thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Portrait of the artist as a chef d’oeuvre

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Fifth in a series beginning with Art in the family.

I was talking last time about a work (for example an erotic or pornographic artefact) which employed and addressed just the living, conscious and sexual aspects of ourselves. The medium is not particularly relevant – it could be an image or a film or a book or the performance of a lapdancer.

Now think of something equivalent which, instead, employed and addressed just the living, conscious and heterotrophic aspects of ourselves. An obvious example is ‘a good meal’. Now can a good meal be a work of art?

We call great chefs ‘artists’, but can the greatest dish in the world – or, say, the greatest perfume – be classed with something by Rembrandt or Beethoven? I don’t really see how it can.

Georgio Armani

Georgio Armani

I appreciate that perfume is going beyond the living/conscious/heterotrophic combination. So let’s go even further, into fashion: a top creation by Christian Dior or Giorgio Armani perhaps. I think we are in a domain similar to that of gymnastics or ice dancing, which we mentioned in Art in the family. Some would call it art, others might not.

Those who would hesitate to classify haute cuisine or haute couture or perfume or gymnastics or ice dancing as ‘art’ would I think doubt whether these things have ‘enough in them’ to qualify as art. It is not the amount of skill, care, effort, taste and so on. It is something like a lack of meaning – the idea that haute cuisine, haute couture and the rest do not exactly communicate something in the way that a novel or a symphony does.

I do not want to come down on one side or the other. I do not see a hard and fast criterion by which we can say one thing is ‘art’ and another is not. But nor do I see the distinction as completely arbitrary. I think the further we get into the domain of artefacts and phenomena which a majority would unhesitatingly classify as works of art, the more we are dealing with things which employ and address richer combinations of aspects of what we are.

So for example we are not only living, sexual, conscious heterotrophs – important and fundamental though these are to what we are. We are tool users and tool inventors as well. We are also curious, competitive and cooperative social beings who communicate meaning to each other – by language, gesture, expression and by complex intentional artefacts. Our biological nature is such that we are born relatively helpless, so we need extensive periods of care by more fully grown individuals, typically our parents. So we are beings who experience family life and family relationships which we ourselves help create; and who experience social life and social relationships, which again we ourselves help create.

We could go on for ever listing facts which are importantly true of human beings. But if works of art employ and address rich combinations of these things, the fact that we cannot finalise a list of them does not mean they are insignificant for what great art is and what great artists do.

So I think we are edging closer to an answer to the question posed in Art in the family:

…how do we validate a conclusion that Beethoven is great music? or Da Vinci a great painter, or Auden a great poet?

If I want to suggest that great art addresses and touches what is most human in us I do not mean by this some mysterious ineffable essence. What is most human in us does not have to be indefinable in the sense of being mysterious and indescribable. But it can be indefinable in the sense of being impossible to enumerate. It is not that we know nothing about what makes us human. We know a huge amount and are learning more all the time. But the more we learn the more we know what we do not know, and the more we realise we may never know everything about what makes us human. This is a very different thing.

What marks out Rembrandt and Shakespeare and Beethoven does not have to be an ineffable mystery. It can be the endlessness of what we recognise in the richness of what they have done for us.

And I think there is something else, which is contained in the words of this sentence. And which I will leave till next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2010

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Written by Chris Lawrence

14 March 2010 at 7:20 pm

One Response

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  1. I am fascinated by the route by which you are exploring this question. As I see it, you are trying, first, to define “great art,” in order to determine how/if it is different from what isn’t fully-fledged art.

    I have found myself ambling down a path beginning in the opposite direction: instead of asking how we validate “great art,” I’ve started out by asking myself the various ways in which we validate any experience: everything from I validate my conclusion that this string is shorter than that string, that a x b=ab, to my mother loves me, that is beautiful, and space is relative.

    Thank you for everything so far. I’m eagerly looking forward to your next chapter. Terry

    Terry Sissons

    16 March 2010 at 11:36 pm


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