Monday, October 20, 2008

Where Jonathan Jones Got It All Wrong

Once again, the ARTNEWS listserv serves up good stuff. This time it's an article published in the Guardian by Jonathan Jones discussing Bell's palsy and a (bad) genealogy of the notion of beauty.

And it is bad. At first I want to say that he's so brave for talking about his half-paralyzed face, but, then I get the sense that the art critic, "doth protest too much." And then I realize that he's just all wrong on the nature of our notion of Beauty.

So, if you'll entertain my nit-picking:

Jones states, "Our ideas of beauty and ugliness ultimately originate in Renaissance art." One, who is this Our, Paleface? Two, this is simply wrong. Renaissance means "rebirth," what was being reborn? The Classical Greek world. But this rebirth was more accurately a project to create, maybe Classical Greek 2.0. The Renaissance itself is a moniker the era picked up in the Enlightenment (so named because the Early Moderns felt they were extending a project). Prior to the era we now call the Renaissance was a little something we like to call, because of the Enlightenment, the Dark Ages.

The best treatment of the Greek world and it's vision of value, for my money, is in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, and Jones as an art critic is simply anemic if he's not read this book. But, that's a personal jibe, I s'pose...

To do a great disservice to the world I will summarize thus: the Greeks, after Socrates, became committed to trying to overcome the "problem" posed by Heraclitus, that you cannot step in the same river twice. (This is a great wikipedia article, by the way)

What the philosophers after Socrates were trying to establish throughout what those in the Renaissance considered to be a Golden Age of civilization, is how do understand our identity in the face of a world that is in constant change? To paraphrase, how do I know that this monitor and keyboard will be here when I open my eyes after blinking? The response that those in the Renaissance chose to celebrate was the more abstract, less personal response.

During what became known as the Middle Ages (the Dark Ages as opposed to the "Enlightenment" of the 17th century), was an exploration of faith and the widespread adoption of Christianity throughout Europe. From the 17th century forward we would popularly understand the Middle Ages as the age of faith and antithetical to reason.

If we accept what Kant, et al. have to say, the Greeks of Antiquity, rebirthed by those Renaissance men, sought to understand an underlying reason for why the world changes. Does the Sun set because it enters a cave on the other side of the horizon? Reason gave us a different narrative: the sunset is the time when the Sun leaves our field of vision as the Earth completes another rotation during its revolution around the Sun.

The real joy of this reasoning was that the story could be translated into a neutral language, mathematics. Because math works independent of the limits of language (so thought the Classical Greeks-Renaissance-Enlightenment-folks, and still today think many) this is knowledge that is publicly-verifiable using the same method.

I'd like for Mr. Jones to note that this is truly key to our (whoever they are) notion of beauty: the marriage of what is publicly verifiable with the notion of how the world really is. The Beautiful became what could be measured as such. The ideal human form would have divine ratios: the distance from each fingertip when your arms are extended should be as long as you are tall, say. If this symmetry was established then we would all see the Divine Planner. Taking a page from the Greeks, the Renaissance artists put forward that what is more ideal is more godly because what is godly is unchanging, even when we see things changing. So the notion of "timeless beauty" arose.

Jones uses examples of wonderful Renaissance paintings of hideous people to point out how much more humane these people are because they are not perfect. It's easy to say, well, he's clearly wrong, Renaissance painters should be more concerned with symmetry and timeless beauty. But he makes a choice here and seems to be arguing that our understanding of beauty (today's understanding) is rooted in a conversation with the "age of faith" and these painters were trying to rescue that more personal, less public, beauty.

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