Friday, May 1, 2009

Expression, Beauty and Art

There are many faces of art and of artists. The human urge to self-expression, the imitation of beauty, and the pursuit of power are the most important. Those who consider themselves artists tend to say that self-expression is the only purpose of pure art, whereas he who observes the artistic creation might think that its purpose was the reproduction of something observed to be beautiful. Less frequently considered is representations for magical purposes, but they may be important. And whatever the origin of the motivation, art is the physical expression of an idea that existed in the mind in abstract form, even though taken from nature. This representation passes necessarily through a phase of abstraction, and so can only be produced by the human faculty of reason.

Many animals use body language- in some cases including the manipulation of objects-to which females respond according to criteria which depend on the species. The experts in the field can tell us what a female baboon or a peahen or a frog looks for in a male, but words such as aesthetics, creativity and beauty should be used with care when referring to what the male does and the female responds to. It appears to be a simple biological process, with no invention on the part of the male or interpretation on the part of the female. It depends on the species, not the individual; there is no possibility of surprise or innovation. The male acts according to his instinct, with no thought, no pleasure in the show, and the female responds the same way, without questioning what she sees, or uplifting of the spirit.

Certainly there is something attractive in the male which has what the female is looking for, because it actually attracts, but these qualities are arbitrary. The meaning behind them is fixed, encoded by the genes, not the consciousness of the male. Furthermore, it is done only for a particular purpose, and no other. It is clear that only man expresses himself with no other motivation than the desire to do so (not that that is the only reason people have for producing creative work). And only man thinks about what, how and why he creates.

One of the earliest known forms of creative expression is cave paintings. They are of many different styles, technical quality and occur in a variety of places. Language is known to be older, probably much older, but the paintings, whatever their purpose, are the product of symbolic thought. Their purpose is not known exactly, they may have had a magic or religious function, or they may have been largely administrative, recreational or aesthetic. Again, it is unlikely that a man of the Upper Palaeolithic would be able to take time off from hunting to paint pictures without being maintained by the rest of the group, and so performing some function for them. But whatever the reason, they chose to represent humans, animals, objects and abstract designs on cave walls, and perhaps in other places where they have not survived, and they found the means to do it.

There is no need to imagine that they all had the same function. What is interesting is that they had no intrinsic biological function. Their function, whatever it might have been, was symbolic.

There is a variety of techniques and skills and precision in the representations depicted. Whether they form part of the symbolism, or rather reflect the abilities and whims of the painters.

Art is a number of different things, and so are artists. The urge to create things without function is probably unique to humans. It is certainly present in humans. The concept of beauty, whether or not derived from the sense of pleasure of physical comfort, is probably unique to humans. So is the ability to do abstract reasoning, meaning that an artist may not be motivated solely or at all by the desire to create something, but also by a search for the things which can arise from other people’s reaction to their work, or their self-defined position as artists.

“Art is supposed to hold a mirror up to nature.” Tell that to Beethoven.

“Art is meant to be talked about/provoke comment/reaction” So is almost everything we do, but this idea is usually reversed to justify as art what is no more than deliberate provocation. You could try telling that one to Beethoven as well; people who want to think of themselves, and be thought of as artists love to use this line, but it’s hard to imagine real artists even understanding it, let alone using it.

Art is self-expression. It has no identifiable absolute value. That’s why there are art critics, evaluating technical skill and creative innovation, and often playing the same game of self-aggrandizement that the soi-disant artists play. In the end, if you do art you should try to satisfy yourself and ignore everyone else. If you consume art you should stick to ‘I know what I like’ unless you’re in it for the money as well.

So, should art and artists be supported with public money? The answer is clearly no, with certain very limited exceptions. Where art has a public function- is produced for reasons of public good, be they magical, religious or ceremonial, as indicated above, or forms part of the cultural education of the young, who may be expected to gain pleasure and understanding if introduced to it- it may be reasonable for the public to pay for it. This applies more to the preservation or performance of previously created work than to new work. But the mere fact that someone who calls himself an artist can’t make a living means only that he should live more cheaply or try working; it does not in any way justify the use of public money to pay them to do what they do.

I think that was the point of this post when I started it several days ago. And I should point out that my own rather limited creativity takes the form of writing, and writers don’t get subsidies, so I don’t see why anyone else should.

Today's illustration is brought to you by Leuchars railway station on a wet Monday afternoon.


Vincent said...

I think you have subverted your own argument rather early in your piece, when you talk about the male display to attract the female. You suggest that's a simple biological process, not accompanied by joy.

I'd argue that the same thing occurs in man, and for our present purposes, in artists. Most young men who take interest in the electric guitar have fantasies of appearing on stage to public acclaim and becoming a magnet for willing females. It gets more subtle but the same thread runs through all the arts I believe. If not sex in its basic reproductive form, then at least attention: a variation on the biological imperative.

But this is a quibble, for I support your declared point.

CIngram said...

This is certainly true, and I tried to recognise this point explicitly when talking about the 'comment/reaction' explanation, but there are people who the ability to manipulate abstract symbols and ideas has led to use plastic expression of one sort or another purely for their own satisfaction, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. I think that is what makes human display so interesting, that it can be completely without any biological or social function, and still be thought to have a purpose, at least by the artist himself, and often by others, who have no a priori economic or psychological interest in it.