It is apparent I do not privilege the new over the old. It is also apparent that I do not uncritically celebrate technological triumphalism posing as our salvation. Technology serves the reality that invents and owns it. Since it fortunately cannot exercise its own judgment, the disposal of its use is left to those who control the economy and can thus manipulate the technology. If that authority cannot be seriously questioned or challenged, than technology becomes the accomplices of arbitrary authority and can be used to exploit those workers that end up in the workplace as the accessories of some kind of machinery. The modern office building too often consist of floors of workers trapped in tiny cubicles in constant contact with computers that program their daily work chores. Has modern technology liberated us or has it simply replaced previous machinery with more efficient machinery? Are we really the masters of this new technology or are we in reality the servants of it?
By now you must realize that I am not neutral in this discussion. It is not only artists and craftspeople who must choose between these two ways of living, but all of us have a disposition that favors one or the other. As a pottery collector, I would like to think that you could observe a wide array of pottery in my home that does not favor just one aesthetic but is diverse and eclectic in the full range of possibilities. But in my heart of hearts I do so enjoy the eccentric if not excessive display of a highly refined but exuberant form of creative expression.
Is there an inherent rivalry and hostility between subjective and objective approaches to life and art? Would one try to find the poetic soul of a poet by taking an X-ray in order to find the location of their expression? I don’t think so. One could locate Kansas on a map but surely not the world of Oz. Was one more real for Dorothy than the other? All art requires some portion of imagination. The realist must subtract extraneous elements to reach the essence of the observed reality while romantics must add their own elaboration to reality, or even escape that reality and create a new world of their own. Both approaches require interpretations. No two realists, however devoted to depicting the actual reality, are going to come up with exactly the same reality in their work. Romantics do not have to worry about fidelity to reality but insist upon an individuality that encourages them to develop unique expressions and results.
How do we find out if the ‘common sense’ of the culture or the dominant definitions supplied by those in power really comprises reality? If reality is just the way things are done because that is the way things have always seemed to have been done, why should we trust those conventions as representations of an invariant reality? If the way most people think and make sense of things reflects the common intellectual habits of the general population, why should we mistake these customs of thought as though it constituted the only possibilities of an immutable reality? It is the sober, solid façade of how things just seem to be that provides inspiration for original and creative thinkers and artists to overthrow them. While physical reality and even mechanical reality might indeed be fixed in certain prearranged patterns of physical stability, cultural and social reality is created and revised by those people who do not defer to it but act upon it. Artists cannot be such cultural conformists that they create only the most banal and mediocre results.
One of the most influential art institutions in the early 20th century makes an interesting case study of the competing poles of realism and romanticism as the basis for curricula and instruction. I am referring to the Bauhaus; the German art school started in 1919 and closed in 1933 as Hitler seized total power in Germany. The very nature and definition of modernism in the 20th century was highly influenced by this institution, however brief its duration. In the first volume of the Oxford “Encyclopedia of Aesthetics”, in an essay by Detlef Mertins, the historical context of the founding of the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius was provided,
“Responding to the Enlightenment imperative to rethink art and architecture in relation to the authority of reason and sensation, modern aesthetics harbored a reformist agenda that required the simultaneous de-education and retraining of artists and audiences alike. By 1900, the powerful desire for a new and broadly generalizable art and architecture – nonmimetic, organic, and objective – had aligned itself with several aspects of modernization that has taken up aspects of the aesthetic project. The founding of the German Werkbund in 1907 gave momentum to Germany’s acceptance of industrialization for manufacturing in the decorative and applied arts, under way since the early 1890’s. It served to link the applied arts and architecture and redefined culture and society in relation to mechanical production. At the same time, scientist-aestheticians, offered scientific explanations of human perception and aesthetic experience that became a new foundation for the arts, reinforcing emerging preoccupations with abstraction, elementary form, color, contrast, rhythm, and geometric mediation. Assuming the authority of science for the project of aesthetic retraining would be the counterpart to the reform of subjectivity and everyday life made necessary by the psychological, physiological, and nervous trauma engendered by modernization and metropolitanization.”
As Mertin explains this pedagogical development, it included elements that belonged both to the German romantic legacy and to the ongoing modernization brought by the industrial revolution and continued technological advances. The constant counterpart of this uneasy relationship was reflected in the organization and conduct of the Bauhaus. A part of this emerging approach was influenced by such pedagogical pioneers as Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Frobel, and Maria Montessori, who placed great importance on bringing out children’s inherent gifts through a guided process of active learning through varies of student activities. Art education became a significant element of promoting inner discipline by providing greater outward freedom. Looking back now, it might seem improbable to us that this combination of emphasis on scientific objectivity and student creativity could ever be reconciled and integrated into a single educational program. It was indeed a merger of opposites that came together at the Bauhaus and one was destined to triumph over the other.
The conflict between the appointed pedagogue Johannes Itten and the director Walter Gropius demonstrated the split and conflict between realism and romanticism at the Bauhaus. Mertin describes this as follows,
“A split between Gropius and Itten emerged at the end of 1921 over differences in philosophy brought to the fore by Itten’s increasing influence. The quasi-religious aura around him had attracted a strong following among students, and the centrality of his teaching and workshop responsibilities began to rival that of the director. Itten focused exclusively on the self-discovery and empowerment of the students and eschewed the notion of art as a preliminary to the design of commodities. He had no commitment to craft training for the artist and took Gropius’s desire to bring actual projects into the workshops as damaging of the quietude and harmony necessary for creative expression. For Gropius, on the other hand, this was essential for re-grounding art and architecture, integrating theory and practice, and maintaining support from government sponsors. Itten’s teaching also lacked any systematic theory of structure, pictorial space, or composition. His mystic privileging of subjective expression led to criticism by influential outsiders who introduced the discourse of objectivity and collective societal expression then emerging among the European avant-garde, which became important to post-Expressionist art and architecture during the mid-1920s.”
How do we rescue the poetic metaphor and the creative impulses from association with those reactionary forces who would manipulate subjective feelings to destroy instead of create? Can the same emotional force that provides our love of beauty and art also lead to the glorification of the warrior and war, the hatred of the foreigner and alien? We know that art has been employed and still is employed to further totalitarian and violent regimes of suppression. What are the inherent virtues of objectivity when employed with intelligence and integrity? What are the inherent virtues of subjectivity when employed with intelligence and integrity? What are the dangers of both when employed by people without virtue and intelligence? I cannot continue this division of the two much longer. I am convinced that significant intellectual and artistic achievements contain integrated elements of both kinds of knowing and feeling. Likewise I am sure that scientists would also claim that their work consists of imaginative and intuitive leaps and insights as well as empirical methods and objective evidence.
The same site can sponsor realistic and romantic responses. Nature has been both the bountiful site of scientific discoveries and the stuff of romanticist images and soulful poems of wonder. God has been found in the glory of nature and yet biology and other scientific disciplines also lay claim to the same place. The emerging science of environmentalism exists side by side with literary hymns to the beauties of nature. We have the legacy of the creation myths and stores of origin that mark so many indigenous cultures coexisting with scientific research that has unearthed the empirical evidence of how that natural world works and have evolved. Do we have to disprove one in order to believe the other? Are poets simply unreliable and given to hyperbole and exaggeration in their depiction of nature or do scientists lack the grace and imagination to make lyric what they instead state in their dry, often turgid prose? Can you give me one example where the objective and subjective ways of making meaning work together in friendly partnership? Would you offer your own ceramic work as an example?
I do try to maintain the pretense that I can bridge most things, portable in my ability to move past boundaries, divisions and taxonomies in my cosmic interests in all things. I think I have unwittingly shrunk the parameters of that pretense a bit in this letter. I do have preferences and pick and choose on the basis of those preferences. I do have prejudices and resist those things that do not bring me pleasure. Just another example, I prefer the cello or violin to the human voice. Think what that means in terms of my musical taste. I know, I know, I don’t know what I am missing. I would like to think that what I don’t like is a result of my sophisticated taste in those things I do like; after all you can’t like everything. But I fear what I don’t like has more to do with my inherent limitations. It isn’t so much I don’t like mathematics or science; the truth is I can’t really comprehend the specialized complexity of science or mathematics. Is everything people don’t like really because they can’t comprehend it or do it? How can I be a romantic hero to myself if I am a romantic only because I can’t do realism? It is indeed fortunate for me that melancholy remains a perfectly acceptable state for the romantic.
I invite you to join me in my garden and walk with me to view my assembled pottery in the rooms of my cottage. My house and garden form the romance of my life. Its eccentric existence in an inherently unfriendly world requires a realistic assessment of those cultural forces that provide implicit support and those that threaten it. I am fully capable of providing that critique. Finally I know by now what makes me happy. I cannot dismiss the possibility that all I value might be as perishable as I am and could meet their decline and demise about the same time I do. I am resolved not to let that spoil things for me right now. At my age I am grateful for the hopeful prospect of reaching tomorrow.