thoughts on art

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At one point in my academic career I had this to say about art:

Art, it seems, is a reflection of the imagination of the artist. It is the presentation of an image or thought that was contained within the mind of this individual, and whose talent to reproduce this image gives the gazer an insight into the mind of the artist, as well as a taste of the insight itself that the artist had in seeking to reproduce this image in a physical medium. Art has as many meanings and purposes as there is variety of meaning and purpose in the human mind. To limit art to only a single stance would be to limit the ability of the person to a single response. Art, at its core, provokes the viewer to see something in a new way, whether through portraying a scene or person no longer able to be seen at all, or by expressing reality in a way which does not necessarily portray simply what we can see with our eyes. Nuances become highlighted, with shapes, colors, individual people or things highlighted so as to point to a more refined way of understanding that which is seen. Sometimes this is not a scene at all, but rather, especially recently, shapes, colors, and forms themselves become highlighted in isolation from any attempt at connecting these with an identifiable subject.

Whether real, augmented reality, or pure imagination, art pushes the viewer to see as the artist sees, to be drawn into a particular philosophy or theology without verbal argument or even, necessarily, cognitive awareness. Art sparks that which is underneath our intellectual selves, creating a connection between the viewer and the artist which mere words can never achieve. This connection, then, can be used in manifold ways to communicate whatever it is the artist desires, intentionally or unintentionally. Art is insight, insight into the world in which we live, and the people who live in it. Art of times past can indeed be more effective insights into history than written documents, not only for the images themselves, but also for the psychology of the time which would produce such an image. To view art is to see that which otherwise might have never been seen, to be pointed towards a more profound way of seeing itself, and to feel the strength of an argument or theology with our entire being.

In short, art is transformative. What makes art in my estimation? It is transformative, whether by skill or by intent, it provokes the gazer, listener, watcher, participant to change in some way. If it is not transformative then it is not art (though it need not be transformative to everyone of course).

Transformative is a vague term. We can easily get the sense of it, and can find all manner of analogies which help us understand transformation, from butterflies to robot toys of the 1980s. So, it’s not a hard term, but it is a vague term because it doesn’t say anything except what is happening. Scrooge, through the visits of Marley and the three ghosts, was transformed from a Bah Humbug to a Merry Christmas. Dr. Jekyll on the other hand went from a noble and gentleman doctor to become Mr. Hyde, a fiend and a cad. In this we see that a person, or people, can transform upwards or transform downwards, reaching up to the heavens or descending closer to the pit.

Art then is defined by being transformative but this doesn’t say in what way Art is transformative because that depends on the art and on the artist and on the culture in which the artist works and on the culture of art which produces the artist.

What is curious to me now, however, is that among art enthusiasts these days there only seems to be one understanding of what constitutes good art. Art is only art if it is transformational downwards.

Take this quote from a recent article about the Oscars this year. After his suggestion that Brokeback Mountain is the frontrunner for best picture the author then notes: “In the past, Hollywood has often opted to support films making a statement. Last year’s winner, “Million Dollar Baby,” was far from your typical popcorn fare, dealing with the divisive issue of euthanasia. 2002’s winner, “A Beautiful Mind,” tackled mental illness, and “American Beauty,” which won in 2000, peered at suburban mid-life crisis.

Other Best Pictures that could be said to have an air of importance include “Schindler’s List” (1994), “Driving Miss Daisy” (1990), “Rain Man” (1989), “Platoon” (1987), “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1980), “The Deer Hunter” (1979) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1976).

But there are also a fair share of less brainy winners, including crowd-pleasing epics like “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2004), “Gladiator” (2001) and “Braveheart” (1996).”

Crowd-pleasing equals less brainy according to this author. Yet, there’s more to it than this. The Lord of the Rings is a story of the complexities of Good versus Evil and how we can stand or not stand against the forces of destruction in our world. Braveheart is about revolution, seeking freedom for one’s people in the face of an overwhelming opponent. It too deals with corruption, and betrayal, and hope within the context of heartbreak. The Lord of the Rings is called less brainy, yet I dare say that if one compares the braininess of JRR Tolkien with, say, Annie Proulx (the writer of Brokeback Mountain), one would not have to go very far into their biographies to see that such a comparison would be silly. There is no comparison. In all categories Tolkien wins.

So who would have a better consideration of the depths of human nature and the complexities of a story? However, the Lord of the Rings is not considered as good of art because of its philosophy and theme. It is transformative upwards. It raises one’s consciousness and points towards the redemption of this world. It speaks to an ancient part of the human soul which yearns to overcome the baseness of this world through total release of selfish desire.

The ring is the temptation which seeks to tear us all down and the ring is destroyed in a quest that involves a community.

To be art, to be brainy, however in today’s critical circles, the ring would have conquered Frodo, and despite all their efforts, the party would have been lost, the kingdom overcome, and the Shire would have been paved over. The facing of the struggles in contemporary art are only seen as valid if it is the struggles which overcome. There is no honor, there is no value, there is no morality. There is only the complexity of temptations and deceit which depress the soul into finding value by commiserating with other failures.

These are art because they are, oddly enough, non-judgmental. They tell us it’s okay to give in, it’s natural to give up, we all have temptations and we all succumb to the evils of them. There is no redemption, and the “artist” illustrates the depths of human despair and how because life is complicated there is no hope for light. There is only pain, and the more pain, the more morally ambiguous without pointing to some higher state of life, the more artistic it is found, the more “real” it is.

I suspect, oddly enough, this is the real result of a consumer society, in which the great majority of people grow up with few struggles other than their complex emotions, and so magnify their inner wrestlings and failures into some majestic art form. They have not toiled or sought or laid claim to possibilities which entail sacrifice. So, in their lack of real achievement or being, they celebrate their lack and celebrate others who share their lack. Art becomes a comfort to those who, ultimately, despair of becoming a real person.

Art, however, is historically something else. Art, historically, has been primarily transformative upwards, giving light to those who are caught in destructive attitudes. This is a feature of art which is long lasting and which resonates broadly and deeply. For those who struggle with forces outside their own vagaries, art becomes a tool of hope, of promise, a way of pointing to a reality beyond the muck and mire. Art now despises this upwards transformation because while it raises the hopes of those in the mud, it also challenges and provokes a person to become better. And the fact is people now do not want to become better, they do not want others to become better, they’d rather be told they are alright as they are, even as they are miserable and sad and empty of real being.

Art, then, rather than being restorative becomes corrupting. Art of today makes us less of a person, makes us weaker, depressed, and saps the redemptive possibilities from our consideration.

So strong is this corruptive perspective (corruption being the proper word for that which is transformational downwards), there is no other possibility of considering art as being something else. Art which is hopeful is automatically consigned to being less brainy, or cheesy, or cliche. However, in reality, there are few things more cliche than sin. Sin and failure are cliche. Giving into temptation is cliche, taking the easy road is cliche. Becoming corrupt and corrupting, deceiving and betraying. These are cliche. And they do not take much of a brain, nor much of a soul to accomplish.

However, to find freedom, as in Braveheart, or to overcome evil, as in Lord of the Rings, has little to do with cliche or a lack of braininess. Dare we compare the historic William Wallace with Frankie Dunn (the Clint Eastwood character in Million Dollar Baby). Did the latter face more difficult moral complexities, and with greater insight into human reality? Can we compare the leaders of the right-to-die movement with those who lead their countries into new political realities? Does it take more braininess or art or character or being or any other definition of humanity to leave one’s wife for a past lover? Or rather, do we look in history and remember those who overcame their weaknesses, stayed true to their commitments, and let go of their personal ‘rights’ in order to further their community and society and family and reality?

Art which is corruptive lies. It tells us “we’re okay” when we are not. It tells us to go after our base emotions and seek the sustenance of our own being, no matter the consequences to anyone else. It lies because it speaks of a reality which seems true and comforts by lulling us to moral sleep. It, however, is not true. And because art has become lost in downwards transformation it no longer fulfills its function as Art. Artists become self-referencing, elitists, and complicit in furthering the moral dictates of present society. Rather than being prophets they become the fools. And they are forgotten.

Even the modern artists sought in their forms and colors and non-representational shapes to point humanity to a new real of consideration. Contemporary artists, however, say just the opposite, that we strive too much and should reduce ourselves back into our most vulgar instincts, no longer able to discern right from wrong because doing so would take intellectual effort and moral courage.

And thus we have the truth which defines too much of our present culture. Artists are cowards.
They wallow in their fear and call it insight, and they bathe in their shallowness and call it truth.

Not all artists are like this, most certainly. But, those who are about things that transform upwards are at the peak of Kandinsky’s triangle. Those who win awards and are acclaimed are at the base, where low minded men and women “get them” and honor them.

As a note, this isn’t about the artistic qualities surrounding a movie, or show, or some such thing. Something can indeed be beautiful, and be a lie. The question is what we accept as lies or as truth. This is something the Holy Spirit in us should discern, accepting what is light and rejecting what is darkness, not so we can be judgmental, but so that we can be redemptive and resonant.

Art now is directed towards destruction, and no longer even understands the transformative power of Merry Christmas. Fortunately, the many masses instinctively reject the pedestal which Mr. Hyde is placed upon. For no matter how many awards, and honors, and plaques, and accolades this wizened fiend may receive, people still see him as ugly and foul. It is only the wizened themselves who honor Hyde for being the ultimate non-judge, and thus the only allowed muse of Art so-called.

Artistic humanity is at a low ebb of artistic achievement, and the very artists who think they are rejecting the bourgeois are themselves the most drunk with its lulling deceptions and enticed by its calls for conformity to mediocrity.

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