October 5, 1998
Volume 51, No. 7
Patterson makes art a concrete experience for students
Did you know that at birth the circles of your soul are twisted and confused? That the study of philosophy is essential to achieve harmony and balance? That if you purify your soul with the contemplation of philosophy, you can hear the distant harmony of the spheres?
This philosophical mythology propels the teaching of philosophy Professor Richard Patterson. A cellist since age 9, Patterson discovered philosophy during his undergraduate days at Stanford in the 1960s. He completed his dissertation on Plato's metaphysics at the University of Pennsylvania, and 14 years ago Patterson brought his study of truth and his cello to the Emory campus. He, along with his violinist wife, Emory history professor Cindy Patterson, and Parker Professor of Theology and Worship Don Saliers of the Candler School of Theology, have been playing music together as the Emory Chamber Players for the last 11 years.
Since 1990 Patterson has fused art and philosophy in his teaching as well. "I mainly want to understand more about the sources of our response to music and to art and why this experience is important in one's life," he explained.
The first time he taught the philosophy of art Patterson staged readings of ancient plays by Euripedes, Bacchae and Aristophanes. But last fall he began to bring philosophy to life for his students through actual creation of art. Patterson guided his 12 students in producing a painting on canvas, a replica of Picasso's Guernica.
"It was an enormous amount of work, taking well over 100 hours to complete," he said. The class started with a grid, using reproductions and slides to develop details and the painting's color scheme, applying paintbrush to canvas in Emory's studio art building. Working outside class time, Emory's philosophical artists replicated the content and, to some extent, the process of creating the painting. Their completed 4-by-9 work, now framed and hung on a wall in Patterson's office, was exhibited briefly in the Dobbs Center late last fall.
Guernica is considered by many to be Picasso's most important work and one of the most significant paintings of the 20th century. In 1936 the artist agreed to produce a mural for the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the World's Fair, to be held in Paris the following year. Picasso was casting about for a subject when a shocking tragedy struck the ancient Basque city of Guernica. On April 26, 1937, Franco's fascist forces deployed German bombers to attack and destroy the town. Horror and death became the theme of Picasso's renowned mural.
Patterson's class also visited the Picasso exhibit at the High Museum of Art during the semester. Besides learning the history and context of the Spanish artist's work, they had opportunities to test theories about the nature, experience and value of art. The students discovered that Guernica held universal messages about war, suffering and grief, and about how art may be both expressive and instructive.
"My part of the mural was the horse's body," recalled student Jesse Solomon. "It was interesting coming at [art] from a different angle. A certain empathy with Picasso came out of re-creating his work. It was great to combine aesthetic theory with a hands-on experience."
Patterson compares his serendipitous exploration of the arts through teaching to Toad's wild ride in the book Wind in the Willows. This semester he's undertaken a sequel to a seminar he once taught: "Greek Philosophy: Art, Beauty and the Good Life." His 11 seminar students are investigating the best-known Greek conception of beauty: harmony, balance and proportion. After attending a performance of Antigone staged on campus in early September, the class began to discuss the attributes of moral beauty, the aesthetics of function and expression, and Greek sculpture, architecture and music.
The ancient Pythagoreans discovered that the three basic harmonious intervals to the octave--perfect fourth and perfect fifth--were produced by vibrating strings having ratios of 2:1, 4:3 and 3:2. The numbers involved in these ratios added up to 10, a figure of cosmic and mystical significance for the Greeks. From this beginning they developed many complex musical modes that fit together in a mathematically precise system.
According to Patterson, one way to appreciate the musical and mathematical implications of the Greek modes is to see how they can be fitted to the strings of a Greek lyre. His class will build three lyres of four, seven and 13 strings on which the characteristic sounds of the Greek modes can be demonstrated. By relating their sounds to the underlying mathematical theory, Patterson hopes he and his students will "produce--even if on a small scale--a little harmony in our own sphere."