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Essays in Aesthetics by Jean-Paul Sartre
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Essays in Aesthetics

by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Essays in Aesthetics by Jean-Paul Sartre is a collection of five superbly written essays penned in the style of an art historian or art critic, worlds away from academic writing, containing no references to other aestheticians and only several footnotes for the purpose of historical exactitude. There is one long essay in four parts on the 15th century renaissance painter Jacopo Tintoretto, two essays on Alberto Giacometti, one on Robert Lapoujade, and one on Alexander Calder. A reader will find plenty of ideas on art and artists, on creativity and freedom, on beauty and space, but the ideas are always formulated in the context of the artist and historical period being addressed. To provide a modest taste, below are four Sartre quotes with my brief comments.

From the essay on Tintoretto, "I am aware of the tastes of his age. My aim here is not to judge him but to determine whether his age could identify itself with him without discomfort. And on this point the evidence is explicit: his conduct shocked his contemporaries and turned them against him. A little disloyalty would perhaps have been tolerated, but Tintoretto went too far, throughout Venice, a single complaint was voiced: "He goes too far!" Even in that commercial city such shrewdness in commerce is unique." --------- Sartre writes with the authority of an art historian; quite refreshing for a man who is a leading 20th century philosopher and author of celebrated novels, plays and short stories.

"We are aware of the success of Arcimboldo - his jumbled vegetables and cluttered fish. Why do we find this artifice so appealing? Is it perhaps because the procedure has long been familiar to us? In their own way, have all painters been Arcimboldos? Have they not fashioned, day after day, face after face, each with a pair of eyes, a nose, two ears and thirty-two teeth? Wherein lies the difference? He takes a round cut of red meat, makes two holes in it, sets in each of them a white marble, carves out a nasal appendage, inserts it like a false nose under the ocular spheres, bores a third hole and provides it with white pebbles. Is he not substituting for the indissoluble unity of a face an assortment of heterogeneous objects?" ---------- Now these reflections on Arcimboldo are worth chewing on (no pun intended); matter of fact, one could delve into an entire phenomenology of perception based on what Sartre is saying here.

"The sculptor is supposed to imbue something immobile with movement, but it would be wrong to compare Calder's art with the sculptor's. Calder captures movement rather than suggest it; he has no intention of entombing it forever in bronze or gold, those glorious, asinine materials that are by nature immobile." ---------- Consider this Sartre quote in relation to Antoine Roquentin, first-person narrator of Sartre’s novel, Nausea, saying he is afraid of being in contact with objects as though they were living beasts. And also, at another point in the novel, Roquentin reflecting on how, when it is dark, both he and objects come out of limbo.

"By reversing classicism, Giacometti has restored to statues an imaginary, indivisible space. His unequivocal acceptance of relativity has revealed the absolute. The fact is that he was the first to sculpture man as he is seen - from a distance. He confers absolute distance on his images just as the painter confers absolute distance on the inhabitants of his canvas." ---------- Again, think of this quote coupled with the reflection of the narrator in Nausea when he says how, when looking in a mirror, his glance moves over his forehead and cheeks and finds nothing firm.. What would Antoine Roquentin find if he saw his reflection from a distance?

I'll let Jean-Paul Sartre have the last words here by citing two sentences from this collection worthy of appearing on a Sartre list of memorable quotes:

"Beauty is not the object of art but its flesh and blood, its being."

"No one paints to create art or to make it be. The artist simply paints."

( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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Renowned French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre references artists such as Tintoretto, Calder, Lapoujade, Titian, Raphael, and Michaelangelo in discussing how great art of the past relates to the challenges of his eraEssays in Aesthetics is a provocative collection that considers the nature of art and its meaning. Sartre considers the artist’s “function,” and the relation of art and the artist to the human condition. Sartre integrates his deep concern for the sensibilities of the artist with a fascinating analysis of the techniques of the artist as creator. The result is a vibrant manifesto of existentialist aesthetics. By looking at existentialism through the lens of great art, Essays in Aesthetics is just as valuable a read to the artist as it is to the philosopher.… (more)

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