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Author Topic: Essay: Existentialists Aspects of Modern Art  (Read 12668 times)
Justan
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« on: December 10, 2009, 10:13:50 AM »
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Foreword: A recent thread posed questions about concepts of beauty and how our era has served to let this concept wither to degrees. In that thread, some readers correctly commented that the other author largely dismissed the role of Existentialism in a discussion of modern interpretations of beauty, and then the author used his dismissal as part of a lament about modern concepts of beauty.

The reader’s comments stuck with me and came back in a revealing way when I came across the following article. In this article, Tillich addressed the other reader’s insightful comments and worked to answer some of the questions made.

Grab another cup of coffee and take a look at the following and kindly do share your comments


by Paul Tillich

To do justice to my subject I should really write three books -- one on existentialism, one on art, and one on religion. Then I should relate these three to each other. Here, however, all this has to be done in the narrow space of a single chapter.
Meaning and History of Existentialism

Let me start with the first "book." First, I want to devote a few words to what I believe existentialism is, just as the other contributors to this volume have given some description or definition of what they understand by existentialism. I distinguish three meanings of this term: existentialism as an element in all important human thinking, existentialism as a revolt against some features of the industrial society of the nineteenth century, and existentialism as a mirror of the situation of sensitive human beings in our twentieth century. Of course the main emphasis will be on the last meaning of this term. I believe that most creative art, literature and philosophy in the twentieth century is in its very essence existentialist. And this is the reason why I have proposed to address myself to existentialist elements in recent visual art. I believe that the people for whom visual impressions are important will perhaps understand what existentialism means better by looking at modem art than by reading recent philosophers.

Existentialism as a universal element in all thinking is the attempt of man to describe his existence and its conflicts, the origin of these conflicts, and the anticipations of overcoming them. In this sense, the first classical philosopher who had many existentialist elements in his thinking was Plato. I refer here especially to those instances where he employs mythology, for existence, in distinction from essence (from what man essentially is), cannot be derived in terms of necessity from his essential nature. Existence is that which stands against essence although it is dependent on essence. Plato uses existentialist terms when he speaks of the transition from existence to essence or from essence to existence; when he speaks of the fall of the souls; when he speaks of the seeming but not true character of the world of appearances and opinions; or when he speaks of the bondage of the soul in the cave of shadows. In many other cases he brings into his philosophy existentialist elements, and he is wise enough to know that this cannot be done in terms of essentialist analysis.

There are existentialist elements in early Christian theology -- very outspoken elements for instance in Augustine and his doctrine of man's estrangements from his true essence, from his union with God as his creative ground. There are existentialist elements in classical theology, in the Middle Ages, and in Protestantism. Wherever man's predicament is described either theologically or philosophically, either poetically or artistically, there we have existentialist elements. This is the first meaning of this word.

The second meaning is existentialism as a revolt. It is a revolt which started almost as the moment when modern industrial society found its fundamental concepts, in the seventeenth century. The man who first expressed these elements as a revolt was Pascal, although at the same time he made great contributions to the development of modern thinking by his mathematical discoveries. From Pascal on, we have had an uninterrupted series of men who repeated this protest against the attitude of industrial society. Man was considered to be only a part, an element in the great machine of the Newtonian World, and, later on, an element in the great social process of production and consumption in which we all are now living. The protest against this view was a protest of the existing man, of man in his estrangement, his finitude, in his feeling of built and meaninglessness. It was a protest against the world view in which man is nothing but a piece of an all-embracing mechanical reality, be it in physical terms, be it in economic or sociological terms, or even be it in psychological terms. This protest was continued in the nineteenth century by the founders of existentialism (in the special sense of the word). Schelling, in his old age, realized that he had to protest not only against his former pupil and friend, Hegel, but also against the Schelling of his earlier years, and introduced most of the categories in which present day existentialism is thinking. From him, people like Kierkegaard, Engels, and Feuerbach took concepts of anti-essentialist philosophy. These protesting men -- Kierkegaard, Marx, Feuerbach, Trendelenburg, later Nietzsche, and at the end of the century people like Bergson and Whitehead -- these are people who wanted to save human existence from being swallowed by the essential structure of industrial society in which man was in danger of becoming a thing.

With the beginning of the twentieth century this feeling became much more universal. The people whom I have just cited were lonely prophets, often in despair, often at the boundary line of insanity in their desperate and futile fight against the over-powering forms of modern industrial society. In the twentieth century the outcry of existentialism became universal. It became the subject matter of some great philosophers, such as Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Marcel, and many others; it became a topic of the drama; it became effective in poetry. After some predecessors like Beaudelaire and Rimbaud in the nineteenth century it has become widespread, and men like Eliot and Auden are widely known. It was expressed especially powerfully in the novel. In Kafka’s main novels, The Castle and The Trial, we have descriptions of the two fundamental anxieties. The anxiety of meaninglessness is described in The Castle. He himself, Mr. K., tries in vain to reach the sources of meaning which direct all life in the village in which he lives, and he never reaches them. The anxiety of guilt is described in The Trial, where guilt is an objective factor. The protagonist does not know why he is accused, or who accuses him, he only knows he is accused. He is on trial, he cannot do anything against it, and finally the guilt overcomes him and brings him to judgment and death.

I believe that developments similar to these have taken place in the realm of art. And out of the different visual arts I want to take, not on principle, but for reasons of expediency, painting alone. Painting will reveal some of the innermost motives of existentialism if we are able to analyze the creations since the turn of the century in the right way. In order to do this I want to go immediately to the second "book" and say a few words about religion and about the relationship of religion and art.

The rest of the essay can be found here: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1568
« Last Edit: December 10, 2009, 10:15:02 AM by Justan » Logged

RSL
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« Reply #1 on: December 12, 2009, 01:22:22 PM »
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Justan, Your post richly deserves answers it hasn't gotten. I printed out Tillich's article and temporarily comb-bound it so I could read it at leisure over a Manhattan. As usual Paul Tillich deals with ideas that matter. After I finished the article I picked up my big yellow  book of Lee Friedlander's photographs and the pictures seemed a continuation of what I'd been reading. I'd say that Friedlander's approach to photography is about as existentialist as any you can find.
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Eric Myrvaagnes
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« Reply #2 on: December 12, 2009, 08:40:16 PM »
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Quote from: RSL
Justan, Your post richly deserves answers it hasn't gotten. 

I agree, and thank you for posting it. I've downloaded Tillich's essay and plan to read it when I have time.


Eric

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Rob C
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« Reply #3 on: December 13, 2009, 05:14:33 AM »
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Quote from: RSL
Justan, Your post richly deserves answers it hasn't gotten. I printed out Tillich's article and temporarily comb-bound it so I could read it at leisure over a Manhattan. As usual Paul Tillich deals with ideas that matter. After I finished the article I picked up my big yellow  book of Lee Friedlander's photographs and the pictures seemed a continuation of what I'd been reading. I'd say that Friedlander's approach to photography is about as existentialist as any you can find.




Russ

There's a danger to all of this: one can get one's self so involved in mental masturbation that the next step is paralysis. There are enough reasons not to continue making pictures that further layers of mystery, smoke and doubt can prove fatal.

I don't mean to be flippant; I honestly do believe that it might be best not to dwell or delve too deeply into motivation, appreciation or even understanding of what is, I suppose, art. Perhaps the best way is just to get on and do it or wait until something worth doing really comes along and fires your imagination. This, from the amateur point of view.

Thinking too much about something can be quite counterproductive: had I spent time doing that I would never have taken the first step into being self-employed as a photographer. Of course, I might well have had a more fruitful life - think financially - but who can ever tell? The ride was bumpy but mostly enjoyable and I got to places I would probaby never have otherwise reached; but, I don't believe I ever chose to analyse too deeply either my motivation or how what I did might be read/interpreted by anybody else: I got a brief - I just went out and did what it meant to me. Whether it had beauty or not often depended on so many factors beyond my control that to introduce fantasies about whether the work fitted in to some category of philosophical thought was simply not on my wildest agenda. I would be surprised to learn if anyone ever approaches their work in that manner; of course, afterwards, anything can be constructed around the results!

I fear that these themes lead to not a lot more than more curator-speak or "artist's statement' stuff. Which, of course, can also be fun if taken with the grain of sodium chloride.

Rob C
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« Reply #4 on: December 13, 2009, 12:07:56 PM »
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Rob,

The only reason I can think of not to continue making pictures is death. That’ll come soon enough I suppose (I’ll be eighty in three months), but in the meantime…

I do agree that it might be best not to dig into motivation, appreciation, or understanding when you deal with art. On the other hand, let’s face it, human comprehension is based on defining and categorizing what we perceive as reality. We use language to think, and every word in every language defines two categories: those parts of reality that fall within the meaning of the word and those that don’t. So, in order even to communicate with each other about art we have to categorize, otherwise we have no words with which to carry out the task.

I certainly have no significant background in philosophy, though my beloved wife of 57 years has a degree in it. But I’ve always found Paul Tillich a worthwhile read. The reference Justan gave is no exception. I don’t really know whether or not Friedlander’s work properly can be categorized as existential, though it struck me that way after reading the article. Of course, not all Friedlander’s work strikes me that way, and the next time I pick up his book, which I’ve had in my photo library for several years, what I see as I page through the same pages may not strike me that way.

But let’s talk for a moment about photography and thinking. When I’m preparing to do some specific thing with a camera – say, spending a few days on the back roads of Kansas, shooting dying towns and deserted farms -- I think about what equipment to take with me, which roads I’ll follow, and what I’ll do. But once I’m on the road and see my quarry, I stop thinking, and the camera takes over. I’ve said it before on this forum, and I’ll say it again: thinking is an almost sure way to screw up a picture. I see it again and again, especially with landscape: the picture that means nothing because it was “well thought out” and carefully composed. These “well thought out” productions are always very pretty, and always very meaningless. Usually they’re clichés, but not always. Wedding and fashion photographs almost always are “well thought out” nothings, and rather than being frowned upon, in those genres clichés are mandatory. I think an awful lot of  Annie Liebovitz’s photographs fall into the “well thought out” and meaningless category, though often they’re not clichés.

And, yes, I agree that determining whether or not a work of art falls into a category such as existentialism can lead to asinine and often hilarious curator-speak and “artist’s statements.” But rather than take those with a grain of sodium chloride, I’d suggest trying nitrous oxide.
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Rob C
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« Reply #5 on: December 13, 2009, 03:33:26 PM »
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Quote from: RSL
Rob,

"The only reason I can think of not to continue making pictures is death. That’ll come soon enough I suppose (I’ll be eighty in three months), but in the meantime…"


Well yes, that's a good enough reason not to take them, but I think I might be meaning more that the wish to take them isn't always enough. For example, I wish I was far more actively making photographs happen, but after spending most of my life doing that, there came the time when I realised that without the commission there was really little reason. I have a hunch that this position might be something that amateur photographers, however good they may be, might never reach; is it caused by too much photography taking away the excitement, that the excitement is so heightened by the existence of a client, that where that part of the equation is non-existent, the excitement is so much lower, so much less of a kick? In fact, I sometimes wonder if my wish to continue making pictures isn't the final, unconscious act of a corpse still twitching


"But let’s talk for a moment about photography and thinking. When I’m preparing to do some specific thing with a camera – say, spending a few days on the back roads of Kansas, shooting dying towns and deserted farms -- I think about what equipment to take with me, which roads I’ll follow, and what I’ll do. But once I’m on the road and see my quarry, I stop thinking, and the camera takes over. I’ve said it before on this forum, and I’ll say it again: thinking is an almost sure way to screw up a picture. I see it again and again, especially with landscape: the picture that means nothing because it was “well thought out” and carefully composed. These “well thought out” productions are always very pretty, and always very meaningless. Usually they’re clichés, but not always. Wedding and fashion photographs almost always are “well thought out” nothings, and rather than being frowned upon, in those genres clichés are mandatory. I think an awful lot of  Annie Liebovitz’s photographs fall into the “well thought out” and meaningless category, though often they’re not clichés."


I think you may well be right insofar as wedding photography is concerned, and it was probably necessarily ever so to some degree, but fashion, I think, is (or was!) different during my time. I remember Helmut Newton being interviewed on Fashion TV, the show from Toronto. In it, speaking with Ms Becker, he remarked about how it used to be in his early days in Paris, how they were 'let out into the streets like mad dogs' to get the shots. He compared it to the then present - some years ago now - where so much money had become involved that everything had become such a 'big deal'. The gist of his message was that the freedom had gone, that the accountants ruled and that because of that the fashion editors had had to change tack and attitude and cover their financial asses at the expense of the art, the freedom of the snapper to use his own ideas, generally made up on the wing.

"And, yes, I agree that determining whether or not a work of art falls into a category such as existentialism can lead to asinine and often hilarious curator-speak and “artist’s statements.” But rather than take those with a grain of sodium chloride, I’d suggest trying nitrous oxide."

I fell about laughing at that one...

;-)

Rob C


EDIT: I have no idea why part of this post has become separated from the main body.
« Last Edit: December 13, 2009, 03:35:25 PM by Rob C » Logged

RSL
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« Reply #6 on: December 13, 2009, 08:11:02 PM »
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Rob, the reason it broke away was that you didn't use the correct html codes to separate the quotes from your responses. A quote in html begins with an opening square bracket "[" followed by the word "quote" followed by a closing square bracket: "]". The end of the quote is identified by the construction "/quote" enclosed in the same two square brackets. I can't illustrate it with an example because the system will interpret the result and give the response without showing the html code.
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Ray
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« Reply #7 on: December 14, 2009, 12:17:16 AM »
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I'm afraid any serious reply to Justan's post would involve reams of convoluterd argument.

Out of curiosity, I checked what my Webster's 7th New Collegiate Dictionary had to say. (I wouldn't dare refer to the Complete Oxford Englidh Dictionary   . )

"A chiefly 20th century philosophy that is centred upon the analysis of existence, specifically of individual human beings, that regards human existence as not exhaustively describable or understandable in idealistic or scientific terms, and that stresses the freedom and responsibility of the individual, the irreducible  uniqueness of an ethical or religious situation, and usually, the isolation and subjective experiences (as of anxiety, guilt, dread, anguish) of an individual therein."

In other words, we're all in it together and we're all basically stuffed. No amount of analysis will save us.

I believe in individual expression, and I'm glad I'm not a commercial photographer who is required to satisfy the needs of a client. I photograph simple what interests me, no more, no less.

When I first came across the marvelous manipulative capabilities of Photoshop many years ago, version 3 or 4 as I recall, I was excited because here was a method of changing reality according to one's own vision. Wow!

Of course, I already understood that a photograph did not depict reality. I was already convinced that what we think and perceive as reality, is just an illusion, a product of our own peculiar mental state, condition and upbringing.

Nevertheless, Photoshop is like a painter's brush which allows one to bestow upon a 'so-called' capture of reality, one's own individual experience and viewpoint.

I consider it a merger of the artistic skills of the painter with the technical skills of the photographer.
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Rob C
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« Reply #8 on: December 14, 2009, 05:25:27 AM »
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Quote from: RSL
Rob, the reason it broke away was that you didn't use the correct html codes to separate the quotes from your responses. A quote in html begins with an opening square bracket "[" followed by the word "quote" followed by a closing square bracket: "]". The end of the quote is identified by the construction "/quote" enclosed in the same two square brackets. I can't illustrate it with an example because the system will interpret the result and give the response without showing the html code.



Thanks for that Russ, I had no idea how or where I had blown it.

The trick, now, is to hope that my memory holds all that information and brings it up at the right moment...

Rob C
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« Reply #9 on: December 14, 2009, 05:37:45 AM »
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Quote from: Ray
I consider it a merger of the artistic skills of the painter with the technical skills of the photographer.



Ray

I think that sells the painter a little short! In fact, it could even be thought, in a way, to sell the skills of the photographer a little short too. I believe that the photographer's skills might well be falling off the truck these days, and being replaced by other, new ones. There's a thread running on another forum here, where this point was made when someone wrote that he would cherish a return to the time when the effects, final cuts were made in camera, which is what I think too. Was it in reference to the flare induced by some older lenses? Yes, it was comparing flare on film and on digital capture.

PS has certainly opened a doorway to new solutions and made some things easy. But when you take extreme manipulation into the equation, then I believe that it is something other than photography, an art-form (?) of its own which not every photographer necessarily wants to pursue.

But no, the more I think about it, the less I see a parallel with painters' skills, though I accept there are tools for faking some painterly effects!

Rob C
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« Reply #10 on: December 14, 2009, 10:34:29 AM »
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Quote from: Rob C
Thanks for that Russ, I had no idea how or where I had blown it.

The trick, now, is to hope that my memory holds all that information and brings it up at the right moment...

Rob C

Rob, Click on the "Reply" button and examine the html around this quote:

Quote
This is a quote.

You'll see what I mean.
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Eric Myrvaagnes
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« Reply #11 on: December 14, 2009, 12:37:04 PM »
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Quote from: RSL
Rob, Click on the "Reply" button and examine the html around this quote:



You'll see what I mean.
How come you know so much about "html," Russ? That's supposed to be a specialty of teenagers, not old geezers like us.

I bet you even think "html" stands for something other than "High-Tech Mystery Language," right?   


Eric

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RSL
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« Reply #12 on: December 14, 2009, 01:46:10 PM »
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Quote from: EricM
How come you know so much about "html," Russ? That's supposed to be a specialty of teenagers, not old geezers like us.

I bet you even think "html" stands for something other than "High-Tech Mystery Language," right?   


Eric

Eric, After I retired from the Air Force I did software engineering for 30 years. I closed down my little corporation at the end of December last year. I'm no html expert, but for quotes you don't need to be. Anyone who thinks html is difficult should take a look at troff, which I used to use to format manuals for my software. Nowadays people can't even imagine a text formatter that's not wysiwig.
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JeffKohn
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« Reply #13 on: December 14, 2009, 05:31:13 PM »
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At the risk of nitpicking, the forum actually uses vbcode for formatting, not html.
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« Reply #14 on: December 14, 2009, 08:39:56 PM »
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Good nit, Jeff. You're right.
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LKaven
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« Reply #15 on: December 15, 2009, 09:03:02 AM »
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Existentialism should be demystified a bit, as it's often misunderstood.  

In Sartrean form, it is at the heart a humanist philosophy.  Ideas about the impersonal nature of the universe are to be met with a response, a reaffirmation of a commitment to truth, freedom, justice, beauty, love.  The idea of engagement or commitment is the glue that binds us together, as individuals, as groups.  

Historically, the philosophy is also situated at the time of the explosion of the modern industrial age.  Social criticism is a part and parcel of its trade.  This is often deployed in the form of fictional works, novels, plays, films.  The theater of the absurd and its relatives address the very essence of the absurd -- the absence of commitment, the absence of engagement.  

Many mistake existentialism for the simple affirmation of -- or resignation to -- the idea of an impersonal universe, but it is really nothing without the conclusion: we do not resign ourselves to despair, we decry the absurd, and affirm the virtues.  

Often the use of contrived characters and situations renders existentialist works as superficially unbeautiful, but in the best of circumstances, this gives way to another, darker beauty of a different sort.  As with many modernist works, the audience is often challenged to meet the artist half way.  Sometimes the journey is fruitful, and sometimes it isn't.  Whether to take it or not is just an existential dilemma.
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Justan
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« Reply #16 on: December 16, 2009, 06:32:08 PM »
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> Justan, Your post richly deserves answers it hasn't gotten.

Thanks!

> I printed out Tillich's article and temporarily comb-bound it so I could read it at leisure over a Manhattan. As usual Paul Tillich deals with ideas that matter. After I finished the article I picked up my big yellow book of Lee Friedlander's photographs and the pictures seemed a continuation of what I'd been reading. I'd say that Friedlander's approach to photography is about as existentialist as any you can find.

I'm not familiar Lee Friedlander. I spent a little time using Google and saw some of his works and read a little, but not enough to begin to know anything about him. Where do you see parallels?

Tillich’s was a unique take on existentialism. His background is theology and much of his works were on using themes of existentialism to attempt a continuity of religion in a time where many believe the concept obsolete. In this way he was somewhat of an apologist.

I was particularly interested in the section titled “Existentialism and Idealized Naturalism.”  Following is an excerpt from that:

“What has this situation to tell us about the religious realm and about our human situation? It has to tell us, first of all, that there are moments in individual life and in the life of society when something cannot be hidden, cannot be covered any more. If the surface is maintained, then this can be done only at the price of honesty, of realism, of looking into the depths of our situation, and this price always includes fanaticism, repressing elements of truth, and self-destruction. We must be able -- and that was the great work of these artists -- to face our present reality as what it is. These artists were accused by many of having only negative characteristics….

“As long as we remove from our sight what we cannot help facing, we become dishonest; then that kind of art which he favored, that kind of beautifying realism, is what covers reality. These artists, therefore, who took away the cover from our situation, had a prophetic function in our time.

These are well reasoned observations which describes ideals behind some of the best modern works. From this it is easy to see that where goals get lost is when artists substitute the shock value for the truth. The former is usually an easy sell while the other demands nuance.

It’s ironic in a way that so much of what Photoshop does is to remove the imperfections as perceived by the creator……
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« Reply #17 on: December 16, 2009, 06:37:39 PM »
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> don't mean to be flippant; I honestly do believe that it might be best not to dwell or delve too deeply into motivation, appreciation or even understanding of what is, I suppose, art. Perhaps the best way is just to get on and do it or wait until something worth doing really comes along and fires your imagination.

That is a valid comment.  Nietzsche and Freud wrote of the motivations of what they deemed the actor. For them the actor posses the skills or “spirit” to achieve artistic goals, but not necessarily a great depth of knowledge of what that spirit is.  The lack of understanding didn’t necessarily reflect in the end product.

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« Reply #18 on: December 16, 2009, 06:59:05 PM »
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Quote
Existentialism should be demystified a bit, as it's often misunderstood.  

In Sartrean form, it is at the heart a humanist philosophy.  Ideas about the impersonal nature of the universe are to be met with a response, a reaffirmation of a commitment to truth, freedom, justice, beauty, love.  The idea of engagement or commitment is the glue that binds us together, as individuals, as groups.  

Historically, the philosophy is also situated at the time of the explosion of the modern industrial age.  Social criticism is a part and parcel of its trade.  This is often deployed in the form of fictional works, novels, plays, films.  The theater of the absurd and its relatives address the very essence of the absurd -- the absence of commitment, the absence of engagement.  

Many mistake existentialism for the simple affirmation of -- or resignation to -- the idea of an impersonal universe, but it is really nothing without the conclusion: we do not resign ourselves to despair, we decry the absurd, and affirm the virtues.

This is a very good summary! But one point begs for elaboration. A lot of Existentialism serves to try and comprehend that while people have freedom to do as they choose, they mostly make the same choices over and over. In turn the exploration of this phenomena often visits the forces placed upon people in the form of pressures to conform.

Quote
> Often the use of contrived characters and situations renders existentialist works as superficially unbeautiful, but in the best of circumstances, this gives way to another, darker beauty of a different sort.  As with many modernist works, the audience is often challenged to meet the artist half way.  Sometimes the journey is fruitful, and sometimes it isn't.  Whether to take it or not is just an existential dilemma.

Would you elaborate on the “darker beauty”? Is a great observation
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« Reply #19 on: December 24, 2009, 12:00:46 PM »
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I came across the following article which describes the film Forrest Gump as a play about existentialism.

http://www.godawa.com/HW/ForrestGump.pdf
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