Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the Pretensions of Art

Somewhere in Anthony Burgess' wonderfully entertaining novel Earthly Powers the narrator, Kenneth Toomey, observes in some exotic location a bird carefully painting something, a nest I think, using a kind of stick or twig or brush it holds in its beak.  "So much for the pretensions of art" is Toomey's comment on the scene.

Non-human animals can and are apparently being encouraged in some cases to "do art."   Cats, I know, are making paintings, some of which seem colorful and interesting.  I'm not sure just what this is supposed to mean beyond the fact that non-human animals can in some cases create what we humans would call "art" which sometimes, if we be honest, is more attractive than items created by humans which they and other humans claim is art.  This in and of itself doesn't suffice to establish that there is nothing peculiar or special about human art, but it does lead one to wonder about the sometimes extraordinary claims made regarding human art by human artists and others. 

Works of art can be inspiring and the skill required to create them can inspire a kind of awe, as well.  Great paintings and music, poetry and novels, films, are among the most remarkable artifacts of our species.  They can mean a great deal to people, because their effect can be profound.  They can therefore influence human conduct profoundly.  This much is clear, I think.

But does (or should) art have some kind of special status?  It's obviously something humans do, and humans do many things.  Certain humans do certain things better, even much better, than others.  Should art's status be similar to the status accorded to other things humans can do which require a great deal of skill, e.g. commanding armies or nations?  We often call those who are particularly skilled in doing something we don't normally consider art an "artist" in that particular field.

Unless we accord art a kind of inherent value, we must judge it by its consequences--what it does to and for us.  To the extent it has consequences which render it special to us, we are justified in considering it special in that respect.  I'm not inclined to ascribe to a class of things inherent value, as I think when we value something we do so based upon a consideration of it in particular circumstances.  We may learn from experience that certain things having a resemblance to each other generally do things to or for us we find valuable, of course.

Perhaps art is a certain kind of conduct or the result of a certain kind of conduct which effects us in a special way; a way different from the effect resulting from other conduct.  Or, perhaps art doesn't create a special effect, but is a special kind of conduct which creates remarkable effects, or effects similar to those created by other kinds of conduct but more intense, or somehow different.

We tend to romanticize art and artists, like we romanticize heroes (artists in a sense can be heroes, of course).  There is nothing necessarily wrong in doing this, but it can be useful to remember now and then that even great artists are humans engaged in human conduct.  They may be extraordinarily skilled, and we may find their work extraordinarily rewarding, and it is on these bases that artists and their work may reasonably be judged.

No comments:

Post a Comment