The Beauty Dialogues, Part 7

Today philosopher Santiago Ramos steps in with the last word (we think) of “The Beauty Dialogues,” a periodic exchange between Image contributor Morgan Meis and Image founder Gregory Wolfe.

For a while now I have borne the fearful hunch that sooner or later, Image would have to confront Immanuel Kant. A journal whose reason for existing rests on the idea that beauty is a source for personal redemption and cultural renewal—in other words, the idea that “beauty will save the world”—would have to eventually come to terms with the aesthetic theory that has provided the framework for Western thinking about beauty in the last three centuries.

For this reason, I was happy to read that Morgan Meis had at long last set the stage for this confrontation in his most recent installment of his ongoing dialogue with Greg Wolfe about beauty. However, I don’t agree with his take on how Kant’s theory poses a challenge to the idea that beauty has a “salvific” power.

Meis argues that Kant’s theory poses such a challenge because it disentangles aesthetic judgment from all other types of judgement; beauty must become its own category. This disentangling has radical effects for the history of beauty: “Kant’s argument basically collapses both poles of the Christian/Greek approach to beauty,” because while the Christian links beauty judgments with spiritual ennoblement, the Greek approach links it to sensuous pleasure or (in Plato’s special case) to the intuition of the divine forms.

Post-Kant, we must contend with an aesthetic realm that is completely autonomous. [Read more…]

Thine is the Transkingdom

SONY DSCJasmine Temple, laboratory technician at New York University Lagone Medical Center, Institute for Systems Genetics, won this year’s agar art contest for her creation “Sunset at the End.” The contest, held every year by the American Society for Microbiology, features images of landscapes, portraits, and conceptual art made by the arrangement of microorganisms grown on agar plates.

Temple’s image was unique not only because it was beautiful, but also because it showed the potential of transkingdom interactions—the exchange of genetic material between taxonomic kingdoms. Temple and her team made the image by engineering the yeast with plasmids that code for pigments normally made by bacteria, fungi, and some sea life forms. As the yeast colonies grew, colors and patterns emerged until a sailboat, Montauk oceanfront, and a red sky at night emerged.

We are never truly ourselves, and this fact has the potential for great healing.

Transkingdom interactions occur frequently in the gut and in the soil. Our identity as many different organisms sharing code and forming what appears to be a composite whole may lead us to new medicines and modes to honor all the ways we belong to and are formed by each other.

How do you make all thirty-seven trillion of your cells seen? my dance instructor Matthew asks.

I open my eyes in the ninety-degree rehearsal room. I look at the other dancers, and they look at me. We are making a dance about where we come from and the land that lives in our bodies and memories.

The innocence of dance is that it is lost the moment after it occurs. Dance is a haunting that you give yourself; performance an accumulation of ghosts. What does the audience see? Why do we need people to see us in order to express what our homes and our bodies mean and want? [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 6

Today Gregory Wolfe continues his periodic exchanges on the nature of beauty with Image contributor Morgan Meis. 

Dear Morgan,

Well, yesterday you took your swing all right. I just can’t tell if you’ve decked me or…whiffed. In either case, I’m certainly dazed! I told you last time that I have no formal philosophical training, so in one sense I’m helpless to answer you in kind. If only you’d challenged me to a close reading of Finnegans Wake….

Now that you’ve played the Kant card (!), I think this offers us a good opportunity to complete this set of exchanges.

The simplest way I can summarize your argument is that you hold a “disruptive” theory of cultural history. You say that Kant destroyed any notion that Jerusalem and Athens can co-exist and, furthermore, that Kant’s subjectivist theory of beauty puts an end to any attempt to ground beauty in classical metaphysics. What we need now, you conclude, is “to look for spiritual principles in art in completely new and different ways.”

My gut reaction to this contention is the same as my reaction to new religions that claim that we’ve been completely mistaken about God or the Bible for a couple millennia and that we need to follow the brand new approach of some guru who has been vouchsafed the true, ultimate revelation.

The problem here is hubris: the notion that we must discard the past and start over is tantamount to saying that we must now create a new system of understanding virtually ex nihilo. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 5

image of a theater scene painted by Python, Greek potteryToday Morgan Meis continues his periodic exchanges on the nature of beauty with Image founder Gregory Wolfe.

Dear Greg,

In your last letter, you asked me not to hesitate in taking a “real swing” at you, philosophically speaking. (Or were you suggesting that this tête-à-tête must inevitably culminate in the back of an alley somewhere?) I’ve been setting up the foundation for doing so over the last couple of letters. But maybe it is time to draw the threads together and take my little “swing.”

Basically, we are going to have to wrangle with Kant, which is never easy and rarely pleasant.

We have to wrangle with Kant because I think he, along with the aesthetic Modernists who came after him, dealt a kind of deathblow to the uneasy civilizational alliance between Athens and Jerusalem that we talked about in the last exchange of letters. You have characterized the conflict between Athens and Jerusalem, following Jaroslav Pelikan, as one of “synthesis,” a synthesis of “tension and complementarity.”

Sounds nice. [Read more…]

Brunelleschi’s Balancing Act

image of the duomo in sunlight. The story goes that one day Filippo Brunelleschi, the goldsmith who would go on to become the most important architect in Europe and arguably the originator of the Renaissance, devises a practical joke he and his buddies play on their mutual friend, Manetto the woodworker. The gist of it is that they contrive to convince Manetto that he is not himself but another man named Matteo.

The prank works by having everyone in Manetto’s social sphere suddenly refer to him and treat him as Matteo. He is even arrested and sent to jail for several nights for debts owed by Matteo. Brunelleschi manages the deception so well that, apparently, Manetto eventually answers to Matteo, though perhaps not entirely happy with adopting this new identity.

Eventually Filippo and company drug “Matteo,” bring him back to his home, and then begin calling him Manetto again as if nothing happened. Manetto, perplexed beyond imagination, decides he dreamed the whole thing.

It’s not clear if anyone ever explained the joke to Manetto, though it’s unlikely Brunelleschi would have. He liked his secrets.

He also protected the secret of perspective painting, which he developed decades before anyone else figured it out. His apparent insight encapsulates the central impulse of the Renaissance: to look with human, not divine, sight.

We don’t know whether a lot of the stories about Brunelleschi are true. Did he really win the competition to design the cupola in Florence by standing an egg on end? Did he really fake an illness in order to make his rival, Ghiberti, look incompetent? [Read more…]