Beauty and art
Finally to come to the subject of beauty, I mentioned earlier that beauty is not the same as an esthetic fact, or even an esthetic property, but is what in esthetics corresponds to goodness in the perceptive realm.
First, let me make a little clearer what I mean by an esthetic property. You will recall from Chapter 4 of Section 2 of the second part 2.2.4 that properties are modes of the finiteness of a body, based on similar effects upon us (or some machine), when those same bodies who are thus similar are different from each other in other effects they have on us.
I am stressing this because a perceptive property like greenness is thought to be something like a part of the object, a distinct, separable (at least in thought) something-or-other about it, to such an extent that philosophers like Locke and Hume thought that bodies were just collections of properties. But the reality is the other way round. The object is a unit, though a multiple unit of parts; but it is a finite unit, and so its finiteness as a unit contradicts itself into the multiplicity of its behaviors as a unit; and its unity is in its multiplicity and its multiplicity is in its unity. The finite, remember, contains its own opposite as defining itself.
It is actually a little easier to see this when discussing the esthetic property of something. The meadow actually has smilingness when the sun is shining; because everyone recognizes that it smiles in the sunshine and is not smiling on a day like the day I write this, overcast and gloomy. But it is clearly the behavior of the whole complex as a whole that is capable of affecting me in the same way I am affected by someone's smiling at me; and here the behavior cannot be "separated out" from anything about it, the way greenness can as that which affects my eyes.
That is, what is it about the sunny field that gives it the same power over my emotions that a smiling face has? It obviously has something to do with the light and the color, because a brown or yellow (or for that matter, a purple) field wouldn't be felt as smiling. But what is this something that it has?
There is no answer to that question--as, in the last analysis, there is no adequate answer in the perceptive realm. Grass and emeralds react in the same way as units to light falling on them; but what they do in absorbing some energy and flinging away other energy is unknown; all we know is that the energy they throw away is what produces the "seeing green" sensation in us. But it is the object that has the color, not really the light, and certainly not my eyes. Similarly the sunny, smiling field's pattern of light in its ability to affect my emotions is similar to what the pattern of light of a smiling face is; but in itself we know nothing about either, except the fact that the two are somehow objectively similar.
Therefore, what it is about them that connects them in the way understood by the esthetic concept is the esthetic property. It is in itself no more mysterious (though no less so) than any perceptive concept, and it is no less objective than any perceptive concept either, as I have been at pains to show.
With that out of the way, let me give the following definitions:
Beauty is an esthetic property one expects to find in an object.
Ugliness is the lack in an object of an expected esthetic property.
Philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine and Aquinas--up to Kant, actually--have thought of beauty in terms of what we today would call "prettiness": as the traditional Thomistic definition has it, "That which, when seen, pleases." Aristotle's notion of catharsis, in fact, was an attempt to show how having vicarious horrible experiences could be pleasant.
But Kant shifted the ground with his notion of the esthetic judgment as being subjective but universal; and contemporary art seems to be holding that only what is unpleasant can be beautiful--or the term is taken in its traditional sense, and art is then declared to have nothing to do with beauty but "meaningfulness."
But I think that what people are looking for in art is an esthetic experience, which does not necessarily have anything to do with a pleasant emotion. And when they have the esthetic experience, they tend to say, "How beautiful that is!" Hence, beauty is (a) something in the object, (b) something looked for a priori in it, but (c) not necessarily something that produces a pleasant emotion. I think my definition fits all of these specifications.
It also explains why "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." The esthetic fact itself and the esthetic property are something objective and "out there" waiting to be understood. The meadow is objectively like a smiling face. But the beauty isn't, except in a derivative sense, because it depends on what you expect to see.
Many is the person, for instance, who stands before a painting by Jackson Pollock and says, "What's that supposed to look like? I could do as well myself." That same person would never dream of asking what a Bach toccata was supposed to "sound like," because he didn't expect to get the esthetic effect by comparing it to street noises. But he expects a painting to resemble some visible object, not simply be a set of colors and lines and shapes each of which has its emotional impact, and whose emotional impacts are interrelated in a logical and meaningful way. He doesn't see the logic because he's looking for a different relationship; and so to him the work is ugly.
Have you ever noticed that a face you first thought of as ugly takes on a beauty as you get to know the person behind it? Instead of seeing it in its relation to the regular features and so on of "the perfect face" of your sexual drive, you now see it as the expression of the personality of the person; and to the extent that it reveals what you find spiritually congenial in that person, to that extent it is beautiful to you, if not pretty. That is what I am driving at. You understand what the face says; and it says now what you expect it to be saying.
Of course, one of the reasons why people equate prettiness with beauty is that most people expect things to be pleasing. Obviously, as people become educated and their taste becomes more refined, as I mentioned above, then their expectations change and what they consider beautiful also changes. As I mentioned, artists nowadays (of all types, it seems, including musicians, architects, everyone) have expectations that make them seem to look on everything pleasant as ugly and only what is unpleasant or jarring as beautiful. Of course that fits in with our present-day philosophy in which life is senseless anguish. I hope this book might contribute to turning this around, and we can seek beauty once again in what is pleasant, not denying, of course that what is unpleasant can be esthetically meaningful--and so beautiful--too.
Beauty is called one of the "transcendental properties of being," which I gave such short shrift to in Chapter 13 of Section 5 of the first part 1.5.13. Of course, as I mentioned there, you can consider any being as beautiful, because you can adjust your esthetic expectations to fit its reality, in which case it will match your expectations and then be beautiful. And since every perception has an emotional overtone, because instinct is always operating when the senses are, as I said in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 3.2.5, then any object can produce an esthetic concept, and so has an esthetic property of some sort.
But this brings up the distinction between beauty and esthetic truth. The esthetic property is there in the object, because in fact the object can affect your emotional apparatus in a certain way, which can be related to other objects which affect you emotionally. Thus, you learn an esthetic fact about the object, which is objective and has nothing to do with your expectations of it: it is either such that it affects your emotional present state in this way, or that it affects your normal emotional apparatus this way, or that it affect the normal human being in this way emotionally.
Esthetic truth occurs when you attribute the esthetic property to the object and it is really there. That is, you may think that an object has a certain esthetic property for the normal person when in fact only you because of the peculiarity of your emotional apparatus can notice it. Or you may think that the property is a permanent one and not something due to the momentary condition you are in. Hence, you can make esthetic mistakes.
Artists are very prone to make esthetic mistakes that are akin to emotional hallucinations. Most artists tend to feel emotions as they produce their work; the novelist will feel what his characters are feeling, the artist will feel the emotions connected with the paint he is laying down, the composer the emotions in the music, and so on. They must do this, I would think, or the work will be just mechanical, following perceptive rules of logic rather than esthetic ones; the work has to "feel right" as it is progressing.
But of course, since they know what feeling needs to be produced by what they are doing at the moment, and since they are in fact feeling this at the moment, then it quite easy for the artist to put down something which does not in fact produce the emotion and think it does because he happens to feel it as he puts it down.
This is why Horace in the Ars Poetica tells the budding poet to put away his poem for nine years and then look at it. My view on this advice is that to be sure you haven't fallen into the error above, you have to leave the work alone long enough that when you pick it up to look it over, you don't remember what feelings you were trying to produce. If it "works" for you now, then it's a fair bet that you didn't read into it emotions that you happened to feel at the time, and it really does what you wanted it to do.
So truth and error are possible in esthetics, particularly in works of art. But even nature can be esthetically deceptive, like the peaceful little pond that you discover is actually full of quicksand; as soon as this happens, it becomes sinister. Something of that is also in the dewy spider's web in the morning, and there is even a kind of falseness about the bird's song, which sounds so sweet and friendly to us, when we learn that it is a scream to keep away from the territory it has staked out. It is the conflicting emotions here that make the esthetic fact ambiguous. Alfred Hitchcock's best films exploit this horror underlying what is everyday, like the cheap motel in Psycho.
But the question of esthetic truth brings up art. Art is not, as artists are fond of saying, what artists do as such, because artists themselves criticize each other's art. I remember an architect writing to the newspaper here in Cincinnati castigating the people for protesting the model of a new downtown building which apparently was designed to look as if scaffolding was never taken down--an interesting idea, you must admit, but not one that I personally would like to have to confront daily from my office window. He mentioned how people didn't understand architecture, and that was why we had so many horrible buildings downtown, and it was about time that we had one that was innovative and all the rest of it. I wondered as I read the letter who designed the buildings he derided. It must have been architects; so evidently being an architect doesn't automatically make your buildings great art. And of course painters criticize the output of their students as well as those who don't agree with their ideas about what art is. So artists agree that there is good and bad art, and "art" that doesn't deserve the name at all; it's just that they don't want the rest of us butting our noses in, any more than the scientists want laymen talking about limitations on research.
If my theory is true, then an artist is one who has understood a fact esthetically, and wants to share it by stating it to others. Hence, he produces a work of art, which is essentially an esthetic statement of the insight he has into the way the world actually is. It follows from this that the work actually has to say something, and presumably what he intended it to say. That is, it is conceivable that an artist can serendipitously produce a work that is significant but says something entirely different from what he intended, but it is unlikely in the extreme.
While we are on this subject there is the business of apes fooling around with paint and producing works of beauty. There is nothing surprising in this, because droplets of water suspended in air and driven by the winds can produce sunsets that take your breath away. Something understandable has been produced, but not because the one that produced it understood anything. We saw that fallacy in discussing direction and purpose in Chapter 4 of Section 3 of the second part 2.3.4. The painting by the ape might be a beautiful object, but it is not a work of art, any more than the sentence uttered by your parrot is a statement. A statement implies an intelligent source trying to communicate a concept to someone else who is intelligent.
But even supposing that, you can still make mistakes, as I said above, and communicate something different from what you intended, and have the work still art, or the statement still a statement. The statement is a material thing "thrown out" into the world by you: the material for grasping a relationship. As a material object, it has things so arranged that the parts have certain interrelationship among themselves and don't have other ones; and so it is objectively such that it will awaken certain concepts and not others. For instance, in a textbook I once wrote, there was a typographical error in a key place, and one of the definitions, where I had intended to say, "There must be no intention to harm the other person," the sentence read, "There must be intention to harm the other person," which meant, of course, the exact opposite of what I intended. I could not hide behind, "You know what I meant," because a teacher has to suppose that his students precisely don't know what he means if the teacher says the opposite of what he means. We discussed this in talking of the truth of language in Chapter 5 of Section 3 of the third part 3.3.5.
Esthetic statements are like any other kind of statement, then. They are true if they express what is in fact the case, and false if they don't. But if they are false, this can be due either to the artist's not understanding what is the case (as when a novelist creates characters that are too true to type to be real) or to his misstating what he intended to say (as when the emotions he had as he wrote induce him to put down something that doesn't produce that emotion, as we discussed earlier). Of course, the work can be true by accident, because the artist's misstatement of what he intended happened to say something else that was true. But the supposition in any work of art is, if this theory of esthetics is true, that it is a statement of a fact understood by the artist.
And that, of course, implies that the artist has something to say. One of the reasons that art students produce things that are derivative and not significant is that either they have nothing to say and are just fooling around with the language (paints are the language for the painter, and the rules of composition are the grammar; but it doesn't follow that putting paints on canvas and following the rules makes the resulting thing mean anything), or they are repeating statements which might be new to them, but are things everyone at all sophisticated in art already knows.
This is, of course, why paintings or music or poetry "of the school of" is regarded as bad. Generally speaking, what it is is repeating what the master has already said; and even if it repeats it very competently, nothing new has been added. If someone produces a huge plastic hamburger and puts it in a museum, the esthetic idea connected with it is the emotional incongruity of seeing an ordinary object in a new light, to be looked on as a work of art. Fine; it's an idea, if not the world's most profound. But when another puts a huge wooden hotdog in a museum, he hasn't said anything new; he's just uttered a synonym for what was said before.
In this sense, every work of art has to be something new; we don't like being told "Two and two are four." We are quite willing to admit that it's true, but we already know that. And when someone else comes along and says, "Three and three are six," we don't think of him as informing us of anything.
But that does not mean that the artist has to use some new technique or make a "radical breakthrough." That again is confusing the statement with the words. Thinking you've said something new by uttering "Dos y dos son quatro" is obviously silly.
And that is the tragedy of many artists, as it is of many scientists and of people in every field. Many many artists want desperately to say something, and even are extremely competent in how to say it--but just have nothing to say. Browning's Andrea del Sarto is a poem about someone (a painter) who has much better technique than his contemporaries but recognizes that they are better artists than he. And in the perceptive realm, Kant was horrible as a writer; but he's read still because in his halting way, he said something no one else could have said, and something that was enormously profound.
So the first thing the artist has to do is see something, understand something, and get a concept. And this, of course, is artistic inspiration. Somehow the "light goes on," and you know something you didn't know before.
Inspiration isn't really some visitation from the blue; all it is, really, is seeing a relationship (through your emotions, of course) that you didn't see before. It's the same thing that happens in the perceptive realm when a person gets a new idea. Frequently, as in the perceptive realm, it's a kind of hypothesis to the solution of some difficulty--even a technical one--that has come up in the field. You want to see how you can bring the background into the front of the painting and still leave it the background; you want to see how you can get around perspective's making a "hole" in the painting; the school you are in needs a march for the new football team--and could the main theme have the same rhythm and melodic line as the pronunciation of the school's name?
Very often the attempt to start something will suggest some relationship. You have a scene for a novel, or perhaps just a character you saw last week. What kind of situation would make that character do something significant?
The initial idea is often very vague, just a hint that there may be something there, and you're not even sure what the idea is and where to look for it in the suggestions that come before you. Many artists leave things like this in their heads, for quite a long time, coming back to them at odd moments, and mentally fitting in various things to see what this insight might develop into.
This is a good deal like the scientist's "observation" stage after he initially becomes curious. I don't want to overdo the analogy between art and science, but there is a parallel because they are both intellectual endeavors, and the difference between them is that science doesn't pay attention to emotions and for art the emotions are the basis of the idea.
After enough of a gestation period, you think that the concept you have is valid, and you have a fairly good idea of what it is you want to say and how you are to begin saying it. You would have a hypothesis to test, if you were a scientist.
Then you begin putting it down. This corresponds to the "experiment" stage in science, and it really is an experimental procedure. Some artists are able to put down the whole finished work as fast as they can work, with no changes--just as some scientists write down the results of their "thought experiments" very facilely. But most of the time, things are not going to turn out as you originally envisioned them; the first brushstroke of paint on the canvas is going to show that the sketch you put on there won't work; the shapes are going to have to be different now. And as soon as one color is there, the esthetic logic of what is already on the canvas is going to change what has to be done to keep your basic idea--or it will even suggest a different idea which you see as better than the one you started out with.
Thus, as soon as the artist begins work, there is a dialectic between him and his material; he wants to make it do what he wishes, but it wants to do what it wants. It happens, in fact, that the recalcitrance of the material can sometimes prevent one from putting down what he had in mind. Michelangelo himself started several sculptures that he gave up on; one famous half-finished pietá is displayed in Florence. Apparently he was going to smash it up, but his assistant told him not to break it but to give it to him. The assistant then carved the face of Mary Magdalene and realized that he was ruining it, and left it alone, unfinished--and even in its unfinished state, it says something extremely powerful.
Connected with this is what is called "respect for the medium." If you are to be its master, you must become its servant; you must recognize what its tendencies and limitations are, to cooperate with it as the two of you together produce the statement you are trying to make. This is especially true in art. If you try to make the material you are working with do something that is possible but unnatural for it, the strain of what you are doing to it will show in the finished work and add an emotional overtone--and it had better be that that emotional overtone of tension or strain fits into the work as a whole, or it will destroy it. For instance, Rouault's paintings with their huge blobs of paint (some of which will never dry) have the emotional overtone connected with the "misuse" of the paint; but this is fitting, for instance, in his famous painting of the face of the crucified Jesus, because part of the feeling of sorrow and violation you get is that the very paint is suffering.
There are analogies with all of this in the perceptive realm. As I began to write this book, I of course had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to say; but as it went along, the logic of what I was saying suggested other ideas, and to fit them in properly I had to go back and revise and rewrite, and even leave out some things I had written before, because they no longer fit. Occasionally, I would find the phrase that exactly expressed what I wanted to say, only to discover, in reading over what I had written, that I had used the key word a sentence or two above it, and robbed it of its force. One or the other would have to be changed, or the work as a whole would fail. In the same way, the artist's idea is very seldom completely formed in the period of gestation before he actually sets to work; and the work changes it.
Beethoven is a beautiful example of this. His compositions sound so spontaneous and "right," but if you look at his three Leonore overtures, you can see how he kept revising and revising--until finally he didn't use any of them for his opera, and we now hear what is now called Fidelio with its own completely different overture. So the fact that you have to go back and rethink what you are doing and erase and redo is no indication that you aren't a genius.
And this brings up the subject of genius again; only this time, let us look at it in terms of "creativity." I said that the artistic inspiration is getting a new idea; but it doesn't have to be startlingly new. Unfortunately, much that goes on by way of "encouraging creativity" does nothing more than encourage randomness. Little children, for instance, want to draw things that look like something, and are not really imitating Paul Klee (who is no child, by any means); they of course have very active imaginations, and can pretend that what they have drawn looks like what they intended to draw.
It is not necessarily good for them to put no restraints on what they are doing and to refuse to guide them in the direction of where they want to go (to show them how what they are doing can be more realistic, for instance). An artist is not someone who spills out what is inside him; he is someone who submits to the facts outside him. His "creativity" comes from seeing something objective, not from unrestrained subjectivity.
The genius-type is going to go his own way ultimately; but his early life is most probably going to be helped by learning discipline and submission to the restraints imposed by his materials and the facts. After all, there have been geniuses for thousands of years, making thousands of mistakes; and if he starts from scratch, he's apt to make the same mistakes others have made before him. But if he is taught what went before, he has a body of knowledge that he can build on, and will be able actually to advance the world's wisdom a step or two because of the new approach.
I personally don't think that a genius is the kind of person who won't listen; geniuses listen. It's just that they listen to what's inside them as well as what's outside. If you tune out what's outside in the name of "encouraging creativity," you deprive them of information they need to check what's inside so that it doesn't become just eccentricity. I myself was quite docile as I was going through my education, though on the side I was experimenting with some of the ideas I came up with. I realize now that I give the impression of never listening to anyone; but it's not true. Like all genius-types, I regard (especially now that I'm getting older) new information as a kind of a threat, because it means that I might have to change, and I find change daunting. But it isn't that I don't listen to it, or that I don't want new information, even information that would be evidence that I am mistaken.
But the point is that the traditional, very rigid education I had was anything but a hindrance to me; I am in fact extremely grateful for it. I studied philosophy by learning "theses," statements of the position we were to take, the objections against the thesis, the people who held the objections, the argument (in strict syllogistic form) that proved the thesis, and finally the answers to all the objections. There's no more cut-and-dried way of learning anything than this; and many who studied philosophy with me rail against what they were subjected to.
But I found it the quickest and most efficient way to get the information I needed; and it was later, when I began examining the arguments and reading the much looser writings of the philosophers themselves, I had a framework that I could view things from, and see to the heart of what they were saying more easily than I could have without that training. When I then went off in a new direction, I knew what I was leaving, and more importantly why I was leaving it. If you don't know grammar, you don't know when it is better to break the rules; if you split an infinitive, you do so haphazardly, not because it is better in the context to split it than to slavishly keep to what is grammatical but less forceful. Similarly, if you don't know the rules of an art form, you will break them, but you won't know why.
You will notice that Wagner in Die Meistersinger has the musical genius Walther Von Stolzing taught restraint and form by Hans Sachs. People who see the opera notice that Walther's spontaneous melodies that don't fit the rules are miles above Beckmesser's pedantic efforts; but Walther would have been nowhere in the song contest without Sach's coaching. So Wagner was by no means "encouraging creativity" in the sense of letting the genius go his unrestrained way; it was actually Sachs who understood what was behind Walther's first song which was such a failure--something Walther himself did not understand--and who developed it into something meaningful.
You can, of course, stifle genius by teaching art (or anything else) as if what you are teaching is "the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth," and making every deviation from it or every questioning of it tantamount to sin. This is not the same as teaching what is known up to the present as the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth and not necessarily nothing but the truth. What we now know (and this goes for anyone in any age) should be taught as something that has to be learned before you can build on it.
But in general, not even this will stifle the true creative person, because he'll catch on to what you're doing and will (even if he obeys) hold it in suspicion. Most of the "creativity" that was stifled by actually teaching kids something wasn't, I suspect, there in the first place. I don't see, after generations of this "encouraging creativity" any remarkable burgeoning of new insights; what I see is a lot of desultory silliness.
Most people aren't creative, and this is not to be deplored; we don't need to be changing direction every five years; we need time to dig out the implications of the "breakthrough" insights and digest them, and fit them in with the accepted wisdom of the past. What was past does not automatically become repudiated by the new departure; very often the new departure only negates one focus on what was known; and both points of view have to be recognized in their validity in order to push the frontier of ignorance back still farther in the future.
So there is a place, and a very important one, for the non-creative person; and this goes for the artist as well as the perceptive thinker. Just as in the realm of science, there are manuals and textbooks that need to be written clearly and succinctly by those who understand thoroughly what is known but aren't making any new discoveries themselves, so in all forms of art there are illustrations that have to be made, music that has to be added to things, carvings to be done, television plays and commercials to be written, and so on and so on; and in such things dramatic new insights that force people to rethink the foundations of what they'd accepted as true in art are not only not helpful, they get in the way of what needs to be said esthetically.
So if you aren't creative, you have nothing to worry about. In the first place, you're probably better adjusted than a genius, as I said in discussing abstraction in Chapter 4 of Section 3 of the third part 3.3.4; and it by no means implies that you should stay away from the arts, any more than not being an Einstein means that you should stay away from science if you are inclined that way. There is plenty to do that needs competent, well-trained artists who understand what they are doing, but don't have the ability or the inclination to take a completely new focus on things.
You will still, of course, go through the process I mentioned above, but will still be within the rules, and so you will know pretty well where you are going and how to get there. And when you do reach the end, you will have said something meaningful, if not new. There are times when "Two and Two are four" needs to be said; and there are certainly much more complex ideas that aren't new that can stand being repeated.
But to return to the artistic process, the artist has got to play judge as well as artist all during the time of producing the work; and here is where what I mentioned earlier about feeling emotions comes into play. An artist has to train himself to be able to feel things but simultaneously to detach himself from what he is feeling, so that he can let the work produce the feeling in him that it actually produces in "the normal human being" (because he's making a statement to others, remember), and not project onto it the emotions he happens to have.
This takes a lot of practice; but it is why artists like Mozart could produce joyous music when they were in the middle of deep depression. They were detached from their own emotions, however strongly they felt them.
One way you can tell whether you are projecting what you want onto the work rather than getting it from the work is the need to justify to yourself what you are doing. That is, if you start saying to yourself, "That patch of red has to be there to balance the ocher on the other side," or "The character had to do this at this time to show that he wasn't typical," then you can be pretty sure your receptivity is telling you that there's something wrong with what you're trying to convince yourself is right.
When you give reasons to justify something in a work of art, they tend to be based on established rules, or on perceptive logic; and when the work is following its own emotional logic, you just "know" that things fit (they "feel right,"), and there is no need to justify them. You might afterwards (or even at the time) be able to give reasons why they are where they are; but the reasons are really irrelevant. Only academics care about such things; people who are looking or listening just get affected by it.
It takes a lot of practice, once again, to get into the state where something's "feeling right" isn't just your creative satisfaction with actually having got something down on paper or canvas. Some people, like Mozart, seem to be born with the ability to do this, just as some people can play the piano by ear; but it's evidently quite hard to acquire, as witness the junk that some people turn out along with their masterpieces. There are a number of plays that Shakespeare wrote that only the most avid historian would want to see, because they just aren't very good. "Even Homer drops off to sleep now and then," says Horace.
One of the most important things the artist as judge has to do is learn to see the work as a whole and to sacrifice parts that, however good they are in themselves, don't contribute to it. In both the esthetic and perceptive realms, this is very hard to do, especially when the parts are very good but won't stand on their own. Horace remarks in the Ars Poetica about the sculptor who could make absolutely perfect fingernails, but never produced a decent statue; and he was the one that coined the phrase about the "purple patch" sewn onto a garment that made the whole thing ridiculous rather than beautiful. There's a lot of good, sane advice in that poem still today.
But let us now assume that you have got your work "in shape," as they say, and found that for you it says what you now want it to say, whatever you might have wanted it to say in the beginning. Let us take a look at it.
You have expressed yourself. This is truer in art than it is in the perceptive realm, because the work not only talks about the fact "out there," it talks about the human being as an emotional being; and so naturally it is going to talk about what you have seen emotionally, and how you saw it.
But it isn't just expression--the productive analogate to Aristotle's catharsis, a kind of emotional eruction. You aren't just expressing yourself, you are first and foremost expressing a fact about the world. You as emotional--sorry, but let's face it--are of supreme uninterest to anyone else, as you can tell from your own reaction to those who tell you all about how they feel about everything, and have, as they say, "I trouble." No, but if your emotional reaction allowed you to discover something true about the world, and insofar as your emotional reaction is transferable to the person who sees the work, you haven't just expressed yourself or expressed a fact, you have communicated this fact to someone--and at the same time established a solidarity between you and this someone as emoters, because he understands what you were trying to say.
This, I submit, is why artists suffer to do their thing; they have something to say, and how they are straitened until it be accomplished. Artists won't grovel and beg for acceptance; they are convinced that what they have to say is true; but they deeply and sincerely want other people to understand it. Not understand them, exactly, but understand what it is that they are trying to say.
But of course, the artist, especially the genius-type of artist who has something new and different to say, always wonders whether he has said something valid, or whether, like Shakespeare writing the bad plays, he is just putting down junk that only seems to mean something because of his desire to say something. There is a kind of depression (which can often be very severe) following completion of a work, where you say, "Well, there it is. Now what do I do with it?" You've said what you have to say; now will anyone listen? Why should they? How much do you listen to someone who comes along and plucks at your sleeve?
This again is not confined to artists. As I write this book, I have the same expectation that nobody is going to be interested in reading it; and I am sure when I finish it that the letdown is going to be overwhelming. Then why am I writing it? Because I know--at least I believe--that I have something to say, something that deserves, even desperately needs to be said and heard, and if I don't say it, then, because of the weird nature of my mind, it simply will not be said. I don't know that it is true, though I am convinced that there's a good deal of truth in it; but it goes directly against what is the accepted wisdom of my age--and in fact a lot of it goes again what is the accepted wisdom of every age before me--and who am I to say that I am right and all these brilliant people are wrong? Nobody. Or somebody who looks at things from a really strange point of view.
And of course, I'm lucky, since if I am right, then you are in fact reading this now, you and so many others like you (all of whom I am watching as you do so), and the ideas--the valid ones, at least--are spreading over the world, just as Mozart's music and Van Gogh's paintings and Rodin's sculptures and all the other works of art and science that nobody paid attention to until the perpetrators died and started shaking up the cosmos. And if I'm wrong and these are just words, never read by anyone, then they don't deserve to be read; and that would satisfy me too (but of course if I'm wrong there's nothing to be satisfied).
Don't expect encouragement, if you're a genius. People will be very concerned to help you not get a swelled head; but that's not really a problem for you, if you're serious. You need someone who knows something to tell you that you've got something there; but if you find someone like that, you have a treasure beyond rubies. Generally speaking, your triumphs will be accepted as a matter of course, "because after all, he's brilliant and everyone knows it, especially himself," and your failures will be called to your attention, just to make sure that you don't get too conceited.
And you will fail. Look at Michelangelo. If you are an artist, especially a genius-type artist, you are bound to fail, because what you produce won't be what you wanted to say. You have to say it materially; but what you understand is spiritual. You have to communicate with someone else; but you can't transfer your concept or even your emotion directly; you have to do something to wake the other person's emotional apparatus up to the very subtle combination of emotions that you need for him to see your concept. And you won't be able to do it as well as you want.
Artists, when asked what they were "trying to say" with their works, are apt testily to respond, "It says what it says; look at it." And of course it does. They know what they intended to say; but if you can't see it, there's nothing they can do to tell you how to look at it; they tried to express themselves as well as they could, and your question simply tells them that in your case, they failed. No wonder they aren't happy with your question. Browning, I think it was, is said to have replied to someone who asked what one of his poems meant, "Madam, when I wrote that, only God and I knew what I meant. Now only God knows."
And, of course, the artist will find that people will get different ideas from his statement than what he intended to say. There is nothing unusual in that. People, even intelligent ones, who have read some of this book already, have interpreted it as saying something totally foreign to what I was at enormous pains to say as clearly as I could. The statement is an object in its own right and it has its own meaning, which may or may not be what you intended it to have.
But this does not mean that we have to grovel at the feet of Derrida and deconstruct everything. Even if we can't express exactly what we intended to say in such a way that it has that and only that meaning once expressed, still, any complicated kind of expression will have only a few meanings that make sense, and all of them will be clustered around the basic meaning. So communication in both the perceptive and the esthetic realm is fuzzy but not hopeless. Otherwise, how could Derrida get across his idea that texts should be deconstructed?
My wife at the moment is struggling with Plato's view on women, and the various authors who have commented on what he said. She keeps coming over to me and saying, "Another one who hasn't read the text!" and quoting some opinion that fits with a few texts but conveniently ignores other places where Plato says the opposite, or which accuse Plato of contradicting himself and not knowing what he is talking about because they say his view on women is the opposite of what he says it is. And so on. Most of these views are only sound if Plato was an idiot; but when you judge Plato, as when in the esthetic realm you judge Beethoven, you aren't judging Plato, Plato is judging you.
And as time goes on and the mind-set of people changes, then the innovative artist who has something to say will be understood, while the mere iconoclast will fall by the wayside and be trampled on by history.
But since art is communication, it expresses something from one person to another person. And as expression of a person, an individual, it is bound to have a style. Each of us has his own way of organizing and arranging data, and the personal quirks will show up in the finished product.
Some artists try to cultivate a style; and of course, to a certain extent, some attention to how you are saying things is laudable. But an artist should not be so enamored of having people know who is speaking that it becomes even of equal importance with what is being said. The only really important thing is what is being said; and if you work to say this as clearly and precisely and forcefully and appropriately as possible--if you subordinate yourself to your statement as well as your medium, as I spoke of earlier--you will find that you have acquired a style without bothering to acquire one. And that is the only genuine style.
"Mannered art" is, of course, something in which how the statement is being made seems of more importance than what is being said. We have the same thing in the perceptive realm in jargon-filled "scientific" papers, or in political speeches. One of the reasons politicians sound so insincere is that it is so obvious that they are concerned with how what they are saying sounds that you get convinced that they don't care about the contents of what they are saying. It is all "image," not content. President Reagan was accused by the news media (who hated him) of being "the great communicator" and putting style above substance; but I heard him, and he came across to me and to most of the American people as actually believing what he said, and be damned to frills and furbelows. He projected sincerity.
People say, "Well yes, but he's an actor, after all." Let me clue you in on something about actors. I think an actor finds it harder to cover up a lie than an ordinary person. Actors can't just "put on" a part like a suit of clothes, and produce little technical tricks that convey the right feeling. This is an actor writing this, by the way. No, an actor has to "put on" the feeling, and then be sincere about it; he is a person who has the capacity to "get inside" some other person's skin, and live that other person's life, understand the logic of that person's behavior; and once he does this, he just expresses what is true.(1)
An actor, like every artist, is not a falsifier; he is a truth-teller. I once got into a bit of a tiff with a director, because I was playing a drunk who had been traveling by bus for months, and he wanted me to have a silver flask instead of a whisky bottle. I told him, "But if I had this, it would have been stolen from me years ago; and I couldn't be bothered decanting my drink into this thing. It just doesn't make sense." He wanted it, nonetheless, and I finally told him, "All right, but if I do this scene the way you want, it'll be George Blair obeying orders, not 'Gerald Lyman' taking a drink." We finally worked out a compromise.
This is the famous "artistic temperament." Artists are emotional, of course, and performing artists are trained to express their emotions. But it's not just a question of tantrums; it's a question of honesty. An artist understands something, and understands something true. If that is contradicted, then obviously the whole enterprise is a waste of time, unless he can be shown that the other point of view is esthetically just as valid. Why suffer to say something false?
But can art be false? Yes indeed. This is what artists are talking about when they refer to "prostitution of one's art," by telling the people what they want to hear, not telling them what is true. Those statues of saints in so many Catholic churches are either lies or mistakes; anyone who loves God can't be that indifferent to his world and the people on it; and anyway, love of God is anything but wallowing in soupy emotionalism; it is hard suffering, trying, as I said in the section on mysticism, to relate to God without any emotion connected with it, and to act in the middle of a feeling of total abandonment.
True, sculptors commissioned to make statues of saints are not necessarily apt to understand this; and so they take the standard view of sanctity, which is repulsive, and turn the saints into pagan gods and goddesses for the unsuspecting to worship, instead of showing them as heroes for people to imitate.
Liturgical music can also be a lie. Here at the point where Catholics believe Jesus the Lord and Master becomes physically present and when his crucifixion is brought into the front of the church, the most solemn and horrible but sublime moment in the whole creation of the universe is introduced with guitars, tambourines, and musical doggerel. And during communion, we used to sing, Like a Bridge over Troubled Waters I Will Lay me Down, filling the fact that we are all cells in one body with sexual overtones.
Let us not call them lies; there are objective esthetic misstatements: things that contradict the facts about what they are trying to talk about. I suspect that Mr. Mapplethorpe's photographs that I spoke of earlier are of this type, because in fact what the people are shown doing to each other is violating each other, whatever they might think they are doing; and this sort of thing could be depicted in such a way that it is shown esthetically to be a violation. If it isn't, then at best it's as much of a false statement as someone's saying with total sincerity and conviction that the earth is flat. No matter how eloquently he pleads his case, the earth is still round.
So art is bad when it contradicts what the facts are: that is, what the emotional relationship is in "the normal human being." It is also bad when it contradicts itself, as when there is a part of it that says esthetically one thing and another part which esthetically says the opposite. I mentioned the poem Lift Her Up Tenderly in this connection earlier.
Art can also be bad when it mistakes the emotion itself or the evocation of emotion for making a statement. This is "sentimental" art, although the emotion can be of any kind. Joyce Kilmer's Trees has been frequently used as an example of bad art of this type. "Poems are made by fools like me,/ But only God can make a tree." Really? Are poems esthetic trifles and are trees that much more beautiful? But the "humility" here (not to mention the hint at arrogance at calling himself a poet) and the devotion to God, who was hinted at earlier by the tree's "lift[ing] her leafy arms to pray," while she has her mouth down at the earth's "sweet loving breast," and a "nest of robins in her hair." (Picture that, if you can.) What he's doing is dragging in images for their emotional impact, not that they go together with any kind of esthetic logic. The unsuspecting come away from the poem feeling good about themselves and the world and Kilmer and are apt to bristle when you tell them that it's just no good. It's like one of James Michael Curley's speeches; gorgeous to listen to, but saying nothing at all.
In any case where the emotion is too strong to support the concept (if any), the art is sentimental. Art can be intense, even overwhelmingly so, as I said; but it's sentimental if the idea expressed is trivial and the emotions are enormous. As Horace said again, "Mountains go into labor, and what is born is a ridiculous mouse." And the reason sentimental art is bad art is that art is essentially an intellectual experience that uses the emotions, not an emotional experience.
As far as what the artist is saying is concerned, it should be pointed out that he is not necessarily just talking about something the work is referring to (as I said, some works are just internally complex and don't have any external referent at all); but some art talks about the artistic process itself. I think that Paul Klee's works, for instance (the things that superficially look like child's drawings), are talking about the different way artists see things from the way most people do. They are very sophisticated, actually, and quite complex; it is only at a very surface level that they are childish. Jackson Pollock, with his "drip" paintings was conveying something of the emotionality of the artist, because the work gives the impression that paint was just flung on the canvas (as in a sense it was); but he actually took considerable pains on where he put things and what part of the original thing lying on the floor he cut out to be hung. So there was a good deal of understanding underneath the apparent abandon of all restraint. Piet Mondrian, with his calculated squares and circles, talks about the opposite side of the artistic process: the calculation. But his works are not simply mechanical; they have esthetic logic to them, not just pattern.
One final remark. There is a difference between art and rhetoric, and it is analogous to the difference in the perceptive realm between science and engineering. Rhetoric is esthetic engineering, or applied esthetics.
Rhetoric is the use of esthetically understood facts to lead people to action.
This is true rhetoric. Of course, the idea is that emotions of themselves incline people toward acting, and give a person deliberating a reason for choosing an act; and if the person understands a fact through the emotions that makes an act desirable, he is much more likely to perform the act than if he understands it with no emotional backing to it. Philosophy is a very bad motivator, because it does not engage the emotions, however reasonable it makes actions appear (as, for example, in ethics).
Of course, there are abuses of rhetoric just as there are abuses of art, of science, and of technology. The main abuse of rhetoric is demagoguery, in which the speaker either tells esthetic lies or doesn't bother to do anything except inflame emotions to arouse people to action on his behalf. Mobs, with people's shared emotions reinforcing each other, and with a reduced sense of personal responsibility because of the social pressure of the others, are particularly susceptible to this sort of manipulation.
But of course, this same sort of chicanery goes on in advertising, which is modern-day rhetoric. Pictures and music are used to enhance the emotional effect of the words, which are basically esthetic statements, not perceptive ones. The object is to make the person think esthetically that he is deprived and somehow dehumanized if he doesn't have the product in question.
This is not to say that advertising as such is fraudulent. Information, after all, can be esthetic as well as perceptive; and if, say, certain clothes make you look attractive, there is no falsehood in picturing them with the appropriate emotional overtones to the picture. Anti-drug or anti-smoking advertisements are not lying if they picture the addict or smoker in disgraceful or unpleasant circumstances; but here again, picturing someone going crazy after smoking one joint is a lie, and as the film Reefer Madness shows, when people catch on to this, it is funny, and in fact has the exact opposite effect from what was intended.
The point is that rhetoric definitely has its uses, just as engineering and technology do. But just as technology is not science (which is interested in facts, and not what you can do with them), so rhetoric is not art.
That is why didactic poetry or "art" that pretends to be art and is really rhetoric fails. It may not fail as rhetoric, as witness Uncle Tom's Cabin, whose author Lincoln is said to have greeted with "So you're the little lady who started this big war." But it fails as art, because art as such simply provides information, and is not intended to lead toward action. And insofar as the person who is approaching a work of art is interested in learning something and finds that he is being exhorted to do something, he tends to resent this, and his resentment interferes with the esthetic effect. Plays, for instance, which demand audience participation are a violation, I think, of the artist-viewer relationship. The artist has something to say; the viewer wants to hear it, not contribute to it, because he recognizes himself as ignorant in these matters, or why would he be here?
But let us leave it to art critics and students of art to discuss the subject further. I think I have said enough to show basically what is going on in art, and to make out a fairly good case that it is both emotional and intellectual and in fact does tell us something about the real world as well as about ourselves as human beings.Next
1.Of course, there are tricks, known by the actor, and they work; and con-men can exploit these tricks to their advantage. The supreme example of this, perhaps, was President Clinton, who convinced millions of people by his "sincerity."