Saturday, September 19, 2009

An Affirmation: great art is inherently public and involves a community between artist and audience

A few days ago I listened to a podcast of a lecture delivered in June, 2009, by David M. Whalen, Professor of English at Hillsdale College, titled "Richard Weaver: The Language of Conservatism." [available in the online lecture library of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a valuable free resource]

I was pleasantly surprised to find in this lecture a strong affirmation of certain elements of my own thinking about the nature of art and the artistic process. I am referring here to my two earlier posts, Art is Inherently Public, and, Art Needs the Engagement of Artist and Audience Both.

In the former post I remarked that artists, if they are to create great art, should not engage in the creative process in an overly self-enclosed way, as though walled-off from the world beyond themselves. To quote myself, I wrote, "art is created for the sake of being seen (or heard) by someone." The artist must continue to care about the world of his audience even as he explores his own unique, inner vision.

In the latter post I commented that the audience as well must be open to the artist and what the artist is communicating through his art. I wrote, "And so the audience also has to engage. They have to be receptive, open, willing to work to discover what the art has to say."

I attempted to sum up these complementary ideas, saying, "considering the whole context in which art truly serves as art including the creation, presentation, and reception by an audience . . . art, when it is fruitful . . . when it succeeds as art-- is endowed with a concurring spirit of openness and receptivity . . . in both the artist and the audience."

So, with this brief review, let us turn to the above lecture by Professor Whalen. His talk used the thinking of 20th century intellectual Richard Weaver as a starting point, especially as found in Weaver's 1948 book, Ideas Have Consquences. Several minutes into the lecture Whalen addressed ideas pertaining to the creation and reception of art. He explained that Weaver had lamented how our modern, industrialized Western culture was becoming less and less civilized. I transcribed the following from Whalen's talk:

Central to [Richard Weaver’s] work and thought, is the argument that a late medieval rejection of transcendentals or universals renders the idea of knowing anything not immediately perceived by the senses impossible.

[. . .] This is part of the gradual orientation toward endless stimulation and the exaltation of the purely imminent. Sensation itself, it seems, has taken the place formerly held by reflection. In modern art, we see the confluence of this tyrannical egotism on the one hand, and the primacy of comfort and transitory, material, or sensual pleasure, on the other. The thesis that somewhere in the past few centuries all forms of art came to be understood as exalted self-expression is hardly novel or terribly controversial. . . . Bereft of ordering concepts that give definition to the human person and to the idea of communities, art is left to express the self in isolation. Ideals pertaining to heroism, or the family, or the city or community, the good life, or even ideals pertaining to artistic form, genre, or type, traditionally animate artistic production. Attenuated by modernity’s turn from abstract ideals these animating principles fade from view, leaving the artist stranded.

Of course, this can be felt as an intoxicating freedom at first . . . no longer does the individual with talent have to deal with tradition. But the absence of ideals is critically compounded in its effects by the simultaneous isolation of the artist. That is, a tradition also is a kind of community. . . Untune that string, and hark what discord follows. The artist is free to express himself, yes. But, he does so in a vacuum; he expresses himself, to himself. Not only ideals are absent, but so is an intelligible audience or community. No longer does Demoticus [sp?], Homer’s bard, sit at the feast and sing his epics to a wondering audience. He sits alone, instead, or perhaps before a lifeless microphone, and chants faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon.

The egotism of this self-expression in isolation has a corollary at the other end, so-to-speak, of artistic production. How is art received? “Egotism,” says Weaver, “in work and art, is the flowering after long growth of a heresy of human destiny. The heresy . . . is that man’s destiny in the world is not to perfect himself, but to lean back in sensual enjoyment.” In other words, while the artist expresses himself to himself in isolation, the receiver of art, if I may say so, looks to amuse himself in isolation. . . . The essential observation is that what one does as a receiver of art [in contemporary society] is merely or purely sensual enjoyment rather than that same enjoyment in the course of participation in a public affirmation of a human ideal.

It seems to me that these remarks harmonize well with the ideas I put forth in my two blog posts about the artistic process. A pleasant affirmation!

And I would like to note that professor Whalen, via Weaver, explains why modern artists have tended to create art in an isolated, self-absorbed mode--and likewise why modern audiences have tended to look to art merely for an an experience of the imminent and for immediate pleasure. Sadly, our respect for the traditions and values of the past has diminished. The habit of self-reflection in light of perennial ideals has become devalued. The primacy of the immediate moment and the experience of pleasure has become dominant. This, for art, is a dual curse--to become detached from the values of one's culture while simultaneously becoming excessively preoccupied with self.

How can we contribute to establishing a culture that once again is capable of fostering and appreciating great art? Somehow, we need to relearn--reconnecting with our past, reaching out of ourselves toward others, and putting the merely pleasurable and immediate in its proper place--how to engage in art in a more fully and truly human mode. Connecting with transcendent reality is essential. This is a challenge which everyone, not only art producers, must strive to meet. If we make progress, perhaps once again we may be blessed by living in a community of persons in which the experience of art, for artists and audiences both, is a genuine "participation in a public affirmation of a human ideal."

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