Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Art is Inherently Public

Being someone who was very involved with the arts as a teen (music primarily, but photography as well), I remain very interested in art (in the summer after my freshman year I actually switched my college major to photography but switched again to biology before the semester started) and I like to ponder how the big questions of life intersect with the world of the arts. Art and philosophy seem to have a certain natural affinity with each other. (Aesthetics is considered a branch of philosophy.)

Here is a statement that I would claim is true about any form of art, if it is truly to serve as art: art is inherently public.

This statement probably either strikes you as obvious, or, you wonder what I mean.

Simply, I mean that art is created for the sake of being seen (or heard) by someone. The finished creation exists 'for' a public other--someone other than the artist himself.

Who has heard of a composer who writes music never intending any of it to be heard only so that he can play it to himself in his own mind? I am referring in this post to a person who has a vocation to be an artist, who understands art to be his (or her) primary work in life. Sure, an amateur may create something as a hobby or simply for his own enjoyment never intending it to be seen by others. But I am speaking here about the artist who works as a professional. Or, at least, someone who has genuine gifts of artistic talent which he develops seriously whether or not it becomes his main source of income.

My reason for stating that art is inherently public and what I mean by this is primarily to get to this: there are significant consequences for the process of artistic creativity that follow upon the fact that it is in the nature of art to be created for others--for a public to see/hear.

What are these consequences? There are probably several, but I would like to try to shed some light on at least one. The process of creating a work of art is both highly personal (in a way very particular to the individual artist), and, generous. Generous meaning selfless, humble before and deliberately mindful of the multifarious realities of the artist's (and his intended audience's) own culture, time, and place. Both he and his audience approach any work of art with a background. The artist and his society have a history with artworks of the past and communicate within a certain culturally influenced context of signs and symbols. There is a base of literary, historical, and traditional influences that significantly form the mental and spiritual world of the communities of which the artist is a part. If his art is to have enduring power and meaning for anyone other than himself, the artist must keep in mind this background as he creates. He must care about the world of his audience. In this sense, the vocation of a good artist, while remaining very personal, requires a certain ability to step outside of self and take upon himself the eyes of his "people," whomever they may be.

Why do I write about this? Because I think that the art world, at least that of Western societies, has over the course of the last century or so lost sight of this. Artists, it seems, are encouraged (or, perhaps they do this on their own) to create art in a way that cares only for the self. Some art, at least, seems to have lost any regard for the audience. Some art seems to be an exercise in solipsism--totally and exclusively wrapped up in the interior world of the artist and thus highly self-indulgent. Art that is made in this solipsistic mode does not make the effort of being interested in the cultural context of the viewing public. It is analogous to the artist talking to himself in a mirror in his own unique language; there is an onlooker to the side (the audience), but the artist doesn't care for he is interested in talking only to himself. If others want to look on, fine, but he is not concerned for whether they gain anything by it. An artist with real talent who makes this mistake does great injustice to his calling as an artist.

Some art (music as well as the visual arts, theater and dance) made in the Western world of the last century or so has this unfortunate quality of being essentially an exercise in solipsism--of the artist interacting solely with himself. When this happens, I would claim, genuine art is not being made. Because, as I said above, I don't think art is truly art, and cannot serve the inherently public role of art, if it is not made with the common inner world of some public--of some community beyond the artist himself--in mind. The genius of a great artist is displayed, in part, in how he can creatively and generously weave the interior world of the public 'for whom' he creates together with his own unique inner world. In so doing, he can make art that communicates something meaningful to the public. He may thus produce something which endures, which might be accessible to the minds and souls not only of the people of his era, but for generations to come.

This is harder than simply "being true to oneself" (a euphemism for self-indulgence). Art is supposed to communicate something meaningful to other people. To do this, you have to have something in the medium of communication that the audience can understand on some level. In other words, in the history of art (until recent times, anyways), art has never been understood primarily as a means of self-therapy for the artist. It may be this secondarily--but not primarily.

I have hope that there is positive development on this front. But the development is slow.

I conclude with a quote from the 19th century English artist (and socialist!), William Morris, which captures the spirit of what I am getting at:

I do not believe in the possibility of keeping art vigorously alive by the action, however energetic, of a few groups of specially gifted men and their small circle of admirers amidst a general public incapable of understanding and enjoying their work. I hold firmly to the opinion that all worthy schools of art must be in the future, as they have been in the past, the outcome of the aspirations of the people towards the beauty and true pleasure of life.
[as quoted in, "When art Was by and for the people," by John Robson, 6/20/09, mercatornet.com]

[Thank you, Rachel! Our recent conversation inspired this post.]

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