Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Colin Wilson: 26 June 1931- 5 December 2013

Colin Wilson was a neoexistentialist philosopher, researcher, critic and novelist. His most famous work was “The Outsider”, an analysis of the alienation of the creative individual. According to Wilson “an ‘outsider’…is a self-actualiser who wants to sidestep the demands of everyday life and get down to creation. He (or she) wants to evolve, to move on.” Wilson wrote a vast amounts of books ranging from philosophy and religion to the occult and the history of crime. 

The basic element that underpinned Wilson’s work was the desire to overcome mundane reality and reach a new level of consciousness. Many people tend to think that a typical day is rather tedious and repetitive, but in reality they are just not making the effort to analyze their situation. Wilson insisted that people aren’t one-dimensional beings but also possess the abilities of critical analysis and imagination. He suggested that if we utilized our critical and imaginative abilities we would realize that the world is a meaningful and interesting place filled with infinite possibilities. 

Wilson’s most important idea was the theory of “peak experience”: these are brief but very intense experiences in which our senses and energies seem to heighten and the world takes on a new positive meaning. Artists and creative people seem to have this type of experience when they are inspired -Wilson proposed that anyone can induce them by sheer effort of the will. He saw these “peak experiences” as indications that humans possess unrealized potentialities and believed that our primary aim in life should be to develop and expand our understanding. He never failed to stress the importance of having a positive outlook on life and opposed pessimist theories which describe life as futile and meaningless.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jannis Spyropoulos and Arthur Schopenhauer’s aesthetic theory

Jannis Spyropoulos (1912-1990) was a Greek painter who became known as “the classicist of abstraction” (Jannis Spyropoulos, Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, 1994). His abstract paintings of “luminous darkness” -as Marina Lambraki-Plaka once called them (Jannis Spyropoulos: A Classicist of Abstraction 1912-1990)- combine technical discipline with emotional and intuitive expression.
By incorporating various elements in his images (paper collage, colour nuances which contrast against dark/monochromatic backgrounds, melted wax, signs, letters, arrows, dots, incisions, scratchings, geometric shapes, symbolic patterns), Spyropoulos attempted to create abstract “inner landscapes” which portray the “essence” of things. The individual components of his paintings seem to lose their material character, reminding one of old master paintings in which the painter endeavored to remove the marks of his brush. Spyropoulos aimed to imbue his paintings with an aura of classicism and timelessness; his “poetic and yet vigorous images…(combined) the skill of the old craftsman with the verve of the pioneer.” ( Jannis Spyropoulos: A Classicist of Abstraction 1912-1990)

                                                 Spyropoulos, J. (1965) Page No. 5

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a German idealist philosopher whose thinking integrated elements from eastern and western philosophies/religions, and among other topics dealt with art/aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, death and the meaning of life. Schopenhauer’s work had a big impact on other philosophers (such as Friedrich Nietzche who appropriated Schopenhauer’s idea of the “will”) and helped pave the path for psychoanalytic theories (Freud’s notion of the subconscious is present in Schopenhauer’s concept of the “will”). His metaphysical aesthetic theory -which appears in the book "The World as Will and Representation"- had a significant impact on art (especially classical music and abstract painting) and is crucial in understanding the work of Spyropoulos- and the aesthetic work of art in general.
Schopenhauer (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, 1969) presents the world as having two basic aspects: that of representation (the way we individually perceive things as being external to the mind) and that of will (an equivalent of the Kantian “thing-in-itself”, the way the world is in itself). The world is the representation of a single Will (the ultimate cosmic force), of which our individual wills are phenomena; because of our individual wills we can never see things as they really are -we “represent” phenomena to ourselves according to our own immediate self-interest.
Schopenhauer suggests (Vol I, Book III) that one way to free ourselves from our distorting will is through art/aesthetic contemplation: in his opinion art can suspend the viewer’s ordinary “will-ful” perception of the world and transport him/her to the higher realm of eternal “Ideas” (Schopenhauer adopts the Platonic concept of the “Idea” as the unchanging archetypal reality which exists beneath the world of phenomena and the confines of time/space/causality). Thus, the viewer is transformed from a “willing” subject into a “purely knowing” subject. Through aesthetic contemplation (Vol. I, p.178-9):

We no longer consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither of things, but simply and solely the what…(Through contemplation we) exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception…What is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea…

As described, by “Idea” Schopenhauer means the timeless/eternal truths of our world, the undistorted/enduring elements in all change, the “innermost nature” of things which transcends phenomenal reality. The communication of this “Idea”, Schopenhauer says, is the aim of the aesthetic work of art. In his own words (Vol. I, Book III), “the object of aesthetical contemplation is not the individual thing, but the Idea in it which is striving to reveal itself.” Manos Stefanidis (Concerning Painters, 1988) argues that it is extremely difficult to clearly articulate this world of “Ideas”, since the observer inevitably interposes himself/herself and “contaminates” the purity of the “Idea”. In his opinion (p.135), the only way of participating in “things in themselves” is to be silent, to break off the “discourse”. He acknowledges such an attempt in the “silent” pictorial language of Spyropoulos (p.135):

The interpolation and participation of the observer can produce a personal vision of “things in themselves” in abstract art…The wealth of (the imagination of Spyropoulos) in morphology and colour, the power of his brush, lay close siege to the “things in themselves” as they lie enveloped in ontological silence…

Schopenhauer argues (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II) that art requires the co-operation of the beholder as it can only act through the medium of the imagination:

Not everything can be given directly to the senses through the work of art, but only as much as is required to lead the imagination on to the right path… the very best in art is too spiritual to be given directly to the senses; it must be born in the beholder’s imagination…

In "The World as Will and Representation" he also analyzes the concept of genius, which for him consists of the capacity for aesthetic experience. He describes genius as (Vol.I, p.185-6):

The ability to leave entirely out of sight our own interest, our willing, and our aims, and consequently to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world.

He suggests that it is possible for the artistic genius to reach states of heightened perception wherein (Schopenhauer: Parerga and Paralipomena Vol 2, 2000) “the most ordinary objects appear completely new and unfamiliar”; he argues that the artist-genius is able to remain in such a state for a prolonged period of time -thereby making it possible to transmit this state of “pure perception” by “reproducing” it in his/her art.
In Schopenhauer’s view (The Essential Schopenhauer, p.29-31), art which depicts objects with excessive fidelity to nature (he mentions examples of figurative art such as still-lifes of food/drink and paintings of the nude body) cannot adequately represent the most important element of the work (the underlying “Idea”) - it is more likely to reinforce our usual will-ful/distorted way of perceiving things, rather than transport us to the realm of pure contemplation. He also suggests (Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms, p. 162) that music is the superior artform: since it has no specific “subject” (which is also a characteristic of abstract painting) it can most easily transport the viewer to the realm of imagination and pure, will-less knowing.
Schopenhauer’s theories influenced many abstract painters who attempted to portray “things in themselves” (non-objective representation of things) and the “Ideas” that underlie our world of phenomena. Spyropoulos submerged himself in his work in an attempt to discover and portray the “imaginary reality” beyond the confines of time and space, cause and effect. He once declared that he “arrived at abstraction while seeking the quintessence of certain things” (Jannis Spyropoulos, Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, 1994, p.38), and that he “spread out darkness in search of light” (Jannis Spyropoulos: A Classicist of Abstraction 1912-1990”, 1995).
One could describe the art of Jannis Spyropoulos as visual music because of the effect it has on our consciousness: through harmonies, rhythm, colour-tones and composition it aims to transport the viewer to the realm of pure speculation. Perhaps his paintings could be described as “works of genius” as they convey a sense of heightened aesthetic awareness- they most certainly are a testimony of his search for “interiority” and “reality” beneath mere surface/form.

                                                 Spyropoulos, J. (1963) Triptychon A


Danilopoulou, O. (ed.) (1994) Jannis Spyropoulos (1912-1990) Retrospective Exhibition. Thessaloniki : Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art.
Hollingdale, R.J. transl. (1970) Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms. Penguin Classics.
Payne, E.F.J. (2000) Schopenhauer: Parerga and Paralipomena Volume 2. Clarendon Press.
Schopenhauer, A. (1962) The Essential Schopenhauer. London: Unwin Books.
Schopenhauer, A. (1969) The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I. New York: Dover Publications.
Schopenhauer, A. (1966) The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II. New York: Dover Publications.
Stefanidis, M. ‘Spyropoulos and Tsarouchis: An unforeseen dialogue on the form of the invisible’ in (1995) Jannis Spyropoulos: A Classicist of Abstraction 1912-1990. Athens: National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum.
Stefanidis, M. (ed.) (1988) Concerning Painters. Titanium


Monday, March 3, 2014

Christian Boltanski and Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic of the sublime

Christian Boltanski is an artist who deals with the human condition and the universal theme of death, but also explores the themes of truth/fiction, childhood, innocence and memory. He uses a blend of real and fabricated documents and a variety of expressive mediums such as painting, film, mail art and sculpture. Boltanski is well known for his quasi-religious installations which allude to various sources (such as public memorials, religious icons, the Jewish Holocaust, his own past) in which he combines photography, lighting and objects.
His work has a characteristic aura of mystery and uncertainty and often provokes contradictory feelings. An explanation for this may be Boltanski’s dual heritage: he has both Jewish and Catholic origins. In an interview (Christian Boltanski, 1994, p.96) he once declared:

A strange relation to the divine, the feeling of being simultaneously part of the “chosen” and the least of men, has driven me to affirm then contradict myself, to cry and laugh at myself…In Jewish culture, I’m drawn to the fact that one says one thing and its opposite at the same time, or the way of answering a question with another question and constantly mocking what one does…

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an important philosopher and one of the first to integrate an aesthetic theory into a philosophical system. His investigation of the notion of the “sublime” is an important reference point in many fields of research (such as art, aesthetics, literature). The “sublime” is a complex term that has been used over the centuries and is usually related to ideas of vastness, magnitude and awe. The word has many applications and can refer to varied things such as a natural phenomenon, a thought or idea, a work of art, a state of mind. Kant identifies the sublime (The Critique of Judgement) as an aesthetic quality which refers to the indeterminate relationship (or “conflict”) between the faculties of imagination and reason.
Kant was influenced by the writings of aesthitician-politician Edmund Burke, who mainly connected the sublime to overwhelming and awe-inspiring natural events such as a storm or an earthquake. For Burke (A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful) the sublime is “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger…Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.” Burke also believes that this “terror” is counterbalanced by a certain “polluted” pleasure, “a sort of delightful horror; a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror”.
In "The Critique of Judgement" Kant argues that the sublime is not a formal quality of a natural phenomenon, but rather a subjective conception which originates in the human mind (a “mode” of consciousness). For Kant the sublime can be formless and is a “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason”. He describes the sublime (The Critique of Judgement) as that “which in the very possibility of its being thought gives evidence of the existence of a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense.” To clarify his position, he draws a dividing line between the closely related notions of “beauty” and “sublimity”; he describes the experience of beauty as an experience of the form of an object in nature (and thereby an experience of limits), while sublimity is described as an overwhelming experience of formlessness or limitlessness that occurs in the mind.
Kant (The Critique of Judgement) describes the experience of the sublime as a simultaneous feeling of pleasure and displeasure (“negative pleasure”) -a kind of “disruptive” event where the mind is overwhelmed and strained at the edges of its conceptual capabilities. The sublime, he suggests, is of such greatness and magnitude that the faculty of imagination is unable to grasp and comprehend/ represent it. Thereby, when faced with a sublime event or concept, the human mind (sensory cognition) is deemed “inadequate” and the feeling of displeasure arises. Simultaneously, a feeling of pleasure awakens because rationality is vivified and affirmed: one’s ability to conceive of a sublime event as singular and whole (Kant describes this as a “super-added sense of totality”) indicates the superiority of human reason over nature.

                                             Boltanski, C. (1990) "Monument (Odessa)" [Installation detail]

Boltanski’s “monumental” installations (which consist of photographs arranged in geometric compositions, objects and lights) could be described as rather morbid as they allude to the innocent victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, the beauty and symmetry of his installations can potentially induce an aesthetically “uplifting” experience. It seems as if Boltanski is trying to grapple with irreconcilable oppositions (such as death and innocence, horror and beauty) thereby suggesting that life has an “indeterminate” aspect. By questioning the meaning the viewer brings to his art, Boltanski challenges the human mind’s conceptual capabilities, its ability to discover “truth” and its “authority” to interpret and pass judgement. Furthermore, his work suggests that the human mind is unable to completely comprehend “reality” which is something undecideable and constantly in flux.
As mentioned, the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of Boltanski’s art strains the beholder’s perceptual and imaginative capacities to the utmost. The attempt to decipher the unsteady and ambivalent meanings which underlie his work, brings the viewer to the uncomfortable position where he/she must face his/her limits of understanding. Therefore, it could be said that Boltanski’s art creates a kind of “intensification” of one’s conceptual-imaginative capacity (an ambivalent enjoyment) and, subsequently, challenges the mind to discover its potentially infinite inventive capacity and sublime nature.


Boltanski, C. (1990) Christian Boltanski: Reconstitution. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Burke, E. (1987) A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origins of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Cassirer, H.W. (1970) A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Judgement. Barnes &Noble Inc. and Methuen&Co. Ltd.
Gumpert, L. (1994) Christian Boltanski. Paris: Flammarrion.
Guyer, P. (ed.) (1992) The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Cambridge University Press.
Kant, I. (1978) The Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Semin, D., Garb, T. And Kuspit, D. (1997) Christian Boltanski. London: Phaidon.
Shaw P. (2009) The Sublime. London and New York: Routledge.