Thursday, October 8, 2015

but a step from sublime to ridiculous

"The 'center' of the picture is not spatial but is the focus of interacting forces.
     The definition of [mirror] symmetry in static terms is the exact correspondent of the error by which rhythm is conceived to be recurrence of elements. Balance is balancing, a matter of distribution of weights with respect to the way they act upon one another. The two pans of the scales balance when their push and pull on each other is adjusted. And scales exist ... only when their pans are operating antagonistically to each other with reference to reaching an equilibrium. Since esthetic objects depend upon a progressively enacted experience, the final measure of balance or symmetry is the capacity of the whole to hold together within itself the greatest variety and scope of opposed elements.
     The connection of balance with stress of weights is inherent. Work in any sphere is performed only by the interworking of opposed forces—as by the antagonistic systems of the muscular frame. Hence everything depends in a work of art upon the scale attempted—that is the reason it is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is no such thing as a force strong or weak, great or petty, in itself. Miniatures and quatrains have their own perfection, and mere bigness is offensive in its empty pretentiousness. To say that one part of a painting, drama, or novel is too weak, means that some related part is too strong—and vice versa. Absolutely speaking, nothing is strong or weak; it is the way it works and is worked on. It is sometimes surprising in an architectural vista to see how a low building rightly placed will pull together surrounding high buildings instead of being annihilated by them.

    The commonest fault in works having some claim to be called works of art is the effort to get strength by exaggeration of some one element. At first, as with temporary best-sellers in any line, there is an immediate response. But such works do not wear. As time passes it becomes every day more evident that what had been taken to be strength signifies weakness on the part of counterbalancing factors. No sensuous charm, however great in amount, is cloying if it is counteracted in relation to other factors. But in isolation sugariness is one of the most quickly exhausted qualities. The 'he-man' style in literature soon wearies because it is evident (even if only subconsciously) that, in spite of violent movement, no real strength is displayed..."

— John Dewey Art as Experience [1934] (Penguin 2005) p187-8.