Initial Thoughts on the Idea of Art

My initial thoughts on art are obviously ad hoc and piecemeal at this point, to be refined and rethought in light of further observation and criticism in order to get at the very best conception I can. This is the aim of any good effort at thought.

First, let us propose a tentative definition of art, necessarily general but trying to avoid vagueness – Art is a means of expressing ideas via some medium or mediums by way of sensation and thought, and the better expressed ideas that reveal a more complete conception of the being of a particular thing is better art. Many times an idea is complex, compounded from other ideas, and better art will better express the total being of all involved ideas.

Most people today practically run away from making value judgments about anything, so that no possible progress can ever be made. Imagine an infinity of meanings, most of which are only accidentally thinkable, and the art draws thoughts to it. It calls to mind every relatable thought to the front of your mind. It is rare indeed to think about God or underwater basket weaving while looking at a stop sign while driving. We look at it and immediately start trying to make sense of it, to give and take some coherent meaning from it, and once we find a coherent meaning, we tend to stop. With some effort, we may find or think some other meanings, but the function of such a sign is to tell us to stop. Insofar as it expresses a meaning to an audience, it is art, and it expresses the meaning clearly – we will say it is effective art.

However, such art conceived thus relies heavily on a kind of prior conditioning that enables us to (easily) understand what the artist meant. A stop sign is effective art only if we know what it means. If we were to see a sign in a foreign language, using a different color scheme and a different shape, the art would no longer be effective. This effectiveness of art will be integral to our conception of art until it cannot be.

Moving to better art, art that conveys more meaning beyond a simple, practical conventional command, we have to start by asking what kinds of meanings may exist. To take a simple example, a picture of a mother nursing a baby has obvious meanings: the picture calls to mind the nurturing nature of a mother toward a baby, a baby’s total dependence upon the mother for survival; more abstractly: the continuation of life, the common beginnings of all people, innocence, devotion, unconditional love – and then we may factor in details of the painting: the facial expression of the mother, the posture of the mother and the baby, the clothes they’re wearing, if any, the background, every single detail, because in the case of a painting or sculpture or any fabricated work, every detail was placed there by the artist on purpose, and if a photograph, the serious artist who wants to express meaning and every bit of meaning, would intend every detail to be as it is in the photograph – no accidents. Every detail must be considered. Then our minds must start to process these details into a coherent idea. We take into account the general and obvious ideas about the work and check it against the other details: a mother with a soft, warm face looking at her naked, nursing baby. This detail builds on other details: are they alone? Where are they? Is the baby shaded darker or lighter or neither than the mother? Is the sun out, or is it cloudy? Some of these details may be processed automatically to give us the general posture toward the message. All of these details give us a message if we take the time to look in good art. In the case of bad art, there are fewer details, or as is more often the case, contradictory details – However, I hasten to say that some details may at first appear contradictory but add to the intended meaning of the art. Such contradiction would be considered as something like satire – and even hiding some details that should obviously be there could be irony.

The appreciation of art is very dependent upon the conventions one grows into, but I do not believe it is wholly dependent upon it. True, a person will-versed in the history of the Catholic Church and its teachings will probably get more out of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel than a 4-year-old Pirahã child from the Amazon, but I believe he will still get some meaning from it. Some concepts are universal among human beings, and while these concepts are universal and primal, therefore more easily grasped, they are not complex unless mixed with other concepts, and this complexity reveals more depth of the being of a particular idea. To illustrate this point, one may think of the idea of love, and by itself the idea is very hard to get a hold on, but in the context of other details, it becomes more easily graspable because we have a way toward thinking about it. Love seen in the light of parenthood is more easily graspable than the idea of love generally, but that grasp provides a ground for thinking about love as such, and when considered with erotic love, it becomes more complex, but you see love in two different lights and that makes the idea of love even more thinkable.

Suppose the picture of the mother nursing the baby is our subject. Suppose her face is hard and cold, and she is scowling at the diapered baby, and she’s wearing a gray robe, the sky is cloudy, the baby is particularly shaded, they are in a street in the medieval period, there are people walking by in colored robes, looking ahead of themselves, she is by no door, just a blank wall, everyone is oblivious to her. She is a slight woman, not plump, but thin, her eyes are green, her hair is light brown, the baby’s hair is slightly darker than hers, and you can see the baby has ten toes, five fingers on the hand we can see, you can see part of his soft but thin face. The painting is titled “Isolation”. You get a very specific meaning from this. The baby is seen by the mother as an isolating burden, that life is passing her by, her colorless, dark life – she resents her child. But, let us change but one detail – let us change the expression on her face to that soft, gentle, caring face looking delicately at her baby. Everything else in the picture remains the same. Her isolation is now wholesome. She does not, at that moment, care about anything besides her child. Her life is separate from everyone else except for that child, whom she adores. She is in her own world with that child. That kind of isolation is not as ugly as the previous picture. The artist has painted her as caring for the child, oblivious to the colorful, though dark world around her. We then put these details together in the context of isolation, the title of the painting, and then go back to the primal image of motherhood. All of this interplay of details and universal, primal ideas mingle with each other and give us the idea the artist intended to express.

This picture I have painted is an acknowledged feeble example of how small details help us to understand an idea – To use extant art would require very long essays to account for every single detail, but I hope I have at least made a case for the interplay of details placed over a universally graspable picture adding to the primal meaning, and that the more attention one pays to detail the more one may get out of the artwork. Because of the change in one detail, every other detail took on a different meaning. I did not paint every detail, for convenience and brevity’s sake, but had I done so, I would have placed every detail there purposefully to help convey the meaning I wanted to convey. I would not do things haphazardly or out of necessity, but on purpose exactly as I wanted to and intended to from the beginning. I would not settle for anything that fell short of my expression of the idea I wanted to express.

So much for a superficial groundwork. Ever-present in our minds should be every idea we’ve ever had about art and what it is. Reminded of this, it should strike you that we have only begun to scratch the surface of what art is.

We take up the discussion again and look at the aspect of time on art. A picture or sculpture or isolated scene exists in a time that is suspended or stopped for that scene. It may imply or lead us to thoughts about the past or future of the scene, but the actual medium is static. In the case of art-in-time, we must look at things like comics, music, stories, plays, and dramatic dialogues, to name only a few.

When the element of time is controlled by the artist as well as all the details we mentioned before, it becomes more complicated and potentially much more noble, revealing, and beautiful. We are able to see a scene change with all of its details also potentially changing. To be done well, it requires much greater skill, attention to detail, and a knowledge of where the audience is to be taken. The first scene must be absorbed and taken in context to every other scene, as must every other scene be taken in context to the scenes before and after those. The complexity becomes almost infinite. To do this, and do it well, requires very great skill, but let us make an attempt. Let us imagine a story. Starting simply: “A man marries a woman and has a child with her.” We have a very straightforward story that is also very short. Not much to it. We see that there exists a man, he found and married a woman, and later had a child with her. It is implied that they all were born at some point, they ate food, experienced existence to some degree, likely had sex, she labored, they had a child, and they will likely die one day at separate times. If I add details, the story may become more interesting. I will not write a novel about this family, but instead add a few more details to this bare sketch of a story that most people know or have at least some passing knowledge of. The man was old, as was his wife when they had their child. Already we begin to fill in gaps with possible details we supply, but the lack of details supplied by the artist produces ambiguity, and we begin trying to make sense of this new set of details, not just that they were old, but that I, the author, told you that it was a well-known story. This old man was a herdsman who was trying to make sense of the world when God spoke to him. His name was Abram. You probably know the rest. But let me change a detail. He was trying to make sense of the world and he heard a voice in his head that told him he was a righteous man – the only righteous man in the world. He had a son with his wife after many failed attempts, they finally had a child, and a voice in his head, at least a voice no one else heard tells him to kill his one and only son. Our impression changes. We are more inclined to think this man insane. We may also incline toward animosity to the author for painting the well-known story in this light. If I had told this story the other way around, painting the image of a madman first, then retelling it to reveal the subject as Abraham, the reactions would be slightly different. There would be less animosity toward the author. What I am trying to show is not just that the author controls the story, but the author could also control the reader’s thinking if he does it rightly. By adding details he may control the sympathies of the audience. This is sometimes done well, often attempted, and most obvious in music. A composer may play a rising scale in minor chords to raise tension, to make his audience anxious, impatient, on-edge, and so one. Then, when the composer wishes, he resolves the tension by descending back to the tonic. He may play a droning, incessant, pulsing chord to make the audience impatient-toward-frustration – the audience almost demanding some kind of change, some kind of development. He may play a furious flurry of notes amid a chord progression to paint in sound and time an idea of hurried activity. The good artists control every aspect of their medium to paint exactly what they want to paint. A composer is not limited to the use of sound. He may use words, as in opera or songs, setting, stage, performance locations and time, language, everything. A good artist will not be limited, but may limit himself, if he wishes.

Already we begin to see certain abilities the artist must have: Imagination, forethought, a command of his medium or mediums, attention to detail, sensitivity to the reactions of people to stimuli of all sorts, a vast background knowledge of conventional things and natural things, and so many other things. A bad reporter tells a story badly – they may leave out details, leave a story unresolved, or just write badly – creating awkward sentences, misspelling words, etc. A good reporter is capable of doing these things, but is also capable of crafting a story that is technically well-written, has resolution, and is very detailed. While they are both artists, one is manifestly superior to the other – better than the other – at conveying an idea. One is more effective than the other.

Now let us suppose the better, more effective reporter is conscious of his audience and wants to involve them in the story by adding graspable references to it, using effective imagery, phrases that stress a certain element or thought, or going further, tells a story using allusions and syntax to emphasize a point, even going so far as to illustrate the flow of the story by the sound of the words by using stressed and unstressed syllables to indicate regular flow, halting stops, stumbles, or abrupt but fast-paced ideas. This would be the difference between a Hemmingway or Lovecraft and a Shakespeare. Both are effective artists, but one is manifestly better than the other because of their control over all the elements used to paint the picture they want to create. To some, Hemmingway or Lovecraft can be more accessible than Shakespeare, but because he is more accessible doesn’t make him better. In this case, the onus is on the audience to understand Shakespeare. A man who can appreciate Shakespeare is competent to judge which is better, but it is absurd and ridiculous to take a man seriously if he says Hemmingway is better than Shakespeare if he hasn’t read them both and understood them. In just the same way, if he is incapable of understanding everything Shakespeare is throwing at him, but has read everything Hemmingway and Shakespeare ever wrote, but prefers Hemmingway because he gets Hemmingway but not Shakespeare… He is not competent to judge. So it is with art. The only people capable of judging art are people who really get it, who can appreciate, though not necessarily like it, but totally get it.

Here we come to a point that will alienate most readers. Most people rebel at the idea that one thing can possibly be better than another, that a value judgment can possibly be valid, that art may not be equal to other art. I contend that there is good art and bad art, that they are knowable, and one may educate oneself toward understanding it if they but apply themselves to the task. The idea of love is higher in dignity to the idea of sewage. Anyone honest with themselves can easily see this, regardless of their opinions of love or sewage, because love is more complex, more primal, more dimensional, more ambiguous, at once more beautiful and more repellent, more satisfying and doubtful. Regardless of your feelings or disposition toward love, it is obviously more reactive than sewage… more ubiquitous, more interesting, and more motivating. It is on every level but perhaps one more fertile than sewage.

But someone might object that the sanitation engineer finds sewage far more interesting than love. I would counter by reminding the objector that the sanitation engineer is a human being who does not exist in a vacuum, that before he was a sanitation engineer, he was a boy and then a young man who experienced love, and knows the universality of love and it motivated him more than sewage during that part of his younger life, that he loves sewage insofar as he is interested in it, and because it (love) is so much more universal, more ambiguous, more complex, it is more beautiful and of a higher dignity – better. We tentatively posit that the level of complexity makes something more interesting, more ambiguous, and if it is also universal it is of a higher dignity. The level of mystery is proportional to its beauty. Superman’s courage is boring because he is indestructible. It is more interesting when he is courageous in the face of possible defeat, nobler, more beautiful – better. Courage in the face of certain doom has very little mystery, but it is more interesting than being certain of victory. There is no striving, no overcoming, no conflict beneath the obvious.

Perhaps you still are not convinced? My intention is to liberate art from the subjective tyranny the masses use to enslave it. Art, the great works of art as well as the idea of art is too important to be the preserve of pretentious pseudo-intellectuals who only seek to appear more refined than others by offering the feeblest interpretations, the basest opinions, and the most superficial insight on any given work. It insults the artist, the artwork, the effort, the idea of art itself, the audience, and debases man by plunging so beautiful, useful, and powerful a tool as art into a quagmire of meaninglessness – for purely subjective meaning is meaningless.

It is our intention to help make this subject thinkable to man, visible and feelable to man.

The primal may be automatically grasped, as in some steady, pulsating rhythm in music, distorted or contorted faces in pictures, and so on. But these must call to mind some already known experiences or ideas of experiences.

I want to call to mind an explanation by Plato of the recollection of ideas of beauty. Parts of this story are rather fanciful, but suppose that we find a thing beautiful because parts of the thing remind us of previously experienced other things, and we have a pleasant association set between that previously experienced thing and a consequent experience. The memory, whether wholly recalled or not predisposes us to the new experience of the new thing. The opposite is true. If we had a negative previous experience, we are negatively predisposed toward new experiences that remind us of the previous negative experience.

That some conveyed idea is graspable and grasped is in itself pleasant to us. Understanding is pleasant, even if the thing understood is ugly or unpleasant. To “get it” is to understand what the artist is saying to you the audience. This is part of the reason comedy is superior to tragedy, because the pleasure involved in getting the joke makes the audience participate and invest more thought than listening to a reporter telling a sad story, or even a funny story. As with art, the levels of complexity and the way a joke or story is told can make the art more pleasant the higher the level of complexity. The jokes that seem merely absurd may also have an element to them that is not obviously thought, such as previous associations the teller has in mind of good times associated with that particular joke or kind of joke or element of the joke, the ironic innocence associated with an established context, as in a dirty joke about a horse falling into mud after another dirty joke about a traveling salesman and a farmer’s daughter.

It is also important to note that what an artist intends may not be what is grasped by the audience. Sometimes the audience doesn’t get what the artist is trying to say because they lack proper tools to understand the communication. If an artist writes and recites a poem in an unknown language, only a very limited amount of meaning will be collected by the audience. Similarly, a painting that uses very detailed religious imagery is less likely to be grasped by a multitude unfamiliar with the story behind the image. However, sometimes the artist is bad, and they unintentionally get the story wrong, they misremember the allusion, or they just spew nonsense. In this regard at least art can be seen as language. Communication only happens if the vocabulary is shared between those communicating. Suppose someone mispronounces a word accidentally, or tries to make a joke but fails, or just throws words together haphazardly. The intended message is lost on the audience, unless the audience is awed by what they do not understand. This raises a difficulty regarding the vast multitude of connotative meanings a word or idea has and how they relate – for this difficulty confronts us with the possibility that the words or expressions carry an incomprehensible flow of meanings that must be sifted and strained, even if we already know what a word commonly means. Luckily, we are almost always given a context that guides us. Any example of someone asking you a question in common circumstances proves there is less to this difficulty most of the time than we might think at first hearing. This difficulty is greater when dealing with very abstract things in a very abstract way.

Further, we have people among us who think in much wider spheres, or very narrowly considering multitudinous details, or both, such that the meanings they get out of art will likely be richer than people who are not busied by thinking too much. Then again, we also may see a very thoughtful person who does not get some art, and this is because, in most cases, they lack or do not employ the requisite vocabulary to “get it”. By “get it” is meant apprehending the meaning.

And again, some art may affect someone differently at different times. This phenomenon may be explained by the phrase “thinking along different lines”. It has been said that when someone is in love, songs make more sense. This may or may not be the case, but let us suppose that it is. The listener is thinking along some lines regarding his status toward the beloved, and his mind is already “along those lines” and this produces a context for the song different to that of not being in love and instead thinking about the price of gas, or what he will eat later. He is thinking along those lines. His emotional state has framed guidelines. Sometimes, as in this case, the songwriter can be relatively sure that the majority of his audience has been in love or may be in love, and will understand his message. The more technical his message, the more vocabulary he will have to use and will have to be used by the audience to get it.

This helps us to understand why the same piece of art has multiple meanings to the same person at different times, even more so to different people. We may call this “disposition”. So far, disposition and ambiguity give rise to multiple meanings, but disposition is less likely to affect interpretation if there is less ambiguity.

To take a step back to reevaluate our purpose, we look again at art. It exists in distinction to nature, which has an order to it independent of human manipulation, though by art one may manipulate nature. Art exists with convention, and the two are twined together, and separating them is not an easy task. To say that convention comes first seems out of place, since convention may be seen as a kind of art, or product of art, but to say art comes before convention is nonsensical, as a convention like language, though an art, depends upon more primordial conventions, like a society, however primitive, would have to exist before necessity brought forth language. We will tentatively say that art and convention are coeval, inasmuch as convention may be seen as a primitive art. However, suppose a primitive custom like caring for a child begins for the very first time (nature obviously already exists). The way one takes care of a child is largely trial and error, but some thought may go into raising the child. This would mean that art comes before convention, since the convention would be the aggregate total of successful strategies to raise the child. But is it the case that there was a first instance of child-raising? Are we not presupposing that the welfare of the child was a concern for the mother or father? One might say that it must have been, since we are here today. May it not be the case that art and custom are two sides of the same coin? Are we imposing a duality where one need not exist? Yet it is manifest that custom is the finished product of art, though it be edited from time to time also by art, and yet art is perpetuated by custom and evolves through consciousness of custom. So again we tentatively say that art is coeval with custom. They build upon each other, and their relationship to knowledge is also cooperative, building upon each other. For instance, science seems to be a custom and an art simultaneously, but it is an art insofar as it expresses meaning. Art, custom, and science are all tools toward the advancement of knowledge.

Perhaps a clarification is needed for further progress. Let us divide art into two parts: techne and poiesis. Art is the expression of meaning with all qualifications mentioned previously, and inherent in this expression of menaing is the techne, the skill used in creating the art, and the poiesis, the creation or bringing into being the art. We can already imagine a person with much technical skill but no ability to create – such people would be performers or artisans/laborers, like painters or masons or machinists who must be told what to make and how to make it. Then, thinking about one who cannot perform, that is, he has no technical skill but has a great creative ability is impossible. Some measure, however small, must exist, otherwise they would not know what to create, but it would be random, like a child who suddenly makes a noise without ever having heard a sound before, and this random sound happens to be a word, and this word happens to be meaningful in the context, and this meaningful word happens to be advantageous to the child.