Re: Rules in Art/Rules in Beauty

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Posted by Sophia Gates on January 30, 1999 at 00:14:49:

In Reply to: Re: Rules in the arts posted by Marvin Amstey on January 29, 1999 at 09:26:48:

I've been grappling with the topics of this Salon all week. I've done the homework, found that the rug I like the best made the highest score (Ensi #2), and have come to the conclusion that I still can't agree with the formalist theory - that there are absolute standards of beauty - and even if there were - beauty and art are not the same thing.

Moreover, I find the premise that 20th century people are incapable of creating beauty, absurd. I live in Chicago, surrounded by buildings of shimmer, sky and water reflected in sheer gleaming surfaces; massive black boulders of buildings; buildings with the taut glassy curves of clipper ships' sails. At night it's a city of glass and fire and stars. I like to visit O'Hare; I've been going there for years, just to watch the planes. There used to be a Comet parked there, a bird with the grace of an angel. I'll never forget the first time I saw a 727, its incomparable raked tail gleaming in the glare of its hanger. I love Etruscan sculpture, Anasasi petroglyphs, Renaissance painting - and I love Picasso. I love Motherwell and Kline and Henry Moore. AND I love rugs.

I'd like to recommend a book, "The Visual Dialogue", by Nathan Knobler (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966.) Subtitled "An Introduction to the Appreciation of Art," it's a book no student of art should lack. Knobler gives us tools to bridge the gap between our preconceptions and our perceptions. On beauty: "…the creation of beauty in the usual sense is not the sole consideration of the artist. He may sometimes relate the parts of his work to produce something that is not beautiful. It may be an image more expressive than those created before. . .The word "beautiful" is tied to the past. It harks back to the established and accepted images and esthetic orders. The new, the startling, the disturbing is rarely seen as beautiful. When the observer approaches a work of art with the attitude that beauty and art are one, he may be imposing upon that work a restrictive demand, forged by tradition, which cannot be fulfilled. In consequence he may be cutting himself off from an esthetic experience which could offer rich rewards."

We've had other Salons in which we've grappled with our attitudes about esthetics. Trying to impose a preconceived idea about space, for example, on that lovely little Southern Persian rug in Daniel's salon, even going so far as to "paint out" some of the weaver's no doubt treasured animals and flowers in an attempt to "clean up" the design! I was appalled.

Having said that, there are most definitely elements and principles of design underlying the creation of all visual art. The elements of line, shape/form, color (hue, chroma, value), space, and texture; the principles of alternation, repetition, variation, direction, scale, contrast, dominance and unity - these are the artists raw materials. The visually successful work, whether we consider it "beautiful" or not - a work that engages us, that moves us, that connects with us somehow, that communicates - will reflect the struggles of the artist to express his ideas through these tools. For some artists this is a highly intellectualized process - hundreds of thumbnails will be made, calibrating a color to the nth degree - for others it's largely intuitive. Many of us work back and forth, from inspiration to calculation and back again, trying to breathe life into a dream.

Erol is right. However the process is managed, those elements and principles are TOOLS. WHAT the artist wants to say is unique to each artist, and how the viewer receives the message is as unique as each person who sees it.

One of the limitations of the Alexander theory is its inability to deal with the aspect of art as communication. Marvin likes Ensi #1 and I don't blame him. One could quibble that perhaps the major border is "too wide" - but the imagery contained in that border is wonderful. The trees are evocative and complex. If #2 is a little cold, #1 has richness. It has variety in its forms. It is expressive. Something about that piece transcends its proportions. Further, as Mies said, "Form follows function." Tribal weavers were not truly abstract artists. They were symbolic artists, whose works embodied the traditions and visual language of their people. That's the basis for the judgement that the beat up old Ensi #1 in the Oops Salon may have been, for all its "ugliness", a superior piece.

Another limitation of the theory is the absolute lack of ability to consider texture - a major element in oriental rugs and an enormous part of their esthetic appeal. Ensi #3 may strike us as awkward - but I've seen Turkomans with wool that shimmered, that danced, that reflected 100 colors. For all we know, Ensi #3 in person is gorgeous, maybe the best of the three! This is no small criticism of the system: rugs are a tactile art.

I think the strength of Alexander's theory lies in his recognition of spatial relationships - not surprising, considering he's an architect! - but a concept surprisingly underrated by many rug connoisseurs. The "color, color, color" thing only goes so far! (It's SO easy to be seduced by good color, great wool, cute animals, etc. I have been doing better, mistake wise, since I started buying rugs based on pictures I've received from dealers and/or the Internet (!) Any rug with a structure powerful enough to look good in a JPG file must have SOMETHING going for it!)

Thus, the second book I'd like to recommend, also by an architect: "The Power of Limits - Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art & Architecture" by Gyorgy Doczi, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1981. This book explores the theory of the Golden Section, a proportion well known for perhaps thousands of years. The growth of sunflowers, the spirals of the nautilus shell, and the 747 share the logic and harmony of this proportion with countless works of art. If there is a "face of God" to be found in mathematical form, I think this is it. It would be interesting to see how many Oriental rugs reflect this proportion. Without actually getting out the ruler and the compass, I believe I've discovered it in a few. It would make an interesting study.

It may sound as if I'm contradicting myself - on the one hand disagreeing with the Formalists and on the other extolling the virtues of the Golden Rectangle. Well, this reflects my personal struggle: the love of beauty; the desire to destroy it in order to create; the attempt to understand strange or enigmatic works of art.

Best regards, and thank you all for a provocative and rewarding Salon.

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