This essay is an introductory inquiry into esthetics, the branch of philosophy dealing with art and beauty. First, esthetics, art, and beauty are defined. The essay then speculates both on the purposes of art and the reasons artists are driven to create it. Some criteria for the evaluation of art are proposed, and certain methods in art are criticized. Finally, the great dilemma art now facesthe difficulty of finding uncharted territoryis discussed as well as some speculations on art's future.
Art, like language and religion, has been a part of the human experience since well before the days when men first began recording their history. Cave-paintings of animals have been found dating back to well before the first cities.
As far as we can tell, man is the only animal in nature who creates works of art: creations that, for the most part, have no obvious physical uses. (Man is also the only animal who employs language as we know it, though some animals, it is true, have a limited repertoire of calls and gestures.) Beavers build dams and birds and insects build nests and hives, respectively, but their creations are instinctual and serve definite physical functions, i.e., as shelter. Why did prehistoric man, presumably too pre-occupied with daily survival for much leisure, nonetheless find the time and inclination to paint the things he saw in his environment? Why are there, in our own later days, people who devote the entirety of their lives to creating unreal experiences, and why is appreciation for their creations almost universal?
With these questions, we are drawn into the ancient philosophical discussion of esthetics. Here, we will ask the hard questions about what art is, what purpose it serves, and why artists do it. We will also attempt to lay down some semi-rational criteria for judging the merits of a work of art (though this must be a more perilously subjective business than, say, determining whether a particular berry or root is good to eat). Having done this, we will apply these criteria to the criticism of various methods in art, including many modernist techniques that are currently mainstream among artists.
Before going too far in discussing the basic questions of art and artists, however, we need to define our terms. 'Esthetics' (or 'aesthetics') is in Webster's New World Dictionary defined as: "the study or theory of beauty and the psychological responses to it; specifically, the branch of philosophy dealing with art, its creative sources, its forms, and its effects." This is a pretty good definition for the topic at hand though I would more briefly define it as: "the branch of philosophy dealing with art and beauty." This being the case, we need to define art and beauty. This turns out to be rather more involved.
'Art' has many definitions in Webster's but this one seems most useful for the discussion: "creative work or its principles: a making or doing of things that display form, beauty, and unusual perception: art includes painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, drama, the dance, etc." This isn't a bad place to start, but it leaves open the question of what "creative work" is.
Let's try to derive another definition. We'll start with a very general notion of the idea of "work of art" and whittle down the cases it applies to. First of all, a work of art is a perceptual experience. Arguably, everything we experience is, however, so the next thing to note is that a work of art is created by one or more persons for some intended audience of others. That narrows down the field quite a bit, but this definition still includes things like informational presentations, personal communications, and utilitarian artifacts.
One further distinction is that a work of art may be experienced more than once. This means that there is some medium that has allowed it to be recorded or repeated in a like fashion. (A video-tape of a performance of a play allows a particular performance to become a work of art, but something like a comedy skit which may never be recorded, but is worked out by the group and repeated at various performances could also be considered a work of art.) This rules out one-time transient communications but still allows things like essays, news reports, and letters. It also includes fashioned objects like forks and knives and bowls. So what is it that is different about works of art?
One key distinction, I think is in the intended purpose of the created perceptual experience. Perceptual experiences are often created for the purposes either of conveying information about external reality (e.g. news reports, essays, etc.), or for the purposes of physical use (tools, bowls, cups, etc.). A work of art can do these things, but it must also serve some other role beyond this. Objects that merely convey information about external reality or that merely serve physical functional roles are not works of art. There may be much creative thought and effort that goes into crafting these things, but this does not make them works of art per se.
This seems like a troublingly subjective feature to add to our definition, but it does effectively eliminate many phenomena that most people would not consider art. It eliminates presentations of any kind that are for information purposes only. Besides essays and news reports, this also includes maps, diagrams, road-sign symbols, and symbols and pictures merely used as labels (for example, of the contents of containers). (Many of these latter cases could, in principle, double as works of art if they are decorative in some way or they are being used to try to influence the audience in some way over and beyond conveying information.)
Also eliminated, as a general rule, are tools and artifacts whose function serves physical purposes rather than serving as objects of contemplation. This is not to say that an object can't serve both as art and artifact. A work of art may also have some utilitarian purpose in addition to serving an artistic function. (In architecture, this is always the case.) Likewise, some utilitarian objects may also be considered works of art if they project a synthesized, fictitious perceptual experience, e.g. an urn depicting the Trojan Wars, or if their design was intended to also project a certain mood or esthetic quality.
One clear indication that a synthesized perceptual experience is a work of art is if it projects a fictitious reality, i.e. if it is reality engineered "from scratch", as it were, by the artist: a new and self-contained "world unto itself" that has enough coherence and autonomy to stand on its own (at least, provided the audience understands the forms, symbols, language, etc. of the work). This is a special case of the feature that a work of art must fulfill a role over and above informational presentation and physical use. Any attempt to interpret a "made-up", alternate reality is beyond the purposes of physical use or acquiring information about the real world.
To summarize, I will say that 'art' is the process or set of principles for creating or performing a work of art. A 'work of art' is a persistent synthesized perceptual experience which is fictitious or serves some purpose beyond physical utility or the conveying of information. (By 'persistent', I mean that it is an experience that is repeatable, either because it was recorded or because it exists in the minds of others in such a way that the experience will be recreated in a sufficiently similar fashion.) These are suitably general definitions to encompass the traditional areas of art such as painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, dance, etc., and also such newer media as photography, film, and video games. It is sufficiently specific, however, to rule out many phenomena that, while the product of some creativity perhaps, are not generally considered art as such (but see below).
(There are some lingering, seemingly pathological cases with this definition that may need to be ironed out at a later date. First of all, this definition still (technically) permits us to consider as art some non-fictitious communications such as personal letters or speeches and essays because these often move beyond the purpose of merely conveying information and can seek to influence or persuade their audiences. There are other seemingly unexpected physical artifacts that can usually be counted as works of art under my definition, too. Insofar as taste and appearance are important beyond the utility of merely making their objects edible, food items could be consider works of art, or at least the recipes or formulas for the items could be considered art since these persist after the food is eaten. An article of clothing may also generally be considered as a work art because most clothing serves more than the bare practical functionality of covering the human body and is used to convey mood, status, etc. Is a pepperoni pizza recipe or a mink coat a work of art? My definition, as it stands, is probably a little too permissive.)
There is one restriction that I left out of my definition that I will omit somewhat uncomfortably: the notion that the synthesized perceptual experience created by the artist should be one that they selectively, consciously created rather than allowing random mechanisms of chance or unconscious whim to completely shape the work. This allows us to include as works of art pieces that are synthesized almost entirely by random events or unconscious processes: e.g. "automatic writing", "found art", and random art. The unconscious and the random have a say in any work of art (since they have a say in conscious processes), but there are some particular modernist methods in art that abuse this by making blind chance the true engineer of their work. (Much more will be said on this later.)
One relevant and related, though conservative, definition of 'art', is offered by Ayn Rand. "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." (Romantic Manifesto, p. 19) By "the artist's metaphysical value-judgments," Rand is referring to what the artist judges as being essential and important aspects of reality, including such things as their beliefs about whether a person does or doesn't have "free-will", whether the universe is knowable or not, and whether people are fundamentally good or evil. This definition has the nice quality of hinting at where the artist draws their ideas and inspirations from, but it would seem to limit the artist to recreating and representing previously existing worlds. Some artists might find this definition too slavish to traditional, representational art forms. (I have my own objections to non-representational art which I will venture later.)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.Unknown.
The relevant definition in Webster's for 'beauty' is: "the quality attributed to whatever pleases or satisfies the senses or mind, as by line, color, form, texture, proportion, rhythmic motion, tone, etc., or by behavior, attitude, etc." This is a subjective definition which, however, gets at the heart of the matter. 'Pleases' and 'satisfies' are key words because these point explicitly to the fact that beauty is not some abstract quality that a perceived object has in its own right. Beauty expresses a certain relationship between a perceived object and an observer.
This would seem to tell us that anything can be beautiful if I say it is so. But this is a naïve view of subjectivity that does not take into account the very real and objective psychological mechanisms that give rise to our values and tastes.
Lest we think that beauty is an arbitrary notion and anything is likely to be beautiful if I just say so, it would be worth analyzing a classic conundrum in ancient philosophy: how the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are related. It is commonly said that any one of these may exist lacking the qualities of the other. What is true may be neither good or beautiful, what is good may be neither true or beautiful, and what is beautiful may be neither good or true.
What Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, share, however, is that they are positive evaluations of some aspect of existence. Evaluations are, by definition, subjective; they are always with respect to a particular observer. (Truth may claim to be objective, i.e., independent of observers, but it is more accurately stated that a person's objectivity amounts to their being in wide agreement to the experience of other people due to the commonalities of epistemological method all humans share. There may be an objective reality, but it is experienced subjectively with each individual forming their own private representation of the world around them.) What is being judged? Beauty, said the ancient Greeks, judges the form and symmetry of objects, whether perceived or conceptual. Truth judges whether a statement can be relied upon as an explanation of some aspect of our inferred objective reality. Goodness judges whether a phenomenon is conducive to our survival and emotional happiness, as individuals or as a species. (What is "good" (i.e., conducive to life) depends on what individual organism or collective of organisms we're talking about, and the precise nature of this "good" is determined by the biological and social dynamics inherent in the species. What's good for ants is different than what's good for humans.)
It can be said that in all three cases it is harmony, i.e., well-relatedness, that is being evaluated. Beauty, to the ancient Greeks, implied a harmony within the object itself: the way parts were related to the whole. To a more modern understanding, Beauty implies harmony between observer and object: how the form under consideration relates to our desires and values. (This includes the ancient Greek view as a special case.) Truth implies harmony of propositions with objective reality (or alternatively, with our consistent subjective experience). Goodness implies harmony of the evaluated phenomenon with either individual or collective human existence and prosperity.
Objectivism makes a good case for subsuming Goodness under Truth. What is good is also true because what is, in fact, good for organism X is, by definition, something that promotes the life of organism X. What is bad for organism X is, by definition, something that harms the life of organism X. How do we resolve this with the idea that what is true is not necessarily good? The key is to recognize that Goodness implies Truth, but Truth doesn't necessarily imply Goodness. Something can be true which is detrimental for the life of any given organism X. However anything that is good is, as a matter of Truth, beneficial for the life of the organism or the species.
How does Beauty relate to Goodness and Truth? Beauty is largely the promise of either Goodness or Truth. We often say that something is beautiful when it either arouses our desires in some way or when it says something we believe to be true. If it arouses our desires, it can be said to be triggering activation of our values, and our values are a reflection of what we think would be good for us. If it arouses our sense of elegantly capturing the truth of something, it is offering us a kind of intuitive promise that it says something about reality worth saying. With this in mind, we can say why Goodness or Truth don't necessarily imply Beauty. What might in fact be good for organism X might not be obvious to organism X and might appear, even, to be detrimental (which would make it ugly). Likewise, what is actually true might actually not appear to be true. Going the other direction, Beauty doesn't necessarily imply either Truth or Goodness because it is a promise, not a guarantee of either.
3.2 Beauty as an Appraisal of Value
All of this said, we can now proceed to define beauty in a much more succinct way. 'Beauty' is the quality an observer attributes to an object when they believe it to be associated with something they value. (This belief may or may not be conscious, however.) Thus, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
However, a person's values are not arbitrary, but are psychologically programmed into them by their experience and by certain biological instincts. A beautiful woman can be beautiful because her expression suggests serenity and purity, or she can be beautiful because she arouses our carnal desires. (Sometimes, she may possess many different and seemingly contradictory qualities of beauty simultaneously.) One kind of beauty responds to our culturally and psychologically programmed values, and the other responds to our procreative instincts.
To speculate on how response to beauty transpires physiologically in the brain, it would be useful to pause and consider how emotional responses in general are learned. The brain learns associations between certain perceptual contexts and emotional states. When positive emotional states tend to happen in an organism at the same time as they are around a particular stimulus X, that stimulus X tends to become "anchored" to those emotional states. The presence of these stimuli tend to become "rewards" for the organism. In the case of food or sex, the association of stimuli to positive emotions is more "hard-wired" and instinctual. In the case of more abstract phenomena, the association must be learned through experience.
Perceptual stimuli that are associated with positive emotions become values, albeit of the cruder, more concrete variety. For a dog, the sight of their master would be an example of this (provided the master is kind), as would the sound of a bell if the dog was trained to associate the sound of a bell with food being provided (as in Pavlov's classical conditioning experiments). When higher-level cognitive activity establishes that certain behaviors, events, and abstract ideas will tend to lead to the emotional state of rewardeither by the triggering of the positive states themselves, or by the triggering of perceptual stimuli previously associated with those positive statesthese behaviors, events, or ideas will also become values, higher and more abstract values.
Of course, these learned associations are not a guarantee that the things we value will always reward us. In fact, many things we value might be irrelevant and learned through chance correspondences of reward states and the associated stimulus or internal context. We may think that all fish are tasty based on our previous experience, until we eat a certain kind of fish that tastes bad. Whether or not we recognize the fallibility of our attractions to fish, however, we will nonetheless find a fish to be a beautiful thing, all other factors being equal, if our experiences with fish have been positive in the past.
The key observation here is that what we think would be good for us in some way is beautiful to us. Conceptual values such as symmetry, balance, order, meaningfulness, truth, etc. are all things that we value because our experience with life leads us to appreciate them. For example, we learn to value balance and orderliness because our experience with life shows us that phenomena that are out of balance or disorderly are chaotic and tend to make our lives more difficult and unpleasant. Things which we think are bad for us in some way are ugly to us.
That is the essence of beauty. The difference between "beautiful" and "good" is that what is beautiful looks good, but what is indeed good may not. The difference between "ugly" and "bad" is that what is ugly looks bad, but what is indeed bad may not. To say that something is beautiful is to make the epistemological admission of "it looks good but I'm not sure." Indeed, very often when a thing of beauty is unmasked as being bad and hurtful, it ceases to be beautiful and its previous beauty makes its current ugliness doubly unbearable. Thus, passionate love becomes passionate hate.
(It should be noted that I have not included beauty in my definition of art. A work of art need be neither beautiful, true, or good to be valid art. It may be simultaneously revolting to the senses, a false reflection of reality (or alternatively, incomprehensible), and morally repugnant in content, and yet still qualify as being art. It will almost certainly suffer in its esthetic evaluations, however, because such a work would go against nearly all of the purposes of art that I shall soon discuss.)
Now we arrive at one of the larger questions: what purpose does art serve for individuals and for society? Immediately, we are thrown into a controversy and the need to distinguish two types of art.
4.1 The Objectivist Perspective: Concrete Representation of High-Level Abstractions
We begin with some observations of Rand's:
Man's profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man's fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man's consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.
(Romantic Manifesto, p. 45)
Art, at its best, holds up images and metaphors that help us understand ourselves and the world we live in. It tells us both how things are and how things ought to be.
It is hard to convey a sense of how the world or how life is (or should be) by giving a long list of facts and principles. In order to truly understand something, a person usually needs to see concrete examples that they can relate to their own ideas and experiences. (As a minor example, most people cannot understand the structure of an atom by being shown a list of quantum equations, but show them a diagram and they'll "get the picture".) This art provides for them.
Every work of art is a perceptual, i.e., a concrete experience that has been synthesized for them by an artist (or artists). The particular percepts chosen by the artist are a reflection of, not only the artist's methods, but also the artist's own privately-held concepts and representation of the world, and also their attitude towards existence which roughly translates to what Rand calls their sense of life.
According to Rand's theory, our emotional reaction to a work of art depends on whether the sense of life the work conveys corresponds with our own sense of life or not. She maintains that a person with a positive sense of life will tend to respond in a positive fashion to works of art that convey a positive sense of life and negatively to works that convey a negative, i.e., pessimistic sense of life. Similarly, if a person's sense of life tells them that clear-thinking and reason are important, they will respond positively to art which is clear and makes sharp distinctions and negatively to art that blurs distinctions and is conceptually foggy.
While this is often true, I'm not sure if this is universally applicable for all connoisseurs of art, or even consistent at all times for the same art-lover. It is often difficult to decide, particularly in abstract art or in many pieces of instrumental music (even traditional ones), what sense of life is being conveyed. Also, a person with an essentially pessimistic sense of life might react positively to works that convey a positive (optimistic) sense of life and vice versa. The troubled cynic might seek the refuge of upbeat, light, humorous works and find comfort in them. The essentially optimistic person might, on the other hand, take pleasure in experiencing feelings of sympathy and desire to console, when attending to a work with a negative sense of life.
There is another difficulty that I have with Objectivist esthetics, however, but one which is illuminating and will lead to a distinction that will have enormous conceptual import. In Rand's formulation of art, she is clearly indicating a bias towards art that emphasizes conceptual (intellectual) meaning. This was a natural inclination for her to have because she was a novelist and all novelistsindeed, all writerswork in the conceptual medium of words. For her, a colorful vase or an ornately patterned rug do not qualify as art. She implicitly demands of artists that they convey conceptual meaning to their audience.
4.2 Art as Decoration
This is not entirely fair to artists, but it does illustrate the need to make a distinction between two types of art: decorative and conceptual art. Both kinds of art involve creating perceptual experiences. In fact, an artist may even be creating an object that has other uses besides decoration, e.g. a vase or a cup. However, decorative art is content to provide a pleasing or interesting sensory and perceptual experience or project a particular mood (often to enhance the desired mood of the space the decoration is to be placed in). In both these cases, the artist seeks only to arouse a particular emotional response to the work. (I am considering emotional responses to be perceptual rather than conceptual phenomena. This might be open to debate, but my rationale for doing this is that I see emotions as consisting of raw feeling sensations, perhaps in conjunction with particular kinds of perceptual stimuli.)
The fact that decorative art is still art, however, is undeniable. A still-life of a basket of fruit may not provide us with a great deal of insight into human nature, but it is still a work of art. If a person has an affinity for bright colors or apples or pears, the painting will arouse their sense of beauty, meaning the desired emotion of appreciation will be generated. It is not entirely correct to say that this arousal is completely non-conceptual in nature. The recognition of an object as an apple or a pear (or indeed as fruit in general) is a conceptual categorization process. However, most likely the intent of the artist was not so much to send the conceptual message of "here is a basket of pears, apples, grapes, and bananas" as it was to evoke a certain mild feeling of pleasure (and possibly hunger?) at the sight of the fruit.
Regardless of the artist's intent, however, we can still say that the still-life is decorative in nature because most people, while they may note that there are apples, pears, and such in the basket, will not consider this particularly important information. There is no cognitive information the viewer is likely to permanently gain, no new insight into reality. The conceptual information that is there is significantly less important than the quality of feelings evoked by the image. This may be simply the appreciation of the artist's skill, for how aptly the artist rendered the various fruits.
When more complex subjects are chosenfor example, a human figure engaged in a particular activitymore conceptualization must happen in order to interpret the painting. Even with a still portrait, the viewer will probably have a tendency to look at the expression on the face and try to characterize the person. When this happens, the art becomes less decorative and more conceptual in nature.
There are many instances that can be readily found where art fulfills a primarily decorative function. Pictures of flowers, geometric patterns on rugs or floors, capitals on columns, calligraphic flourishes in letters, etc. are all instances of decorative art. Decoration is a way of personalizing one's space and also making that space project a particular kind of mood. Decorative flourishes can be used not only to convey prettiness or fragility, but also to convey mass, power, or strength. A decorative artist can be as subtle and cunning in their understanding of the relationship between elements in their medium and human emotions as the conceptual artist. The difference is that they decline to convey distinct cognitive messages or (intellectual) ideas to their audience.
It should be noted that some media of art are more difficult to create conceptual works in than others, and so tend to be predominantly decorative in nature. Much as I'm reluctant to say it (as a lover of classical music and, more recently, jazz), instrumental (i.e. "pure") music tends to fall into this category. Music, in the absence of lyrics or an associated drama or program notes or even a descriptive title for the piece, relies for its effect on the audience's associations of tempo, rhythm, texture, harmonic structure, etc. with particular moods and emotions, and, to a lesser extent, actual symbolic associations. Some composers (notably, operatic composers such as Wagner and the Romantics in general, as well as modern film score writers) succeed in actually creating musical symbols (say for a particular person or event) through themes or leitmotifs, but these depend on the context of a drama or text. (A beautifully simple illustrative example of this technique is shown in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.) . A composer, in the absence of some programmatic context, may still create artful and dramatic "moodscapes", but, generally speaking, actual conceptual content is difficult to convey.
(I give the qualification of "generally speaking" because, the particular ordering of moods projected by the composer may perhaps be used to convey a message about the sort of emotions that tend to follow one another. Perhaps the particular sequence of emotional states could be so archetypal in nature that the composer could suggest familiar life experiences, e.g. falling in love, success at something, etc. Also, there are some musical symbols, e.g. wild chromatics to suggest and imitate wind and marching rhythms to suggest war, that have been used so frequently in dramatic or real-life contexts that they have become reliable symbols. I find personally that composers that choose a suggestive title for their works and evoke the appropriate corresponding moods and maybe have some of these symbols, can succeed in evoking in my mind certain general but poignant dramas. But I would not expect my imagined drama to be very consistent with another person's unless much more conceptual context was provided. (Different people will "fill in the blanks" differently.))
4.3 Art as Persuader
The dividing line between decorative and conceptual art is when symbols begin appearing in the work. Let's say a tribe's medicine man hangs a scary mask on a wall to keep evil spirits from entering a room. A decorative function is being served: the mask is definitely projecting a mood, i.e. fear (though to imaginary entities). However, it is also conveying a specific cognitive message (though, again, to imaginary entities) and that is "Keep out!"
Were the cognitive message of the mask merely something informative such as "the medicine man has put this here", we would not count this work as being conceptual art, however. In the definition for art that I've proposed, a work of art needs to serve more purposes than mere conveying of information or physical use. Similarly, for a work of art to be conceptual, its concepts must do more than convey information to its audience. Otherwise, we would say that a well-drawn logo on a company letterhead is conceptual art.
In fact (from the hypothetical evil spirits' point of view) the mask does more than convey the abstract message of "Keep out!" It is being used to conceptually associate being in the room with danger, and thus to persuade the spirits to stay away. This is a pretty crude attempt at persuasion. (Another crude example is a certain notorious and offensive piece of art involving a crucifix submerged in urine. Here, a whole religion is being associated with something generally considered filthy, i.e. urine.)
Persuasion through the association of symbols can be a whole lot more subtle than in the above examples, but the mechanism is more or less the same. The whole aim of advertising is to associate positive things with a particular product. A particularly yummy-looking photograph of a burger may be associated with a particular restaurant chain or a certain brand of cereal might be associated with certain important abstracts like motherhood or national pride through selective choice of images in commercials and on the box art. Likewise, propagandists (including campaign managers) often try to associate negative images like injustice or uncleanliness or stinginess with certain ideas or activities or people.
Part of the secret to Hitler's popularity had to do with having a savvy team of propagandists and the overall nose of the Nazi party for grand symbolisms to advertise themselves as being strong, united, etc. The monumental operatic works of Richard Wagner were very much alive in the mind of Hitler (who was perhaps influenced as much by Wagner's anti-Semitism as his music) when he and his team were figuring out how to sell themselves to the German people. The massive-scale use of grand and proud symbolisms probably went far to seduce the minds of a Germany that had been humiliated by the surrender terms the Treaty of Versailles and forced into a virulent economic hyperinflation that drove the average working citizen to despair. Let those who thought that art has no effect on what goes on in the world keep this example in mind.
Not all persuasion is so malicious, and in fact, persuasive art can be turned to positive usesto persuade kids not to start smoking, for examplebut it should be recognized that persuasion is one of the most dangerous and potentially harmful purposes to which art is put. As far as conceptual art goes, it is often not very sophisticated. All you need is one symbol rendered in such a way as to evoke a particular feeling in your audience. A sufficiently talented visual artist can draw a bunny-rabbit and make it inspire fear and loathing, or, on the other hand, draw a lovable ax-murderer. For a person not sufficiently grounded in reality (or under sufficient duress), art can be used as an incredible tool of emotional manipulation. People can be persuaded not only to buy consumer goods they don't need, but also to buy specious ideas and corrupt leaders. People can be persuaded not only to shun the competition's brand of cola, but also to shun intelligent and rational ideas and honest, upstanding, and effective leaders. Art isn't alone in having this power, but art is often more effective than rhetorical argument because it shows people rather than telling them what is good or bad. Not a sentence or a word need be spoken by a work of art to paint an idea or a person in a good or bad light.
4.4 Art as Cognitive Lens
Although I've said that a work of conceptual art must go beyond merely conveying information, this does not necessarily mean we must eliminate from consideration works of art that do have informational content. Indeed, one of the benefits of conceptual art is often that it gives us a sense of how things are. When a work of art contains more than one symbol, it often shows relationships between the symbols (and their corresponding referents in the real world) and this is likely to be noteworthy information. Thus, a work of art may convey truth and understanding about the real world.
You can learn a lot about human psychology and passions by reading Shakespeare (provided your ear is accustomed to Shakespeare's older dialect). If you are personally unfamiliar with the emotions of envy and jealousy, you might read a psychological essay on these things and learn many useful factual things about behaviors and mechanisms. However, if you really want to see and understand and appreciate both the nature and the consequences of jealousy, read (or, better, watch) Othello.
Seeing a work of art brings otherwise remote and dead truths to life and lets you experience them first-hand. The work of art becomes an image and a metaphor or set of metaphors for understanding abstract truths. Art and metaphor are, in fact, related. Both can serve to explain ill-understood things in terms of better-understood things. Perceptual experiences are easier to understand than abstract concepts. It is easier to understand the phenomenon of an apple in terms of its appearance and taste than in terms of a dictionary definition. Likewise, it is easier to understand abstract concepts like 'love' and 'justice' by seeing (perceptual) enactments of love and justice (as well as their opposites) rather than reading about philosophical and psychological features of these things. Art "makes flesh" of abstractions and thus makes them easier to grasp. Abstraction is important because it lets us generalize about our perceptual experience, but the true understanding of the abstractions comes when they are concretized in some fashion, either through an illustrative metaphor or a work of art.
4.5 Art as Ethical Guide
Besides allowing us to grasp complicated cognitive abstractions, conceptual art also allows us to grasp normative abstractions, i.e., those concepts that tell us how things ought to be.
This purpose of art is related to its use as a means of persuasion, but what distinguishes it is the complexity of the normative abstractions the work conveys. We are not merely trained in a Pavlovian way to associate a particular image of a person with compassion or evil. In fact, the author of a work with ethical implications may not even have intended to persuade anyone over to (or away from) any particular set of beliefs. The key is that the work presents such a coherent and comprehensive construction of reality that the audience is able to draw their own conclusions and opinions from the work. They may be able to see the concretization of certain abstract ethical or political ideas and decide for themselves if they like the results.
The best examples of art that come to my mind that permit ethical contemplation are in literature. Fairy tales and other fables give us concrete representations of "good" and "evil" people and the sort of behavior that is to be admired or detested and punished in society. The authors of these works may not have consciously decided to indoctrinate anyone; their moral sense may have emerged quite unbidden into their works. On the other hand, there are works such as Rand's Atlas Shrugged, or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four or Huxley's Brave New World that are far more deliberate in their intent to advocate or condemn particular ideas. Whatever the intent of the authors however, these works serve to hold up to us concretizations of ethical and political concepts and illustrate their (presumed) consequences.
At this point, it is worth making a distinction between art and ethics. The difference between these is that ethics tells you how you ought to act, specifying principles and rules, i.e. information, for acting in that fashion. Art with ethical content shows you by example how to act. In a didactic piece of literature, there may be commentary regarding the actions of the characters, but this is not generally necessary, and in fact it can detract from the experience of the work. People respond to examples and the emotional state those examples evoke. They will be able to work out for themselves the morality or immorality of the examples presented to them particularly in light of the consequences of the actions in the story.
This is why stories that show the triumph of villains or who leave the impression that the heroes are no better than the villains are ethically dangerous and disturbing works, particularly dangerous for children whose ethical sense is still developing. (I am not an advocate of censorship, but I understand the need for parental discretion and I think artists should take under consideration the ethical messages projected by their works. More later on this.)
4.6 Art as Exploration and Escape
Art may also allow a person to experience other unfamiliar or fanciful worlds. A person immersed in a painting, a piece of music, or a book, is exploring another world, an alternate (though in scope limited) reality. By doing so, a person may allow themselves a wider variety of (vicarious) experiences than they would ordinarily have at their disposal and if the world they inhabit is unsatisfying in some way, they can escape for awhile to another world more to their liking. (This is also an important motivating factor for artists, I think, and I will elaborate on this a little later.) The world created by the artist may be a reflection of another part of the real world which allows the artist to convey some of the experiences of that other part of the world to the reader. Or the artist's world may be an elaborate distortion of the world or a completely fantastic world with its own laws and logic.
The same kind of synthesis that allows us to hold up a mirror to the world allows us to hold up the illusion of a fantasy-world. In some ways, this is a more sinister aspect of art as it encourages detachment of involvement from external life in favor of idle and easy self-gratification. However, for the person hopelessly caught in the dread and horror of a real-world hell, e.g. a war, a famine, or an illness, this escape may be a positive thing.
A kind of exploration in a different spirit, perhaps, is the exploration of form and perceptual space engaged in by abstract artists. It is a modern trend that art has attempted to divorce itself from objective reality in favor of exploring new expressive possibilities through the use of novel techniques of perceptual organization and presentation. Artists operating in this vein are moving away from art as a means of representing known reality in favor of art as a means of exploring what kind of perceptual phenomena art can produce (and the impact these phenomena will have emotionally, perhaps).
What intuitions and new phenomena will the efforts of the abstract artists uncover? This is difficult to say. In some ways it is like trying to predict whether an area of highly arcane mathematics will ever find an application in the sciences. I would suspect that abstract artists have uncovered some interesting low-level principles in the perception and emotional appraisal of perceptual concretes. However, I will confess that to me this seems like a poor trade for the loss of meaning and connectedness with the world that abstract art incurs, compared with more representational art. (I will pursue this line of argument in more detail later.)
4.7 Art as Gauge of Personal Values
Conceptual art may serve as a means of psychological analysis, specifically as a means of gauging a person's values. As was stated earlier, a person decides (usually unconsciously) that something is beautiful if that something appears to address one or more of their values. It follows that information about what kinds of thingsincluding works of arta person finds beautiful will tell you something about their values.
For example, it might be inferred that a person who seems to show a tendency to enjoy action movies and identify with their heroes is demonstrating that they value strength, decisiveness, and other characteristics that are typically embodied in heroes. A person who enjoys comedies and identifies with the bumbling protagonist is perhaps demonstrating that they value humor and/or humility.
Of course, such inferences are risky because a particular work of art may embody several and possibility contradictory values and it may be difficult to isolate which values the person has that are causing them to respond to the work of art as being beautiful. If I state that I have a great affinity for the movie Saving Private Ryan, it is not because I value war and graphic violence (which are both prominent elements in the movie), but, in this case, because I think those involved in the making of that film did an excellent job of holding up the horror of war before our eyes and showing the true price America paid as a nation in order to aid the rest of the world in overthrowing Nazi domination. This is to say that they presented Truth which is something I value. (The beauty of this movie was that it simultaneously treated our efforts in the war with respect, even while it revealed the sorts of terrible things that happened.)
Perhaps it is as a means of self-analysis that art is best deployed in this sense. If you don't know what motivates you and what is important to you, ask yourself what kinds of things you find beautiful, including works of art. What you are drawn to (and what repels you) probably says a great deal about what you think is important and valuable in life.
4.8 Art as Cognitive Challenge
There is another role that I suspect artboth decorative and conceptualhas. "Difficult" art (which includes both highly symbolically complex representational art, and abstract art, atonal music, etc.) serves as a challenge to human integrative and perceptual abilities. Difficult works of art are puzzles and riddles, and like all puzzles and riddles, stimulate novel thinking and mental flexibility.
With the piano music of Alexander Scriabin, I had what I think was an illustrative experience. Upon hearing his later piano sonatas (Nos. 5-10) a first time, I could not really understand them. They seemed wild and chaotic and largely incomprehensible. However, upon repeated exposures, I began to hear some of the underlying structure of the pieces and began to appreciate their own peculiar, mysterious, crystalline beauty. I cannot say for certain whether this has in any way improved my general cognitive integrative faculties, but I have a suspicion that these kind of exercises may, in fact, improve a person's general ability to notice and perceive underlying patterns in complex phenomena. They are, perhaps, sensitizing a person's mind to better find the order hiding in complexity.
4.9 Art for the Good of Its Creator
Finally, there is often (and perhaps always) a purpose of a work of art for its creator. Any given work may serve the artist in maintaining a livelihood, expressing themselves, serving as self-therapy, or more than one of these things or for other reasons not mentioned. The next section discusses in more detail why artists create art, but the answers that will be enumerated are all relevant in the context of this section.
Why does the artist produce art? Because they are creative. But why are they creative? At this point, I think it would be most useful to ask the question of why people of any sort, artist or otherwise, create anything? From whence does the Promethean urge spring?
5.1 General Creativity
Necessity is the mother of invention.Unknown
The first psychological observation, and in some ways a tautology, is that people create when they have a need to create. This may be a very real physical need or a psychological need, but a need it is, whatever its nature. Creativity is a description of a particular class of mental processes that involve the synthesis of something new that did not previously exist. This might be a concept in the thinker's mind or a physical artifact in the real world.
Another observation to make is that people create something new when the things that exist are unsatisfactory. Ancient man learned to fashion spears and clubs (and later bows and arrows) because his teeth and nails and brute strength alone were unsatisfactory in allowing him to hunt his prey. This is the reason all tools and technological innovations exist: because they allow people to do things that were more difficult or impossible without them.
The same is true when a person coins, i.e. creates, a new concept in their minds. If I had never heard of or seen wolves, I would not have an understanding of them and when I ran into a hungry pack of them, I might be in trouble unless I knew, for example that they can't climb trees (unlike leopards who can). Here is an example where my concept of "pointy-toothed animal" is unsatisfactory. Some distinct features of wolvesfor example the aforementioned fact that they can't climb trees and also that they are social animals that will tend to follow the pack leader (so if I attack and beat off the pack leader, the others will probably turn tail)are important enough for my survival that it would be useful to differentiate the concept of "wolf" from the more general concept of "pointy-toothed animal". If I make the lucky choice of climbing up a tree after I encounter a wolf-pack, I will notice that the wolves fail to climb after me and I will instinctively form a new concept for this kind of predator that includes this distinguishing feature. I can then offer this advice to the rest of my tribe and make their chances of survival more likely should they find themselves in the same situation.
The above examples of creativity seem somehow prosaic and gloomy. Creation seems to be the slave of necessity. But this is not entirely true because creation also happens spontaneously through play. Play, as any pet-owner will attest, is not something that is unique to humans. When an animal plays, it is exploring its environment, trying things out in a fun and non-threatening way. Animals play-fight with each other to learn how to defend themselves in real life. They inquisitively explore areas in order to learn where things are. Play amounts to trying out new things, observing the results, and learning from them, i.e. active learning. Thinkers do not wait for chance observations when they develop their theories. Instead they actively explore possibilities through the use of questions and speculative images. They are playing with their thoughts, trying out possibilities and seeing what comes out.
Artists are doing the same thing when they are engaged in the act of artistic creation. A poet is playing with metaphors, images, meters, rhymes, and turns of phrase and seeing what falls out. When something good falls out, the poet nails down the particular lines that are working well for the piece he's creating, and he continues the process, exploring and nailing down more lines, until finally he has an entire poem. Then, he might take a look at the whole, decide that certain parts aren't fitting correctly with the whole of his creation, and he'll go back to playing around and exploring possibilities until he finds good revisions for the parts that didn't fit in the initial draft. When he's satisfied that he's got something that suits his purposes, he stops and considers the poem "finished" (though from my experience, it sometimes seems that no poem is ever finished until you've given up on it).
There are essentially two types of occasion when people play: a) when they need to fish for answers for something they are doing, and b) when they don't have anything that needs doing. In a sense, the second option is a specific case of the first because people, unless they are sleeping, always have a need to be engaged in some way by their environment (even if it just means staring at a television). People are generally bored when they have nothing to do, and this boredom generates a need to fish for answers for alleviating that condition.
5.2 Art and Craft
With the above in mind, it will be noticed that every human is creative to some degree and all have the capacity for being creative. We all have the need to come up with new ideas, new ways of doing things, and ways of spending our time. Everyone has the cognitive faculties that allow artistic creation. Yet, clearly, not every person is an artist. Not everyone decides that it is worth their time to create novel perceptual experiences to share with other people.
So what is different about artistic creation in particular? I do not think the most general psychological mechanisms and motivations for artistic creativity are different (though as discussed soon, there are some unique specific motivations for the artist). It is the direction to which the creativity is applied, i.e., the fact that their emphasis is in creating remarkable perceptual experiences rather than physical artifacts or informational concepts.
Compare the goals of a sculptor to the goals of a wheelwright or a blacksmith. All of these people have manipulative skills. All selectively apply their skills and sense of proportion to arrive at products that meet their respective requirements. They are all creators and craftsmen.
The difference is that a wheelwright or a blacksmith are not as deeply concerned with the esthetic aspects of their creations. Moreover, they are generally not concerned at all with conveying any particular ideas or messages in their work. The sculptor, however, is concerned with how his work is perceived in terms of emotional impact and sensory beauty. He may also be concerned about what message his work imparts to observers. (If the sculpture of the king isn't done properly, it might make the king look bad and send the subtle message that the he is a weak ruler.) We would say that the sculptor's work is predominantly art and the work of wheelwrights and blacksmiths is predominantly craft.
Naturally, there can be a good deal of overlap between craft and art. Take the instance of the village potter. The potter knows how to mold clay to make useful and esthetically appealing cups, jars, bowls, plates, etc. The fact that there are both utilitarian and purely esthetic features to his work means that he can be both craftsman and artist. He can provide the village with the useful ceramic containers they need in their daily lives and he can, to the extent he desires and has the time for it, indulge his esthetic impulses. Most likely, he will at least be enough of an artist to make his ceramic goods comfortably familiar and esthetically palatable. He might decide to go further and experiment with novel and interesting shapes and techniques. If he is also good at representational art, he might even venture into conceptual art and use his works to reflect his own religious or philosophical beliefs (e.g. by painting scenes onto the vessels).
5.3 Motivations for Artistic Creativity
But we've still not addressed the reasons why people some people apply their creativity artistically and others do not. There are a number of possible reasons and these may not be mutually exclusive (or exhaustive).
5.3.1 Making a Living
For those artists who are more-or-less craftsmen at heart, and have little interest in being innovative or daring in their medium, they may nonetheless be forced to attend to appearances and their effects as a practical matter in their trade. A toy-maker who makes toys that are ugly and no fun will not stay in business long. Sculptors or portrait artists who can't make their subjects look good will not be in much demand.
Not all artists are idealistic intellectuals who are driven to make statements with their art. Art can be just as mercenary or pragmatic a trade as law or paper-making or law enforcement. An artist working for a company may simply be another skilled laborer like a machinist in a factory. (I worked in the computer-gaming industry for a time, so I can attest to this, though I can also attest that game-developers often go through great pains and put a good deal of their heart and soul into their work, sometimes only to gain the privilege of reading scathing reviews of their work and having their publisher stiff them on their royalties. For those of you who've not been there, the entertainment biz can be pretty vicious.)
5.3.2 Fame, Wealth, and Notoriety
Creativity is often a means by which one can earn attention and admiration. There are arguably many musicians out there who want to be "rock stars". Some of them are musical idealists, but most of them are really looking for attention, easy access to receptive women, etc. Their art becomes their vehicle for getting attention, adoration, and getting the thrill of knowing that persons of the opposite sex fantasize about them.
So, they take up their instruments (or voice) and learn how to use it to get attention. If they're successful at becoming rich and famous, it sometimes happens that they begin to get tired of the "star-schtick", and may begin to feel a genuine stirring within them to produce "serious" art. It seems to me that this happens often enough to make a note of. ArtistsI'm thinking mostly about bandswhose works were originally more superficial often develop more mature artistic tastes that encourage them to explore more complex and serious avenues of art. (On the other hand, bands that start out with a vision sometimes end up "selling out" later when the "almighty dollar" fails to reward their talent. Or they get tired of bearing the weight of being "serious musicians". There is at least one British art rock band I can think of that fits this latter description.)
5.3.3 Need for Self-Expression
The first two motivations for artistic creativity are pretty shallow (though this doesn't necessarily reflect badly on the skill and talent of the artists). A different matter is the need for self-expression, the need to get a message across. A person who's "got something to say" probably is upset about that something. Art can be a way of reaching out to the world and voicing one's discontent. The person who is driven to express themselves in a loud voice is often someone who feels no one has been listening. They may have one big serious indictment against the world, or a lot of little gripes.
It is very common in this day and age to feel alienated and alone and get the sense that no-one cares and nobody's paying attention to you. There are many contributing factors to this: rapid change, the decline of the extended family in favor of the nuclear family, incessant mobility, etc. (most of these detailed quite eloquently in Alvin Toffler's Future Shock). This leads to a lot of angry and resentful people who want to tell the world how unhappy they are in hopes that other people will say, in effect: "Yeah, I know how you feel. Let's get together and try to do something about it."
I am not in any way intending to put down artists who are psychologically motivated in this fashion. I can entirely understand this perspective, given that I often am less than satisfied with my own lot in life. The only troublesome aspect for me is that the work of these artists tends to be overly and sentimentally cynical, particularly in an affluent nation such as ours where we don't have constant civil war, "ethnic cleansing" and other brutal events going on as a matter of course.
Be that as it may, this motivation for art is a clear example of the basic principle that we create when what we have before us is unsatisfactory. (Incidentally, I think that much of Ayn Rand's work, both as a novelist and in philosophy, was prompted by her profound discontent with the society she grew up inSoviet Russiaand the world that she believed was falling into the socialism and collectivism she learned to hate and fear as a child.)
5.3.4 Creative Escapism
Another even more profound illustration of this principle is the drive that artists often have, especially in literature, to retreat into their own works. If a writer is dissatisfied with the real world, they can always create a new one more to their liking, one where the underdog hero actually gets what they want and people act the way the author would really like them to. (It is my own belief that this is what drew me initially to creative writing and I still see evidence of this principle operating in me from time to time when I write.)
An artist motivated in this way will often produce very dramatic and emotionally charged works because they are living out their fantasies (or exorcising their demons) when they write. They are typically introverted by nature, but may also share the desire for self-expression.
There are many reasons why an artist might want to escape into their art. It might be for simple immediate self-gratification. It might be for relief from pain. It might be to relieve loneliness through the creation of imaginary friends. It might be to relieve boredom by creating amusing imagery. Or it might be because they are trying to work out their problems in their mind by concretizing them in their art so they can better get a grasp on them.
An artist of this bent is likely to create very vivid, imaginative, and moving works, but perhaps at a cost to themselves if they spend too much time lost in their own private worlds.
5.3.5 Joys of the Creative Cycle
The reasons I've stated thus far have the ring of either cold pragmatism or negativity to them. But certainly there are positive rewards also for artistic creativity and these are far more satisfying than the small space devoted to them here would suggest. The truth is that there is considerable joy and sense of accomplishment that comes from the creative cycle itself.
Creative fulfillment arrives at many stages in the creative cycle, including:
Of course, this is the ideal sequence. Not everyone cares to deal with the frustrations of trying to market their work, and if they do, it's no guarantee of success. Moreover, not every work that sells makes a big splash. Sometimes, a financially successful artist will have to contend with carping critics and maybe a guilty conscience if they feel they've succeeded by "selling out". Worse, sometimes the business-end of the arts will cheat the artist of the just financial compensation for their work. And sometimes, the intended audience will genuinely fail to appreciate the work. Truly, I think the person who turns to the arts as a way of making a splash for an audience had better have either a ton of talent or a good insight into what people want, and regardless of which category they fall into, they need a thick skin and a capacity for hard work. (I won't presume to claim any of these traits, except maybe the last one.)
Fortunately, in my opinion the most reliable and intense joys of the creative process come, not from the audience or from marketing success, but from progress made on the work itself. Artistic creation, like a good deal of creation in general, is largely a play-experience. I think that there is probably something "hard-wired" into our emotional processing that causes us to feel rewarded when we "stumble upon something new" either through passive observation or active exploration. (Perhaps, this is through the activity of certain diffuse-acting modulatory neurotransmitters like dopamine or serotonin in the brain.) This is why play of any kind and its results are so enjoyable for humans (and higher animals in general) and why artistic creativity can be so rewarding.
Now we come to a topic that must surely be controversial: criteria for evaluating art. I have defined a work of art, essentially as: a synthesized perceptual experience which is persistent enough to be shared and serves other purposes besides conveying information and physical utility. In some ways, this is a very permissive definition. It permits, for example, "compositions" where the composer tells the pianist to sit at the keyboard for 4 minutes and 33 seconds playing nothing, or where a performer is encouraged to manipulate the knobs on between one and eight radios (to cite a couple John Cage compositions). It permits "paintings" where the artist just indiscriminately slops paint onto a canvas. It permits "poetry" that consists of incomprehensible word salad that sounds like the product of a Wernicke aphasic (a person with a damaged area of their left cerebral hemisphere which causes them to be unable to correctly semantically formulate language, though their syntax is often fine).
It the light of such liberties that have been taken with art, it is tempting to follow Ayn Rand's lead and redefine 'art' so as to eliminate these sorts of shenanigans from consideration. (Notice that by Rand's defining 'art' as "a selective re-creation of reality", she eliminates non-representational and random art altogether from consideration as art.) However, I will take the hard road, and stick with my more permissive definition. While it is fair to criticize many trends and techniques in art, it is not consistent with the everyday understanding of the word 'art' to choose definitions that classify such works as non-art (except perhaps "found art").
6.1 Three Principles for Evaluating Art
Before expounding on particular criteria for "good" art, it would be worth asking the question of how we might rationally establish such criteria in the first place. I would propose three main principles.
First, there is the degree to which a work of art meets those purposes of art that were expounded upon earlier in the essay. (This means the purposes of art as far as some audience is concerned.)
Second, there is the degree to which the artist succeeds in achieving the response they desired to create with their work. (This means effective communication of their intent.)
Third, there is the degree to which the artist's work has originality in either subject matter or technique.
It must be readily admitted that these three principles are often at odds with one another. Art may have psychological utility without being original in any way. Art may be original without having either utility or success of communication with the audience. Successful evocation of desired response to a work may be achieved through highly unoriginal (i.e. formulaic) subject choice and technique.
However, despite the tension between these principles, they are nonetheless all widely recognized as being important in judging a particular work. Failure in any one of these three areas can ruin a work of art. If the work of art serves no purpose to an audience, it will not hold their attention for long and will be ignored and forgotten. If the work is stale and unoriginal (or an outright rip-off of something else), discerning audiences will either not notice the work, or they might take note and then pass over the work in favor of the earlier works that expressed the same idea or used the same techniques. (Subjects and ideas are probably more vulnerable to becoming clichéd than techniques, however.) If the artist fails to achieve the desired response with their work, the audience may approve of the work, yet in reality the artist has failed to communicate their intent to the audience, and if the world were to learn of this, it would reflect ill on the work's execution.
I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the ordering I've given for the principles. It is, in fact, what I would consider the priority ordering, though I will admit there is room for debate on this subject. My justification is as follows. If a work of art meets some of the purposes of art, but this is a result of an audience's misinterpretation of the artist's intent, and the work isn't terribly original, it can still be an uplifting, inspiring work for someone. If a work of art communicates the artist's intent well and the work is original, but the work leaves the audience cold (because it serves no purpose to them) then the work has, in the larger sense, failed. Any creation of any kind, artistic or otherwise, should fulfill some need for someone or it wasn't worth doing. Thus, fulfillment of purposes of art is the first principle.
Now, let's assume the first principle is fulfilled, and that the artist communicates their message effectively. Even if the work is pretty formulaic and unoriginal, still the artist had the skill to get their message or mood across and also to give the audience something they valued. If, on the other hand, the work serves a purpose to its audience, and it is a highly original work, but the artist failed to communicate their actual intent, then the artist may have succeeded in finding a following for their work, but they have not succeeded at their own mission. Thus, effective communication of intent is the second principle. (To some artists, this notion may seem unfair because not everyone will have the intelligence, experience, literacy, patience, etc., to interpret their works correctly. I can understand this objection, but I would answer that I suppose it's validity depends on who you consider your audience to be. If your intended audience can't understand your works, it's a bad sign. If you don't have an audience in mindand I'll admit, I often don't when I'm writing my own verseyou run the risk of creating works only you can understand unless your audience just happens to have very similar experiences and a way of looking at things as you do. In my own verse, as a rule, I try to make sure all of the information the reader would need to get my meaning is there in the work. The hard part is doing this in such a way that is interesting and requires the reader to make their own connections, while at the same time giving them enough perceptual data that they have a chance at making those connections. As an example, I use literary allusions from time to time, but I've never made a real habit of it because when you do that, you make your works comprehensible only to people who know the literature you're referring to. T.S. Eliot is a good example of a poet who got too carried away with literary allusions. But I digress…)
So, novelty, by my estimation, is the third principle. Now, observe that among modernist art movements, the priority ordering I've proposed is inverted. Novelty is given the "prime spot". There's an incessant need to be "different" and "unique". I will say that effective communication stays in the second spot because, there are a number of art works that use unorthodox and often incomprehensible techniques as a way of conveying the message of "anything can be art", or more forgivably, in communicating a particular mood. Meeting the purposes of artexcept the artist's own purpose perhaps, and the cognitive challenge purposegets the bottom priority. To many artists, making this top priority might amount to "lowering one's art for mass appeal". Yes, there is, in my opinion, such a thing, but I think the avant garde movements in art have gone too far in the other direction.
It should be noted that, in a technical sense, the evaluation of a work of art is notexcept in cases of demonstrable psychological harm inflicted by the workan evaluation of Goodness (nor indeed one of Truth) but one of Beauty. Earlier, I defined 'beauty' as the quality an observer attributes to an object when they believe it to be associated with something they value. Goodness, on the other hand (at least, in the restricted sense I'm using it in), is an evaluation of whether the work actually promotes prosperity and life, either in an individual or in the human species (or some subset thereof). I consider the artist successfuland I think most people would share in this viewif their works become associated in the minds of the audience with something they value (though it might be a different something for different individuals). Bearing this in mind, the first principle involves the many different values that correspond with the previously stated purposes of art, e.g. decoration, cognitive and ethical understanding, etc. The second principle involves a valuing of effective communication. The third principle involves a valuing of novelty.
Thus, we can condense the three principles down to a statement that says that the value of a work of art is dependent: on its meeting an audience's values, on effective communication, and on sufficient novelty.
6.2 Common Pitfalls in Art
In light of the above observations, it is now possible to catalogue some common pitfalls artists find themselves stumbling into today. I'll proceed to do this in order of the most to the least common (according to my own experiences, of course).
Sacrifice of novelty to audience values and effective communication. This is the route taken by authors of morality plays and also to people who "pander to the masses". Artists making this category of errors typically have a definite goal in mind with their works and try to meet that goal through effective communication, but they make no attempts either to advance their art or to even choose subject matter or techniques that are interesting. At the risk of being unjust, I would speculate that most works of pop musicians fall into this category.
Sacrificing audience values and effective communication to novelty. This is the error of choice encouraged by modernist trends in art. I will have much to say about how specific methods in mainstream modern art fall into this trap.
Sacrificing audience values to novelty. This is the route taken by artists who aim for "shock appeal" at the expense of morality or decorum. Whoever the artist was that did that piece with the jar of urine with a crucifix inside was definitely communicating a clear message to his audienceand probably getting the desired emotional response, for that matter. At the time, his means of doing this was probably novel. However, regardless of your stand on Christianity, it seems like an appropriate question to ask what value this work had for its intended audience. Works that are merely offensive for the sake of being offensive serve little purpose (unless we deem it an intrinsically valuable thing to be in touch with our emotions of disgust).
Other works that fall into the more general category of this error include works that are superficially interesting but trivial in content. A good example would be a florid, verbose poem about toe-jam or navel lint. (As a gag, this can be funny, if the poet doesn't do it too often.)
Sacrificing audience values to the artist's own values. As previously mentioned, art often serves a purpose for the artist. It might be therapeutic or it might befrankly, it usually isrewarding intrinsically as a process. However, an artist, in creating their work, may leave their audience out of the picture and create a work that holds value mainly for them alone. In effect, they become their own one-person audience. I would not discourage an artist from creating such works, as they may be enormously satisfying and even valuable in the long-term psychologically. However, I would not consider them, in a larger sense, effective works of art, as they will only have value for their author or for others in similar circumstances with similar psychologies.
A virulent (though probably small) subset of works that fall into this category are works where the artist is taking out their frustrations with life and society on their audience. This goes beyond mere appeal to "shock value" (though it can be confused with this) and amounts to a means of venting aggression and anger without the risk of retaliation (usually). This is better than attacking an audience physically, certainly, but it doesn't make for the best quality art. An extreme example would be graphic depictions of murder or torture fantasies directed against innocent people or strangers. (I'm not sure whether it is a bad or a good thing that a disturbed person should do this kind of art. If it prevents them from hurting others, it's probably a good thing. If it hardens their resolve to do real harm, it's probably bad. If the work gets out and encourages other disturbed, but bolder individuals to emulate its example, it's definitely bad.)
6.3 A Word About Language
In every medium of art, there can be said to exist a language of representation. In literature, naturally enough, this is words: symbols in natural language. In painting it is shape, form, color, line, etc. In music it is tones, intervals, melody, harmony, etc. In dance it is actions, steps, figures, etc. In sculpture it is many of the same elements that are found in painting but transposed to 3D and with texture thrown in. And the list goes on.
In all media, you can find the analog of letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. Each art has its own "vocabulary" and "grammar". In fact, you can imagine that each medium can have several distinct, though subtly-related languages, just as literature might be written in English or French or Russian. Many of these languages use the same alphabet, but they still produce different sounds, draw different distinctions, and illuminate different aspects of experience.
Generally, an innovative artist coming into their own begins by adopting an existing "language" and "vocabulary" in their art and then adds their own innovations, coining new "words" and "expressions", and sometimes even modifying the "grammar" of their art. Hopefully, the audience eventually comes to understand their language and is able to interpret the artist's message despite the initial novelty of their means of communication.
With the most "modernist" trends in modern art, however, this becomes impossible. I'm referring especially to the phenomena of non-representational (i.e. abstract) art and random art. When an artist chooses to abandon representation of anything, it becomes impossible to "read their language" and "get their message" because they've thrown all language out the door and, for all the average audience can tell, they have no message other than "it doesn't have to have a message to be called art".
If an audience sees this message too many times (whether the artist intended it or not), its novelty and cleverness will quickly wear off and they will be left bored and confused. The subtleties of the techniques will be lost on them and they'll quickly pass over the works they encounter unless they have some particularly arresting sensory features or they bear strikingly suggestive resemblances to actual represented objects. "Aha! I think I see the object the artist was trying to hide!" becomes the response of the audience who takes notice of a particular abstract work since representation or even a hint of it effectively becomes the novel stimulus. (I've noticed this personally not just in painting, but in music as well. In pieces where there is a combination of atonality and tonality, even loose tonality, there is such a relief and a release of tension generally when you hear tonality that it probably often overpowers the actual dramatic intent of the composer.)
Assuming a difficult or impossible language for the audience to translate is the classic means by which artists sacrifice communication with the audience (and so also the audience's purposes for admiring the work) for novelty. It should be intuitively obvious that if an artist begins to communicate in a language the audience can't translate, and by so doing they eliminate their audience's ability to grasp specific conceptual meaning from their works, many of the purposes of art I have mentioned earlier in this essay will not be realized, i.e., those having to do with conceptual meaning. In fact, any conceptual work that fails to communicate with its intended audience is reduced to merely decorative art or to a cognitive puzzle for that audience. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I do not think most serious-minded artistsas opposed to the phony scam-artists who palm off random junk as art to turn a fast buckwould find this a satisfactory state of affairs for their own works. (I assume most artists want to be understood and to reach other people through their medium.)
6.4 "Good" and "Great" Art: My Own Criteria
Now, that I have outlined the basic principles for evaluative criteria and discussed the language of art, I can state some specific qualities of "good", i.e. esthetically satisfying, art as well as for art that qualifies as being "great". In doing so, it should be understood that I consider these my own personal criteria. All of these criteria I derive from the three principles I proposed earlier which I believe to be not too controversial (though their priority ordering might be). The reader is invited to derive their own set of criteria from these principles if mine seem unsatisfactory or incomplete.
There are really intended to be bare-minimum criteria for judging a work of art as competent and successful as a work of art: necessary, but not sufficient preconditions for its consideration as "great" art. For "great" art, the bar is higher. All of the above criteria are present with these additional ones. (Here my own opinions really begin to assert themselves.)
Great art is rare, and an artist who creates a great work may not consistently produce such works. In fact, the works of artists tend to evolve over time, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Often, indeed, there's a notable peak to an artist's greatness, and then they run out of ideas or move in a direction that doesn't work well for them. (They may get either too obscure and complex in their technique, or they may "sell out" and cease to make use of the complexity that made their works great.)
Perhaps "greatness" in art is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, but the fact that some works are consistently judged as being great while others are considered lesser or are passed over entirely and forgotten seems like more than an accident or an arbitrary convention. That said, it can happen that works or artists that were not understood or appreciated much by the public in their own day can end up emerging from anonymity even centuries later. (In music, Antonio Vivaldi is an example.) No artist or critic can predict the wiles of fame in history.
Now that we've established some criteria for evaluating art, let's take a look at some techniques and tendencies that lead to "bad" art. Note that by "bad", I do not really mean bad in the ethical sense (except perhaps in the first three cases mentioned). If a work of an artist doesn't encourage people to do bad things or mislead them intellectually, it seems overly harsh to bring the full weight of moral opprobrium down on it. By "bad", I mean "unappealing esthetically". A "bad" work of art is one we judge to have failed in its mission: e.g., it fails to stimulate the values of its intended audience, miscommunicates the artist's intent, or is a cheap knock-off of something else.
But I will omit from this discussion offenses against novelty. Most people agree that plagiarism is bad and unoriginality can be a serious shortcoming in an artist. Novelty is much touted in art, as well as in intellectual thought. (In the realm of thought, this can be even more pernicious because often the soundest ideas are in fact, the "tried and true", and novelty in thinking ends up leading to crack-pot ideas instead of "revolutions in thought". Novelty is certainly important for advancement of knowledge, but too much attention to novelty at the expense of logical soundness and observation leads to conclusions that don't stand the test of time.) Instead, I will focus on the offenses against audience values and effective communication, as these are the chief shortfalls of the avant garde in art.
7.1 Moral Depravity
Evil, destruction, and horror are valid subjects of art and not necessarily an offense against morality. Observe that most horror art evokes fear and loathing towards what is depicted. Movies that depict cruelty and graphic violence are often doing this to cast accusations against events, situations, and aspects of human nature that deserve our indignation. In the most extreme cases, the outrage provoked moves people to take up a cause against the evils depicted or to at least shun ideas that leads to those evils. Who, after reading Nineteen Eighty-four wants to live in a totalitarian society?
There are often complaints of gratuitous violence in today's television and movies. However, in most cases, the violence is either a response to another's initiation of violence or it ends up being punished. This is not so different from the ancient role of the often gruesome fairy tales which nonetheless conveyed the very moral message that bad deeds will be punished.
What is far more troubling is when cruelty and violence are portrayed as having positive results for the perpetrators. Movies like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers or Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange are very disturbing because they show horrible people enjoying themselves in monstrous crimes and ultimately getting away with it.
One could give such works the benefit of the doubt and say that they are intended to stir such revulsion and anger that we are less likely to let real criminals get away with similar deeds. (One analysis I've read regarding Natural Born Killers makes a good case that Oliver Stone in this film was criticizing both the media and the tendency of people to be attracted to the spectacle of violence. While this intent isn't so bad, however, I still wonder what sort of message this movie might inadvertently send to people that don't get the intended message.) This may, in fact, be their motive (though I often suspect their real motive is usually to use the "shock-factor" of their works to gain notoriety). However, there is a danger in such portrayals of depravity: the danger of glorifying it.
For most reasonably well-adjusted, morally-developed adults, acute portrayals of depravity without punishment will arouse intense indignation and outrage. But what message will be sent to children or not-so-well-adjusted adults? Children might get the message that they might be able to get away with being bad. Sufficiently angry and mentally-imbalanced adults might even find inspiration in the evil depicted and decide to emulate it for thrill of it. In my opinion this would be the worst offense art could be capable of and something that any artist ought to be ashamed of and held accountable for by history, whatever their talents may be. (Wagner is an example in my opinion, of a great artist who, unfortunately, projected some morally harmful ideas in his works (through the texts of his operatic dramas a little, but more so in his essays). Hitler found much inspiration in Wagner's chauvinism (in the nationalistic sense) and anti-Semitism.)
7.2 Moral Equivalence
A lesser but still serious crime, one with deleterious effects on the morality of society, is that of portraying the "bad guys" and "good guys" as being morally equivalent. The motive for an artist doing this generally is to expose hypocrisy and false-virtue. Rightly or wrongly, many movies about the Vietnam conflict take this tack.
In extreme cases, however, the artist may take this approach because the notion of virtue itself is ridiculous or repugnant to them. When this is the case, the message their works will tend to send is that "all people are, by nature, selfish or evil, and all virtue is merely posturing and not worthy of respect". This is a very dangerous message because it offers a blank check to people with few scruples or with a score to settle. For children, it would stunt the development of their distinction between 'good' and 'bad' in human behavior and nature. If there is no right or wrong, people should do whatever they can get away with.
For people with some moral sensitivity, the depiction of heroes that are no better than the villains encourages a sense of cynicism and frustration, an exaggerated sense that the world has "gone wrong". People are given the false sense that others have lost their sense of the difference between right and wrong. As evidence to the contrary, I need only point out the public reactions to the acquittal of O.J. Simpson or the bombing of the World Trade Center. The sense of right and wrong are not so easily lost and will re-emerge when particularly outrageous offenses against morality happen.
7.3 Promotion of Bad Ideas
Another unfortunate occurrence in art is when it is used to promote ideas which, while not obviously immoral (at least to the artist), can lead to disastrous consequences. A novel expounding on the greed of capitalism and the ideal world that could be brought about by state ownership of everything is a good example of this. The artist in question probably earnestly believes that the ideas he or she is promoting are good and noble ones that will make the world a better place. That they are wrong is the tragic element of their works.
In some sense, it is not wholly fair to criticize the works of an artist who applied their technique with masterful genius, but whose intellectual ideas were flawed. Not all artists are also philosophers. The urge to create art is somewhat different that the urge to contemplate philosophy. The epistemological methods also are different, the artist making more use of intuition and imagination and the philosophical thinker making more use of deductive logic.
As connoisseurs of art, however, we ought to be able to at least detect and make note of the instances where an artist's ideas that led to their works were not sound or beneficial. We can then maintain our appreciation for their artistry while still acknowledging the flaws of their ideas (and sometimes character). (This is, in fact, where I stand with respect to Richard Wagner.)
7.4 Cubism, Atonalism, and Other Disruptions of Communication
It is worth noting at this point that the "sins" thus far mentioned are all only possible in conceptual art, more specifically when the concepts are communicated in a clear enough fashion to make an impact on the audience. Whereas the above criticisms could amount to being called "felonies" the remainder of these could be considered "misdemeanors" (though some of these are pretentious enough to be very annoying to my tastes). When an artist abandons clarity of language, they leave behind much of their ability to do harm, but also their ability to do much good conceptually.
In painting and in music of the 20th century there was a movement towards more and more obscure languages of art. In painting, cubism adopted a kind of new language in form wherein objects were shown from many perspectives at once. In music, tonality was thrown out in favor of (for a time, at least) twelve-tone serialism wherein the twelve notes of the chromatic scale were sequenced in manner irrespective of harmonic considerations and this sequence was used as the basis for whole pieces despite the harmonic din and dissonance that ensued.
It can be argued in the artists' favor that they were expanding the language of their art and bringing into being new expressive possibilities. However, the actual effect, psychologically, was that they disrupted their audience's ability to interpret certain aspects of their art which caused other aspects to achieve perceptual prominence by default. A good musical example of this for me is Stravinsky's famous (and in its day notorious) ballet The Rite of Spring. This work is polytonal rather than atonal in structure, but the effect is the same in one way: traditional harmony is destroyed and rendered into dissonance. This destruction of harmony (and to a large extent melody), however, forces the listener to concentrate on elements in the music that are typically more neglected: i.e. rhythm, dynamics, and orchestration. Effectively all of the energy and power of this work go into these elements with the weird disruption of harmony adding only an overriding sense of tension in the work (which is appropriate for the theme of the work, however, since it is about the pagan rituals of spring that eventually culminate in a human sacrifice).
Likewise, perceptual destruction of shape and form in the visual arts can lead to more focus on such aspects as color and line. When too many elements of art are rendered into an indecipherable code, however, the viewer has nothing to fall back on but to dismiss the work as so much noise. This is despite the fact that the artist may have a very elaborate and logical system of composition.
The principle that is illustrated here, I think, is that there is a limit to an audience's ability to integrate novelty and complexity in works of art. There are probably underlying physiological and mathematical principles that would explain why twelve-tone serialism is more difficult to make sense of than, for example, Scriabin's novel harmonies, and why Scriabin's harmonies are more difficult than those of Mozart.
When modernist avant garde music is successful, in my opinion, is when it has some "hook" we can grasp. A lot Frank Zappa's efforts "work" and come off as being rather clever because Zappa took advantage of common associations between instrumentation and certain images and ideas. For example, he was able to do some witty "word-painting" without making use of tonality, like using the sound of a harp playing a "dreamy" sound to connote someone being stoned.
In the absence of any such hooks, however, the listener is left to make their own sense out the din. This can be considered as fulfilling the artistic purpose of cognitive challenge, but so can staring at ink-blots or clouds in order to imagine shapes within. Cognitive challenge is good, but when it is all a work has to offer, it seems an empty consolation.
7.5 Non-Representational Art
Whereas movements like cubism and serialism attempted merely to expand or create new languages of art in order to represent concepts and percepts in novel ways, non-representational art has attempted to do away with language in art altogether. The aim of non-representational art is to renounce all representation of anything in the external world of the senses.
Non-representational, or abstract art seems to be the mainstream in current art technique. I've not thoroughly researched the reasons why artists opt for this route, but that won't stop me from speculating.
First of all, representational art is "old-hat", it's already been done and done well, so why spend time rehashing old territory? I can understand this, but to me, not using representation in art is a little like trying to speak without words. I can convey blunt emotions and suggestions maybe of things, but specific messages and ideas?
Another justification, perhaps, is that by freeing art from the particulars of representation of the external world, we can express in the most "pure", "transcendental" way the nature of being and reality. This betrays a belief in a kind of Platonic mysticism which claims that "ideal forms" exist in some other dimension outside material reality and to really comprehend reality, we need to use our intuition to look into that "dimension of ideas". (See my essay on mysticism for my rant against the folly of mind/body dualism.) In answer to this, I propose the following. What if it were the case that there was no "transcendental dimension", and the only way we can, as humans, know anything is through our sense of the "material world" and inferences we make about this world? Wouldn't that suggest that maybe the artist who wishes to enlighten their audience on reality ought to use representations drawn from the material world?
One variation on the above theme is that of expressionism, i.e., using abstractness allows us to express internal emotions in a "distilled", "pure", form untouched by the corrupting influence of external sensual reality. This is on less shaky footing, perhaps, but not beyond reproach. Let's say that I have a traumatic experience: say, my entire family is killed by a suicide bomber. In a fit of rage and pain, I go to my easel and, using non-representational methods, pour my heart out onto the canvas. The result, most likely is a chaotic collage of angry colors and turbulent lines, and possibly even the densest audience looking at my work will get a sense that I was quite upset when I painted it.
Now, let's say an art-school classmate of mine goes home one night and discovers his girlfriend has gotten into an accident with his car. He goes to the canvas and pours out his heart and emerges with a chaotic collage of angry colors and turbulent lines, and possibly even the densest audience looking at his work will get a sense that he was quite upset when he painted it. After getting this anger out of his system, however, he makes up with his girlfriend and he decides that a dented fender and a $500 body-shop repair, while annoying, are nothing to fume indefinitely over.
Now, let's say the two of us have our respective works exhibited in the same gallery and that both works are untitled so no-one would know that my family was killed by a suicide bomber and no-one would know that my classmate's girlfriend dented the fender on his car. The problem (to me anyway) becomes obvious. Can we even tell which artist suffered the most devastating loss from their respective works? I don't think so. One might apply a little sophistry here and say that this tells us something about the relative nature of anger and unhappiness. But sophistry be damned! There is a difference of profound magnitude between the degree of rage and despair being represented and if we can't tell the difference by comparing the two works of art, the artists, for all their talent, have failed in their task.
Another rationale for abstract art is religious in nature. Islam forbids the representation of human figures (at least religious figures) because this, in a sense, misrepresents the nature of Allah in an idolatrous fashion. If I seriously believed in a Supreme Being, I would probably find the logic of this fairly convincing because I would consider an attempt to portray that Supreme Being as a human being to be misleading and even vain. However, I do not think the supreme laws that govern the universe truly care whether or not man chooses to make icons in their name and bow down before them. It is because we humans psychologically project our own jealousy and vanity onto the motive forces of the universe, that we make our gods jealous and wrathful. This hardly seems "sinful"; only foolish.
Finally, there is the idea that abstract art can allow the exploration of more novel and interesting perceptual spaces from which we may derive new pleasures and new insights into order. Fine. This is an argument I can swallow to a certain extent. We will indeed find ourselves in new worlds we can explore and we might indeed find unexpected beauty and symmetry in these new worlds.
The only thing that troubles me is the question of what these strange new worlds will tell us about the world we live in. Will they indeed tell us anything? What do I learn by gazing at Mondrian's rectangle paintings or Rothko's horizontal swaths of color? I might learn how I feel about rectangles or arrangements thereof. I might get some insight into the effect particular colors have on my state of mind. But are these really things I need abstract art to tell me? The correspondence between colors and emotions is something that is variable and experience-dependent, and where there are commonalities, they can be explained by the recognition of which objects in the real world tend to be correlated with which colors. In other words, the real world defines our associations of color with emotion, so we could probably have learned a lot more specifics about color/emotion correspondence by studying the real world or artistic representations thereof than by studying Rothko's abstract paintings.
In conclusion, I feel that abstract artists have sacrificed meaning for the benefit of the novelty of their technique and its supposed "emancipation from external reality". By eliminating any reference to external reality, they have effectively thrown away their chance to express any conceptual meanings that are not tied to the superficial sensory and perceptual characteristics of the forms they create. Lacking any tie-in with the external world, these works of art are forced to fall back on their own internal context to provide meaning. Much of this internal context is the result of the artist's state of mind when they composed the work, but in the process of creating their abstract work, so much information about the artist's state of mind is lost that it cannot be recovered without explicitly asking the artist how they felt and what they were thinking when they composed the work. Thus, the artist fails to even communicate adequately their frame of mind during which they composed the work and so loses any benefits s/he might have derived from self-expression and a comprehending response on the part on an audience. If their work does not have some inherently pleasing sensory characteristics, it will fail to be recognized as anything but random noise, no matter how artful and consistent the piece's hidden internal logic is.
7.6 Random Art and Anti-Art
All of these objections and more can be said regarding the even more avant garde practice of random art. In this kind of art, the artist often just tosses elements randomly into their composition. It might involve dropping or throwing paint onto a canvas or grabbing at random some common object and labeling it as art ("found art"). It might involve the "Cagey" practice of having a few people randomly twiddle the tuners on a number of radios in order to produce a "stochastic concerto". It might involve choosing the first words and images that come to my mind without regard for conceptual content or syntax so that I get a kind of word salad that would baffle even aphasics.
What justification, if any, is there for doing such things? The main one, I think, is that it's new territory. Well, maybe, but what sort of territory is it? It is territory where the artist has explicitly relinquished control of their medium in favor of letting chance do their work for them. Is this not an affront to all art and all artists?
Lest you think I'm being overly cynical and judgmental, let's examine one of the known, explicit motives behind this style of art. Consider the message that John Cage intended for his audience with the "piano piece" 4'33". In this so-called piece, the pianist sits at the keyboard without playing a note. What is John Cage's explicit reason for doing this? According to Hofstadter (Godel, Escher, Bach) Cage was expressing to the audience that the sounds in the auditorium during that four-and-a-half minutes were as good as actual notes played in the form of a traditional piece. In other words, four and a half minutes of auditorium noise is no less musical in theory than if the pianist had played a Chopin nocturne, for example.
Such a strange idea is not without philosophical precedent. It is the sort of thinking encouraged by Zen Buddhism. A positive statement of this would be as follows: even the most ordinary and chaotic phenomena in nature are really beautiful and artistic and all phenomena in nature are equally so with none being any less beautiful than another. ("Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look," (Understanding the End of Art) was one of Cage's comments on the kind of random art that was emerging and that so much of his work exemplified.) To put it a different way, everything that exists is equally extraordinary, important, and good.
But this flies in the face of both art and communication. If I tell you "whooofgig" or if I tell you: "Your house is on fire!" the logical extreme of Zen would have us believe that these utterances are of equal importance. All phenomena are of equal importance and equally to be appreciated. But this is nonsense. The information conveyed by the second sentence will be, in fact, far more important to you than the lack of information conveyed by the first sentence. Likewise, the information conveyed by a child playing Chopsticks on the pianonot to speak of someone playing Chopinis conveying more musical information than the grown man who sits at the piano and refuses to play a note.
In effect, taken to its logical conclusion, Cage is effectively saying: "Artists don't contribute anything of value. Random audience noise is no less remarkable than anything they've ever done." This is most explicitly anti-art, so much so that I have to wonder if Cage really believed this himself. (If he did, why did he continue composing?)
If Cage didn't really believe this, why did he say it with this particular "composition"? I might give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was trying "expand our minds to new horizons". However, what sensibilities I have regarding human nature suggest to me otherwise: that this so-called composition was a pretentious gimmick contrived to get attention and stir up controversy for its own sake and perhaps for the amusement of the composer. Frankly, I would prefer to think that Cage was deliberately playing a juvenile prank, for the alternative would make him look terribly addled and foolish.
But John Cage is not alone in the art world. Artists who purvey "found art", for example who take an actual urinal and set it up as a "sculpture" fit into this category. Apparently, the artist Marcel Duchamp who did this particular "piece" was trying to vent his frustration about the art world and its pretensions. In effect, the conceptual message of this work was a jab at the art establishment of the day, a satire even perhaps. In fact, apparently Duchamp was more or less explicitly saying that art was finished and he was personally ready to throw in the towel. And yet, much to his bemused surprise, a "serious" school of art set itself up producing these sorts of works.
When robbed of the interpretation of satire, these works of art take on a meaning that effectively annihilates their own worth. They are like a person sitting in a tree who saws off the branch he's sitting on. "Everything is art," becomes the message. "and who are we to say what is or isn't art, what is or isn't beautiful?" If that is true, then why should I look at the bicycle wheel or the urinal on display in a gallery, when I can look at a blade of grass (or a piece of dung in a pasture) and get an equally positive esthetic experience? Well, that basically nullifies the value of the "found art" piece, so why should I be upset about it? Well, if we accept the artistic message of the piece, then why should I look at a painting of a beautiful woman or a seascape when I can get the same experience by looking at the contents of a garbage dumpster? This is what makes much of John Cage's experiments and "found art" to be truly anti-art, art that, in its intent, tries to undermine all art.
Anti-art, if taken seriously, would mean the utter destruction of art. However, in practice, these works generally come off as being pretentious and silly, like some adolescent who's got to show how independent and rebellious he is by defying any pronouncement of any authority, even if it means dropping out of high-school and driving a taxi. You would expect this to be some "phase" that an artist might go through, but not their final, definitive style. Even if the conceptual message of anti-art were valuableand, in my opinion, it isn'tthe constant restatement of the same message would quickly become monotonous and, ironically, very cliché. So much for novelty through anti-art.
Anti-art for me represents one of the most ridiculous pretenses in art, far worse in intent than the abandonment of representation. But perhaps anti-art is too much of a "straw man" in the area of random art. Let's turn away from these egregious cases and consider cases where the artist is only making partial use of randomness in their works.
As a matter of fact, every work of art contains and is influenced by some degree of randomness. The particular feeling an artist has or the particular things they were thinking about during the composition process are essentially chance events. (Never mind if the world is deterministic; because we can't predict what kind of mental context the artist was bound to have, the actual context is as good as random for purposes of this discussion.) Which particular neurons fired in the artist's brain, the exact brushstrokes or notes used in the piece, and many other things all have unpredictable components to them. In effect, random art does not add randomness at all, but merely transfers the randomness from the operation of the artist's conscious mind to the operation of the artist's unconscious mind or to the physical environment the artist is in.
Is this a good or valuable thing? To a point, perhaps. It is conceivable that an artist's conscious mind may fall into "ruts" that may cause them to end up rehashing the same themes and methods over and over. However, if anything, unconscious thinking is even more automatic and "rutted" than conscious thought. This is because it blindly follows associations that have been learned through experience. The conscious mind is able to at least ask: "Am I doing the same thing over and over?" and "What precise modifications could I make to what I'm doing that would cause me to cover new ground?" Through this power of questioning and directed imagination, an artist may arrive at fresher territory than if he followed the promptings of his unconscious which might just lead him to another Jungian "archetypal idea". Using the environment to "stir things up", on the other hand, is not an unprecedented or necessarily bad thing. It is more likely, in fact, to lead to the desired novelty than pursuing the promptings of the artist's unconscious mind, at any rate.
My own questions for judging the merits of randomness in the artist's technique are as follows:
The question of the usefulness of randomness is ultimately one of degree. Too little randomness in a person's artistic methods will cause them to endlessly recapitulate their own efforts. Too much will cause them to create works that are utterly incomprehensible even to themselves, their creators. Here, the middle way is the best way. This is how it is with the relationship between chaos (as in the chaos of the study of chaos theory) and the phenomenon of life. When dynamical systems have too little complexity and chaos, they tend to settle into static and dead states. When they have too much chaos, they act in completely wild and turbulent ways. In between is where you get the phenomena of the self-sustaining and self-organizing order that is life. I think this is a good metaphor for the role of randomness in art.
One of the most eloquent expressions of the tradeoff between artistic novelty on the one hand, and audience values and effective communication on the other, is Wagner's opera, The Meistersingers of Nuremberg. In it Wagner illustrates the dilemma faced by an artist who's on the "cutting edge" in their medium. On the one hand, as an artist he is faced with the need to advance the technique and the language of his art (which Wagner did in spades through operas such as the four Ring des Nibelungen operas and Tristan und Isolde). On the other hand, he must take pains not to lose his audience altogether through his innovations.
Many contemporaries of Wagner thought his works were works of a madman: incoherent, formless, and dissonant beyond accessibility. Wagner himself stepped back a little after the composition of his highly innovative and still to this day (to the unaccustomed ear) aurally-challenging Tristan und Isolde. The Meistersingers of Nuremberg was the opera that followed. In it a young knight, Stolzing, who is a daringly innovative minstrel who breaks all of the traditional rules of music, is forced into a position where he needs to gain the acceptance of the more traditional Meistersingers and their audience in order to win a contest in order to wed the daughter of one of the Meistersingers. At first, his music is met with disbelief and dismay and the audience rejects his efforts. Later, after following some of the advice of one of the old Meistersingers, Hans Sachs, Stolzing produces the song which wins the contest and which is daringly innovative, and yet audience-friendly.
In many ways the form of the Meistersingers opera of Wagner's was a reflection of the theme. It's style was simpler and more traditional compared with its difficult predecessor. One author I've read critiquing this opera scoffed at its message, implying that it encouraged mediocrity and prostituting one's own artistic sense to the masses. But, for all Wagner's many faults, he is not to be considered a man who lost his own artistic vision. The works that followed the Meistersingers opera were the final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung and Parsifal, both magnificent and complex works of great originality for the day. They were easier to contemporary sensibilities than Tristan und Isolde, but to my ears, no less profound musically than that opera.
No, I think Wagner had arrived at an insight that modern artists would do well to heed. Any work of art depends for its continued existence in the collective consciousness on its audience. Artists of the 20th century, in their rebellion against form and representation, tonality, rhythm, structure, etc. left their audience far behind. The atonal works of Schönberg, Berg, et al. are today only listened to by a musical elite or those who are curious enoughlike myselfto try to make sense of their works. In my last few visits to art galleries, I noticed that few people were hanging out in the modern art section compared to the relatively larger numbers of people in the parts of the gallery dedicated to earlier centuries than the 20th.
Modern artparticularly that of the abstract varietyhas fallen out of the comprehension of most of the population. In severing its ties to external reality and familiar symbols, it has left its audience bewildered and confused. Because they are divorced from life and conceptual meaning, these works fail to inspire any great emotions in any except a few devotees of modern art trends. The works are out of touch, both with their audience and with the reality that audience lives in and derives meaning from.
This is not to say that these artists lack skill and talent. In fact, many of them could, if they desired, work in more traditional forms which would reach wider audiences. However, here they run up against the terrible dilemma faced by any modern artist, the true dilemma faced, I think, by nearly every one of the arts in this day and age.
Though I'm sure many would argue with me on this point, it seems to me that art has exhausted its possibilities for basic compositional techniques and, even to a large extent, its content. If a modern artist works in traditional forms, they find themselves trapped in the old methods and subjects which are now clichéd, so they end up sacrificing originality in their medium for accessibility. If, however, they desire to be innovative, their methods put them so far beyond the comprehension of the untrained eye or ear that they fail to make any impression on their audience. Moreover, during the 20th century, so many rules were thrown out, and so much territory was explored, that it is doubtful that in the language of art, much room for innovation remains, (at least in the old media). When you've thrown out all the old rules, tried unbounded randomness, and tried all sorts of arbitrary rules in all of the media of art, what new territory is there left to explore?
This pass art has seemingly come to has been referred to as "the end of art" (Understanding the End of Art). What Bramann meant, however, was that art for art's sake was coming to an end. Everyone has tried all of the "wild and crazy" techniques and now there's no-where to go but backward. When art has succeeded in casting off reality and contemplating itself to such a degree that it nullifies itself, it has reached the end of a long historical trend in which art sought to emancipate itself from the limits imposed by tradition, religion, society, good taste, and finally physical reality itself. As they say: "Where do we go from here?"
The artistic dilemma faced by modern artists is real and I can sympathize with it (especially since I find my own poetry, for all the care and craft I put into it, often wanting in fresh imagery). How shall art face this situation?
Fortunately for artists, the world we live in is rich in novelty and change. New ideas and concepts are born all of the time, if from no other source, from the innovations of science and technology. There will always be a need for fresh metaphors and images to make sense of the ever-changing world we live in. Thus, while the language and techniques of the traditional arts are largely exhausted, the source of novelty in content is yet fertile.
Another direction of maneuver in art is in the direction of interactivity (a twist on the notion of random art). In the traditional arts, the perceptual experience that is synthesized is a single, planned experience that has one perceptual "path", if you will. A potential direction art might move in is suggested by the relatively recent phenomena of adventure and role-playing computer games. These are still perceptual experiences that are planned by their creators, but the possible paths of resolution are many, so the same person many get a different, but equally coherent experience out of the work from different run-throughs of the game.
We can imagine a form of art in the future in which artists and programmers engineer dynamic worlds and artificially-intelligent characters that human players can interact with in ways which end up generating a rich experience that would be worth relating in a story. Indeed, each player would be living their own story in playing the game. Human players wouldn't be limited to running around dungeons and killing orcs. They would be able to form communities and engage in epic struggles against intelligent and powerful adversaries (all without risking real pain and death). These worlds and environments don't have to be conceptually empty dungeons and wildernesses but may contain phenomena rich in meaning and concepts. We can envision virtual worlds which are as challengingly literate in their artistry as Goethe or Joyce or Shakespeare.
Of course, the old arts will not die. There will always be music, painting, dance, etc. New instruments and new techniques will continue to develop and go in and out of vogue. Genres and subgenres will form, mingle, and cross-fertilize as can be seen even today in rock and jazz. Old elements will be combined in new ways, inspired by new happenings in society. Through it all, there will still be the memory of all the old master-works to inspire countless new generations to future greatness.
Bramann, J. K. Understanding the End of Art. Visited May 16, 2002 from http://www.frostburg.edu/dept/phil/forum/forum4.htm. This essay had an interesting discussion of the overall trend of modern art towards "art for its own sake" rather than "art in service of something else".
A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1971.
Eliot, T. S. Selected Poems. New York: HBJ, 1930."The Wasteland" and "Gerontion" from this book are good examples of T. S. Eliot at his most diabolically obscure. The former poem is built up almost entirely of literary allusions and without notes is almost indecipherable other than getting the notion perhaps of the sense of dissolution that he's trying to convey. "Gerontion" is just plain obscure. Eliot is was a gifted poet, to be sure, and was quite capable of writing approachable and clever works (e.g. "The Hippopotamus" from the same book), but the direction of his works reflected a negative trend in modern poetry towards a breakdown in coherence of imagery. (I consider Eliot to be the poetic equivalent of Stravinsky in music.)
Hofstadter, D. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Vintage Books, 1989.The relevant discussion is in one of the later chapters when Hofstadter is talking about John Cage and Zen.
Natural Born Killers. Dir. Oliver Stone. Warner Bros., Los Angeles. 1994.
Orwell, G. Nineteen Eighty-four. New York: HBJ, 1981.Classic dystopian literature about a totalitarian world-government. Coined the term "Big Brother".
Osborne, C. The Complete Operas of Richard Wagner. New York: Da Capo Press, 1990.This book covers all of Wagner's operas in detail as well as giving plenty of autobiographical background. Apparently, the author took a dim view of the theme of The Meistersingers of Nuremberg.
Prokofiev, S. "Peter and the Wolf." Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf. Narr. Sting. Cond. Claudio Abbado. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Deutsche Grammophon, 1990.
Rand, A. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Dutton, 1957.A combination of a utopian and dystopian novel: a complaint against the mixed economy and trends in liberal democracy towards socialism and (more briefly) a portrayal of her vision of an ideal society. This was probably Rand's magnum opus as a writer. It contains a complete statement of her systematized philosophy, Objectivism, later in the book (through the admittedly awkward device of a lengthy (over 50 page) radio-speech).
Rand, A. The Romantic Manifesto. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1975.This is Rand's main non-fictional work on esthetics though it really grew out of an initial statement of her particular mission as a writer. Her definition of 'art' and her evaluative criteria are probably overly conservative, but she has many valuable insights, including a clear sense of some of art's highest purposes. She makes an interesting distinction between Naturalist and Romanticist artthe first portraying things (slavishly in her opinion) as they are, and the second portraying things as they ought to be. Whereas she takes sides in this distinction, I prefer to consider them approaches to meet different (though often related) purposes of art.
Rand, A. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Dutton, 1964.The first chapter of this is relevant to the discussion of how Goodness is a special case of Truth. One of the key contributions of Objectivist thinking to ethics is the notion that what is "good" is neither arbitrary convention, nor supernaturally prescribed, but has an objective basis nonetheless. This basis is the set of requirements that an individual human has for existence in a way which is distinctively human. Rand's basic requirements are that to exist in a distinctively human way, a human must use reason, be engaged in productive work, and must value themselves. A person can survive without one or more of these, but they are then living at more of an animal level than in a way that is distinctly human. One major flaw in the formulation of her ethicsthough it is easily understood giving her own experiences in lifeis that she does not take into account the role of the collective, i.e., of society and the species, in ethics. (Admittedly, if she did, the result would mesh rather awkwardly with her politics which advocates laissez faire capitalism.) One of Objectivism's most vocal (and controversial) tenets is an attack on altruism which she defines as being the philosophical idea that the individual is duty-bound to others (as a "self-sacrificial animal" to use her own expression).
Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks & Paramount Pictures, 1998.
Scriabin, A. Complete Piano Sonatas. Piano: Ruth Laredo. Nonesuch Records, 1996.
Shakespeare, W. "Othello, the Moor of Venice." The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Gramercy Books, 1975. 1113-1150.
Stravinsky, I. "The Rite of Spring." Stravinsky/Prokofiev: Orchestral Works. Cond. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. Minnesota Orchestra. Vox Box: Essex Entertainment, 1992.
Toffler, A. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970.
Vaughan, S. The Essential Sarah Vaughan. PolyGram Records, 1992.A good place to begin with "the Divine One". A variety of styles and accompaniments.
Wagner, R. Götterdämmerung. Cond. James Levine. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon Video, 1991.
Wagner, R. Parsifal. Cond. James Levine. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon Video, 1994.
Wagner R. Tristan und Isolde. Cond. Daniel Barenboim. Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele. Philips Video, 1983.
Wagner, R. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Cond. Horst Stein. Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele. Philips Video, 1984.
Webster's New World Dictionary & Thesaurus. Accent Software International. Macmillan Publishers, 1998.My source for dictionary definitions.
Weinberger, M. Natural Born Killers: A Postmodern Analysis. Visited May 16, 2002 from http://www.users.voicenet.com/~weinsb/whole.htm. This essay gives an analysis of this Oliver Stone movie as a extensive criticism of television, mass media, and the average American's appetite for the spectacle of violence.