A Commentary About Art Part 1

The topic about the meaning of art arose recently in a casual conversation. It is often an enjoyable topic though I try to restrain myself from it if I don’t feel the conversation partner would relate in any way. Yes, I do bring it up if someone snobbishly starts talking about art and I happen to disagree; but that’s not what I enjoy. I seek the finer, smaller, simpler, friendlier conversations with people who seem to enjoy in some way or another a certain sort of consuming beauty in art. So this specific conversation made me remember previous conversations, email exchanges, and a specific search for quotes I had made years ago, to ultimately decide to write this. So bear with me, if you know me, as I again talk a little about part of what art means to me and how it opposes (this is where some start disagreeing) to the view that says everything can be art.

I know art can be defined in many ways, the debate about it is not new. In the end, it is the beholder who ends up acknowledging it as such. However, there are so many creative outlets, skilled pieces of work, inspired writing, captivating images created, all of which constitute great things to behold; but there are a few even among these that have a something else that makes them transcendent through time and that speak clearly to people throughout generations. It is that which I want to pin down and separate from other creative endeavors maybe just to honor those lasting accomplishments that effectively recreate certain aspects of truth to the perceptive human eye. Considering it is just a given concept, people have the right to make it whatever they want, but if there can be something more specific that we have no choice but to call art in order to refer to it, I choose to go for that specific.

This time, however, I don’t want to ramble about it, though I know I already am. I started this post wanting to base it on that very small compilation of quotes I had gathered and that I simply enjoy reading. These quotes mostly take poetry as a parting point to describe some elements of art—or if they don’t intend to, I use them to do so. I think good poetry, in its simplicity, has the main elements of art relatively identifiable. I could find authors who have said something like this but I don’t feel like searching and I am bad quoting by memory or remembering names. These quotes I do have here came along after a not so very extensive search of such quotes that could support the ideas about art that I was trying to express in these emails and/or conversations I was having (quite) some time ago.

So one of those things I wanted to support with respected quotes is that art and melodrama are not at all necessarily the same, and I wouldn’t disagree so harshly if someone said they had little to do with each other. It is important to acknowledge that art can and does use melodrama and even sentimentalism; yet it does so rising above it, controlling it and utilizing it as an element to carve itself with. Still, they are not the same thing, and I found one quote that nicely expresses something similar.

“The job of the poet is to render the world—to see it and report it without loss, without perversion. No poet ever talks about feelings. Only sentimental people do.”— Mark Van Doren

I remember reading an about.com article that touched upon the subject. It said, and I loosely paraphrase parting from only memories of having read it quite some time ago: expressing your feelings itself is not art, it’s good and you can do it, but don’t inflict the world with it in the name of art. If you are not going to do it right; remember you can always just keep it to yourself. This might not be valid quoting, but I really enjoyed reading that.

Now, going back to Van Doren’s quote. Art within his idea could talk about feelings in the extent that feelings are part of the world to render, see, and report, without loss or perversion. However, the simple rant of feelings—even the creative ones—are often not what I would like to call art. I agree that sometimes the simple expression of feelings can still present creativity and skill even if by the personal definitions here presented it falls beneath art. And that is good too. If those were not acceptable forms of craft, there wouldn’t be rock ballads that have become so dear to many (not to me); nor would there be soap operas which many are willing to embrace as entertainment. The main issue here is to honor those things that go beyond, that are more relevant because they “render the world” unrestrained from the haze of emotion.

Related to what Van Doren said, there are many other quotes that go deeper into what I want to express about the subject. For me, real art expresses or showcases or materializes truth. Here are a few:

“Poetry is the utterance of deep and heart-felt truth—the true poet is very near the oracle.”
— Edwin Hubbel Chapin

“The poem… is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see – it is, rather, a light by which we may see – and what we see is life. “
— Robert Penn Warren

“[A poem] begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
— Robert Frost

“The poet is the priest of the invisible.”
— Wallace Stevens

…and more related to art in general, without confining it to poetry:

“Everything in creation has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like the princess in the fairy tale ’til its appropriate liberator comes to set it free. “
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

All this doesn’t mean that books have to use realism to portray truth; that books, for example like Naked Lunch, are not art because they are quite “out there” or take too many liberties with their apparent worded pornography, fantasy, or plots that are little concerned on narrative coherence. (That’s the first book that came to mind for some reason. I don’t mention it to state I consider it art or that I don’t; I don’t care too much about that discussion. I am pretty acceptant of those who consider it art and could probably be too of those who don’t.) Even such books—using absurdity, fantasy, and even incoherence—do portray or try to portray a truth  or set of truths, a simple trait or traits of the universe. Inasmuch as they are successful in accomplishing that—to leave those traits be a tangible object comprised in those words or those colors or sounds or the fit of these—they are successful in becoming art; lasting, admirable, re-experience-able art.

One way I like to talk about it is relating it to science. Science, following its method, could never get to explain many truths in the whole realm of reality. And even those it can, to our senses, they mean little: Science does not recreate truth for human perception, we don’t get to sense it or see it as truth; only an area of our brain grasps it as knowledge; we read the data that describes a certain aspect of reality and after questioning it and further developing it in science, we faithfully accept it as a truth. Art, however, goes where science cannot due to its restrictions and has a power of communication that is often more effective than pure data. It’s simple and concise enough to just leave that piece of truth there for you to experience rather than simply accept as a bit of knowledge. I think the quotes already presented express this quite well; yet, Freud makes a more explicit relation between these two particular terms:

“[P]oets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science. “
— Sigmund Freud

Dylan Thomas also expresses something about this nicely:

“A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”
— Dylan Thomas

(Part 2 here. Though, if you already read this much and actually do want to go on, you might as well read the comments posted here before doing so which present some good points and which give sense to the title of the second part)

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4 responses to “A Commentary About Art Part 1

  1. To be crude, I think the overarching topic of “What is Art” is the result of some giant, sick child who vomitted up a millions swirling contradictory opinions that have landed here and there and everywhere, and how we love to slip around in them! I don’t mean to insinuate at all that your post or the opinions contained therein are vomit. Mostly I was trying to be cheeky, but also express a bit of the unavoidable nausea that comes to me when I am submerged in art talk. And that’s not a bad nausea, even, just a disorientation and a slight uneasiness that follows from feeling like there is no right answer, no matter how strongly we all feel about these matters (a similar vertigo comes to me during discussions of ethics, politics, and sometimes religion. It’s like intellectual motion sickness). To feel sick, to be shaken at all, is better than standing numbly and safely in an opaque box. So way to go in rousing me a bit!

    And in some big ways I agree with you, especially with your point that there must be a strong correlation between art and truth.

    When you first mentioned science as a way to understand art I felt my insides clench up a little bit. I think one of the important things about art is how far from science it is (even when an artist is making conscious effort to be scientific) and I was all ready to lay out my reasonings for this. But of course reading on I see that the point you are making is not to link art and science formally, but to explain truth as something suggested, or at least sought, by science or art. In science that suggestion is enough–we learn the concepts but don’t actually experience them first hand (in most cases). But as you said, “Art, however, goes where science cannot due to its restrictions and has a power of communication that is often *more effective than pure data*. It’s simple and concise enough to just leave that piece of truth there for you to experience rather than simply accept as a bit of knowledge.” Probably I am interpreting this differently than you intended, but I see this as meaning that art removes the boundaries of finality. Truth is hard to pin down, and art is more exploratory than science (seems impossible to say that!) and does not part from science from the beginning, as both seek to identify truth, but does in fact go beyond it. Art leaves science in the dust there (which would be insulting to science, maybe, if it had the same goal as art, which I don’t think it does. Science seems more than content to settle on finalities, facts, data, and thank God for that.) On a personal note, when I look at my own nature it seems funny to me that I would prefer art to science, since I tend to take comfort in finalities and well-defined truth, which art does little to offer. But back to truth, unlike some who would say that there are no final truths and everything is open to constant personal reinterpretation, I cannot make my brain think that way. Truth exists, and truths, by their very definition, are true. But as long as we don’t know the exact nature of that truth we cannot settle on it. It is a constant quest, and any resting point is a precarious, temporary place. (At least in this lifetime.)

    I guess that’s all (all!) I have to say in response to part one. I don’t want to get ahead of myself until I’ve read the complete thing! Here is one more quote (a fairly obvious one) that you might like to add to your collection:

    “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Pablo Picasso. My painting professor used this quote often. (I think there is a very similar quote in V for Vendetta.) I could probably write a few more hundred words on where I agree with this quote and where I disagree, but I’ll save it for my own blog, someday 🙂

  2. (I noticed many typos, so I’ll delete the original and post the comment again without some of those typos to make it a bit more readable, avoiding to change it much or add to it even when its quality overall was quite deserving of big changes)

    I just love your comment! When I finished writing this (both its parts), I felt satisfied at first, but once I started proofreading, I was rather annoyed by it. That is why I didn’t post it back then. I had that exact same nausea you are talking about and worse: it was my own writing which was inducing it and which seemed intent on inflicting it to others. I felt that I was being too cocky in what could be regarded by readers as a proposition for the meaning of art, and that if perceived as such, the definition and its arguments were quite precarious. I didn’t want to post it until it clearly showed itself as being more of a contemplation on something I enjoy rather than a critique or an actual definition, but this task seemed daunting. However, I read it later and noticed that from what I had written, it would basically take little twitches here and there to make the intent clearer (while of course still adding and eliminating as in any proofreading). Nonetheless, though it now seems to just contemplate aspects I personally enjoy about it, it does dare to say that, at least I personally, do not regard certain aspects of creative endeavors as art. In the end, I still felt somewhat comfortable with it in that I didn’t set out to prove others wrong as much as show some way I like to look at it parting from aspects I appreciate in it. And also I don’t feel that my statements about what I do not completely consider art are daring enough as to cause great discomfort or necessarily call for longer more detailed arguments that could be more complex than what I personally was willing or interested in elaborating (due to its “vomit inducing” lack of much value).

    About the science part, I pretty much think your interpretation about what I said goes on par with what I intended and it even clarifies it better. Later you say that you wonder why you are inclined to art over science when you seem to “take comfort in finalities and well-defined truth”. Maybe, and this is just an idea, that same comfort in well-defined truth is the reason that you are so in love with art and its power. You mentioned that science is content with the facts and data it can define within its boundaries. That’s finality alright but not well-defined truth as it does not cover its whole realm. You might be someone who does not conform with a few numbers defining a specific case scenario in a specific dimension of reality and who rather wants to see how all, or at least more, aspects of reality come into play in even a small specific component of reality. All this, even if you know that you’ll never, at least in this lifetime, grasp each and every one of the elements at play in that component in their complex and perfect entirety; that you might not even be aware of some or many of the elements that are actually in play apart from those you did at lease sense. You still however crave for a more complete view of it that science will not go into. Art won’t lay all this out for you in detail, but might at least communicate an aspect of it to some part in you that reacts to it, and recognizes it as truth beyond easy definition.

    Maybe the pleasure about making art comes from being able to communicate truths that you could hardly define on their entirety, but that through the vehicle that you yourself created become real to the beholder—not that the latter has minute, thorough grasp of that truth through that vehicle; but that it sensed it and somehow knows is there thanks to your shared cognitive and sensitive mechanisms and wealth of experience.

    This truth within art is like a little nugget the beholder can’t touch but can somehow embrace. It is not the truth itself in its full splendor; it is a fabricated nugget that contains a powerful reflection of it, which the beholder can now take along.

    People can indeed reinterpret data, have misconceptions of reality, believe these firmly; but that tinge of truth we might seek to create a reflection of through art and which we discover within ourselves—with all its limits and our own insufficiency to have a clear view of existence with it —remains there for our discovery. Often, as we discover it, it remains as only an urge to communicate. But being a truth, it connects us all in the realm of what is truth and so it can be communicated. Maybe those tinges we feel are false; though maybe they still touch upon a bigger reality that we just misinterpret when we try to link it to our immediate realities or other aspects we believe in to draw specific conclusions from it. Maybe also, could use those truer tinges to develop them into false or misguided theories about the universe. Bear in mind that even if art seeks to touch upon such pieces of knowledge, it can be used to communicate simple intellectual ideas that only play with such pieces (if these were found at all) but don´t reach valid or true propositions. If reality is one beyond what we decide to believe considering our human limitations, most of such propositions are expected to be false or at least inaccurate even if they part from little truths here and there, misinterpreted or not.

    But I still think people have found in art (and thus the fascination about it) a something that touches upon the unmovable, upon deeper realities (or that at the very least we perceive as such) that we relish for having been—just to a degree—unearthed by it, or unearthed again if they had been unearthed before through experience or through other internal or external means. This might sound like too metaphysical, but it is simple: see it as that single phrase in an otherwise nonsensical song that in its economy rings so true and which connects you to all who open their ear to it to the same effect. It rings true not necessarily for what your mind has explicitly defined as truth, but maybe for the truth that is sensed because you have unconsciously sensed reality through all your life.

    Anyway, I loved your comment and I thank you for posting it here as it is a good complement to my actual post even if it is by another writer. It added to it my contained frustration with the topic that I avoided to touch upon but which caused some conflict on even getting it posted and which of course was very relevant to the topic; while you articulately elaborated further with different views or at times made clearer some of the other aspects I talked about. It is for me a great addition to this contemplative post.

  3. Pingback: A New Post « ramblings from the zoo

  4. Pingback: Let the Vomit Roll! A Commentary About Art Part 2: Beauty « ramblings from the zoo

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