What’s the Point of Art? (And: Shouldn’t We Rebrand the Species?)
“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.”
When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor. It’s a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak this language we frequently use it in our creative works.
We are using symbolism right now, of course. These squiggly patterns on a page have no intrinsic meaning, if you doubt that cast your eye over a page of Sumerian script, it will only have meaning if you have learnt what each hieroglyph symbolises.
Why is symbolism important?
Symbolism allows us to convey large amounts of understanding with small units of information. If I say to another English speaker ‘kitchen’, ‘mother’, ‘climate’, ‘driving’ these arbitrary sounds represent concepts. This makes a huge difference because, while we may have massive storage room in our brains, our consciousness is tiny and typically has room for only a few items at a time. If we think of the brain being like a building the size of the British Museum, then consciousness is a little like the light from a pencil torch inside that building with the rest of it dark.
The brain does most of its work in this dark and, aside from having to manage bodily machinery such as intestines, hormone levels and the like, its day job also includes instincts, emotions and intuitions (the last one happens when stimulus queues up for the attention in the torch light of consciousness and doesn’t quite make it, giving us an ‘intuitive feeling’ about something. Hence it’s always a good idea to have a dialogue with your intuition since it’s telling you things you have unconsciously picked up, but not to assume it knows best; it’s as prone to mistakes as any conscious information).
Rebranding the species
Homo sapiens means ‘wise human’ – this is a terrible name for our species, firstly, because the most intelligent humans were probably homo neanderthalensis, the so called ‘Neanderthals’ whose brains were ten to twelve percent larger than ours, but more importantly our intelligence is not our most defining feature and, funnily enough, it may be that symbolism is. For example, homo erectus walked the earth for well over a million years, at least ten times longer than us, and was smart enough to develop tools, learn to make fire and to cook, so, where is the homo erectus cookbook? Or any book? When we study ancient humans we find homo sapiens are the first hominids to create ‘art’ and that is very telling.
Of course, art isn’t the reason for the ‘success’ of the species (‘success’ is a matter of perspective here) it’s a product of it. Symbolism allows us to create language, and language allows us to know each other’s ‘inwardness’; our thoughts, ideas, emotions. In other words it allows us to network and it’s this which defines our species. Any human-made object you encounter is likely to be the product of an unimaginable number of human interactions. Take the pen on my desk as I write this; were I to tell the story of this pen it would need to include its designers, manufacturers, the people who promoted the product, the ones who transported it, the retailers, but, of course, that would be the tip of the iceberg: each of these stories is a small part of a whole series of other stories: who the designers each studied design with, who developed the complex polymers that made the plastics possible, who financed them… then there’s story of the ink, the paper.. let alone the vast web of infrastructure that meant that all of the people in these stories could be who they were in the first place; providing them food, water, medicine, shelter, transport, schooling, parenting and so on. The accomplishments of any single human, no matter how brilliant, are nothing without our ability to form these networks, to exchange and build on each other’s ideas. Our image of ourselves is misleading. Take a look at a picture of a feral child or adult; that’s you or I without the network.
If intelligence was the reason societies developed then not only homo neanderthalensis but squirrels, cats, badgers, monkeys would all have evolving societies too, even if they developed more slowly.
Rebranding exercise: homo sapiens
So, while I’m here to talk about art, along the way I’m going to audaciously rebrand our species, I hope you don’t mind: we are not homo sapiens we are homo communicare, communicating humans. If we one day learn to overcome the evolutionary programming in our brains that gives rise to that great deceiver who masquerades as an angel of light, the ego, we will have done what the philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed when he said: “For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole”.
Enough about the species and its new brand name, back to art:
We all speak the language of symbolism and metaphor in our dreams and so we use that language in ‘art’, but why do we then get into such confusion about it? I’ve seen people get red-faced and yell “is this art?”, with undisguised contempt. This is silly and many people are robbed of the enjoyment or experience of art because of it.
Here’s the root of the the problem: the word ‘art’ has two meanings and both are in common use, worse, both regularly find themselves side by side in the same sentence and sit there in sullen, silent conflict, refusing to admit their differences.
So, let’s deal with the first: ‘Art’ is originally a 13th century word that means “skill as a result of learning or practice,” – this is still its meaning in, for example, a ‘Bachelor of Arts’ degree, but then in the 19th century, a French writer, Théophile Gautier, came up with the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’: which became in English ‘art for art’s sake’. This was part of a movement against the idea that creativity should serve some didactic or moral purpose and it was the philosophical fork in the road from which a tangle of misunderstanding ensues to this day.
‘Art for art’s sake’ has come to be a euphemism for self-indulgence and pointlessness, but in fact it’s a good philosophical definition of the thing we’re seeking to describe: our motivation, art as our creative response to the ‘universe’. When we make things for this reason, we make ‘art’. Whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art is a completely different question.
Art is not Science
In science we seek empirical understanding of the universe, in art (as used in the later meaning) we make a creative response to it. Science deals in universal laws and provable theories which have to be tested beyond doubt. Art is anything but universal, every day in galleries around the world people stand side by side in front of paintings and have entirely different responses to them.
In the fog of different meanings we often conflate ‘art’ into both meanings: Our highest skills of craftsmanship married to our most profound and imaginative creative visions, we step back and say, in appropriately awed tones; ‘it’s a work of art!’. What we really mean is that we consider it a great work of art.
But there’s a problem; there is no universal definition of the experience of art – just ask the two people standing side by side in front of the painting: One of them may be transported to heavenly realms by it while the other may be utterly indifferent.
The answer is easy. We should use the word ‘art’ in the same way we use the word architecture. Architecture is ‘the complex or carefully designed structure of something.’ – the word doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the buildings or other structures but it groups things within a useful category so that we’re talking about the same thing: we can decide later whether it’s good, bad, unusual or common architecture but we can agree: it’s architecture.
Of course, it gets still more confusing because ‘art’ is regularly lumped in with ‘entertainment’, the dictionary definition of which is ‘effortless engagement’ and the ‘performing arts’? That’s just asking for trouble; the performers are regularly described as ‘artists’ in the 13th century meaning of the word whereas the work they are performing may be considered ‘art’ in the 19th century sense. Let alone the fact that still others try to measure art by its commercial value but its financial value is merely what someone will or has paid for it, and yet more by it’s popularity, but popularity fluctuates and is strongly tied to exposure.
It’s not surprising that we end up with red faced people who can’t agree because they are using the same word to talk about different things and trying to evaluate them by using different criteria.
You don’t owe art anything and art doesn’t owe you anything. You can live a happy, wonderful, fulfilled life without ever engaging with art, and many millions of people have done so, so don’t feel obliged, some of my fellow artists may scream ‘heresy!’ but if you opt out the world doesn’t end. However, before opting out, consider that art is the place we share our wildest creativity, our highest and our most extraordinary visions, and this is a party you’re invited to. It really can move, inspire and inform and it really does transform lives. Many people are passionate about art not out of pretension but because they love the world that it invites them into and it brings them enormous joy. Some would claim it deepens their experience of being alive.
When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor, its a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak it we frequently use it in our creative works. Hence, when Marcel Duchamp produces a urinal and puts it in a a gallery (‘Fountain’, 1917) or John Cage produces a work that invites us to contemplate four minutes thirty three seconds of silence (4’33”, 1952) then we accept these as art because they are invitations to explore Duchamp and Cage’s creative responses to the universe – whether they are ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’ is up to you and to each person who encounters them.
However, while there’s no single definitive experience of a work of art I believe there are helpful ways to approach it. I’ve met people who are baffled and put off by art and who can blame them with all the confusion about it? (I’ve also met people who feel obliged to experience art and wondered what on earth they get out of it). So, in hopes it may be of help to someone somewhere, here’s my personal rule of thumb for considering any work of art (I call them the ‘Four E’s’):
- Express: What is the artist seeking to say? Emotionally, philosophically etc
- Explore: Are they doing anything new or just regurgitating old ideas?
- Engage: Does it ‘resonate’ with the human experience? Or are the ideas so niche that only a few can connect to it?
- Execute: So much for the ideas, were they able to pull them off?
If Art has anything to recommend it….
Art invites us on a journey and some journeys will mean more to one person than to another. One journey may be more demanding than another but you may find when you get to the pinnacle that the view is breathtaking and unforgettable. Others may make you smile but quickly be forgotten.
In the end, ‘art’, the place where we share our creative response to the universe, is, I think, a healing place. It can draw our attention to amazing things we’d otherwise have overlooked, make us laugh, cry and share more deeply the experience of being human.
It’s the last one, the ability to share the experience of looking at ourselves and others, that to me is the richest thing that art has to offer. It’s uniquely human and something that great wealth and extraordinary technology don’t offer and while in theory religions and philosophies with noble ideas do, ideas are often doomed to the same fate: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Communism, Capitalism*, Nationalism and ping pong teams throughout history have hit the same problem: we attach our ego to each of them and out there in the darkness of the brain an unconscious primal mechanism becomes active that, if unchecked, quickly turns those teachings into ‘us and them’ (of course, there are many devotees of all these faiths and philosophies who adhere to them and do wonderful things, nonetheless, in each of them we can find people doing extraordinarily destructive things that seem contrary to the teachings). The same pattern plays out over and over again throughout human history: psychologically we never kill ‘us’ only ‘them’. Empathy helps us see that this is nonsense because ‘they’ are ‘us’.
Perhaps this is the point that underlies art: it helps us find our deeper connection to ourselves and each other. When we have a profound sense of connection and empathy we have the potential to break down the archaic barriers such as race, culture and gender that have haunted our species throughout its history, to one day become the ‘wise humans’ we thought we already were.
* In Adam Smith’s 1776 ‘Wealth of Nations’, capitalism had noble ideas, capitalism is responsible for much initiative and advancement but anyone who trots these out as justification today needs to be confronted by a gigantic graph illustrating the narrowing fortunes of the 99% of people who actually live in capitalist societies and answer the question of who exactly the beneficiaries are. In 2nd Century Britain, in response to the rebelious Britons, the Romans created an aspirational system under Agricola, where a very few had the chance to escape penury and join an elite, ruling society. In the chronicles of that time (by Tacitus) it says “because they didn’t know better they called it civilisation when it was in fact their slavery”