentiveness that enable us to see God and the world he’s made. I’m coming to believe that drawing and painting can be another of these practices.

We’ve really come to enjoy the people we paint with–so much so that we even signed up to go on a painting retreat this fall. And with that, I made the decision to take the plunge and buy some paints and brushes and canvases and really enter in.

So today was kind of a trial run. My wife gave me the use of her french easel and helped me set up. I found a picture I’d taken several years back of a bridge in Mill Creek Park back in Youngstown. I have to admit, it was a bit scary staring at that blank canvas and those tubes of paint. Then I started staring at the picture and noticing colors and light and shadow and shape and I squeezed a few paints onto the palette and plunged in. I spent a lot of time learning how paints worked, how long it took acrylics to dry, and which brushes worked best for what. I also learned, similar to singing, that when you make a mistake, just keep painting!

Well, I’ll let you judge my first attempt for yourself. What I can say is that for two hours I was absorbed with scene, paint, and canvas. I can see why great leaders like Churchill and Eisenhower painted. And I discovered the truth of what Van Gogh said:

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

A War on Public Education?

Yesterday, I came across an article in our local paper that I found alarming. It seems that our State (of Ohio) Board of Education is seeking to relax a rule that requires all of our state schools to provide 5 of 8 of the following services in our schools: elementary art, music or physical education teachers, school counselors, library media specialists, school nurses, social workers and “visiting teachers.”

What was deeply concerning to me is that this represents both a narrowing of our idea of “education” to what is tested on proficiency tests, and seems to eliminate some of the activities that make an education experience rich for our children. It also strikes me that some of the services like counselors and librarians play an important part in helping kids, especially from low income backgrounds stay in school and get into college.

State board of education members by district

State board of education members by district

What was also unsettling to me was how unrepresentative our State Board of Education is of the population they are serving. From what I can tell, only one of the nineteen members is a person of color. At most, only three come from the large urban school districts in our state, yet I suspect these rule changes could have the greatest effect on these districts and the economically disadvantaged students in these districts. Richer districts that can support these programs with property taxes would seem more likely to continue them.

A couple of my posts this week have dealt with the continuing challenge of overcoming the class and racial divides in our society. I am deeply concerned that these rule changes reflect at best a lack of grasp of how these changes will deepen the divides of race and class in our state.

I am also saddened that art, music, and physical education are considered “dispensable”.  In an era where obesity and diabetes are childhood diseases, physical education seems more important than ever. Fit minds without fit bodies just doesn’t make sense. Also, it seems that artistic intelligence is key to many technological innovations as well as enriching our lives. One of the things Steve Jobs taught us is that the aesthetics of our technology matter as much as their function.

At large members

At-large members of State Board of Education

Do I think public education is the best it can be? Hardly! Do I think people should have the right to home school or send children to private schools? Yes. But both I and my son were publicly educated and the services that could be cut played important parts in our lives and success. I’m concerned that changes in rules like this will gut the the existing quality of our public schools. I don’t want to see public schools gutted and education farmed out to for-profit schools. This has been highly ineffective at the university level and of questionable effectiveness at primary and secondary levels. All of us try to get our kids into the best schools possible. That won’t stop. The question is whether we will continue to support quality public education for those who can’t afford private options or don’t have the time to home school because of needing to work.

I sincerely hope the representatives of our State Board of Education will remember that they serve ALL the citizens of Ohio. I sincerely hope they will pursue policies that bridge the real divides between classes and races that still exist in our state rather than accentuate them. This, too, I think, would have been part of Dr. King’s dream.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Arts

How many of you remember going to Children’s Concerts on school field trips? How many of you remember going on similar trips to the local art museum? That may seem out of character for one’s picture of growing up in a working class, steel-making town. But that was part of my experience of growing up in working class Youngstown. I’m not sure I necessarily appreciated this that much at the time, other than the chance to get out of the classroom. But now I realize that we were being exposed to some of the cultural treasures of my city and being reminded that there was more to life than hard work in a factory (something I think those who want to eliminate the arts from education today need to think about!). I think there was a perspective, perhaps spiritual in nature among those in the working class, that realized that life was about the good, the true, and the beautiful. We loved good food and other good things of life, were often devout in our religion, and treasured both natural and man-made works of beauty. While both of our fathers were never able to pursue artistic interests, we have free hand drawings each of them rendered that show considerable talent and an eye for the beautiful.

The Butler Institute of American Art (c)Robert Trube, 2014

The Butler Institute of American Art (c)Robert Trube, 2014

What I only realized after moving away from Youngstown is just how culturally rich the city was and is when it comes to the arts. I think first of the Butler Institute of American Art. Located next to Youngstown State, it was a wonderful place to take a break from studies and wander through the galleries, looking at the Remington paintings of Native Americans. Perhaps my favorite painting was Robert Vonnoh’s In Flanders Fields. We were in the Viet Nam era and the painting served as a visible reminder of the tragic and futile loss of young men’s lives in war.  In later years as we visited other art museums including the one in our own city, we came to realize what an incredible treasure Youngstown has, confirmed particularly among artist friends of ours. But the tour of the arts in Youngstown just begins here. There is the John J. McDonough Museum of Art, a contemporary art museum across the street from the Butler and part of the Youngstown State campus. John McDonough was a physician (my mother’s in fact) who built a notable collection of contemporary art and contributed to the construction of the museum through the sale of Gloucester Harbor by Childe Hassam, contributing the proceeds to help finance the museum.

In Flanders Fields by Robert Vonnoh accessed at: http://www.butlerart.com/pc_book/pages/robert_vonnoh_1858.htm

In Flanders Fields by Robert Vonnoh

I remember going to Children’s Concerts of the Youngstown Symphony at Stambaugh Auditorium.  Later, the Symphony moved into Powers Auditorium, the old renovated Warner Theater, which is now part of the DeYor Performing Arts Center. As college students, I remember going on dates on cheap student tickets to see The Nutcracker and other performances, which nurtured my love for symphonic music. We also went to plays at the Youngstown Playhouse, considered one of the older community theaters in the country, tracing its history back to 1927.

In the years since we’ve left, the arts have continued to develop in Youngstown. The Oakland Center for the Arts, located in downtown Youngstown, fosters the development of new works from the various communities of Youngstown around current issues of justice, supporting emerging voices. The Artists of the Mahoning Commons now utilize the old Ward Baking Company building for studio space as well as arts events. I suspect there is far more going on than I know. Also, there are more arts organizations than I’ve been able to talk about in this post, a listing for which may be found at the Power of the Arts website.

While neither my wife nor I make our living in the arts, we both deeply value artistic expression. My wife is an acrylic and water color painter (who first exhibited her work at the Canfield Fair Art Show!). I sing with an accomplished community choir, Capriccio Columbus as well as write. While it took many years for us to pursue artistic interests even this far, we are both convinced that they were formed during our growing up years in Youngstown.

What are your memories of the arts growing up? What artistic institutions in Youngstown (or your home town) do you treasure? 

Reading as Art?

I’ve sung from the time I was a kid. Most of us do, even if only in the shower or in the car when our favorite song comes on. In Buckeye town, we sing “Carmen Ohio” and “Hang on Sloopy” at games. Likewise, I’ve read since I was young. As I thought further about my post on “Reading Musically” it caused me to wonder if reading can be on one level something most of us do, even if it is only ads and road signs, and on another level, something we do artfully?

What are some marks of artful reading? Here are a few starting thoughts:

1. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, it is attentive reading–reading where we give our full attention to the page. When I am engaged in choral singing, I have no bandwidth for anything else than the work–and maybe not even enough sometimes!

2. Artful reading grows in our capacity to observe the writer’s art in all its varieties of use of language, argument and rhetoric, plot development, etc.

3. Good reading grows in awareness of the conversations and conventions that make up a work. Just as there are particular rhythms and thematic elements in various forms of music, the more we read, the more we recognize how writers interact with each other.

4. Reading as an art creates something out of what is read. If nothing else, it creates richer mental furniture in our lives. Perhaps it inspires or even changes our thinking and behavior. For me, the experience of singing Brahm’s Requiem was transformative, particularly Brahms’ passages about the resurrection. Likewise, books like Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country have been part of a journey for me in learning to love my own land and to pursue healing in our own troubled racial history.

5. Artful reading, like other forms of art shares its fruit, in book discussions, in reviews, in passing along a good book to a friend. When I have rehearsed a piece that I love, I want people to come hear us.

Just a few thoughts on this.  I wonder what you think. Are these just the crazy reflections of a bibliophile? Or is there something to this, perhaps even something in danger of becoming a lost art?