Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Essence Of Art

Katherine's recent discussion about what art is, inspired me to think of art as fulfilling a social emotional need. I don't think that art is anything some person chooses to call art, so I set about making a definition.

Trying to define art is a convoluted process and it seems that some sort of consensus was reached in the 20th century, that art could be anything. To me this is nonsensical, yet trying to pin down mechanical criteria to define art is impossible, or at best challenging and certainly inefficient because art operates on an emotional level and should behave like a person. Art should be anthropomorphic in essence. If art doesn't speak to you like a person then it is not art.

Humans are designed to communicate primarily with other humans, and each method of communication attempts to transmit the essence of one person to another. Words can move us like people move us, but they exist separate from the person. In that case the words are part of the person, born and preserved for all time (or for as long as the language exists). Different communication methods are differently efficient at expressing the humanity of the creator, but art is ultimately that essence that is born and transmitted from one person to another. The medium of that essence defines the art form.

People form social attachments to objects in the same way that they form social attachments to other people. Perhaps everyone has some objects they love to some extent, be it a car, phone, computer, television or a favourite cup, or pair of slippers. These things are surrogate humans in some way, and art enters this category.

If that is the case, can anything be art? Any label that can be applied to anything is meaningless, so on a logical level, the term art cannot be applied to all objects. But even on a social level, a relationship is not always possible and not the same as communication, and it is that special relationship that defines art. Without that relationship, communication is non-art.

If art is not everything then non-art must be real and tangible, and like art, non-art is different for each person. Generally art is accepted and vetted like our friends. For most people it should be "nice", and relate to us, be similar in outlook and level of understanding. Non-art is what we cannot relate to.

The art we like will reflect the people we like. People who like a wide range of people will like a wide range of art, and vice versa. We will like the artists who make the art we like, providing that that the artist is honestly translating a part of themselves in the art. If we dislike an artist but like his or her work, then the artist is a bad artist, because the art is a sub-standard imitation of humanity. An artist who makes non-art is also a bad artist.

The subject of critique is vital because if as some say anything can be art, then any artist can be as good as any other, no matter what they create. Not only that but any artwork is as good as any other, dependent only on perspective. If the belief in art as label is prevalent then the role of the critic as judge and guide is eliminated and changed into that of commentator or promoter, the crucial difference being that they would posess no greater knowledge or qualification about the or any artwork than anyone else.

So in summary, I'm postulating that art's primary function is to satisfy a human social need, whether that of the artist or the viewer/consumer/collector. Comments anyone?


Kathy said...

Mark, I agree that an important function of art is, as you put it, "to satisfy a human social need." As you point out, art communicates to others and in order for that to happen, art must exist within a society. However, I'll offer the opinion that without society, "art" would still exist. I think there's a primal instinct in each person to create and the act of creative expression would take place even if there wasn't an audience to communicate with. This is a tough topic and I like the way you develop logical thoughts about it!!

Mark Sheeky said...

Hi Kathy! Hmm a good point. My argument was that it was a social activity. I think you're right! That if one person was kidnapped by post French-revolutionary aliens and locked alone in a cell like the Count of Monte Cristo(!) that person would still want to "create" (especially if paints were provided!)... but I'd say that was still due to the social instinct to communicate, and that a species, however intelligent, that doesn't form social bonds (like reptiles!) wouldn't make art at all. If so; an artist needs something to say AND the desire to say it, even if its an instinctive desire as opposed to having an audience. I bet even the most lonely and anti-social of artists would rather have their work seen than not.

John Salmon said...

You've opened a can of worms here Mark. The trouble is, as a race we have adavanced to the point where we have a vocabulary which we use to try and explain everything and put everything into logical pigeonholes.

Go back to a time when we just grunted and gesticlated. There were no words to describe anything then yet we still had a form of art. We were forced to create to survive, be it for making tools to kill to eat, or to decorate our bodies with pigments to ward off enemies or even attract a mate. It was a social activity but it could also be antisocial. The art of creation and the creation of art are instincts we posessed until language came along and we talked ourselves out of doing it. (I think). Sorry getting lost in this one, time for bed.

Kathy said...

Mark - there are many other species that are social. For instance, the great apes and bees. However, they do not produce "art." The reason for this is brain capacity. Humans have an excessive amount of "gray matter" compared to other species, including the great apes. Therefore, we have sentience and with that, the ability to create. A good example of a solitary individual creating art without the desire to communicate with others is a woman named Sonabai. I blogged about her several times in the past. Fifteen years of solitary confinement without knowing if she'd ever again experience outside human contact led her to communicate with herself. Her entire motivation was to create her own world. I've painted many paintings that I'll never show to anyone because I was communicating only with myself and they are personal messages. These creations are "art".
I do think, however, that the role of society is to define what is art. I could live in complete solitude and create, but society would have to apply the label "art" to my creations. I think the term only works in the social context even if the creation itself can occur ouside of society.
My head aches :)

-Don said...

Hi Mark, I like to show my work. I love for people to like my work. I would create whether anyone saw it or not because I HAVE to. It's a sanity thing. I don't have any answers or definitions, just an innate desire.

Have you read the latest issue of Art News? There is a fascinating article titled, "Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder?" which involves neuroesthetics as a tool for measuring the responses of our brain to art. I'm still trying to get my brain wrapped around this and will reread this article a few more times, but I think it is relative to this ongoing discussion.

Now I MUST paint. My sanity depends on it... =)


Mark Sheeky said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. Keep them coming!

A good point Kathy about animals and creativity. The only creative animals I can think of are birds with their song, seemingly art to them. My idea suffers somewhat in that solitary birds like robins delight in their song, wheras social birds like crows don't. That said, perhaps to a crow their "crrraw" sounds like Mozart!!!

Kathy said...

Even bird songs are meant for species survival: mating calls, warning signals, territorial calls, etc. No entertainment there, except for us :)