Just before this recent holiday in which we remembered Martin Luther King Jr. a statue titled “The Embrace” was unveiled in the Boston Common. The statue which supposedly depicts and honors King and his wife Coretta Scott has been criticized for its ambiguity and downright ugliness. On occasions like these we are called to consider more seriously what exactly we mean when we make determinations about the beauty, or lack thereof, in art and the world around us.
Beauty as defined by Aristotle is something that, when seen, pleases. There are three foundational elements to beauty which ought to make its objective quality more clear, as more recently explained by Fr. Gregory Pine, a proponent of the Aristo-Thomist tradition. The first element being completeness which can be seen in our apprehension and anguish in regard to looking at animals who have lost limbs Fr. Gregory explains. Not that there is something wrong with this at a deeper level but that, aesthetically, we clearly derive more pleasure from things
which fully embody the tradition and pattern of other things in the same category. The next element is proportionality which can be understood through the gut-level feeling of peculiarity that comes about when you see homes that are too large for the plot of land they are on, or are much larger than the homes that they are around. This is because they exist atomized from their surrounding environment, imposing a thinking that does not correspond with their contextual reality on all observers, proving that pursuing beauty is dependent on a spirit of humility that acknowledges your proper place in the surrounding atmosphere. The third and last element is radiance or, more simply, digestible complexity, which refers to the possibility to take in a variety of elements that bring the mind to its peak but do not overwhelm it to an impossible extent. This serves as a marker for the artist’s interest in the audience and proper understanding of the interaction between objective and subjective reality. This can be seen in the painting of St. Jerome by Leonardo Da Vinci where Jerome’s posture brings to the viewer all of the work Da Vinci had done to understand the inner workings and aesthetics of the human body without all of the complex and gruesome details involved in such an endeavor.
Having considered the factors necessary for beauty or aesthetic appreciation one might begin to wonder as to how these factors exist or fail to exist in the space around them as, evidenced by my prior philosophical expedition, more complete representations of beauty raise our minds up to the highest contemplation of a thing and then, very possibly, all things, and are therefore desirable and possibly even vital in ones day to day environment. I already put out a consideration of the aesthetics of Tulane in relation to its buildings though I think that its “art” installations and other real world marginalia are also worthy of consideration. One notable piece on campus called “Timber”, which looks like a distorted “L” made of repurposed materials comes to mind. Another is the pair of large, ellipsoid-ish stones on the opposite side of the
academic quad. Less notably, there is a multitude of seemingly random objects on the north west side of the Woldenberg arts center, between said building and Newcomb Hall. All of these pieces fail in at least two, if not all three, of the factors I discussed above. They lack completeness, as many are objects that, thankfully, seem to have no other earthly relations. All disregard connection to their surrounding environment, and none are made in a way that any sane person would be comfortable in making a judgment about what they represent and/or what they mean. Beyond a consideration of their beauty it would be difficult to even call these objects art, with the definition of art, as articulated by Aristotle, being something made by humans that reflects our environment when first seen.
I am not solely writing this to “vent” about my problems with Tulane’s artistic choices though. As I walked around campus to more closely observe the eyesores which I usually attempt to avoid, I noticed that there is still some decent art on the campus. While not where one would immediately look for aesthetic value, many of the benches and other small aspects of our environment have escaped the scourge of manufactured ugliness and provide a reminder of the possibilities available to a community that will search for and express values beyond the immediate and apparent. Further, it is an apt representation for the current age of the west, in more ways than one, that the things we sit on are more suitable for observation than the things we are supposed to train our eyes to.
The question of why art has become like this, possibly ceasing to be art and certainly forgoing attempts at beauty, and why Tulane would endorse such misguided endeavors naturally arises. The artist’s motivations are slightly more easy to understand as it has become popular, in the anglosphere and even beyond, to question and transgress boundaries that have been hastily deemed arbitrary and oppressive. Artists are simply an easy target for the refutation of this worldview as their creations bear more blatantly the arrogant shortsightedness that forms the bedrock of this thinking. People can obfuscate the true and the good and the beautiful in relation to ideas with greater success, providing they are manipulative enough with their emotions and language, but an artist as a result of their medium has to produce a direct image representing the foundations and fruits of their worldview, with only the hope that those who see it are unquestioning and aesthetically deprived. Not to say that there is one way that all art must look, as you can vary your focus within the three elements of beauty and experiment with what things in life you wish to represent, but that the reasoning which before has provided a clear pathway to proper creation should not, and apparently cannot, be discarded because it is restricting or in some similar way undesirable.
Why Tulane endorses such misguided thinking is a much more difficult question to answer. Since the victory of the collegiate left-wing following their rise in reaction to the systems and culture of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, decision making on college campuses has been focused on their interests and understanding of the world. This presents a problem, if systems are overseen by those who constantly malign them then this accusatory rabble rousing amounts to a sort of self-indictment. So, naturally, much of the focus of this same left-wing contingent has been directed towards the culture which is less overtly connected to any ideology. Not to say that
people will not attempt the mental gymnastics or increasing radicalization necessary to keep maligning systems and institutions but that most efforts, most effective ones at least, are focused on changing the culture. This is difficult to come to though, as you would expect and hope that those in power would put the childish activism to rest and focus on the effective administration of a community that exists for the formation of young people and its own continuing success. These installations show a much different aim, they stand as symbols for a corrupting activism that disorients both those that see them and the physical value of the school. It would serve all if the campus and those in its charge could recognize that truth and its corresponding values bear fruit aesthetically, intellectually, and, in the case of the modern university, monetarily. More broadly, the process of re-forming the more beautiful and well reasoned society we once had is not something only in the hands of a select few or something too far gone, rather it is something that we will all have to decide, in our every action and decision, if we are going to pursue or if we are going to cast it aside in a fit of distraction and unreasoned fashionability.
Featured image via fineartamerica.com.
Cooper is an assistant editor of the common ground section and a sophomore. He studies political science and classics and wants to work in journalism after school. When he is not thinking about politics and writing he enjoys fishing, golfing, and reading. Cooper’s literary influences include Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway.