Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Principles of Art by R. G. Collingwood

"Art is the community's medicine for the corruption of consciousness"
I decided to read R.G. Collingwood's The Principles of Art (1938) to move toward rounding out my reading of Collingwood, having recently completed his Autobiography and his The New Leviathan (reviews forthcoming on both). I started The Principles of Art thinking I might learn about beauty in music, painting, or literature and some such. Having read a good deal of Collingwood by now, I should have known better. 

Collingwood is not a systems thinker in the way of many great philosophers, such as Plato, Aquinas, Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, to name but a few in the history of philosophy who have constructed philosophic edifices with a room for every major issue. No, Collingwood isn't a system builder, but his is a systematic thinker. When he approaches a topic, be it history (The Idea of History) or civic life (The New Leviathan) or art, he lays his foundations very deep, sufficient to support the heavy weight of argument that he places upon those foundations. For instance, in The Principles of Art, he considers the history of analyzing sensation (Hobbes to Kant) and the innate expressiveness possessed by every human being and how that innate expressiveness prompts the unique human capacity for language. 

In the first part of the book, Collingwood distinguishes art from craft, and he discusses the creations that we often refer to as art but that he excludes from the domain of art, such as amusement and magic. "Magic"? Yes, magic. But here we learn from Collingwood the archeologist and folklorist that magic isn't for the manipulation of creation by some mystical force (although some few may have believed this), but he describes it as an enactment of rituals to arouse certain emotional responses from those performing or observing the rituals. Magic uses a representation of reality to arouse emotions important for various undertakings. Collingwood's argument is an intriguing and persuasive understanding of what we would otherwise consider irrational and useless behavior. 

Collingwood's explication of magic is but one of the distinctions and definitions that Collingwood makes in the first section of the book. Early on we're introduced to the carefully drawn distinctions that he makes with his lucid prose. Indeed, I'd like to quiz Collingwood about his writing: Is it art? Or is it a craft? Is all rhetoric a craft driven by the end of exhortation? In any event, he writes engagingly (except when he drops in obscure Latin phrases), and his use of everyday examples and metaphors makes his prose not only readable but entertaining. 

But while the first part of the book is intriguing, it's only a prelude to deep dive found in Part II. In the second part of the book, he delves into issues of sensation, emotions, imagination, experience, attention, consciousness, thought, intellect--and then the foundations of language! He also discusses what he describes as "the corruption of consciousness" (shades of Aristotle, Sartre (who published later), and C. Terry Warner here). But we can follow Collingwood through this palace of complex terms because he constructs his arguments brick-by-brick on top of his deep foundations. He thereby creates a substantial work of . . . well, art, even if he would disagree with my use of the term. As readers of his work on history might not be surprised to learn, he concludes that art is found in the mind of the artist who seeks to express (not just arouse) emotions. All art--and not just literature--is an expression of emotions that uses a form of expression, a language, if you will. he argues that language grows out of expression and that art is a language of expression (whether words, music, painting, etc.). His contention strikes me as brilliant and insightful. 

In the third part of the book, Collingwood ties up some loose ends. He refers only rarely to actual works of art, although he does spend some time discussing and praising T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" as an exemplary work from the time Collingwood was beginning his career as an academic philosopher. 

I could go on at some length about this book, as I've only given the briefest tour of Collingwood's creation that I think merits careful study. A student of philosophy tells me that Collingwood is considered outdated in his analysis of these issues. Perhaps so. I'm not in a position to judge because I'm not widely read in this field. But even if so, I contend that Collingwood has laid down too many fundamental and fortified arguments to ignore. If there are more persuasive thinkers writing about these issues, I want to read them. In the meantime, I'll appreciate and benefit from this Collingwood masterpiece. 

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