8.1. The artistic process

Let us then suppose that you have picked your art form and you have actually got some inspiration, whether profound or not. What I want to do here is describe what you as an artist are doing in expressing your concept, and how you and others can judge it.

Usually, the esthetic understanding is at the beginning rather vague: a general idea without all of its implications spelled out. To take a perceptive parallel, the original idea of this book was that esthetic understanding is like ordinary understanding, only it uses emotions as the basis of comparison. But at the beginning, it wasn't clear to me exactly in what way it was the same or how precisely it differed from perceptive understanding.

There follows a period of "gestation," where the artist doesn't really do much of anything, except let the concept roll around in his head. This would have been like my experimenting with various perceptive parallels to esthetic knowledge, seeing if they fit actual experiences as I observed them. The artist imagines himself expressing the concept, considering what he would do as various problems arise, and mentally testing whether the concept "works."

What this amounts to is asking yourself whether what you discovered is a fact or an illusion. Did you really learn something when you had your inspiration, or were you just emotionally charged up, and only thought you saw something valid?

A lot of this goes on below the conscious level, only appearing as a kind of disturbance or dissatisfaction. What is happening is that your instinct is fitting things together and finding no problem, so that it doesn't bother you; but it is using up some of the energy that you would normally be using for conscious logic and reactions to the world around you, and so you know that something is going on.

Finally, there comes a point at which it is impossible to continue the process solely in your mind, and you have to test the concept out by actually trying to express it. The concept will be a lot more complex by this time, but still not necessarily all worked out.

8.1.1. The dialectic with the material

Anyone trained in an art form will know basically how his concept can be expressed; but once he starts trying to express it, he will find that as he actually puts something down, on paper or canvas (or even practices a part in a play), what he has said has logical implications that he was not aware of, which will make demands on what follows.

To continue with the perceptive parallel, as soon as one sentence of this book was written, then the words and the content of that sentence had logical demands that could not be ignored. "If philosophy is, as I think it is, a science, then it is no small problem how one is to approach esthetics." You can't just go on about how philosophy is scientific, because the immediate question is, "Why is it a problem? Explain yourself." Further, there is the stylistic demand that the next sentence had better be short, or you have lost the reader.

The same thing happens in the arts. As soon as any part of the concept is actually expressed, what has been said has its own reality with its own esthetic implications. These cannot be ignored, because the viewer or reader or hearer is going to be influenced by them, and will be confused if you start going off in what to him is an illogical direction without pointing where you are going.

Thus, the material you are expressing your idea in "talks back" to you, and you have to learn to "converse" with it--to listen to it as well as talk to it--so that together you can come as close as possible to expressing what you want to express.

That kind of interaction is called a "dialectic," where the affected object enters into the causality of the cause that is acting on it, changing what the cause is doing as it itself is being changed. All artists are aware of the process. And it can even change the original concept radically, so that sometimes the actual concept expressed is not at all what the artist originally intended to express, but is something suggested by the work when he got it half finished.

This happens in the perceptive order also. For instance, in a course on the Philosophy of God once, I happened to be explaining one point in the argument using different wording from the way I usually put that point. I suddenly recognized that, when the step was put that way, it had an implication that I hadn't seen which made the whole argument invalid. I had to go back and recast the whole course from a different point of view; I learned a great deal from that alteration of a phrase, and my course now is not at all like what it used to be. Respect for the medium

This is another way of saying that an artist must have respect for his medium. That is, certain artistic materials have ways in which they "want" to behave; and making them behave in different ways does violence to them, so to speak--and the violence shows in the finished work.

For instance, wood has a natural grain; and though you can carve it as if it didn't, going across the grain will resist the knife, and the finished product will show to some extent the grain as contradicting the contours of the statue. Oil paints, when laid on thickly, do not dry (because they dry from the outside in and form a skin that doesn't let the inside dry); and thick globs of them look sticky, and perhaps sag from their original position. A bassoon can play a high note; but it doesn't sound like a bassoon. When Stravinski made a bassoon solo in its high register the opening of his Rite of Spring, a member of the audience shouted, "What kind of instrument is that?" But, as the Stravinski example shows, this violence is not necessarily bad. The whole piece is about barbarism; the ballet ends with a woman dancing herself to death as a primitive ritual. Hence, the wrenching of things out of harmony and rhythm and tone color was perfectly in place. Similarly, Rouault's painting of Jesus with the crown of thorns uses the sticky globs of paint to enhance the evil of the crucifixion while at the same time making the painting suggest a stained-glass window, which esthetically emphasizes the religious nature of the subject.

The point is that these examples of violence done to the medium are actually examples of respect for it; knowing what the use of the medium "says" esthetically, the artists knew what an abuse of the medium would say--and this is what they wanted to say.

8.1.2. The artist as judge

But how does the artist "talk" to the work itself? How does he listen to it? He has, perhaps, a basic plan in view; but his attempts to express it involve doing things that have accidental side-effects. What I was saying above amounts to the fact that an artist (as opposed to the dabbler) is the person who capitalizes on the accidents, and makes them work for him.

The artist is in a difficult situation here, actually. Since, in order to be able to produce a given emotion, it is usually necessary to feel the emotion, and since emotions tend to spill over into the rest of consciousness, the artist is always in danger of putting something down that "feels right" because he happens to be feeling the emotion beforehand; but it is not necessarily something that will make a person feel the emotion if he doesn't already feel it--which is what is necessary if the work is to convey the esthetic concept.

So the artist has to be able to achieve esthetic distance, which we talked about several chapters ago. Somehow, he has to be able to develop a detached attitude about the work, so that he can find out what emotions it does in fact produce, and can then put them into the pattern he needs for the expression of the concept in question.

Horace advises the young poet, "Put your poem in a drawer for nine years," and then look at it. The idea here is that if you go away from it for a while and forget about it, and then come and look at it, it will then affect you the way it would a dispassionate third party, and you will know whether it "works" or not.

That is the best advice. But as time goes on, the artist can, even while working on something, get that detached, judgmental view of what he is doing, so that he knows that something is "right" in an objective way.

One indication that something is not right: if you have to justify it to yourself, then your esthetic logic is telling you that something is wrong with it (or why would you feel the need to justify it?). You may have all kinds of reasons why the work has to be the way you did it; but these are reasons of perceptive, not esthetic, logic.

And that is the meaning of "trusting your instinct." You can't always trust your instinct, because emotions can spill over; but if they tell you that there's something wrong, then they tend to be very trustworthy. Unfortunately, they don't usually tell you how to fix it.

The genius has to trust his instinct in a different sense. His instinct--actually, his mind--tells him that what he is doing is right. But if he has hit on a radical new departure, no one else is going to know what he is saying; those who pay any attention to him will be confused, but most people won't become angry or irate (which is what he expects); they won't even bother to notice him.

He will be constantly plagued with the thought, "Who am I to say that I am right and Beethoven [Michelangelo, Dickens, Newton, Aristotle, supply one] is wrong?" The only rational answer is "nobody"; and the conclusion is that the genius is wrong. But since he can't believe the conclusion, he makes the opposite conclusion, "Then I must be greater than Beethoven," which makes him insufferable.

What he has to realize is that there is no satisfactory answer to the question, "Who are you to say that...?" It is the wrong question. What is at issue is whether the discovery is true or not, not who made it. The genius is not necessarily "greater" than geniuses of the past; he is simply someone who has happened to be in a position to see something that people of the past (because of their thought-patterns) couldn't see.

So he has to trust his mind and go on and say what he knows needs to be said, hoping that someone some day will be able to understand it. Certainly, if he doesn't say it, no one will; and if it is true, it is worth saying. If it isn't true--well, then, no harm was done by his saying it and not having anyone listen to him.

8.2. The artist as a teacher

This difficulty the genius gets into is one of the reasons why artists like to think of themselves as "expressing" something rather than "communicating" it; because if you are communicating and the other person doesn't understand you, it sounds as if you have failed. But I think that any artist who doesn't at least hope that he will be understood, and who is doing his work just "to express himself," is a madman, not an artist.

The artist is essentially a teacher, then: someone who is conveying to others a fact or body of facts that he knows and the others don't. And, like any teacher, the artist has to submit both to the facts and to his students.

8.2.1. "Prostitution of one's art"

First of all, he must have respect for the facts he has understood; which means that he must subordinate his own personality, his desire for fame, and his greed to the attempt to say as clearly and concisely what he knows to be true.

The person who doesn't have this submission to the truth of what he is saying is the one that other artists say has "prostituted himself" as an artist; he is willing to say what he knows is not true, as long as it will make him famous, or wealthy, or whatever. Notice, however, that this prostitution is not the same as the non-creative artist I talked of in the last chapter. There, the artist doesn't say anything new; but he doesn't say anything false either.

Is there a difference? Yes, indeed. A person who writes television plays which convey the esthetic idea that, say, doctors are all really dedicated heroes or that soldiers really fight out of patriotism--or on the other hand, that doctors are really gasping clods and all soldiers are cowardly sadists--is telling esthetic lies. Some are that way, but there is another side to the story. Granted, a play is an abstraction--but it must not esthetically convey that the abstraction is all there is.

But consider M*A*S*H. After the pilot program, there wasn't really a new esthetic idea expressed; all the episodes were variations on the theme that war is hell, but people are involved in it willy-nilly, and they try to make the best of it. No great genius is needed to work out episodes. But the program was basically true, week after week; and that is one of the reasons why it was so popular. It respected the "realities of the characters"--which essentially means (since the characters weren't real and were in fact abstractions), that it respected the facts about wartime hospitals.

Put it another way. A teacher who tells his students just what they want to hear, whether it is true or false, is no teacher. There is nothing wrong with producing something which is "as you like it," as Shakespeare did; but it can't be "as you like it" at the expense of the truth, or you are no artist.

8.2.2. The artist's style

Secondly, the artist has to have respect for his audience. Essentially, this means that he has to be aware of the limitations of the people he hopes to communicate with, and to try to keep the art from getting in the way of understanding what he wants them to know.

And what this means is that the artist shouldn't be worried about acquiring a "style."

DEFINITION: The style of an artist or of an age is the individual characteristics of that artist or age that show up in the work.

Everyone wants to be known as an individual, and distinguished from everyone else; and this leads to the temptation to "acquire a style," so that it is easy to identify who did the work. "Mannered art"

But the trouble with this is that it shows up in the work, and conveys the esthetic idea, "See what I can do!" as little children shout to Momma. The observer is trying to learn something from your art, and is not really interested in groveling before you; and if he gets the impression that you would rather have him grovel than learn, you won't teach him anything, however true may be what you are saying. "What you are speaks so loud, I can't hear what you say," as the church member said to the hypocritical preacher.

This sort of thing is what they call "mannered." It is the conscious attempt at being "different," when the difference is not called for by the nature of the concept to be expressed, or the audience to express it to. It is distracting at best, and annoying at every other level.

But then how did poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins get away with lines like, "I caught this morning morning's minion, king-/dom of the daylight's dauphin..." Hopkins got away with it because he gives the impression that he thought this was the "natural" and "right" way to say what he wanted to say; and the reader sees that the idea is complex enough to support the wierd language; it fits.

Unfortunately, though Hopkins thought that he had discovered the natural way to write poetry in English, no one else can write like that without writing mannered poetry which is obviously an imitation of Hopkins. That is because the way of writing he discovered was his own unique style of expression. There is the difference between style and mannerism.

But then how do you acquire a style? By not trying to. By trying to respect as much as you can the concept and the people you are talking to: by trying as hard as you can to make yourself clearly understood. As you try, your own personality and biases, as well as the biases of the time in which you live, will show up. You will find tricks of expression that get across what you want to say, and connect the parts as you want to connect them. And when all is said and done, your audience will be able to identify your style--even though you might not be. The artist's audience

But who is the audience you are producing your art for? Sometimes the answer is clear. For the performing artist, it is the particular audience he confronts on this occasion. He learns from listening to them what they are responding to, and he adjusts his performance--always keeping respect for the text as his facts--so that they can understand better.

Occasionally, the artist who paints a picture or writes a book will have a specific audience: the one who commissioned it, or some group who will read or see it. Here again, it is his duty to make allowances for the particular characteristics of the ones he is primarily serving--so that, for instance, if he is writing for a group of feminists, he will watch his use of pronouns (whether he agrees that the generic "he" is "sexist" or not), because he doesn't want the negative emotions that he knows will be produced to get in the way of what he is saying.

But by and large, the artist is working for "the human race"; and what this means is that he hopes to be understood by any human being who takes the trouble to give his attention to him.

There are two things to note here. First of all, this means that the emotional reactions the artist tries to produce will be those of the "ordinary person." That is, he will have to tune himself to the third level of objectivity I spoke of when discussing the esthetic experience, and eliminate from his work emotional reactions that are meaningful to him based on the peculiarities of his own nature. So, if he happens to be a construction worker, he might have tender feelings to the bulldozer he is driving. But if he hopes to be a poet, he can't expect others to feel this way when he mentions a bulldozer. "Little baby dozer, did you get fed today?" is just plain silly to the ordinary person. Why art is universal

This, not incidentally, is why the art of all cultures speaks to us. If the artist has succeeded in ridding himself of his own emotional peculiarities, then racial and cultural differences don't really matter; emotions are genetically built in, and don't really differ in any significant way by race, and certainly not very much by reason of historical or geographic setting. There are some differences, but not enough to make understanding impossible, or even, really, very difficult.

Read history to find out how different we are; read art to find out how much we are the same. Audience sophistication

The second remark about sophistication the artist's audience is that he has a right to expect a certain sophistication, education, and attention from his readers or viewers. All art is not for "the ordinary man" in the sense of just anybody, any more than a scientist has to confine his writings to what can be understood by any fifth-grader.

Art is not bad if it is difficult to understand, any more than Einstein's theory of general relativity is bad because it is difficult. Art is difficult if the concept it tries to express is complex and unusual; but if it is true, then it is worth the effort to understand it. And, like Einstein's theory, sometimes the idea can only be understood by those who have given some time to training in the area, however brilliant they might be. Non-physicists don't expect to understand anything but popularizations of relativity theory; but people seem to think that they ought to be able to understand any work of art without any education in the art form. They are wrong. Some esthetic concepts are simply closed to those who have not devoted years to the subject.

But then doesn't that make some art not universal? Not at all. The art still speaks to the common humanity we have; but it says something so complex that we need to develop ourselves to be able to hear it. Einstein was writing for the whole human race, in the sense that what he wrote is humanly intelligible, and doesn't depend on your having a white skin or being a woman or something; but he was only speaking to a few, because few have developed their humanity to the point where they could listen.

8.3. Good and bad art

So it does seem that there can be such a thing as "elitist" art, which only those who have devoted their lives to the subject can appreciate. Some modern music seems to be this way; it can only be followed, apparently, by those who have tuned their ears to blocks of tone color and sensitized themselves to that sort of emotional effect. For others, it is simply boring, because they can't pick out the proper nuances to notice.

But that doesn't make it bad art. True, the art won't be beautiful for the non-initiated, because they can't find the esthetic property that is there; and so are apt to think that there isn't one to be found. This would imply, however, that the elite are either lying, or there is an esthetic property which is hidden to those who don't give their time to discovering it.

But doesn't that mean that we can't really judge, because how do we know that we just aren't one of the elite? So there really isn't any objective meaning to "good and bad art"; there's just whether you find it beautiful or not.

No, it's not so simple as that. Just because you can't understand relativity theory, you don't assume that the physicists are trying to bamboozle you when they say that space-time is really curved; you assume that, since they've studied, they know what they're talking about and you don't.

So when the ordinary person can't see what is in a painting or a piece of music and the painters and musicians think it's great, the presumption is in favor of the painters and musicians.

Conversely, when an ordinary person likes some work of art that is generally panned by those who are supposed to know, the presumption is in favor of the fact that it is bad, but it just happens to speak to the ordinary person because he's too ignorant to see the basic falseness. This happens in the perceptive realm too; all the "evidence" that is presented that seems to show that a fetus is not human is plausible garbage; but you have to be fairly sophisticated not to be taken in by it; even those who propose such arguments are often sincerely in error.

8.3.1. Sentimental art

Then how can art be bad? In several ways. First, if it produces simply an emotional experience, and not an experience of interrelatedness through the emotions. That is, if there isn't really anything to understand, and all that happens is an emotional bath.

DEFINITION: Art is sentimental either when it simply produces an emotional (but meaningless) experience, or when the emotional experience is unrelated to the concept expressed.

That is, the emotions might be there, and there might be a concept there (even an esthetic one); but it doesn't come through the emotions. For instance, Joyce Kilmer's Trees says, "Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree."

Sorry, folks, but this is bad. Kilmer has spent several stanzas working you into having tender feelings about trees with mouths pressed to earth's breast and hair ornaments of nests of robins and so on; and then he drags God into it. But what does it mean? That trees are much more beautiful than poems; and so only God can make them? If so, that's nonsense. What he really wants to say at this point is that trees are really really lovely, ladies and gentlemen; but he does it by making you listen to a "humble" statement about himself and then thinking of God. And the singsong way it's written fights against it; it makes you suspect that he doesn't really believe it himself.

Now lots of people think that the poem is "just marvelous," because it makes them feel really good. And they say, "How true! How very true! God is the only one who can make a tree." Well of course; but that's a perceptive statement, not an esthetic one; the emotions are irrelevant to its meaning.

Notice that art doesn't have to be pretty to be sentimental. Tragedies in which the sorrow and so on just happen, or where the play or movie has a "moral" are sentimental; where the bad guy "gets his." The reason for that is that the moral is a perceptive statement which doesn't come through the emotional involvement with the lives, but is just tacked on to satisfy the Moral Majority's craving to see that things do work out to a just conclusion. There is nothing wrong with showing how evil gets punished; but it has to be shown through the emotions themselves, and not simply said.

8.3.2. False art

Art can also be bad if what it says esthetically is false. Aristotle says that a play must be "believable"; and what he means by this, I think, is that the statement made must not contradict what we know esthetically that the facts are. Sometimes bad art is made out of what actually happens (out of sudden conversions, for instance); but they aren't believable (unless we know that they actually happened) because we know that characters in fiction can be made to do whatever you want; and so they had better do what people do because of their common humanity, rather than something widely at variance with it. Fiction, for all its individual characters, makes a general statement; and that general statement had better be true.

Of course, it isn't just fiction that can be false. Those statues of saints that you see in churches say, "This is what it is to be a saint," as they simper heavenward. Small wonder that so many people will have none of sanctity, if that's what it is. And of course, it isn't. Let us be charitable and say that the sculptors of those things are fools and not liars.

8.3.3. Contradictory art

Art can also be bad if it contradicts itself esthetically. However consistent it might be perceptively, if one part of it produces an emotional effect that says the opposite of what the rest of it says, it is an esthetic contradiction. Some of the early rock 'n roll songs were this way; they purported to be about social justice, but the music was a celebration of the emotions connected with sex. Some of the "Holy Holy Holy" songs that are now sung at Catholic Masses are this kind of a contradiction. The words deal with awe confronting not only the Almighty, but the mystical being present at and sharing in the crucifixion of Jesus; and the music says, "Bring out the tambourines and wine, boys, and let's have fun!"

8.3.4. Illogical art

Finally, art that mistakes perceptive logic for esthetic logic is bad. This is the kind of art that "makes sense" to the person who knows nothing about art; but for one who knows, it is a mishmash. I need not say anything special here, because I already spoke of it when discussing esthetic logic.

These are the various ways in which works of art can be bad. But how do you actually know whether any of them have taken place, or whether you have simply missed the point that is being made?

Study. Take the "knowledgeable world's" word for what is really good and study it until you see what the artist is saying; and then study it some more. After you can see what is great about what everyone admits is great, you will be in a reasonable position to say that bad works are in fact bad.

You will make some mistakes, of course. But this isn't just true in the esthetic order; they say that Einstein used to get tomatoes thrown at him. Critics can be wrong when confronted with revolutionary new ideas; but they are less likely to be wrong than people who haven't studied.

Is it worth it? Well, if this book is true, there is a whole body of facts just waiting to be learned about the world; and those facts can't be learned except by the appreciation of art and the beautiful in general. Science will never get you to these truths; the only way you can get there is by studying art.

Of course, there's no law that says that you have to learn esthetic facts, any more than that you have to learn physics or biology or philosophy. It's just that if you don't, you're that much more ignorant.

It's worth it.