Goethe, aesthetics, morality

I am in the middle of reading a book by John Armstrong called ‘love, life, Goethe: how to be happy in an imperfect world’. I would say that is is a basically chronologically organised account of Goethe’s inner life as gleaned from his work. It is very enjoyable and though I don’t agree with everything the author infers from Goethe’s work, it is quite insightful. It has led me to think again on a topic I had let sleep for some time.

In the past I had been quite intent on the topic of how aesthetics and morality are related. A friend recently made a point about how perhaps they are closely bound when we are young, though as we get older they loosen their bonds, and so explaining why art has the possibility of being evil or destructive. I find it an interesting comment, though am undecided whether it is true or not.

In this book I am reading, Armstrong is describing what he believes Schiller and Goethe’s view of art and politics is:

“Political progress can occur only if there is a transformation of people’s inner lives. Otherwise, factions are merely the voices of human fragments, seeking dominance over society. The aim of art is to ennoble us, to make us whole and balanced; then we can engage maturely and sensibly in political process.”

For Schiller and Goethe, there is a delineation between the pair’s view of ‘classical’ art and art that is “crass and destructive [that is made for] agitating people and spurring immature zeal.” This difference is important as it is the difference between the art with a moral core and that without and relates to the comment of my friend about art being possibly destructive or evil.

I guess here in a broader sense, morality points to wholeness, honesty and a kind of process-driven beauty and order. In some ways perhaps like a conscious and modern self-initiation – for Beuys, this held true as well – art process is the way people develop their thinking and distinctively human or moral capacities.

Of course, I hold firm that to be able to function as a whole person in adulthood, you need to be educated in the correct mood and manner as a child. For example, if you treat a child as if they have a developed self-determination, I think it makes it much harder for them to truly develop this as an inward quality upon entering adulthood.

If you tend to children as growing plants, that make the motions of all other plants (such as Goethe’s ur-plant/archetypal plant), acknowledging that at certain stages they are in need of certain conditions and nutrients, the future ‘pollen’ of their individual being (in this case standing for their future thinking) can be let free and shared harmoniously and they function well socially in adulthood. This pollen was not there when they were young. To ask a plant to flower before it has even brought forth a leaf is rather nonsensical.

Untangling the web of morality and aesthetics is not so easy I think. Perhaps it is one of those areas, such as the question ‘How does the sun shine?’ that Goethe would comment on by saying, ‘don’t think too much into it, you are overcomplicating things…’

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