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What Defines Art?

Gregory Baus

In downtown Baltimore, not far from the tourist trap of the Inner Harbor, there is a Holocaust memorial. The main feature of this memorial is a long "barrier" inscribed with prose about the courage and resilience of the Jewish people in the face of such horror and inhumanity. Architecturally, the barrier is, frankly, an eyesore. It was designed in something of the disreputed Bauhaus "international style." It's a styleless cement block.

However, closer to the sidewalk, in the front-center of the open plaza that extends before the barrier, there is a large bronze sculpture. It's a massive ball of flame. There are people in the fire; writhing, skeletal, naked figures with expressions of nightmarish agony. Some figures are reaching out, some cling to small children. A tangle of limbs and faces; you can almost hear the screaming.

You would hardly call this sculpture beautiful. It's anything but beautiful. Yet in stark contrast to the barrier, there is no question that the sculpture succeeds aesthetically. It is certainly art; good art in my view. As such it provokes various questions about the nature of art. But the question that concerns me here is: What, then, defines art, if not beauty? Are we forced to somehow perversely reconceive beauty to include the gruesomeness of torture and the portrayal of injustice?

Of course, I'm not the first to stumble upon this question. Certain philosophers have posited the sublime, awe-inspiring, or transcendence as alternatives. Others hold to that which expresses (or elicits) feeling, morality, or rational order as the nature of art. The Neo-Calvinist philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (in cooperation with Hans Rookmaker) famously revised his own idea about the aesthetical from beauty to "harmony." Without going into a lengthy critique of various popular options, let me put forward the notion of art that I find most satisfactory.

Working within Dooyeweerd's theoretical framework of "modal" analysis, Cal Seerveld has argued for "suggestion," or what he often calls "allusivity" as the central meaning of the aesthetical.

Not to go too far afield: the key concept in (Dooyeweerdian) modal analysis is that there is a creationally given number of theoretically irreducible modes (or "ways") of existence and experience. This may seem a bit abstruse. But in its most basic terms, this means that when you theorize about something, you will bump-up against limits in abstraction. There are certain basic "ways" of being, each of which has its own proper integrity. The central meaning of any given modality cannot ultimately be explained in terms of any other. In any case, this modal analysis is the framework in which Seerveld explores the aesthetic as allusivity.

Allusivity is that quality of making-allusions, or of having-nuances. And this allusivity is wrapped up in Seerveld's notion of symbol. Symbols must be carefully distinguished from signs, however. Signs have a fixed meaning. The clarity proper to a sign involves definiteness and precision. Symbols, on the other hand, are characterized by increased subtlety and ambiguity. The connection between symbol and allusivity is that symbols are specially qualified by allusion-making. Symbols are suggestive of things and do not precisely "stand for" those things as signs do.

Seerveld illustrates this point in reference to two objects: a Confederate flag and a Christian cross. The former was once a sign for "certain southern American states at war with the northern federal government." Now, however, "the Confederate flag is defunct as a sign, but it remains [for many] an eloquent symbol of an ill-starred civilized life." The latter, was once symbolic of "horrible death and Christ's triumph." These days, a cross "around a young person's neck… [may be] a kind of one-sentence sign, which says ‘bearer adheres to Christian faith'."

Seerveld goes on to explain that aesthetic symbolification requires imagination. He elaborates aesthetic imagination in terms of what he calls >Hineinlebenshaltung. (Hin-a-what-ung? Yeah… you've gotta love those compound German philosophical terms). This lengthy word roughly means "a living-into-it orientation."

One might relate this notion of Hineinlebenshaltung to eisegesis or "reading-into" something. For instance, I might be said to be reading into the actions of an acquaintance whom I suspect has ill feelings towards me if I opined that the person's (perhaps innocent and blank) stare was an attempt to give me the evil eye. As a point of contrast, I could hardly be said to be reading into the same acquaintance flashing me their middle finger; a definite sign of disapproval. In the case of the stare, I would have been engaged in "symbologizing" their actions, reading into the stare a world of meaning.

This aesthetic imaginative orientation (Hineinlebenshaltung) is an intentional "living-into" "exaggeration," in which the art "medium is strained, intensified, concentrated with as much correlative meaning as it can symbolically bear."

Now we come back to the question: What defines art? For Seerveld, this symbolical imaginative character distinguishes the "reality" of art or aesthetic objects. To help highlight this issue, Seerveld mentions Matisse's apt response to a would-be critic. A lady once remarked, seeing Matisse's work, "I never saw a woman like that." "Madame," said Matisse, "it is not a woman; it's a painting!" Seerveld's concern here is for "the art work's mode of being there --the painting, not the paint." "The art work's special way of existing," says Seerveld, "is one of symbolical objectification of imaginatively grasped meaning."

Admittedly, aesthetic theory is an abstract enterprise. But with feet back on solid ground, standing before the Holocaust bronze sculpture, I can better experience it --not as counter-intuitively "beautiful," but as powerfully allusive. Diving into that inferno of meaning-full symbol, sensing the heat of each burning nuance, perceiving its boiling-over ugliness… that is to appreciate the sculpture for what it is.

For more, see also The Aesthetic Aspect, the general discussion of aesthetics, and Gregory Baus on Seerveld.

Copyright (c) Gregory Baus, 2004. Editted by Andrew Basden.

This page is part of a collection of pages containing ideas that are referred to within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

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Created: 7 April 2004. Last updated: 7 January 2013 link to aesthetic aspect, 'aesthetics.html', and baus.seerveld.hin.html, rid unet.