“Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time.” – Plato, Timaeus
Meaning is key. Whether it be in mythology, narrative, magical realism, romanticism, formalism, natura morta, even post modern text installation (because the emptiness is reflexive and always points to the meaning it denies), the point is that it is, and that is everything.
Art, understood as a sort of ‘artiface’ – the etymology is important – is uniquely positioned to reveal meaning. Not because it is a source of meaning in itself, but because it does not claim to be real; it instructs us in the hierarchy of ‘realness’. Plato began with the experience of reality (which he called the realm of shadows) and used our understanding of it as a stepping stone to understanding something higher. Thus this tangible world is less real than the world of ‘ideals’.
This hierarchy is a concept, a way of understanding how we, as creatures in time, can apprehend truth. It is counterbalanced by the unity of eternity. With this in mind, seeing the world of sensory perception as merely an image does not empty it of meaning. On the contrary, it fills it with meaning. Because the unity of eternity is represented and present in visible things, in time.
One way of recovering this latent meaning is beauty. As St Augustine points out in his Easter sermon c.411 A.D., “Their beauty is their confession.”
“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air; their souls hidden, their bodies evident; the visible bodies needing to be controlled, the invisible souls controlling them; question all these things. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look ; we’re beautiful.'”
The relationship between aesthetic appreciation and understanding is hard to put words to but is something like this: when questioned, beauty communicates meaning. And meaning is beautiful.
It takes time to ask a question. And you have to wait to get an answer. This is a theme that I see clearly in many of my favourite artworks of the past and present. Still, observational, contemplative paintings are it’s hallmark. A stark beauty is there. And despite the apparent absence of narrative and intellectual purpose, meaning is there, because time is the catalyst in the formula, and time is there.
T.S. Eliot had this to say about the moment of creation in Genesis: “for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning.”
There is no beauty without meaning, because beauty is meaningful. There is a type of art that trades in beauty but denies meaning. That would be kitsch. For fear of this stealthy assassin of meaning whole generations of artists have abandoned beauty, and looked for meaning in it’s absence. But there is no meaning without beauty, because meaning is beautiful!