Friday, April 20

toward a particular effect

To the progenitors of myth, all appeared real, both their symbols and the objects of their symbols. They well understood that their gods were symbolical names for forces, yet those symbols were functioning as a part of reality nonetheless. Hence the Greek, the Christian, the Hindu, and the Mesopotamian never made the attempt to produce the likeness of reality as an end in itself in their art. Although they used a great deal of material which appealed to visual memory in a slighter or greater degree, which varied with times and places, their objective was never to reproduce the particular attributes of visual mechanics. Their representation of the gods, even when they partook more and more human characteristics (which is a common progression of the arts of Greece and India at least), are never attempts to produce the appearance of a man, but rather a reference to the genre of man.

Here an example from mathematics may be helpful. The letter x in algebra is definitely an abstraction in relationship to the numbers with which it can intermingle as a factor. It is true that the numbers are also an abstraction, yet x is even a further abstraction from the qualities of the numbers. Yet this letter functions in all of the calculations as a real quantity. In other words, we have a symbol which admittedly represents the unknown. Yet our faith in the system is so great—that is, our faith in the absolute relationships of all quantities—that we can affirm this symbol of the unknown as a definite, real, and calculable element. We might say that the Greeks understood the quality of the unknown, but so great was their faith in order that the unknown, although always symbolized, functioned for them as a part of reality, and entered as a real attribute in all their real relationships. Now, the substitution of the letter x, or in fact, of any of the numerical quantities by real objects, would immediately remove the whole relationship from the sphere of generality and place it into the particular, for real objects would introduce a host of qualities which would impress themselves upon our attention and consequently confuse the absoluteness of our equations.

In this sense, the Greek never particularized the objects which he introduced as vehicles for the statement of the plastic equivalent of unity. All the objects are made impersonal, having definite functions as symbols both in appearance and in the portion which they play in the anecdote. All the relationships are therefore symbolic. This is made manifest in the figures represented, whose attitudes and relationships toward not only each other, but in relation to the cosmogonic forces which they symbolize, are symbolic; the meaning of the symbol itself being identical with the notion of reality which the artist is to symbolize or to make manifest plastically.

Now, in the world of the painter, his sense of the essential and the infinite must be realized plastically. He must express his notions of reality in the terms of shapes, space, colors, rhythms, and the other plastic elements which we have previously described, for they constitute the language of painting, just as sound, timbres, and measures constitute that of the musician, or words and sentences that of the linguist. Or rather, the painter must represent them by the means of colored shapes arranged in certain rhythms constituting certain ideated and controlled movements toward a particular effect, this effect or end being the subject of his picture.

-- Mark Rothko The Artist's Reality