Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Susanne Langer "Feeling and Form" in the Ross anthology: sculpture and architecture

As I said in my last post, "virtual" is a central term in the aesthetics of Suzanne Langer.  She held that artists create a virtual world, whether the art be music, dance, architecture, film, painting or sculpture.  Although she rejected the imitation theory of art, she did believe that art creates a kind of "illusion," i.e. an illusion of another world with its own space.   (The point owes something to both Kant and Nietzsche.  Kant held that we have a priori forms of intuition, i.e. space and time.  So, on his view, we construct the world through the reproductive imagination, locating things in these a priori forms.  Kant also believed that the artist genius uses the productive imagination to create a world of his/her own out of the materials of our world.  This ideas is similar to Langer's.  This is not surprising since one of her teachers was Cassirer, a Kantian.  The Nietzschean angle may be a bit more surprising:  Langer's references to Nietzsche do not show a deep understanding of his writings.  However she shares with him a view of art as creating a world of illusion, and that, unlike Plato, this is a good thing.  For Nietzsche, this is the Apollinian side of art.)

It is interesting to see how Langer applies her idea to sculpture.  She argues that the volume created by a sculptor is "a space made visible, and is more than the area which the figure actually occupies."  The work "absolutely commands" a complementary empty space which is part of the sculptural volume.  There is continuity between the figure and this space:  the void enfolds the figure and this space "has vital form" that is continuous with the figure.  She further argues that this "illusion" is based on "the semblance of organism."  What makes certain moves in sculpture inevitable or necessary is what she calls "vital function."  Sculptures then are like living organisms in that they, symbolically, "maintain themselves, resist change, strive to restore their structure..."  She admits that sculpture is not actually organic, but its form is "the form of life" that its space if vitalized.  That space is "virtual kinetic volume" which is created by the semblance of living form.

We gain a fuller understanding of Langer's idea of virtual reality when she discusses architecture.  "Architecture creates the semblance of that World which is the counterpart of a Self."  Architecture makes the totality of environment visible.  (Readers of Heidegger on "The Origins of the Work of Art" will find this to be quite familiar.)  The World of the Self is communal.  Architecture provides a created space which is a symbol of the system of functional relations that makes up our actual lived environment.  She seeks to distinguish her view from "functionalism" in architecture:  she is not talking about good planning.  Instead she is thinking of architecture as symbolic expression, as embodying the "feeling, the rhythm, the passion...with which any things at all are done."  It is the image of life which "is created in buildings."  Architecture then is "the visible semblance of an 'ethnic domain,' the symbol of humanity to be found in the strength and interplay of forms."  By "ethnic domain" she means not the domain of an ethnicity but rather the way in which architecture models the life of humanity.  As she makes clear in the next paragraph, this is a matter of how we exist as organisms.   Our actions develop organically, and they, and our feelings, have a natural pattern.  The human environment also has a functional pattern that is organic in nature.  Thus "any building that can create the illusion of an ethnic world, a 'place' articulated by the imprint of human life, must seem organic, like a living form."  Architecture should do this.  She finds this philosophy already in the writings of Sullivan, Wright, and Le Corbusier, with all of their talk of organic this and that.  These terms, she says, refer to "virtual space, the created domain of human relations and activities."  And this place, created by the architect, "is an illusion." It is atmosphere.  And it can be lost with any revision of the building.  Along with her architectural heroes she holds that decoration can destroy this illusion:  

So, "the primary illusion of plastic art, virtual space, appears in architecture as envisagement of an ethnic domain...."

So we might ask ourselves:  is Langer right?  Has she added anything to the history of aesthetics?  This might be difficult for me to answer since she clearly is saying some of this in opposition to Dewey.  She clearly wants to overcome the idea of continuity between art and everyday life.   I think however that the two could be synthesized.   I agree that art creates a world of illusion or, rather, each artwork creates its own illusion.  Speaking of architecture as creating virtual space seems to help.  So too with sculpture.  And I think what she has to say about painting is truly insightful.  In architecture, you are both walking in a real space and also transported into another space when walking through Falling Water.  Dewey speaks of refinement and intensification of experience, and he, like Langer, is very aware of how visual art both excludes all of the other sense, but also incorporates them indirectly, so that in seeing a painting of oranges you can sometimes almost smell the oranges.   One refines and intensifies ordinary experiences by way of creating a virtual reality.   When I have spoken of aura in previous writings might I not be saying the same thing as what Langer means by "virtual" or "image" or "illusion." 

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 32 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it from Broadview. 


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