The Poetic Logic of Art and Aesthetics, Deconstructed


(the following: copyright 2008-2010 Malcolm Ryder)

By 1995, legendary photographer Frederick Sommer had collaborated with writer Stephen Aldrich to produce the text, the Poetic Logic of Art and Aesthetics. (working brief copy as of this article's most recent update: click here.)

Mainly, the gist of this notoriously elusive yet collectible text is as follows: that art-making allows us to investigate the explanations of life-as-observed, by creating art works as metaphors or demonstrations of the logic that governs how the observed life’s form results from its basic generative inspiration, theme or force.

The text doles this out in very difficult fashion, coming close to a fusion of logic and poetry -- an auto-homage to itself. This makes it fun and interesting to recite but frankly very difficult to understand -- most similar to a literature of ritual. Over time, it has acquired  a limited mythic stature. This adds to the attraction of reading it, but except for the added desire, it doesn’t offer much help to the reader. That's unfortunate because it is most often used to teach.

Luckily, it can be deconstructed, which in our case means that we can account for our claim of what is its “gist”.

In the opening page of its statements, there appears to be a struggle (won) to contrast and compare the idea of words, grammar, and propositions -- versus, the idea of images, display and states of affairs.

Supposedly, "propositions" in the world of words parallel "states of affairs" in the world of images. To create a proposition, one uses grammar to organize the linkages of words. To create a state of affairs, one uses display to organize the linkages of images,

And supposedly, names can be used to indicate images. We already know that indication is a form of representation, so if a name is a word, then it stands that a word can represent an image. But we know that names are not the only use of words. Nonetheless, the presumption of the text is that words cannot indicate the linkages between images. This would mean that words, even in grammatical constructions called propositions, cannot indicate states of affairs -- whereas displays in images can.

  • Unless we do at least one of three things, we simply have to reject that argument of the text's opening page:
    Allow some magical or unstated properties of the notion of “name” and/or “state of affairs”. They either mean something more than is described, or they mean something different than we assume.
  • Go along with the word play that uses both the word “said” and the word “seen” as synonyms for the word “understand”; that is, accept the argument itself as mainly being poetry.
  • Require no step of the argument to be permanent but instead just as a heat-of-the-moment opportunity to keep moving to the other end of the path.

The end of the path (as offered by the text) says that grammar causes words to "occupy a structure of language", and the result of that is a display (of a proposition).

But despite our intuitive insistence, the argument never says that images are displayed. It does say, in effect, that images can be represented by a display of words. What is never made clear is what it means to pose “names” of images as opposed to that proposition.

A far simpler and less ambiguous notion than all of the above is that “the ‘important’ thing about linkages must be demonstrated (else the importance will not be evident)”. This is not so poetic an argument; instead, it is just frankly “opinionated“, a nearly arbitrary opening for some follow-up . That actually gives it a full range of possible roles stretching from being just a rule for a game to being a major theoretical philosophy.

To go along with that, a more useful working title for the overall discussion would be “Aesthetics and the Artistic Logic of Making Things”.

That keeps us away from problems like the text's following claims.

Nothing can be said for which there is no image.
(If this was true, then "images" are far more than pictorial. They would have to be fundamentally conceptual.)

Images can be named; linkages can only be displayed.
(This is not true, since rhetoric commonly has labels for linkages, while many concepts do not have a name.)

But later in the text, this passage appears:

Life is the most durable fiction that matter has yet come up with
And art is the structure of matter as life’s most durable fiction.

The writing again is tangled, perhaps intentionally, but it seems we can draw this meaning from the passage::

  • “Life is an effect of invention with materials, and art is the invention itself, which makes life an effect of art.”

With art thus generating life, the following line of the text can be decoded:

Aesthetics celebrates art as the poetic logic of form.

At this point in the text, the term “poetic logic” refers to the idea that activity creates a pattern that reflects the activity’s respect for some constant condition (like a force or a rule, e.g., gravity) that provides the motivator, foil or constraint explaining why the pattern came to be the way it is.

Other fields talk about this in terms of a form having a generator operating in an environment. In art circles, this generator is often brought up in terms of an inspiration or theme, with context being the environment. As stated, the text means that art shows the logic of the generator’s influence on the activity, by providing a form that displays the logic -- whereupon aesthetics celebrates the display.

It is important, however, to note that this notion of "celebration" may actually mean “study” or even analysis, not just advocating or highlighting.

Furthermore, staying consistent with the spirit of the text, this is the point where we would pick up celebration as a response or attitude towards the life that art itself generates.

The most important aspect of that thought is the suggestion that aesthetics would study how life is shaped, looking for the mediating influence of art. There are two more interesting ideas associated with that one.

  • In one case, aesthetics might recommend art for the purpose of forming a life.
  • In the other case, aesthetics might concern itself mainly with discovering what "art" might be responsible for the life that is observed.

Said that way, the latter case, clearly more investigative, easily embraces photography; so it makes sense that the principle author of the text, Mr. Sommer, is a photographer.

But staying with the spirit of the text, a more complete understanding of aesthetics has it embracing composition as its primary subject, whether the composition is in photography, sculpture, dance, or other construction.

The text, unfortunately, makes this assignment difficult to pick up, and prior to this point it tries in [passing to introduce the additional idea of “technique” without much pursuing the thought.  Probably what it is trying to say is that "technique" is what we call the discipline of composing the form in interaction with its inspiration, theme or other generator.

It is definitely an important idea that the activity of art has a form itself, as well as the results of art having a form. This positions aesthetics as something that “celebrates” the relationship between the form of the art activity and the form of the art product.

Luckily, that corresponds to the idea of sensibility, in at least one way. We've now said that aesthetics looks at the relationship between the art activity (technique) and the art product. Meanwhile, if art is a mediating influence on the making of a life, then art overall is a metaphor for living. By looking at the relationship of the making of a life and the life that is made, sensibility is analogously related to aesthetics.

This is how the later part of the text intends to make sense. When it says:

Poetic logic is the sensuous apprehension of what we do not yet understand in the presence of reality.

Again, the gist of the full text is that art-making allows us to investigate (and then represent) the explanations of life,  by creating art works as metaphors or demonstrations of the logic that governs how life’s form results from its basic generative inspiration, theme or force.


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This page contains a single entry by published on June 7, 2008 12:05 AM.

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