For about fifty years I’ve asked this question, off and on. Maybe I’d have done better off just to DO it, but… ‘the philosopher is strong in this one’.
So, ‘Art’ was one thing I found very slippery to define, so I kept worrying away at it, even while I avoided doing it. (Acknowledgements required: When I was a Christian I found Hans Rookmaaker’s ‘Modern Art and the Death of a Culture’ helpful in allowing me to do at least a bit of art while still shackled to the evangelical imperative; and more recently (though I am not an Ayn Rand disciple) the ‘Romantic Manifesto’ by Ayn Rand. Her argument that art is the expression of a sense of life obtained through a philosophy of life is very clear. Also (though I find Schopenhauer’s general attitude and pessimism hateful) ‘The World as Will and Representation’ has some good things to say about art as a means to ascend through the vivid perception of the particular to be the ‘pure, will-less, painless, timeless’ perception of the transcendent and general. And Robert Pirsig’s life-changing ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, really all about art, really did change my whole life; as did Nietzsche, despite his proto-nihilism.)
Now I feel I am brimming with answers, but mostly hungering to just do it and let the answers inform the art. Happy state, to be guarded against all that would divert this conative energy into lesser tasks and diversions of all kinds! Narrow is the Way that leads to the enchanted land of Art… ‘O afternoon of my life! What have I not given away that I might have one thing: this living plantation of my thoughts, and this dawn of my highest hope!’ (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra)
So, while the ebook soundtracks upload for about my last ebook upload customer (touch wood), I’ll say what Art is. IMHO.
Art is being vividly conscious in the World, not on autopilot, sleepwalking, but intentional, conscious and self-conscious, and communicating something of what you sense (see, feel, hear, taste, imagine, conceptualise, understand, intuit) when in that heightened – enchanted – state.
Or, as Robert Pirsig says, ‘Art is high-quality endeavor’.
But a precondition for high-quality endeavour of any kind is a high-quality structure of knowledge and belief, within which to frame that lucid awareness and that endeavour. This is where art can be ‘high’ or ‘low’, depending on the quality, breadth and depth of the structure of ideas in which it is set.
What has happened to ‘fine’ Art, when so much of the production of modern artists in galleries seems so ugly, silly or pointless to people who take pride in doing high quality work but would never call themselves ‘artists’?
Well, first, there is good art and bad art. Bad art is mixed, conscious with unconscious/derivative/insincere/crude/hateful even; framed within a narrow, faulty philosophy of life.
Secondly, some good art is about something bad the artist feels the need to protest/point out/ridicule/expose. So it will (partly) not feel good – there will be some discord. But good art still enchants and ennobles even while it saddens or angers. It doesn’t demean our existence, but gives us a sense explicitly or implicitly of an alternative, something good, something which is not that bad thing.
Bad art about bad things is merely rubbing our noses in badness (or meaninglessness). It’s loveless and joyless, disenchanted. There’s a lot of it about. It’s a cheap shot at life. It’s had a very, very long run, this kind of art, a century or more. Modern art of this ignoble, shameful kind should be refuted and banished from our galleries by total lack of sales (and replaced with good art sold with a good conscience), but modern philosophy (I mean the philosophy which is approved by the zeitgeist and therefore the universities) has no means to refute bad art or anything else bad, since it has itself become corrupted, by materialism, nihilism and relativism. Bad art is the offspring and creative expression of bad philosophy, and both together have presided over the gradual disintegration of the foundations of our civilisation. The Emperor of our culture is clothed in the filthy rags of its bankrupt father, the philosophy of materialism, relativism and nihilism.
The reason I love Art is because I know there is such a thing as Quality, such a thing as Good, such a thing as Truth, and I love to see those things shining through the particulars of things as portrayed in art.
Love, Beauty, Truth and Freedom, honoured in a coherent philosophy, and in word and deed, will at least set the stage for good art. Then we have to Just Do It. Whatever form it takes, in galleries or architecture or writing or everyday life. The final aim of Art is the ‘re-enchantment of everyday life’. All of it.
Now that would be a Renaissance worth painting for! That’s the kind of art I will do while the sun still rises and I am still here to greet it. Here at the Quarry Arts Centre, probably, I hope. It’s a Good Place to be at, this afternoon of my life! Once I was a young man, and I worried about what to do when I grew up; now I am grown up, and I realize with Zarathustra that the final ‘metamorphosis of the spirit’ is to become the Child again, but with full powers of understanding and experience.
A final point, about Freedom, that controversial precondition for the truly creative artist to do his or her best art. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says the the ‘reverential, weight-bearing camel’ of the spirit must become a lion:
‘My brothers, why is the lion needed in the spirit? Why does the beast of burden, that renounces and is reverent, not suffice? To create new values – even the lion is incapable of that: but to create itself freedom for new creation – that the might of the lion can do. To create freedom for itself and a sacred No even to duty: the lion is needed for that, my brothers.
…’But tell me, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion cannot? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.’
(Of the Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit, from ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’, translation by Walter Kaufmann)
So, a last unscientific postscript on art: it is the way we must go to become truly free, and ‘become what we truly are’ (Nietzsche again) – creative, playful, childlike, transcendent, godlike. Of such is the republic of Art and Eutopia.