Monday, 4 September 2006

Art: there's more to it than just meets the eye.

Art. On that subject more than any other, ain't there a lot of misunderstanding about -- as this still ongoing and fascinating thread shows if nothing else does. But isn't it odd how something we've all experienced and enjoyed is somehow so widely misunderstood?

All of us have felt, after watching a film or having indulged in a DVD marathon of a favourite TV show, that our thinking has somehow been changed by the experience -- having been immersed in the world of CSI or House for example we might imagine ourselves to have become more analytical and more attentive to detail (or more cranky); after a Prisoner marathon we might feel particularly astute and mistrustful; and after hours of reality shows (if you can stomach that) you could feel intensely competitive and 'loaded for bear.'  All of us have been touched at some time by a painting, a film, a piece of music or a work of architecture or sculpture. If we hadn't, we just wouldn't be human.

Anything that affects us like this can't be causeless, and indeed it isn't. Even in the form of TV shows or films or three-minute pop songs, art clearly has an ability both to shape and to reflect our way of looking at the world. As Dianne Durante asks, "Why does this kind of psychological change occur, without any conscious decision on our part?" Her answer: Art that affects us like this has a very real cause, and in understanding that cause we can deduce both art's power and where it comes from. Why art affects us so profoundly is, to put it briefly, all because of the values that the art conveys, how well they are conveyed, and our emotional assessment of the sum of those values: specifically, because of the value-judgements the work of art makes about the world and of our place in it.

If the painting or film or TV show expresses the same emotional assessment about the world as we ourselves make, and we are able to 'read' that assessment, then that piece is going to resonate with us and touch us. (And, conversely, if the work makes an emotional assessment about the world that is at odds with our own, we're likely to feel a more emotional antagonism to that work than a simple piece of canvas or thirty minutes of celluloid might seem to justify.)

So the effect of art is not causeless. And it can be understood. Dianne Durante continues her own explanation with the example of that sculpture pictured above (which is a little unfortunate since personally I don't admire it, but there you go):
For example: Huntington's 'Cid' [ie., the chap depicted in the sculpture above] is clearly a man of courage. But the existence of courage assumes that there must be values for which it is worth facing danger, and that man has the ability to recognize this fact.
If man can choose to fight for his values, he must have free will. If fighting is a viable option, then the world must be the kind of place where values can be achieved. Such assumptions are so fundamental that they apply, in one way or another, to all men at all times. They are what Ayn Rand called metaphysical value-judgments. ("Metaphysical" is used here in the Aristotelian sense of "pertaining to the nature of reality" -- not the improper sense of pertaining to the supernatural.")
This concept is essential to the definition of art, which is, as Ayn Rand puts it, a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."
Metaphysical value-judgments are basic convictions about the nature of reality and man's relationship to it. Is reality a stable, causal environment, in which things happen according to natural law -- or is it an anything-goes, causeless place, in which inexplicable miracles occur? Does man have free will and thus the ability to steer the course of his life -- or is he predetermined to act as he does and thus incapable of directing his actions? Is the world conducive to man's success and happiness -- or is man doomed to failure and misery? Discussion of such issues is the province of philosophy, which deals with the widest abstractions about man and the nature of the world. In art, though, a multitude of such ideas can be implied in a single image.
There are three things I want to say here in response. The first is that is that not all that is represented to be 'art' has the capacity to say anything approaching any of this. Even a relatively poor figurative sculpture (such as the one above) has sufficient scope, depth and integration to express what Dianne Durante describes, but nothing of the sort is possible with a display of, for example, semen-stained blankets, a toilet that brays like a donkey, or a man with hot dogs up his arse -- to give some examples of some contemporary award-winning 'art.' No 'view of the world' or any overarching emotional assessment of it can be made in that sort of work except a disgust for it, and for those who patronise that kind of trash.

The second thing is to point out that our crucial need for art comes from the nature of our human consciousness, and by virtue of the way we hold and form our ideas. Our conceptual form of consciousness means that our view of the world and our place in it is represents the very widest abstractions our minds are asked to hold, and the integration of those judgements with our emotional assessment of them are visible to us only through art -- it is only art that allows us to see our most fundamental view of the world and our place in it as a single mental unit, and what could be more important or profound than that! (I say more about this in my article 'Who Needs Great Art.')

And the third thing is to answer this question for you: What the hell is a Metaphysical Value-Judgement (MVJ)? And where do I find one in my favourite painting? Let me be as brief as I can, and to be as brief as best I can be I need to point you again to what Dianne Durante says above; to a chap called Peter Saint-Andre who explains it at greater length; and to artist Michael Newberry's brilliant descriptions of how to detect value judgements in paintings.

To anyone who's already realised that you won't find value judgements just sitting around on paintings like a Nike label on your sports shirt, Michael's piece is really the one to go to first (and if you're wanting a book-length explanation then the place to go is Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto) .

Take for instance these two paintings, one by Kandinsky (above) and the other by Vermeer (left). Start off trying to assess them yourself by listing three adjectives that describe each. You'll need to evaluate the paintings yourself to do that. once you've done that, then write down three adjectives to describe your own emotional reaction to each of them: to do that you'll need to introspect, a useful skill to develop if you want to expand your appreciation of art and of your own reaction to the art you see and experience.

Next, read what Newberry says about how each of them answers a fundamental metaphysical question: "Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable?" You can begin yourself by imagining that the artist's canvas is itself a depiction of the whole universe as seen through the artist's eyes (which of course is exactly what it is), and imagining what kind of universe that is.

If you agree with Newberry's assessment of how each painting answers that question, or if you've analysed it yourself and given your own answer, you'll then have on your piece of paper your own emotional assessment of that fairly fundamental question. Pretty neat huh.

Art: there's more to it than just meets the eye.

LINKS: Con art in Kaipara - Not PC (Peter Cresswell)Getting more enjoyment out of art you love - Dianne Durante, 'The Objective Standard' (requires subscription, but worth it)Romantic nihilism - Michael Newberry
Who needs great art? - Peter Cresswell, SOLO
Objectivist aesthetics and the nature of art - Peter Saint-Andre, 'Monadnock Review'
Detecting value judgements in painting - Michael Newberry, 'Newberry Studio Updates'

RELATED: Art, Objectivism, Philosophy, Sculpture

Because art (including television shows) not only conveys certain values; it also conveys the fundamental assumptions that underlie those values.


Anonymous said...

Well I'd never heard bullshit until I heard you talk about art - that's MY value judgement ;-)

Mostly I like your taste in art - except for that appalling painting by Frank O'Connor of the headless person with the balls or whatever they were.

But if someone's taste differs from mine - so what - who cares - live and let live.

I put it to you it is just another excuse to slap labels on people and go on moral judgement sprees against the seething, ignorant, great unwashed masses who read this blog.

Peter Cresswell said...

"... moral judgement sprees ..." ?

Sheesh, I never thought I was that difficult to work out. I just write what I would have liked to read when I was that young chap in the photographs I posted the other day. That's it, really.

And since no-one else is writing it, I guess I have to. :-)

Anonymous said...

Of course it is a moral judgement spree - you believe one's taste in art reflects one's sense of life.

Peter Cresswell said...

" ... you believe one's taste in art reflects one's sense of life ... "

And doesn't it?

If it doesn't reflect one's sense of life, then what exactly does it reflect?