One suggestion that gets trotted out with regularity is that our motivation for making art is the “human impulse to create and express.”. We make art because we are helpless in the face of this impulse. We simply have to create. We have to get these visions outside ourselves. And yet, I’d like to think that art isn’t simply what gets created or what gets expressed. Its not equivalent. And we can see where it might get tricky. The difference between creating art and creating mayhem would be problematic, and the difference between expressing art and expressing balderdash would get too confusing! I’m not sure how we could make a study of those other things serve our understanding of art! And rather than simply an impulse I’d like to think of it as a choice. Choice implicates responsibility, impulse denies it…..
On the other hand, the presence of beauty in cultures and the seeming need for all cultures to manifest it in their own ways, musically, visually, conceptually, and in any other way we have the capacity to experience does seem close to universal. All cultures recognize the difference between beauty and mayhem, and accept the ethical differentiation of the two. Aesthetics, in fact, is a form of ethics. Perhaps its more congenial to study….
An anthropologist friend of mine once suggested that the idea of ‘beauty’ was in fact universal to human culture simply because we all divide the world into things we like and things we reject. Its part of how we navigate the world. The idea of beauty is both descriptive and normative. And the manifestation and evolution of art has pretty much everything to do with that. What makes the impulse to create art different from the impulse to create havoc is that art is contributed as a positive change to the world. The intentions behind art is that it makes the world better and more livable. Aesthetic experience is almost always seen as a cultural evaluation of ‘the good’. ‘The beautiful’ stands on one end of the cultural divide between the sacred and the profane, good and evil, the sublime and the tawdry, beauty and ugliness, crime and compassion….. It tells us something about the difference between right and wrong. We make art because its the right thing to do, not simply a biological impulse. THIS is what art has historically delivered to the world.
Contemporary art has sometimes moved so far beyond issues of beauty that research into the role and relevance of producing mere ‘beauty’ would be extremely suspect and quite probably laughed at. Which seems a shame….
Still, researching how we got from there to here would be instructive. This research could possibly lend valuable perspective to understanding the evolution of differences in production and what this means for an art industry. If art is an expression, then its something that has evolved over the years. And if it expresses particular values, then we must ask how those values play out. Do situations where individuals are personally responsible for its care and maintenance, and where it has been turned into merely an audience satisfying consumer commodity have an affect on how art is experienced? That almost seems like an anthropological question. And the art world is even now struggling with the implications of making the divide between artists and audience so impenetrable. It has become a real issue whether the change from a democratized production of beauty to placing it exclusively in the hands of a priestly class is working out for us….. Perhaps this is a question that needs a lot more study….
Is there even a connection to be made between art education, the personal responsibility for beauty (nominally ‘creativity’), and a larger sense of responsibility in the world? Is an artist’s mandate to recreate the world a moral expression in the sense that all beauty production follows a normative trail? And that by rejecting beauty in art we have somehow absolved ourselves from the basis of art’s traditional moral implication? That much of contemporary art is, in fact, now morally ambiguous? That the project of art has become unmoored from its earlier foundation, and we are drifting? That we push the boundaries of the new simply because we are so well suited to being explorers?
I blame Dada! But then, also, I love Dada. It has pushed us to ask questions that we need to ask. And perhaps even helped us realize that the questions themselves are as important as any answers. That often its better to have a poor answer to the right question than a brilliant answer to the wrong question. The questions are the new directions we are following. And if anything can replace the normative value of our earlier conventions its the new questions we ask…. I think postmodern plurality isn’t necessarily a rejection of all values but an opportunity for us to provisionally and pragmatically choose between them and to invent others as needed. Its our best example of multiculturalism at work….
The age we live in is an age of questions. Much of what our culture pretends is that we have the answers already, but for many important issues I’d dispute that. What exactly IS art? If no two people exactly agree, then its clearly not only one thing. So, do we sell art short by simply assuming what we already know, or do we look a bit closer and take a wider view of its diverse manifestations? Won’t understanding the full depth and breadth of art only serve us in the long run?
And we need all hands on deck. We need to make these questions multidisciplinary. The time for keeping our eyes peeled only to a microscope here, an fMRI machine there, the numerical studies of economists and statisticians, all in isolation from one another, is quite probably over. Working only in sovereign independence may turn out to be our most egregious example of ‘divided we fall’….. Can our new research not cover these bases?
Make beauty real!
I just read a great article that examines three recent books that each attempt to explain human aesthetic appreciation as an evolutionary adaptation. Its a long article but fascinating and powerfully argued. Here is the conclusion that Adam Kirsch offers:
Another great article (by David P. Barash) that discusses evolutionary biology and how rather than explaining things like art it leaves room for it:
Yet another great article (by Ethan Watters), this time critiquing the motivations and methods of western social sciences:
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