Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What is Art?

I have thought from time to time on the nature of, beauty, smut and "transgressive art" and the public license that should be afforded to these. I once had a debate with someone about whether smut advertising was art or propaganda. I argued that the intent of the image had something to do with whether it could be considered “art”. I argued that advertising smut was aimed at subverting the viewer’s attention to distract him to buy something and was therefore to be considered propaganda and not art.

I argued that enough smut becomes and "unchangeable channel" (Gil Reevil) that one cannot ever choose to avoid. An environment of smut advertising as an “unchangeable channel” had the effect of dull the senses not to enlighten the senses. I explained that despite that artfulness with which certain Saddam Hussein pictures may have been made throughout Iraq, their intent was to be an instrument to subjugate and brainwash. Even ancient Egyptian megalith sculpture, while wonderfully made and enjoyed in 2009, was originally intended to intimidate and awe its ancient viewers into worshipping the Pharaoh. Art that may be explored as beautiful later can still be used to hurt and dull the sense of people in the present, depending on how it's used.

The person I was debating with said that it's too hard to tell what art is and isn’t art, so it’s not possible to make any such judgments. After all, what is considered art in 2009 is not necessarily what was considered art in the past. This person argued the postmodern position that everything and anything can potentially be seen as art. Since art is ultimately enlightening and enriching to human existence anything that might possibly be considered art at some point in the future should receive no constraints. In other words all objects are either art or “proto-art”.

In this view, life of the present moment is always and continually a foundry, a sometimes brutal foundry for the beautiful and enlightening art that the future will be able to perceive. For postmodernists, art cannot be crisply defined, but we know it when we see it, and our eyes in the future will be better than our eyes in the present. Therefore it is necessary that we in the present sublimate an inclination to judge and suppress art or proto-art so that future generations will be able to see its beauty, even as we in the present now enjoy the fruits of the past's brutal art foundry.

Joy for the sake of Joy

The question of art cuts deeply at what is means to be human. The question of "why is art" is inseparable from "what is art". What makes us human is that we are designed to seek joy for the sake of joy. We are not designed merely to seek the pleasure of sated base appetites. We experience the joy for the sake of joy, which is an emotional nourishment for its own sake, as we experience our ability to see infinite levels of abstract order and as we see the complexity of our selves reflected in that order. We find joy in the perceiving and find joy in the discovering previously undiscovered forms of order in the world.

Beauty is that aspect of order that is enjoyed for the sake of joy and not merely for what particular survival utility the particular form of order has for us. There is an extent to which it is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is as much an experience as it is anything else, but it cannot be wholly imparted to the subjective experience of one human vs. another human. We collectively experience beauty because our innate ability to find joy in order is being met with something that has a unique form of order, even as each person may not experience it equally.

We have a profound need to discover ever more forms of order in ever more realms of abstraction. It is our joy and our calling. The need to discover new lands is but one form of the quest to understand terra incognita. A scientist, mathematician, philosopher and artist are all operating on the same basic impulse – they are all seeking to discover previously undiscovered forms of order. These are all fundamentally, efforts to quarry the order from reality.

An artist is only "creative" in the sense that the quarrying is a more exclusively inward focused process. An artist, mathematician, philosopher, or scientist is capable of finding joy for the sake of joy in those forms of order which have been quarried out of reality, even as the newly discovered order can also have utilitarian uses. When those new forms of order are quarried out of the efforts made in the lab, the study or the studio, they are brought into the world and our met and recognized by our collective ability to see and enjoy the order. The presentation of the order has now caught up to our ability to see the order that was always there as a latent potential.

A spear tip may be a form of order, a technological form that has a utility in hunting for food. I may enjoy the fact that I gain material benefit in the form of food from a spear. When I enjoy the beauty of the streamlined artistry of the spear tip and wonder at the hands that flint-napped it, I am experiencing beauty. In the case of the spear, I am enjoying a facet of the spear's reality that is not mutually exclusive to its other facets. The utilitarian facet may even enhance the beauty facet. It may be an experience of beauty whose intensity and mystique is enhanced by the reality that it is also very deadly useful. Here, the beauty of beautiful spear is the experience of the order that is represented by that spear tip that exists on different levels of life and reality.

I can find joy for the sake of joy in the order that is presented in a Japanese sword, a joy that resonates with the profundities of an object that has been used to slice bodies in half. I can find joy for the sake of joy in the shape of an airplane wing. I can find joy for the sake of joy in a form of music that was created to find joy in God. Art may be in the natural realm, such as a sunset. Art may be a side benefit of a utilitarian goal of making a more useful object as with the shape of a boat or a mathematical formula.

With this in mind, art is any thing that meets our ability to perceive order in such a way that it produces joy for the sake of joy and the wisdom that goes with it. Potentially, everything and anything can be art. Even the natural world can be enjoyed as art. Here, art is the object, and beauty is the quality of order that the experience of the object begets in us.

"Art" that fills our art galleries, as we normally define it, is actually "art created intentionally and exclusively for the sake of beauty, as I have defined beauty: "art" as we generally define as "art" is a work of order that has been quarried out of reality for the express purpose of generating some form of joy from the perception of some form of order. Later generations may take an object that was not created intentionally to be "art" and may nevertheless treat it as "art". Advertising ephemera and toys from the past are collected and admired for an unintentional mastery of a certain order that was not appreciated at the time it was created.

Art and Wisdom

When we perceive a new aspect of order in the realm of our emotional experience we gain a form of pre-articulate “proto-wisdom”. Later when this experience develops into articulate knowledge, the wisdom takes on a linguistic form and is useful for the realm of words and becomes Wisdom proper, defined as first-hand articulate knowledge of the world.

Joy in the perception of order and the accumulation of wisdom are inseparable. Joy itself is the union of wisdom and pleasure. Entertainment is a form of the joy of perceiving new forms of order unfolding before our eyes. The joy may not be "happy happy": it may be a turgid and dark joy in the gaining of painful wisdom. Very frequently joy is both bitter and sweet, sometimes with different combinations of both. Gaining the perception of order and wisdom can be a painful and expensive process.

It is the process of gaining wisdom whether pre-articulate or articulate that is enjoyable as a form of perceiving order. But proto-wisdom that is not on its way to becoming articulate knowledge of the world is an arrested form of joy, which is actually not joy but merely pleasure. Not all that contains nutrients is nutritious. I think of how chocolate can be nutritious in the right time and place, but too much of it is malnourishing. It is possible to be malnourished by experiencing pleasure in art by only being able to enjoy a certain form of the perception of order without consummating it with thought.

It is possible to malnourished with an experience of a proto-wisdom that never becomes wisdom. Here, art is merely experienced as "hedons" of pleasure, as a shallow sensory experience never blossoms into a more mature form of exploration. That which could nourish us will impoverish us if our senses are dulled. This is a hazard with art that is too ephemeral or art that is too imposing and impossible to avoid or art that comes at profaning/exploiting other good things in order to be. Here, the experience of art is thus only pleasure divorced from any purpose and progress and never becomes full joy.

Appreciating our Appreciation

How do we appreciate order that has been wrought from violence without condoning violence past, present and future? Here the violence may be the hard violence of swords and Pharaohs past or the subtle violence of the present of having sensitivity drummed out of us. While we appreciate the artistry of ancient pharaohs and spears, we also enjoy a history of certain victories in the cause of the justice and the rule of law that freed us from much of the tyranny of pharaohs, spears and swords. And so the development of our sense of justice and rule of law through history is another part of the order that we have found joy in uncovering.

Now there is another aspect of order that we must bring to light, while we must be open to the mysterious unfolding of new forms of artistic order, but we must not lose our joy of the journey. The joy of experiencing order is the substance of our appreciation of art. Our very capacity for appreciation is part of the order that we must appreciate. This is appreciation of our appreciation is the meta-artistic view of the world of our self knowledge. It contains an ethical requirement to work to protect it from harm.

You can’t explore what’s in your face. The joy of exploration requires distance so that there is space for reflection. We must savor art and make sure that those things that are used harshly to dull our senses need to be held in check: this, so that there is contemplative space for the practice of actually harvesting the proto-wisdom of artistic experience into articulate wisdom.

To appreciate our appreciation, the creation of art owes as much a debt to the present as to the future. A Japanese sword it not art when it's slashing you. Borat is not art when he's humiliating you. Smut propaganda is not art when it is dulling your sense, shocking you with irresponsible intentions. The justice that is owed to the appreciation of our appreciation can't happen in an environment of un-mitigated violence, whether the hard and obvious violence of swords, or the subtle violence of propaganda that subjugates us by desensitizing us.

The casualty of this subtle violence on our sensitivity is the diminution of the “dialogue” (i.e. the accumulation of wisdom) that artists always claim to want to stimulate that will never happen. So much of the dialogue they want to stimulate is in the activist direction of making the world better. To that I say, "Fine, don't make the world worse in the process. Don't make art irresponsibly in the name of getting people to be more responsible and sensitive".

Transgressive and the unchangeable channel of smut advertising needs to be held in check to allow for contemplative space, even if the trangressive art and propaganda might somehow be "proto-art" that might be one day refracted into a form of beauty and wisdom. This, so that whatever kernel of nourishment therein will actually and eventually nourish us and not rot us out in the meantime in the midst of an "evolution too slow to save our souls".

Putting boundaries on transgressive art and propaganda gone amok is an extension of and refinement of our call to justice whose lineage extends all the way back to the first rule of law. There are those who will argue that transgressive art needs to transgress in order to be, in order to cut and do what it must and that putting bounds on art hurts art. To answer this (I know I open up a large can of another topic by saying this) putting bounds on art can often enhance the quality and creativity of art. I want to give trangressive artists more to chew on when they think of mocking or tearing down a boundary to make their point. I want to push back against trangressive art when it is a form of tyranny.

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