The Arts and Literature
(Portions of this essay are badly in need of updating. For a more recent recap of my thinking on certain points, see the notes constituting the latter 2/3's of this c-Blog post. If that link's not working for any reason, please contact me at carolyn at c-cyte dot com.)
For purposes of these
essays, I may sometimes refer to “art” in general or the
“arts,” by which I generally mean to include not only
the visual arts but also literature, music, dance and all other art
we define art? Our answer should help us distinguish artworks not
only from other things we make or perform, but also from things or
phenomena that occur but were not made by anyone.
The Arts Are Forms of Knowledge. The best art gives
pleasure to those who understand it in whole or part; so, too, does
the best of science. I firmly believe that, also like science, the
arts contain important information. A great deal of what I know about
life, for example, I learned from Shakespeare.
The best way to be persuaded that the arts are forms of knowledge
is to read good analyses of good artistic and literary works, or better,
learn to do your own good analyses. Shakespeare’s plays are
highly susceptible to the method of analysis described below, which
is all but fool-proof; so are those of Homer, Plato, Virgil, Dante,
William Blake, Herman Melville, James Joyce, and William Faulkner,
A Method of Critical Analysis. If there's one message
about literary and art criticism I wish I could get to stick to the
wall, it's that a critic's PRIMARY goal should be to explicate, rather
than to judge. Everyone is perfectly happy to judge for themselves;
but neither the critic nor anyone else is in a position to judge a
work unless they understand it reasonably fully, and few of us enjoy
all the insight that critics should, ideally, help us attain.
how I get to explication. I select my Shakespeare play or
other work and try to read it without any preconceptions or theories
in mind. I just try to understand what’s being said and what’s
happening, and generally pay close attention. By the time I’m
done, I'll have noticed some image or idea that interests me and seems
to have recurred throughout the play--all Shakespeare’s plays
have many such images or ideas. I pick one such image or idea, and
still trying NOT to interpret or theorize about it yet, I read back
through the play; and this time, I write out by hand every line that
has anything to do with it. Writing the quotations down by hand not
only helps imprint them in my mind, but also helps make sure that
they are registered accurately--especially those aspects
that might at first seem meaningless or incongruent with what
I might consciously or even unconsciously have been expecting.
I usually end up with several pages of hand-written material that’s
begun bubbling in my brain. As I near the end of this task, various
meanings usually start popping out at me, and soon a coherent and
meaningful interpretation coalesces. If you’ve done it right,
you’ll be able to quote in your explication virtually every
line you wrote down, so that, simply by excerpting and rearranging
these quotations out of the wealth of information in which they were
embedded, the information that your excerpts contain about the particular
image or idea you chose becomes manifest.
I believe it's important to continue as long as possible to try not
to think about what the quotations mean, to not even to think
of possible associations to the images or ideas mentioned in the text.
Associations can be helpful, but they are usually at least somewhat
peculiar to the happenstances of one's own experience. I find it best
to let those associations that are actually present within the
text make themselves apparent first.
I don’t pretend this method is the only way to analyze a literary
text; it’s just my favorite initial approach, because it does
better than most others at giving the text a chance to tell me what
it knows before I’ve made up my mind what I think it knows.
This method has worked less well with some authors, but in my experience
it’s seemed that most of the greatest are usually conveying
information in a variety of ways, and so perhaps are likely also to
embed information in a manner susceptible to this method.
By using this method to analyze images of union or intercourse in
Plato’s Republic, I learned, among other things, the
importance of conversation with others in reaching truth, the fact
that appearances are always partial and multiplicitous, the responsibility
of those who arrive at any understanding of truth to try to apply
their understanding in the world and try to help others to understand,
and the conclusion, applicable in many contexts, that one cannot see
oneself without a mirror. By analyzing the issue of identity in Shakespeare's
Troilus and Cressida, I learned that that mirror must be
accurate in order to be helpful; that we should be wary of what flatterers
or others with ulterior motives may tell us; and that identity is
to some extent fluid and is partly shaped by the mirrors in which
it sees itself. By analyzing images of growth and nourishment in Macbeth,
I learned the importance of corroboration in interpreting those partial
and multiplicitous appearances, and that just as a king who alienates
his nobles and people does so at his peril, similarly, an individual
who tries to isolate himself from portions of his own feelings and
faculties is unlikely to remain viable. Etc., etc. You might suppose
I could have arrived at such conclusions without going to the trouble
of analyzing these texts. But I was only 18 - 22 years old and hadn’t
yet figured out much of anything about epistemology, the role of mirroring
in psychology, what’s required for good government, or many
other matters. And the texts in which I encountered these ideas comprised
imagery, language, and contexts so rich that I doubt my understanding
could have been made fuller and more meaningful even if I’d
reached the same conclusions via decades of life-experience.
What about other art forms such as visual arts, or texts that seem
less susceptible to the method of analysis described above? I believe
they, too, contain important information.
The key features of the method of analysis described above, which
I believe should be helpful with respect to any kind of artwork, are
(1) to try to pay close attention, to notice and firmly insert into
your brain various features of the object, while (2) trying not to
theorize or interpret prematurely.
Some people may say it’s impossible not to have some theory,
or at least some preconceptions or assumptions of which we’re
not fully aware. I agree, and I think that makes it all the more important
to try to set aside those theories of which we are aware;
and I think we must also keep in mind that we probably have some assumptions
we’re not aware of--indeed, I believe good art can help us to become more aware of our unconscious assumptions.
It is very important not to discount or disregard any aspects
of the work that initially seem meaningless, chaotic, paradoxical,
or unappealing. These are often important keys to the work
and the knowledge it contains (see The Well Wrought Urn by
We stand to gain the most if we are slow jump to conclusions, not
only about whether a work has succeeded in reaching its aims, but
also about what its aims are or should be. If we pass judgment too
quickly, or succumb sooner than necessary to the temptation to make
the artwork fit what we think we already know, we close portals through
which we ourselves might otherwise have emerged.
theory I like, originated by my good friend Pinky Diablo, holds that
one should "[o]nly look at the bottom 1/5 of any painting. It's
always the best." (http://www.oneandonlypinky.blogspot.com ;
added in 2006.)
As a corollary, it is also very important, in my view, to
give artists and their works the benefit of the doubt, not
only when a work seems unintelligible, but even when it does seem
completely intelligible on one level, for the work may have additional
meaning on other levels of which we are not yet aware. It seems clear,
for example, that throughout history, many artists have accomplished
more in their work than they were consciously aware of at the time
or ever able to explain. By giving artworks the benefit of the doubt,
we prompt ourselves to address issues of greater consequence.
Form Equals Content. We sometimes think of form as
if it were a vessel that carries meaning separate from itself and
that can be extracted. But I believe form and content are two aspects
of the same thing. Any given, particular work expresses particular
information, and no other, different work can express the same information
exactly and completely. Neither a poem nor an essay can properly embody
and communicate the exact same impact and meaning of the other. (When
I refer to the meaning, information, or data in a work, I include
not only the particular words, pixels, ideas, images, or the like
contained in the work, but also the total configuration of the work
and all other perceptible aspects that have any effect whatsoever
on a hearer or viewer, including sensual, visceral, emotional, and
other kinds of impact. See also the essay entitled, “What Do
We Mean by ‘Meaning’?”) As my favorite lit. prof.
in college used to say, “form equals content.”
No two words mean exactly the same thing; the smallest change in the
form of a sentence changes its meaning at least slightly; and the
same word used in different contexts means different things. (Moreover,
the same work can certainly convey different information to different
people, or to the same person in different contexts.)
Similarly, no two different media can express the same meaning; as
Marshall McLuhan put it, “the medium is the message.”
Reading a recipe for chocolate mousse has an entirely different impact
and meaning for us than actually eating the chocolate mousse. No thousand
words can have the same impact and meaning as a picture, nor can any
picture embody and communicate what can be said in a thousand words.
e.g., I don't believe explications of visual artworks that seek to
verbally unpack the work as a set of symbols, in "this symbolizes
that" terms, can ever be fully successful.
(We in developed countries are immersed in television, the internet,
and other visual media; and the creation, manipulation, and transmission
of images is becoming much easier and more available, thanks to home
computers, digital cameras, and the internet. Some people believe
visual imagery is replacing words as our primary means of communication.
Nonetheless, I believe that at some point, language will be revalued
and verbal literacy resuscitated. Among other things, I think movie-makers
will eventually concede that in movie scripts, less words is not always
more. Expression through visual imagery will always be incalculably
valuable and intriguing intriguing--a picture is worth a thousand
words when it comes to conveying visual information; and various other
forms of expression, such as mathematics or music, are uniquely suited
to express other, special kinds of information. But of all forms of
expression, language combines certain qualities to a unique degree.
Language is comprehensive, in that it can communicate about a wide
array of different kinds of subject-matter; it is (or can be) concise,
compacting large amounts of information into small amounts of time
and space, whether in delivery, receipt, or storage, as well as being
capable of expressing meaning on multiple levels simultaneously; it
is precise, in that not only can it express both physical facts and
abstractions with finely discriminated specificity, but it can communicate
virtually the same information reliably and consistently to diverse
recipients; and perhaps more than any other medium of communication,
it is intrinsically abstract. You simply cannot express in pictures,
music, or mathematics the philosophy of Immanuel Kant or the beauty,
emotion, and wisdom of Shakespeare’s plays.)
I think an enduring (but by no means the only) concern of visual art
is to express information about seeing, and that works in visual media
enable us to explore this subject, to expand or transform our ways
of seeing, to further educate our faculties and understanding of visual
perception and cognition, in ways impossible through other media.
Notwithstanding that certain messages may be better expressed through
certain media or forms, I believe that, because everything is connected
to everything else directly or indirectly, visual artworks also have
at least tenuous implications even in spheres not directly or overtly
addressed. So, for example, although I doubt visual art is the best
medium for detailed messages about governmental affairs, I nonetheless
believe all artworks have at least indirect political implications.
Distinguishing Art from Other Things. A friend of
mine recently sent me a review by Mark Kingwell complaining about
theories about art that ascribe meanings to it that can be analyzed
and to some degree explained, and expressing a desire for something
more like Heidegger's theory, described by Kingwell as being to the
effect that art's intrinsic nature is its purposelessness--that it
is not used FOR anything, it does not MEAN anything, it's just there
to "offer a moment of reflection on the fact that there is something
rather than nothing. . . . Uselessness is not [its] essence but is
an important aspect of its otherness, its ability as a slab of existence
to arrest our attention." (Harper's, August 2003, P.
80 et seq.)
Obviously, I can’t completely agree with this approach, since
I'm convinced that good art is as meaningful as anything can be. But
even if, for the sake of argument, I granted that art were purposeless
and meaningless and that those qualities distinguished it from other
disciplines, how then would we distinguish art from the tree on the
corner, an equally purposeless and meaningless slab of existence?
Kingwell's own description of the effects of art seems to acknowledge
that art communicates some kind of important meaning or information--he
mentions "the shock of recognition that art alone makes possible".
If an artwork has no meaning or purpose, what is it that one could
possibly "recognize," beyond merely perceiving a meaningless,
purposeless object or event? (Indeed, I question whether it's possible
to "recognize" anything at all, whether an artwork or a
tree, if it were truly meaningless to us.)
I believe rather that every act or expression that is intended as
art or that is viewed as art, is art (though it may or may
not be good art, however you want to define "good").
I believe all it takes to transform the tree on the corner into art
is for an artist or viewer to affirm an intention that it be regarded
as art; for by that simple act, the tree is conceptually “framed”
and is declared to have artistic purpose and meaning.
Nonetheless, I think Kingwell’s suggestion that art is purposeless
comes close to something very important about it.
If art is an expression of research and information, what distinguishes
it from other knowledge disciplines? What makes art different
from, say, history? And what distinguishes artworks from other kinds
of intentionally made objects or performances?
Distinguishing Art from Other Forms of Knowledge. We might
wonder whether the various disciplines or forms of knowledge could
be distinguished based in part on what media they employ; but that
only gets us so far, since many forms of knowledge employ more than
one medium, and many media are used by more than one form of knowledge.
For example, many art forms use verbal language--think poetry, opera,
Jenny Holzer, for starters--while many sciences use images--think
astronomy, biology; even mathematics uses imagery to express geometric,
algorithmic, and other information. It seems that art cannot
be distinguished based solely or even primarily upon what media are
What about what kind of information art expresses, or how
it expresses information?
I would propose that the key difference is that art employs
one or more non-literal strategies; like the witches in Macbeth,
art “lies like truth” (Act V, scene v).
Every kind of intentionally made object, text, or action that is not
art is intended to be used, to have an effect, or to communicate in
a literal, straightforward way. Whereas, eventually if not immediately,
everything that is art announces or reveals to us that it is more
than it seems, that it means more, or is more, than is apparent at
A chair is to be used as a chair, not scrutinized for hidden meanings.
A history text struggles, one hopes, to communicate facts in a clear,
literal manner. The performance of any non-art function or service--say,
constructing a building, or legal services--may have various purposes;
but the providers of the service seek no more than to build a building
or keep us out of jail; the relationship between what they do and
the result they aim for is literal and straightforward.
If we study a chair at length, we will notice a great deal more about
it than we did at first. We might even discover that the chair has
duplicitous purposes--electrocution, for example. But unless the chair
is an artwork, we will not discover that the chair is intended
to express meanings beyond itself. When it does--e.g., a throne designed
so as to convey to viewers the might of the sovereign seated there--I
would suggest that, to that extent, the chair is in fact an artwork.
(On the other hand, I'd suggest that, to the extent a purported artwork
utilizes more literal strategies, communicating in, for example, a
more expository or polemical manner, the work to that extent is less
an artwork and more a documentary, essay, or something else.)
I believe this distinction applies as well to artworks that at first
glance seem to strive not to mean anything, not to refer to anything
beyond themselves, but merely to be--perhaps certain minimalist works.
If we first encounter a metal box as a non-art object, we might find
it beautiful or that it stimulates various reactions or ideas, but
our main questions probably have to do with what purpose it was made
for. But if we know it’s intended as an art object,
we understand that its main purpose is not utilitarian but that it
was intended to put something across to us beyond the fact of its
own existence and what it might be used for, that it was intended
to communicate something to us in some way, even if only by affording
us the experience of the artwork itself.
The analysis is a bit more complicated when it comes to media such
as writing, since non-art writing always aims to express something.
But again, non-art writing is intended to be read literally, not to
be searched for deeper or multiple meanings, while art writing is
intended to express something beyond the literal, denotative meaning
of its sentences (and may employ a variety of strategies in doing
The decorative arts might seem not to fit my theory that non-literal
strategies distinguish art from other forms of expression. But I believe
that many instances of decorative art do in fact constitute fine art,
but that they do so because they deploy non-literal strategies.
In fact, I believe that art uses non-literal strategies to create
actual or conceptual objects that tend to be relatively purposeless,
at least in the sense that their primary purposes are simply to be
art objects and to express information in non-literal ways.
You may object that my definition of art--that it employs non-literal
strategies, which are to some degree conjured by the mere act of affirming
something to be art--is tautological. I can only suggest that this
same problem ultimately afflicts definitions of all kinds; see the
essay on this site entitled, "What Do We Mean by 'Meaning'"?
I do not believe that there is any ultimate reference system either
of meanings or things; there are only circles or relationships drawn
to suit our current purposes.
Of course, the lines between art and non-art aren’t
really very clear-cut. We commonly recognize that there are
aspects of many disciplines that, while perhaps primarily literal
in their aims, nonetheless involve a degree of art. Good teaching,
e.g., might involve the use of non-literal strategies.
As suggested in the essay on this website entitled, Cells
and Systems, how we define entities or categories is in fact always
somewhat arbitrary, insofar as there is nothing inherent in things
themselves that requires us to define them as we do. Our definitions
rather or at least more importantly reflect our purposes--how is it
USEFUL to conceptualize and define something in order to serve our
purposes? E.g., is it useful to have a word for each of 49 different
kinds of snow, or is one word for one kind sufficient?
Trying to define "art" is no different. The quest to identify
some intrinsic quality or attribute of a work of art that distinguishes
it from a toilet brush is futile. For any community or individual--that
is, any system--desiring to use the term, “art,” art is
simply whatever that system wants to define it to be. We can certainly
argue among ourselves about how we want to define art, which should
probably turn on how it would be USEFUL to define it (specifically,
for purposes of the survival and growth of the systems we are or are
part of). And as systems compete, their definitions also compete,
and those definitions that somehow help the systems that use them
survive and grow will over time probably prevail over those that don't.
But it is ridiculous for any system to claim that any particular definition
is intrinsically, absolutely right or wrong. As art has progressed
through the centuries, this has become increasingly clear; it appears
at this point that art systems that have defined art less and less
in terms of particular attributes or even particular functions and
more and more in terms of whether something is intended or used as
a work of art have survived and grown well enough to come to dominate,
at least among the perceived contemporary art elites.
The next question is, what distinguishes a literal from a
non-literal strategy? Utilitarian objects are rarely “purely”
literal, but almost invariably involve aesthetic or other considerations
to some degree. And as for texts, the very medium of language seems
inherently connotative--without even getting into the myriad other
respects in which writing even “literal” texts such as
history constitute story-telling and often even involves conscious
or semi-conscious persuasive goals.
The answer is that even this criterion--literal vs. non-literal--can
only be relative. It posits two extremes, quite possibly neither of
which exist in pure form; but it nonetheless provides a hypothetical
continuum on which various instances of expression can (at last for
the sake of argument) be placed in relation to one another.
More could certainly be written on the difference between literal
and non-literal; but I leave that for another day.
"Progress" in Art. I believe that the arts, like other knowledge
disciplines, develop and progress in ways similar to those in which
other knowledge disciplines do. By this, I do not necessarily mean
that newer art is “better” than older art. Many theories
of Euclid, Newton and hordes of others remain as useful and important
today as they were when first formulated, although scientists’
understandings about those theories may have become broader or deeper.
Similarly, the information and visual education afforded by art from
the past is as important today as it ever was. Impressionistic painting
provides an education that's probably indispensable for anyone wishing
to become visually cultured. But also similarly, subsequent creations
have made it possible for us to have an understanding of both old
and new art that is arguably broader and deeper, with respect both
to particular old and new works and with respect to the matters addressed
by art in general and the strategies it uses.
Progress in any discipline can be seen as being of two kinds. One
kind seems to occur in the form of “breakthroughs” in
technique or theory. This kind of progress does not occur smoothly,
but appears to lurch forward from time to time in a relatively abrupt
way, à la Thomas Kuhn (see his The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions). In the arts, such apparent jumps in progress usually
seem to involve not just incremental qualitative or quantitative improvements
or advances but rather some more-or-less radical shift in artists’
concerns and purposes.
The other kind of progress occurs during the periods following such
breakthroughs, in which many artists work to explore the potentialities
and eventually the limits of the new concerns. Arguably, however,
progress is smoother than it looks, since it is these interim periods
of exploration that prepare the way for the next breakthrough.
And as in other disciplines, roughly speaking, there is theory and
practice, each directly or indirectly informing the other. The theory,
even about works long completed, is never complete and final but is
always subject to improvement and expansion.
The general public’s perception and thinking are in turn educated
by artists’ advances but usually lag behind, although it appears
to me that the gap may be closing as our lives have accelerated and
we continue to become more interconnected.
I doubt there’s much consensus as to how best to define the
various stages in the progress of visual art; and I expect that even
partial consensus is usually possible only in far hindsight. But it
seems to me one can trace a meandering line through stages of increasing
insight and sophistication. For example, some such general stages,
very roughly described and in very roughly chronological order, might
include: an early focus on narrative and decoration; progressing to
a concern to convey an abstract moral or other lesson; on to the discovery
of perspective and a concern to portray what the objective eye actually
sees as opposed to what the mind knows; to a concern to show how light
operates and how we interpret its effects; to an interest in the unconscious
and its syntax; to an interest in the “nuclear physics”
or deconstruction of appearances, juxtaposing multiple viewpoints
in space and time; to an interest in subjectivity and more abstract
expressions of emotion; to an interest in works made with the intent
that the knowledge of the materials the work is made of should be
as or more important than the sensory experience of the work; to an
interest in the artwork as an object in itself that does not appear
to point to anything else, exploring the extent to which meaning can
be derived internally within the work; to an interest in the substitution
of simulacra for the “real”; to an interest in combining
any or all of the foregoing strategies, juxtaposing incongruent styles
or worldviews as if using them as units in a new aesthetic language;
may or may not look like progress to you; but to me, there seems at
least to be a general trend toward increasing insight, self-awareness,
and conscious deployment of techniques and strategies to convey more
complex information. The progress seems to me generally to proceed
in a manner involving a pendulum or spiral effect; it's affected by
alternating attractions toward the objective vs. the subjective and
perhaps other poles (probably definable in any number of ways, but
one thinks of Carl Jung's polarities: thinking (intellectual) vs.
feeling (emotional), sensation (physical) physical vs. intuitive,
and extroverted vs. introverted).
Successive generations of artists continue to be involved with many
of the same concerns as their predecessors, of course, and many of
the best new artists explicitly build on or react against older works,
using them in ways compatible with their new interests and while adding
their own, new perspective. (Most great western authors have built
on Homer or his literary progeny.)
(Certain subjects that seem to me to be "hot" recently,
probably because society needs to be thinking about them in a new
or more focussed way: issues relating to the ownership and control
of information and other intangible “property”; the question
of what kinds of life are worth protecting and at what cost--e.g.,
how “human” are animals, what are the implications of
genetic engineering and cloning; concerns about death and what it
means to be alive--e.g., when is a fetus “ensouled,” when
should life-support plugs be pulled; issues relating to gender differentiation;
issues relating to time and how we experience and use it--duration,
instantaneity, periodicity, repetition, velocity, acceleration; relationships
in space, including matters of very, very large and very, very small
scale, and multiplicities of objects (akin to repetitions in time);
and the potentials inherent in networks, interactivity, and group
My belief in progress in the arts is consistent with my view that
part of artists’ function within society is to help push our
collective envelope. The arts are an expression of research as well
as information. Artists look at what we’re experiencing, what’s
going on in any and all areas, including everything from media to
politics to biology to physics, and they respond by attempting to
articulate and integrate it. Sometimes artists are fully conscious
of and announce exactly what they’re doing and why, but not
always. Indeed, the full meaning of much of the best work is rarely
fully recognized until much later.
It’s not entirely clear to me whether significant progress in
all areas of the arts can or will continue indefinitely. Of course,
as long as new media and technologies are developed, there will always
be innovation in the exploitation of such developments for artistic
purposes. Moreover, new art will always be made in response to changing
circumstances and events within our lives and world. But it seems
possible for at least some kinds of progress in a discipline to more
or less come to an end. For example, as important as I believe philosophy
to be (and I could easily believe we’d all be better off if
everyone were required to study it), it seems to me that much of the
most important progress in philosophy was completed a while ago. (For
one thing, many of its original subjects have split off to become
disciplines in their own right--physics, political science, and psychology,
for example.) Similarly, it seems possible to me that sooner or later,
we could reach a point where enough talented people have been making
art in certain media for enough centuries that we might have pretty
fully mined many of the major concerns and strategies within the compass
of those media.
on to the next topic, let me just say that while I do think a legitimate
purpose of criticism is to explicate and, hopefully later rather than
sooner, to judge, I believe that a critic’s judgments should
be based on a coherent theory or set of principles that can be applied
in a more or less consistent way to different bodies of work and that
the critic is conscious of and able to discuss (and modify, since
as far as I know, no one’s yet come up with the final, infallible
theory--i.e., our theories must remain works in progress).
So, What Makes Art “Good” or “Bad”?
First, see generally the essay on this website entitled Good
and Bad. Next, I’d like to mention that large portions of
these essays are offered more as explorations or thought experiments
than as firm opinion.
That said, if it’s true that art is an expression of research
and information, then it would seem that the best art would be that
which embodies and communicates the best questions and/or
the most knowledge or meaning--the greatest quantity and
quality of imaginative, emotional, cognitive, and intellectual information.
Generally, it would seem that works that are larger in size or scope
would have more potential to embody and communicate more information.
I do not believe, for example, that what is expressed in Beethoven's
9th Symphony could possibly be expressed in a much shorter work. At
the same time, mere size is obviously no guarantee of quality.
Regarding what knowledge is, see the essay on this website entitled,
“What Can We Know?”, proposing that even complete relativists
can reach provisional consensuses about the truth.
Regarding what meaning is, in the essay entitled, "What Do We
Mean by 'Meaning'?", I propose that meaning resides in relatedness.
I also mention that information theory as I understand it holds that information consists in those symbols or data that could or
would not be predicted by the recipient; that this
uncertainty is the essence of information; that the amount of uncertainty
expressed determines the amount of bits per symbol required to encode
the information; that the complexity of the code chosen is determined
by the number of possible symbols needed to transmit the information.
If these principles are applicable to artistic works, they would seem
to suggest, among other things, that works that contain or imply more
relationships, whether internal or external to the work, that are
more complex, and that to some extent dodge our expectations, contain
more information for us, while works that are simple and predictable
contain less. Of course, in trying to apply these or any other criteria
to a work, all aspects of the work must be considered.
In this connection, I’d suggest that even the most minimalist
work can communicate a great deal of information by virtue of what
it excludes or by the samenesses that it includes; indeed,
every work expresses something by virtue of what it excludes as well
as what it includes. However, an artist has less direct control with
respect to excluded content, since that will be different for each
person and depend on what that person happens to know or believe about
what’s excluded. And if information theory is correct, it would
seem that samenesses would be informative only to the extent that
they are unpredictable.
Art should not be pointlessly mystifying. On the other hand, as to
any percipient, to the extent an art object no longer bewilders, to
the extent it is familiarly meaningful and predictable, it is no longer
art; it is mere history, a record of a process completed and dead.
The purpose of art is, in William Blake's words, to "cleanse"
"the doors of perception":
the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to
man as it
is: Infinite. This I shall do by printing in the infernal method by
which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent
away, and displaying the infinite which was hid . . . . "
Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
As mentioned in the essay entitled, “What Can We Know?”,
I believe the “truth” or value of what is conveyed by
an artwork may also be judged partly on whether it helps us to cope
better with ourselves and our world. Good art, like any other
form of knowledge, gives rise to power.
An artwork might also be considered “good” if it (directly or indirectly) communicates
its information to the most people; that is, if the work
through one strategy or another engages many people sufficiently in
order for them to absorb more of its meaning. E.g., the work might
deploy “eye candy” or more complex kinds of allure, humor,
horror, transgression, or other strategies. I would suggest that to
fulfill this criterion, the artwork need not reach a lot
of people immediately. There’s been a lot of great art through
the ages for which the initial fanship was small but that, because
of the quality of the art, endured to capture us all.
of course, might be the extent to which the artwork relies on literal
vs. non-literal strategies. In accordance with the ideas set out above,
a work that relies more on literal vs. non-literal strategies might
be very valuable but might be less artwork than something else--essay,
What is Beauty? John Keats wrote, “‘[b]eauty
is truth, truth beauty’” (Ode on a Grecian
Urn; see http://www.bartleby.com/126/41.html ). When I asked
my boyfriend, Ben Britt, what he thinks beauty is, he said, “[i]t’s
beauty if it gives me an erection.” I believe these
two views are both correct.
1: "Accident of Matter." Love at first sight. She happens
to resemble his mother. His love leads him to adore all else about
her, every other accident of flesh or habit, at least temporarily.
And through loving those accidental, incidental things, he's brought
irretrievably out of what he thought was himself (though he may or
may not remain in love with her).
"Accident of Mind." Love by default. Mentally, he happens
to resemble a combination of not necessarily the best of her mother
and her father. Her love leads her to subordinate herself, until she
can bear it no longer, and is brought irretrievably out of what he
thought was herself. Her old love is partly destroyed, and the loss
is painful; but she finds consolation in new ones.
Perhaps beauty is what inspires our desire or longing, that
lures or deceives us into divagating from our habitual rounds and
toward the face of new truth--whatever we need to help us
find the courage to continue to grow in the face of the challenges
life presents. Or whatever, after we've been damaged, lures us back
This fits with my belief that one function of art is to push our envelopes
and to induce us to engage imaginatively, intellectually, and emotionally
with aspects of the world and of ourselves that are frightening, painful,
or that we otherwise might ignore. (For if we continue to ignore them,
we disregard information necessary in order to fully understand and
cope effectively with the world and ourselves, perhaps even necessary
for our very survival--necessary, certainly, for our survival as vital,
I have in mind Wallace Stevens’ wonderful poem, “The Man
on the Dump” (from The Necessary Angel; I don’t
have permission to reproduce the whole poem here, but I hope you will
read it, and as of this writing, it’s easily found on the internet).
His line, “The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green/
Smacks like fresh water in a can”--“smack” is wonderful
not just because it invokes the slap of water against a tin side,
but also because it relates to the German “schmacken,”
meaning to taste or savor. The dew in the green thus both slaps the
eye awake and is relished by it. Stevens continues, “how many
men have copied dew/ For buttons . . . .” After beauty in nature,
comes beauty made by humans.
Of course, as Stevens’ poem goes on to suggest, no sooner do
we perceive or make anything, than we begin to become habituated to
it; we ingest, digest, and excrete it, emptied of much of its power
to nourish us or help us connect with something outside ourselves.
In a continual process, each articulation in turn becomes a cliché,
ready for the dump.
That’s when we can realize that, beyond any particular objects
of beauty we might perceive or create, it is our own capacity to perceive
and create beauty that is perhaps the greatest consolation (and that
perhaps also remains our most fascinating and mysterious subject):
sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
and beats for that which one believes.
one wants to get near. Could it after all
oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow's
* * * * *
was it one first heard of the truth? The the.”
Stevens' poem itself demonstrates that, miraculous creatures that
we are, we can even create beauty out of the dump. We do so using
words and symbols whose meanings mutate to serve our purposes. Whatever
truth or beauty we manage to perceive or create, each articulation
in turn becomes stale; our pursuit is perpetual.
Keats' description of the figures portrayed on his urn is to similar
Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
near the goal yet, do not grieve;
fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
wilt thou love, and she be fair!
* * * * *
happy love! more happy, happy love!
warm and still to be enjoy'd,
panting, and for ever young . . . "
The pursuit on Keats' urn is perpetual because the lover, the urn,
and Keats' poem are in a variety of stasis. Our pursuit is perpetual
because we perpetually long for fresh varieties of beauty, and must
find fresh means to express it.
are all artists (witting or unwitting), constantly transforming
the raw materials of our world and experience in ways that enable
us to transcend at least from time to time the limitations of our
old ways of seeing and thinking. Our art and wisdom are expressed
in words and symbols whose meanings shift and empty like sand, yet
notwithstanding the losses and mortifications of entropy (see the
essay on this website entitled, "The Meaning of Life"),
we somehow manage to gain insight, to communicate, and build beautiful,
helpful things that sometimes endure longer than we do.
Art as Existential
Agent. The effects of art might be considered to be, among
other things, existential. Because we live in a world in which entropy
is a major if not the predominant force, sooner or later, we all experience
loss and pain. (It may even be the experience of pain, of the frustration
of our desires, that confronts us with the fact of our own limitations
and helps usher us into self-awareness.)
Art can make us more aware of others’ pain, or help us to bear
our own. When we suffer, one kind of consolation that’s almost
always available is the pleasure derived from beauty. And beauty consoles
most effectively when it expresses truth about our situation.
[Note added on April 24, 2005, shortly after the death of my good
friend, Scott Barber: As Scott put it in his artist's statement (quoted
from the website of his gallery in Dallas, Barry Whistler): "Although
my work during the past few years has been focused on cancer, I feel
that I have infused my sources with a context that relates to a more
poignant human need. My desire is to create paintings that explore
the world without fear and recognize beauty within the tumultuous
sometimes-uncertain quality of life. If beauty is a pattern that can
reassure and provoke honesty and trust then this is the goal of my
We are reminded
by art that we and those we love are in many respects irremediably
vulnerable and flawed, in some ways helpless. We are reminded that
we must nonetheless try to take responsibility, not only for ourselves
and the shapes of our own lives, but also for the ways in which we
shape and create our world. We are reminded of how important it is
to consciously think about our priorities and about how we spend our
most precious resource--our time while on this planet.
No Rules. Apart from, or rather, in addition to everything
else I’ve said so far, I’d just like to say that I think it’s nearly always a mistake to try to impose rigid
rules or strictures about what art should be, what it should
look or sound like, what it should include or exclude, etc., whether
such strictures are imposed by governments, critics, or anyone else
including artists themselves. Sooner or later, all such rules are
Recognizing the Importance of Art. Some people seem
to regard art as a “frill” that we can live without. But
I believe art is essential to our health and even survival as a society.
As much as any science, art is a form of knowledge; as much as any
religion, art is a source of solace and redemption. Scientists have
shown that individuals prevented from dreaming suffer hallucinations
and impaired memory (see, e.g., “Research Links Sleep, Dreams,
and Learning,” W. Cromie, Harvard Gazette Archives, http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/1996/02.08/ResearchLinksSl.html ). Man cannot live by reason alone; we also need our dreams, our creative,
irrational, even subversive capabilities to help us continually find
or invent new ways to cope in a changing world.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates compared the Greek city-state
to an individual mind. With the growth of the internet, the analogy
has become truer than Plato could have imagined. Like cells in a giant
brain, individuals can now find one another and instantly communicate
about any subject of mutual interest. Art, perhaps especially video
and film, are like society’s collective “dreams.”
This dreaming, too, is being shared on the internet as well as through
There are two important kinds of support for the arts. One is support
to preserve and exhibit past works and traditional forms of art. Getting
people to provide this kind of support is usually at least a little
easier than other kinds of fund raising for the arts, because the
artworks have already been time-tested (although the process of rediscovering
and re-evaluating past works never really stops). But equally important
is support for emerging, avant garde works and forms of expression.
Getting people to provide this kind of support is more difficult,
because reaching agreement as to which new work deserves support is
not so easy.
It is a truism that great artists are often not recognized in their
own time. Marketplace forces work well to identify and propagate useful
scientific inventions; they have often failed, however, to recognize
important artistic innovations. Few of Van Gogh’s paintings
sold during his lifetime; if he’d been sane, he’d probably
have given up. In every generation, how many brilliant artists do
we lose because of a lack of recognition and support? How many invaluable
works are never made?
Some people may think we could get along just fine without the “radical
fringe” or avant garde. But I believe that in order to remain
vital, the mainstream needs what can be seen only from the outside
edges of more “normal” points of view, much as on a biological
level, evolution cannot occur without extremes and even mutations
in the gene pool.
Given these considerations, I believe we owe it to ourselves
and our children not only to support new work but to support a broad
array of new work--even if some of it is controversial, seems bewildering
or perverse, or is simply not to our taste--in order to assure that
our culture and society are continually re-charged and remain rich
(Proceed to next Essay, What Can We Know?, or . . .