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 forms.

How should 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, among others.

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.

Here's 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 Cleanth Brooks).

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.

However, another 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." ( ; 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.

Accordingly, 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 used.

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 first glance.

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 so).

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; etc.

The foregoing 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 decision-making.)

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.

Before moving 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":

"If 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
corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent
surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid . . . . "

(from The 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.

Another criterion, 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, history, whatever.

What is Beauty? John Keats wrote, “‘[b]eauty is truth, truth beauty’” (Ode on a Grecian Urn; see ). 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.

Script 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).

Script 2: "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 toward life.

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, authentic beings.)

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):

“One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That's what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow's voice?

* * * * *

“Where 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 effect:

"Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

* * * * *

"More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever 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.

We 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 work."]

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 broken.

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, ). 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 other venues.

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 and vital.

(Proceed to next Essay, What Can We Know?, or . . .