Monday, August 17, 2015

For James: Art

Just some references for a conversation we had on F for Fake.
In poetry, as in all the arts, both the constructive and communicative aspects are tremendously raised in power, but they do not differ in kind from ordinary speech. Only the aesthetician who brings to the arts considerations from elsewhere in philosophy, from ontology or epistemology, can postulate a different realm of being with its own kind of communication in poetry. Hector with his wife and child, Piccarda’s speech to Dante, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, these are all, however exalted, in the same world as “Please pass the butter.” Furthermore, medieval and “vulgar” aesthetics are perfectly right when they speak, as Plato and Aristotle did, of the Art of Cooking, or the Art of the Saddler. The only difference in the Fine Arts is that they are finer — and they communicate more, and more importantly. Albi Cathedral is the sum total of the work of its bricklayers as well as of the plans of its architects. As construction, the difference is simply one of degree. There is no sure point at which you can say, “Beyond is Fine Art.” Instead in the constructive activities of men you have a continuum, growing in refinement, intensity, scope, depth, and splendor. Here Thomas Aquinas and his modern followers are right. 
Furthermore, certain works of art in recent years have taught us that you can apprehend even the simplest speech or simplest plastic arrangement, or, to take somebody like Webern, even a fugue on two notes, with the intensity of an artistic experience if you want to compel yourself to do it. Yoga and other mystical gymnastics involving the faculties of attention have always done this. You all know the modern photographs of hop-scotch squares on sidewalks, torn signboards, broken windows, piles of lumber, and similar things. What the photographer is doing is focusing attention on something that was not actually structured in the first place. It is the attention which creates the structure. You can train yourself to see the clouds of Tiepolo, the mists and mountains of Sesshu, in any water-stained ceiling. 
Gertrude Stein did this with words. You say poetry is different, disinterested and structured. It is not the same kind of thing as “Please pass the butter,” which is a simple imperative. But Gertrude Stein showed, among other things, that if you focus your attention on “Please pass the butter,” and put it through enough permutations and combinations, it begins to take on a kind of glow, the splendor of what is called an “aesthetic object,” and passes over into abstract, architectonic poetry. This is a trick of the manipulation of attention. Pages and pages of Gertrude Stein are put together out of the most trivial speech, broken up and used “architecturally” to the point that ordinary meaning disappears, not from the sentences, but from the very words themselves, and a new, rather low-grade but also rather uncanny kind of meaning emerges.
– Kenneth Rexroth, Unacknowledged Legislators and Art pour Art
And I've uploaded a good introductory piece on Heidegger's The Origin of the Work of Art.

The whole of Rexroth's essay is well worth reading. It's one of my favorite essays.

If that piece on Heidegger strikes you, I'd recommend tracking down the original essay. It's been printed in several books—the best value for someone new to his work would probably be the Basic Writings collection.

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