Friday, March 01, 2019

Freedom and Constraint in Art

Heart Sutra“The Heart Sūtra (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदय Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya; Chinese: 心經 Xīnjīng) is a popular sutra in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Its Sanskrit title, Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, can be translated as ‘The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom.’ The sutra famously states, ‘Form is empty’ (śūnyatā). It is a condensed exposé on the Buddhist Mahayana teaching of the Two Truths doctrine, which says that ultimately all phenomena are śūnyatā, empty of an unchanging essence. This emptiness is a ‘characteristic’ of all phenomena, and not (simply or solely) a transcendent reality, but also ‘empty’ of an essence of its own.”

In Indian literary (including religious and philosophical) traditions a sūtra (सूत्र, ‘string’ or ‘thread’; Pali: sutta) refers to an aphorism (cf. maxims, proverbs, etc.) or more often a collection of aphorisms in the form of a manual or, more broadly, a condensed manual or text. Sūtra(s) are a genre of ancient and medieval Indic texts found, for example, in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, as well as other literary, medical, legal, and loosely scientific traditions. Because of their aphoristic or condensed (or even enigmatic) quality, they typically require and thus are often accompanied by one or more bhāṣya(s) (भाष्य), which are expositions, interpretations, and commentaries of the sūtra(s).

On art and mindfulness
I have introduced the term sūtra here because I recently came across a work in English which has a sūtra-like quality to it; at the very least, its aphorisms often pack a philosophical punch and, from my vantage point at least, call for, provoke, or demand further elucidation of one kind or another. I stumbled upon this gem of a book while browsing in a local bookstore, having never heard of its author, but the enchanting title quickly captured my attention: On Art and Mindfulness: Notes from the Anderson Ranch (Snowmass, CO: Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Whale & Star Press, 2nd ed., 2015). It is written by one Enrique Martinez Celaya, who has trained as an artist and physicist, having exhibited his works internationally, as we say, with some of his art in permanent collections of well-known museums. The material for the book was drawn from the summer workshops and seminars he taught over nine years at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado. While I have yet to view his art in more than a cursory manner, I have begun reading his book! For now I want to share just one aphorism:

“Freedom is elusive and frequently it is not where we think it ought to be. Much time is devoted to talking about freedom in art,* but art is most about boundaries. About constraints.”

By way of reference to an appropriate but unintentional bhāṣya that speaks to the importance of (intrinsic, imposed, and self-imposed) constraints and conventions (or ‘soft’ constraints), both those which reflect one’s discipline and training as well as those constraints one has deliberately chosen as a form of “self-binding,” I recommend Jon Elster’s incisive discussion in the chapter “Less Is More: Creativity and Constraint in the Arts,” from his book, Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraints (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Longstanding friends and acquaintances will be familiar with my predilection for finding excuses or ample reason to cite this particular work by Elster (which, like all good books, I return to again and again). At a future date I will speak more to this topic in conjunction with aesthetic theories and philosophy of art.

Elster Ulysses Unbound
* There are of course moments of freedom or autonomy throughout the process of producing creative and compelling works of art. In the words of Nick Zangwill, “even when there are external influencing factors which impinge on the artist’s decision-making, there are always some properties of the work which cannot be explained without reference to the artist’s intrinsic desire that the work should be a certain way.” In other words,

“ … [W]hen all the influencing factors constraining art production have been taken into account, there is a residual space in which the artist has freedom. This freedom implies a lack of concern with actual or dispositional effects of the work on others—except in the sense that the artist is concerned that the audience will recognize or have a disposition to recognize the values [aesthetic and otherwise] that the artist believes have been realized in the work.” Please see Zangwill’s important philosophical explanation of fundamental features of art in relation to aesthetic properties in his book, Aesthetic Creation (Oxford University Press, 2007).


Post a Comment

<< Home