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April 29, 2006

ars gratia artis

by gl. at 10:51 pm

i was driving to water aerobics while opb's "philosophy talk" was on -- and the topic was "what is art?"! the guest was a princeton professor. i only caught 15-20 minutes of it and it was hard to scribble notes and drive at the same time, so this is likely to be disjointed. some of this is what they said, and some of this is me extrapolating from what they said; it's not meant to have permanent conclusions, but i like thinking about it.

their definition of art is from the mac's built-in dictionary (ha!): "the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." this lead to a predictable tangent about the role beauty plays in art, but i find it interesting they left emotional power alone as a given. overall it seems like a reasonably useful definition to me, something i could say without cringing, though "producing works to be appreciated" is often a giant block for people. better to define it as an act of creative self-expression so that appreciative response is not a requirement to produce.

they also mentioned plato's definition of art, but i must have missed them talking about it. apparently he had a poor opinion of art & artists, and wikipedia agrees: "For Plato, art is a pursuit whose adherents are not to be trusted; given that their productions imitate the sensory world (itself an imitation of the divine world of forms) art necessarily is an imitation of an imitation, and thus is hopelessly far from the source of the truth. Plato, it may be noted, barred artists from access to his ideal city, in his Republic." he criticizes artists for having no actual, truthful knowledge of the things they create, which in many ways is the point for me: you don't have to know astronomy to be so moved by the stars that you create art because of them, and your interpretation of your experience contributes uniquely to the world. (related: knowing the science of something doesn't make it less poetic.)

this is actually where i came in: for many people, art is surface. "people think, 'oh, i could do that,' and no, you couldn't. if you could, why wouldn't you?" you can't see the way that artists sees. when people say that, they mean they don't see the craft in it, the work in it, the story about it. and we don't encourage it, either: modernism is all about creating art in a self-referential vaccuum. i'm leaning towards declaring that any art worth experiencing is art with a story, a history. these are the things that inspire further exploration and engagement: everything else is simply aesthetics. but entertainment & enjoyment are legitimate uses for art (even the princeton guy said so); and i sometimes get a little misty when just looking at a calligraphic line or the beautifully turned ankle of a serif A. i don't need the stories to be moved by the shapes.

later they talked about art audiences: making art for the "beginning viewer." their premise is that the consumption of art, like any medium, requires work. for instance, the more you read murder mysteries, the more sophisticated you become (but beginning readers need appropriately challenging & rewarding stories to progress to higher levels of sophistication). this concept may explain why i get misty about simple letterforms, because i am no longer a beginner viewer and i have done years of typesetting. so if you have to learn what you're looking at to appreciate it, where do you begin? "museums don't help." (i would have liked to have heard more about this; i would have liked to have heard ideas about how museums could help). Artists-with-a-capital-A have moved from making art for the beginning viewer and make art for other Artists-with-a-capital-A (or possibly Critics-with-a-capital-C) instead; when artists stop making art for the beginning viewer, it's no wonder art is unsupported and devalued. it's part of the reason why i want people to make art for themselves, to give themselves a richer visual vocabulary, a generous heart and kinder eyes towards art of all types. art appreciation via art production.

earlier this month i ran across something dave eggers (from mcsweeny's) wrote that's pertinent here: "What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand... What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes... And if anyone wants to hurt me for that, or dismiss me for that, for saying yes, I say Oh do it, do it you motherfuckers, finally, finally, finally."

okay. discuss. :)

posted by gl. | April 29, 2006 10:51 PM | categories: miscellany