08 January 2010

Susanne Langer: Art, Beauty, & Theater - Part 2

[Here’s Part 2 of my short discussion of some of the theories of Susanne Langer. Occasional readers of ROT will find the first part, which covers art in general, posted on 30 December 2009. I make no apologies for the superficiality of this review, but I do recommend that frustrated readers turn to Langer’s own books to flesh out this introduction, especially Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form.]

If, as Langer insists, art is defined by its capacity to express emotions, where, then, does beauty enter the equation? Well, in a way, it doesn’t. It kind of depends on what you mean by ‘beauty’ as applied to a work of art. “Beauty,” according to Langer, “is not identical with the normal, and certainly not with charm and sense appeal, though all such properties may go to the making of it.” ‘Prettiness’ isn’t the criteria Langer applies to art when she considers beauty. It may be present in the work, but it’s irrelevant. In fact, she wrote:

Every good work of art is beautiful; as soon as we find it so, we have grasped its expressiveness, and until we do we have not seen it as good art, though we may have ample intellectual reason to believe that it is so. Beautiful works may contain elements that, taken in isolation, are hideous . . . . Such elements are the strength of the work, which must be great to contain and transfigure them. The emergent form, the whole, is alive and therefore beautiful . . . .

“Beauty is expressive form” by Langer’s definition. In other words, beauty is a function of the artwork’s main purpose: if the work successfully expresses feeling, that is, “may truly be said to ‘do something to us,’” it is by definition ‘beautiful’--whether or not it’s also pretty. (I quoted Langer--and some others as well--in a brief consideration of this topic in “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward, Part 4,” ROT, 14 November.)

The upshot of this alternative definition of what’s beautiful and what isn’t, at least from my perspective, is that we consumers of art, whether we’re professionals who get paid to sound off on our opinions or private viewers, readers, and listeners, is that we need to allow for the possibility that something that strikes us at first as disturbing or even ugly may have artistic value if we delve beneath the surface appeal and get to the core of feeling inherent in the work. I fall back on the remark of a friend of Vincent van Gogh’s who admitted that at first the painter’s art “was so totally different from what I had imagined it would be . . . so rough and unkempt, so harsh and unfinished, that . . . I was unable to think it good or beautiful.” I, at least, have always found van Gogh’s painting not just beautiful, but gorgeous--so full of fury and intensity. When I first saw Fernando Botero’s paintings 50 years ago, I thought they were strange and grotesque; I still do, but now I see them also as sublime and expressive. When I saw Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real for the first time, I didn’t understand it and I didn’t like it. Now I see it as one of the playwright’s most fascinating works and a classic of mid-century American Absurdism. We need to learn not to dismiss art that isn’t pretty, that doesn’t immediately appeal to our senses, and see if there isn’t something in it that stirs us if we let it in. Beauty, I think Langer was saying, affects us profoundly; prettiness just pleases us.

Langer’s criteria for beauty were very inclusive; she mostly told us how not to leave out creations we at first deem challenging. She didn’t provide us with a definition of what qualifies--primarily because there aren’t any . . . and there don’t need to be. We’re all equipped to discern effective art. “The entire qualification one must have for understanding art is responsiveness,” wrote Langer. This ability to appreciate art is natural, she said, though it can be enhanced or inhibited by various influences, including experience and upbringing. “Since it is intuitive,” Langer explained, “it cannot be taught; but the free exercise of artistic intuition often depends on clearing the mind of intellectual prejudices and false conceptions that inhibit people’s natural responsiveness.” I take this to mean that Langer thought we have to be open-minded to experience art in all its varieties. (That obviously doesn’t mean we have to like it all, but we shouldn’t be ready to dismiss any of it before we’ve contemplated it without preconceptions.)

We may not be able to teach artistic understanding, which Langer said is like creativity--though she stressed they are not the same thing--but we can direct or misdirect the ability to appreciate art by schooling--or the lack of it. If all we’ve learned about painting, for example, are the schools, genres, and styles of academic taxonomy, “we are prone to think about the picture, gathering quickly all available data for intellectual judgments, and so close and clutter the paths of intuitive response.” As we’ve already seen, Langer felt that our scientifically-oriented society has led us away from appreciating the creative aspect of human endeavor:

Our scientific convention of abstracting mathematical forms, which do not involve quality, and fitting them to experience, always makes qualitative factors ‘content’; and as scientific conventions rule our academic thinking, it has usually been taken for granted that in understanding art, too, one should think of form as opposed to qualitative ‘content.’

This carries over into our education as well:

People who are so concerned for their children’s scientific enlightenment that they keep Grimm out of the library and Santa Claus out of the chimney, allow the cheapest art, the worst of bad singing, the most revolting sentimental fiction to impinge on the children’s minds all day and every day, from infancy. If the rank and file of youth grows up in emotional cowardice and confusion, sociologists look to economic conditions or family relations for the cause of this deplorable ‘human weakness,’ but not to the ubiquitous influence of corrupt art, which steeps the average mind in a shallow sentimentalism that ruins what germs of true feeling might have developed in it. Only an occasional devotee of the arts sees the havoc . . . .

Art education, as I’ve argued myself (see “Missoula Children’s Theatre,” ROT, 25 August, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Children's Theater in America,” 25 November), is “the education of feeling,” Langer declared, “as our usual schooling in factual subjects, and logical skills such as mathematical ‘figuring’ or simple argumentation . . . is the education of thought.” She was adamant about the importance of this training and observed that the only way to get it is to be exposed to creativity and experience it in our lives. So kids' theater, and art museums, and concerts, and so on are necessary--and basically all that is necessary--for teaching people to enjoy and appreciate cultural and artistic endeavors:

Few people realize that the real education of emotion is not the ‘conditioning’ effected by social approval and disapproval, but the tacit, personal, illuminating contact with symbols of feeling. Art education, therefore, is neglected, left to chance, or regarded as a cultural veneer.

Up to now, I’ve been concentrating on Langer’s discussions of art and beauty in a general sense. Her theories, however, did separate the arts and she wrote about the characteristics of each genre. Each art form generates a “virtual” sphere of its own. The visual arts, for example, create “virtual space”; music, “virtual time”; and literature and drama (by which Langer meant the written texts, not the performing art), “virtual history.” (Langer devoted three chapters to drama in Feeling and Form.) Each art’s symbolic vocabulary is used by the artists to express their impressions of life and the world; it is the task of the perceivers to interpret these same symbols in order to absorb those impressions in their own ways.

(Langer, who wrote before computers became common and therefore before the term ‘virtual reality’ took on the meaning with which we’re familiar today, used the non-tech sense of these phrases: “Existing in the mind, especially as a product of the imagination.” Having recently posted on “Theater and Computers” [ROT, 5 December], I don’t want to commit an unintentional act of equivocation here. In Langer’s own use, a virtual phenomenon is a “semblance,” which she equates with the Aristotelian “imitation.” So, a theatrical act “imitates” a real act, or “resembles” one.)

Literature, Langer asserted, “projects . . . virtual memory,” a vision of life “completed, lived. . . events that compose a Past.” Drama, by contrast,

presents the poetic illusion in a different light: not finished realities, or ‘events,’ but immediate, visible responses of human beings, make its semblance of life. Its basic abstraction is the act, which springs from the past, but is directed toward the future, and is always great with things to come.

While literature “moves toward the present,” drama moves “toward something beyond; it deals essentially with commitments and consequences.” Drama, “though it implies past actions,” Langer indicated, is “directed toward the future”:

This future, which is made before our eyes, gives importance to the very beginnings of dramatic acts, i.e. to the motives from which the acts arise, and the situations in which they develop; the making of it is the principle that unifies and organizes the continuum of stage action. It has been said repeatedly that the theater creates a perpetual present moment; but it is only a present filled with its own future that is really dramatic. A sheer immediacy, an imperishable direct experience without the ominous forward movement of consequential action, would not be so. As literature creates a virtual past, drama creates a virtual future. The literary mode is the mode of Memory; the dramatic is the mode of Destiny.

“In the theater,” Langer believed, “most people--and especially the most competent spectators--feel that the vision of destiny is the essence of the work, the thing that unfolds before their eyes.” After all, a fundamental element of theater is action, which Langer saw as “oriented toward the future.” As she explained this:

In actual life the impending future is very vaguely felt. Each separate act is forward-looking--we put on a kettle expecting it to boil, hand someone a bill and expect to be given change, board a bus with casual confidence that we shall leave it again at an intended point, or board an airplane with somewhat more conscious interest in our prospective exit from its inside. But we do not usually have any idea of the future as a total experience which is coming because of our past and present acts; such a sense of destiny arises only in unusual moments under peculiar emotional stress.

In drama, however, this sense of destiny is paramount. It is what makes the present action seem like an integral part of the future, howbeit that future has not unfolded yet. The reason is that on the stage, every thought expressed in conversation, every feeling betrayed by voice or look, is determined by the total action of which it is a part--perhaps an embryonic part, the first hint of the motive that will soon gather force. Even before one has any idea of what the conflict is to be (i.e. before the ‘exposition’ has been given), one feels the tension developing. This tension between past and future, the theatrical ‘present moment,’ is what gives to acts, situations, and even such constituent elements as gestures and attitudes and tones, the peculiar intensity known as ‘dramatic quality.’

The characters in drama are also “makers of the future”:

We know . . . so little about the personalities before us at the opening of a play that their every move and word, even their dress and walk, are distinct items for our perception. Because we are not involved with them as with real people, we can view each smallest act in its context, as a symptom of character and condition. We do not have to find what is significant; the selection has been made--whatever is there is significant, and it is not too much to be surveyed in toto. A character stands before us as a coherent whole. It is with characters as with their situations: both become visible on the stage, transparent and complete, as their analogues in the world are not.

The notion of destiny and “futurality” (my word, not Langer’s) in theater was only a small portion of Langer’s discussion of drama as a form of art. (She also entered the debate about whether drama even is an art. She affirmed that it is.) Nonetheless, I’m focusing on that segment of Langer’s theories (and encourage curious readers to go back to her original books to learn more) because it’s one of the more uncommon aspects of her perspective on drama and theater. As she explained the concept, in contrast to reality:

In actual life we usually recognize a distinct situation only when it has reached, or nearly reached, a crisis; but in the theater we see the whole setup of human relationships and conflicting interests long before any abnormal event has occurred that would, in actual life, have brought it into focus. Where in the real world we would witness some extraordinary act and gradually understand the circumstances that lie behind it, in the theater we perceive an ominous situation and see that some far-reaching action must grow out of it. This creates the peculiar tension between the given present and its yet unrealized consequent, “form in suspense,” the essential dramatic illusion. . . . The future appears as already an entity, embryonic in the present. That is Destiny.

In reference to the Aristotelian dichotomy I mentioned earlier, Langer specified, “Destiny is, of course, always a virtual phenomenon--there is no such thing in cold fact.” But, she concluded, it is still “an aspect of real experience” and part of what separates humans from other animals because it enables us to sense “past and future as parts of one continuum, and therefore of life as a single reality.” Drama, therefore (if I may extrapolate a little), is a fundamental aspect of human intellectuality because it facilitates one of the basic distinctions of human existence. I think the evidence of this axiom can seen in plays like Eimuntas Nekrosius’s The Square, a Lithuanian play from around 1991 that depicts the difficulties of learning how to live in a free society after years of Soviet repression. Even more recently, the Iraqi National Theater is planning to reopen (after an abortive attempt a year ago) as if the drive to perform were too strong for Baghdadis to suppress for too long. In words that are the prosaic echo of Susanne Langer’s philosophical analysis, one actress said: “It’s as if the spectators want to send a message . . . they are not afraid, and life goes on.” Destiny, indeed.

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