Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hegel and string figure

I don't know Hegel at all. I've just read some writings of our contemporary thinkers citing him. But, I know that, in order to understand those contemporaries, sooner or later I have to read his writings. I take a look at Aesthetics: Lecture on Fine Art, Volume 2 (Oxford University Press, Trans., T. M. Knox). I quote the second paragraph of the chapter called "The Ideal of Sculpture (p.p. 721-2)."

Here, in a quite abstract and formal way, taking the standpoint of the ideal, we may take the symbolic in art to be the imperfection of each specific art. Consider, for instance, a child's attempt to draw a human figure or to mould it in wax or clay; what he produces is a mere symbol because it only indicates the living man it is supposed to portray while remaining completely untrue to him and his significance. So art at first is hieroglyphic, not an arbitrary and capricious sign but a rough sketch of the object for our apprehension. For this purpose a bad sketch is adequate, provided that it recalls the figure it is supposed to mean. It is in a similar way that piety is satisfied with bad images, and in the most bungled counterfeit still worships Christ, Mary, or some saint, although such figures are recognized as individuals only by particular attributes like, for example, a lantern, a gridiron, or a millstone. For piety only wants to be reminded of the object of worship in a general way; the rest is added by the worshipper's mind which is supposed to be filled with the idea of the object by means of the image, however unfaithful it may be. It is not the living expression of the object's presence which is demanded; it is not something present which is to fire us by itself; on the contrary the work of art is content simply to arouse a general idea of the object by means of its figures, however little they correspond with it. But our ideas are always abstractions. I can very easily have an idea of something familiar like, for instance, a house, a tree, a man, but although here the idea is engaged with something entirely specific it does not go beyond quite general traits, and, in general, it is only really an idea when it has obliterated from the concrete perception of the objects their purely immediate individuality and so has simplified what is seen. Now if the idea is to be recognizable by everyone, by a whole people, this aim is achieved par excellence when no alteration at all is admitted into the mode of portrayal. In that case the result is that art becomes conventional and hidebound, as has happened not only with the older Egyptian art but with the older Greek and Christian art, too. The artist had to keep to specific forms and repeat their type.

So, what his ideal sculpture brings to us is not some general idea (even of divinity), but what he calls "spirit." And then he goes on about Greek statues in details.

I have no idea what he means by "spirit." What I understand may be that, when we call something art, as Jacques Rancière puts it, we are seeing the thing itself and outside itself simultaneously.

But at this moment I'm not interested in the distinction of art and non-art. The paragraph I quoted above reminds me of string figures: Cat's Cradle, Cup and Saucer, Jacob's Ladder, Turtle, and so on (I was rather a clumsy kid, so the most complicated figure I could make was Jacob's Ladder). A loop of string constantly changes its shape. The figures are indeed hieroglyphic. If no one tells me that the figure is, for example, Turtle, I can never figure out what it is. The fact that someone has to tell me the names of the figures is important part of this game, like the fact that someone has to tell you that this gridiron is St. Laurence. The gap between the mental image of turtle and the symbol of turtle stimulates the mind. The game stimulates the mind in many ways, and also is physical experience. It might be highly mathematical, but you don't have to understand topology. The fingers memorize the order of the moves... "General idea" is also interesting.

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