Art lies half-way between science and myth

The following reading has been selected for the first colloquium of the Carlisle Aesthetics Roller Derby Team and Reading Group. Rafael Alvarado, a lecturer in Media Studies at UVa, will speak briefly and lead a discussion on the topic of Claude Lévi-Strauss's aesthetic theory. The reading is an excerpt from The Savage Mind (pp. 22-30), which presents a 'miniature' theory of art in terms of the broader theory of structure and 'bricolage' developed in the rest of the monograph. The extracted text has been slightly modified and formatted to conform to the digital medium. The colloquium will meet at 68 E. Pomfret Street, at 4pm on Saturday, March 6.

A copy of the talk can be found here.

Here is an interesting follow-up piece by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson (one time spouse of Margaret Mead and son of the biologist William Bateson, who invented the word "genetics.") It makes a nice complement to Lévi-Strauss's thought, bringing up a contrast between unconscious and conscious thought in a way that parallels L-S's necessity and contingency. For both locate structure in the unconscious. Unfortunately, the text is cut off -- it is Google Books, after all -- but not before Bateson provides enough "redundancy" to infer some of what follows, or at least to check the book out yourself. Read the text and you'll get what I mean by the quoted word.

1[...] It is common knowledge that the artist is both something of a scientist and of a 'bricoleur'. By his craftsmanship he constructs a material object which is also an object of knowledge. We have already distinguished the scientist and the 'bricoleur' by the inverse functions which they assign to events and structures as ends and means, the scientist creating events (changing the world) by means of structures and the 'bricoleur' creating structures by means of events. This is imprecise in this crude form but our analysis makes it possible for us to refine it. Let us now look at this portrait of a woman by Clouet and consider the reason for the very profound aesthetic emotion which is, apparently inexplicably, aroused by the highly realistic, thread by thread, reproduction of a lace collar (Plate 1).

Plate 1. Francois Clouet. Portrait of Elizabeth of Austria.

Full, color version of painting, added for digital excerpt.

2The choice of this example is not accidental. Clouet is known to have liked to paint at less than life-size. His paintings are therefore, like Japanese gardens, miniature vehicles and ships in bottles, what in the 'bricoleur's' language are called 'small-scale models' or 'miniatures'. Now, the question arises whether the small-scale model or miniature, which is also the 'masterpiece' of the journeyman may not in fact be the universal type of the work of art. All miniatures seem to have intrinsic aesthetic quality — and from what should they draw this constant virtue if not from the dimensions themselves? — and conversely the vast majority of works of art are small-scale. It might be thought that this characteristic is principally a matter of economy in materials and means, and one might appeal in support of this theory to works which are incontestably artistic but also on a grand scale. We have to be clear about definitions. The paintings of the Sistine Chapel are a small-scale model in spite of their imposing dimensions, since the theme which they depict is the End of Time. The same is true of the cosmic symbolism of religious monuments. Further, we may ask whether the aesthetic effect, say, of an equestrian statue which is larger than life derives from its enlargement of a man to the size of a rock or whether it is not rather due to the fact that it restores what is at first from a distance seen as a rock to the proportions of a man. Finally even 'natural size' implies a reduction of scale since graphic or plastic transposition always involves giving up certain dimensions of the object: volume in painting, colour, smell, tactile impressions in sculpture and the temporal dimension in both cases since the whole work represented is apprehended at a single moment in time.

3What is the virtue of reduction either of scale or in the number of properties? It seems to result from a sort of reversal in the process of understanding. To understand a real object in its totality we always tend to work from its parts. The resistance it offers us is overcome by dividing it. Reduction in scale reverses this situation. Being smaller, the object as a whole seems less formidable. By being quantitatively diminished, it seems to us qualitatively simplified. More exactly, this quantitative transposition extends and diversifies our power over a homologue of the thing, and by means of it the latter can be grasped, assessed and apprehended at a glance. A child's doll is no longer an enemy, a rival or even an interlocutor. In it and through it a person is made into a subject. In the case of miniatures, in contrast to what happens when we try to understand an object or living creature of real dimensions, knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts. And even if this is an illusion, the point of the procedure is to create or sustain the illusion, which gratifies the intelligence and gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can already be called aesthetic on these grounds alone.

4I have so far only considered matters of scale which, as we have just seen, imply a dialectical relation between size (i.e. quantity) and quality. But miniatures have a further feature. They are 'man made' and, what is more, made by hand. They are therefore not just projections or passive homologues of the object: they constitute a real experiment with it. Now the model being an artifact, it is possible to understand how it is made and this understanding of the method of construction adds a supplementary dimension. As we have already seen in the case of 'bricolage', and the example of 'styles' of painters shows that the same is true in art, there are several solutions to the same problem. The choice of one solution involves a modification of the result to which another solution would have led, and the observer is in effect presented with the general picture of these permutations at the same time as the particular solution offered. He is thereby transformed into an active participant without even being aware of it. Merely by contemplating it he is, as it were, put in possession of other possible forms of the same work; and in a confused way, he feels himself to be their creator with more right than the creator himself because the latter abandoned them in excluding them from his creation. And these forms are so many further perspectives opening out on to the work which has becn realized. In other words, the intrinsic value of a small-scale model is that it compensates for the renunciation of sensible dimensions by the acquisition of intelligible dimensions .

5Let us now return to the lace coller in Clouet's picture. Everything that has been said applies in this case, for the procedure necessary to represent it as a projection, in a particular space, of properties whose sensible dimensions are fewer and smaller than that of the object is exactly the reverse of that which science would have employed had it proposed, in accordance with its function, to produce (instead of reproducing) not only a new, instead of an already known, piece of lace but also real lace instead of a picture of lace. Science would have worked on the real scale hut by means of inventing a loom, while art works on a diminished scale to produce an image homologous with the object. The former approach is of a metonymical order, it replaces one thing by another thing, an effect by its cause, while the latter is of a metaphorical order.

6This is not all. For if it is true that the relation of priority between structure and event is exactly the opposite in science and 'bricolage', then it is clear that art has an intermediate position from this point of view as well. Even if, as we have shown, the depiction of a lace collar in miniature demands an intimate knowledge of its morphology and technique of manufacture (and had it been a question of the representation of people or animals we should have said: of anatomy and physical attitudes), it is not just a diagram or blueprint. It manages to synthesize these intrinsic properties with properties which depend on a spatial and temporal context. The final product is the lace collar exactly as it is but so that at the same time its appearance is affected by the particular perspective. This accentuates some parts and conceals others, whose existence however still influences the rest through the contrast between its whiteness and the colour of the other clothes, the reflection of the pearly neck it encircles and that of the sky on a particular day and at a particular time of day. The appearance of the lace collar is also affected by whether it indicates casual or formal dress, is worn, either new or previously used, either freshly ironed or creased, by an ordinary woman or a queen, whose physiognomy confirms, contradicts or qualifies her status in a particular social class, society, part of the world and period of history ... The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, a 'being' and a 'becoming', in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on his canvas. This is a nicely balanced synthesis of one or more artificial and natural structures and one or more natural aod social events. The aesthetic emotion is the result of this union between the structural order and the order of events, which is brought ahout within a thing created by man and so also in effect by the ohserver who discovers the possibility of such a union through the work of art.

7Several points are suggested by this analysis. In the first place, the analysis helps us to see why we are inclined to think of myths both as systems of abstract relations and as objects of aesthetic contemplation. The creative act which gives rise to myths is in fact exactly the reverse of that which gives rise to works of art. In the case of works of art, the starting point is a set of one or more objects and one or more events which aesthetic creation unifies by revealing a common structure. Myths travel the same road but start from the other end. They use a structure to produce what is itself an object consisting of a set of events (for all myths tell a story). Art thus proceeds from a set (object + event) to the discovery of its structure. Myth starts from a structure by means of which it constructs a set (objcct + event).

Plate 2a. Club used for killing fish (closeup).

Plate 2b. Club used for killing fish.

8The first point tempts one to generalize the theory. The second might seem to lead to a restriction of it. For we may ask whether it is in fact the case that works of art are always an integration of structure and event. This does not on the face of it seem to be true for instance of the cedarwood Tlingit club, used to kill fish, which I have in front of me on my booshelf (Plate 2). The artist who carved it in the form of a sea monster intended the body of the implement to be fused with the body of the animal and the handle with its tail, and that the anatomical proportions, taken from a fabulous creature, should be such that the object could be the cruel animal slaying helpless victims, at the same time as an easily handled, balanced and efficient fishing utensil. Everything about this implement — which is also a superb work of art — seems to be a matter of structure: its mythical symbolism as well as its practical function. More accurately, the object, its function and its symbolism seem to be inextricably bound up with each other and to form a closed system in which there is no place for events. The monster's position, appearance and expression owe nothing to the historical circumstances in which the artist saw it, in the flesh or in a dream, or conceived the idea of it. It is rather as if its immutable being were finally fixed in the wood whose fine grain allows the reproduction of all its aspects and in the use for which its empirical form seems to pre-determine it. And all this applies equally to the other products of primitive art: an African statue or a Melanesian mask ... So it looks as if we have defined only one local and historical form of aesthetic creation and not its fundamental properties or those by means of which its intelligible relations with other forms of creation can be described.

9We have only to widen our explanation to overcome this difficulty. What, with reference to a picture of Clouet's, was provisionally defined as an event or set of events now appears under a broader heading: events in this sense are only one mode of the contingent whose integration (perceived as necessary) into a structure gives rise to the aesthetic emotion. This is so whatever the type of art in question. Depending on the style, place and period the contingent plays a part in three different ways or at three distinct points in artistic creation (or in all of them). It may play a part in the occasion for the work or in the execution of the work or in the purpose for whcih it is intended. It is only in the first case that it takes the form of an event properly speaking, that is, of contingency exterior and prior to the creative act. The artist perceives it from without as an attitude, an expression, a light effect or a situation, whose sensible and intellectual relations to the structure of the object affected by these modalities he grasps and incorporates in his work. But the contingent can also play an intrinsic part in the course of execution itself, in the size or shape of the piece of wood the sculptor lays hands on, in the direction and quality of its grain, in the imperfections of his tools, in the resistance which his materials or project offer to the work in the course of its accomplishment, in the unforeseeable incidents arising during work. Finally, the contingent can be extrinsic as in the first case but posterior, instead of anterior, to the act of creation. This is the case whenever the work is destined for a specific end, since the artist will construct it with a view to its potential condition and successive uses in the future and so will put himself, consciously or unconsciously, in the place of the person for whose use it is intended.

10The process of artistic creation therefore consists in trying to communicate (within the immutable framework of a mutual confrontation of structure and accident) either with the model or with the materials or with the future user as the case may be, according to which of these the artist particularly looks to for his directions while he is at work. Each case roughly corresponds to a readily identifiable form of art: the first to the plastic arts of the West, the second to so-called primitive or early art and the third to the applied arts. But it would he an oversimplification to take these identifications very strictly. All forms of art allow all three aspects and they are only distinguished from one another by the relative proportion of each. Even the most academic of painters comes up against problems of execution, for example. All the so-called primitive arts can be called applied in a double sense: first, because many of their productions are technical objects and, secondly, because even those which seem divorced from practical preoccupations have a definite purpose. Finally, as we know, implements lend themselves to disinterested contemplation even among ourselves.

11With these reservations, it is easy to show that the three aspects are functionally related and that the predominance of any one of them leaves less or no place for the others. So-called professional painting is, or believes itself to be, quite free so far as both execution and purpose arc concerned. Its best examples display a complete mastery of technical difficulties — which, indeed, can he considered to have been completely overcome since Van der Weyden; the problems which painters have set themselves since then amount to little more than a game of technical refinement. In the extreme case it is as though, given his canvas, paints and brushes, the painter were able to do exactly what he pleased. On the other hand, he also tries to make his work into an object independent of anything contingent, of value in itself and for itself. This is indeed what the formula of the 'easel picture' implies. Freed from the contingent both with regard to execution and purpose professional painting can, then, bring it to bear upon the occasion of the work, and indeed if this account is correct it is bound to do so. Professional painting can therefore be defined as 'genre' painting if the sense of this expression is comiderahly widened. For, from the very general viewpoint we are taking, the attempt of a portrait painter — even of a Rembrandt — to recapture on his canvas his model's most revealing expression or secret thoughts belongs to the same genre as that of a painter like Detaille, whose compositions reproduce the hour and order of battle and the number and disposition of the buttons distinguishing the uniforms of each Arm. To use a disrespectful analogy, 'opportunity makes the thief' ('l'occasion fait le larron') in either case.

11aThe relative proportions of the three aspects are reversed in the applied arts. In these, first place is given to purpose and execution, contingent factors playing an approximately equal part in each, in the examples we consider the most 'pure', at the same time the occasion of the work plays no part. This can be seen from the fact that a wine cup or goblet, a piece of basket work or a fabric seems to us perfect when its practical value manifestly transcends time and corresponds wholly to its functions for men of diffcrent periods and civilizations. If the difliculties of execution are entirely mastered, as is the case when it is entrusted to machines, the purpose can become more and more precise and specific and applied art is transformed into industlrial art. We call it peasant or folk art if the reverse is the case. Finally, primitive art is the opposite of professional or academic art. Professional or academic art internalizes execution (which it has, or helieves itself to have, mastered) and purpose ('art for art's sake' heing an end in itself). As a result, it is impelled to externalize the occasion (which it requires the model to provide) and the latter thus becomes a part of the signified. Primitive art, on the other hand, internalizes the occasion (since the supernatnral beings which it delights in representing have a reality which is timeless and independent of circumstances) and it extemalizes execution and purpose which thus become a part of the signifying.

12On a different plane we therefore find once more this dialogue with the materials and means of execution by which we defined 'bricolage'. The essential problem for the philosophy of art is to know whether the artist regards them as interlocutors or not. No doubt they are always regarded as such, although least of all in art which is too professional and most of all in the raw or naive art which verges on 'bricolage', to the detriment of structure in hoth cases. No form of art is, however, worthy of the name if it allows itself to come entirely under the sway of extraneous contingencies, whether of occasion or purpose. If it did so it would rate as an icon (supplementary to the model) or as an implement (complementary with the material worked), Even the most professional art succeeds in moving us only if it arrests in time this dissipation of the contingent in favour of the pretext and incorporates it in the work, thereby investing it with the dignity of heing an object in its own right. In so far as early art, primitive art and the 'primitive' periods of professional painting are the only ones which do not date, they owe it to this dedication of the accidental to the service of execution and so to the use, which they try to make complete, of the raw datum as the empirical material of something meaningful.

12 nPursuing this analysis, one might define non-representational painting by two features. One, which it has in common with 'easel' painting, consists in a total rejection of the contingency of purpose: the picture is not made for a particular use. The other feature characteristic of non-representational painting is its methodical exploration of the contingency of execution, which is claimed to afford the external pretext or occasion of the picture. Non-representational painting adopts 'styles' as 'subjects'. It claims to give a concrete representation of the formal conditions of all painting. Paradoxically the result is that non-representationl painting does not, as it thinks, create works which are as real as, if not more real than, the objects of the physical world, but rather realistic imitations of non-existent models. It is a school of academic painting in which each artist strives to represent the manner in which he would execute his pictures if by chance he were to paint any.

13It is necessary to add that the balance between structure and event, necessity and contingency, the internal and external is a precarious one. It is constantly threatened by forces which act in one direction or the other according to fluctuations in fashion, style or general social conditions. From this point of view, it would seem that impressionism and cubism are not so much two successive stages in the development of painting as partners in the same enterprise, which, although not exact contemporaries, nevertheless collaborated by complementary distortions to prolong a mode of expression whose very existence, as we are better able to appreciate today, was seriously threatened. The intermittent fashion for 'collages', originating when craftsmanship was dying, could not for its part be anything but the transposition of 'bricolage' into the realms of contemplation. Finally, the stress on the event can also break away at certain times through greater emphasis either on transient social phenomena (as in the case of Greuze at the end of the eighteenth century or with socialist realism) or on transient natural, or even meteorological, phenomena (impressionism) at the expense of structure, 'structure' here being understood as 'structure of the same level', for the possibility of the structural aspect being re-established elsewhere on a new plane is not ruled out.