Painting and ontology
Philosophy and art, two seemingly very different disciplines of human spirit, match in terms of purpose, method and contents. The difference is only indirect; expressive means of philosophy is primarily speech, as well as articulation of particular experience, then language; and the means of painting are - light and only next to it color. Similarly, when it comes to speech and language, one should know that speech is also basically intensity, and language may be arbitrary, because, just like color, it expresses something quite different.
Treatment of intensity is particularly important, which is the basis of any distinction. In painting it is expressed as the difference between light-dark, and in speech as the difference of speaking terms themselves, namely their "contents".
In painting there are two basic ways of presenting differences. Those are lines and surfaces. Line may vary its direction of propagation, its thickness and its shape. Line may be straight, broken, rounded, ragged, thin, fat, and can combine all these qualities in various combinations. Surface may be big or small, of certain shape, as for example geometric figure, amorphous, more or less illuminated, with varying or monotonous illumination, etc... Lines and surfaces can be infinitely combined, but each must be considered as a special mean of expression, although line can be understood as an abstracted surface.
So, what enables painting is the intensity, i.e. the difference which is innate to intensity, and the means of expressing this difference are lines and surfaces. All other functions that can be added to the line or surface, with the exception of this basic one, in representing certain intensity, are of ideological nature and as such must be considered separately.
As in speech a special meaning can be added to some word, like in "God is good", so the premise of some kind of painting can be set as an axiom that light is "good", i.e. that "the light is from God", which forms connection between speech of words and speech of light, but we should not forget that this definition is not innate to either speaking or painting terms. A good example of such different treatment of painting can also be seen in difference between the Renaissance and Byzantine art, and this difference I will explain in particular. It should be known that both forms of painting were founded in certain ideological positions and views.
If it is already clear that intensity (as free activity of force) enables expression, as differentiation, it only leaves to clarify what the light itself is. We can freely say that light is the intensity, our sense of vision in such a way interprets the intensity, but there is not anything like "pure light" or, say, "pure white light". Light is always something special, especially by intensity, sharpness, coloration. Since light describes each spatial point, it also has to be different in each spatial point, and that only by intensity and not by color, or otherwise that area would be revoked, its different points would be converged into one.
This feature of light exactly presents the base of painting ontology, because the term "pure light" can easily be used as analogous to the concept of "pure being", i.e. God, as something stripped of any distinction, therefore extra-temporal and extra-spatial.
Byzantine painting is precisely about this, the light is treated as "pouring out from God" and what this light illuminates is created by God, and what it does not illuminate, that is in shadows, does not belong to God's creation. In Byzantine art, light is the building material of any existence, as a "divine" one. Shadow, which in this art has a form defining function, is almost totally linear in character and is maximally simplified. Here shadow is completely unnatural and generally does not represent any non-illumination which we encounter in nature. The dark line is simply a break, with the help of which it is possible to distinguish God's images, not in spatial or temporal dimension, i.e, not by the intensity, but only by God's will. Hereby it is expressively emphasized that God's creations do not exist as causing and limiting each other, but they exist only by their creator. This way of viewing things is purely subjective and excludes any objectivity, since the world is not seen as a sum of jolly abundance and differences, but as something unique and essential, and any difference in itself is strongly indicated as unsubstantial.
In Renaissance painting, the issue is completely reversed. Light is treated as objective, that is, as we see it, in accordance with the laws of optics, i.e. science. Such treatment of light is too of ideological nature. Namely, the light is viewed solely as result of some previous process, for instance combustion, and so it is defined as the difference in the relations of existing things. It is assumed that the light simultaneously expresses the nature of things by transmitting information about it, and still remains embedded in it, as something innate. Light is a moving object, it is coming from certain source, then meets another object, and that object partly absorbs it and partly reflects it. The basis of Renaissance ontology is also "pure white light", but in this case, no thing is entirely composed of light of God, as it is in the Byzantine ontology, but the "quantity" of the divine varies in each of things. Renaissance painting, therefore, describes a semi-world, world in semi-existence, a world in which God is only partially present. Such a world is unredeemed world and is a habitat for all sorts of fallen creatures, more or less good and more or less bad. Such a description of the world occurs simultaneously in philosophy: Leibniz's "Monadology" can be quoted as an obvious example of this correspondence. According to Leibniz each monad sees a whole more or less clearly, by which ability monads are classified into a hierarchy, the highest in the hierarchy is the Supreme monad - God. In essence, such philosophy does not see God as something outside of this world, but it brings Him down, nails Him to its "top" or its "end", practically condemning Him to infinite confinement within His own creation, which as being objective, "acquires" the right of essential existence "together" with God. Obviously, God is needed only to justify any possible existence.
Every serious philosophy and every serious painting will not be based on such interpretation. When it comes to Renaissance painting, and its influence in the following centuries, many painters of the era do not fit into this ideology, but are being just tendentiously categorized as its main proponents, mainly because they did adopt an objective perspective as a means of expression.
In addition to understanding that the basis of any painting is intensity, it is necessary to consider the notion of perspective, as an interpretation of that which is observed. Perspective is a vision of the world and it carries the intent and an attempt to organize the observable world. But, what will be the organizing principle of that world? Do we encounter here, again, another kind of ideology and is there really a perspective "as such"? Man has two eyes, and their position allows him to see the third dimension of space - depth. This view enables an objective insight into the distribution of objects in the world. Such an objective perspective was adopted as the policy in Renaissance painting. In Byzantine painting, on the contrary, the use of such perspective is minimal. Even the plasticity of characters in the Byzantine painting is represented by other means, not by objective perspective. Also, allocation of persons is such that, again, it denies or ignores the natural laws, or space-time continuum, and its inherent cause-consequence conditioning, so that there is neither something which is "ahead" or "behind" something else, nor is any person limited or conditioned by another person. Persons on frescoes appear each for themselves, and not in the crowd. Even when they are next to each other, they must be considered separately. The subject of Byzantine art is not abundance, but unity. Hence, a radically different perspective. Perceptual basis of Byzantine art is God, i.e. a subject which "sees" things only in relation to itself, and therefore such its relationship with the "seen" is exactly penetration into the very essence, while "objectivity" is neglected. Byzantine painting is fully in function of this purpose and clearly highlights irrelevancy of objective world. In objective painting, however, everything is as is given in the world and God himself is dissolved in it. Subject observing such a picture inevitably departs from itself and is lost to infinity marked as the purpose. So, in this case the subject is in disappearance, and it sees its own disappearance as a hierarchy of an organized world, and its place and role are in maintaining such an impersonal participation.
What is impressive in Renaissance art is the power of illusion. But we should know that illusion in painting is only the means, not the purpose. Unfortunately, as in almost all other disciplines that man developed, these two things are substituted, and instead of human activity to serve the purpose of spirituality, it is used as a means of manipulation.
In Byzantine painting, however, what impresses most is the expressiveness, the way the artist expresses, we could say, his spiritual experience. The very structure of contents, of character, refers to the creative force that creates. Force is the painting tool here, and it goes beyond ideological, religious plot, which appears as an illusion, as the image itself. Belief that images are myrrh-pouring probably has its source in this.
This element is also highly expressed in the paintings of masters from the "other side", but combined with the ideology of perspective, artists find different means to express the same thing: since objectivity of looking must dominate, painter applies constructive moment directly to the senses, stresses it over its borders and thus abolishes precisely what is the most imposing as ideology. Pavel Florensky criticized "Western" art because it is too "juicy", as in Rembrandt's paintings or Bach's music. However, just this excess of sensuality leads to the meditative effect, satiated senses switch off and a metaphysical space is opened in which man encounters God.
Art can neither be criticized nor justified by ideology.
Ideology is a set of rules, an aggregate, and one can easily, over-paint it with one stroke, demolish it. With Rembrandt, whose paintings have a lot of realism, pregnant idealism, objectivity, all of that bows to sudden burst of light from an unexpected source - what should simply reflect light, actually radiates it. In his paintings Renaissance perspective is whirling, into a spiral, into golden rain that falls on Danae, and from her Divinity speaks. From Rembrandt to Van Gogh there is less than a half-step. Only, Van Gogh uses a wider palette, a multitude of colors, which completely overcome the senses - remains the expression itself, clean power which the spectator is facing.
It is clear from this what the purpose of painting is, but a philosopher would have to find a word to name it. But a word, as well as a grain of matter, itself alone means nothing. It is important who speaks, is there someone out there, it is important what is the word about. And just as painting does not explain the essence using line or surface, so philosophy does not explain using words -- philosopher directs words so that they, as they disappear, release meta-space or force, in which all meanings exist, and all the answers. If for a painter it is the light of golden color, or a line which disturbs the supposed order, for a philosopher it is an eternal fire, but also complete quietness, as in Bach or Buddha, which denotes the state where there is no perception - existence itself.
Heraclitus' dictum on fire which ignites with measure and extinguishes with measure, or about corpses which are best to be dumped out of the window, are also over-straining the matter, just as the effect of fugue in music (or, say, like fierce "chopping" in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony), or myriads of colors in the paintings of Oscar Kokoschka, or the countless layers in Turner's watercolors, or terminal precision of Durer's paintings, which are not just "as" alive, but they rather directly discover life - only not as a life of a painting. This somersault performed by artists, philosophers, is the very quality which makes possible to fulfill the purpose of human activity, transgression into the metaphysical sphere, into the very marrow of existence.
Hence the attempt to find a "pure white light" ends so that one finds a condition in which light is "darkness", the lack of perceptional experience of light. And so in music, the "pure sound" is discovered as silence. In philosophy, as well as in poetry, "pure word" reveals itself as speechlessness.
(The article was published in Književne novine, no. 1121, Belgrade, 2005)
Published on Rastko: 2007-10-06
Date of the Last update: 2007-10-05 21:27:39