Max Bense's Informational and Semiotical Aesthetics
von Elisabeth Walther
Max Bense (1910-1990) studied mathematics, physics, geology and philosophy at the Bonn University where he gained his Ph.D. + Sc. in december 1937. Already as a student, he began to publish.
In many of his publications, Max Bense exposed his aesthetical conceptions. In founding and guiding the Stuttgart Universitary Gallery from 1958 until 1978, and opening approximately 100 exhibitions, he possessed a forum to test his aesthetical ideas. In the first place, all his publications were concerning the exploration, the deepening and enlarging of aesthetical and semiotical theories, particularly of the theory of the "aesthetical state" of the works of art as realized signs, sign processes and sign systems. The work of art being situated between the author and the observer, Max Bense always took into consideration the communicational function of art. Nevertheless, one cannot name Max Bense's aesthetics "Gefallensästhetik" or "aesthetics of pleasure". As an epistemologist he distiguished clearly between aesthetics, sociology of art and psychology of perception which concern the domain of art, too, but are different from aesthetics.
Already in his first book "Space and I" [Raum und ich. Eine Philosophie über den Raum (1934)] which he wrote as a young student one finds particularly aesthetical views. The titles of chapters like "Mathematics and Beauty" [Die Mathematik und das Schöne] , "Space and Dance" [Raum und Tanz], "Gestalt and Mind" [Gestalt und Geist] show the starting point of all his researches, namely, that art and mathematics are very closely connected. Many concepts which are investigated in later books are already introduced here , i.e.: "aesthetical experience", "aesthetical process", "uniqueness", "fragility", "act of selection", "aesthetical state", "state of relativity", and so on. He sees the most compelling connection between mathematics and aesthetics in the "act of selection", in mathematics through the "selection of consciousness", in aesthetics through the "selection of feeling".
The connection of mathematics and art or aesthetics is, of course, not Max Bense's discovery. He names many of his forerunners, but, in our century, he is one of the few who called attention to it and defended it as the very foundation of aesthetical research. He considers the artist's and the scientist's creative work to be swinging between "chaos and Gestalt" to reach a "whole" [Ganzes]. He explains also that
there is "no substance without form" and "no reality without Gestalt idea", or "no ideality without matter". Many other concepts such as symbol, word, sense, image, order, system and so on, being introduced programmatically, but rather vaguely, and explained only in later books, are to be found in this first book.
In many of his following books, concerning epistemological, ontological questions or problems of the philosophy of nature or technique, Max Bense always considers aesthetical points of view, but only the second volume of his book "Contours of an Intellectual History of Mathematics" [Konturen einer Geistesgeschichte der Mathematik, II. Die Mathematik und die Kunst (1949)] is exclusively dedicated to the relation between mathematics and art. Firstly, he introduced as most important the concept of "perfection". Perfection, he maintains, was the mighty impulse in constructing our "technical world" which substitutes or penetrates the cultural world. Max Bense understands by perfection mainly the perfection of reasoning in constituting a "mathematical consciousness". He not only connects mathematics with poetry, literature, music or other artistical phenomena, but, accordingly, thinks that "aesthetical consciousness of form in general" is exclusively filled with mathematical thinking. The "original unity of aesthetical and mathematical categories" is expressed in his following sentence: "In the first approximation it suffices to have outlined the possibility of aesthetics which reduces mind to form and form to mathematics [...] For I don't know how to speak otherwise than mathematically about form, if one wishes to speak in general about form obligingly, acceptably and controllably."
Max Bense always endeavoured to combine rationality with art, and found new intermediary stages to show this close relation of art and science, or sensitivity and rationality. The conception of "mathesis universalis" or "the universal idea of humanism", he connects, for instance, with the program for the "Gesamtkunstwerk". Other concepts like "representation" he introduces on the basis of Leibniz.
In his book "Metaphysics of Literature" [Literaturmetaphysik. Der Schriftsteller in der technischen Welt (1950)], Max Bense utilizes beside mathematical, also metaphysical foundations, particularly ontological and cosmological conceptions, and also Heidegger's "fundamental ontology". On account of aesthetical researches, he expressively underlines the role of "methodology" which replaces "ideology". With this he connects formulations concerning "technical world" and "technical existence". Under the title "Technical Existence" [Technische Existenz (1949)], he published a very interesting book in which he defended, with great emphasis, technical civilization. Though not having worked out a real semiotics, he introduces concepts like sign, sign language, expression, representation, sign for something and sign for others, and so on. Also in the chapter "The spiritual purity of technique" [Die spirituelle Reinheit der Technik] of the book "World of Advertising" [Plakatwelt (1952)], he underlines the role of technique in artistical products. This positive outlook to technique explains the later defense of computer art, or, as he also said, the "programming of beauty". He writes: "We inhabit a technical world. A world which we made, the changes of which lies in our hands and perfection of which depends essentially on our reasoning and our imagination." But because of the technical world's constant changing, the perfection was never to be seen as an final state, but only as provisory point in developing processes. Beside, already in "The spiritual purity of technique" he cites Norbert Wiener's "Cybernetics" (1949) and comes to the promising statement that cybernetics will become the "queen of all sciences". In "Kafka's Theory" [Die Theorie Kafkas (1952)], another small book, Max Bense underlines the provisory character of his "Metaphysics of Literature" and points out that it served also as an "explanation of the writer in the technical world".
Now, I wish to speak about his main work on aesthetics. The fist volume has the title "Aesthetica [I]. Metaphysical observations on beauty" [Aestetica [I]. Metaphysische Beobachtungen am Schönen (1954)]. Max Bense presents there "observations, experiences, considerations and conclusions" in literature and painting. He divides aesthetics in three parts: 1) aesthetical object, 2) aesthetical judgment, and 3) aesthetical existence. The old conception of beauty is now understood as a modality of works of art, technical products and products of industrial design, and he distinguishes also between beauty of art, beauty of technique and beauty of nature. Here, we meet for the first time George David Birkhoff's "aesthetical measure" which is the quotient of "order and complexity". In all his following books, Max Bense retained this formula but completed it by considerations from the general information theory. Birkhoff's main idea, that in every work of art there are certain elements in a special order, is a very old thought, but he was the first to bring it in a mathematical relation. The "aesthetical measure" is a comparision measure related only to similar objects, objects of a "family", he said. In the same way as Birkhoff, Max Bense analyzes the works of art as such, not their effects on observers nor their role in history, or their trading value. Now, he reaches a new and clearer understanding of the semiotical state of the works of art. "Not the represented object, but the sign that represents the object is beautiful", he says. He introduces also the concepts of "object message", "existence message" and "form message" to make further distinctions, but he did not yet gain the theoretical foundation of semiotics.
With the concept of message the work of art is explained as "information" in the sense of "innovation" and "originality". The wrtings about information theory led to his conception of "aesthetical information" as a special kind of information in every-day life. The sentence of Claudius' poem: "The moon is rising", is a semantical information, but connected with the other sentence: "The golden stars are shining brightly, and clearly in the sky" represents an aesthetical information because of the new order depending on rhyme and rhythm in the German version. Max Bense completes the old concepts of "content" and "form" with the concept of "medium", "material" or "means". They are the elements of complexity distinguished by Birkhoff. "An aesthetical information rests on its means, on its singular realization", he writes. But to connect Birkhoff's measure with information theory, Max Bense transforms his formula into the informational measure: redundance divided by statistical information. Redundance is obviously the same as order by which the elements are connected. The simplest redundance is, by the way, symmetry. Now, with this enlargement, Max Bense differentiates aesthetics in macro-aesthetics and micro-aesthetics. Macro-aesthetics is concerned with the evident realms of perceptions of the aesthetic object, micro-aesthetics with the not-evident realms of the aesthetic object. Obviously, these conceptions are borrowed from modern physics.
By all these considerations, Max Bense proceeds from metaphysical aesthetics through mathematical aesthetics to informational or statistical aesthetics. Aesthetic communication is elaborated in Volume 3 of "Aesthetica" (1958) with the subtitle "Theory of aesthetical communication" [Aes<thetische Information]. The general scheme of communication is: sender or emitter -> channel -> receiver. In aesthetics it becomes: sender -> aesthetical object -> observer, and is understood as "play" in the sense of Friedrich Schiller or "play theory" by John von Neumann.
In "Aesthetica 4", with the subtitles "Programming of Beauty. General Text Theory and Text Aesthetics" [Programmierung des Schönen. Allgemeine Texttheorie und Textästhetik (1960)], Max Bense investigates the works of art as "vehicles of aesthetical information". He determines the aesthetic process as sign process and replaces the concept of literature by the concept of text, because the letter comprises literature, and all other kinds of possible "linear and non-linear texts", he maintains. The discussion of text, metatext, and context leads to the classification of texts of all kinds. His "text theory" consists also of text materiality, text phenomenality, text statistics, text logic, and so on. But only in his book "Theory of Texts" [Theorie der Texte. Eine Einführung in neuere Auffassungen und Methoden (1962)], he develops his methods more exactly and presents them more didactically. He speaks more comprehensively about sign theory, but also about "sign beauty", a term which the German philosopher Johann Augsut Eberhard published in 1806.
The development of Bense's Aesthetics is shown best in "Aesthetica. Introduction to New Aesthetics" [Aesthetica. Einführuung in die neue Aesthetik (1965)] which comprises the foregoing four volumes together with a new fifth part. He demands here of aesthetical "minimal conditions": extensionality, materiality, realization thematics, process thematics, and communication, and for aesthetical "maximal conditions": triadic sign function, order relation, aesthetical uncertainty relation, and value relation. But only in the paperback "Introduction to Informational Aesthetics" [Einführung in die informationstheoretische Aesthetik (1969)], Max Bense represents the Peircean semiotics in formalizing his only verbal given conceptions. The Peircean triadic sign relation consisting of M or medium relation, O or object relation, and I or interpretant relation, is written down as a function or relation of M, O, I which were divided by Peirce in three parts or trichotomies, so that three subsigns (an expression of Bense) result which were called by Peirce for M: qualisign, sinsign, legisign; for O: icon, index, symbol; and for I: rhema, dicent, argument.
In the second part of this book with the subtitle "Small Text Theory" [Kleine Texttheorie], Bense utilizes also the Peircean ten triads or sign classes, each of which combines one subsign of M, O, and I. The already known conception of "situation" is now discussed once more in connection with the thematics of signs. But these connections of signs, and the system of ten sign classes were analyzed only in his next book "Sign and Design" [Zeichen und Design. Semiotische Aesthetik (1971)]. Particularly interesting are the explanations of creativity, semiotics of design, colour and form, and the communicative and creative scheme in advertising. Sign connections and the system of ten sign classes are extensively analyzed, and founded on Peirce's universal categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, and on his particular catergories of Firstness of Firstness, Firstness of Secondness, and so on. Now, Max Bense understands aesthetics as a theory of aesthetical processes and/or systems, and he introduces the relevant semiotical operations of adjunction, superisation and iteration. In doing so, he can distiguish different aesthetical states. The concept of "creation", already introduced, is understood as "methodological creation" which refers to art and science, likewise. The concepts of information, creative process, intellectual work, innovation, selection, construction, and so on, gain consequently a clearer meaning. Max Bense considers aesthetics here as "essence of the theory of mathematically and semiotically describable states", and characterizes it as provisory, not as absolute.
The "creative principle" is examined in relation to semiotics, and particularly to its operations of adjunction, superisation and iteration thoroughly in his book "The Improbability of Aesthetics, and the Semiotical Conception of Art" [Die Unwahrscheinlichkeit des Aesthetischen und die semiotische Konzeption der Kunst (1979)[. The creative principle, going back to a sentence of Peirce, is given in the creation scheme:
Thirdness over Firstness creates Secondness, or: interpretant over medium creates object. Herewith, the analogy with Biskhoff's formula is evident, if one identified order with interpretant, complexity with medium, and the product (which is Birkhoff's measure) with object. But most important in this book is the determination of the "aesthetical state" by a special sign class which is different from all others. By the numerical representation of subsigns and sign classes and by considering the connection between triads (or sign classes) and trichotomies (or thematizations of reality), Max Bense found out that this one corresponds to the "aesthetic state". If one uses numbers, the connection is expressible by dualization. Then, one sees that the Peircean sign class "rhematical iconical legisign" has the identical inverse as its corresponding trichotomy, and this is a unique property. One sees, too, that there is a full symmetry. To take this sign class as binding for the aesthetic state of the works of art, Max Bense freed himself from Morris' meaning who held that the work of art can be characterized only as an icon. He found out, too, that this triad /trichotomy represents not only the "aesthetical state" but also the "sign as such" and the "number as such". The identity of sign, number and aesthetical state which he suggested in all his former publications, finally becomes for him convincing on account of his semiotical investigations. And he remarks that he does not change other authors' meaning of beauty.
The theme of this special sign class appears, once more,
in his last book which I edited after his death: The self-reality of
signs" [Die Eigenrealität der Zeichen (1992)]. Here, all his reflections
about this sign class are discussed in reference to the self-reality
of the sign. Representation and reality are connected inseparably in
the sign, and signs are relating consciousness and world. Perception,
experience, and reasoning depends on signs. Because nothing is representable
without signs, the mentioned three domains: aesthetics, mathematics
and semiotics are inseparably connected, and so, Max Bense reaches in
his last book the themes of his first one, with the difference that
he can prove now what he anticipated so many years ago.