Wednesday, May 23, 2012
The Nature of Art, Part 1
By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg
Today, I’m going to write very briefly on a topic that requires an extensive discussion. But it seems to me that in writing this short article, I’ll be able to gain greater clarity on this topic—really, the topic underlying Alex’s and my blog.
What is the basis for evaluating art? That is to say, why is good art good, and bad art bad? Now, many months ago I wrote an article entitled “What Makes a Good Movie ‘Good’?”, and while it had some decent insights, I think that really, I missed the big picture. In that article, I identified several aspects that viewers typically say helps to make a movie ‘good’, but I failed to say how these several aspects can be unified under the term of ‘good’, and also how movies are subsumed under the larger category of art.
My task in this article is to briefly explore both the nature of art and a method by which, I believe, one should critique art.
First, the all-important question must be asked: what is art—what is the overall definition by which all things come to be known as ‘art’? Although this is a question requiring tireless effort, I’ll simply state the conclusions that I’ve reached thus far in my short life. Art is any thing whose meaning is inherently invested in its medium of expression. Now, that’s a confusing and convoluted phrase, so bear with me. By “meaning”, I mean whatever evocations are essentially important to the thing under discussion. By “inherently invested”, I mean that this meaning is inextricably tied to this thing’s medium of expression. And by “medium of expression”, I simply mean the way in which this thing expresses itself. For instance, let’s consider as our piece of art Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”. This painting’s meaning might be as simple as a statement on the physical beauty of women, or something more complex, along the lines of the mysteriousness many people hold behind their faces. Now, what makes this a piece of art is that the meaning one may get out of this painting is inherently invested in its medium of expression—that is, the various techniques that da Vinci employed in order to create the image, the various aspects that make it a painting. Essentially, what I’m saying is this: the meaning of the painting can most fully be found in analyzing its nature as a painting.
Another example might be, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The meaning of this novel might be that human interaction is largely determined according to the social class in which one grows up. But what makes this novel a piece of art is that its meaning can most fully be understood not only in analyzing the expressed philosophy of the book, but also the techniques Fitzgerald employed to express it, its method of expression.
I know this is still somewhat unclear, but if you’re still reading, then you’re either related to me, vaguely understanding what I’m saying, and/or hoping this article gets better. So I’ll move on from the nature of art itself to how art may properly be critiqued.
Critique is essentially an evaluation, a statement on the merits and/or flaws of something. So if we’re trying to develop a basis for critique, then we’re trying to understand the criteria according to which something can be said to be better than another thing.
What’s perhaps most important in developing a basis for critique with respect to any category is the goal that all things in this category aim at. For instance, since all sports players aim (or at least, should aim) to above all else win games, therefore the best sports players are those who most contribute to wins.
In aesthetics (aka the study of the nature of art), it is typically said that art aims at the beautiful. Not only do I agree with this statement, but I’ll go one step further: all art aims at the beautiful. Of course, this begs the question: what is beauty?—yet another discussion that requires a lengthy treatment. But I’ll give you my shorthand: beauty is profound truth. This might seem counterintuitive to some, but I believe with deep thought on the subject, it will become clear that things are more beautiful as they embody deeper and deeper truths. Thus, for me, all art aims to embody profound truth, and thus the best art embodies the most profound truths.
Now the question is: how does beauty manifest itself in art? Once again, (A) considering the nature of art as a thing whose meaning is invariably tied to its mode of expression, therefore (B) beauty must manifest itself in an artwork's mode of expression. Thus, the profound truth at which some work of art might aim must be expressed both as a result of its mode of expression and within its mode of expression itself. That is to say, there must be a harmonious link between the truth an artwork expresses and the way in which it expresses it. And that is to say, the particular aspects that make this thing a work of art and not simply a philosophical verbal statement must combine to make this truth more fully expressed in the former than the latter. For instance, if the truth of the “Mona Lisa” is, stated verbally, ‘people hide great mystery behind their faces’, then if the “Mona Lisa” is to be considered a great work of art, then it must, as a painting, embody this stated truth more fully than the simple verbal statement of it.
This is much of the preliminary work to my coming discussion (in part 2) of my critical approach to art. But it seems to me that, in brief, there are three aspects of any work of art:
In a great work of art, the argument must be sound and profound, the themes consistent and contributory to the argument, and the form/style properly evocative of the themes. The greatest beauty in art, therefore, might be said to be the profound and harmonious interrelation between these three.