A very rough, preliminary sketch of an apology to Socrates for the arts
What does the art of M.C Escher have in common with Bohus knits? Surprisingly much, if you ask me. While most people, even if they don’t know the name, would probably recall having seen at least a few of M.C. Escher’s prints, the same is not true of Bohus Knitting. Because many people, at least outside of Sweden and outside of knitting circles, are likely to be wholly unfamiliar with Bohus knits, a short history is in order.
The history begins in 1939, when a group of Swedish women living in Bohuslän (the Göteborg area in the southwestern part of Sweden) formed a knitting (“stickning”) cooperative. Many of their husbands – miners and farmers – lost their jobs due to the Depression, so they hoped to supplement their income. Their venture turned out to be a tremendous success both at home and abroad. Bohus knits were widely exhibited internationally and presented as gifts to visiting kings and dignitaries in Sweden. The cooperative closed in 1969, but many of the patterns are still in circulation today. The Bohusläns Museum (click here for an English version of the page) also has a fairly extensive collection of patterns on display and knitting kits on sale. Additional patterns can be found here. The two images below are examples of the intricate patterns and color work that became the signature of this knitting style. (Clicking on the image redirects to a more detailed picture on the Museum website.)
I have been posting some of my knitting and crochet projects in my blog gallery, and I was browsing through the Bohus patterns in search of something new to knit. It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that these patterns were well beyond my current skill level. As I am often blown away by the ingenuity of even some of the most basic knitting motifs and the sheer number of possibilities unlocked by the use of just two fundamental stitches, I surmised that the woman tho created the first Bohus pattern must have been a mathematical genius, and a quote from M.C. Escher, which had once deeply impressed me, leapt to mind. I went to look up the passage, which was as follows:
Mathematicians have theoretically mapped out the regular division of a plane because this is part of crystallography. Does it therefore belong exclusively to mathematics? I do not think so. Crystallographers have given us a definition of the concept and have researched and determined what and how many systems and methods exist for dividing a plane regularly. By doing this they have opened the gate that gives access to a vast domain, but they themselves have not entered. Their nature is such that they are more interested in the way the gate is opened than in the garden that lies behind it. Let me continue with this analogy for a while. Long ago during my wanderings I happened to come into the neighborhood of that domain. I saw a high wall and, because I had a presentiment of something enigmatic and hidden that might lie behind it, I climbed it with difficultly. However, on the other side I landed in a wilderness through which I had to make my way with much effort until I arrived via detours at the open gate, the open mathematical gate. From there well-cleared paths extended in various directions, and since then I often spend time there. Sometimes I think I have covered the entire domain and trod all the paths and admired all the views. Then all of a sudden I find another new way, and I taste a new delight.
-M. C. Escher, from The Regular Division of the Plain, as compiled in Escher on Escher
It occurred to me that the Bohus knitters were playing in, or at least on the perimeter of, that very same garden described by Escher. Knitters must knit their own canvas, so in a way, the very nature of knitting assures that the background will not be reduced to an inferior status. And, repetition and multiplication, which Escher credited for “everything we love, learn, order, recognize, and accept,” is also central to the knitters craft.
While Escher was a graphic artist (so the template for his individual prints was contained in an etching), a knitter reproduces his or her work by means of codifying the pattern in a set of instructions which look something like this: K1, p1, [p4, k4] twice, k5, p1 (the preceding symbols representing a single row in a pattern for a scarf). Or, more complicated patterns can be represented in charts, using symbols like these:
To the uninitiated, these symbols appear fairly daunting: there is nothing to connect it with, it is a language that stands on its own. Yet, at least knitters possess a language into which they can translate their visual creations and share them among themselves. This allows for the creation of vibrant knitting communities and the development of distinctive styles of knitting, such as that exemplified by Bohus Stickning. Escher, on the other hand, expresses frustration in what follows with his inability to communicate thoughts which he, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, viewed as essentially objective:
It is not part of my profession to make use of letter symbols, but in this case I am forced to. However, I have not received any training for this, as I have in the use of illustrations that serve as a means of expressing thoughts in a more direct way than the word. Still, my images require explanation because without it they remain too hermetic and too much of a formula for the uninitiated observer. The interplay of thoughts they translate is essentially completely objective and impersonal. To my unending amazement, however, this is apparently so unusual and in a sense so new that I am unable to identify any “expert” in addition to myself who is sufficiently comfortable with it to give a written explanation.
-M. C. Escher, from The Regular Division of the Plane, as compiled in Escher on Escher
Escher found a certain degree of comity with mathematicians, however, with whom he sometimes collaborated. I don’t even think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that his collaboration with the physicist Roger Penrose, among others, is quite possibly the closest link between art and math and the natural sciences since the time of Leonardo da Vinci’s collaboration with the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli. The resulting book, De Divina Proportione (The Divine Proportion), written by Pacioli and illustrated by Da Vinci, carried an immeasurable influence on the trajectory of art and architecture that followed, up until today. It is an astonishing shame, therefore, that although any property right maintained in that work should have long since expired, the book appears to be unavailable today, either in hard copy or as scanned in databases such as Project Gutenberg or Google Books. (If anyone knows anything about this, please comment or email me!)
The preceding thoughts all led me to wonder: why, apart from a few notable exceptions, is there such a large divide between art on the one hand, and math and the natural sciences on the other? This divide traces back at least to the time of Plato, who, in his Republic, famously argued for the censorship of all art that didn’t pass his rather strict criteria. This, I believe, was Plato’s greatest error, as I will try to explain.
In the single most profound statement of educational philosophy I have ever encountered, in Book VII of The Republic, Plato claims that education is not “putt[ing] into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it,” but rather a redirection, a “turning around.” Plato thought that the soul must be turned away from the material world, or what “is coming into being,” and instead turned towards the forms, which for Plato were true being, or what is. A significant part of The Republic is thus devoted to the problem of ensuring that able people remain faced in the right direction, so to speak. To accomplish this, Plato resorts to all kinds of contortions, including the extreme censorship mentioned previously, but also the so-called “noble lie,” the deprivation of wages and all forms of private property for the upper-classes, communal living (no spouses, no one to know whose children belong to who), and the suggestion that knowledge of the forms will allow one to reap rewards posthumously. All of these measures were outlined as means to blunt the all too human desire for material gain. But, these measures also transformed Plato’s noble aristocracy into a regime that had all too much in common with a tyranny.
Plato didn’t need to resort to so many contortions to accomplish his objective. What he needed was art. Although he devoted much of his work in defence of philosophy, in part by drawing a clear distinction between true philosophy and philosophy corrupted by worldly values, he apparently failed to allow that art too, could become corrupt. In keeping with an analogy used by Plato in the Gorgias: sophistry: justice :: cookery: medicine :: entertainment : art. Or, too put it in another way, a lawyer has about as much in common with a true philosopher as an entertainer has with an artist.
Although I do not of course subscribe to Plato’s view of the forms, I do think that there is still a certain sense in which philosophy (and more generally, the natural sciences, which were not distinct in Plato’s time) need art. Art is the natural motivating factor that forms the counter-balance to the material drives that Plato so desperately tried to control. Escher expresses this point so perfectly by his garden analogy to which the mathematicians opened the gate but did not enter. Unfortunately, Escher’s words resonated with all too few, and today a connection between art and science is often very difficult to find.
Instead, it is science and technology that are bound so tightly that it is sometimes hard to tell when science ends and technology begins. This is all good and well, but I cannot help but feel that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger was on to something with his essay The Question Concerning Technology: there are other ways of relating to being that we might do well to remember. Art is one of these ways.
To borrow a useful distinction from Berkeley Professor John Searle concerning ontological and epistemic subjectivity and objectivity, albeit in an unintended context: technology is created roughly by taking something given, something which is ontologically objective, and then manipulating it to perform a function which is ontologically subjective. Recall now Escher’s statement that the thoughts he represented were essentially objective. True art, I believe, takes care to maintain ontological objectivity – there is no change on a fundamental ontological level. Instead, with art, the change occurs on the epistemic level. The artist shows us a different way of looking at – of knowing - something ontologically objective. Art is thus epistemically subjective, but an underlying ontologically objective structure must be maintained, or it is not art. [When an epistemic change is brought about to an underlying structure that is ontologically subjective (e.g., buildings, furniture, clothes, etc.), it is design.]*
It is this epistemically subjective feature of art that accounts for another interesting observation of Escher’s. He notes:
The plastic arts have not experienced an evolution. In everything else that man makes and in much of what he thinks, he adds his contribution to what has been done by previous generations. In everything he strives toward perfection. The development of his spirit and his increasing mental grasp are staggering in all aspects — except in the plastic arts. It seems to me that here each individual has to start from scratch each time, without ever taking anything of really primary importance from a predecessor.
-M.C. Escher, from Newsletter of the Dutch Circle of Graphic Artists and Illustrators as compiled in Escher on Escher.
While one might certainly argue against Escher and hold that art has evolved and artists, just as scientists, also “stand on the shoulders of giants,” I think this is missing the point. There is undeniably a sense in which art is not cumulative in the same sense as that of progress in technology. This argument is all too often used against art, to show its inferiority (or perhaps more often, it’s unworthiness for funding). I suppose this is what prompts patrons of the arts to argue that art has “evolved,” as well as other arguments attempting to show the material usefulness of art. However, any defense of art that proceeds by attaching an ontologically subjective function to it could only result in a Pyrrhic victory: such a win could only come at the cost of denying to art its defining and most-worthy feature.
A proper defense of art must redress Aristophanes’ affront to Socrates which so enraged Plato. Such a defense would necessarily invoke the same difficulties Plato had in The Republic with defending philosophy generally, but if we are to avoid the contortions Plato resorted to, art must take its rightful place beside philosophy as the one motivational factor capable of “turning around” the intellect and providing a counter-balance in the individual’s life to the drive for material gain. The roots for such a defense, I think, are there to be found in the writings and work of M.C. Escher and the Bohus knitters.
* These distinctions are not always so clear due to the fact that there can also be art on top of (or even, e.g., on the walls of) a design, as is the case with knitting, but this simply recasts the age-old form-function-ornament debate, which is beyond the scope of this draft.