Thursday, October 06, 2005

Discoursing on art

People experience various forms of art (music, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, gourmet cooking) for one or more of the following purposes:
1) to be seen looking cultural
2) to entertain themselves
3) to exercise their emotions
4) to exercise their cognitive abilities
5) to explore the limits of their perceptions

Any discourse on art should address one or more of these purposes. If the claim is made that a particular artwork is great, which of these purposes is it great at fulfilling? The first purpose is too cynical to be involved in most discussions of art, though it can provide insight into how peer pressure and patronage have shaped the arts. The second purpose is not satisfying by itself, because it naturally leads to the question, "why is it entertaining?" Why do we find it preferable to stare at a painting instead of a blank wall, or to listen to our iPods instead of silence? Entertainment has to be caused by one of the other purposes, whether it is the stimulation of emotions or the time kill of a good intellectual challenge.

So a good discourse on art should be about the emotional effect, the perceptual effect, or the cognitive effect. Arguments could and should be made that some of these effects directly influence each other. A cognitive awareness of the structure of a symphony can engender an emotional response. The visual illusions in a painting can affect the cognitive interpretations.

My argument does not specify whether the focus should be on universal effects or individual effects. Both approaches have their benefits and problems. Universal effects allow the discourse to approach the artwork as a tangible object with indisputable attributes. Individual effects are more ephemeral, but more accurate when it comes to emotion. I challenge my fellow members of the bløgösphère to address the purpose of the artwork in your discourses.


Steve Hicken said...

I'm not sure we can ever know the purpose of the artwork. We can know the stated intentions of the artist, if she is willing to tell us AND if the statement of purpose is reliable.

Interesting post, and I'll think on it and repond either here or in my blog.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Steve, I transfered your comment over to the Blogger system (see my post above).

As for the purpose of the artwork, I agree that it is difficult to determine the intentions of the artist. But the affect on the audience can be determined, whether on individual case-by-case bases or more generally across a population.

Michael J. West said...

One could argue that the intentions of the artist necessarily include "having an audience observe, appreciate, and interpret the art." (Assuming the artist performs or exhibits the art.) So the intentions of the artist have the subjective effect of the audience built into them, if only subconsciously.

Also, Scott, I would suggest that you can't focus on either effect (universal or individual) in total isolation of the other. They are not, at least in my experience, mutually exclusive effects.

But then, what the Hell do I know?

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Michael, I think you are correct that universal vs. individual are not mutually exclusive.

Scott D. Strader said...

The shorthand I use to explain the purpose of art is "to communicate." (I'd really love to give credit to a teacher or mentor, but it is so ingrained that the source has been internalized.)

An attractive aspect of using "communication" as the primary cause for art is that it helps illuminate both the artist and the observer: the artist has a "personal" that they wish to communicate effectively as a "universal" so that the message is understood by the maximum number of observers. However, using the simplest, most rudimentary and universal terms in communication can dilute the impact, so there's a difficult balance between amplitude and intensity. Crude colloquialisms are effective but temporary. The rare and honest phrase can last forever.

How effective is it to see two axis with "the one and the many" as one dimension and (referencing Paglia) the "Apollonian and Dionysian" as another? Should there be a third that takes into consideration humankind as a species? That little Clycladic harpist has to have something that speaks to us across 5000 years.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Very well said, Scott. I'm leery of putting emotion and intellect on opposite poles of a single axis, instead I would make them separate dimensions. As to your third axis, I see that as an extension of "the many" to its absolute extreme. We typically work in the 75% range, where cultural effects are paramount. But at 100%, it's all biological (or those very few cultural traits that are shared world-wide).

Steve Hicken said...

I find the list of reasons to experience art works to be reductive, in that there are many more possible reasons to do so, just that there are a myriad of reasons to make a work of art. Also, I find the proscription to address one's criticism of art to one of those reasons to be, well, prescriptive.

I understand the interest in and the need for awareness of an audience's reaction to a work or set of works, but it seems to me that if a review of a concert (for example) focuses on the way the audience responds, it tells me nothing about the performance itself, much less the works performed.

This is the way many pop concerts are reviewed and it does seem a little more appropriate there.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Steve, what would be some other reasons to experience art? A focus on the interactions of the art and the audience should reveal many things about the performance. In the cases where there is a separation between creator and performer, there is a case to be made of discussing the potential interactions of the creation that were or were not realized by the performance.

My suggested proscriptions do not remove technical discussions from the table. In fact, I think any discussion of art implies one or more of my listed purposes in its descriptions. What I want to see is an awareness of these implications by the reviewers/critics/audience-goers.

Steve Hicken said...

It's clearer now what you meant. Can you point me to a review that does what you suggest, vis-a-vis performer/audience interaction?

Other reasons to experience art: reacquaintance, reevaluation, curiosity, whim.

John said...

All art serves a ritual meditative function. Explicitly religious art shows this most clearly, but it's true for any art: An opportunity to concentrate on something outside of the practical realm. My hunch is that this serves a physiological as well as an emotive/cognitive/perceptual purpose.

Dancing to music can be a form of meditation as well.

The emotive/cognitive/perceptual qualities of a work of art are central to the quality of the meditative experience, but I'd say the meditative experience is central.

Interesting post -- thanks -- John Shaw

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Steve: I think some of Alex Ross' reviews come closest to making this connection explicit. If I have time, I'll look up some later.

As for your other reasons, the reacquaintance or reevaluation has to be for entertainment/emotional/intellectual reasons, likewise curiosity. Whim could be a new one, a pure randomness that Cage would love.

John: I would edit your first sentence to say "All art can serve a ritual meditative function." The physicological affect is a good point, though studies have shown that these effects are reliant upon aesthetic preferences. If the listener doesn't like the piece, it won't create the physiological changes.