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Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Is Art?

"Boy with a Knapsack"
Kazemir Malevich  1915
Readers of this blog may have noticed the line above – “All legitimate art is protest .. a demand for a more human world.”   I wrote that in October 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protest, describing the occupation of Zuccotti Park as “a continuous work of art.”  It was my closing line and while it sounds like a theory, it was just an emotional outburst.  I kept it because I liked it, it had a ring to it.  Now, is it true?  

No one has complained about my slogan, or even questioned it.   But as a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I felt all along that I should either defend it, or take it down.  After more than a year of rumination and several recent “aha” moments, I have decided it’s my final answer.  I’m sticking with it.   

All art is protest?  How so?  

Much art is easily recognized as protest, because creativity is by nature at odds with stability.  That is, the interest of the artist is basically the opposite of that of the state and all hierarchies, which seek to keep the peace by promoting and institutionalizing their own ideas.   So every revolution has its songs and banners, its outrages against good taste, its heretical pronouncements, its defiant spectacles.   

Wassily Kandinsky, a leader of the revolution that produced modern abstract art, saw the artist as a lonely prophet:  “He sees and points out.  This high gift (often a heavy burden) at times he would gladly relinquish.  But he cannot.  Scorned and disliked, he drags the heavy weight of resisting humanity forward and upward.”(1)
"Impression 3 (Concert)"
Wassily Kandinsky  1911
Kandinsky cites Beethoven as an example.  But, you ask, what about artists who were accepted and more or less popular in their own time, such as Bach or Shakespeare?   What about art that seems at peace with the way things are?   How about a realistic painting of a cow in a pasture on an idyllic afternoon, with just the right proportion of sun and clouds?   Plato – the ancient arbiter of the ideal state – would have found even that obnoxious.  For Plato art was nothing but an imitation of nature, an inferior copy, appealing to the base emotions instead of higher reason.   

Nearly everyone agrees today that Plato missed the point of art, but what points did he miss?  Among them is that even a realistic painting of a cow in a pasture is not an imitation of nature.  In nature, the cow, the clouds and the sun will all have moved in 30 seconds or less, never to resume their places, and afternoon will soon turn to night.   The very first paintings we know of – buffaloes on a cave wall – were protests against nature, created by people who had to chase and kill beasts in order to live.  Hold still! 

In the Garden of Eden, humans had every kind of plant that was good to eat, everything they needed to live. There was no art in Eden, no need for it in a perfect world.  Art turned out to be one of the first fruits of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree that the man and his wife were forbidden to eat from.   The “snake” told Eve that the tree was actually good to eat from, that it would give both pleasure and knowledge – the twin pillars of aesthetic experience.(2)  And so the first protest was born, the first acting-out of freedom, the first demand for a “more human world.”  Eve and Adam defied the owner of the garden, tasted the unknown and forbidden, enjoyed and were enlightened.  The first aesthetic experience ever was the “fall.”  Their eyes were opened, and they saw they were naked.  And the first thing they did was to sew fig-leaves together to cover their loins, an act that sounds suspiciously like art, both concealing and revealing the beauty of humankind.   

Because they did this thing, God cursed them and sentenced them to a life of toil, possibly with the aim of frustrating their artistic impulses.  Every artist knows that a life of toil is the worst enemy of his art.   But within a few generations, humanity had found its callings, and art was among them. Genesis 4 tells us that Lamech had three sons:  Jabal was the father of all those who dwell in tents and keep cattle.  His brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all who play on the harp and the pipes.  Then there was Tubalcain, the instructor of those who make bronze and iron tools.   Animal farming, technology, and the arts, none of them needed or authorized in Eden, expressions not of divine will but something new, the human spirit.   

Kandinsky saw the human spirit as an entity moving in historical time –“a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts, with the narrowest segment uppermost.  The lower the segment, the greater it is in breadth, depth and area. 

“The whole triangle moves slowly, almost invisibly forward and upward.   Where the apex was today, the second segment will be tomorrow; what today can only be understood only by the apex, is tomorrow the thought and feeling of the second segment…   There are artists in each segment of the triangle.  He who can see beyond the limits of his own segment is a prophet and helps the advance.  But those who are near-sighted, or who retard the movement for base reasons, are fully understood and acclaimed.” (3) 

So what is art?  It is the embodiment of this moving human spirit in concrete form, whether solid matter, sound, movement through space, words on a page, or illusions produced by technological hardware.  Art begins where nature leaves off, where people take up God’s role of embodying ideas in matter.  Humankind does this without permission.  How does God feel about this?  We don’t know, she isn’t saying.  This is our show, not God’s.  But my hunch is that God has impeccable taste in art.  Like Kandinsky, God judges by whether it serves to advance the human spirit.   

This is because as the human spirit moves in its slow, scarcely visible path forward and upward, its destination is not a purely human realm – an impossibility – but reconciliation with its creator.  We don’t have permission for what we do, but we can ask forgiveness, and we do so in creating art.  Religious art in particular can be seen as a peace offering from humanity to the God we offended by usurping his creative role.  Christian art achieves incredible heights because in showing forth the gospel, it takes sides with God, both for and against humanity.   The most irresistible offerings of all may be the seated Buddhas of Asia, the infinite mind in human form and dress.  

In creating art, we play God, and offer it up to humanity and God.  As William Blake wrote in a different context, our hope is to “.. be like him, and he will then love us.”(4)   And I believe that God does love us, does forgive. 

In conclusion:  I hope I have satisfied my hobgoblin, without further offending my creator.  I may have permanently alienated my Presbyterian-pastor wife, a good girl who hates my bad-boy interpretation of Genesis.  These are the risks of writing things down. 

(God may also hate my interpretation of Genesis, but they’ll have to admit it sticks closely to the text, which shows him as a blustering autocrat, fiercely jealous of his own territory.  It may not have happened exactly the way the Bible relates it, but who has written a better story to explain the origin of the human spirit, and its bitter consequences?)  

In the end my definition of art as protest isn’t wrong.  All legitimate art is protest, whether against human injustice, or just the impermanence of existence.  Still, at some point protest can turn into prayer, and achieve a harmony, even unison, that is a foretaste of heaven.  You see and hear it every day, from the seated Buddha to the simplest folk-tune.  

Plato said that in his Republic, the only poetry permitted would be “hymns to the Gods and praises of famous men.”(5)  That’s the world we may live in after the human spirit reaches its destination and comes to rest.   But as long as it moves, it will move against resistance, and there's the protest.   

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips  
Photographs courtesy Museum of Modern Art.  Both works appear in the 2013 MOMA exhibit "Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925"
  1. W. Kandinsky, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art."  George Wittenborn, Inc. New York, 1947, page 26
  2. The mark of aesthetic experience is that it delivers both pleasure and knowledge in the same jolt.  The pleasure is that of two minds becoming one, in the recognition of an “embodied idea.”  For the concept of art as embodied ideas, see Arthur C. Danto “what art is”,  Yale University Press 2013.
  3. Kandinsky, op.cit.   p. 27
  4. Blake, "The Little Black Boy," from "Songs of Innocence and Experience,"  1794
  5. Plato, "The Republic"  Book 10