Art is Language... (Art)

by dhw, Saturday, June 27, 2009, 08:13 (5213 days ago) @ xeno6696

Matt S. has made some comments on art, most of which are straightforward enough. Like all other matters of taste, reactions are subjective, and like all other matters of culture they depend to a large extent on what we were brought up with. The statement that "we do not have a single instance in all of human history where a person thought of something that was completely novel" may well be true, since whatever we are will depend on what has gone before us, though I must confess that I don't actually know "all of human history". However, the significance of novelty may be a point at which we begin to diverge, and at which we have rather different views on the "magic" of art. - Firstly, it's true that everything we are consists of bits and pieces handed down to us ... genetically through our parents, culturally through our environment, educationally through our teachers etc. But at all stages, including genetic, there has to be selection, and the sum total of that selection is what constitutes our individual identity. In this respect, you are right that nothing is completely novel (though it would be a brave ... and pretty stupid ... critic who dismissed the work of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo etc. as derivative!) In terms of art, however, what comes out of the individual identity is new, and it is also mysterious. - You wrote: "Writers often say that they 'write what they know'." And "man looks at his surroundings and ... writes what he knows." This certainly applies to some writers (and to those forms of art that are mimetic), but you are missing out on a vast range of others, and it is the others I am interested in. Shakespeare, we can assume, did not cavort with fairies, kill a king to take his throne, smother his innocent wife, go mad when his daughters shut him out. Agatha Christie never murdered anyone, Jules Verne didn't dive 20,000 leagues under the sea, and J.K. Rowling never studied at Hogwarts. "Innovations," you say, "are invariably different perspective on something that already exists". Of course none of the above could have come into existence without the influence of earlier literature, but that is what I mean by individuality consisting of selected hand-me-downs. What is missing from your account is the process whereby all these influences form themselves into new ideas. To illustrate this, I'd like to stick to literature, as it is the art I understand best. - Some writers plan their work, and others don't, but in many if not most cases they find that the characters take over. The writer is not fully in control. The process is very similar to dreams, and no doubt it's the subconscious that is at work here, but that doesn't provide us with any kind of explanation ... it just gives us a recognizable word to describe something incomprehensible. When you say "our proper topic should be consciousness, not art" you are missing out on the subconscious, imagination, and a creative mechanism that defies analysis. The characters and the story may not be "novel" in absolute terms, but the work that emerges has not been written before, and the non-autobiographical writer has not experienced it before or even met the people in his play or story. Yes, they may well be projections from the selection that constitutes his identity ... that's what gives him his uniqueness as a person and as a writer ... but they are not him. And furthermore, perhaps most importantly of all in the context of this discussion, he may even be surprised himself at what they get up to. Many writers start with an idea, and the rest is a voyage of discovery ... i.e. they write about what they DON'T know. It is as if the writer is a world that contains another world, and this may even offer us an image of a possible god: the macrocosm containing microcosms. (There are physical parallels to this, because our body also contains vast numbers of organisms that do their own thing without our even being aware of them, let alone controlling them.) - As I've mentioned in the "brief guide", children often ask visiting writers where their ideas come from. It's the simplest and most difficult of questions, and all too frequently the only honest answer is "I don't know". Materialists think they do know ... it's all a matter of chemicals, cells, electrical impulses. We can single out which part of the brain is involved in certain activities. Without our brain, there would be no ideas. Well, without the wires in our television sets, we wouldn't get any pictures. But the pictures are not created by the wires. They come from somewhere else. The fact is that no-one has a clue how these impulses translate themselves into new thoughts, ideas, sounds, visions ... new even to those who produce them ... just as we do not have a clue how the same collection of cells can create awareness of what we are doing. - I'm not, of course, saying that a god sends us our ideas, and many artists are atheists or agnostics. What I am saying is that the whole process is incomprehensible to me. And until someone comes up with a convincing explanation, I'm not prepared to dismiss the notion that there may be other dimensions of existence that we do not yet know. The 'magic' ('mystery' may be a better word) of art does not have anything to do with its originality, but everything to do with the source of its creation.

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