Tuesday, March 11, 2008

how has art changed the world?

On an online forum, someone asked "How has art changed the world?"

My response:

I don’t think art has changed the world any more or less than anything else (trees, politic, war, germs, rocks…). And I don’t think it’s changed the world in noticeably different ways than anything else. Which isn’t to say I think art is inert.

My problem is with the word art. It’s a useful word, but it’s necessarily fuzzy, and I think it falls apart when you try to use it in big philosophical questions. There is no one thing called art. Art is a collective word used to label a huge cloud of activities. What can we say about all those activities? Maybe only that “art” involves objects or activities that aren’t completely (or obviously) utilitarian yet which seem important. I’m not satisfied with that definition, but it’s the best I can come up with right now.

In any case, since art is a fuzzy catagory, when you try to build grand statements on it, you’re building on a really unstable scaffolding. It’s much safer to talk about how individual works of art have impacted the world: how “The Rite of Spring” changed music; how Shakespeare changed the language, etc. But that’s not as interesting as “a grand unified theory” of Art.

Why do people make art? I think they do it because they have to. Not all people have to, but enough do. It’s an urge — an itch. Where does it come from? I have no idea. My guess is that it’s a byproduct of other, more utilitarian processes: the need to communicate, the power of emotions and sensations, etc. For whatever reason, peoples in all cultures throughout all times have produced art.

Each piece of art impacts different viewers (listeners, etc.) in unique ways. How does art change the world? Ha! We can’t even say clearly how a single Picasso painting changes the world, because it changes the world in a zillion different ways. It changes the world by the sum total — or by the individual amounts, if you’d rather think of it this way — of the ways that it changes each viewer (and the artist).

You can say, “Yes, but how does it impact Art History?” And it’s fine if you care more about that than how it changes my grandmother. But that’s your arbitrary interest. The fact is, it changes both in some way.

Does art change in people in unique ways — ways that non-art objects don’t change them? Maybe. Maybe some people. But not necessarily in uniquely powerful ways. I’ve been destroyed by art. But I’ve also been destroyed by sunsets, love, kittens and really good cheeseburgers. Art goes into the mix like everything else.

What fascinates me is the fact that you asked this question. People ask variations of it all the time. I have a theory about it: I think we have two conflicting urges. One is to engage in activities that are more or less about pure sensation. These activities seem to have very little utility, especially when you separate them from their traditional roots in religion (which itself may have little utility). But that doesn’t stop us from wanting (needing?) to make and view art.

At the same time, we have another powerful urge to discard anything that’s not clearly useful. We could call it the Protestant Work Ethic, but you can be a Jew or an Hindu and still feel its profound tug.

We have a profound need to work; we have a profound need to play. We have a profound need to not-waste-time. We have a profound need to waste time. I think this tug is immensely important to human history and to individual experience. I’m not sure how it’s important, but I know that I wrestle with it every day. And I see everyone I know wrestling with it, too. (You even see it WITHIN art, where you have the Hollywood excess on one hand and the “Kill all your darlings” minimalism on the other.)

Ultimately, I think it’s impossible to harmonize the two forces. The tug between them is the Human Condition. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. Maybe trying is part of the Human Condition, too! The desire to pound art into a pragmatic framework often leads to questions like this (though it may not have been your motivation). It also leads to actors feeling guilty about not contributing enough to society, which is why we all have to suffer through Ben Affleck (or whoever) making public service announcements. It’s why people don’t want their kids reading a book unless it has “a good lesson in it.”

Here’s a thought experiment: what if I could conclusively prove to you that art had no purpose beyond hedonistic pleasure? What if art is like pot or sex without procreation? Would you think less of it? Would you stop viewing it? Stop making it? Would you view or make art anyway but feel guilty while doing so? I’ve heard people say things like, “art isn’t art unless it has a moral aspect” or “art isn’t art unless it makes you think.” But when I see a child finger painting on an easel, I doubt he’s trying to overthrow the government or muse on Existentialism. He’s scratching an itch.


Anonymous said...

But what would you define is the human condition? Is it just the natural way of humans, as in what all humans inherently are?

Stanley Workman said...

Am I to envy you, your fairy tale?
When all I see, is cold, hard, truth.
-Marc Breed