Monday, August 25, 2014

Art: What is it? (part 2)

(This is part 2. Read part 1 first!)

The first way I thought of distinguishing between the art that includes spatulas and the art that includes The Odyssey was to say that the first has to do with needs and the second does not. But then King Lear said to me “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous.” by which I understand him to be saying that, if we reduce our considerations to “needs”, we might find we slip down a pretty steep slope and end up with little or nothing left.

Spatulas are actually a good example of this problem. At first you might say that the difference between spatulas and the Odyssey is obviously a difference of need, because spatulas are used to make food, which we need to live, whereas, whatever it is doing, if I fail to read the Odyssey I won’t starve to death because of it. But, you don’t need spatulas to make food. You only need them for things like omelets which, although tasty, certainly aren’t necessary. For that matter, you don’t need pans either, or electric stoves. You don’t need cooking pots or fires even. You could just eat raw food, and spend your whole day foraging.

“You wouldn’t live very long that way,” may be your reply, to which I would say (for the sake of argument), “Who said you need to live very long?”

So, this “need” thing isn’t a very useful way of distinguishing between artifacts, at least not without quite a bit of qualification as to what it means. I did think of another one though, which I think can help us out: some things produced by art are for doing something, while other things produced by art are for being something.

However unnecessary omelets may be, if it weren’t for omelets (along with similar foods), there would be no spatulas. I mean, look at them! That shape and arrangement of parts is simply bizarre taken out of context. The spatula exists to make omelets. It was built to do something.

The Odyssey, on the other hand, is meant to be experienced, contemplated, and thought about. It is an addition to the universe, there to be acted upon by us.

Now, this distinction is not an uncrossable line between two clearly different sets of things. It helps us identify what we’re dealing with and what kind of activity we’re engaged in (which in turn can help us think about whether, and how, it is worthwhile), but I suspect we will find that, in this regard, the difference between two pieces of art is one of emphasis rather than being exclusively one or the other.

The Odyssey, for example, was a revered source of moral, aesthetic, and philosophical principles for the ancient Greeks (although I’m not sure those are different categories), and it has been read and discussed as part of a liberal education for centuries. There is something this work of art has to teach us, and it has been used to teach for a long time. So, it does do something. But it only “does” by being what it is and then being appreciated and thought about by a capable person.

And, not even the spatula is purely functional. Or, rather, its function (and the form that follows) can be appreciated for its elegance in addition to being used for its purpose. Like those holes or slits in the head of the spatula, what are those for? Someone thought about that.

This might seem like a silly example (and it might be a little) but a lot of effort has gone into making functional things also beautiful (like houses, clothing, food, etc.) And the beauty is something the work of art is, beyond what it does.

So what? We’ve reached the point at which all these words I’ve been typing need to be justified. What does this all have to do with pop-culture and what artists are for?

What it does is gives us a framework. We’ve cleared a little ground for consideration here and have a couple handles to grab onto when trying to judge and make sense of all these THINGS everywhere.

Because the world is full of things! It would be enough if it were simply filled with natural things. Those are vertigo-inducing enough in their immense complexity, variety, and activity. The mind and heart could burst.

But then: mankind. That featherless biped, staggeringly intricate in himself, comes along and fills the world he lives in with a tidal-wave, no, a HURRICANE of THINGS. Like the hurricane on Jupiter: perpetual, monstrous, and seemingly larger than life when you stand inside it.

That’s what these last two articles have been for. They have been attempting, in their clumsy way, to give us some kind of grip. Some way of looking and saying: “This is what this is, whatever else it might be in addition. And here is how I can proceed to think about it and whether it’s worth my limited time on this spaceship named Earth that whirls through the cosmos.”

I can’t pretend I’m doing anywhere near all of it myself. I’m assuming quite a bit of common background and previous thought, but I’m trying to move forward a bit.

And this is as far as we’ve gotten: There are things men make, and things not made by men. We’re calling the former “art”. And now we’ve distinguished between things men make primarily for doing something else, and things men make primarily for being what they are.

Now it’s time to focus again, and ask why make things simply to be themselves. In certain cases, it might be spontaneous. But, as we said in part 1, most of the time people have a motive. I’d say this is so, even if the thing they make isn’t a tool. So what’s the use?

Victor Hugo said: “The beautiful is as useful as the useful. Perhaps more so.”

© 2014 John Hiner III

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