philosophy

Creating Monsters by Chris Hall

Son of Frankenstein, 1939.

Recently, in conversation with another artist, it was brought to my attention that I use a Postmodernist aesthetic in my artwork, most notably in my use of text in art, which did not really start to happen until the 1960's.  I was, admittedly, taken aback, but I had to agree with the facts.  It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetic.  Postmodernism does not believe in originality; instead it champions pastiche and cultural sampling . . . and Postmodernism has actively mined Modernist art for inspiration.  Using Post-modern pastiche techniques can make for interesting results, but I stand firm in my belief, the Modernist belief, that originality is possible.  In this regard, and in many others, I mostly subscribe to the Modernist philosophy.  But I wonder, am I making a mistake?  

Often, I am too much of a dinosaur, philosophically, to be accepted by Postmodernists, but too Postmodern in my aesthetic to be accepted by certain Re-modernists.  Just like many other aspects of my life, I find myself without a home, left roaming the swamps like a monster on the outskirts of civilization.  In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, we learn that Dr. Victor Frankenstein created his monster by merging the rational Enlightenment science of his day with the ancient, more mystical based science of the alchemists Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and others.  His creation was deemed to be a monster and he was doomed to live a life of lonely exile, unloved by all.  But Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster (abandoned at birth, he was never given a name) was not born a monster, he was made out to be a monster the society that shunned him.  The monster tried hard to be accepted by others, but after repeated rebuttals, ended up embracing his role as a scourge to mankind.  I wonder, is this to be the fate of my work?  When I attempt to make an artwork combining Modernist philosophy with Postmodern aesthetics, am I producing monsters?  Because I love my work, what I do, does this make me a monster, too?  Am I doomed to be forever an outcast?  While I might revel in the thought of making monstrous artwork that might become a holy terror among the polite circles of the bourgeois and intelligentsia, I do not revel in the lonely existence it has thus far given me.

Why I Believe in God by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Yellow Christ , 1889.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889.

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.  It is like the religious search for God.” - Gerhard Richter.

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being).  But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.” - Gerhard Richter.

For most of my life I can honestly say that I have experienced more bad than good.  My life has been marked by suffering in such a way that if I am ever fortunate to finally meet with some success, I fear I may never be able to enjoy it.  Often times it seems to me that my life ledger is grossly out of balance.  In such circumstances, how does one carry on?  Who do we hold accountable for disastrous fate?  Even Van Gogh threw in the towel eventually and clocked out of this mortal coil.  I think I carry on out of some kind of animalistic urge, akin to what Schopenhauer describes as “The Will.”  It is a stubborn kind of thing, and it has prevented me from doing harm to myself in my weaker moments.  At times like this, when I am at my worst, when it feels as if all my inner being is on fire and stuck in a perpetual, howling scream, I suddenly I remember why I believe in God.  Only someone with total omnipotence and omnipresence would have the dedicated time and strength to commit to making my entire life one living Hell.  This is why I say, believe in God, but do not trust.

“...Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” - Graham Greene.  

“Art is the highest form of hope.” - Gerhard Richter.

But there is another reason why I believe in God.  I trace it back to my youth and the old romantic in me.  It is buried deep, and sometimes I have to dig for it, but I know that a more benevolent God can be found in Nature and in Art.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed, as Saint Augustine suggests, squarely in the hands of mankind.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed on the electric chemistry of my brain.  John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”  This is true, to an extent, but this does not account for the undeniable amount of bad fortune that has has been my lot, only my reception of it.  I have many questions about life, suffering, and the fate of mankind.  Reading, writing, making art are my attempts at trying to find answers to these questions, though I confess I have, for the most part, come up empty handed.  Many of my questions remain unanswered.  At least the process is cathartic, and has, at times, given me peace.  Perhaps the process of making art is God's mercy.  Perhaps God is trying to redeem us through Art.

Paul Gauguin,  Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ , 1890.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ, 1890.

“Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.”   Gerhard Richter.

Considering some of Richter's other comments on the connection between religion and art, namely that art is a religion, I think it might be safe to say that in the quote above, Richter is suggesting that artists could, and perhaps should, take on the role of both priest and philosopher.  In the West at least, I feel that there has been a growing doubt in the power of organized religion to solve our modern woes, and a growing doubt that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and benevolent God may exist at all.  If these people are like myself, they may have questions that they would like answered, or at least would like the solace that can only be found in beauty.  Artists, then, can take up the role left behind by priests and philosophers.  I think this might be a noble calling, maybe even more noble than using art as a political prop, but certainly more noble than using art as an entertainment tool, or an advertisement for a product.

Plato and Aristotle on Art by Chris Hall

Raphael da Urbino,  The School of Athens  (detail showing Plato and Aristotle), 1509 - 1511

Raphael da Urbino, The School of Athens (detail showing Plato and Aristotle), 1509 - 1511

Plato is not a big fan of art, and his works, particularly The Republic, are rife with complaints against it.  Plato thought all art was an imperfect imitation of nature, and that our perceptions of nature (remember that we are in Plato's cave, viewing the shadows of what is real on the wall) was already skewed and imperfect.  This makes art twice removed from perfection.  He did respect, however, the power art has in shaping people's thoughts and feelings, but he takes this respect to a dark place when he suggests that art should be regulated and censored by the wisest members of society, a ruling class of Philosopher Kings.  And what if these “wisest members of society” become corrupt?  And who decides who is the “wisest.”  Plato is in dangerous territory, and I can not follow him there.  I may distrust the masses, but I distrust the government and authority figures even more.  

Now, let's contrast Plato's perception of art with that of his student, the liberal Aristotle.  Aristotle thought art had the power to improve upon nature.  Aristotle also admired art's ability to persuade.  He thinks that art has the ability to convey universal truths, and that it can help us better understand our purpose and predicament.  If performed masterfully, Aristotle thought art could be a tool useful for inspiring people, for enlightening them on the consequences of foolish behavior, and that it could foster moral growth and the improvement of society.   No where in his writings does Aristotle promote censorship. 

Like Plato, I do believe that the wrong kind of art can be harmful for society, just as good art can be a benefit.   Because of the fallibility and subjectivity of human nature and aesthetic tastes, however, I can not ever support censorship.  And when used by the state, censorship can be an abusive tool for repression of political and personal freedom.  For these reasons, I will follow Aristotle's approach.