thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

A great part of great art

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Fourth in a series beginning with Art in the family.

By the end of the previous post I had dropped quite a few concepts into the mix: artistic category; comparatives and superlatives; craft; transcendence.

George Eliot

George Eliot

Category and craft seem to be related, in a fairly straightforward way. When we say George Eliot is a novelist (along with Conrad, Dickens, Flaubert etc) – rather than (say) a composer or poet or opera librettist – we are typically talking about the craft George Eliot was engaged in. It is not usually a value judgment. A novelist may be a good or bad novelist, but we can generally give fairly objective reasons why we call him or her a novelist rather than a poet or a librettist. (I say generally because at the fringes the purely objective nature of the criteria may well break down: I give this an airing in Ludwig van, and all that jazz and Shall I compare thee…?.)

Craft has a lot to do with materials, tools, techniques and the physical attributes of the product: words versus paint versus clay versus sounds; pen and paper versus two-dimensional arrangements of shapes and lines versus three-dimensional structures versus observed performances by one or more people; rhyme, rhythm, texture, description, representation, characterisation, sound-making machines and so on. The Greeks called it τέχνη.

Much of what we mean by artistic category is then to do with similarities and differences between the crafts employed. Within one craft-determined category, eg ‘painters’, we might compare different artists depending how relatively successful they are as craftsmen and women – how skillfully they employ their craft. We might also characterise them depending on the choices they make within the elements of their craft: oil versus water colour; landscape versus portraiture; large canvas versus miniature.

Paul Cézanne: L'Estaque

Paul Cézanne: L'Estaque

But (of course) there is more to it than that. Even just within a craft-determined category (eg ‘painters’) – rather than (say) a historical, socio-political or ‘cultural’ category like ‘Modernists’ – we compare and characterise artists by qualities which overlap the boundary of craft, or fall completely outside it. So for example we will talk about Rembrandt’s ‘humanity’ or Cézanne’s ‘vision’.

There seem then to be (at least) two sides or components of an artist’s greatness, neither of which is sufficient on its own. Nor are they completely distinct, as they are linked together.

One side is excellence in the craft. But this cannot be judged by purely ‘objective’ criteria, since the craft needs to be appropriate to – in a way ‘equal to’ – the ‘vision’. (I will try to do away these cautious quotation marks as much as I can as we go on.)

What I mean is that the craft needs to be full enough, skillful enough, rich enough, flexible enough, to create the work that communicates (embodies) the ‘vision’. ‘Vision’ can mean a lot of things – here it can simply mean ‘what the artist is trying to say’ or ‘why the artist created the work’. If the craft is mediocre, the communication or embodiment will fail – to a degree, or even completely.

Also we cannot assume that the type of craft has no bearing on the vision communicated and/or embodied. For example Rembrandt may not have been able to ‘say what he wanted to say’ in musical terms even if he had been a Beethoven.

Which brings me to that other side, the ‘vision’ itself, the ‘what he or she is wanting to say’.

It is possible that any attempt to pin down what this ‘vision’ is all about is doomed to failure, because any verbal description will immediately be faced with an exception which belongs in the category but doesn’t fit the description. In the immortal words of the Incredible String Band: whatever you think, it’s more than that. It is possible, indeed, that part of what art is all about, part of why it is so important to us, is its indefinability and endlessness.

But I think there are things that can be said, if not about all great art, then about a great part of great art. One of those things is that most if not all great art is produced by people, not by other animals or machines. Another is that most if not all great art produced by people is produced by those people as among the greatest things they have achieved as individuals. Another is that most if not all great art produced by people is intentionally produced as something for other people to experience and/or appreciate and/or understand and/or enjoy. Yet another is that the aspects of themselves which the producers of most if not all great art employ or put into their works (and the aspects of their intended audience which their works address themselves to), tend to be more fundamental than peripheral aspects.

Common dolphin

Common dolphin

Fundamental to what? Peripheral to what? I need to tread very carefully. I mean fundamental rather than peripheral to what is uniquely human. What is ‘uniquely human’ does not have to be one thing – it could be a unique combination of things, some or even all of which may be individually shared with other living things.

That combination could be contingently unique rather than necessarily unique. We might for example discover that chimpanzees or dolphins actually shared that unique combination and it was only our inability to communicate that had previously blinded us to the fact. That would have little bearing on what I am trying to say, except that it would probably expand the reach of ‘what is uniquely x’ (where x will have to replace ‘human’ and be a term covering humans and chimpanzees and/or dolphins).

But on the assumption that we are, on this planet, at this time, alone and therefore unique in our particular combination of features, we now need to suggest what they are, and which ones qualify as more ‘fundamental’ than ‘peripheral’.

The list is of course very long, and may well be endless, because it will need to include not only the features themselves but also combinations of features – or features which presuppose other features. I hope a few examples will drag this back from vertiginous abstraction.

We are alive, and so are all other organisms, including animals, plants, and unicellular and acellular in-betweens. In common with many plants and most animals we are sexual beings. In common with most if not all animals we are heterotrophic rather than autotrophic – we get our food from other living things rather than from the sun and the atmosphere. In common with at least some animals we are conscious and capable of some kind of voluntary action. Because we are living, sexual, conscious heterotrophs, we experience and act on lust and hunger. (I am not necessarily implying that all living, sexual, conscious heterotrophs will experience and act on lust and hunger, just that our experiencing and acting on lust and hunger is tied up with the fact that we are living, sexual, conscious heterotrophs.)

Lolita: film poster

Lolita: film poster

The fact that we are alive, the fact that we are sexual, the fact that we are heterotrophic, and the fact that we are conscious, are all ‘fundamental’ in the sense of being hugely important building blocks of what we are. But as a separate combination they are not yet fundamental to what is uniquely human. They are not enough. We must add more into the mix. That is all I mean by (relatively) peripheral.

So for example we could imagine a work of art (or ‘art’) which employs and addresses those living, sexual and conscious aspects of ourselves. But in the absence of other aspects, not yet considered, the work is more likely to be one of erotic titillation or pornography than of ‘great art’. Yet (of course) Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights, Lolita and Othello could not have been produced, understood or enjoyed by beings who were not living and sexual and conscious.

I know what I want to say next, but I’ll leave it for next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.

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Written by Chris Lawrence

6 March 2010 at 7:15 pm

One Response

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  1. Having asked you the question of how you decide that something is “great art”, I have also been trying to answer it for myself. I will eventually clarify the answer sufficiently to make an attempt to post it on my blog. In the meantime, I am watching your exploration of the question with fascination.

    I think your suggestion that the vision of what art expresses may ultimately be indefinable and endless is particularly intriguing. And relevant to the question.

    My prediction is that we are each going to come up with half the answer. You are going to identify some of the universal characteristics of great art. I am going to end up emphasizing that it is probably impossible to identify great art with absolute certainty.

    Thank you for keeping up your end. It’s helping me think a lot more deeply about this. Terry

    Terry Sissons

    7 March 2010 at 7:21 pm


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