". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, July 16, 2012

In Search of Art, or "What the Heck is He Trying to Say, Anyway?"

Last year for literature, Caitlin and I started using this text:

Between our relaxed homeschool pace and several detours into other reading adventures, progress has been slow. We are just now starting the second section of the book, the one on "Beauty." It, like the other main three main sections of the book, begins with several excerpts from philosophical writings related to the section's dominant theme. For the "Beauty" section the excerpted writers are Leo Tolstoy, George Santayana, and John Dewey. The question at hand is, "What is art?" and, by extension, "What is beauty?" (assuming that man's pursuit of art goes hand-in-hand with his appreciation for that which is beautiful). I found this material to be quite challenging reading and decided to write a blog post as a means of helping me to process and summarize it. And you, my lucky readers, get to come along for the ride!

The excerpt by Tolstoy was by far the easiest to comprehend. It was taken from a long essay entitled, amazingly enough, "What is Art?" (The essay is available for purchase in book form.) For Tolstoy, art equals communication. The artist (who in Tolstoy's world is not an uppity guy in a beret but anyone with a story to tell) has something to share; when he successfully does so, that is art. In Tolstoy's words, "Art begins when one person with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling expresses that feeling by certain external indications." He elaborates by saying what art is not. It is not "the manifestation of some mysterious Idea of beauty or God" or the release of "stored up energy" or the mere "production of pleasing objects"; it is, more than anything, the act of one who has experienced something using some medium to "infect" another person with that same experience; according to Tolstoy, "the stronger the infection, the better is the art." And since art is primarily about communication, it should only be concerned with communicating that which is worthwhile; according to Tolstoy, a Christian, the ancient Greeks are not worth studying since in their art they don't uphold Christian values. That which is most worthy of artistic communication is that to which the common man can relate and that in which he can find spiritual nourishment.

I found Santayana extremely difficult to follow, so if you're a Santayana geek, please feel free to correct me. Santayana was a materialist, so his emphasis is on the physicality of art. He does not think that humans have the capacity to go beyond the physical. (See his poem "On the Death of a Metaphysician.") He defines beauty as "pleasure objectified." There is a utilitarian element to his view of art as something that makes the rest of life bearable: "The appreciation of beauty and its embodiment in the arts are activities which belong to our holiday life, when we are redeemed for the moment from the shadow of evil and the slavery to fear, and are following the bent of our nature where it chooses to lead us." Because art is based in physical experience and every person with his individual identity and unique history experiences the world a little differently from every other person, art is therefore subjective. One person's experience of a work of art will be different from another's because of what each individual brings to the work. I think, then, that Santayana would disagree with Tolstoy's view of art being primarily about accurately communicating the artist's perception of something. He would see that as an impossible goal.

The last philosopher excerpted in our reading was John Dewey. It is a name I have come to highly distrust due to its association with lots of things that scare me--for example, progressive education, radicalism, pragmatism, and the importance of "socializing" the individual. But I appreciated a lot of what Dewey had to say about art. Here's a summary:

Art is first and foremost an experience. All of life is experience, but art is "AN experience" with a meaning that goes beyond the immediate.
Any subject matter is fair game for art. "The interest of the artist is the only limitation . . . . " (This specifically refutes both those that would say the proper subject matter of art is only that which lifts us above the common as well as those who, like Tolstoy, say art should only be concerned with the "everyday" to which we can personally relate.
The one "all-important characteristic of art" is the "artistic sincerity of the individual artist."
The experience of a work of art is more than the sum of its parts: "About every explicit and focal object there is a recession into the implicit which is not intellectually grasped. . . . A work of art elicits and accentuates this quality of being a whole and of belonging to the large, all-inclusive whole which is the universe in which we life."

I like Dewey's argument that art takes us beyond ourselves and connects us to something bigger. What scares me about Dewey, though, is that the "bigger" is not what it is for me--a sense of wonder and of the True and the Good that ultimately comes from the Creator--but rather, the "bigger" is the Borgian social fabric that sees the individual, with all his desire for personal sovereignty and fulfillment, as a hindrance.

I would be interested to hear from any of my philosophically astute readers whether I am correctly understanding the three writers above. I would also be interested to hear my readers' definitions of art. What is it, and how do you know when you've been in contact with it?


Anonymous said...

Such an interesting post, Cheryl. I found this book to be really helpful in discussing art with my student: the link won't work:-(
_Saving Leonardo_ by Nancy Pearcey.

Beth Speers

Rebekah said...

(By the time I think of what I want to say about this and how I would say it, the post will be long gone. But I really enjoyed reading it.)

Leah said...

Since I am not philosophically astute I will simply comment, "Thank you."

(And I suppose I'll venture to say that I think I like Tolstoy's approach best.)

Cheryl said...

Beth, thanks for the recommendation!

Rebekah, in case you hadn't noticed, the post is still here, top of the page. Just sayin'.

And Leah, from one philosophically challenged girl to another, you are very welcome!