April 11, 2006
Joseph Campbell was one of those thinkers who constantly asked
himself, "What is the meaning of this?" In books, lectures and
interviews, he made frequent skirmishes into the field of art.
And like a lot of those who never took brush to hand, his
thoughts were idealized and sometimes muddled. Campbell had
attitudes about what was "proper" art and what was not. He
thought the personal was dangerous in art. "When an artist's
images are purely personal this finally is slop and you know it
when you see it," he stated. He didn't often say what "slop"
was. He was particularly hard on portraiture--he thought
portraits were hobbled by the need to be what they represented.
At the same time, many of Campbell's insights are valuable.
Campbell saw everything through a lens of myth, metaphor and
the metaphysical. He saw "proper" artists as exalted mystics.
"The way of the mystic and the way of the artist," he said,
"are very much alike--except that the mystic does not have a
craft." In admiration, he realized that through studio
disciplines, artists deal with universals. He named a lot of
these universals--from rhythmic patterns to a sense of wonder.
He felt that proper art had to be an art that performs a
function. When this function is added to the concept of kinesis
(movement), then you have what he called "aesthetic arrest." By
this he meant that the innocent viewer is stopped dead in his
tracks and has no choice but to stare in awe. I don't know
about you, but when this occasionally happens with my work, it
sure feels good.
It is in his understanding of St. Thomas Aquinas that we see
the Campbell mind at work. Aquinas thought that proper art had
three modes: Integritas, Convenientia, and Claritas. Integritas
means wholeness. Campbell demonstrated this in his lectures by
putting a picture frame up to a chair and isolating it from its
surroundings--making it a thing in itself. Convenientia is the
way the chair is arranged within the frame--creatively,
sensitively, thoughtfully cropped or monumentalized. Claritas
is the "aha" quality that puts meaning into the chair--its
significant "chairness." Campbell called this "the tricky
part," and noted that only then "are you are held in aesthetic
arrest." This is not just "viewfinder thinking," but what he
considers the top level of creativity. In his view it is a
profound application of aesthetic arrangement and metaphorical
thought that squeezes out the real meaning and value of the
things of our experience.
PS: "The object becomes aesthetically significant when it
becomes metaphysically significant." (Joseph Campbell)
Esoterica: Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) taught at Sarah Lawrence
College for 38 years. "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" (1949),
his best known work, influenced creative artists from the
Abstract Expressionists to contemporary film-makers. "Pathways
to Bliss" and "The Mythic Image," two of his many books, are
also of interest to artists. Campbell was an autodidact. His
real education took place when he lived quietly in the woods in
upstate New York, reading and taking notes for nine hours a
day--developing his unique view of the nature of life.