What Makes Art?

“From the eighteenth century onward, enlightened opinion has held that art plays an important part in the life of the individual and society, some would say a decisive part.” (Lionel Trilling)

It has been said that if four artists were to sit down on a hillside and paint a landscape the result would be four entirely different paintings. The reason, of course, is that each artist interprets what she sees differently. I would argue that it is precisely the interpretation that makes art. The artist does not merely copy what she sees (as Plato would have it), she creates an entirely new work each time. It’s what makes art art and not, say, craft. The two differ in that one respect.

There are craftsmen who can reproduce what they see in exact detail. Some of their works are more accurate than a photograph. With rare exceptions, what they produce are not works of art. There may be artistic elements in the craftsman’s work — the determination of what to copy, the arrangement of the items in the work, and the like. But the work as a whole usually lacks the truly creative element and this is what is essential: art is so much more than a mere copy.

Johann Sebastian Bach
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In performance, the artist creates a new work every time she performs a work. I recall in college when we were discussing Bach’s “Goldberg’s Variations,” we listened to a performance recorded by Wanda Landowska — regarded at the time as one of the very best harpsichordist in the world. The tutor who was leading the discussion — himself a performing artist (and a Jew who had been sent to a Nazi prison camp where he had his fingers smashed so he could no longer play the piano. That’s what they did.) — continually noted that Landowska was repeating and/or playing slower than Bach had indicated in the score. The tutor did not regard this as a fault. Rather, he insisted that this was the mark of the true artist as performer: taking the work as written and interpreting it in her own individual manner. This was the creative artist performing the work of a creative genius.

Many years later I recall listening to a recording of a Bach organ piece I was familiar with played by a friend of mine in which he played the piece much, much slower than anyone else I had ever heard play the piece. He admitted it was much slower than Bach had even intended. But it was the way he thought the piece should be played. It was his interpretation: it was his work of art — courtesy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The dancer interprets the music she dances to and the actor interprets the character he plays on the stage. No two dancers will dance the same dance the same way — and the same dancer will likely dance it differently each time she performs the piece. So also with the actor. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman is unique. The element of interpretation is the creative element which makes each performance a work of art. The music on the sheet or the lines in the script are in themselves works or art — or they can be. But the performance is a new creation each time it is performed.

The craftsman, as mentioned, can reproduce an exact copy — at times with exceptional accuracy. Norman Rockwell regarded himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. He worked from photographs and the results were remarkable in their own way. But they were not works of art — with a few rare exceptions. The element of interpretation was missing almost always as Rockwell simply chose to reproduce what he saw. And he did this with remarkable skill. His works are highly treasured as the works of a man who could present us with scenes from ordinary life that generated strong sympathetic responses. But those responses are the same that we might feel if we were to see a photograph of the same scene, or reflect back on scenes from our childhood. They are not the responses that a truly sensitive person feels when regarding a work of art; they are not aesthetic responses . The spectator, in the latter case, responds to the mysterious element of creativity, that sudden expression that suggests the artist’s interpretation of what was seen.

In art, therefore, we have three different elements: the artist herself who paints, sculpts, composes, performs, or plays; the work itself which must contain the element of creative interpretation; and the response of the spectator who also interprets. Each work is unique, as is each performance and each response. It’s no wonder, then, when no two people agree about the same work of art — because no two people see the same thing and the object itself is highly suggestive, rich with possibilities.

This does not mean we cannot discuss art, of course. There is still something “out there” that we respond to in our own way. The person who is practiced in viewing art will often be able to point out features that another might miss and there may be features of the work that have yet to be uncovered and that we can come to see or hear if we open ourselves to it and to one another. But the point is that there is something to discuss and agree or disagree about. It’s not all a matter of opinion. Not by a long shot!

And it is one hellovalot more interesting and enriching than the toys we have become fascinated with.

That’s Your Opinion!

We are fond of saying “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.” In a sense that’s true. But in another sense it is absurd. As George Berkeley once said, all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Why would one be entitled to hold an opinion that is blatantly false? For example, why should a person be entitled to hold the opinion that the earth is flat or that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time — as an alarming number of high school biology teachers in a recent Texas poll apparently believe? I mean, obviously a person can hold such an opinion, but why on earth would they want to? As Plato noted long ago, there is such a thing as right opinion — and such a thing as wrong opinion. One would think that we would want to jettison the latter and develop the former. I take it that “right” opinions are those that have intellectual support: they are reasonable. At some point right opinions become facts and dispute at that point is out of the question for reasonable people, though Congress will continue to debate their truth.

In the case of the shape of the earth or the time when humans lived on earth vis-a-vis the dinosaurs, opinions can be argued sensibly and evidence can be brought forward. But in the case of art and ethics, it is widely believed, it is open season on opinions: anything goes. I would contend that this is a wrong opinion. In ethics and art there are sound and unsound opinions: some claims can be supported by evidence and argument while others cannot. And like opinions about the shape of the earth, our job is to jettison the unsound opinions and develop the sound ones. Let’s take a couple of examples.

In ethics I might claim that the skin-heads are right to stand up for white supremacy. This is a value judgment and it is clearly unsound. There is no evidence whatever to support this claim: no evidence that whites are “superior” to any other race of humans. We have a value judgment based on a biological falsehood.  In any event, we have an example of an ethical claim that can be argued, defended, rejected, or accepted on the grounds of support and evidence. It’s not JUST an opinion.

In art a case can be made that some works are better than others because of the remarkable craftsmanship and lively imagination they exhibit. But after the case has been made, we can still like the inferior work. No matter how strong a case I make that Vermeer’s “Maiden With A Pearl” is a better work than Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover with the family bowing their heads over a Thanksgiving meal, one might still prefer the latter to the former. In that sense there’s no disputing taste. But experts can make strong cases for some works of art simply being truly remarkable and in some sense of that word “great,” whether we like them or not. The same can be said in literature, poetry, sculpture, and dance. Some works are good and some are really quite bad — again, whether we like them or not. In a word, some opinions are simply stronger than others. The evidence can be brought forward and reasons mustered on one side or the other.

In the realm of ethics and the fine arts opinions never reach the realm of facts, strictly speaking. There will always be room for debate because even though we might see the point of the evidence and argument that supports a claim — that Vermeer’s painting is better than Rockwell’s, for example — we might still prefer Rockwell, as mentioned above. The mind might assent, but the heart may be slow to follow. But the point I want to make is that discussion and rational argument have a place at the table of ethics and the fine arts just as do claims made about the shape of the earth, the desirability of certain types of treatment for illness, or the question of climate change. There are facts and there are sound or reasonable opinions and they need to be separated from the trash of half-truths, weak opinions, and absolute nonsense. This reasoning applies to the determination of who would make the better President as well.

Rock as Ruck

I am stealing this title from an article I read a while back and have long since lost. In the article, the author insisted that there are clear differences between “rock” music — by which he meant nearly all popular music — and “classical” music. The article aroused considerable interest and even passion as people jumped at the opportunity to defend their own taste in music and pillory the intellectual snob who wrote the article, knocking popular music, the music they love. That’s two things we are very good at these days, not listening and shooting the messenger. It’s precisely because we don’t listen very well that popular music is popular, while shooting the messenger is just something we like to do — and it’s easier than responding to what he happens to say. I will return to the issue of our unwillingness (inability?) to listen in a moment. In the meantime, what about the claim that there are important differences between popular music and classical music? I would contend that the claim is well founded.

Popular music, on the whole, is popular for the very same reasons that movies and TV sit-coms are popular: it requires no effort whatever on the spectator’s part. You just sit there and watch or listen. In the case of popular music, it isn’t even necessary to listen. It is often the case that popular music is turned up (loud) and ignored — except by annoyed neighbors or, in the case of cars passing by with the radio on and the windows wide open, people on the street. But popular music is “easy listening,” and depends on fairly simple melodies, repetition and pleasant harmonies attended by pulsating rhythms, usually in the base. Those are the sounds that go right through your head as the car passes on the street with its windows open!

Classical music, on the other hand, has more for the mind to get ahold of. It requires a good ear, memory, and careful listening. That is, it requires an effort — just like fine painting or sculpture. We must meet it half way, at least. As a rule, classical music does not rely on repetition. If there is repetition, it is employed for the sake of developing a musical theme. Classical music can be programmatic, or it can be “pure.” Programmatic music is the sort of music you hear and see pictured in Disney’s Fantasia, or “Pictures at an Exhibition,” by Mussorgsky. Many aestheticians insist that pure, non-programmatic music is the highest expression of art that is possible: it does not refer beyond itself or conjure up images as programmatic music does, or indeed many other art forms do. It demands undivided attention to itself and holds the attention of the spectator by virtue of the qualities the composer has put into it. And hearing all that is going on takes great concentration and an ability to connect themes.

We could say, then, that popular music appeals to the gut, whereas classical music appeals to the head, though that’s a tad simplistic. Some classical music is positively gut-wrenching, while some popular music can be quite sophisticated. We are dealing in generalities here, and I will stuck by my general rule.

To attempt a parallel, let’s consider Norman Rockwell’s paintings. Rockwell referred to himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. And he was right. His paintings were extremely well crafted, but they rely on common, home-spun themes that are downright sentimental: families gathered around the table for a Thanksgiving meal, kids fishing, or old men curled up on a sofa — always with a dog nearby. They were designed to provoke fond memories, not evoke aesthetic responses. They do not reward repeated viewings, and do not require the effort that all real art demands. They are well crafted and Rockwell certainly knew what he was doing — even if he usually worked from photographs (a tip-off). They lack the spontaneity and creativity that a fine painting by Vermeer or Rembrandt does, for example, which seeks to transcend the ordinary. That’s precisely why Rockwell is popular while Vermeer is not. Real art takes a lot of work to be enjoyed fully, and we seem disinclined to make that effort. Accordingly, popular music “sells” while classical music is rapidly passing out of fashion. If you are able to find classical music on iTunes, for example, you usually find it in the form of movements from concertos or symphonies. Rarely do you find the complete works; it’s just too much to ask of busy people. M.P.R. has also taken to playing segments of classical works. And classical CDs are no longer made in this country as they simply don’t sell.

To see the differences between popular and classical music (or art) you need only reflect on what the word “popular” means and ask yourself why something is popular. It is so precisely because it is readily accessible to a great many people who are usually busy doing something else. Popular music — especially country/western music which appeals to pure, unadulterated sentimentality (like Rockwell’s paintings) — is part of the “dumbing down” of America I wrote about in a previous blog. It is a product of the entertainment industry, and is not to be considered art in the true sense of that word.

Is “rock” then “ruck”? It is for those who prefer classical music to popular music, though I know many who like both, for different reasons. One really doesn’t have to choose sides on this issue. It is possible to enjoy popular music of all types, while also wanting to listen to classical music when the mood strikes and the person is willing to make the effort it requires to enjoy it fully.