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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For Me (I Speak Only for Myself), Art and Theory Don't Mix

...Nothing is ever exhausted or definitely explored within the creative process. The same object engages us in endless variations day after day.

...We tend to flee from repetition with fear that it will absorb our spirits.

...Don’t be afraid to do the same thing repeatedly. The practice will reveal that creation pervades everything. ...Nothing can ever be repeated in an absolute sense. There are always nuances that go unnoticed when we see our lives as monotonous drudgery.

-Shaun McNiff, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go

(Why bagels with this post? These were mindfully made and prayerfully eaten.)

I cannot imagine ever calling myself a Buddhist. Sitting za-zen is foreign to me, and “living in the moment,” as an ideal, runs counter to the way I see human nature (that most amorphous and malleable of existential concepts!), with consciousness providing a temporal gap between external stimuli and the response of this complex organism, the human being, in which choice and freedom can emerge, consciousness by its very nature permeated with memory and anticipation, remembering the past and imagining the future. And yet, un-Zen, skeptical, hyper-conscious philosopher that I am, the books on art that speak to me with the most meaningful voices are those written by artists, such as Frederick Franck and the author quoted above, who approach art as meditation, as a losing of subjectivity (self) in seeing objects and interacting with them wordlessly.

Is this surprising? Would it seem more natural for a philosopher to approach art analytically? Ah! Of all my graduate school philosophy courses, the ones that tortured me most were classes in aesthetics, and I can analyze the reasons for my discomfort, because I not only find reasons paradigmatically amenable to analysis—I find that reasoning, of all human activities, cries out most loudly to be analyzed, for it is usually in our thinking that we go astray.

(1) First of all, from the very beginning, analysis struck me as completely inappropriate in the realm of art, its vivisection—it always felt like that to me—treating something living as if it were something dead. The poem I had to analyze in high school French class was one I chose because I loved it. After taking it apart, line by line, word by word, I gained an interpretation but lost the poem. The same thing happened in graduate school to the poem in English I had to analyze for my first “Theory of Art” class. After that I didn’t want to analyze poems—particularly poems I loved. (Caveat: I realize this may say more about me than about literary analysis and that many people find their appreciation and love deepened rather than destroyed by close reading, as my own close reading of important fiction or philosophy texts adds to my enjoyment. So my rejection of analysis is not tout court, and perhaps my second reason for discomfort will shed light on why that is so, in an indirect way.)

(2) Another source of my reluctance to analyze art came from the nature of art theory, where each thinker in turn (as one studies the philosophers’ views of art in historical survey) put forward a thesis on what art is as if it were a unitary category! Worse, all of these theories made claims for the goal of art, as if there were only one. They took it for granted, that is, that all artists were aiming in the same direction, coming closer to the bull’s-eye or missing the mark according to their degree of talent and skill. Married to an artist and having had artist friends since adolescence, I simply could not accept this unstated premise on which every aesthetic theory was constructed. It was too tidy, too articulate, too finished to be true to any artist’s life and work. The very act of generalization, I still think, is more a demand of theory than of understanding art, which is not one activity but many, multiple in terms of media and in terms of those engaged. I am beginning to suspect that the same is true of interpretive theory, but I’ll leave that question aside for now.

(3) What was my third reason? It seems to have slipped around the corner while I was looking at something else, but I think it was that theories of art, with the refreshing exception of John Dewey’s pragmatism, began with finished products. Here is this statue, this poem, this symphony, etc., the philosophers would say, and then they would ask what all had in common, because if all are art, they must share something (whatever lacked that something would not fit the category ‘art’), and the answer to that first question set the stage for the claim that the artist had aimed at creating that very whatever-it-was in the object. Again, too neat and tidy, my heart would protest unhappily. (This stuff really made me miserable. I’m not kidding.)

The poems I wrote for many years of my life were certainly not a process of envisioning an endpoint and then working toward it. More often a poem began for me with a single phrase scribbled on a paper napkin or the back of an envelope. More phrases would follow. Somehow they would come together, awkwardly stitched at first, then some of the threads ripped out, pieces discarded and reworked, finally groomed and stroked until the poem itself told me it was done. And as my mind held no image of finished work beforehand, neither was there a purpose given in advance. Why did I write a poem? Not “in order to” achieve something else and certainly not for some large, general purpose. (Of course, the philosophers can say here that the artists don’t need to be conscious of their own reasons. Copout! With an assumption like this, no disconfirming evidence is even conceivable, and the theorist gets a blank check to spend.) No, I began my poem because the phrase whispered in my ear and begged to be written down, as if it were saying, in the words of the song, “Take all of me. Why not take all of me? Can’t you see I’m no good without you?” Except that there was no you or me, no consciousness of self or other.

(4) That’s it! That last sentence there brings back to me the reason I had thought to give as my third and will now call my fourth, and that will bring me back, miraculously, to where I began. (I swear I did not plan this out beforehand! Do you believe me?) This last reason has to do with the spiritual nature of art. That is how I see it, how I feel it. A chain of reasons is an intellectual construct, the most appropriate subject for analysis. Analyzing historical events, too, whether in our own lives (as problems in ethics) or globally, across the ages, can teach us a lot, helping us make decisions for the future, and there are many situations where the question “Why?” is important. At other times, however, no question can be more wrong or less to the point. I think spiritual journeys are very rarely a search for something, e.g., a Holy Grail. More often they are more a journey away from the known and into the unknown. Direct artistic engagement, however small or amateurish, takes one on this kind of spiritual journey. (Important question: am I guilty here of generalization, and if so, is it any different from the generalizations of analysis?) John Dewey’s great contribution to aesthetic theory was the realization that activity is central to the making of art. That is, he focused on the making, rather than on the product, and at that point in my graduate class (the professor’s capstone, which told me that he too found Dewey’s picture more satisfying than those of his predecessors) I breathed a big sigh of relief. Still, as I recall, even Dewey proposed a (single) purpose, arguing that art was essentially a problem-solving activity.

Well, it doesn’t matter. Scientists don’t pay much attention to what philosophers say about science, and artists probably pay even less attention to what philosophers say about art, and that’s fine. To each his own. But artists and philosophers may have more in common than they realize. Most philosophers like to think they are uncovering hidden structures, as do scientists, but my own feeling is that philosophy, like art, is as much creation as exploration and just as individual to every practitioner. The difference is that the philosophers, engaging in intellectual activity, bring consciousness to the fore, while the artists, spiritual practitioners, must leave consciousness off to the side somewhere or stay stuck and not get anywhere.

Today’s post has been a very analytical presentation of my thinking on the subject of art, and all of this will go back in the box when I pick up a pencil and a pad of paper to draw, even when I walk out the door into the sunlight, into the waiting world of water and fish, birds and green plants. I will want to be there, not stuck in my head.

Years ago, when David and I were first living together, I used to try to stay quiet when he was working, even avoiding the room where he stood in front of his easel. Then one day he said, “You’re not bothering me. You can talk to me while I’m working. I’m painting, not thinking.”

I don’t advise interrupting a working novelist or a composer or a poet with conversation, and some painters do prefer solitude. I include this anecdote merely as a hint to how thinking interferes with “doing art,” just as it interferes with meditation. This truth extends beyond the visual arts. Even in writing one must make choices with every word without thinking about making choices with every word. To find something new, it is important to become lost.

Now, out into the world!


Anonymous said...

Pamela, I always enjoy reading your thoughts on any given subject. I've always found the whole business of trying to analyze art nonsensical. The poets whose lectures I attended seemed to tolerate students' questions about the meaning behind their work for the sake of perhaps selling a book or two.

We all wonder about the creative process. Why wouldn't we? Not all questions deserve an answer. I think more harm than good is done if too much mystery is removed.

Lise said...

I was an English major in college because I loved to read, but I quickly found that I didn't love to analyze everything I read, much as you describe losing your love for a poem. Sometimes, I'd have a wonderful time with it (usually because of an incredible professor), but so often I wondered "how do you know that's what the author meant?". Much as you describe the writing process of getting lost in your work, I like to get lost in my reading.

Thank you for the birthday wishes for Lucy! She'd say "oh, wow!" if she were awake to hear them.

P. J. Grath said...

I hope I made it clear that I'm not condemning the practice and saying no one should engage in it. It just isn't for me. Amy-Lynn, I always have mixed feelings about poets and painters endlessly discussing their work. If the works works, why all the need to explain? On the other hand, some of the answers they give to questions are interesting and illuminating, and most people like to get attention for what they do well.

Lise, you and I seem to think alike on this--sometimes yes, sometimes no! "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself." Who said that?

Anonymous said...

I had the hardest time formulating my response to this post, and finally decided I just wasn't up to the task.

I have two favorite musings on creativity and meaning. The first is Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye. The second is Archibald MacLeish's Ars Poetica. They will have to serve!

P. J. Grath said...

I guess I have to re-read CAT'S EYE sometime, Gerry. At least, I think I have read it, but my mind has become a sieve. Always good to hear from you, too!