Friday, July 09, 2010


For Tim’s “vooks” (meaning print mixed with videos) I’ve been experimenting with sound and sometimes I send him a photo which he puts into the mix. The subjects are often suggested by the boys. This one was joining the chorus of the ages in asking “what is art?” I’m not sure about how to post sound files to my blog though Darrell Reimer ( ) generously coached me along this far and I have the directions to begin doing podcasts. But this morning I’ll just post the “script” I used for Tim last night.

In 1960 when I was taking Philosophy of Religion from Paul Schilpp, a Very Important Philosopher, he gave us a definition of art that is derived from religion. He said, “Art is an expression of the relationship between man and the universe.” That was before feminism. Now he’d have to say between a human and the universe. Lately it has been said that what is unique to human beings is their capacity to create art.

I got in a big argument with Schilpp because I insisted that art is the COMMUNICATION of a relationship between a person and the universe. I was taking acting classes and the emphasis there was communicating with the audience. Reciting soliloquies all by yourself was just practice, honing your skills, and not art. Religious devotion might be an expression of the relationship between a person and the universe in whatever guise -- God, angel, saint, demon or dove -- with no acknowledgment of the message.

There is a two-sidedness to art in that it takes technique and the mastery of materials and all that, but also it requires an emotional/spiritual investment. Making a computerized three-dimensional copy of a person is right on the line between the two and its success probably depends upon the choice and pose of the person. But it will never have the expressiveness of something Rodin squeezed up full of gesture and passion and not much accuracy. Sometimes a child will capture the essence of something without any particular skill or experience, simply by feeling it and letting it come through them.

Art is two-sided when it is based on communication because there is a sender and a receiver. In fact, it’s possible to be a receiver of what is often called “God’s creation” without any perceptible Maker. A landscape, an animal, or even a manufactured object can be beautiful if the viewer can see the beauty in it. Viewing is an art. An elephant can paint a picture but it’s not art until a viewer sees art in it. A good art teacher is one who can see art in a beginner’s work and by explaining what he or she sees, help the amateur increase it.

Art is two-sided when it is therapeutic: self-expression can drive shaped and healing results or it can be obsessive without being particularly beneficial to the artist, or it can just be a big mess but also shift something deep inside that needed moving. Something like the same two-sidedness is in political art, but that’s tricky. Soviet tractor art was considered really ugly for a long time -- then when it wasn’t imposed by the government and was viewed with a little nostalgia, it became appealing. Of course, there is a powerful tradition that many Great Artists were driven and possibly schizophrenic, but that leads the artist who is a little crazy into a trap: His or her art will have to be judged excellent enough to justify the artist’s lack of adjustment. Or art done by some nice well-adjusted person might be criticized for not being passionate and daring. Personally, I dislike the pretty, the nice, the conventional. I say let ‘er rip.

Arts must be marketed and that means REALLY entering the swamp. The arts of one period or place are not appealing to another period or place. Much of critical and financial success is simply being in the right time and place: being a wonderful landscape painter just as interior decoration turns to colors and arrangements that are a perfect setting for landscapes. Or being a male dancer when there is choreography and an audience for the special qualities of male dancers: strength, leaps, control. Beethoven born into a time when all music is played on a tin penny whistle might be in trouble. On the other hand, he might be the most wonderful penny whistle composer ever heard. But a reclusive poet who must have peace and quiet is not going to be a good promoter of his art at massive social events.

Now that we’ve gotten all that stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the real meaning of art, to the artist. The hell with the audience, the critics, the fame and fortune, the therapy, and all that. Art is a response to a welling-up urge from inside that might be a vision or a melody or a movement, but that demands that you give it life. Something has piled up inside, transformed, and wants to be real. You begin somehow -- maybe you just KNOW where or maybe it takes a little experimenting -- and then, with luck, you are working right at the edge of what you can do. It’s not too easy and it’s not too hard, it’s right on that sweet boundary where you and the work become one thing. Time stands still. There’s joy -- even GLEE in it.

But there’s another way. Something calls you that is mysterious. Your art tries to answer it, but there are only more questions, you feel a painful mystery but there’s nothing to do but go on with it and hope that work will bring you through to an understanding, a resolution. When you finish, it takes a while to understand what you’ve made. Maybe someone even has to tell you. Art is an exploration of the universe inside of you.

Art is life. Art is being human. Art is transcending being human. Art is the generosity of the universe. Art is the forge and anvil of interior life. Art is wings. So fly, baby, fly. Teach me to say it in French.

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