Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is Art?

... As we attempt to synthesize the various perspectives on art in this chapter, we might start by addressing art in form and art in function.  In form, art is a matter of the human senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.  So when we think of art, we think of things like paintings, sculptures, architecture, drama, novels, music, and good cooking. These all involve our senses--often combinations of senses.

However, for such things to be art in function, someone must perceive them to be art.  In that sense, something can be art to me that is not art to you.  Something can be art to its creator and not art to anyone else.  The key is that someone finds in something created by someone an embodiment of meaning or skill that is not literal or mechanical. [1]

Art is often a function of human emotion or pleasure.  The artist may express feelings about something.  An audience may have emotions as they experience a piece of art.  Art can of course also communicate rational truth, but it does so in a non-literal or symbolic way.  The painting represents a truth rather than simply telling it.  A novel creates a world that embodies truths or feelings without presenting the literal world.

Someone may consider something a work of art because it embodies skills that not everyone has.  Something evokes pleasure in the perception of the skill it embodies.  There can be an art to writing even when a person is writing about math or science.  The idea of a skill was in fact the original meaning of the word "art."  We might thus define art as the expression of something meaningful to someone in a skillful or non-literal way in the form of something perceived by the senses.

[textbox: Art]

Beyond this definition, are there criteria by which we might evaluate the value of art, especially as Christians?  Is beauty only in the eye of the beholder?  Certainly by our definition we cannot deny any individual the right to define something as art that only they find to be art.

Yet there is also something to be said for art that, as Tolstoy said, has an infectious quality.  We can suspect that the kind of art that is infectious in one time and place may not be infectious in another.  What one generation or culture finds appealing and desirable, another may not.  Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, admired today for its brevity and clarity, was not as admired in a day when more embellishment was the norm.  William Shakespeare's plays were considered unsophisticated to the elite of his day.  And Paul in the New Testament reveals that according to the style of his time, "his speech [is] contemptible" (2 Corinthians 10:10, NRSV).

But it is surely also by no coincidence that centuries of individuals have found the works of artists like Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) to be art at its best.  Is it because they have captured something about the order God placed into the world?  Is it because they have expressed some common dimension of the human psyche?  Is it because they were able to do things none of us could imagine doing?  Perhaps it is all these things.

Most Christians believe in beauty and (appropriate) pleasure for their own sake.  While many Christians throughout the ages felt the need to make Song of Solomon into a metaphor for Christ and the church, it was originally poetry about sex and love, plain and simple.  We find acrostic poetry in Lamentations and Psalm 119, where the first word of each verse intentionally begins with a different letter of the alphabet.  Lamentations 1, 2, 4, and 5 have 22 verses, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Lamentations 3 goes through the alphabet three times.

These and other artistic expressions in the Bible serve no rational purpose.  They are purely a function of beauty and artistry.  Many of the psalms are expressions of sadness or thanksgiving or anger.  The purpose of such psalms was not to communicate truth--they do not give a proposition to evaluate. [2] They are expressions of God's people with which we can identify.  We can thus agree with Oscar Wilde that art does not always have to have a purpose other than enjoyment or an expression of meaning.  Art most often falls in the category of adiaphora--things that are morally neutral.  

To be sure, from a Christian perspective, art can also have both positive and negative moral dimensions.  We can say with Tolstoy that art that tends to promote virtue in its audience has a positive moral dimension.  We can say with Aristotle and even Marcuse that art can be cathartic in a way that purges us of unhealthy emotions so that we can think or act with greater clarity or virtue.  For this reason, art that embodies sadness or anger is not clearly negative in effect.

But we can also say with Plato that art can be used to manipulate in a negative direction.  And we can find Marcuse's sense of art dangerous when it is the expression of an evil heart.  Art is an embodiment of evil when it is an expression of an evil heart, and art is negative when it embodies or promotes vice and evil in those who perceive it.

Most of us live in a culture where freedom of expression is a primary value, but freedom is never absolute.  In secular American culture, I am free to express myself in speech or religion if such things do not lead to violence or a violation of the rights of others.  Even from a secular perspective, there are limits to freedom of expression.

The limitations you want to put on others from a Christian perspective will differ in keeping with the view you have of how Christians should relate to the society around them, as we saw in the previous chapter.  Christians who see the world through a deterministic lens may want to force the rest of society to conform to their Christian values.  Christians who believe God has given us free will by contrast will lean toward allowing others to express themselves in negative ways, as long as it does not harm the innocent.

[1] We can of course by extension speak of God as the consummate artist in his creation of the world.  And we can always make metaphors of such things--our dog is an artist in the way she arranges her food around the kitchen floor.

[2] In such cases, words like "inerrant" or "infallible" do not really relate to the genre in question.


FrGregACCA said...

For an Orthodox perspective, see the following:

"Beauty will save the world."

Ken Schenck said...

Don't you ever sleep? ;-) I'm in Germany so that's my excuse.

davey said...

Surely, art is not anything anyone finds meaningful. There is a deluge of things that cannot be called art being produced these days by Fine Arts graduates, whose explanations of meaningfulness in their art are on the same level as their art.

Ken Schenck said...

I would say it is art if they really find it an expression of themselves, although not infectious art (e.g., paint cans...). Some things no one else has any interest in can also involve great skill that is mainly recognized by specialists.

davey said...

There are some things one needs to gain background in to appreciate, fair enough. But, I think much produced these days is not like that. If something is proffered as art that is not justifiable as such to others, but only hailed by those immersed in the same type of thing, then it is not art, eg Malevich's Black Square.

John C. Gardner said...

Art can provoke contemplation, a sense of justice and the emotions connected with war(e.g. Picasso's Guernica). Tom Wright holds that beauty is one of the signposts in a fog that can lead us to God.

FrGregACCA said...

Ken, I have a third shift secular job as a hotel night auditor. Frankly, I would much rather be sleeping right now. ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Art is the study of "the human". Human bodies, human experience, human emotion and human taste in design are all art forms.

Some people are uncomfortable with how artists express themselves.

Some question whether art is reflective of culture or whether art is a "fore-runner" of "things to come".

Some artists have deeper messages represented in their art, while others represent things "as they are". Styles reflect the period in which the art was created.

Art is representative of "the human" as it reflects the interest, ideals and taste of the artist.

Ken Schenck said...

At least you can catch up with your blogging, FrGreg ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Isn't FrGregACCA finding artistic expression in his blog posts?

The questions is whether he "represents God", or IS God!

The former is theologically oriented, as faith believes in "God" "out there".

The later believes in maturity in coming to terms with life and committing to one's own purposes.

FrGregACCA said...

Angie, the only thing that makes one God, coming to share in the Divine Nature, is becoming Love.