Sunday, 18 April 2010

Ideas are so Simple

In What You Should Know To Be A Poet Gary Snyder writes:

all you can about animals and persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
names of stars, and the movement of the planets
and the moon

and he continues....

I disagree with nearly all this, and more! Yet I think it's a great poem. Likewise I recently read an extract from Klee's Schöpferische Konfession: actions may be the start of everything, but the actions are governed by ideas. Another great artist, and again I think he is wrong. I explain why here.

Actions may be the start of everything, but the actions are governed by ideas. Are they? A whole line of philosophic thought would suggest otherwise. Ideas are merely copies of our original perceptions, a sort of photograph of our experiences: a vivid picture certainly, but only an image, fixed in time and framed in space, of a moving, eternally changing environment. Hume would have it that ideas were relatively unimportant – our passions are everything; it controls our reason, and it alone generates new knowledge. 

And here was Klee’s genius, I believed: to depict this transient world. But to add something to it, the bit that Hume left out: reason, abstract thought, or as Klee himself calls it –
construction. For it appears the mistake Hume made was to think that reason, our idea generating faculty, was somehow outside our experience of the world, when in fact it’s fused into. Yes, Herr Kant again.

So Klee was wrong. At the very least you can’t free ideas from our passions, at least not the in the world in which we live. Art and science are a different story, perhaps. In other contexts Klee recognised this. He wanted an art that included the totality of experience: the world of objects suffused with the mind’s universe.

Why did he write these words, given it contradicts his own practice, as an artist? Although extraordinarily intuitive Klee was also very rational; a kind of mystical intellectual. He is a symbol making machine, and although extremely sensitive to the surface impressions, and the deeper psychic vibrations, yet he suffuses them with ideas (he once said that figures only interested him as 
representations of his ideas). Yes, ideas are everywhere in Klee.

For a lot of intellectuals there can be a tendency to overvalue the ideas, and the mind that goes with them. The ideas can be so strong, so vividly alive, that their vague origins are forgotten, or not even noticed. The ideas are so full of passion, but somehow that passion isn’t registered: it’s taken for granted, subsumed as part of the very nature of the idea itself. Thus here: the actions in Klee’s paintings are so full of meaning, they’re wading in ideas, that they could appear be led by them. Klee always denied this, and their power attests to the truth of his views. And yet… 
actions are governed by ideas. This is a moment perhaps when his life conquers his art; not surprising in an essay, where a powerful mind will be at its most dominating.

Klee found the perfect medium for intimately combining the intuitive and the rational, the passions and the ideas. Though it took a long time. When one looks at the few earlier works that remain - like the 
Jungfrau in Baum or Zwei Männer, einander in höherer Stellung vermutend, begegnen sich - it feels like the idea is too dominant. The realism is too heavy handed a medium for sensitively conveying it. A problem shared by many of the academic symbolist painters of the time.

You start with an idea, and it grows organically. Before I began this piece I knew what I wanted to say: there are some artists, or individual works, which you like but whose content you disagree with, sometimes vehemently. I wanted to mention Gary Snyder’s great poem,
What You Should Know To Be A Poet. Marvellous! But its prescriptions…. Are not mine. But once the seed was planted the tree decided to grow in its own way. So ideas. Who governs them?

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