We’re more than matter. The material universe is not the extent of the universe that man inhabits and that he is capable of seeing and thinking about. But, it is the place he sees and moves around in and it takes up a lot of his attention. Good works of art bring the world of the mind, the world of moral choice and consequence, the world of beauty, into the physical world in a way that makes them obvious enough to be contemplated, making it possible for man to look out and above the physical into the larger and more important universe.
This is what good art does for a thoughtful audience. It’s also what good art does for the thoughtful artist. The activity is not essentially different for the artist than the audience, except that the artist is a lot more like Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the audience is a little more like Belloq. The artist struggles with the raw material of experience, ideas, and the world, braves the traps and dangers, and hopefully escapes with some treasure. The audience shows up after all the work’s done and takes it from the artist; his mad cackles echoing through the untamed jungle.
Ok, the metaphor isn’t perfect. There is still plenty of adventure to be had and work to be done on the part of the audience; the work of appreciating, drawing out, and understanding the beauty and truth contained in the work. Also, artist and audience, being engaged in essentially the same thing, would ideally be on the same side working together. And, really, the artist is also a member of the audience, because it is one thing to build a window, and another thing to look through it; one thing to seek out the treasure, and another to make use of it.
Assuming this makes sense and gives us a good reason to make art, what authority do artists have?
The question in the previous article was “Why should we make art?” And every instance of “art” so far in this article has been qualified with the gravely important but blanket adjective “good.” I’ve been outlining a use for a particular kind of making that can be worthwhile. I haven’t, and we can’t, declare that kind of making incapable of other, unworthy uses.
We’ve identified a subset of things man makes: things he makes intending them to be there to be looked at, heard, thought about. The pre-existing materials he uses are all the thoughts, experiences, and ideas available to him. The pre-existing circumstances are the nature of the universe, the human condition and his own condition in particular. And his motivation could be almost anything.
Given what we’ve outlined, an artist is at best an intrepid adventurer, a daring hero of the human race seeking glory and ancient treasure in the wilderness of experience and thought. “At best?” You say, “Sounds pretty awesome to me!” Well, yes, it is pretty awesome the way I put it. But, it doesn’t give him any authority. Even if a hero succeeds, it might be (and often is) largely luck (meaning here forces outside of his control) that made it possible. He might deserve our appreciation, even our admiration, but it isn’t as an artist that he should be treated as an authority, because as an artist he made an attempt and it worked, but that doesn’t mean he knows why, or how to do it again.
And that’s what he is at best. At worst he is a liar, a deceiver intent on confusing and misleading for his own purposes. Art is a pretty good method for this, because a work of art is there, just like everything else. So casual people are likely to treat the lying work of art and all the other things they’ve come in contact with (high school, trees, their mothers) with the same basic level of legitimacy, simply because they exist. But, clearly, the existence of your mother and the existence of Fifty Shades of Gray are not the same kind of existence. Your mom is a miracle and a mystery beyond the power of the human mind to conceive (as is everyone’s). Fifty Shades of Gray was written by someone like you who decided to write instead of whatever you decided to do.
So a person doesn’t get authority by being an artist (even a good artist) because being an artist is not essentially about understanding what one is doing. He could just be in the right place at the right time. The parallel with Indie is pretty good actually (if you look at the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, he didn’t really affect much. The real fight there is between God and the Nazis, and when God decided to make a direct move, He literally melted their faces off. Indie is pretty awesome, but he was just along for the ride.)
Authority in something like artistic endeavor (authority in the sense of deserving deference and having the right to determine how things are done) would have to come from understanding. It would have to come from insight into the nature and meaning of the subject matter because, ultimately, all authority has to come from the Truth.
Alright folks, you probably didn’t notice (I know I wouldn’t have without Blogger’s stat tracking features) but this article marks the one year anniversary of the blog! I have been aware of this impending event for some time, and there are some radical changes and new adventures in store. Please go here to read the announcement!
© 2014 John Hiner III