L'École Marchutz

One and Art

Marchutz Fellow

The following is a recent post from www.theartfulblogger.net, the personal blog of O'Neill Cushman, one of our alumni fellows.

There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.
— Christopher Alexander

Way back in second or third grade I learned that one cannot get away with using a word in its own.  Now, a few years later, I am going to challenge that idea. There are certain concepts that one cannot explain in concrete terms, or even understand, without using them.

I have two goals in taking up this subject.  The first is to help to address a question my mother asked me last week.  The second is to set myself up for a more in depth discussion of Christopher Alexander’s “Quality without a name,” and his discussion of “centers.”

Simply put, some things must be defined in terms of themselves.  The concept of the number 1 is a pretty good example.  1 is defined on Wikipedia as being “the integer before two and after zero.”  So, while the number 1 is not expressly used in that definition, neither is its meaning.  One could not look at a number of pears and, using that definition, tell me whether there was one pear or a different number of pears.

One is a concept that must be experienced to be understood.  This is easy for us because we identify as unique individuals.  There is one of me.  There is only one of you.   Where it gets tricky is when we introduce other, more complex ideas (such as art) because there is no consensus on what the definition actually is.  Some would argue that this makes the definition open-ended.  I would argue that they are wrong (don’t worry, I won’t do too much of that today).

I’d better not go any further without addressing my mother’s concerns.  In response to my post “Approaches to Art Criticism,” she asks, “You seem to be saying that to judge art, one must have some kind of knowledge or appreciation of the process of creating art. How then can the non-artist judge art?”  I think that, in part, the answer to this lies in the notion that art must be measured – defined, understood, evaluated – in terms of art.  Whereas it is easy to identify when there is only one of something, because we have so much practice at it, it is hard to do this with art, and, the less familiar one is with true art, the harder it would be.

Alan Roberts gave me a fantastic analogy that might be helpful.  Pretend for a moment that I am going to see a symphony.  I have been invited to sit on a panel and evaluate the orchestra’s performance.  Also sitting on the panel are Leonard Bernstein and George, who has never heard music in his life.  It would be fair to say that each of us is entitled to his own opinion on whether we liked the music.  But would it not also be fair to say that Mr. Bernstein’s opinion might be more informed (and just maybe a little bit more right)?  Why is this?  It seems to me that his familiarity with the character of music, as something that cannot be understood except through music, gives him some insight and a little authority.  Likewise, George may love it, or he may hate it, but I would not make my decision to go see the symphony based on his recommendation alone.

And art is not alone in its inability to be understood free of itself.  American architect Christopher Alexander writes of several other concepts that rely on themselves for understanding.  In his book The Timeless Way of Building, he writes of “the quality without a name,” a very concrete and specific quality of things that relies on itself for meaning and truth.  He also writes of “centers,” the individual components that make up “wholeness” in objects, and cannot be defined without self-reference.  There will be more on this topic in the coming days.  The Marchutz School will hit the streets of Aix-en-Provence tomorrow in search of centers, wholeness, and the quality without a name, which will give this artful blogger a fresh batch of ammo and inspiration for vague ramblings.