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The Potentiality of Concreteness


[I wrote this in January 2010, and decided to upload it to see if anyone has any comments. As a sculptor, I'm very interested in objects, of course. What is an object, though, has perplexed philosophers for thousands of years. I'm still in my formative phase of trying to figure it out myself!]

Something is concrete if it materially or physically exists. There is something dull about the concept; perhaps it is because the word concrete also refers to a mundane building material. Ironically, the “building material” definition dates only from the mid-19th century, having formerly been a conceptual term. The concretely existing object seems stuck. Perhaps this is what compelled Plato to come up with the Forms, to give the concrete object a deeper life. After writing, and thinking about the rest of this essay, a thought came to me that perhaps clarifies the situation. If one can image a wood panel panel with daubs of color on it, we have a concrete object. But if we determine that this wood panel daubed with color (sitting in the Louvre, let us say) is the Mona Lisa, then we have a concrete object that is linked to a universe of meaning through modification.

One of the concepts that interests me most is potentiality. Mona Lisa began as a tree (to be made into panels) and minerals (to be made into paint). There was an inherent potential in these materials to become unified as a painting. The idea of potentiality is prevalent in Alfred North Whitehead’s cosmology. The universe is a place where things happen. New things spring up as if by magic. There is an innate teleology in his theories, which makes sense since he feels that everything originates from God. But it is my understanding that Whitehead’s God is not the Great Administrator in the sky, but has created a universe that encourages the development of novelty. Whitehead’s God, unlike Plato’s Demiurge, so it seems, is a creator who wants His creation to keep on creating. So, the potential for novelty in a Whiteheadian universe is due to God’s intention not to control, but to make a place where possibilities are unbounded. Whitehead’s theories describe a universe that is a celebration of creativity. There are various theological theories, incidentally, that state that God did not have to make the universe (apparently if His mood was not good at the time) but it is inherent in God’s nature to make the universe. Thus, it was a kind of artistic compulsion.

Whitehead’s Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness is a criticism of the Cartesian duality of mind and matter. Because of a multiplicity of possible percipients, one cannot say that that an object or occurrence does not exist (or did not occur) because a particular individual did not witness it. In other words, a tree falling in the forest does make a sound even if no one is there to hear it. Reality is independent of human consciousness.

Plato does not argue against the concreteness of physical objects, at least in my understanding of what I have read. His point is that they are a poor rendering of what they ought to be. Only the Form is perfect. The Form, however, is eternal, and for something to exist in our world, it has to exist in Time. Time, then, is a kind of flaw, or something that we have to accept in order to live in the world the Demiurge has created for us. We are not divine, yet have been given an “invitation to the party” like Cinderella, so that we may partake in the goodness of creation. After all, for Plato it was the idea of the Good that started the universe. Plato’s and Whitehead’s cosmologies are in many ways similar, and at their most poetic and beautiful they extol the divine’s love of, and for, creativity because it is good.

The beauty of Whitehead’s theory, hence the process in Process Philosophy (this was not his term, however, he called it the Philosophy of Organism) is that everything is ongoing. From a personal standpoint, since Plato was notoriously suspicious of artists, I find Whitehead to be liberating because he celebrates the creation of new things. Plato’s Forms are perfect, the final word on how a craftsman should fashion a bed. Whitehead’s Eternal Objects are similar to the Platonic Forms, but act as pure potential, as guides to inform, not constrain.

When is a work of art complete?

Coming from a background as a painter, I have had idea that a work of art is completed in the studio, and that putting it in a gallery or on display elsewhere doesn’t involve any sort of transformation of the work. It’s just transportation of the work from one place to another. Recently, though, I been making a some sculptures that can’t be completed in the studio. They are too large, or involve some kind of “messy” process like piling peat moss or sand on the floor. I don’t complete them until they are on display. I liken this to a composer writing a symphony at the piano, only imagining what it will sound like when played by an orchestra. It’s an odd sort of abstraction, a leap of faith. Or, it’s like a novel. It’s not really anything until it gets read. It’s a non-entity, in way, as it is sitting on the shelf locked in a book, unrealized if unread.

Lace Boat

Here’s my Lace Boat (that’s just a working title), in progress in the studio. It won’t be displayed upside-down like this, but this is the best way to work on it. Gravity is holding the fabric to the frames.

I’ve got a little problem, though. I can’t figure out how to fasten the fabric to the frames. I thought the white strips that run through the gunwhale (the edge that you’d hold onto if you were sitting in a canoe) would act as spring-clips and hold the whole thing together. Okay, all you geniuses, take a look at this photo and tell me what to do!

Here are some more shots:

The two-by-four along the keel is temporary. It's just a holder-upper.

Looking through the lace


One of the ideas that I’m most interested in, is that art acts as a “fulcrum of reality” (see my post below with this title). The point is, a work of art straddles a kind of divide between the real world and the world of ideas.
I came across a few paragraphs in Aesthetics & The Philosophy of Spirit (p 104-105) where the author, John Shannon Hendrix, writes of the literally or figuratively transparent work of art (using the example of the later work of Cezanne and the Cubists) as participating more in the absolute (i.e. the ideal, the perfect, the Platonic Form, the Oneness of the Universe) than the real. From the standpoint of the book, this is a good thing, because it makes a work of art more profound because by “participating” in the absolute it is communing with the divine.
It made me think of my “mesh vessel” (of which I have an image in a post below). Does it participate more in the ideal than the real because you can see through it? From the book’s point-of-view (if I understand it correctly), I am showing you two things at once, what the book calls the “The dialectic of the opposition between opacity and transparency in a sensible form. . .[which is] a metaphor of the dialectic between the concept and the idea, between reason and intuition, in the mind.” (p 104) Does this work in my sculpture in the same way it works in the paintings mentioned above? I don’t know. I’m working on a lace-covered boat (for which the framework is shown in a post below), which follows along on this idea of transparency. My approach was intuitive, though, since I just came across these paragraphs in the book earlier today.
I just realized that I’ve got another “transparent” piece called “Ich bin’s, der bald du folgst.” (“I am she, whom you will soon follow.”) So here it is. It’s about 3-1/2 feet tall, and made of paper, foam, and organza (fabric).

More Sketchbook Sketches

While I’m in church, and I should be worshiping, I like to sketch! Do you suppose God will smite me? I doubt it. I’ve done worse things. . .

This image has various vessels in states of “undress.” One of the ideas I’m trying to convey (and maybe this is too blatant), is that things are in a process of becoming, they are never complete.

Latest Reads, Redux

Oh, I also read P.F. Strawson’s Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy, which also has a misleading title (see the entry below). . .It’s an interesting book, and Strawson is considered to be an important post WWII philosopher, but it’s more a collection of essays than any kind of systematic introduction. . .Strawson is most famous for his book Individuals, which I have a copy of (thanks to the Oboler Library at ISU), but I’ve had a lot of trouble reading it because it discusses logic in terms of analogies to sentence structure (syntax). This confuses me greatly! I can’t criticize Strawson for what I can’t grasp, though. Maybe I’ll understand it some day. I’m going to take a Logic class (Philosophy 201) this Fall at ISU, so maybe I’ll learn something!

Latest Reads

I finished reading Kai Hammermeister’s The German Aesthetic Tradition last week. Great book. Beautifully written. Linda Leeuwrik (that’s Doctor Leeuwrik to you!), our Art History Prof at ISU recommended it to me because I wanted to read about Kant before trying to read Kant. I don’t know that I’m ready to read Kant, however. (But, thanks, Doc!). . .. That brings me to what I’m reading now, John Shannon Hendrix’s Aesthetics & the Philosophy of Spirit: from Plotinus to Schelling and Hegel. The writing is a bit clunky (sorry, it’s my personal opinion), but it’s a great book, too. It jumps around a lot (but what’s a couple of thousand years between friends?). It actually starts with our good friend Plato, so I don’t know why he doesn’t get to be a headliner. Both of these books discuss what art is, what it does, and how it does what it does.

I read Ruth L. Saw’s Introduction to Aesthetics. It was anything but. Nice enough little book, but it was basically a treatise on why we should care about art, not what Aesthetics is. . .

Artist’s Statement

[I'm working on an artist's statement for my application for the Idaho Triennial in Boise. You'll notice, I hope, my attempt to be succinct, but also my attempt to not pretend to understand my work completely. I'll be working on this some more. Any comments?]
I do not try to lock particular ideas into my work. I do have particular ideas in mind at the inception of a sculpture, and I do want to delve into ideas, but I derive little pleasure from merely illustrating my own ideas. The point at which I am sure my work is about any particular subject is the point where I realize that somehow my unconscious ideas have seeped into my sculpture and that it is also about something else.
I use the vessel form as a metaphor, a stand in, for a number of different things. The vessel might be a metaphor for the entire Universe, carrying everything. It might also represent an individual person, since a vessel (as a ship, let us say) is autonomous. It can move around in the world. I try to encourage the autonomy of my work, to give it a life, but then to let it wander off.