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The Importance of Plastic

What I like about philosophy is that you have an idea which you express in a certain way, according to the language you use, the words you know, the analogies you can think of, the categories you have defined, the context you exist in etc... But then you spot something, another idea, expressed rather differently and related to a different situation, yet somehow it seems eerily familiar. I love it when I see a conceptual crossover of ideas. I love Francis Schaeffer's 'line of despair' idea, I love Elaine Scarry's 'beauty makes copies of itself' idea and I love Piet Mondrian's 'plastic art' idea, to name but a few off the top of my head. It's quite reassuring and encouraging to find resonance in your own thinking with the ideas of great minds. But not necessarily surprising. God made the world to work a certain way, so why shouldn't people come up with similar ideas about how to interpret the material and spiritual universe?

Anyway, I want to briefly talk about Mondrian's plastic art idea, and I'd like to compare it to something I've said on this blog previously.

I said in my post The Beauty of the Church:

"The relationship between the moral dimension and the aesthetic dimension is vitally important. In fact, the aesthetic dimension depends upon there being a moral dimension and cannot exist without it. A moral dimension can exist without an aesthetic and actually, necessarily precedes an aesthetic. Yet the moral desires an aesthetic. And its value (beauty) depends upon, in large part, achieving an aesthetic expression (though not always, and not entirely)".

In the next part of the quote I shared in the last post, Mondrian says (starting at "But"):

"The only problem in art is to achieve a balance between the subjective and the objective. But it is of the utmost importance that this problem should be solved, in the realm of plastic art – technically, as it were – and not in the realm of thought. The work of art must be ‘produced’, ‘constructed’. One must create as objective as possible a representation of forms and relations. Such work can never be empty because the opposition of its constructive elements and its execution arouse emotion".

So, plastic art. What does that mean? Very narrowly, Mondrian had in mind painting and architecture, the mediums he was specifically involved with. We could think of the word plastic here to mean something akin to the word fabricated. Something 'plastic' as Mondrian means it is something material which is used to provide expression of one's idea. The material plastic was invented during Mondrian's lifetime so his use of the word necessarily has in mind this new modern technology. He is using the word analogously because plastic is a synthesised product. Synthetic means to imitate nature. This is precisely the point Mondrian is getting to; imitation of nature.

But he doesn't mean this quite how we might initially think of it. Remember, Mondrian's paintings started off reasonably sympathetic to nature in the physical realm, but later on we see that the ultimate truths hidden within the metaphysical realm are what he is aspiring to synthesise. Mondrian doesn't mean he wants the decorative, material component of nature to be merely copied. No. He wants to solve this problem of balance between subjective and objective by synthesising an expression of the basic principles which govern the natural order, in as simple and concise a way as possible. Not because nature is incapable of doing this even at the height of its intricacy. Far from it. He does this in order to affirm nature, to commend it and supplement it in a positive way - to corroborate the purpose of nature and to reveal the beauty of its origin. Human beings are to create art in the same way that God created nature (my interpretation. I think Mondrian would be happy to say God, but the divine or something similar is more what he will have had in mind. Not a personal God. Though a personal creator God does fit the mold). To Mondrian, it's the same category of action. So I suggest that what nature is to God, plastic art is to man.

The purpose of plastic art, as Mondrian explains, is that ideas might come to fruition. When he says that the problem must be solved in the realm of plastic art, not of thought, he means that thought must find expression. The work of art must be produced (plasticised/synthesised/constructed). You see, for Mondrian, there was an inherent necessity for ideas to become reality. Otherwise, what is the point in the idea? The fact that ideas exist means that truth must be established. Truth is not required if it is not going to be demonstrated. Therefore, the fact that it exists means it must be demonstrated. Indeed, it exists that it might be demonstrated. In comparison, what Mondrian refers to as thought is what I refer to as moral, and what he refers to as art, I refer to as aesthetic. I see an overlap of ideas, here.

Mondrian goes on. He suggests that one must create as objective as possible a representation of forms and relations. What he means is that when the artist produces (plasticises) he must endeavor, as best as is possible, to demonstrate thought(objective/moral) elements as faithfully as possible in his subjective constructions. Mondrian has no care whatsoever for aesthetics for the sake of aesthetics. In fact, this is not a possibility to Mondrian. Aesthetic does not exist without moral. Subjective cannot exist without an objective first. Subjective, aesthetic representation of objective moral truths must relate to those moral truths in some way. They must demonstrate the qualities of the moral component from which they are birthed. If they do not correlate to something objective, they do not, they cannot exist. The very existence of the subjective, to Mondrian, proves the existence of the objective. It's a strange thing to say, in a sense, but what he's meaning here is that subjective refers to the objective and is subjective - objectively so. In other words, subjectivity is not the same as what we usually mean by the term, something we often call 'taste'. Let me take music as a quick example. There is good music and there is bad music - the objective reality. Good music comes in many different forms, Jazz is good, classical is good, pop is good - the subjective. Or you could think of food. There is good food and there is bad food. Good food comes in many varieties. Objective and subjective. Just because you don't like the good (taste) doesn't mean it's bad. And just because you do like the bad (also taste) doesn't mean it's good. If I cooked you a meal that was made with rotten mean and mouldy vegetables, was burnt and I used a few tablespoons of salt to try and mask the taste, that would be objectively bad food. If you happened to enjoy that meal, it would tell me there is something wrong with you, not something good about the food. Or, if I take you to the top of a hillside at dusk, overlooking a great valley of rolling hills in every shade of green and you found no beauty there and took no enjoyment from it, again, I would suggest the problem is with you. 

I think this is a really important lesson by Mondrian for us. Because in 2021 in the west, we have forgotten this concept almost entirely. What we might call subjective is actually taste. And we let that define our sense of reality. If I like it, it must be good, is the way we reason. And we arrogantly adjudicate the world according to our individual preferences instead of humbling ourselves before objective principles woven into the fabric of nature. Because to do that would reveal to us a designer, a creator, a god, perhaps even a holy, personal God. Mondrian didn't quite get there I don't believe. He didn't humble himself to respond to the personal creator. But he did understand his laws and his order and his objective truth rather well and expressed them in a surprisingly significant way through his art.

The reason I think Mondrian's idea relates to my own is that we are both concerned with the relationship between the subjective and the objective; the moral and the aesthetic. The purpose of creation was to express visibly the existence of God. It's there the say something that is true. The whole point of design is to reveal intelligence. And our world is full of design which points to intelligence. I often speak with my colleagues about this. One of my colleagues in particular refuses to admit that there is enough design in the world to convince him of a creator. Over and over I get him to look around our cluttered office and ask him how things got there. How did that computer appear on that desk? Why is that bottle of hand sanitizer next to your workspace? Why is that plug inserted into that socket? Why is that cup of coffee sitting on top of that coaster? Why are the walls around us there? Why are there white lines marked in a diagonal fashion on the tarmac in the space we tend to park our cars? Things just don't happen by accident. Not things that we value, at least. Aesthetics are such a valuable way for revealing to us why we should act a certain way because an objective reality exists. Yet we live in a world that refuses to do that.

Gender is the best example at the moment. Despite the fact that men are born with male genitalia and women born with different physical characteristics, we refuse to believe those things to be immutable, defining characteristics that inform how we are to act. We say that gender is 'fluid' and that sex is 'non-binary'. Which is to ignore the aesthetic component which reveals an objective moral reality. Instead, we flip reality upside down and instead of being perceivers, we make ourselves to be creators, self-determining and arrogant so as to define reality on our own terms. It's as if the crowd at a football game decided that they didn't like the outcome, so they changed the rules without telling the players or referees. Instead of cheering at goals, saves, tackles and skill, the crowd cheered at a whole other set of criteria. It's nuts. We fail to recognise the fact that we live in a world that was created without our consent or approval and were thrust into it without any say in the matter. The universe tells us how we should operate. The second we start to take offence at that and try and tell the universe how we want it to operate, we're going to completely unravel the fabric and destroy ourselves.

What I think Mondrian does a good job at, and what I try and do explain in this blog, is that we don't get a say in how the world operates. Our job is simply to figure out what's already been revealed to us and submit to that.

The reason this is important is that we can't know God if we don't understand the relationship between subjective and objective - of moral and aesthetic. God created in order to reveal himself and he created mankind so he had someone to reveal himself to. We are the third party in this instance. Just think back to Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. At that point, no human being existed. God created without reference to man and without the consent of man. He did not ask man's opinion or permission. He simply thought of a way in which he might be able to declare his glory, and conceived of a creature capable of beholding that glory. And that's all we are, glory beholders. We do not get a say on the interpretation. We do not get to define reality according to our preferences. We are made to perceive and behold. We simply need to look to discover what we're being told. The purpose of looking is not to give meaning, but to receive meaning. If God did not create, there would be no one to know him. And if we think of God as a perfect God, we have to account for the fact that he did create. I don't see a lot of value in vague hypotheses about how God didn't need to create, or that God could have created differently. Fine, as academic trivia, discuss that. But the reality is, God created and he created the way he did. And it's our job to read into THAT. Not to imagine our own scenarios and figure out what different values we can add to reality. God made A way. One way. A fixed way. He revealed himself and he did it in a particular way, designed to help people discern HIM most clearly. If we don't like that, that's our problem, not his.

The subjective, aesthetic realm is a really important thing for us to be able to understand and navigate, because what is subjective, should still lead us to truth. Not our truth, but THE truth.


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