The Retrieval of the Beautiful (book review) Galen A. Johnson

Thinking Through Merleau-Ponty’s Aesthetics


070218: i read this over two days, very long flight then morning here. this interrogates one late essay by merleau-ponty: 'eye and mind'. this reminds me how much i am inspired by m-p, how other philosophers can interpret his works, even offer the unspoken ideas invisible in his visible ideas. with m-p's early death there is a lot of room to extrapolate, argue, insist, on where he was headed, though this 'reprises' what we might consider his finished texts, even the unfinished, and what can be thought in lack of explicit aesthetics...


part one, is mainly concerned with suggesting modern philosophy and modern art, the usual thought area of 'aesthetics', has developed a negative impression of the 'beautiful', how it is either not taken seriously or completely dismissed by both philosophers and artists. here it might be relevant to suggest you as reader need to have some art history. or familiarity with some thinkers on the arts like kant, heidegger, to understand where m-p is coming from in the one essay here, from his later years, product of the sixteen months before going back to visible invisible: 'eye and mind'...


part two, offers some reproductions- in greys of black and white- of those artists m-p finds most relevant to his arguments in 'eye and mind': Cezanne, Rodin, Klee. these artist have left some written works on their processes, works, intentions, and have in turn been subject to some critical readings. there is little new here if you know of cezanne, but there is contention that in his work he manifests a 'strong beauty', that he goes beyond 'classical' ideals of philosophers as much as artists, no ideal forms, proportion, symmetry etc.... rodin is recipient of cezanne's honour and it is clear how he succeeded in recasting sculpture in a way no one could predict, particularly in his revaluation of 'the ugly' by attending not to some platonic ideal but to the exacting details, shapes, masses, of living being... not simply the cliche 'the kiss' but also emotions of 'i am beautiful' and 'burghers of calais', here the obvious forerunner of modern sculpture and of course little loved by critics of the time... klee is also one who wrote, seemed most aware, of the changes of colour abstraction rather than simply line and contours, not the cartesian line, but he i have seen least, i know little, and by the reproduction cannot see his particular skill with colours...


part three, is 'the retrieval of the beautiful' and the most purely philosophical section. first is contentious definitions of 'beauty', relevance of 'shape', denigration of 'desire', particularly through sartre. apparently because 'beauty' is not 'cognitive' and 'shape' only of its time then the stimulation of 'desire' is a bad thing... second is beauty, 'repetition', 'difference', and the extent to which beauty asks to be repeated, asked to be slightly 'different', and in some ways this too is not cognitive, symbolized, judged scientifically, but 'repetition' is a good thing, not exactly as the boredom of exactly the same as in nietzsche, but leading to the new, future, rather than 'recall' of the past... third is beauty and sublime, and here the main interlocutor is kant, in his creation of a gap between beauty which is essentially human and the 'sublime', which is from nature, is essentially threatening, magnitudes, beyond humans... here m-p argues, here johnson gives the work and claims of the artist barnett-newman against such definition, for b-n is consciously aiming at 'the sublime'...


this book shows how m-p is the most useful philosopher in using, questioning, claiming, through the arts and aesthetics, and this is a remarkable book on just the one essay. maybe it helps to know some art history. maybe it helps to know some philosophy history...

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