04 January 2010

Susanne Langer: Art, Beauty, & Theater - Part 1

Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985) was an art philosopher whose best known books are Philosophy in a New Key (1942) and Feeling and Form (1953), the latter of which I want to discuss a little with respect to art, beauty, and theater. Her magnum opus, ranging across many academic disciplines, is Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, a massive study of the human mind that attempted to incorporate feeling into a grand scheme of human thought, published in three volumes in 1967, 1973, and 1982. A trained musician, Langer played the piano and the cello and music was an enduring pleasure of her life. She was a poet in her early life, composing poems before she knew how to write them down and her first published book was The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales (1923), a collection of children’s stories. She even wrote a play called Walpurgisnacht, performed by family members in a grove of woods near Lake George, New York, where her family vacationed. (Langer and her cousins also presented a Hamlet whose text they rewrote themselves.)

To summarize the work of any philosopher is to court distortion and oversimplification. Langer’s subject was vast and her ideas were complex and difficult to unpack, though her writing was straightforward and, given the complexity of her ideas, clear. But I’m pulling her words on one or two particular topics out of the entirety of her generally unified theories, which runs the further risk of misrepresentation. Nevertheless, I expect I’ll be quoting her directly a lot here because not only do I feel Langer’s own words are the focus, but I couldn’t articulate her thoughts better than she herself did. Furthermore, I guess that because privately I find enlightening what Susanne Langer has to say about art--she makes about the best intellectual argument for the significance of art in society, in human existence, that I’ve ever encountered‑‑I also think it’s something everyone should find worth contemplating, so I’m promoting her writing, not my own. (There’s no book-length biography of Langer--a subject I’d imagine would be interesting to research--so the best published source of details about her life is a lengthy interview article written when Langer was at the height of her career: Winthrop Sargeant, “Profiles: Philosopher in a New Key,” New Yorker 3 Dec. 1960: 67-100. Another, shorter article of note is James Lord, “A Lady Seeking Answers,” New York Times Book Review 26 May 1968: 4-5; 34.)

Langer, one of the most-read philosophers of the 20th century, was among the first to work in the field of aesthetics and write about how we perceive beauty and art. Until she began to write about aesthetics, it was all but ignored by philosophers. Langer, however, saw art as a fundamental human activity, equal in significance to the acquisition and use of language. In Philosophy in a New Key, she wrote:

I do believe that in this physical, space-time world of our experience there are things which do not fit the grammatical scheme of expression. But they are not necessarily blind, inconceivable, mystical affairs; they are simply matters which require to be conceived through some symbolistic schema other than discursive language.

Of course, she’s talking about art, which she defines in Feeling and Form as “the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.” Art, Langer felt, is what humans use to express things they feet that resist reduction to ordinary “discursive” language--everyday speech and writing. We need art, in other words, as much as we need language because without it, we can’t express much of what we sense, perceive, or feel. Indeed, for Langer, the drive to find meaning through symbols and art is a coequal endeavor for humans with the scientific impulse to find facts, both being at the apex of human intellectual refinement. She viewed art, among other disciplines, as a form of language:

[T]he term ‘language’ encompasses not only the written and spoken forms that most people use in everyday life, but also the less common symbolic forms of the mathematician, the physical scientist and others. These forms have been developed just because of the limitations of ‘ordinary’ language and permit their users far greater precision in expressing thoughts.

The symbolic language of art, however, “has no vocabulary, no dictionary definitions,” Langer explained. It is . . . an expression of non-discursive thought.” Discursive language--that is, the language of discourse--comprises only one portion of human expression, covering a limited aspect of human experience. Humans are symbol-makers--dreams and myth, Langer demonstrated, are other forms of non-discursive, symbolic expression; we perceive the world around us in symbols of all kinds and even think in symbols. “Freud . . . observed that in dreams speech has the same function as visual image,” Langer noted, for instance. Discursive language, she found, is inapt for communicating many of the activities of the human mind, aesthetic experience among them. “The making of this expressive form,” proclaimed Langer, “is the creative process that enlists a man’s utmost technical skill in the service of his utmost conceptual power, imagination.”

Ordinary discursive language also has an inadequacy in that is it linear. When we view a painting, a movie scene, a live performance, or even a landscape, we experience many things at once; the images hit us simultaneously. But try to describe that painting in words, either orally or in writing, and we are reduced to explaining the images serially--first the size and dimensions, then the colors and textures, the figures and shapes (or some version of that scheme). The same is true of performance description (which I’ve made something of a practice so I can attest to this predicament). Only the non-discursive, symbolic language of art can accomplish this simultaneity. Without it, we can’t communicate with one another a significant aspect of our lives.

While many philosophers before Langer began her writing saw art as mystical and non-rational, beyond coherent thought in the mysterious realm of emotion and intuition, Langer saw art as another form of human rationality, the form that deals with ideas that can only be expressed in symbols. Langer placed considerable value in art which has been informed by human thought. After all, she proclaimed, “‘feeling’”--the basis of art--“is not something opposed to reason.”

The foundation of Langer’s philosophy was the work of Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), a German-Jewish philosopher who fled the Nazis in 1933 and settled in the U.S. in 1941. (Langer’s own family left Germany in the mid-19th century during another round of revolutions and violence in Europe. She grew up speaking only German in her home--her mother never learned to speak English--and, though born in New York City, always spoke with a pronounced German accent.) Cassirer understood that disciplines which seemed to be in conflict with one another like art, religion, and science were really different forms of symbolic thought. By isolating artistic expression as some unknowable construct, Langer’s predecessors couldn’t contemplate the whole of human intellectual activity, as she saw it. And by accepting this dichotomy, relegating the arts to a lesser plane of human endeavor and stressing a world of science and logic only, we have developed a society devoid of symbolic expression, a poorer place for all of us to live in. “A life that does not incorporate some degree of ritual, of gesture and attitude, has no mental anchorage . . . . Technical progress is putting man’s freedom of mind in jeopardy,” said Langer. “Indifference to art,” she declared, “is the most serious sign of decay in any institution.”

“[T]he function of art,” Langer wrote, “is to acquaint the beholder with something he has not known before.” Langer observed that

there are two opposite perspectives from which any work of art may be viewed: that of its author and that of its spectators (or hearers, or readers, as the case may be). One perspective presents it as an expression, the other as an impression. From the former standpoint one naturally asks: ‘What moves an artist to compose his work, what goes into it, what (if anything) does he mean by it?’ From the latter, on the other hand, the immediate question is: ‘What do works of art do, or mean, to us?’ This question is the more usual, even in serious theoretical thought, because more people are beholders of art than makers of it, and this counts for philosophers as well as for any unselected public.

If, I think Langer believed, the unexamined life isn’t worth living, then omitting the part of life expressed by art--not just by those who make it but by the rest of us who perceive it--leaves a huge portion of our lives unexamined. “[I]t is the whole life of feeling--call it ‘felt life,’ ‘subjectivity,’ ‘direct experience,’ or what you will--which finds its articulate expression in art,” she insisted, “and . . . only in art.” As a crucial aspect of human existence, “art penetrates into personal life because in giving form to the world, it articulates human nature: sensibility, energy, passion, and mortality. More than anything else in experience, the arts mold our actual life of feeling.”

On the significance of artistic expression, Langer specified that “it clarifies and organizes intuition itself” by “formulat[ing] our conceptions of feeling and our conceptions of visual, factual, and audible reality together.” It puts everything together, she posited, and functions as an important societal asset “because the formulation of ‘felt life’ is the heart of any culture, and molds the objective world for the people. It is their school of feeling, and their defense against outer and inner chaos.” Langer concluded:

Art does not affect the vitality of life so much as its quality; that, however, it affects profoundly. In this way it is akin to religion, which also, at least in its pristine, vigorous, spontaneous phase, defines and develops human feelings.

But in Langer’s epistemology, “human feelings” isn’t a restrictive phrase. To be clear on this point, she specified that “by ‘feeling’ I mean everything that can be felt. This includes all mental acts and perceptions.”

Art, in Langer’s conception, “is envisagement of feeling, which involves its formulation and expression in . . . a symbol . . . .” But not all symbolic creations are equal. The “envisagement” can be distorted by interfering experiences which the artist hasn’t sorted out. “Candor is the standard,” wrote Langer. The feelings art “envisages” must be honest feeling: bad art is corrupted by false emotions.

In contrast, however, art which is merely imperfectly crafted by an insufficiently masterful creator is “poor art, which is not corrupt, but fails to express what [the artist] knew in too brief an intuition.” The product is “sincere enough,” said Langer, “but confused and frustrated” by “recalcitrant” media and lack of technical skill in the artist. While truly bad art must be “repudiated and destroyed,” insisted Langer, “as a lie may be exposed and retracted,” poor art is simply dismissed. (Langer also discusses non-art or false art, a creation which doesn’t fail to express an emotion because there’s no attempt to express anything. We’ve all encountered this: tourist art, airport art, junk art, artistic pabulum. It takes the form of an artistic object but not the content. Whether this is the creation of a charlatan or just an untalented producer is irrelevant from the perspective of aesthetics.)

I spoke just now of form versus content, which is misleading. In Langer’s artistic epistemology, while art may appear to be “formed content,” in actuality, the form and content are inseparable. She explained that

a work of art is a structure whose interrelated elements are often qualities, or properties of qualities such as their degrees of intensity; that qualities enter into the form and in this way are as much one with it as the relations which they, and they only, have; and that to speak of them as ‘content,’ from which the form could be abstracted logically, is nonsense. The form is built up out of relations peculiar to them; they are formal elements in the structure, not contents.

Furthermore, creativity doesn’t depend, in Langer’s theory, on either the form or the content being new, original, innovative, or novel. “A Greek vase was almost always a creation,” Langer observed by way of illustration, “although its form was traditional and its decoration deviated but little from that of its numberless forerunners. The creative principle, nonetheless, was probably active in it from the first throw of the clay.” The work need only be “symbolic of feeling,” even if “a thousand people may have used every device and convention of it before.” (Works of art, even great art, have come out of some of the most hide-bound traditional forms: canonical painting, Socialist Realism, Kabuki theater. Junk, in contrast, has come from some of the freest.)

Though art can be assessed as good or bad, however, doesn’t mean works should (or even can) be judged against one another.

Works of art are not usually comparable. Only prize-juries have to evaluate them with reference to some standard, which is inevitably arbitrary and in many cases inapplicable. A competent jury does not even define a standard. If it consists of people who have developed their powers of perception by long conversance with the order of art . . . in which their judgments are to be made, intuition will guide the verdict. There will be disagreements--not because good and bad works cannot be distinguished, but because among successful ones there is no sure principle of selection. Personal or social factors usually tip the balances; “ratings” are trivial.

(I’ve inveighed against turning art into a competition--the Tonys, Oscars, Pulitzers, National Book Awards, Carnegies, Pritzkers, and so on--on several recent occasions. I find it distasteful, but Langer makes an argument that it is also essentially impossible as well as meaningless--and I wholeheartedly agree.)

[This is only the first part of my brief discussion of some of Susanne Langer’s ideas. Please return in a few days for Part 2, which will cover Langer’s conception of beauty and one aspect of her analysis of drama and theater.]

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