Understanding Art and Human Potential

In its origins, the term “art” was not absolutely distinguished from skill and the application of skill in craftsmanship. This separation, while it allows us greater linguistic precision, ultimately clouds over insights which would otherwise have been more readily available to reason.

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Art, in the sense of fine arts, was originally theorized in terms of mimesis, or the imitation and representation of nature. From this one can take a simple step further and posit an art of deliberate replication of certain aspects of nature. Returning to the original compound of the term, one could find an analogue in farming or gardening as the replication of natural goods by knowledgeable application. Already, one should be able to gather stirrings that, though it is largely concealed to modern minds, contemplating our relation to art can give us significant insights into the human relation to the world.

Nature, farming, and gardening are favourite examples and metaphors of mine as well as common subjects for artists in general. This is not simply by chance. The contemplation of nature not only allows us to contemplate our more direct relation to the world and existence, but is significant on more practical terms as well, as the natural environment is also our source of resources including food and building materials.

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But art, and craft writ large, has also brought about our separation from nature through mediated devices, tools, and constructions based on principles abstracted from their organic growth in nature.

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In order to facilitate thinking about our new constructed relationship to the world, a myth about early human society is in order: In the early times, humanity lived exposed in the landscape. They had not yet developed the techniques to shield themselves from the dangers of the world aside from the exercise of their own physical prowess. Nor could they grow the food needed to survive but instead were forced to set out into the wild and hunt or gather whatever they could find. Those who returned told the others of their tribes about they things they had seen, what to look for and what to avoid. They made drew pictures on the walls of caves to illustrate their meaning to those who listened and preserve the knowledge for successive generations. This, in our myth, is the origin of a formal system of recording and education.

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Now we must turn to the central concern of art, which is beauty. Apply this to our consideration of the subject of nature. The most basic characteristic of beautiful nature would be a lush and fertile landscape, the opposite a barren and desolate one, naturally because the one is a supporter of life and the other an image of lack and deficiency. Another common example and subject for art is a fine physical form. The ideal for the human form is a representation of health and strength and harbours the promise of capability. A clumsy or incompetent person is not considered beautiful, unless perhaps because their representation is intended to express a different principle, such as merriment or a desire to bring ease or understanding to those and the community of those who carry heavy burdens and sometimes falter under their weight.

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There is a potential for a deeper understanding of art and beauty to transform common world into something greater. In order to illustrate what I mean, I would like to comment on some landscapes and indicate where the potential lies. These are two pictures which have been used to express the potential of environmental cities which integrate nature into built environments:

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While I appreciate the intentions, I do not think that these landscapes show the full capabilities which the principles I am discussing entail. Here is a picture of the historical industry landscape built in the early 20th century in a town in Sweden:

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My intention in showing the above image is to show that aesthetic principles need not necessarily be divorced from industrial construction. Finally, here is an image of an English landscape garden:

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The reason I am showing this garden is because the English, during the 18th century, developed principles of architecture to include consideration of landscape organization, including considerations such as sightlines and harmonizing elements of the landscape. These are principles which are already developed, codified and mathematically reproducible and have been already countless times. Only will and vision has been lacking to combine these principles and even others such as permaculture to form a new kind of landscape.

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The reason that I think the human environment is so important is because it is the arena of human life and action. It is in our lived environment, present immediately when we leave our door, that all our potential for being in the world exists.

What I most wish to impart is that the principles of beauty are far from a frivolous excess. What is a frivolous excess is destroying natural habitats for the sake of unbounded accumulation of wealth in the abstract.

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Wealth only ever has value in relation to those concrete goods which can be had for our wealth, and as I am labouring to exhibit here, the principle of beauty can account for practical and necessary goods as well those which are good for the spirit or morale.

It is of utmost importance that the immediate association between art and entertainment be severed. True art is capable of illuminating what is truly important to us, whether it be love for our family, union with a beloved, or the passionate pursuit for what one believes in, against odds and opposition.

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What must be made clear is that people have power if only they engage with the world directly and do not allow themselves to be passive or passively used to work and expend their effort to shape the world into a state which even they would not desire to see come into being. The value of freedom lies not in the pursuit of empty pleasures but the ability to decide what one feels is important and not be constrained by the arbitrary will of another.

The world is in need of passionate individuals who will take up the burden of fate with courage and determination. Do not despise or pity those who make sacrifices or fail in pursuit of their ideals but see in them instead the purest expression of human potential.

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If you liked this post and want more insights on art and beauty, consider reading my previous post The Key to Purpose

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The Key to Purpose

My previous posts, The Central Importance of Beauty and Some Thoughts on Purpose in Life may contribute to understanding this post or provide extra insights.


In his work On Grace and Dignity, Schiller recounts how the Greek myths held that Venus, the goddess of Beauty, wore a belt which granted her Grace. It was a belt which she could remove and lend to others. From this point Schiller infers that the Greeks held Grace and Beauty to be separate things.

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Grace was a possession of Beauty, but one which was transferable even to that which was not itself Beautiful and subsequently receives the power of Grace to charm. Thus, according to the Greeks, Schiller maintained, Grace was then a form of changeable, that is non-eternal, Beauty.

Yet the belt of Grace, distinct from other ornaments, is intended to confer Grace objectively and not a merely charming appearance. This expressed by the magical nature of the belt, which sets it apart from ordinary ornamentation. The representation of this quality in what is formally a mere ornament was necessary only to depict the manner in which one can part with Grace, even if one possesses Beauty, as in the case of Venus, and thus lose their charm. Schiller explains this representational necessity as a means for the artist to depict that which is metaphysical, namely, in this instance, Grace.

If Grace is a changeable characteristic, then it must be a kind of movement, Schiller holds, as movement is the only change which can occur in an object which does not change the identity of that object. Movement satisfies the criteria of belonging to an object without being a mere illusion of perception.

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Schiller then distinguishes Beauty which arises spontaneously from nature from that Beauty which arises intentionally from the human will based on judgement. To the first belongs Beauty of form, but a subtle differentiation must be made between the form itself and the perfection of that form through purposeful action. Examples of the latter would be a healthy and capable body, through exercise becoming a strong, dexterous, or supple body, or a pleasing voice through training becoming capable of expressing blissful melody.

It is human intelligence which allows man to grasp the purposive and give meaning to life through goal and intention. The intelligence grasps this purpose by determining that which is Beautiful and seeks to bring it into the world. One would thus correctly say that purpose cannot be grasped through the senses but must rather be conceived through the mind but that Beauty is the indication whereby the mind may become aware that the purpose of a thing is present.

In order to judge the purpose revealed in Beautiful things one must first grasp the capabilities, functions, or interaction of the Beautiful qualities of the thing, even, in the case of the last, with other things.

There are two ways in which knowledge of Beauty becomes accessible to reason. The first is by an account of those qualities and relations inherent in the Beautiful object which make it so. The second is attributed to the object, as essence, effect, benefits, etc. It is by the first that one discovers the principle of Beauty and by the second that one discovers the potential for Beauty, and thus for man to actualize through deliberate and wilful action.

This dichotomy explains the difference of opinions and taste as regards to Beauty, as in the latter case of the knowledge of Beauty reason is needed rather than experience only of the object. Because it is through reason that phenomenal experience is transformed into potential, the locus of limited potential in the considering subject will impact the final judgement of the object, even if reason develops the initial conception.

But the mind attuned to Beauty and which seeks to manifest or perfect the Beautiful will have a mind to Harmony. The elements of a garden are not in Harmony when those elements which are antithetical to the garden are present, such as parking lots, warehouses or rubble, or when the elements within the garden clash, distract or impinge upon each other. In the same way, Graceful movement is out of Harmony with a stumble, or a hostile family is not in concord, concord being a synonym for Harmony. Thus, despite differences in the locus of perspective within the subject, no conception of Beauty is free to violate the principle of Harmony without transforming into its opposite.

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An exception must be made with regards to the subject which faces an external disharmony. While, if the subject is still intent on what is best, namely Beauty, then the ultimate ends of action is Beauty and thus the pursuit of Harmony, yet if the subject becomes embroiled in disharmony through outside momentum, that disharmony is not to reflect upon the subject but rather a factor of circumstance which he or she must strive like a titan to overcome, subdue, and render to the status of Harmony.

It is this final achievement of being in Harmony, of acting in Harmony, which is called Grace, and not yet or merely in desiring or seeking Harmony. As Grace has often been understood as a gift, so it is the blessing of achieving Harmony. But as the world is subject to change through time, growth and the motion of all elements in the world, Harmony, and the Grace which is its blessing, are subject to change are require the action of care, or cultivation which is the root of culture which in its true sense signifies those qualities which express, aid, or point the way to Beauty.

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Periodizing Eras of European History

Periodizing the eras of European history is a useful way of studying and understanding European history as it helps one to remember more monumental chunks of that history and make simple associations among the elements within those chunks.

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It can also be misleading for a number of reasons. Not all works or events within a given period will necessarily share an enough similarity to make their grouping easily understood.

An example of that issue is in the period of the Renaissance, if one compares for example the work of Desiderius Erasmus with that of his Italian contemporaries. What is most apparently lacking in the former is the spirit of classical antiquity, in particular that of Rome, which makes the word Renaissance (Rinascimento) so apt for the Italians and, for example, the works of Montaigne.

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Another criticism of the periodization of history is that it obscures continuity between eras, perhaps even causes important influences to be lost or forgotten as they do not fit into the constructed scheme.

For an example of this one could point to the relatively unheard of, at least by non-Italians, Sicilian vernacular poetry which would come to have a great influence on Petrarch and Dante, among others. It was also a member of the Sicilian school, Giacomo da Lentini, who is credited with the creation of the sonnet.

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The most glaring issue, from my perspective, with this method of classification is highlighted by the period of roughly the mid-16th through the 17th century for which a number of different categories are used, namely the Renaissance, Reformation, Baroque, and the Scientific Revolution. The problem is that these diverse trends can be hard to square in the mind of students of European history.

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It is true that, for example, Baroque refers mainly to an artistic style, whereas the Reformation refers to a split and reorganization within the church system of Europe, so that one might say there is really no issue at all. Insofar as it is the reality, it is true, but the problem is rather that by breaking a single period into a number of independent trends, the student risks being unable to conceptualize the period as a whole.

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So, while such periodization is entirely acceptable for highlighting specific events and trends in a period, it becomes less helpful for seeing a time as a unity. Such a defect might be remedied by seeing the Baroque as tied to the Counter-Reformation within the catholic church. Nonetheless one must be careful that by the use of periodization one does not rather obscure than illuminate what is under consideration.

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Still, despite these and many other criticisms, I would defend the practice of periodizing history if only because it is a useful aid, if accompanied by some minor cautions, to learning about and discussing the history of Europe. It operates as a schema to which additional considerations and nuances can easily be added.

The European Tradition

This post is intended for an open discussion rather than a definitive statement.

One helpful way of conceptualizing the European Tradition is through a historical and developing canon of great works, whether literary, artistic, or philosophic.

Another question might be, does a work need to possess certain ideas or qualities in order to be considered part of the European tradition?

My own answer would be a somewhat ambivalent yes. In order to be part of the European tradition, a work must be in conscious dialogue with that tradition and on behalf of that tradition and therefore not on behalf of another tradition foreign to Europe. A marginal case might be a work which is in dialogue with the living customs and traditions of Europe in a local and geographical level, yet still on behalf of that tradition and not on behalf of a tradition foreign to Europe.

Because in our modern day, Europe and other western societies have developed under the influence of many great works, even dialogue on the local level which mean to be conscious of the European tradition would do well to be conscious of precedents in great works, thinkers, and actors from the past.

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The Central Importance of Beauty

The pursuit of beauty has lately gone out of fashion, whereas for thousands of years it was held to be one of the highest values. This movement away from beauty has gone even so far as to view beauty with suspicion and even open hostility, laying the blame upon its pursuit for those who do not or cannot live up to its ideals. As a result and to everyone’s loss, tactics have been mobilized against beauty, such as claiming its total subjectivity, and little by little standards of beauty have begun to vanish. This can be seen most acutely in the state of modern architecture, but even in modern art.

What must needs therefore be done is to inform people what beauty is and why it is important. To begin with, beauty relates to our highest ideals and natural human goods. A beautiful person, for example, exhibits the qualities of health and strength and is therefore capable. In matters of personality, beauty is envinced by courage and intelligence. These are ideals which humans benefit by living up to and looking up to, in oneself and in others.

Beautiful forms are often expressions of order or harmony and thus give structure and clarity to the mind which in turn helps us to overcome our doubts and indecision.

Beauty inherently leaves room for variation. In its classical form, it is characterized by a graceful arrangement across which the eyes may glide without any glaring elements which would shock or jar the senses, but beauty can also take the form of the picturesque, where the surprising is artfully arranged to fill the observer with delight and awaken in him longing, excitement, and even fond memories. The sublime is likewise a form which beauty might take, with the effect that the observer is overcome by the grandeur of what lies before him. The scene may be one of mystery or magnificence which awakens the mind with wonder at our very existence.

It is the work of beauty, as the core of art, to inspire and let the witnesses know that there is more to life than their animal needs and remind them that they too are capable of pursuing higher goals if only they would set out with passion and determination.

Beauty as a value is antithetical to the economic mindset, as in beauty value is understood in terms of natural wealth. An uncultivated piece of nature is economically unproductive, but the joy and meaning it can bring to one’s life is beyond measure. If one was made to forego all proximity to beauty and live out one’s days in an entirely industrial landscape of warehouses and concrete, every sum of money would instantly lose all worth.

The pursuit of beauty means making the world into more than it was when we found it, and in this we can take inspiration from the work of Capability Brown:

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and we must ask ourselves why, when there is already so much cause for despair in the world, one would waste one’s effort to contribute to it further rather than spending one’s time cultivating the world into a place worth living.

Finally, we must all come to better understand what is meant by tradition, another concept which is sorely misunderstood in our time. Tradition is not a meaningless reptition of formalistic techniques or empty rituals. Tradition is the sum of all meaning expressed in the past, whether in art, thought, or action. To be engaged with tradition is to be engaged in a meaningful dialogue with both the past on behalf of the present and the present on behalf of the past.

The Spirit of Great Art

All great art expresses both the spirit and the potential of its time as well as a vision to guide its time. The most significant means by which this is accomplished is through style, themes, scope and focus.

Much great art can be categorized as belonging to stylistic movements. These styles are not arbitrary – there is no conflict between style and substance in these cases  – because the movements are themselves representative of the spirit of their age – including particular intellectual and aesthetic developments as well as the hopes, strivings, and concerns of the age. In other words, the styles or characteristics of the movement tell one something about the age, its potential, and its vision as a whole. That does not mean that a style or movement must necessarily be viewed positively by the public, connosseurs or what have you, but rather that a great style express more than an a mere affectation of the artist.

The greater the unity, or rather harmony, the greater the work. In that sense, the themes may already be inherent in the style or characteristic of the movement. Nonetheless, themes may also stand on their own in relation to the age, dealing with the issues which are being faced and used to express the potential of the age and the vision of what may be done with that potential. Because one’s age is always central (which is only natural since an artist is also a human being and if an intelligent being will be aware of, concerned with, and therefore influenced by his time and its concerns) all artists are simultaneously limited by the shape of their age and able to transcend it by the scope of their vision, so long as that vision accounts for the potential inherent in their age.

Many confusedly believe scope and focus to be the most important aspects of art, sometimes even the only important aspects. This is what is expressed by the admonition of a work as exemplifying style over substance. The scope and focus of course determine the substance, but the substance – in the hands of a skilled and intelligent artist – must be decided in relation to the artist’s vision for the potential of his age. This is because a work of art is always affective. If the vision is entirely negative, the affect on the potential of one’s age will likewise be negative. To frame this opposition as one between optimism and pessimism is wrong. What is often called optimistic or pessimistic is really merely a difference between realistic and idealistic. What is always at stake is the character of the future – if not as a goal then as a direction – and the qualities needed to take us forward.

To be more concrete on the topic of scope and focus, the artist must be circumspect about which aspects he chooses to exemplify the spirit of his time. What is at issue and what is at stake? Who is it that can press their stamp upon the age or lead it into the future, and among which conditions might they arise and with what might they contend if they are to actualize their potential in pusuit of that vision of the future.