"On Art."
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"On Art."

  • 1 - Culture:
  • 2 - What is Art:
  • 3 - Money and Art:

  • "So vast is art, so narrow human wit." - Pope.



    Culture is "the whole complex of learned behaviour, the traditions and techniques and the material possessions, the language and other symbolism, of some body of people." The outcome is both; spiritual, as represented by beliefs and traditions; and, tangible, as may be represented by pots, houses and tombs. Culture is all the activities of the members of a society, including: methods of thinking, planning, organizing and building.

    "Culture is not something you put on like a readymade suit of clothes, but a nourishment you absorb to build your personally, just as food builds up the body of the growing boy. It is not an ornament used to decorate a phrase, still less to show off your knowledge, but a means, painfully acquired, to enrich the soul." (W. Somerset Maugham, Great Novelists.)
    Culture, as stated, is learned behaviour. We begin with a blank and immediately fill it in with an assumption, and, then, with the influences of our acquaintances, we progressively adjust or exchange our assumptions (see Popper) in a continuing effort, consciously or unconsciously, to improve the mind, the body, and the enviroment in which we find ourselves. Human beings learn about their group's culture by the transfer of information by behavioral means. (For further development, I refer the reader to Gould, An Urchin in the Storm, 1987, pp. 62-3.)

    So it is, that cultural activities are learning activities by which we might improve and refine our view of our mind, our body, and our environment to the point, supposing we have the necessary leisure, where we confidently or obligingly give physical expression, such as writing and painting, to our particular, and I emphasize, learned culture.

    I do not here deal with art as a human skill as is required in the application of the principles of a special science. I deal with it in this meaning: "The application of skill to subjects of taste, as poetry, music, dancing, the drama, oratory, literary composition, and the like ..." By a further examination of the OED we see that the word, art, in this sense, is a relatively recent development: "The application of skill to the arts of imitation and design, painting, engraving, sculpture, architecture; the cultivation of these in its principles, practice, and results; the skilful production of the beautiful in visible forms. ... This is the most usual modern sense of art, when used without any qualification. It does not occur in any English Dictionary before 1880, and seems to have been chiefly used by painters and writers on painting, until the present century."


    What is Art:-

    And, so, we come to the question: - What is Art? John Galsworthy, the author of the many volumed series known as the Forsythe Saga, defined it as follows:

    "Art is that imaginative expression of human energy, which, through technical concretion of feeling and perception, tends to reconcile the individual with the universal, by exciting in him impersonal emotion. And the greatest Art is that which excites the greatest impersonal emotion in an hypothecated perfect human being."
    Galsworthy uses the word "impersonal" in his definition, as he continues to explain, in the sense that a person, in the presence of true art, will be taken out of himself, so to speak; in the presence of art, a person will experience a "momentary forgetfulness of one's own personality and its active wants."

    Whatever art is, it is likely a question to be answered only by the beholder. One theory of art is that it is the work from a person who we recognize as a true artist. And a true artist, as Oliver Wendell Holmes has said, is one who has "a clear perception and a firm, bold hand, in distinction from that imperfect mental vision and uncertain touch which give us the feeble pictures and the lumpy statues of the mere artisans on canvas or in stone." Another theory is that art might be recognized, in itself, a piece of nature which has been duplicated; a theory embodied in these lines of Wordsworth, as he wrote, in 1802:

    My heart leaps up when I behold
    A rainbow in the sky:
    So was it when my life began;
    So is it now I am a man
    So it be when I shall grow old,
    Or let me die!
    The child is father to the man;
    My Heart Leaps Up
    When I Behold,

    This idea of art is "that the child has perceptions which are intuitive; when the man matures, he pulls them out of his memories, examines and rationalizes them, and finds that what they chiefly concern is the harmony of nature and man (himself)." (Paul Johnson.)

    True art, as described by Johnson, will always find admirers not only in the age during which the art was created but will be appreciated as art down through a succession of ages. It is of a kind that always presents fresh, no matter the age. Carlyle wrote, "Perpetual modernness is the measure of merit in every work of art." ("Plato.") And, Macaulay:

    "Since its first great masterpieces were produced, everything that is changeable in this world has been changed. Civilization has been gained, lost, gained again. Religions, and languages, and forms of government, and usages of private life, and modes of thinking, all have undergone a succession of revolutions. Everything has passed away but the great features of nature, and the heart of man, and the miracles of that art of which it is the office to reflect back the heart of man and the features of nature." ("Moore's Life on Lord Byron," June, 1831.)
    However, much of what is considered art of an age (or culture) will not be art of another age (or another culture). John Morley:
    "Poetry, and not only poetry, but every other channel of emotional expression and aesthetic culture, confessedly moves with the general match of the human mind, and art is only the transformation into ideal and imaginative shapes of a predominant system and philosophy of life." [In Morley's essay, "Byron" as found in Morley's Nineteenth Century Essays (University of Chicago Press, 1970) at p. 6.]


    Money and Art:-

    While there are those who honour the concept of the dignity of labour, it is likely a delusion; there is little dignity to the grunt work of the world. One should not confuse the pride of workmanship of the artist with the drudgery of work. Would a typical worker keep on working if he got nothing for his labour? He will not submit to hardship just to express his soul. Whatever his reward (and often he starves) the artist will go on working just the same. However, many an artist is driven to production because of his need for money.

    "Idle to argue that genuine artists ought to be indifferent to money! They are not. And what is still more curious, they seldom produce their best work unless they really do want money.
    It is an absolute certainty that we owe about half the Comédie Humaine to Balzac's extravagant imprudence. It is equally sure that Scott's mania for landed estate was responsible for a very considerable part of his artistic output. And so on. When once an Artist has tasted the money of art, the desire thus set up will keep his genius hard at work better than any other incentive." (Arnold Bennett, Books and Persons, 1917.)
    And the final word to Lord Roseberry:
    "... money does not brace but relax the energies of literature; that more Miltons have remained mute and inglorious under the suffocation of wealth, than under the frosts of penury; that in a word, half the best literature of the world has been produced by duns. Pensionless poetry may at least bear comparison with that which has flourished upon bounties." [Rosebery's biography, Pitt (London: MacMillan, 1891) at p. 274.]


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    2012 (2019)

    Peter Landry