37. Mephistopheles and the Muses

by Culture and Anti Culture

(For context see Post 1)

Several years ago a woman visiting friends in a Midwestern city told them of her longing to spend time contemplating several paintings in the local art museum.  She showed them images of these paintings on a computer linked to the internet.  One of her friends, a graduate student in philosophy, remarked that a visit to the museum was an unnecessary anachronism, as the images were available online.  A fruitless argument ensued.  The graduate student, an authoritative Philistine, insisted that whatever the charm or aesthetic power borne by these pictures, it could, at a certain level of digital mimicry, be replicated to near perfection to offer the same aesthetic impressions. His visitor inarticulately insisted that this was untrue.

This is an old, one could say, archetypal dispute.  The philosophy student takes the role of Mephistopheles in Faust—the cold reasoner, the debunking materialist.  He essentially scoffs at the idea of magical, living properties in a work of art and would no doubt hold the same view of human consciousness – that when adequately imitated by artificial means, (as in the case of artificial intelligence) the two are essentially the same.  He is clever and has ready-made, ironclad logic at his disposal.  His argument seems irresistible. The contrary claim seems weak, unreasoning, mystically juvenile.

For the materialist, there can be no question of mysterious, spiritual properties clothing themselves in substance, whether in works of art or living tissue.  Everything is made of distinct bodies and forces, everything can be seen as expressing the logic of a machine.  Nowhere are meaning, ideals and personality fundamental.  They are illusory side effects of impersonally evolved matter and energy.  They are appearance, not reality.

The anti-materialist sees, in a true work of art, matter taken up by forces of soul and spirit and subtly transformed by them, so that no copy is the bearer of the full power imprinted by the artist upon the original work.

The artist, sitting before a canvas or block of stone, must go through a rich process of approach and withdrawal, of active doing and quiet contemplation.

Hans Holbein –
‘Portrait of a Woman in a White Coif’

In the case of oil painting, a process of layering of pigment and glazes slowly builds the image; in sculpture, the removal of material unveils the image.  The object is worked upon and works back upon the maker.  The anti-materialist claims that the profound artist is actually a sort of magician and that a great work is an act of conjuring.  This claim can only be based on the authentic results of earnest contemplation and reflection.

The honest and consistent materialist holds the exact contrary view.  The materialist MUST be a Philistine—the treasure-houses of museums and private holdings for him must be the residual of a by-gone age when images had to be created with infinite pains and inconveniences.  They are no more than fetish-objects.  They have no magical properties because magic is, in principle, impossible.  A near exact replica is as good as the original.

There is no doubt that the Mephistophelean point of view has won on the earth. The idea that meaning arises from non-meaning and that the world is made of composites rather than organic wholes underlies the post-modern technology of our day.  The digital image, based on the pixel – a composite built of atomized fragments – is the dominant manner of displaying and generating images, by means of a machine-assisted facility never previously possible.

Winning an argument is one thing—having a true image of the world, another.

Consulting actual experience, the sensitive soul knows directly that great art is, in fact, endowed with mysterious, real power.  Arguments against this reality are based on rhetoric and theory, not on living experience.

(“Let the phenomenon be its own theory.”   -Goethe)

“Always stand by form against force.”     -John Ruskin

What he means by form is the physical expression of soul and spiritual power-against mere physical force, unensouled and without spirit.

John Ruskin