Monday, September 1, 2014

Art: Why make it?

So we’re coming back around. Two thousand and some words later, we’re back to the really pivotal question that will help us answer the question we started with.

Why make art (in our new, limited sense)?

I hadn’t realized until now what a delightful sort of trap I’d lead myself into by taking this road in the past several articles.

Not because the question is too difficult. The question is for everyone because it concerns everyone, and everyone should be able to come to a reasonable conclusion about it. Not without some study, but everyone should study too. So, I am not embarrassed to address this question because I’m just some guy. On the contrary! I eschew any embarrassment (while attempting to hold fast to humility) in the face of the big questions! Every everyman unite!

The trap I’m talking about is this: it is much easier to justify reacting to things than to justify initiating them. Consider the title of my blog: John takes pop-culture. I’m not sure how obvious it’s ever been, but I meant take as in “I can take him in a fight”. I am attempting to confront pop-culture and wrestle with it. But, it has to be there to wrestle with. If it weren’t for the thousands and thousands of people out there making the music and games and movies and comics and books and outrageous Denny’s style food combinations, I’d have nothing to wrestle with. But, since the stuff is already out there and people (myself included) are already looking at, listening to, and eating it, I can pretty easily say, “Hey, this should be thought about. Let’s try to get some good out of it, and identify the bad.”

But now the trap is sprung. Now we have to stop reacting to what other people have already done and ask, “Why should we make these things?”

Because we’re asking why we should make a certain kind of art, rather than why we do make it (which is the kind of question that could produce a stack of research papers, but maybe not any insight), the response to the question has to be determined by what the nature of mankind is. This question touches the very root of human nature and, because mankind is part of everything else, the nature of everything all together.

Not to be confused with this.
A guy named Scott McCloud wrote a book called Understanding Comics. It’s a pretty interesting read with some thought-provoking comments about the use of symbols. But, he is completely wrong about human nature. He basically asserts that human beings make things like paintings and stories because we get bored. According to him, we’re just like any other animal, except we have way more capacity to solve our common animal-problems than the other guys on the block. So, we end up with too much time on our hands. It isn’t quite “I want to be a monkey, but my brain swelled,” but it’s close. It’s: “I am a monkey, but my brain swelled”.

It’s simply not possible, with this notion of human nature, to have a reason we should make works of art. According to this view, we’re just animals, and we do what we do and then we die; end of depressing story.

On the opposite extreme (at least that’s what it seems like on the surface) is the notion that human beings create meaning for themselves. The idea here is that everything is pointless until we point it somewhere. This notion, too, makes it impossible to give a reason why we should make things. Again, we are left with what we do and nothing else, because the only “should” is the one we invent, and it’s only as strong as our whim to keep it going. This idea also completely fails to account for what I mentioned last time and touched on quite a while ago: that we are not our own inventions, nor are any of the materials we have to work with. We may be able to give things new meanings (we can make wood become a rolling pin. We can make a rolling pin become a present, or a murder weapon). But, that is not the same as being the only source of meaning, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Not only would accepting either of these concepts of humanity make our question impossible to answer, they are both wrong.

So then, what’s right? Get on with it already!

A pretty good place to start is with the firm conviction the ancients had about us (lucky they made all those works of art detailing  their thoughts, and then we preserved them, eh?) which is that men are not just animals, but they aren’t gods either. When it comes to things in this world, we’re both wonderful and a little tragic. We clearly rise above the material universe (when we put in the effort) but we’re also hanging out here, and a part of it, and often overpowered by what we can clearly see are lesser things than we are (microscopic organisms, big rocks, fire, air moving really fast, etc).

Or this.
Yoda was wrong, we are this crude matter. But, he was right, luminous beings are we. And that’s why we should make art. Because we live in and are destined for a universe bigger than the one presented to our eyes when we wake up in the morning, and works of art are one good way to blaze trails into it, and get glimpses of it. Artistic endeavor is the search for beauty, like philosophy is the search for truth.

Caveat time: clearly philosophy is also the search for beauty. The natural world is beautiful, human beings are beautiful, and what we see with unpracticed eyes is not nearly all there is to be known or seen about all the things around us. But, allow me to quote Mr. J.R.R. Tolkien from his essay On Fairy-Stories:

“And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” (Emphasis mine)

The trees, grass, houses, fires, bread and wine are beautiful and true, but they are not beauty or truth. And beauty and truth are our destiny, so we have to make with them windows on to those ultimate things.

© 2014 John Hiner III 

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