|The Paragon of Animals is pouring this coffee.|
There are a few notions I’m sure you’ve heard concerning what “art” is for. One would be “self-expression”; another would be to “make a statement”. Either of these might be important things to do with “art” under certain circumstances, but they are not the primary thing, not the essential thing, that artistic works bring to the table. One can express one’s self in other ways (whether he can express himself through art at all is a question worth asking) and although very sophisticated art may be required to make certain statements, this is due to the magnitude or subtlety of the statement and not to the fact of it being a statement at all.
The man who sells you donuts is a man. So, if he is a friendly, helpful, good-looking dude, then you know that human beings are friendly, helpful, and good-looking. You don’t know that all of them are, but you know it’s possible and that it happens. “Man” is compatible with these things. By the same token, if he’s a rude jerk who’s funny looking, you know that human beings are rude, funny-looking jerks. Meeting both kinds of guy behind the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts might give you a little peek into the mysterious nature of Man; “what must mankind be”, you might ask, gazing at your chocolate glazed, “if both jerks and cool guys participate in it?”
This, of course, is very unlikely to happen if you don’t actively think about it. One might very well pass through his life without ever looking at the universal things and principles embodied in the particular people, things, and events he comes across in actual life.
In this regard artistic works are no different. If we think about them we can look behind what is depicted in them to universal things beyond and, hopefully, to the truth and beauty beyond that.
The difference between a trip to Dunkin’ Donuts and watching Firefly is that the guy behind the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts is really a guy, and Malcolm Reynolds is not. This makes it important, if we are going to get at goodness, truth, and beauty by means of art, that it be a conversation among equals looking for the same things, and not the privileged few feeding the rest of us what they cook up.
When a guy on the street does something to me (says hello; steals my wallet; gives it back; whatever) the particular things that happen tell me of universals simply by happening, because they are real. When an artist presents something to an audience, he’s a fallible man attempting to depict particular things. He’s saying something in the big conversation, but he might not be right, or might not know what he’s saying. The people listening need to scrutinize what he’s said, explore it, and compare it to what they know so that we can benefit from it.
Let us do so.
© 2013 John Hiner III