#4 Will to Integration: the Heart of the Classical
By Scott Breton
What do we mean by the term “classical” - by classical art, architecture, music, “The Classics”? In the 21st century I suspect that many people think of background music, an old fashioned building facade with corinthian columns, and a painting featuring people in togas. They consider them a pleasant but naive world view not necessarily relevant to life today, to the gritty realities of the “post-truth” world that seems now worryingly on the brink of multiple catastrophes. There seems to be a sense that “those frilly Classicists couldn’t comprehend the horrors that would come with 20th century industrialised warfare, Totalitarianism, nihilism and corruption”. But for anyone who has a real interest in the Classical tradition this view is embarrassingly naive itself. Within the range of works that could be described as classical there is an enormous range of approaches, of viewpoints, of emotions and of technical solutions to satisfying the human aesthetic impulse. From the deeply joyous to the sacred to the mind-bendingly horrifying, from the grand to the welcoming, from the simple to the incomprehensibly complex. And arguably, most of the aesthetic developments that we claim for twentieth century geniuses, are really re-applications of ideas that were first conceived long ago. With this in mind, I think it is only slightly less superficial to define the Classical as being artworks from certain times and places, artworks rooted in the western tradition beginning with the Ancient Greeks.
So let’s try to go a little deeper: the huge number of artists and varied approaches across multiple artistic disciplines (that we are usually pointing to with the term classical) share certain characteristics - a degree of complexity, a degree of decorative effect. There is also a strong tie between the classical as an aesthetic approach and humanism, which is broadly characterised by a feeling of grace, sympathy for the human predicament and also for the audience. There is also characteristically a sense of sincerity - which means that the maker offers to the audience a thing they consider important (without the self-protective mask of irony so popular today). What do these characteristics have in common?
I would argue that the central impulse of the Classical is the attempt to make an integrated whole in some form, to find a solution to a certain aesthetic question or application. To integrate means to bring together into some sort of logical harmonising, and as such it is central to the idea of creativity in general. Without the emergent logic, throwing disparate ideas together becomes merely arbitrary - nonsense by definition. The intuition that finds a coherence, a logical relationship between seemingly irreconcilably distant ideas is what we think of as creativity - it is the relationship that is actually being created - not the ideas themselves. I think that this challenge is fundamentally inspiring for the artist and viewer alike because it is a metaphor for the challenge of human life in general, which requires at every step our best guess at how to manage a whole host of needs and wants that are in tension. Excellence is the resolution into a dynamic equilibrium the forces that seem to stretch us in multiple directions at once. Yet while this motivation for bringing together distant ideas into coherence is fundamentally compelling, I wonder if this should not be considered more a tool than an aim: I suspect that what might be ultimately more central to the project of classical art is to relate our personal subjective experience of being human into the wider cultural context of human history, to relate the concretes of the life we are living to the dreamscape of the collective unconscious, to the mythology of universal human culture - its wisdom and its cruelty.
But what of the decorative effects - how to justify the flourishes of a corinthian column or the proportions or forms and musical intervals? And are these necessary for one to be “classical” as an artist? I think that part of the strength of the Classical is that it accepts the nature of the human audience as human. The human eye, and ear, and capacity for narrative, is primed to seek certain things - variation and harmony, complexity and simplicity. Values and proportions and relationships intuited from our experience of nature and life. The reasons for this, cognitively speaking, are no doubt complex and warrant their own discussion. But for now, I would say that this is another way in which the Classical is applying the principle of integration - to make the artwork aesthetically appealing as well as meaningful in other ways also: the artist is taking into account, to some degree, the aesthetic pleasure of the audience as much as they are the other content of the artwork.
So, you might ask, is this really limited to what we call classical? Don’t we see this in a well crafted movie action sequence? Or a clever, catchy pop song? Or in an artwork from a cultural tradition outside of the west? Yes we do - it is precisely the sense of the well-crafted artwork (one that is appealing to the audience without the need for extra knowledge or the suspension of disbelief) that I am talking about. It is this that I am arguing is derived from or exemplified in the Classical tradition. This then is a broader definition of the Classical - the earnest attempt at a well crafted aesthetic product that is satisfying to the audience, who are treated with respect as fellow human beings. Broader, in that this includes a greater number of artwork, but I think also deeper, in that includes qualities that are shared across multiple cultures and times.
Is it not the case that this is a given? Isn’t this what artists always try to do? No, it is not - if we consider modernist and postmodernist artworks, it is often the case that the work itself is intentionally dis-integrated in some form - often reductionist in the case of modernism or intentionally poorly crafted in the case of postmodernism. Abstract expressionism for instance, takes design elements and mark making and removes them from their integration with pictorial composition. Jackson Pollock’s works have something to show us, with their scale and the energy implied their mark-making, as well as a cultivated sense of randomness of interval derived from nature - yet these qualities also exist, in different ways and degrees, in earlier representational artists. Do you want to isolate the effect or bring the effect into a broader compositional context, a broader psychological context? Mid 20th century musical minimalism likewise isolated certain musical effects, an intellectually stimulating investigation no doubt - but done at the expense of things like melody - so that the audience is required to listen to something which is, well, not much fun or emotionally engaging to listen to. In postmodernism, deconstructionist work critiquing society may well highlight certain problems that we need to face, biases and injustices that we didn’t know were there - but for at least a good chunk of this category, the audience, as a human being seeing the work, can be left feeling deflated, apathetic. No inspiring attempt at excellence of plastic craft, no heroic reaching for a solution is provided. Does it not count for something that artists provide inspiration in some form as well, are willing to become vulnerable by an earnest attempt at excellence?
The point is that if craft, integration, emotional depth and visual appeal is what you wish to achieve (and that is not a given today, as indicated above) there is much to be learnt from the Classical tradition. Seen through the lens of integration - of compositional elements, of process, of conceptual or narrative content, and of the effect on the audience - we can go to the museum looking for ideas that can guide our own aesthetic adventures. We might see the way that the particularities of an individual human form are integrated with a general sense of human proportion - the sliding scale of naturalism to the artist’s (implied) generalised “ideal”. We might see the way that space has been articulated by the shapes and placements of forms, by the use of perspective for the organisation of the space as well as the design and organisation of the picture, the viewing experience. We can observe the use of colour, how the variation in hue, value and chroma combine, through careful mixing, to convincingly appear as light falling on form. Further, any of these aspects can be exaggerated, stylised or otherwise emphasised to reinforce some other aspect of the composition - for example the gesture of the principle subject or the story being told. Often this expresses itself as the inspired decision, the dramatic or violent, partially destructive act that was guided by the cultivated intuition of the artist. Yet the logic remains, the sense that although hard to articulate why, the thing just works.
In any of these cases, knowledge and competence as well as creative energy were required. The artist necessarily had the humility to study nature as it is, and investigated how other people have applied this knowledge to the making of artworks. Therefore, in a great artwork we see not just a thing but the spirit of the person who made it, their attempt to make sense of things, to do something excellent, to offer it to their audience openly, without snide irony. We see someone throwing their light into the darkness, for others to see, in spite of the terrors and nihilism that dog human life.
The attempt at integration, at the harmonisation and organisation of competing forces, becomes then a guiding principle not just in art but in life generally. In the case of TIAC Academy, we seek to provide a well-integrated educational framework that combines and balances the important skills required for someone aspiring to a career as a representational painter or sculptor. We include art history, philosophy and other subjects from the social sciences and humanities into our courses, relating them to lessons focussing on core skills and knowledge of drawing, painting and sculpting - to anatomy, light, form and design. We combine practical skills in communication both verbal and written, but ensure that this is not at the expense of the core skills of the craft. Rather than offering a single conclusion about the way an artist ought work, we offer a range of approaches to representational artwork and a framework for thinking about them (Read the “Four Studios” approach) while encouraging and supporting students to navigate the question for themselves. Thus we seek to train the capacity to face the challenge of integrating competing factors into a workable solution, we seek to train this as a fundamental quality of independence. Because remember, all solutions are provisional - as the world and we ourselves evolve, we are perpetually faced with the need to re-evaluate the approach, to make our best guess, work from this basis and them later reflect again.
One final application of the ethos of integrative creativity: many representational artists and people enthusiastic about classical representation will be familiar with the sense of it being excluded from the mainstream art world, which has been dominated by postmodernism and its manifestations for decades. Part of the aim of TIAC Academy is to act as a bridge, to assist with the attempt to bring classical representation back into cultural legitimacy. Not merely as the indulged anachronism of official portraiture, but as a real and rich exploration of the human condition, as having cognitive, philosophical and aesthetic relevance, as a means for knowing the human condition as it stands now. What would this look like? For a start, museums once again purchasing contemporary classical representational painting and sculpture. Is this far fetched to attempt? I believe we have seen a softening of the effective censorship of classical representation in the high art world, as, interestingly, the valuing of recognising relative perspective has deepened its roots - if one can’t exclude another perspective due to recognising one’s own fallibility, one’s conditioning and cultural context, that ought to apply to the exclusion of contemporary practitioners of classical realism. But equally, I believe there is room to grow for contemporary classical representation. It is not enough for classical representational art to simply attempt to jump back to the 19th century and pretend the 20th didn’t happen - we live in this world, and we ought to engage with it as it is. It is up to us to articulate how classical values remain applicable, and are visible across cultures and epochs - that they are part of an idea of human nature that is broader than the West, broader than our century. And importantly, to investigate and make sense of what has been uncovered offered during modernism and postmodernism. To understand and integrate what value might be there, rather than turning away in a wilful blindness of self protection. In my view, this is a fertile time, with opportunities emerging for representational artists if they are willing to step into the challenge.
But I suspect that in order to do this it will be helpful to have a powerful, broad and practical framework with which to consider these various -isms and approaches. The attempt to do that will be the topic of the next article: the Model of Plastic Composition.