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What is Art?

A recent discussion on an Internet mailing list about photography set me to thinking a lot about this question. At first, I was trying to formulate a statement that would reflect my own point of view to the other people on the list. But soon it became clear to me that I couldn’t add anything to the discussion, which was already getting out of control. But the question kept bothering me.

A long time ago I was a fan of Marshall McLuhen, a college professor who wrote a number of books about media and culture. "The Medium is the Message" was his main idea—that we are affected more by the means of communication than we are by the contents. At one point he related a quotation about art, ascribed to someone in Polynesia, that "We have no art. We do everything as well as we can." I think McLuhen considered that to be a profound insight. Somehow I never got it.

Art is more than craftsmanship. Most people agree with that, even though there are many arguments about the distinction between them. One can learn a craft, if one has ordinary talent and perseverance. Even a great craftsman may not create great art. And most of us have encountered creations that lack what we might wish for in the way of craftsmanship, and yet be lauded by experts as "great art." Something in them reflects an extraordinary sense of vision, a connection to a deeper meaning.

The recent discussion among photographers gradually took on a compromising attitude. It was obvious that there were widely divergent views on the subject, and seemingly no way to resolve them. In the interest of getting on with the more immediate topics relating to photography, many agreed that art, like beauty, "is in the eye of the beholder." Whatever you want to call art, especially if it is your own creation, well, that’s art.

I came across a quote from Joseph Campbell, who wrote extensively about myths that have been adopted by different groups of people throughout history. "Artists," he said, "are a culture’s mythmakers, and . . . mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities." I wondered how art might be related to myth. To me, myths are stories whose sources are lost in antiquity, whose meanings can be revealed only obliquely.

The first myth that came to my mind was that of King Sisyphus, who was condemned to rolling a boulder up a mountain, time after time, only to have it roll back down, forever. I’ve read a number of interpretations of this myth, but all of them ascribe deep meanings to the story, meanings that apply to all of us.

So, according to Campbell, the myth is an artist’s creation that helps to explain reality to us. Or at least, gives us a hint from which we can interpret its meaning.

Now, there’s a suggestion for evaluating a work of "art"—if it hints at some deeper meaning than can be discerned on the surface, some universal "truth" that may elude rational analysis yet feel true—then the work could be considered art. The myth of Sisyphus certainly does that, no matter what particular interpretation one chooses.

Albert Camus, whose essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" has given the story a new life in our time, wrote this:

"Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands."

Camus certainly breathes life into this myth with his interpretation. So where is the art—in the unknown author (Homer gave us one version), or in the interpreter, the viewer? Is art really in the eye of the beholder? That’s like the question about whether the tree that falls in the forest makes a sound if there’s nobody there to hear it. And what of natural beauty—a brilliant sunset or a secluded forest stream, or a perfect human body? Are these art? They certainly can move us just as powerfully as a painting or a photograph.

A long time ago someone told me how to judge the "art" of a poem—great poetry contains levels of meaning besides (or sometimes rather than) the surface meaning. I’m convinced that beauty, made by people or made by God, touches us at a level that is beyond rational analysis, beyond even words. It’s not in an emotional place, although emotions may be stirred from our experience. As suggested by the Perennial Philosophy, written about by many people such as Aldous Huxley and Ken Wilber, there are levels of consciousness that are deeper than our best power of reasoning and yet are available to each of us. Just as most of us have learned to think rationally and put into perspective our (lower-level) feelings and emotions, we could learn to transcend our symbol-using minds and apprehend existence from higher vantage points. Perhaps it is there, just out of our ordinary awareness, that beauty registers.

When an artist creates something that reminds us of that deeper level, where we understand the nature of our being a little more clearly, we respond to it, and we call it art (if we can find words at all). It isn’t a matter of craftsmanship. The artist herself may not even be aware of where the art originated. It is spirit inside her, just as it is inside every one of us.

What do myth or art or beauty have to do with spirit? They’re about meaning—levels of meaning that stretch from the first awareness that I am not alone, toward the sense that I am not separate from anything or anyone, from you, from the stars, or from the Ultimate.

 

Donald Skiff, January 31, 2005

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