Thursday, April 01, 2010

Aesthetics, Realism, Symbolism, Ethics, and the Morphology of the Spirit

OK, I am just showing I still know how to speak professor-ese,  by which it is possible to parade obscurantism as profundity. Here is what I have in mind:

In the front of my church is a beautiful stained glass Apostles cross in vivid colors. It gets the morning sun which makes it brilliant. Aesthetically, it is splendid. The symbolism is clear. But realism is absent. The actual historical cross was probably ugly, dirty, rough-hewn, and splintery.  A replica would probably not be chosen for exhibition in that choice spot, visible at all times to  worshipers.
What is going on here? How do aesthetics, symbolism, and realism relate to the enhancement of piety and  the promotion of faith and good works?

Guernica is a Picasso classic. Paul Tillich says it exhibits the estrangement manifest in all forms of modern life. The painting depicts the 1937 bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers, who were supporting the Nationalist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Interpretations vary and are many in number, generally having to do with the tragedy and suffering of war.

Now imagine that instead of this painting we had a professional-quality vivid color photograph of a battle scene or a bombed out area with bodies, brains, blood, guts, and limbs in horrible, grotesque display. Would it or could it have the same moral and spiritual power of Picasso's great work? Would we hang it in our living room? Would any museum want it?

Is it missing the point badly to suggest that a realistic picture of the horrors of an actual battlefield might convey more powerfully the estrangement in modern life and the awfulness of war? Does a painting like Guernica  perform  a kind of aesthetic cleansing without loss of symbolic power that makes it acceptable to display in living rooms and other places great art can be admiringly shown without tasteless offense?

No picture or painting has much meaning apart from some background knowledge of its historical and cultural setting. The more we know, e. g., about the context of Guernica and its forms and elements, the more significance it has and the more interpretations it generates. Can only a work of art like this create all these possibilities while a literal depiction cannot? How do aesthetics, realism, symbolism, and ethics relate to the human spirit in  terms of power to inform, elevate, and transform our grasp of meaning, purpose, and duty?

I suspect I have raised more questions and provoke more interpretations than my capacities can handle. But it is interesting to think about it, n'est-ce pas?

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