The Utility of Formalism

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to attend a Japanese flower arrangement class. The art form has flourished in Japan since the 6th century where it was introduced or invented by Buddhist monks. Ikebana has many schools, but all of them rely on a formalist framework. Forms are defined and rigidly adhered to. Even “free form” arrangements are mash ups of accepted forms.

It can be argued that formalism is a rather arbitrary way to determine what is beautiful. If the Golden Mean was a brute force definition of what is beautiful, ikebana is an elaboration of this principle of balance and thematic cohesion. But who decides what forms are beautiful, and what makes a particular set of proportions, relations or settings more pleasing than another?

Music is the best clue to the solution of this problem. Auditory phenomena that qualify as music are fairly universal. There are cultural variations of course, but the basics of tonality, timbre, rhythm and harmony can be found in music anywhere. We know the difference immediately between noise and music (with the notable exception of composers who knowingly blur the lines such as John Cage). But even in the case of Cage, one cannot understand or appreciate his innovations without first acknowledging the formal structure that he was intent on breaking.

The phenomenology of beauty is a fascinating topic worth exploring in more detail at some point. In short my take on it is that human beings are hard wired with some good useful short cuts that help us interpret the raw phenomena of being in the world. Some rule based cues from the environment and good adaptive experience lock us into a circumscribed world of aesthetically pleasing relations between sounds, shapes and colors.

As a young artist, my idea of formalism had more to do with tradition than theory. I had never heard of Clive Bell, let alone Kantian aesthetics. “Form” was something you learned in art school and I wasn’t interested in that.

This misunderstanding of formalism as an aesthetic idea combined with my prejudice against certain styles of art, left me handicapped from self-inflicted wounds. My introduction to Japanese flower arrangement alerted me quite unexpectedly to this blind spot.

The lesson was straightforward. The instructor gave us a piece of paper with the form we would be using that day: Tateru Katachi (rising form). It included a subject, an object and a region of space (shown as a dotted line shaped like a beehive on the diagram). The form was three dimensional of course so it was confusing to try and visualize what the little diagram meant. Our instructor provided some cryptic tips, but after a while I got a sense of what was going on.

Tateru Katachi (rising form)

It all seemed easy enough: The subject is at the center in this form. The object moves away from the subject on the same vertical plane but thrusts outward on the horizontal. The rest of the arrangement uses additional elements (other flowers and greenery) to compose a balanced piece that brakes up the different planes in all three dimensions without piercing the beehive shaped imaginary space. (At right is my finished product. We got one practice attempt, and then one more try).

After the lesson I became aware of the value of taking some kind of formalism in composition more seriously than I have in the past. It’s not that I have not been aware of the importance of composition and relations in my work–I take that very seriously. But it has never been something that I thought about a great deal in preparation for a piece. The lesson made me realize that I was unnecessarily leaving a great deal of the composition to luck. There will always be a huge element of accident in any piece of mine no matter what I do. But by taking a formalist approach in terms of the most general primary and secondary elements in a more conscious way, I think the work may be less stressful and more aesthetically pleasing. And the give and take between what is necessary (the formal) and what is expressed within that imaginary space may make the process much more enjoyable. Maybe painting doesn’t have to be a battle but rather a series of small skirmishes on a clearly defined field.

Is this the end of the Lesser of Two Evils argument?

It’s a great time to start talking to your relatives and friends about the fallacious argument referenced above that we are subjected to on a quadrennial basis.

The girlfriend remains convinced that Hillary & Trump secretly conspired to secure their respective nominations. Davidly recently had a very amusing post fantasizing about the prospect that this is all a giant hoax perpetrated by the greatest comic genius of all time, who is not in fact dead… (Read it for yourself).

It is a mind boggling event worthy of the Situationists.

It is a glorious black swan that will destroy the American political system.

It is divine justice from the Almighty who is raising up the Bad King/Queen we deserve.

The pundits are twisting themselves into knots trying to explain how this happened since none of them considered it a real possibility. I admit, I thought it pretty far fetched nine months ago. But I relished the prospect of Trump running amok for a few months. I did not, however, vote for him when the opportunity came (I registered Republican this year so I could participate in their closed primary–this was before Bernie made the scene).

The democrats should be very careful about counting any Hillary chickens before November. The general election has the largest turnout, and believe it or not there are probably tens of millions of people here in the USofA who will vote in November and currently have no idea what is going on in the primaries. I can see Trump winning. In fact, strange as it may seem, my own rather rebellious (politically) teenage daughter, who turns 18 in August, told me a while ago that if Bernie isn’t on the ballot, she will vote for Trump. Yes, that is bizarre, but to an idealistic and naive teenager, a vote for either of them is a vote against a fucked up state of affairs that has made my little millenial daughter into a very cynical person.

Anyway, back to the original question: How can Hillary be the lesser evil over Trump or vice versa? It’s a paradox worthy of Xeno. Roll that around in your mind for a while and prepare to get dizzy. Use this trick to convince as many people as possible that there are other options. This could be a banner year for third party and write-in candidates, which could be a silver lining to this weird, gloomy end-of-times cloud that hangs over the nation.

Has Academic Philosophy Outlived its Usefulness?

The recently (and unjustly) un-tenured Crispin Sartwell questions whether the current crop of philosophers is up to snuff. Maybe so. I’m not in a position to judge since I keep reading the same old dead guys over and over. But it makes sense. American philosophers that peaked mid to late century last have mostly gone to their rest. There were some very good thinkers in that group and they certainly kept the conversation going at a very high level.

It seems unlikely that there are less brilliant people now than there were in any other period of history (although it feels like it sometimes). So that means there must be another reason why the philosophers of today are not making the kind of impression that their professors did. Crispy’s view is that the academy has become more rigid, bureaucratic and sclerotic. If you want to know why there aren’t more fundamentally important philosophers these days you should

… focus on the nature of academic training and institutions, where there is much less tolerance for eccentrics and oddballs than there once was and much less relish for disagreement. basically these are bureaucracies now of a very similar sort as the dmv or microsoft in which you rise by representing or embodying the regulations and norms.

That all sounds about right.

And given the above, maybe people who would otherwise have chosen to focus on philosophy “thought better of it” (as the guys at Partially Examined Life say in their podcasts) and chose a different career. Maybe after suffering through two or three years studying the history of philosophy the brightest and best realized that this was no way for a grown up to spend the rest of his or her life.

Philosophy, at its best anyway, is true to its name. It starts with the love of wisdom. It is born of the desire to get to the bottom of [fill in the blank]. This separates the discipline from virtually all other intellectual activity. It was meta before meta was cool.

And yet for all of its beauty and power, professional philosophy does not have a reputation for adding much value to most people’s lives. People are mocked for choosing the arts but at least the painter or actor adds something to the world, even if it’s not good enough for the Guggenheim or Broadway. The professional philosopher’s need to publish relegates her to writing footnotes to footnotes to footnotes.

So let us liberate the philosopher from the academy altogether. Leave a few talented teachers behind to cover Plato, Descartes and Wittgenstein (as historical oddities) but set the philosophers free to nurture their love of wisdom somewhere where it is more suited.

The academy is failing to provide an environment suitable for future philosophers to thrive. The phony authority that is bestowed upon philosophers by the academic industrial complex is a scam. It is wasteful, insular and destructive. There will be great philosophers again. But they will probably emerge from other disciplines or from no discipline at all.