Theorising the possible

Whatever happened to beauty?

Modern art turned the viewer’s gaze inward to the inner world rather than outward to the external world. In doing so, modern artists prefiguring existential and phenomenological accounts of perception highlighting that art is not only seen, it is experienced.

In this first post of a series, with thanks to Tom for his comments and suggestions, I shall explore the work and artistic legacy of the Futurists.

At the turn of the twentieth century a young ecletic group of artists in a hurry collaborated under the banner of Futurism. The Futurists in particular grappled with the role of perception in artmarking.

They were concerned to portray the world as it is experienced and viewed, and perhaps more importantly as it could be, through a richer perceptual lens free of the constraints of the academie which had become ossified and rule bound.

The Futurists in their abstractions were concerned with expressing the emotional state of the artist rather than depicting nature. This interest in the emotional state of the artist/observer of life arose from in part from the sculpturer Boccioni insistence on the work of art as an essential manifestation of reality, an aspect of sensation, rather than as an activity of the spirit.

It is thought that the philosophy of Bergson was an important influence on the Futurists. Berguson espoused two types of knowledge objective and subjective. Objective knowledge is “conceptual knowledge directed towards the requirements of our practical life and lending itself to the analytical procedures of the natural sciences” while subjective knowledge “is a projection of our intimate self-awareness onto the external world.” Berguson termed this intuition.

Boccioni attempted to describe the proces of intuition the ‘terrible tension’ as he experienced it:

“the artist seeks to maintain himself continuously ‘in the inside of the object, to live its changeability and to grasp its unity.”

See article by Brian Petrie, ‘Boccioni and Bergson’.  The Burlington Magazine Vol 116, No 852, Modern Art 1908-25) pp140147.

It is possible to unpick this concern of the Futurists with close attention to the disappearance of beauty from the discourse of aesthetics. Arthur Coleman Danto in ‘The Abuse of Beauty’ believes beauty lost its descriptive power with the early Logical Positivists. Instead the word came to stand for an expression of overall admiration. He says:

“Beyond what could be dismissed as ‘its emotive meaning’, the idea of beauty appeared to be cognitively void – and that in part accounted for the vacuity of aesthetics as a discipline, which had banked so heavily on beauty as its central concept.” 

The Futurists in grappling with these concepts enriched our understanding both of artmaking and visual perception.

15 thoughts on “Theorising the possible

  1. Tom Turner

    I see Futurism, like Art Nouveau, as an art movement which had too short a life and too little influence on design. And I regret that ‘beauty’ has lost its place in aesthetic discource. Its replacement with ‘aesthetic value’ is roughly as dotty as renaming street sweepers as ‘steet cleanliness orderlies’ etc etc. The reference to emotion is also significant. When abstract art is criticized as ‘clinical’ it is just this quality that is missed – though many people find Rothko profoundly moving.

  2. Tom Turner

    ‘Abstraction’ is a key thought process, which lets us focus on what is essential, but Abstract Art spent too much time abstracting the primary geometrical forms. I think Rothko was trying to abstract the collective subconscious and Boccione, in a famous painting, was abstracting ‘movement’. James Corner has been abstracting landscape patterns. It would be interesting to know what could be abstracted from Urbanism – and then applied to the creation of future cities.

  3. Leo Phillips

    Let me think of abstract as something that is not physical or concrete and couple this with urbanism… then maybe we are considering a social element of urbanform. Urban life is after all an intense social network.

    Let me consider abstract more in terms of an instrinsic form. The form of urbanism obviously varies hugely though at it’s core maybe could be considered as little boxes made of ticky tacky residing on a landscape.

    The futurists had a strong interest in technology, the technology of now, speed and youth.

    Can I suggest that urbanism has been abstracted? and that we are currently meeting here, as part of a social network, staring at, sending things to and from, uploading and downsizing our little boxes of ticky tacky.

    Though with this electronic landscape being inherently intangible how do we judge it in terms of aesthetics? It is so sensory orientated yet at the same time so distant from what we consider human experience( of which i beleive experience of physical landscape to be key).

    I hope that our future cities are not so intangible as this alter urbanism I am suggesting, though if they are I hope that the physical landscape can benefit from it’s merits.

  4. Christine

    Right now I this abstracted space of social networking what senses are being engaged?

    The classic five….

    1) touch?
    2) taste?
    3) sight?
    4) hearing?
    5) smell?

    Or also 6) balance and 7) motion?

  5. leo

    ok. touch, sight and hearing (balance & motion with interactive gaming).

    are you saying that unless all are engaged then it is not for consideration of aesthetics?

    but are our aesthetic judgements concerned only with works that plays on all 5/7. Something beautiful could be focused on one of a few of these. no? Duchamp’s toilet was not judged on it’s smell though is a subject of aesthetic conversation. And does a deaf man not have a voice in the philosophy of beauty?

  6. Christine

    Absolutely. All senses are important individually and collectively. Think of drinking a glass of wine….there is smell, sight, touch and a very elaborate ritual of taste.

    The demise of the cork has reduced the importance of sound to the ritual somewhat.

  7. leo

    All experiences are important I agree and hope that the abstraction of urbanism will be more human and beautiful than what i have suggested in the form of what is and global electronic highway. we don’t need a highway that big.

    The abstraction i hope for is one that takes the successes of our urban forms with landscape as a the binding agent, a mycorrhiza running through a socially rich network of healthy communities.

    I was down at Vauxhall, London with a good friend the other day. It was a fine day and England had just played their only winning game of the football world cup tournament the city was buzzing. The evening was fine and the tide was low. We decided to make our way to the beach of the Thames with a can of beer in hand. We sat at on the sundried pebbles before standing in the river clay with the Thames at our ankles and planned a future for urban landscape.

    The taste of the beer; the view of the river; the sound of the city; the feel of the clay; the smell of the summer air. A social interaction and feeling of well being.

    An aesthetic adventure.

  8. Tom Turner

    I’ve tried to think where I have had my best swim. Can’t reach a conclusion, but one of the best was in a rough sea at Ostia (near Rome) – by moonlight. No pics available!

  9. leo

    I am often immersing myself in the urban landscape and think about it very much. The river was one of these times. The river is and should be more of a prominent feature of London’s Urban Landscape. The other 8 million Londoners were missing out. (there were three others on the beach with the 2 of us)

    I did not swim, i would rather do this up further upstream in Sonning or Henley for my full immersion in the Thames!

    The river is the reason the urban landscape has been created in the location it resides and like a child respects its mother so should the city respect the river. Unfortunately social ills often lead to a lack of respect and appreciation until it is too late. I

    Lets hope for a beautiful urban future with the youth and vigour of sustainable technologies.

    I like the futurists am also in a hurry, and appreciate the help so as not to stumble too often.

  10. Christine

    Leo, those are beautiful sentiments…in the most positive sense of the word! (See I think 1a.) [ ]

    It is only lately that the world has come to realise, what I suppose indigenous socities did not forget, how incredible the natural world is.

    In the past perhaps we either sought to protect or coccoon our selves from some element of it, or to makes our lives easier relative to it (ie. 1) bears, wolves, alligators…2) heat, cold, snow…3) food, physical distance, clothing)Such that we haven’t always been able to wonder at and admire nature in the sense that poets often do.

    Perhaps a more poetic understanding of nature, rather than an economic one, will enable urban and agricultural societies to move towards finding a balance that is more respectful of nature.


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