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  • Dion Wright

Philosophy: Art, Is It?

It's a quaint mystery of modern life why Americans go to so many Art fairs. They not only go to them; they buy enough stuff to keep lots of fabricators, some of whom may be artists, in business.

What do Americans expect to get out of an Art festival? Are they having a cultural experience? When they are at the Art festival, do they see any real Art? Are they even able to see any, if it is there? What kind of value do they receive, especially when they make bold to purchase something there? I wonder...hopefully the customer at least gets an uplifting experience and not just a fleecing.

How can a person know whether a piece of Art has any real value? There's no doubt for instance, that a gold mask from the Inca Empire has value.

Any object that is made out of gold has intrinsic value. Beyond that, an historical relict of a vanished culture has another kind of value, which is agreed upon in the marketplace, and informed by scholarship. Even if the Inca Mask were made of wood, a potential buyer for it could be sure that it has an established market value. If a piece of Art demands its price on the basis of the presumed talent, or the reputation or the political correctness of the artist, these are incidental values. When one buys an Art work based on these qualities, one is making an individual judgement on the basis of one's own experience, or perhaps on the basis of one's susceptability to trends of the day or to the expertise of the seller. You may be bringing more value to the Art out of what it means to you than it actually has within itself. Therefore it is good sense to know what you are looking at, and why you want it, before you lay down your hard cash.

These days more and more people know less and less about more and more, while less and less people know more and more about more and more. Everybody knows more or less about something. Knowing what one may know out of random experience in the modern world is not always enough to provide a person with good judgement about some object of Art which that person may be induced to buy. If a person goes to a place where Art is rumored to exist, like an Art Festival for instance, one may not be able to tell which of the things one sees is the best Art, or an approximation of any kind of real Art, or even if it is Art at all - despite its pretending to be Art. People have become dependent on the advice of third parties to assure them of the value of such Art as they may be tempted to purchase. This takes a lot of the judgement out of the hands of the person who is going to live with the Art, and puts it in the hands of someone who is going to profit in some way, but who is never going to have to look at that Art again, and who may really think that the Art is repulsive and ugly, but still try to get the person to buy it, through the exploitation of that potential client's unformed and incomplete knowledge. Therefore, support Art programs in your public schools, since more education will result in less ugly and phony Art.

Selling Art is an activity of persuasion and influence beyond what is used in any other exchange of goods. There are two major currents in the modern-day Art world which make up 95% of the objects bought and sold, and neither of them have anything to do with true Art, except use of the name. The first current is the general public perception that Art is meant to decorate or to entertain. It is possible for real Art to do either or both of these things, but those functions are not what makes it Art. Many things which do not claim to be Art fulfill the functions of decoration and entertainment. The other major current in the modern-day Art world is academic sophistry. This is intellectual construction which determines the validity of Art by it's political correctness within the hot-house environment of the Taste-makers; people like museum curators, upscale gallery managers, university professors, and media-hype engineers, who profit by playing to the grant administrators, and to the cupidity of the consumers of the styles and fashions of the passing moment. This has led many artists to many a blind alley from which there has been no escape, and no possibility of further development by the individual artist caught in his or her self-constructed funnel. See Tom Wolfe's book, The Painted Word for a full and hilarious accounting of the whole academic sophistry game. In a kind of reverse catch-22, through becoming the latest Art-mode blessed by the establishmentarian Art World, a trend ipso facto becomes historical, and thereby collectable regardless of its cultural pertinence. We are confronted with an array of styles and directions which leave the impression of a Rio Grande of contemporary Art which is "a mile wide and an inch deep".

If matching the colors in your sofa, or the endorsement of wool-gatherers do not make up the trueness of Art, what does? I think it has something to do with consciousness of the human condition. It has to do with that mysterious stuff we call talent, which enables the artist's consciousness of the human condition to be sensitively and truly stated within a medium. It has to do with communication between an individual artist and an individual observor. Middlemen do not necessarily invalidate a piece of Art, but they do dilute the purity of its experience.

Some few people are artists, and even less are good artists, and only a couple here and there are great artists. A lot of people play at being artists, and these people are called dilletantes. To distinguish roughly between an artist and a dilletante, we may think of a line between people who make things because of an inner compulsion or need to do that thing, and people who are trying to get social status, or money, or other approval from the world, through the acting out of an arty role in society. Art festivals are full of such folks, and you will be well- advised to look beneath the surface, to disregard the personal presentations of the artist-as-merchant, and to weigh the power of the work itself, before handing over checks to these charlatans, who may, indeed, be very nice people who haven't a clue as to their own whoredom. Sometimes dilletantes are people who put off doing Art for years until they have completed a more "practical" career. Sometimes they are bored spouses who have somebody else paying their way. Sometimes they are spiritual bankrupts seeking an identity. Sometimes they are cynical merchandisers. All of these conditions can be overcome by real talent, however abused, but all of them also create a major obstacle to real creativity.

The word 'Art' has suffered from such severe overuse that people think that all kinds of things are Art which are not Art. We may as well admit here and now that for the purposes of this discussion, things which have a practical function are not Art. They are Craft, and calling them "Art" through an amplifier on a mountaintop will not make them be so. Crafts may certainly be done artistically, to stretch a point, but they will never enter the magic circle. Here are some things that aren't Art: manufactured items, copies of other persons' work, fads, trends, isms, kits, gadgets, tools, things which amuse without enlightening.

Here are some things that may be Art: visions, unwritten poems shouted in the moonlight, unexpected changes in the direction of a work which take courage to follow, efforts which bring tears and laughter, ideas which humble the ego, attempts which fall short of lofty goals honestly attempted.

Just because a person is a stuffed shirt, a pompous ass, or an overbearing braggart, does not necesssarily mean that person is a "bad" artist. In fact, a good portion of the mysterious stuff called "talent" is in the possession of persons who flaunt revolting personality disorders which those persons could not get away with displaying in a normal sector of the world, like, say, banking or wood-frame house construction. In most of the areas of life obnoxious prima donnas are as rare as they are commonplace in the Art World. It won't do the least bit of good, but let me advise here and now that nobody should indulge in so-called temperament. Acting temperamental shows the presence of a huge, unwieldy, and out-of-control ego, but doesn't show talent at all. Talent is only displayed by hard work. Throwing emotional weight around only makes other folks miserable. So, grow up, you precious schmucks! I'm tempted to name a few, but I'm sure we all have our favorites. And, if temperamental tantrums by artists of talent are painful and dreary, how much more so are the conniption fits of posturing dilletantes?

In a recently published book, Yours, Isaac Asimov, a volume of posthumously published correspondence edited by his brother, Stanley, (who also died, upon completion of the project), Mr. Asimov writes as genially as ever. Here is a quote out of it on creativity, included by permission of the publisher, Doubleday:

"If you are not creative, there are no easy setting up exercises that will make you creative. The fact that I'm creative doesn't give me any particular insights into it, because I was always creative and I never did anything about it. It was just there.

There are two things I feel about creativity:

  • What militates against creativity most of all is peer pressure. By definition, that is creative which seems new and novel to most people. People distrust the new and novel and prefer the tried and true. Therefore, the creative person is a pain in the neck. Any person with tendencies toward creativity quickly finds out he is having trouble socially. Since many people would rather be popular and one of the boys than anything else they stifle those tendencies. And creative people are irritants and pains in the neck. How many of them do we want, for heaven's sake?

  • It is easy to confuse creativity with correctness or truth. In Art, Literature, and many other fields, where there is no correctness or truth, but merely accepted critical opinion, anything new and novel is as good as anything tried and true, and will be accepted after a while as critical opinion slowly adjusts itself to lead from behind, as it always does. However in Science, where ideas are judged by their ability to match the universe, it is perfectly possible to have a brilliant original thought which is completely wrong.

I don't want to encourage creativity because I firmly believe that creativity and social popularity are mutually exclusive, and I don't want to do anything that will encourage people to be misfits. If they want to be misfits without my encouragement, that's their business.

Nor do I feel guilty about this. I don't feel it would be a better world if there were more creative people in it. I think it would be an unhappier world. Prima donnas are hard to get along with, and we need more spear carriers who don't feel they've been done dirt because they aren't prima Donnas."

The bedrock truth of these sentiments could not be proven better than to know the inside of an Art festival. You don't have to look very far to see that a person can claim the title of artist without having any talent. Everybody talks about talent, and a lot of people who actually have but little or none of it think of themselves as very talented indeed. What is talent? we ought to ask; not an easy question. Senator Barry Goldwater one time when asked to define pornography replied, "I don't know how to define it, but I know what it is when I see it." Maybe by hurling a few speculations against the wall we can get enough substance to stick to get a sense of what we talk about when we use this word, "talent". I like to think it has something to do with the capacity to feel deeply, and to translate the feeling into media. All too frequently the depth of feeling which is part of having talent is a torture to the one who has it. Van Gogh. Poe. John Barrymore. The Art of institutionalised schizophrenics often drips with talent. Talent can be dangerous enough to burn out the one who has it. Talent is likely to show itself early as gifted youth, especially musical prodigy.

Talent on a level below genius is sometimes called "having a knack" for something. A person who can do a lot of things well is often deemed "very talented". One is born with talent. If you aren't born with it, there is no way to get it. Talent can be lost however. Talent unused can wither. Self-indulgent and escapist behavior can diminish talent. People who buy so-called Art works expect that the things they purchase are reflections of talent, so people who sell Art works are quick to claim talent. Claims on talent far exceed the possession of it. A larger number of citizens than those who possess talent are those who can recognise talent in others, and who exploit it. While most gallery owners are decent and high-minded people, there are also a large number of sharks in the business. On the other hand, the gallery person has often had to put up with deplorable conduct on the part of artists. Walt Disney was a man who both had talent and was a whiz at exploiting the talent he found in others. In America at the present time we hear the word "Art" applied to all sorts of things and activities which exist on a spectrum of levels from the lowly to the divine. Most of what is offered as art in the marketplace is conditioned by the requirements of the public, and the public, as a whole, does not seek the divine. The public, as a whole, wants something to decorate its homes and offices. The active wish is for things which will set a mood, or which will coördinate with the other objects in an existing environment. The idea of the divine in such a context never even comes up. Art objects which are challenging, jarring, perhaps shocking to look at, are probably going to go begging over the counter. So, the marketplace becomes a force which puts downward pressure on the creative process, and discourages experimentation as being unsalable. The exception to this is the interior of the so-called Art World, where the rule is to be as bizarre and strange as possible, without regard for the sensibilities of the public. As opposed to the artist who is trying to make his living out there in the competetive marketplace, and has to play down to the perceptions of the man in the street, the student, academician, and theorist play up to the political structure of the museums, galleries, and art faculties who are in competition for the grant dollars. This leads to a rarified intellectual hothouse environment which is at peril of becoming disconnected altogether from the broad and general society of which it proposes to assume the cultural center. This situation also is likely to militate against the divine. So, is the divine in Art impossible in contemporary America? Perhaps not, but if and when it occurs, it will probably be the outpouring of an individual person with a unique vision, and a wide experience of the world, and who possesses the indominability and force of character to compel consciousness in her or his direction.

We nowadays see a situation where a few artists command huge prices from an elite audience, while a large number of aspirants clamor for a place in that small arena, with the product of all their activities resting on intellectualisations which may or may not have anything to do with real life. The other side of the equation is a body of many artists commanding modest prices by catering to the lowest common denominator of public understanding. In attempting to give the public what it wants to pay for, originality is diminished to the function of design innovation which can be applied effectively to the fabrication of some object repeated over and over. Thereby "Art" becomes the manufacturing of decorations. Decorations come with a range of prices. If the seller can convince you that his decorations are Art, then a higher price is expected. But when a person becomes embroiled in manufacturing something, the time required to do it is taken away from the time the so-called artist can spend on making unique and original objects. Trying to bridge the gap between being truly original, and trying to make a living in the real world pushes an artist toward manufacturing, and everyone you see showing at an Art fair or festival is caught between these two opposing forces. It is up to you as an individual viewer to decide who does well at which, and who does not. The marketplace urges the maker of things to produce more of one thing and less of another. As soon as an artist makes a second one of something, he becomes a manufacturer instead of a creator. He can claim to be doing "variations on a theme", up to a vague point, but yeilding to a client's plea to "make me another one of those" is to step onto a very slippery slope.

Romantic aspirations are still alive, if not so well currently as they used to be. A lot of romantic notions are flopping feebly on the sand above the high tide line these days, and others are just plain dead and bloated in the sun - but a few continue to swim weakly in the polluted waters of a realistic and cynical contemporary world. Romance is doing best in the realm of the irrational. People will gladly rush to follow the most unlikely propositions, as long as there is no possibility of proving them. Therefore the happy dreams which once stirred the hearts of artists and their viewers are now more commonly found in cults and the occult. However, ultimately the highest kind of expression in Art will tend to address consciousness and the human soul, despite prevailing crassness.

The irresponsible fear of working at a real job is often the motive an individual has to claim Art for a career. The person who plays at Art in order to avoid real employment is different from the dilletante in that the dilletante usually already has an income or a comfortable situation from which to play at Art, while the merely irresponsible faker doesn't mind living like a filthy dog. The worse the circumstances, the louder the irresponsible person can shriek and yowl about how unfair the world is to great geniuses.

A certain number of creative folks are simply driven by an uncontrolable need to keep trying to remake the world in their own personal vision of how they want it. Art is something that an individual can control completely, making an object be this way or that, rearranging and modifying, editing and adding howsoever that artist wishes. The artwork of the mad is often very compelling. Perhaps it is a sort of madness to be moved to practice Art in this society: certainly people in the psychological community are endlessly fascinated by artists. Probably artists are found to be ultimately un-analysable, especially the purer manifestations of the type. Obsessive is a word that fits sometimes. Compulsive is a word that also fits, sometimes. So are the words "driven, visionary, inspired, frenzied, eccentric, damned, exalted and ecstatic". These words begin to hint at the quality of religiosity, and you are now invited to look for signs of that kind of thing in the works you see around you.

Whether an aspiring artist is motivated by romantic notions, irresponsibility, or the compulsion to remake some part of the world according to her or his own vision, the bottom line is that all such people are trying to be free individuals in a society where individualism is becoming more and more dominated by corporate entities. Mentally or emotionally, practitioners of Art are frequently people who have trouble adjusting to the stratified life within the hierarchy which characterises all corporate bodies: companies, the military, bureaucratic structures and social organisations. At the rate things are going, in a hundred years all the mavericks will be in prison or mental hospitals, if they have not been broken to the corporate yoke or found a way of accomodation to the demands of survival by compromising their vision.

Artists need to be trained in some way or other. School is the place where that is supposed to happen, but the funds for Art in the elementary curriculum are being reduced year by year. The most important time to give children Art experience is at the lowest grades, while they are still unspoiled by wrong-headed ideas, and are still in direct touch with their perceptions. At that childish time it is important to let kids play with as many kinds of materials as possible so that they will have that experience of having used tools and colors at the root of their adult minds later. Discipline is important at a later time to induce control over body and media, but ought to be avoided with the very young, who will get more out of sheer play than they will out of being persuaded to such methods as the so-called teacher holds to be valid. A period of discipline is then invaluable to have occur between childhood and maturity.

When the time is ripe, if ever, the individual can break away from the restraints of discipline to choose a direction while then being anchored in a meaningful relationship to what has gone before. Then the individual can decide when and if to follow the call of abstraction or not. Abstraction which is based on an indifferent understanding of tradition is likely to look forced and superficial. Peer around you, and see if you can perceive examples of this. Ideas about Art should come last. If there has been a good ammount of time playing with Art stuff in the secondary school experience, then a student can enter the university prepared for an inundation in the philosophies and concepts which are the baggage of all Art professors. Professors, by and large, hope to find disciples among their students, and to become such a one is an early path into the world of grants. The professor who discovers and nurtures the light of a particular individual who is on a different track from the professor, is to be treasured.

School can be a trap. I may have been wrong, but that's what I thought when it came time to choose whether to go to graduate school on the track of becoming a professor, or to go take my chances in the street, and maybe make some discoveries on my own. I didn't even know what I thought Art was yet. I knew that I knew nothing, and was unlikely to find out as much at the feet of more professors as I would knocking around in the larger world. Regarding the pursuit of Art, the university at a certain point comes to resemble an aquarium full of rare and beautiful tropical fish. They are excellent as long as there is glass between them and the cold air, the bacteria, and the voracious predators which infest the big old real world. It is lovely to swim among them as one of them, but I felt that to cover the broadest possible ground as a reflector of my life, I should plunge into the infectious cesspool of the great outer world to see if I could first survive there as a person, then as an artist. My personal decision was to turn away from graduate school, which was an open option to me, and to search the cities for the pungent cutting edge of progressive Art. At the time, that meant San Francisco and the so-called Beat generation.

In my personal upbringing, the traditional values had been reduced to a kind of obeyesance to convention and marination in gemüttlicheit that were the very stuff against which the Beat generation was in rebellion. The Beats became the cultural bed in which I was perforce constrained to lie, if I wished (and I did) to find the cutting edge of unfolding consciousness. In retrospect we all know that the Beats were in fact, where it was at. But they came burdened with so much baggage, not to say garbage, that they had accrued, that the whole thing has required three decades and more to separate the wheat from the chaff, or, better, to clean the lint off the ball of masking tape. Anyway, here I am, on the other side of a period of time which gave us the Bomb, psychedelics, assassinations, and Viet Nam, to name the biggest themes. And, apparently, I still have my brains moderately functional, and my sense of humor likewise, which is a real triumph. The main thing I learned by watching the Beat movement in action and close-up was the nature of politics in forming a cultural phenomenon. A thing which clever postgraduate students often figure out early in life is that with the proper set of conditions, and a little help from their friends, an Art movement can be started.

Could an Art movement be started now? Maybe. The folks who run the Art World are always looking to discover "the latest thing", so as to keep the economic and cultural Juggernaut rumbling along. The emergence of a real grassroots movement may be less likely nowadays, because the combined legacy of the negative rejection of everything which the Beat Generation popularised, combined with the ever-diminishing returns from the Art World, have led to a vanishing point at which society has been forced, for want of a cohesive gestalt, to chop up and recycle elements out of past decades. The nature of style itself has become quite eclectic everywhere. If I had to guess, I would say that it's likely that the great pendulum of perception will swing back in the direction of reason and cohesive vision from the scattered and irrelevant concentration on minutiae in which we now flounder. It's not too hard to see that global view emerging, at this point where as a specie we begin to have a good honest recognition of our real isolation on this one glob of rock spinning through an infinite frozen darkness. In a word, if we don't create a new and holistic Art for the future, we will have no future. Ultimately our survival is of no importance except to ourselves. There is plenty of time left on the Cosmic Clock to run the whole sequence a couple of more times on Old Sol's energy, perhaps to a more fetching creature than Homo sapiens. And then of course there is "out there".

The traditional arts are waining in relevance. Such unfolding and raising of the human spirit as we are able to do will at least include the media of cyberspace and electronics, if not rest on them entirely. The traditional arts have abdicated their ancient responsibility at the behest of economics so completely that they may be cooked geese as far as being pertinent to the future. With regard to the dismemberment and recycling of the aspects of earlier decades, we will soon run out of rope there also. We won't be able to borrow effects so easily after a while, because we will be running out of material in this truly one world existence. Trying to cook up new sights by taking slices out of time (the mine of history), or out of space (the mine of ethnology), are doomed to eventual bankrupcy. Soon such brews will not seem fresh anymore. Everybody will already have seen it all through the media.

Caveat emptor means, "Let the buyer beware". It's especially good advice when it comes to you plunking down your hard-earned cash for a slice of "culture" which may be all smoke, mirrors, and hot air.

The things which tend to remain with us after the brouhahas and squalls of today's festerings in Art have been forgotten will be called "classic", and I don't mean just Greco-Roman artifacts. Somebody who is courting the Muses with an eye on posterity will do well to consider what it may be which allows an Art to attain classic stature. If the artist-aspirant can get Truth, Beauty, & Love in there, the chances of creating a classic are greatly improved. But, to return to the banal arena from which we started, can one hope to find a classic at an Art festival, American-style? The answer is 'yes', if you will regard your survey as a metaphor for panning gold. There may be some nuggets in the creek, but you're going to have to process a whole lot of sand to uncover them. Case closed.

© 2015 by Dion Wright

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