Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, March 28, 2011

ROGER FRY: Essay in Aesthetics

In his famous poem about a Grecian urn John Keats once wrote that 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' Over the years many people have believed this idea deep within their hearts. Beauty and truth are so closely inter-related that they are merged into one. Over the years many other people have believed just as strongly that this is pure nonsense. Beauty and truth are two entirely different things. Who’s right? Roger Fry checks into this fight on shaky ground. He admits that …I have never believed that I knew what the ultimate nature of art was. So why has he decided to write an essay on this very subject? Maybe he wants to clear up his ideas in his own mind. Maybe he wants to persuade us that beauty is just as important as truth. And he does take a strong position. In his opinion …the aesthetic pursuit is as important in the long run for mankind as the search for truth. He realizes that not everyone will agree with him. In fact, some of the heavyweights of philosophy will say that Fry is just plain wrong. Plato may be one of them. Did Plato believe that the search for beauty was as important in the long run for mankind as the search for truth? No. Fry writes that Plato himself put the question: Is art worthwhile? …he decided that it was not worthwhile and proceeded to turn the artists out of his ideal republic. So much for the artists. But maybe they wouldn’t want a philosopher like Plato in their own ideal artistic republic either. An obvious question is: why are these two views so much opposed? Can’t they live peaceably in the same town? Part of the answer is that they want different things out of life. Fry helps put this in perspective by setting the background for us: Man has the peculiar faculty of calling up again in his mind the echo of past experiences, of going over it again “in imagination” as we say. He has, therefore, the possibility of a double life; one we call the actual life, the other we call the imaginative life. Plato puts his emphasis on “the actual life” and the artists put their emphasis on “the imaginative life.” So what? Does it really make any difference? Yes, it does. In fact, it makes a great deal of difference. Fry writes that we get in the imaginative life a different set of values and a different kind of perception. It’s this “different set of values” that apparently bothers Plato. Actual life sometimes requires citizens to be brave instead of cowardly, chaste instead of promiscuous, restrained instead of impulsive. The imaginative life doesn’t require us to be citizens. It doesn’t require us to “be” anything. It doesn’t require us to do anything either. In the imaginative life we can simply sit back and observe our emotions without committing ourselves to any course of action. Fry expresses it this way: Art is an expression and a stimulus of imaginative life, which is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action. Responsive action implies in actual life moral responsibility. In art we have no such moral responsibility. It presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence. When we respond in real life we can be brave, chaste and restrained. On the other hand, we can also turn out cowardly, promiscuous and impulsive. In the imaginative life we can walk into an art museum or a movie theater and see explicit representations of life. There we can see various interpretations made by artists. They may be accurate interpretations or wildly misguided; they can be beautiful or they can be bizarre. It doesn’t matter. For those who agree with Fry each work of art is an expression of life seen from a unique perspective. It makes the world a richer and more beautiful place. Our emotional life is enriched by these works of art. And that’s good for art lovers like Fry. But it’s not good according to Plato. Why? Fry believes it’s because morality appreciates emotion by the standard of resultant action. Art appreciates emotion in and for itself. Fry wants us to observe more and learn to appreciate our emotional life, in and for itself. He thinks we can do this by contemplating works of art. Plato wants us to become better citizens. He doesn’t think we can do this by retreating from real life. The debate continues.

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