Friday, January 22, 2010

Who Needs Great Art?

by Peter Cresswell

Icarus    Painting, movies, literature, sculpture, music, architecture ... all have the ability to make us cry, to make us laugh, and -- just occasionally -- to make us feel ten feet tall. Why is great art so powerful? -- why does it have this profound ability to affect us? Simply, because it speaks personally to each of us. It is our shortcut to our very souls. When we experience art that truly touches us, we don’t just feel, “I like this;” if we have souls we feel “This is Me!”
    Great art has enormous scope: it subsumes an enormous range of experience and thought and emotion, and integrates these three into a mental unit that our particularly human consciousness is able to grasp. It might be a painting, a sculpture, or a play or a building, but if it is well done we can all look at it or walk through it and almost immediately know -- without even being able to put it completely into words -- how the artists see the world around them. By experiencing the art they’ve produced, we should have a pretty fair idea of what they see as important in the world, and whether or not we too see the world in the same way. 
     Think, for instance, of the lightning-like evaluation you make when you see this painting. Or this one. Or this collection of buildings. Or these. See what I mean? The integration involved in a good work of art subsumes all the experience, thought and emotion that goes into our own view of the world and, if we identify with it, allows us to point and say: “That’s Me!” or “That’s Not Me!” (So on that score, ask yourself about your reactions to those linked pieces, and what it tells you about the way you see the world.)

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    The point here is that art isn’t just a way to kick back after a difficult week -- which is one reason elevator music and abstract painting are so execrable. Art is a shortcut to our very philosophy; a way to see and to experience our deepest values, and also to celebrate them.
    Art -- good art -- shows us our way of seeing the world, while celebrating that that is the way we do see the world; more particularly, it celebrates our own individual way of seeing the world, and affirms it.
    Why do we need art to see the world when we’ve already got eyes and ears and fingers and hands with which to experience it ourselves, and a brain with which to organise those experiences? Answer: We need art precisely because of the nature of that brain, and because of the way it organises the experiences.
    Look at the way our knowledge of the world is acquired and held: our knowledge of the world around us begins with our senses, which provide us with material that is then organised by our brain into concepts; those concepts in turn are then integrated into propositions and theories. We start with sensations, derived from particular experiences, and these form the basis for all our higher abstractions: all our ideas, from ideas of love, of justice, of rights, of value ... all high-order abstractions; all derived from earlier concretes which are subsumed into concepts, and then subsumed into even wider concepts, and so on.
    This process of abstraction leading to further abstraction creates both the enormous power of the human mind, and its great weakness: its power to think in vast abstractions, and its inability to see these abstractions as one unit. That’s what art does for us: it gives us each the power to see all of our important abstractions as a single unit.
    To ‘fix’ each particular abstraction, as Ayn Rand points out in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, we integrate the concept into a single mental unit: a word. Each word acts as a unit that integrates the constituent units of that particular concept, which brings together and holds for us in our minds the vast material referred to by the particular concept which that word is used to delineate.
    But as we integrate these high-end abstractions into even wider abstractions, we run into a problem: the scope becomes too vast and too amorphous to grasp as a whole. For that, we need art.  Think for example of the Statues of Justice and of Liberty, and of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” These don’t just sum up the concepts of liberty and justice; they offer an evaluation of them to boot.
    The relative position of our higher abstractions works of art is analogous to the position of a poem to a word; or that of a book to its chapter; or that of a piece of furniture to a building: the greater work orders, makes understandable and gives context to all the units subsumed, and brings into existence a new mental unit integrating them all. In making a work of art, we are offering a new mental unit that is at once a higher abstraction than those it subsumes, and a more concrete one. In making our abstractions concrete, it takes us back to the concretes from whence they came, but in a much more powerful form.
    Art allows us to see the totality of our worldview. If we follow Leonard Peikoff’s idea that philosophy is like a skyscraper, we can see that it is a rather oddly-shaped one. Peikoff's skyscraper begins at the lower levels with metaphysics, the nature of existence. It continues upwards with a few floors dedicated to epistemology, how we know what we know. On top of these lower floors and dependent on them are floors describing the nature of human beings and how we should live in the world as it is, i.e. ethics, and then how we should live together, i.e., the field of politics.
    Now, if we understand the true nature of art we can see that art does fit on top of the other floors, since it requires all the other floors below to give it support. But in an important sense, the upper floors of art actually lead directly back to the basement, rather like one of those strange buildings in a science fiction story in which we keep going up, yet we end up in the basement instead of the penthouse. Good art is both penthouse -- in the sense that it is a glorious summation and culmination of all that is below it -- and it is also basement, because it is both fundamentally necessary to human survival (witness the cave scratchings of even primitive men, who sought to find meaning in his world) and also intensely explicative of our own deepest metaphysical value judgments. Deep art really does go deep: right down to the bottom floor.
    Why, then, is art so intensely personal? If it’s just a higher form of abstraction, why do we so readily get up in arms over it? Again, it is because of the nature of the human mind. We are endowed not just with a cognitive mechanism, but also with an emotional mechanism. “It is man’s cognitive faculty … that determines the content of both.” The premises and abstractions we form and accept are the programming for our subconscious: based on this ‘subconscious programming,’ our emotional faculty provides us inexorably with lightning-like evaluations of the things we see and experience around us -- the extent of our emotion at these experiences is the extent of the import and resonance they have for us.
    As Ayn Rand said when identifying the nature of our emotions, they offer a lightning-like evaluation of the things around us. But our emotions do not spring from nowhere; they themselves are “an effect, not a cause.” Every single thing we see or experience is value-laden. It is our previous thinking (or lack thereof) that determines the nature of the evaluation.
    If one has finished a hard day’s work and sees a beer, one might feel a fierce thirst and a yearning to sit down and enjoy it; if one’s a poor student and sees an exam paper, one might feel nausea and a desire to escape the classroom; but if one is a human being with a healthy soul, and one hears Beethoven’s Ninth or sees Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, then one feels exalted. The difference in the feelings is determined by what it is we experience. The intensity of feeling is the measure of the extent of the intellectual and emotional abstractions subsumed.
    Why does great art move us? Because it speaks to the whole of us, and to everything we know and stand for.
    Who needs great art? You do.

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18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post Peter.
I enjoyed it & will continue to do so.

Lofty

1/22/2010 12:20:00 pm  
Anonymous Fat Girl said...

I second Lofty's comment above Peter. That's another superb intellectual article for some of us non-intellectuals who visit here regularly to read. I enjoyed it. If I am a dean in one of our local journalism school in NZ, I would make it compulsory for students to read Not PC blog on a regular basis. They would definitely find interesting articles here, which would be stimulating to their wee (dumb) brain. They will come out better (after they finished) where their reporting capabilities improve dramatically.

1/22/2010 02:28:00 pm  
Blogger Sam P said...

Great post PC. Worth re-reading a few times.

1/22/2010 06:06:00 pm  
Blogger Owen McShane said...

I presume that kitsch painting of a nude over the peninsula is not included in great art.
The Scream is great art because it reminds us that we should scream about the Holocaust etc but surely that sick making Soviet style realism of Christ over the rocks is not included in the Great Art lexicon.
I mean, would you hang it in your living room?
I am sure Frank Lloyd Wright would not have had it in sight.

1/23/2010 08:11:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Owen, all those four pieces to which I linked are great art--and that includes both the 'Icarus' to which you have such an aversion, and 'The Scream' to which I do.

They're not great art because of WHAT they say--in fact, what they say is diametrically opposed. They're great art because both have the scope, depth and integration necessary to convey their message. To illustrate the artist's metaphysical value judgements. To convey his worldview.

What an artist chooses to depict, and how he chooses to portray it are crucial. 'The Scream' and 'Icarus Landing' are perfect contrasts.

'The Scream' shows an alienated figure in a swirling vomit-coloured universe. It says that existence is fundamentally a struggle we can't win; that the world is chaotic, nauseating, irregular, swirling, alienating. Even the colours speak of nausea. It doesn't just "remind us" of the Holocaust, it says that this is a world in which Holocausts will always happen. That in this universe it's the Holocausts that are the given, and that it's human happiness that's accidental---if it occurs at all.

By contrast, 'Icarus Landing' shows the figure of myth who was supposed to have crashed after flying too close to the sun. But here he's not crashing, he's touching down under perfect control--arms spread Christ-like to show that in this artist's universe it's victory that we should celebrate, not sacrifice. So essentially 'Icarus' reclaims two myths of human sacrifice (Icarus and Christ) and makes them into one of triumph. It's stylised and sunlit. It says, essentially, that in this universe human triumph is possible, and is part of the natural order of things--and that sacrifice and disaster are the accidental.

You see, it's more than journalistic detail that you respond to. It's not just they remind us of evil things or of happy things that happen in the world. It's that they say either that this is a world in which evil wins; or (conversely) that good wins. That the universe is essentially malevolent, and opposed to human flourishing; or it's essentially benevolent and supports it.

That's why you respond with such vehemence. Because the images are so clear, your evaluation of their worldview is automatic.

1/24/2010 04:26:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're not being clear PC. So the Scream is great art, but is the product of someone who views the universe as fundamentally malevolent? Do you think Munch's "metaphysical values" are toxic?

I'm genuinely interested. Do you think that the Scream improves the world by its presence, or would it be better if this great artwork never existed?

Judge Holden

1/25/2010 02:11:00 am  
Anonymous LGM said...

PC

Re the Scream

"It says that existence is fundamentally a struggle we can't win; that the world is chaotic, nauseating, irregular, swirling, alienating. Even the colours speak of nausea. It doesn't just "remind us" of the Holocaust, it says that this is a world in which Holocausts will always happen."

I didn't know that about The Scream. I thought it related only to THE Holocaust and the message was that such things are aberations, they are not ever to be accepted, never to be allowed to occur again. The figure screams because of the alien wrongness of the Holocaust. Viewers can only imagine what was experienced.

The ability of the viewer to step back and escape from the painting (look away from it) allows him to realise that such things must not be allowed to be made real. It is important to come to that understanding.

Well, that's how I thought it went.

Can you go into some more detail about the painting.

LGM

1/25/2010 08:51:00 am  
Blogger Luke H said...

The Scream was painted in 1893, so it wasn't specifically referring to the Holocaust.

Apparently the location depicted is near a slaughterhouse and a madhouse - a madhouse in which Munch's manic-depressive sister was interned.

PC, is there no place for art depicting negative emotions? Our lives contain both moments of happiness and joy, and times of depression and despair - to not depict the negative, at least sometimes, would appear to be denying reality, no?

1/26/2010 01:37:00 pm  
Blogger Callum said...

Luke: The problem with "The Scream", IMO, isn't the emotions depicted in it; it's the attitude about value, and hence its sense of life.

You can indeed find great works of art expressing sad emotions, like "Lament for Icarus" that PC posted a while back.

The difference between "Lament for Icarus" and "The Scream" is that, in "Lament for Icarus" the idea of value (and life) is implicitly accepted, due to the women mourning over the death of Icarus - they have lost a great value. In "The Scream", what is portrayed is a world in which values are not possible and therefore, all life amounts to is a scream of despair.

Both portray sad emotions, but the sense of life couldn't be more different.

(Of course, this is all just my interpretation; feel free to disagree if you think otherwise).

1/26/2010 05:07:00 pm  
Anonymous LGM said...

Luke

I see.

I'll need to go find out some more about it.


---


Callum

Do you really think the painter is attempting to convey an attitude towards life in this painting or is he conveying only the state of the subject's suffering (his sister's?). how do you come to the conclusion that he's doing this?


LGM

1/27/2010 08:56:00 am  
Blogger Callum said...

LGM:

"Do you really think the painter is attempting to convey an attitude towards life in this painting or is he conveying only the state of the subject's suffering (his sister's?)"

The way through which he conveys the subject's suffering demonstrates the artist's sense of life. There are a number of ways suffering can be demonstrated (refer to my above comment discussing "Lament for Icarus"), and the way the artist chooses demonstrates his sense of life.

"how do you come to the conclusion that he's doing this?"

By looking at the picture and comparing it to others expressing similar emotions, and then looking at the way he chose to express those emotions.

1/27/2010 10:24:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a fan of Not PC! I love Newberry's "Icarus Landing," and the commentor is correct that Frank Lloyd Wright would not have hung it, as he had few paintings to speak of in his interiors, for a number of reasons. I look forward to an NPC essay on humor in art, as I find it a common, if subtle, component. In fact, "The Scream" can be viewed as humorous, seen objectively.
Tom White, Austin

1/28/2010 05:41:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Callum, it seems as if you don't like the Scream, because it doesn't adhere to the approved objectivist style (ie romantic realism) and thus must be evil. Prove me wrong.

Judge Holden

1/28/2010 08:18:00 am  
Anonymous LGM said...

Callum

Thanks for that. It clarifies things.

LGM

1/28/2010 09:24:00 am  
Blogger Callum said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/28/2010 11:25:00 am  
Blogger Callum said...

Cheers LGM.

1/28/2010 11:39:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

@LGM: "Do you really think the painter is attempting to convey an attitude towards life in this painting or is he conveying only the state of the subject's suffering (his sister's?). how do you come to the conclusion that he's doing this?"

Michael Newberry has an excellent tutorial offering guidance on detecting meaning in paintings. I thoroughly recommend it:
http://www.michaelnewberry.com/studioupdate/2002-10/

@JUdge Holden: "So the Scream is great art, but is the product of someone who views the universe as fundamentally malevolent?"

That's it precisely.

"Do you think Munch's 'metaphysical values' are toxic?"

I sure do.

"I'm genuinely interested. Do you think that the Scream improves the world by its presence, or would it be better if this great artwork never existed?"

Where else would one go to show the perfect illustration of doom and despair?

@Tom White: "I'm a fan of Not PC!"

You exhibit excellent taste, sir. :-)

"I look forward to an NPC essay on humor in art, as I find it a common, if subtle, component."

Hmm, interesting. I must confess to find much delight in reading FRank Lloyd Wright's plans. You can almost see the twinkle in his eye as he's drawing them up.

Is that the sort of thing you mean?

"In fact, "The Scream" can be viewed as humorous, seen objectively."

I'd love to know how? Can't see any eyes being twinkled here, I'm afraid.

1/28/2010 11:48:00 am  
Anonymous LGM said...

PC

Thanks for the link. I'll be off over there reading that now.

Ta.

LGM

1/28/2010 12:03:00 pm  

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