Monday, February 18, 2013

80. Art

 Here I start a series on art. It is based in part on a discussion with a panel of three artists and a well-known architect.

In classical Greek philosophy the beautiful was identified with the true and the good. A strong Platonic tradition, which manifests itself in Schopenhauer, for example, is that artistic experience is a serene contemplation of eternal, immutable ideas. In this way art, in particular music, helps to escape, temporarily, from the relentless drive of our will towards the satisfaction of ever new desires that is never achieved.

In another tradition, art was seen as mimesis, imitation of nature or a representation of religious, historical or mythical figures or scenes.

Under the influence of the philosopher Kant, art was seen to form a category of its own, next to the true or the good.

If art is no longer associated with the good, then the horrendous, the ugly, even evil could be art, as in Dostojevsky, Mallarmé, Céline, and de Sade.

In romanticism, art became the revelation, the authentic expression, of what is delved from inside the self. Here, art is still representational, but it now represents something from inside, not out in he world.

Does a work of art have some canonical, correct or true meaning, referring to some entity in the world or in imagination? Gadamer proposed that art does not have one true interpretation of what the artist intended. The viewer or listener brings in his or her interpretative, creative arsenal of spiritual, emotional and intellectual mental frames adopted and developed along the course of life.

According to Heidegger, art does not represent anything but stands in its own, creating a new world. Albert Camus, in his The rebel, recognized art as creating an alternative reality. As discussed in the item on power (nr. 50) in this blog, this may yield an escape from institutionalized power. For Nietzsche art is creative destruction, and a transformation of the self, not a delving from it.

If art needs to be useful, to survive the present onslaught of economization on culture, it is not mere opportunistic rhetoric to say that it is an exercise in world making and as such is conducive to innovation. 

How could this work? Earlier, in items 32-34 (on meaning) of this blog, I proposed that people categorize (assign to concepts) what they see or hear by picking out features that fit in their mental make-up of concepts and associations that constitute their absorptive capacity. That is how they make sense of the world. Perhaps what art does is to offer new features that confuse, upset or bypass established categorization. It may trigger novel associations that do not fit the customary frame or script. Thus it may loosen existing categories and suggest new ‘ways of world making’. It may ‘not make sense’ and thereby generate novel sense making.

According to my small panel of artists, art is expression, shaping. It comes from a conscious idea, meaning, decision, choice, design. It is intentional, it does not arise haphazardly or by chance, as it might for an amateur. And to be professional is to fully go for it. You cannot be a bit of an artist.


  1. By ‘not making sense’ sense making is generated, and this paradoxical procedure is what we call ‘art’, is this what you are saying? My children and their friends tend to call this ‘out of the box thinking’, and in the seventies this phenomenon went by the name of ‘lateral thinking’ ( van Gennep) . Thus, I’d say, art is a way of allowing for unusual associations to spring from the mundane and to express them. Now, it seems that this attitude may be and actually is held and lived in very many aspects of life, in science, education, in the briefest of encouters in public places, even in politics, occasionally. Is there a separate domain for ‘the arts’ in the classical sense of the word, would you say?

  2. Paula, Good question. In response I woud say this.
    Out-of-he-box, lateral thinking, novelty in science, politics, etc. yield new ideas and perspectives, but still with existing language and meanings. New stories in familiar terms. Art, I think, goes further, beyond existing language, with new meanings and new ways of looking a the world, or creating worlds of its own. Think, for example, of the move to impressionism, expressionism, cubism, and the like.
    In evolutionary terms (see item 82 in this blog), it is a difference between presenting new thngs to a existing selection environment and, in art, challenging the selection environment.
    What do you think?