Monday, November 30, 2009

On the Soul's Favoring the Painting above the Photograph: A Nod to Aristotle

****The questions of philosophy are not approached by most. Look to your average person walking along the street to explain a single of the great question posed by philosophers and you will most likely be left wanting. Fewer still have a strong desire to look backward far enough to meditate on the work of one of philosophy’s founders, Aristotle. Why are beautiful things appreciated? Clearly our innermost humanity, or soul for the purposes of this discussion, is responsible for our imaginations and interpretations of images. Aristotle sums up this idea by stating in his treatise On Memory and Recollection; “We have already dealt with imagination in the treatise On the Soul. It is impossible even to think without a mental picture. The same affection is involved in thinking as in drawing a diagram”. In this way Aristotle ties all creative ability to some mental creation dependent upon imagination which he in turn connects to our ability to think. This leads to a discussion relating to how we create these images. Over the course of modern human history there is only one means of preserving images that has remained relatively constant. The ability of a human to see an object, a person, or a place and then recall that image in their minds is common to most. As technology has advanced the ability of humans to recreate pieces of time has increased as well. Whether we have used pottery, paintings, or photos we have sought the ability to capture the images our eyes receive and then transfer them to some physical reality. Clearly both photos and man-made art are appreciated today, but the hand drawn representation and the painting are able to compete against the perfect photo. Something within us assigns a value to the hand-made creation despite the fact that more accurate representations of reality can be found among photos.

*****I submit that the photograph takes all of the fun and excitement out of the creation of a permanent image of reality. That mysterious process whereby the soul transforms a perception into a memory or a recollection and then the body strives to reproduce that image is reduced to a few mechanical parts put together to form a seemingly magical box that is capable of instant replication of any scene. This is a very efficient solution, but it destroys the magic inherent in human creation. Now let us turn from the abstract to a concrete example of the current topic of discussion. Consider the following portraits side by side for a moment.

****The image to the upper left is a portrait by Van Gogh titled Old Peasant. The second is a photo of an actual elderly Peasant man. Notice that the image on the left ignores the negative aspects of reality. The man has a walking stick, but it does not appear to effect him. He appears dressed in good looking clothes and any negative hygiene issues are hidden by a closed mouth. In contrast the image on the right, a photograph, embraces the edginess of reality evidenced by the teeth missing and the unkempt appearance. Despite his carefree smile, the viewer is able to see that reality has not been kind to the man. His life is displayed in clear unadulterated truth, while the painted peasant is able to hide his truth behind fluid brush strokes and the deception of imagination.

****The reason that the existence of two images with such strong similarities and stark contrasts is possible is because humans are forced to use memory in creating physical images of reality that they have previously perceived. Aristotle proposes in his third book from On the Soul provides a context in which we can come to grips with the differences present in these two images: “Sensation is either potential or actual, eg., either sight or seeing, but imagination occurs when neither of these is present, as when objects are seen in dreams”. When Van Gogh stopped looking at this peasant man, if there was in fact a single person that gave rise to this portrait, he could only rely on imagination to recreate the image on the canvas. In mixing both reality and imaginary the artist creates something that the camera can never capture because the camera cannot ignore reality and insert its hopes, dreams and desires into the image. On the other hand the camera for this reason stands above prejudice. Recall to your minds for a moment the occurrence of viewing a picture that was taken to close to its subject. Can anyone truly say that such a picture accurately reflects the world around it? Clearly such a photo does represent what was before the camera when the button was pushed, but it does not represent what you or I would imagine the object to look like if we were asked to ponder the idea for a moment. In contrast the use of paint or pen to recreate an image is a fulfillment of the soul’s natural inclination to fully remember something that it has seen at some moment in the past.

****Take a moment to imagine for a moment some place or person from your past. Consider their clothing, eye color, hair color, height and size. Ready? Likely what you have created is not a truly representative image. Instead you have produced a mental composition of all your previous perceptions of that person or place. In addition you have likely included your own personal sentiments about the object you attempted to recall. We simply cannot separate our souls from the process of memory and recollection. It is the same for you and me as it has been for every great artist, and every terrible artist for that matter, throughout history. As we examine images we desire to understand the motivation of the soul in creating them and what, if any, this effect has on the paintings and photographs.

The man at right is supposed to be Vincent Van Gogh painting. Notice that the room appears to be bare behind him, and that the colors do not perfectly represent reality as our eyes perceive reality. His style included swirls of paint that our eyes do not observe. How are Van Gogh, and others like him, able to create images that do not accurately portray reality? Aristotle concluded many years ago that “perception of proper objects is always true, and is a characteristic all living creatures, but it is possible to think falsely, and thought belongs to no animal which has not reasoning power”. In On the Soul, Aristotle claims that Imagination is something that is common only to humans, the animals with the ability to reason. It is our ability to see reality and then make thoughts about it that gives imagination power and feeds our ability to create images that are not perfect and yet send a message to the audience. Having considered Van Gogh's self-portrait consider the photgraph to the left. The man is seen in clear straight lines with a simple background behind him. He holds his brush very realistically and appears to have only recently completed his painting. Further the face lacks the humanity that I can sense coming from the face of Van Gogh’s portrait. Somehow his painted eyes cry out with humanity more so than do those of the man painting above. The very nature of instant replication jeopardizes its status as a proper representation to begin with because it lacks the prejudices present in the minds of all those who have ever witnessed a person or a landscape. This is both the best and the worst aspect of the camera. In capturing an image without taking into account context the camera loses the depth that paintings and other handcrafted works of art possess. The artisan does not simply recreate the image of a man or a mountain. The image becomes a representation of both the object’s soul as understood by the artist and the artist’s soul as well. All the experiences of the artist combine to provide us with more than a simple retelling of something that any person could perceive. Instead what we find is a retelling that is filled with judgments and memories and imperfections that lead to a new level of understanding for all involved.

****The above painting, by Van Gogh, and this photo mark the final comparison that I will draw here in this presentation. Between these two images I found distinct similarities in that both depict trees in the foreground, mountains further back, and wisps of cloud in the sky above. As I’m sure anyone can tell the differences are clear the painting is green and verdant while the photo is of a desert landscape. These two artists have also gone different routes to create similar images. The camera captured the image perfectly, while the painter’s hand sought to convey the image in sweeping strokes and whirls of color. The landscape appears more foreign than does the landscape of Mal Brey. I genuinely pose the question which work do you prefer and why? I find myself drawn into the dreamlike quality of the painting above because it almost seems to dare me to claim that the image isn’t real. It seems to call to life the swirling madness of the world. The way in which the wind pulls and tugs in various directions represents all the different directions we are being called to move toward in life. Maybe it’s a weakness of mine as a lover of literary interpretation, but I favor any creation that offers me the chance to peer within it and question its purpose. With a photo I too readily assume that it’s sole purpose it to perfectly represent some image out there in reality. The questioning of a work is what grants it its true value.

*****In discussing the differences between the photo and the portrait/landscape in light of Aristotle’s discussion on the soul and memory I hope that we have all grown in our understandings of things philosophical and things artistic. The idea that the camera can replace the brush is absurd because the brush holds infinite possibility. The brush has the enables humans to acknowledge the original perception and then to deviate from it. The camera must show whatever it perceives in its lens, and for this reason it will never truly surpass the art of handmade images, or at least that is my claim. The idea of creativity and imagination are too central to the identity of humanity to be cast aside by some technological revolution that claims it does things better. I have had opportunity in my own life to compare the pros and cons of the portrayal of reality by camera and the portrayal achieved by hand drawing an image. I conclude with an example in my own life where I have found the ability of a person to recreate an image by hand to be just as valuable, truthfully more so, than the ability of a piece of plastic to recreate the same scene.

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