"Plastic Art [painting and sculpture] ...stands as a uniting link between the soul and Nature, and can be apprehended only in the living center of both." (275) It does so by expressing spiritual thoughts. This initial thought from "On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature" (found in What is Art? ed. Alexander Sesonske, New York, Oxford U. Press, 1965) indicates a break from Schelling's master, Kant, in that there is no deep division between the soul and nature. (The translation is by Eliot Cabot and may be found here in part as well. Google provides it for "free." This edition is The German Classics: Masterpieces of German Literature translated into English, Vol. 5.) He believes this relation is found in other arts too, for example poetry. Both nature and art are productive forces and this is what unifies the arts. Moreover, the original source of plastic art is nature. So, for Shelling, as opposed to, for example, contemporary writers like Dom Lopes, there is a coherence to the whole structure of art, and this is found in the relation between nature and art (made up of the various arts).
Further, when people say that art imitates nature, we need to consider which sense of "nature" is being used. One sense is that: "Nature is nothing more than the lifeless aggregate of an indeterminable crowd of objects, or the space in which....[the proponent of this theory] imagines things placed." Another person might see it vaguely as the soil of his nourishment. But "to the inspired speaker alone [Nature is] the holy, ever creative original energy of the world, which generates and busily evolves all things out of itself." That's Schelling's position, and it seems generally right. Of course, as atheists, we need not take the claims for this ground to be literally "holy" or even see a literal "creative original energy" acting in the world, although the latter correlates roughly with the idea of evolution (as long as evolution is conceived of in a way that allows for some directive elements....admittedly not a strictly Darwinian notion of evolution). If art imitating nature means this Schelling believes it is highly significant.
Schelling thinks it makes no sense to imitate a nature that is without life. He rejects the notion of Nature as a "dumb," "life-less" image and the imitation of this in artistic materials. Some philosophers of his time believed that, in imitating nature, only the beautiful and the prefect should be represented. But this leaves open the question of how the imitator distinguishes the beautiful perfect parts from the others, the ones that should not be imitated. Since it is actually easier to imitate the ugly it is tempting for the imitator not to be concerned with this.
Schelling also argues against the notion of imitation of abstract form. In this, we might regard him as a critic of Clive Bell's and Roger Fry's formalism before their time. He says that regarding "in things not their principle, but the empty abstract form" we will find that the result will not say anything to our souls or hearts. (276) But the perfection of a thing is "the creative life in it, its power to exist." So those who believe nature is dead cannot create beauty and truth through artistic imitation. (Bell and Fry, of course, rejected the very idea of imitation. But their formalism is not acceptable to Schelling.)
Schelling admired Winckleman for restoring the role of soul in art, raising it into the "realm of spiritual freedom": "he taught that the production of ideal Nature, of Nature elevated above the Actual, together with the expression of spiritual conception, is the highest aim of Art." However, people continued to see Nature itself as lifeless. We can see that this move of Schelling's allies him with the American transcendentalists in the aesthetics of nature (not surprising since they were inspired by Coleridge, who was inspired by Schelling.) Schelling prefers the idea of ideal forms of nature being animated by "positive insight into their nature." (276) Seeing nature as lifeless led to replacing nature with "the sublime works of Antiquity" whose outward forms could be imitated in the classroom, but without their spirit. They are only animated when we bring to them "the spiritual eye to penetrate through the veil and feel the stirring energy within." (276) This seems like good advice to artists. Another position taught "the secret of the soul, but not that of the body" missing the "vital mean" between these two extremes. So, for Winckleman, on one side there was "beauty in idea" flowing from the soul, and on the other was "beauty of forms." What connects the two? "Or by what power is the soul created together with the body, at once and as if with one breath?" (277) How can forms be produced from the idea?
At this point Schelling introduces a bit of metaphysics, the idea of Limit (the material and determined world) and Unlimited (the realm of freedom). From this comes his criticism of Bell/Fry formalism. (This is important since everyone believes that this formalism is destroyed by contextualism. But if there is an alternative formalism which also destroys Bell/Fry formalism, then isn't there a possible competitor to contemporary contextualism....not saying it is false so much as incomplete?) This is worth quoting at length:
Art after Winckleman went to a retrograde method since it strove "from the form to come to the essence." "But not thus is the Unlimited reached; it is not attainable by mere enhancement of the Limited. Hence, such works as have had their beginning in form, with all elaborateness on that side [consider much contemporary abstract art!] show, in token of their origin, an incurable want at the very point where we expect the consummate, the essential, the final. The miracle by which the Limited should be raised to the Unlimited, the human become divine, is wanting; the magic circle is drawn...." (277)
Don't read "Unlimited" as God. Read is rather as the moment of Freedom where the human becomes god-like. This, for the aesthetic atheist (see my earlier posts on this), does all the work religion needs to do without the excessive metaphysics and authority-based dogmatic belief. For this to work as a philosophy of life, the divine-like, the holy, the Unlimited, and freedom itself, can be a fiction, can be "ideal" in Kant's sense of not being real, but still absolutely necessary.
Schelling puts the issue of the relation of the artist and nature in a compelling way. He asks "How can we, as it were, spiritually melt this apparently rigid form [Nature as quiet and serious beauty], so that the pure energy of things may flow together with the force of our spirit and both become one united mold?" Isn't that a good question for the artist? Again, attacking the formalists before their time, he writes, "We must transcend Form, in order to gain it again as intelligible, living, and truly felt." He continues: "Consider the most beautiful forms; what remains behind after you have abstracted from them the creative principle within? Nothing but mere unessential qualities, such as extension and the relations of space." Further, he asks, "Does the fact that one portion of matter exists near another, and distinct from it, contribute anything to its inner essence? or does not not rather contribute nothing?" Hans Hoffman, the abstract expressionist painter would deny that it contributes nothing. Fine, but the question is worth asking.
I will end today with this passage, which I take to be profound, although difficult. Take this not only as a criticism of formalism but even of surrealism and dadaism, i.e. a criticism of 20th century art or better, the philosophy behind a lot of it, a philosophy that denies essences but only because it sees them as eternal and unchanging, failing to recognize essences that are historically relative
"It is no mere contiguous existence, but the manner of it, that makes form; and this can be determined only by a positive force, and subordinates the manifoldness of the parts to the unity of one idea - from the force that works in the crystal to the force which, comparable to a gentle magnetic current, gives to the particles of matter in the human form that position and arrangement among themselves, through which the idea, the essential unity and beauty, can become visible." (277)
Is this to exclude a scientific world view? Not at all: "Not only...as active principle, but as spirit and effective science, must the essence appear to us in the form, in order that we may truly apprehend it. For all unity must be spiritual in nature and origin; and what is the aim of all investigation of Nature but to find science therein? For that wherein there is not Understanding cannot be the object of Understanding; the Unknowing cannot be known..." (277)