Modern theories of art strongly emphasize that the essential task of painting and sculpture is the depiction of the spatial organization of things. Assenting readily to this, one may then easily fail to recognize that space within a painting is a structure altogether different from the real space we experience. Within actual space an object can be touched, whereas in a painting it can only be looked at; each portion of real space is experienced as part of an infinite expanse, but the space of a picture is experienced as a self-enclosed world; the real object interacts with everything that surges past or hovers around it, but the content of a work of art cuts off these threads, fusing only its own elements into a self-sufficient unity. Hence, the work of art leads its life beyond reality. To be sure, the work of art draws its content from reality; but from visions of reality it builds a sovereign realm. While the canvas and the pigment on it are parts of reality, the work of art constructed out of them exists in an ideal space which can no more come in contact with actual space than tones can touch smells.
This holds for every utensil, for every vase, in so far as it is looked upon as having an aesthetic value. As a piece of metal which is tangible, weighable, and incorporated into both the ways and contexts of the surrounding world, a vase is a segment of reality. At the same time, its artistic form leads an existence completely detached and self-contained, for which the material reality of the metal is merely the vehicle. A vessel, however, unlike a painting or statue, is not intended to be insulated and untouchable but is meant to fulfill a purpose--if only symbolically. For it is held in the hand and drawn into the movement of practical life. Thus the vessel stands in two worlds at one and the same time: whereas reality is completely irrelevant to the "pure" work of art and, as it were, is consumed in it, reality does make claims upon the vase as an object that is handled, filled and emptied, proffered, and set down here and there.
This dual nature of the vase is most decisively expressed in
its handle. The handle is the part by which it is grasped, lifted, and tilted; in the handle the vase projects visibly into that real world which relates it to everything external, to an environment that does not exist for the work of art as such. But then the body of the vase is certainly not alone in being subjugated to the demands of art; for were this the case, the handles would be reduced to mere grips, unrelated to the aesthetic value of their form, like the hooks and eyes of a picture frame. Rather, the handles connecting the vase with the world outside art also become components of the art form; they must be justified purely as shapes and as constituting a single aesthetic vision with the body of the vase, irrespective of the fact that they have a practical purpose. By virtue of this double significance, and because of the clear and characteristic way in which this significance emerges, the handle as a phenomenon becomes one of the most absorbing aesthetic problems.
Our unconscious criterion for the aesthetic effect of the handle seems to be the manner in which its shape harmonizes these two worlds--the world on the outside which, with the handle, makes its claim on the vessel, and the world of art which, heedless of the other, demands the handle for itself. Moreover, not only must it be possible for the handle actually to perform its practical function, but the possibility must also be manifest in its appearance, and emphatically so in the case of apparently soldered handles, as opposed to those apparently shaped in one movement with the body of the vase. The first of these types indicates that the handle is attached by external forces and comes from an external order of things; it brings into prominence the meaning of the handle as something reaching outside the pure art form. This contrast between vase and handle is more sharply accentuated when, as frequently happens, the handle has the shape of a snake, lizard, or dragon. These forms suggest the special significance of the handle: it looks as though the animal had crawled on to the vase from the outside, to be incorporated into the complete form only, as it were, as an afterthought.
The fact that the handle belongs to the quite different realm in which it originated, and which now uses the handle to claim the vase for itself, becomes apparent through its visible aesthetic
unity with the vase. In complete opposition to this, the strongest accent in some vases is on the tendency toward unity. They appear to have been whole forms first, the material extending to the periphery without a break; only afterward was enough material removed so that what remained constituted the handles. We find such modeling done to perfection in certain Chinese bowls, the handles of which are cut out of the cold metal. A similar incorporation of the handles into the aesthetic unity is more organically accented wherever the handle seems to be driven out of the body of the vessel in an uninterrupted transition, and by the same forces that shaped the body itself. For this is like a man's arms which, having grown as part of the same organizational process as his torso, also mediate the relationship of the whole being to the world outside it.
Sometimes shallow bowls are shaped in such a way that, together with their handles, they produce an effect of leaf and stem. Very beautiful examples of such bowls from ancient Central American culture have been preserved--bowls in which the unity of organic growth palpably connects the two parts. The tool, as such, has been characterized as an extension of the hand or of human organs generally. In effect, just as the hand is a tool of the soul, so too the tool is a hand of the soul. Although the fact that it is a tool divorces the hand from the soul, it does not prevent the process of life from flowing through both in intimate unity; their being both apart and together constitutes the unanalyzable secret of life. But life reaches out beyond the immediate circumference of the body and assimilates the "tool" to itself; or better still, a foreign substance becomes a tool in that the soul pulls it into its life, into that zone around it which fulfills its impulses. The distinction between being external to the soul and being within it--simultaneously important for the body and of no significance--is, for the things beyond the body, both retained and resolved in a single act by the great motif of the tool in the stream of a life that is unified and transcends itself. The shallow bowl is nothing but an extension or augmentation of the creative hand bearing it. But the bowl is not simply held in the palm of the hand; it is grasped by the handle. Thus, a mediating bridge is formed, a pliable joining of hand with bowl, which, with a palpable continuity, transmits the impulse of the
soul into the bowl, into its manipulation. But then, through the reflux of this energy, the bowl is drawn into the circumference of the life of the soul. This relationship cannot be symbolized more perfectly than by a bowl unfolding from its handle like a leaf from its stem. It is as if man were here utilizing the channels of the natural flow of sap between stem and leaf in order to pour his own impulses into an external object, thereby incorporating it into the order of his own life.
When, in the appearance of the handle, one of its two functions is completely neglected in favor of the other, the impression made strikes a discordant note. This often occurs, for example, when the handles form merely a kind of relief ornament, being fully attached to the body of the vase, leaving no space between vase and handle. Here, the form rules out the purpose of the handle (that with it the vase may be grasped and handled), evoking a painful feeling of ineptness and confinement, similar to that produced by a man who has his arms bound to his body. And in such cases, only rarely can the decorative beauty of its appearance compensate for the fact that the inner tendency of the vase toward unity has negated its relatedness to the outer world.
However, just as the aesthetic form must not become so selfwilled as to make impossible perception of the handle's purposiveness (even when, as in the case of the ornamental vase, it is out of the question in practice), so a disagreeable picture results whenever the purposiveness works in so many different directions that the unity of the impression is broken up. There are Greek vases that have three handles: two on the body by which the vase can be grasped with both hands and inclined in one or the other direction, and one at the neck by which it can be tilted to one side only. The decidedly ugly impression of these pieces is not caused by a violation of standards appropriate to either visual form or practical utility. For why shouldn't a vessel be tilted in several directions? The ugliness, it seems to me, can rather be traced to the fact that the movements laid out in this system can take place only one after the other, whereas the handles present themselves simultaneously. Thus completely confused and contradictory feelings of motion are produced; for although the demands of clarity and of utility do not, so to
speak, contradict each other on a primary level, the unity of the vision is broken up indirectly: the handles which are, as it were, potential movements are present simultaneously, whereas any actualizing of these movements in practice must deny this simultaneity.
This imbalance suggests the other aesthetic defect of the handle: its exaggerated separation from the unified impression of the vase. To understand this flaw requires a digression. The most extreme estrangement of the handle from the vessel as a whole-that is, the strongest indication of its practical purpose--is to be found when the handle is not rigidly connected with the body of the vessel at all but is movable. In the language of materials, this is often accentuated by having the substance of the handle different from that of the vessel. Such a design allows for a variety of combinations in appearance.
In some Greek vases and bowls, the handle, rigidly attached to the body of the vessel and made of the same substance, has the character of a broad band. If the handle of this kind of vase retains its unity of form with the vessel, the result can be a happy one. The material of a band which differs greatly in weight, consistency, and flexibility from that of the body of a vase is here symbolized; and, by hinting at these differences, the design sufficiently indicates that the handle belongs to another province of existence. At the same time, because the material is actually the same as that of the vase, the aesthetic coherence of the whole is still maintained. The delicate and unstable balance of the two claims on the handle shifts most unfavorably, however, when the fixed handle is in fact of the same substance as the body of the vase but naturalistically imitates another substance in order to stress its special significance by this different appearance. Particularly among the Japanese, otherwise the greatest masters of the handle, the following abomination can be found: fixed porcelain handles that arch beyond the diameter of the vase and accurately imitate the movable straw handles of tea pots. How much a foreign world obtrudes itself, by means of the handle, upon the independent significance of the vase becomes particularly obvious when the special purpose of the handle imparts a quite unnatural and masklike surface to the material of the vase. Just as the handle which merges with the body of
the vase without any gap exaggerates one-sidedly the fact that it belongs to the vase (at the cost of not manifesting its purpose), so this latter type goes to the opposite extreme: the remoteness of the handle from the remainder of the vase cannot be stressed more ruthlessly than when the handle takes on the substance of that remainder but forces upon it the appearance of an entirely dissimilar hoop which seems merely to have been fastened on from the outside.
The principle of the handle--to mediate between the work of art and the world while it remains wholly incorporated in the art form--is finally confirmed by the fact that its counterpart, the opening or spout of the vessel, works according to an analogous principle. With the handle the world approaches the vessel; with the spout the vessel reaches out into the world. Only in receiving its current through the handle and in yielding it again through the opening is the vessel fully integrated into human teleology. Precisely because the spout is an opening of the vessel itself, it is easier to connect its form organically with that of the vessel. Accordingly, such unnatural and self-contradictory degenerations as are found in the case of handles occur only rarely. (The very expressions "snout" and "nozzle," for which the handle offers no parallel, indicate the spout's organic function as a part of the body.)
The fact that handle and spout correspond to each other visually as the extreme points of the vessel's diameter and that they must maintain a certain balance reflects the roles they play: while, of course, they serve as the enclosing boundaries of the vessel, they still connect it with the practical world--one centripetally, the other centrifugally. It is like the relation of man as soul to existence outside him: by means of the sensitivity of the sense organs, the corporeal reaches to the soul; by means of willed innervations, the soul reaches out into the corporeal world. Both activities belong to the soul and to the closed sphere of its consciousness; and although the soul's sphere is the opposite of the corporeal one, it is, nevertheless, interwined with it through these two processes.
The handle belongs to the enclosed unity of the vase and at the same time designates the point of entrance for a teleology that is completely external to that form. It is of the most funda-
ental interest that the purely formal aesthetic demands on the handle are fulfilled when these two symbolic meanings of it are brought into harmony or equilibrium. Yet this is not an example of that curious dogma which makes utility a criterion of beauty. For the point at issue is precisely that utility and beauty come to the handle as two unrelated demands--the first from the world, and the second from the total form of the vase. And now, as it were, a beauty of a higher order transcends both of these claims and reveals that their dualism ultimately constitutes a unity that is not further describable. Because of the great span between its two components, the handle becomes a most significant cue to this higher beauty. Till now, art theory has hardly touched on the kind of beauty which contains beauty in the narrower sense merely as one of its elements. Formal beauty, together with all of the demands of idea and life, is incorporated by what one might call superaesthetic beauty into a new synthetic form. Beauty of this ultimate kind is probably the decisive characteristic of all really great works of art; the fact that we give it recognition divorces our position sharply from any aestheticism.
Besides the approach we have been pursuing, it may perhaps be worth while to apply a second, equally far-reaching interpretation to so unpretentious a phenomenon: we are speaking of the breadth of symbolic relations which is revealed by its very validity for things in themselves insignificant. For we are concerned with nothing less than the great human and ideal synthesis and antithesis: a being belongs wholly to the unity of a sphere which encloses it and which at the same time is claimed by an entirely different order of things. The latter sphere imposes a purpose upon the former, thereby determining its form. Nevertheless, the form in no way loses its proper place in the first context but retains it as if the second did not exist at all. A remarkable number of spheres in which we find ourselves-political, professional, social, and familial--are enclosed by further spheres, just as the practical environment surrounds the vessel. This relationship is such that the individual, belonging to a more restricted and closed sphere, thereby projects into a larger one. Whenever the more comprehensive sphere must, as it were, manipulate the smaller one and draw it into its own tele-
ology, the individual, too, is manipulated by the more inclusive sphere. Just as the handle must not destroy the unity of the vase's form for the sake of its readiness to perform its practical task, so the art of living demands that the individual maintain his role in his immediate, organically closed sphere while at the same time serving the purposes of the larger unity. With this service he helps to place the smaller sphere into the order of the more inclusive one.
It is the same with our particular provinces of interest. Whenever we pursue knowledge or are subject to ethical demands or create structures that have objective norms, we enter, with the parts or faculties of our selves that are involved, into ideal orders that are propelled by an inner logic, by a developmental impetus that is superpersonal. These orders always seize the totality of our energy by means of such particular faculties and enlist it into their own service. Everything now depends on our not permitting the integrity of our self-centered being to be destroyed. Every single ability, action, and obligation pertaining to that being must remain tied to the law of its unity, while at the same time we belong to that ideal external realm which makes us into points of transition for its teleology. Perhaps this duality formulates the richness of the life of men and things; for, after all, this wealth consists of the diversity of the ways in which men and things belong to each other, of the fact that they are simultaneously inside and outside one another, and that every involvement and fusion in one direction is also a dissolution since it is contrasted with an involvement and fusion in another direction. What is most remarkable in the way man understands and constructs the world is that a single element experiences the self-sufficiency of an organic whole, as if no aspect of it were left outside, while at the same time it can be a channel through which an entirely different life flows into the first, a grip by which the totality of one grasps the totality of the other without either of them being torn to pieces.
The handle is perhaps the most superficial symbol of this category; but precisely because of its superficiality, it reveals the range of the category to the fullest. Thus, that we are granted a plenitude of life both lived and shared is probably a reflection of the destiny of the soul, a soul that has its home in two worlds.
For the soul, too, can perfect itself only to the degree to which it belongs, as a necessary component, to the one world and reaches out into the entangled strands and into the meaning of the other--not in spite of, but by means of, the form which membership in the first world imposes on it. It is as if the soul were an arm which one of the worlds--whether the real or the ideal--stretches out so that it may seize the other and join it to itself, and be grasped by and joined to it.
Questia Media America, Inc. www.questia.com
Publication Information: Book Title: Georg Simmel, 1858-1918: A Collection of Essays, with Translations and a Bibliography. Contributors: Kurt H. Wolff - editor. Publisher: Ohio State University Press. Place of Publication: Columbus, OH. Publication Year: 1959. Page Number: 275.
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