Thursday, June 29, 2017

Why Beauty Matters

gurdjieff |  Because literature for Gurdjieff, as for the Sufis, is inextricable from philosophy, it is appropriate in considering Beelzebub’s Tales to address some fundamental philosophical questions, the answers to which help put Gurdjieff’s writings into perspective. Among the issues to be addressed, one of primary importance is to define what constitutes literature for Gurdjieff, or what, according to his aesthetics, distinguishes literature from non-literature; art from non-art. 

Beelzebub's Tales
Unraveling this distinction involves comprehending some of Gurdjieff’s fundamental ideas about human beings and their place in the world. We have already proposed that Gurdjieff’s primary philosophical stance is that of Sufism, and his philosophy of art supports this contention.1 At the core of his aesthetics is the position that no form of artistic expression possesses value in itself; no art is appreciable for its intrinsic value alone. Because of his premises concerning the meaning and purpose of human existence, all “art” for Gurdjieff, and consequently all literature as an art-form, must be functional or didactic. The value of an art work resides in its potentiality to transform or metamorphose the art appreciator. Insofar as a work of literature, a piece of music, a painting, or any other potential art form aids humans in the process of their spiritual evolution, that object or activity earns the designation “art” for Gurdjieff and possesses what he refers to as “soul.”

Gurdjieff’s use of terminology to espouse his aesthetics and other branches of his philosophy frequently involves his supplying old terms with new meanings. Consequently, we are forced when approaching his writings to temporarily abandon old associations of key words used in his discussions. Such is the case with the terms “soul,” “objective” and “subjective,” “conscious” and “unconscious.” “Subjective art,” for example, in Gurdjieff’s terminology, refers to most of what is commonly interpreted as art. Most twentieth-century art in its various forms, according to his standards, would fall into this category. But subjective art is not authentic art for him; it is the result of mechanical, unconscious human activity, and most of humanity is unconscious according to Gurdjieff. For the same reason, he refers to subjective art as “soulless” in that it results from little or no consciousness on the part of the would-be artist. In his introduction to Meetings with Remarkable Men, he asserts that contemporary civilization is unique in history in its massive production of soulless, pseudo art.

On the other hand, “objective art” is authentic art in that it results from deliberate, pre-meditated efforts on the part of a conscious artist. In the act of creation, the true artist avoids or eliminates any input which is subjective or arbitrary, and the impression of such art on those who experience it is always definite. To the degree that objective art is the result of consciousness, it inherently possesses “soul.” As one example of soulful art, Gurdjieff cites the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci; as another he refers to the Taj Mahal. Both constitute objective works of art.