The subject of symbolism has intrigued me for 60 years. I am not talking about symbols like the Christian cross or a national flag, but about the symbolism of language and mathematics, and how this applies to art.
I was strongly influenced by two books by the aesthetician Suzanne K. Langer, “Feeling and Form” and “Philosophy in a New Key,” both of which were published around the time I was in college. She had an unusually practical mind, and at the same time had a deep understanding of all the (fine) arts, not just easel painting, so often the sole focus of aestheticians.
Langer developed her aesthetic theory out of earlier work on symbolic logic, a field developed by the great logicians of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and one very fresh and vital at the time she wrote. She was strongly influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, who along with Bertrand Russell prepared much of the foundation for symbolic logic. Both symbolic logic and mathematics are precise formalizations of discursive language (the language of statements), and language is universally acknowledged to be the quintessential example of symbolism (Langer’s lucid writing made her little book ”Symbolic Logic” close to a page-turner).
Symbols point to things: naming is of their essence. When Langer extended to art the language-based concept of symbolic representation, she naturally looked for something concrete that the art symbol could represent. Her solution was to postulate that the art symbol pointed to the form of the life of feeling, something she saw as complex patterns of rising and falling tensions, so complex as to be forever impossible to depict using ordinary language. Only the art symbol could present the life of feeling in a way that made it understandable.
I believe that Langer is correct that a work of art symbolizes patterns of feelings that occur in the lives of people, but I believe she made a mistake when she characterized these patterns as forms. I am an architect, and the word immediately conjures up an image of the forms into which concrete is poured. Forms are rigid, while the patterns of felt experience are fluid and difficult to pin down.
By her insistence that a work of art symbolized some kind of form, Langer created a problem for herself: how do you decipher the work of art to reveal the symbolized form? Langer invoked intuition, a famously vague term, and argued that the work of art must be intuitively seen as a whole, all at once (of course in music, dance, drama and literature the work unfolds over time, but we can still imagine the work as a whole after it is completely presented or read).
The form to which the symbol refers is the meaning of the work of art; in her later work, Langer substituted “import” and especially “significant form” for “meaning,” but the sense was the same: the art symbol referred to some kind of pattern representing the ebb and flow of feelings. (To confuse matters, the expression “significant form” was used by art critic Clive Bell in a famous 1913 article “Art and Significant Form” at http://www.denisdutton.com/bell.htm. Langer strongly disagreed with Bell’s ideas, as do I, but the confusion of terms did not help her argument.)
The problem of how to decipher the underlying form to which the symbol refers was clarified for me through an article I found on the web by chance. It was written by Berel Lang, who I find is a philosopher at Wesleyan University, and is entitled “Langer’s Arabesque and the Collapse of the Symbol” (see http://www.anthonyflood.com/langlanger.htm). In this essay, Lang argues that it is not possible to distinguish the art symbol from what Langer argued that it represents, the form of the life of feeling. She notes that this problem was raised in a review of Langer’s seminal book “Philosophy in a New Key” by philosopher Ernest Nagel, and that Langer took his criticism seriously and tried to resolve the problem in her later writings, in Lang’s view without success.
Summarizing Lang’s critique, a work of art is not a symbol because instead of referring to an objective content, a meaning, the work is itself the content. There is no symbolism because it is impossible to abstract the symbolic form from the details of the work. Here Langer herself makes this point:
But a work of art does not point us to a meaning beyond its own presence. What is expressed cannot be grasped apart from the sensuous or poetic form that expresses it. In a work of art we have the direct presentation of a feeling, not a sign that points to it.” (Principles of Art, pp.133-34)
Put another way, the patterns that one detects in a work of art are far too complex to be perceived as a single form, no matter how elaborate. Think about how you take in a work of art: at each viewing or hearing, it always takes time, and all art lovers comment that you can come back to a familiar painting or piece of music hundreds of times and never cease to discover something new. How, if we perceive the whole work as a single form (a gestalt, as Langer would put it), can we continue to reconstruct it as we experience it over time? Would we not each time find a new overall form?
If all the intricate details of a work are cast into the form, it must be a very flexible form indeed to accommodate the reinterpretations by each perceiver, not to mention the dramatic reinterpretations that take place as cultural norms change over the decades – so flexible as to lose its character as a form. And Nagel’s and Lang’s telling criticism also applies, that the form is so intricately trapped in the actuality of the work of art that you cannot separate the work from its import. The work, as the quote from Langer above suggests, is the import.
The solution to this dilemma, I maintain, is that the pattern and flow of human feeling cannot be symbolized as a form, a conceptual object, something that is remembered in the same way that we remember objective things. Instead, the art symbol needs to be thought of as a process rather than an objective thing, as a verb instead of a noun. What this means is not obvious, but I will try to make my idea clear in subsequent essays in this series.