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Experiencing the Humanities

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8. All the Arts Equal Beauty

               

Chapter 8 of Experiencing the Humanities by Richard Jewell

                  

                

Art is a language completely different from English, French, Chinese, or any other normal spoken language. The language of all the arts is feeling: emotion, intuition, and form or idea without words. According to twentieth-century American philosopher Suzanne Langer, best known for her philosophy of understanding art, the special quality of the arts is that they provide symbolic language, nonverbal language, that helps us understand, learn, and appreciate life in ways in which words cannot.  There is a whole world of experiences in the arts--and inside us--that cannot be described quickly or easily with mere words. That is one of the great functions of the arts for us: it gives meaning to the unnamable, and helps us relive feelings and experiences that we might not ever otherwise bring back, know, or understand.

When an artist creates a work of art such as a painting, a sculpture, or a piece of music, he or she is communicating with us just as surely as if she were talking to us. Her "words," though, are not spoken things, but rather are color, line, shape, movement, and musical sound. There are so many ways of "speaking" to us through artistic expression, and so many different things an artist can say by using different combinations of things.

Opening Up To Art

There are many ways in which we are already open to artistic things.

How do we feel, for example, if we look at the color red? How do we feel when we gently stroke a long, warm, smooth curve on a statue made of wood? How do we feel when we listen to our favorite kind of music or read our favorite kind of story? All these are art and our reactions to art.

So we are already open to different arts of different kinds. Music does not have to be classical, or drawings or dance two hundred years old, for it to be true art. True art--the definition of art--is simply the use of materials to create a symbolic sensory image--an image that causes us, usually, to react with emotion. We are, all of us, already participants--nearly every day--in art. Though our reactions may be fleeting instants of time in any given day, still we react on an almost daily basis to colors meant to be pleasing to us, sounds meant to excite us, words meant to tell a story that gets to us. There are certainly differences between good art and bad, between "high" art and, say, folk or common art. But they all are art. As human beings, we already are patrons of art, whatever we happen to like.

For this reason, it is possible to learn more about art forms--or art styles--that we know little about. It is possible to open ourselves up to a work of art and begin to learn to appreciate the work of art more. There are several ways to do this.

One way is to approach a work of art, or "discover" it, simply by just opening up our own feelings and emotions. We can let the work of art loom larger in us, concentrate on it, empty our minds and our feelings before it, and let it sweep over and through us, taking us up in its hands and arms and giving us a ride.

Imagine that a painting, for example, is a body of water into which we can dive. Let it take us into its depths; we can swim in it. And often, gradually or quickly, we will discover--as we swim--what the painter was trying to get across, consciously or unconsciously. We will feel the feelings and emotions that the painter herself felt as she created the work of art.

Imagine that music, for example, is an ocean wave coming in to shore, and we can concentrate on the leading edge of the wave, just listening purely without thinking about it. With such edge-of-the-wave listening, we will begin hearing the different instruments and voices more and more.

When we approach a sculpture or other three- dimensional work of art, we should--if at all possible-- touch it. Sculpture is meant to be touched. We should feel it, stroke it, run our hands and eyes over its warm and cold surfaces, its smoothness and roughness, and let feelings come up inside us of similar physical feelings. In this way a piece of sculpture will deliver its message, its feelings, to us.

When we watch dance, we can imagine that we actually are the dancers, and imagine from our distant seats what it must feel like to float on air, or run across stage in a blur, or lift or be lifted by another human being in a graceful arc.

It is by such imaginings--such empathetic sharing-- that we discover the emotional roots and feelings of the artist or performer himself or herself.

And if we can't open up to a particular piece of art, no matter how hard we try, that is okay, too. Our inability to open up is neither necessarily our fault nor the artist's fault, either. Works of art are as individual as foods--some people prefer steak, others trout, and still others prefer vegetarian rice. Art is the same. Any given artist is going to appeal to some people and not to others, and the differences may have little or nothing to do with actual artistic merit.

However, we can develop a more wide and far-seeing eye for what artists intend in their works of art. That is one of the reasons for studying the arts. We can appreciate more, and discover more, about ourselves and others. And we also can have greater pleasure in experiencing the arts.

Classifying Types of Art By Audience

In our day-to-day lives as audience members--watchers and listeners of--the arts, we often tend to divide the arts into at least four categories. This method of classifying the arts is "audience-centered" because it puts us, the audience, at the center of classifying. The four categories are as follows:

performing arts -- arts that move in time on a stage

visual arts -- two-dimensional art we can see

literature -- art we can read orally

sculptural arts -- solid-object art we can touch

The usefulness of classifying the arts with this audience-centered method is simply that it makes the most sense to us. This is how we receive art. In fact, if we wanted to get more complex, we might even add "crafts" and "video arts" to the list. However, for the sake of simplicity, this book looks at all the different kinds of art using just the above four categories. Here are the kinds of art in each category:

The performing arts are art forms that move like plays or TV; we go to see them, or they come to our living rooms. They consist of such art forms as the following:

PERFORMING ARTS

live music
play
dance
opera
movies/TV
mime
recorded music
performance art
puppetry

The visual arts usually exist in two-dimensional form, and they stay in one place: e.g., a painting on a wall or a video image on a TV screen.  

VISUAL ARTS

oil/acrylic
woodcut
charcoal/pastel
engraving
cartoon
drawing
etching
abstract video
watercolor
stained glass
computer art
lithograph
mosaic
stage setting
silkscreen
tapestry
light display
photograph/poster
comic

Literature is language that affects our imaginations--we read, and this makes us think and feel differently. Literature includes such art forms as these:

LITERATURE

fiction 
stage play
comic book script
creative essay
screen play
comic strip
poetry/song
video script
card/poster scripT

Finally sculptural arts such as statues and buildings stay put in one place, just like visual arts, but exist in three-dimensional form for us to touch or climb. Sculptural arts include such forms as these:

SCULPTURAL ARTS

statue
building
flower garden
relief
carving
water fountain
rock garden
abstract design
monument
craft art

Classifying Types of Art By Critic

A popular, traditional way of classifying the arts is as follows. It is a "critic-centered" method of classifying the arts because it has long been in existence among the world's critics and philosophers who comment about art.

major arts ("fine arts"): music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture

minor arts ("applied arts"): ceramics, furniture, weaving, photography, lettering, etc.

The usefulness of classifying the arts with this critic-centered method probably was that in ancient times-- when these divisions first began to be created--they helped philosophers and critics of the art discuss the differences between "pure" and "practical" art.

Pure art was art created, performed, and received by audiences simply for its own sake; practical art was art that happened in the course of making something practical like a pot or chair.

Such a division was very important to think about, at least, in ancient times: very few people had the money or leisure time to pursue art just for its own sake. There was very little "pure" art around, and the philosophers and critics were curious about what kind of art could be made when people didn't have to use it on pots and chairs.

However, it is questionable whether these traditional classifications have worked very well for more recent generations--or more recent centuries--of art.

This division of fine art versus applied art has kept some very good craftspersons who are excellent artists in their own right from being recognized, especially in the fine kingly and queenly courts and well-to-do arts houses of the last several hundred years.

At the same time, these royal courts and well-to-do houses (or "schools") of painting, music, and literature have given too easy fame and fortune to painters, writers, dancers, and other artists who have practiced the "right" or "correct" kinds of art for their time and place. These establishment artists often are quickly forgotten a few decades after their death, and the more vital artists who were not fully recognized in their own time by critics are gradually, with time, given the critical applause that they deserve, too.

Our modern times and arts further complicate the use of this classical division between fine and applied-- "major" and "minor"--arts. Take, for example, the "major" art of literature and the "minor" art of photography. We can easily argue that that excellent photography provides much more wonderful art than poor writing of cheap stories. And what do we do with the photography of movies, TV, and videos--things that were hardly even dreamed of in the older times when the five "major arts" were named?

Classifying Types of Art By Artist

Another more practical way to classify the arts is an "artist-centered" method of classifying the arts. It has to do with how art is created by its makers, rather than by an audience-centered or critic-centered method. In an artist-centered" method of classification, it is possible to say that all the arts divide into three categories: the arts that are first imagined or created visually --sight arts; the arts that are first imagined or created through auditory means--sound arts; and the arts that are first imagined or created by physical or spatial sensing--touch arts.

These three would then be broken down into further subcategories something like this:

sight arts
sound arts
touch arts
paintings, etc.
graphic design
stage design
light displays
music
literature (as read aloud)
plays (like literature)
video programs (like literature)
sculpture
buildings
pottery
dance movement

The usefulness of classifying the arts with this artist-centered method is that we can see--from the artist's point of view--how he or she actually imagines and creates a work of art.

Here again, though, we run into problems of definition. Not only is there a problem with defining how some things are created (e.g., what about plays or videos that are imagined visually more than through auditory perception, but contain both; or what about comics and cartoons?). We also run into problems of how audiences actually perceive the results (e.g. plays may start as sound, but they are received by audiences primarily as sight; dance may be created as touch, but it is received by audiences primarily as sight).

It is perhaps easiest to classify the arts by the types of categories most people already are using. Thus the audience-centered method appears the most simple.

However we classify the arts, clearly we are in an especially wonderful time of expansion. We are seeing new methods and uses invented almost yearly when, long ago, such changes might happen once in a century. In the arts, as in so many other fields of human knowledge and experience, we are in new frontiers.

"Real" vs. "Abstract" Art

Another natural classification we make in art is between what has a content that we can understand-- something "real"--and what has content that is so abstract that we can't make heads or tails of it. When we classify art this way, we are classifying according to whether or not it has some kind of subject matter--something understandable. Some art has a lot of subject matter--like literature and photography. In this kind of art there are a lot of contents--a lot of realistic people, places, things, or events in it. Such art is called "objective" or "representational" because it contains objects that we can understand--because the words, paint, clay, or whatever else is used to make it represent realistic things.

At the other end of the spectrum, some art has little or no subject matter to it--architecture, for example, or dance. There is little or no recognizable content--no people, places, things, or events: just pure design. When art is full of design and little else, it is called "nonobjective' or "nonrepresentational" because it does not contain understandable objects, and because the medium of clay or physical movement, for example, does not represent anything real or concrete to us. Emotion and other things can be expressed by such nonobjective art, but there no real things or people are visible in the work.

We can show a rough spectrum of the arts according to this objective-nonobjective difference. Not all of the arts fit in neatly, and certainly in some art forms there are types of art pieces that are very objective and types that are very nonobjective (e.g., compare a photograph with an abstract painting of color splotches in the visual arts). However, with these considerations in mind, here is a spectrum of objective-to-nonobjective arts:

Objective Art--Representational--"Real"

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  photography
  traditional literature
  standard video arts
  stage plays
  realistic painting
  music with words
  sculpture
  garden design
  wordless music
  dance
  abstract painting
  craft arts with no pictures
  abstract graphics design
  architecture

Nonobjective Art--Nonrepresentational--Abstract

It is important for us to realize, in looking at this list, that no matter how much we say we dislike abstract or nonrepresentational art, still all of us respond on a weekly or even daily basis to some forms of it. Architecture--the way buildings are built, their arches, their surface materials, water fountains, dancing--whether we dance to it or watch it, song melodies with no words--we respond to all of these things that are, in arts terms, nonrepresentational or abstract. So the abstract arts are just as close to our hearts at times as are the objective, representational ones. It just is a matter of what we personally like or don't like--and sometimes a matter of what we can discover we do like, once we understand what the artist is trying to accomplish.

Great Art

What is great art? On the one hand, great art obviously is old art which has been designated great. However, how do we know in our own times what art is great and what will never be remembered? And who decides?

These are important questions, for the great art of the past often was not considered great when it first existed. For example, when Shakespeare and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) were writing, most critics of their times considered them hack writers with little or no literary ability.

Similarly, Van Gogh and many of the other Impressionist painters of the late nineteenth century were barred from participating in the important rituals and functions of "real" painters in their time, and often they were very poor. Yet today their paintings often sell for millions of dollars while the so-called "real" painters of those earlier times now are barely remembered.

A third example is that of Isadora Duncan, often considered the mother of modern dance. In her time, she was attacked and reviled by many as nothing more than a shameless upstart who showed her body and her sexual fantasies to everyone in wild, uncoordinated gyrations on stage. Yet now many acknowledge her as a pioneering breaker of convention and a great artist.

So what does make great art? Is, for example, rock music great art? Are music videos? Cartoons and comics? Those who fashion themselves as our critics of the fine arts --whose views and reviews appear in daily newspapers and monthly magazines--often have been the last to recognize great art in the past, and we probably can expect this situation to continue in the present and future.

One reason, perhaps, that critics often don't see great art for what is, in the present, is that critics often are prejudiced against that which sells well. Bestsellers--whether they are bombshell novels, movies, music albums, or even comics--usually are considered to popular, too trashy, or simply just too successful to be highly literate or finely tuned to true artistic sensitivities.

However, experience and history suggest that most great works of art come originally from best-selling works of art or artists of their own time. In fact, there are perhaps three signs or indications that a work of art may become great. A great work of art usually is

best selling 
groundbreaking 
inherently beautiful

"Best selling" means it is very popular in its day, or is produced by an artist who has done other very popular piece. Actually, the popularity of a great work of art must be so great that it successfully appeals to not just one generation, but dozens of generations of people for hundreds of years to come. Not all best-selling works of art are great, by any means. But most great works of art come from the ranks of bestsellers.

"Groundbreaking" means that it does not follow regular convention or already tried artistic methods real closely. It is not, in short, just one more soap opera following an old, old formula, no matter how well done.

Critics look for this newness in art, but often they are so busy examining the special and new swirls that the bark has on one type of tree in the forest of art, that they fail to see a whole new type of grove growing up on the edges of the forest. Rock music and, more recently, rock videos, probably will become excellent examples of this: already, more radical music critics are saying that certain songs such as "Light My Fire" by The Doors, "Yesterday" by the Beatles, and many others, and certain music videos as well, someday will be considered great classics of fine music.

Finally, "inherently beautiful" means, just as the art critics do require and demand, that a work of art have an inner harmony, beauty, and emotional/intuitive meaning that is unified, strong and intense, and deeply moving to us.

Many pieces of art have one or even two of these three qualities; they are popular, unusual, or beautiful. But having all three usually is what helps a work of art someday become great--that and a good spoonful of time, such as a century or two, to see how other people like it as well.

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Exercises

Exercise 1

Step 1: Make a list of the kinds of art forms (realistic painting, rock videos, square dancing, etc.) that you like a lot, ones you kind of like, ones you dislike and really dislike, and ones that don't do anything for you at all. Then circle one of two in each group that you would be interested in learning more about.

Step 2: Look up each of your circled items in a large encyclopedia and/or a book about the arts.

Exercise 2

Find a painting you like (the larger and more original, the better) and then imagine it is like a body of water. Try "diving" into it by giving yourself over to it, focusing on it totally, the whole of the painting all at once, and letting it come into you. Describe what happened, if anything. Next, try this with a painting you don't like as well.

Exercise 3

Choose a piece of music you like. Try listening to the cutting edge as if it were an ocean wave and you were concentrating on the front edge only, ignoring what has already gone past. Listen to the texture of the different instruments or voices. Then describe what happened, and next, try it with a piece of music you like less.

Exercise 4

Find a piece of sculpture, a carving, or an architextural or craft form that you like. Touch it. Rub your hands over its shapes and angles. Let the physical sensation of it take over your senses. Close your eyes and let the physical sensations create fantasies of other objects, times, or places. Then describe what happened, and try it with some sculptural form or shape you don't like as much.

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Textbook URL: http://www.umn.edu/home/jewel001/humanities/book/0contents    
Most Recent Revision: 24 Aug. 2002.
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright 1987-1996 by Richard Jewell.
Contact the author: www.richard.jewell.net/contact.htm.


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