Commentary - Art
If you are expecting a treatise on aesthetics, (the study of the nature of beauty), you will be disappointed. If that's what you want, read Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto. It is a mistake, but just about everything written about art and aesthetics is mostly mistaken. At least Ayn Rand can be understood, and reading it may help you develop your own views about art and beauty. At least you will still be able to think when you get through reading it.
The trouble with almost everything written about aesthetics is the writers seem to be ignorant of the fact people find things beautiful without knowing or ever having heard of a single theory of aesthetics. The other problem with the theories is that most ignore the actual aesthetic experience, that is beauty itself, and devote themselves to the nature of art..
It is tacitly assumed the object of art is beauty and objective of art is to create something which is beautiful. In the actual discussion, however, beauty is hardly every mentioned, and the real question, why do we find some things beautiful and other things ugly, seems never to have occurred to the aestheticists. About beauty, the question that needs to be asked, and answered, is "what in the world is there in the nature of those things we see (or hear, or experience in any way) that is so, "beautiful," it moves us to tears or takes our breath away, and why are we able to have that experience?" Until we understand that, all questions of what makes a thing beautiful, and how do we create it, cannot even be correctly asked.
If the object of art is to create that which is beautiful, in the breathtaking-tearful sense, almost all of it fails, with rare exception. Yet art, in all forms, is very popular, and people are willing to spend fabulous sums of money to acquire it. It is possible the object of art really is beauty and those who patronize it are truly seeking that beauty. It is possible that even though art fails to produce the beauty sought, it is desired so much, and artists and patrons are driven by their desire for it so much they cannot help persisting in their pursuit of it.
But this is all hypothesis, and the real objective of art is simply interest. Part of the interest of art is, no doubt, beauty. There are many passages in many novels that are palpably beautiful. Many paintings, sculptures, and plays contain elements that are magnificently beautiful. Most opera is dominated by music that is incredibly beautiful. But, there are many novels, poems, paintings, sculptures, plays, and operas, and a great deal of other music, that contain no elements of what can truly be called beautiful at all, yet they are very popular and genuinely enjoyed. In those works of art that contain elements that are truly beautiful, the beauty is simply one of the elements that make the work interesting but rarely is beauty the dominant source of interest in any work of art.
Beauty is a source of pleasure to those capable of experiencing it. The experience is not universal, however, anymore than any other human experience is.
Some people are evidently "beauty-blind" in the same way that some people are color-blind or tone-deaf. Beauty will not be a source of pleasure or interest to those incapable of experiencing it. Nevertheless, such people are capable of enjoying art and of deriving real pleasure from it. For those people, the purpose of art cannot be beauty, but the only purpose art, or anything else can have, their own enjoyment of it, whatever that enjoyment might be.
So, beauty is one part of why art is important to some people, but only a part, and not necessarily the most important part. Art is valuable because it provides people with something that interests them and interests them intensely enough for them to spend their time and money to enjoy it. Some art, some music, some performances, some literature is undoubtedly profoundly beautiful, and for some this is the most interesting thing in it. For most, the beauty of art is a wonderful surprise, a bonus with which they are rewarded without seeking it, just as it is in life, comming upon us unexpectedly, while we are busy pursuing other interests.
The purpose of all things is the enjoyment of those that use them.
Enjoyment is used in the broadest sense. I don't suppose either a doctor or a patient particularly enjoys what a hypodermic needle is used for, at least at the moment it is being used. Both enjoy the results, when it is successful, and that defines the real purpose of the needle, the enjoyment of the patient with his recovered health, and the enjoyment of the doctor in the satisfaction of having cured a patient, and, of course, being payed for that success. (Doctors are paid, even when they are not successful, however, but that is another issue.)
The word "purpose" only has meaning in the context of beings capable of having purposes, that is, rational volitional beings, which, on this planet, includes members of a single species, human beings. While we use terms that suggest purpose when describing the behavior of nature and the irrational creatures, the meaning is metaphorical. No natural event occurs because nature, or the weather, or a river, a volcano, or rock intends something. No animal or plant does something because it understands by doing it some needed result will occur.
Purpose also pertains only to individuals. No group or collection has any purpose except the purpose of the individuals within the group. There is no such thing as a, "social purpose," and there is no higher purpose that supercedes the purposes of individuals.
How, then, can one judge the value of art? If the purpose of art is the enjoyment of those that use it, does that not reduce the value of art to the subjective evaluation of the users? The best art must be whatever the most people like and enjoy.
In one sense this is true. It is true of the market value of art. The most valuable art will be whatever the most people like and like enough to spend their money on. The artists that produce the music, novels, and plays that the most people like will make the most money. But there is also an objective value of art which does not always agree with its market value..
Whatever value of art is being discussed, it is the enjoyment it provides that determines its value. In case of market value, it is usually the immediate visceral pleasure one enjoys while viewing, hearing, or reading it, that determines its value.
The objective value of art is determined by all the kinds of enjoyment a work of art provides and how much provides. In the case of its objective value, enjoyment is meant broadest sense. It includes, of course, the same immediate and visceral pleasures that determines market value, but also includes those enjoyments that come from art's satisfaction of more demanding and long term emotional requirements: how well it fits and augment one's sense of life as it concretization of the values one holds, how appropriate it is to those moods and feelings that best fit one's own views and aspirations, the sense of exaltation of existence and celebration of life it provides, how much it satisfies one 'sense of achievement by challenging one's ability to comprehend the work of art in all its complexity of forms and structure. The objective value of art is determined by one's total, long term enjoyment of life and to what degree the art one listens to, reads, or watches, enhances or diminishes it.
The purpose of art is the enjoyment of those that use it. Everything else said about the purpose of art is so much blather.
There is one aspect of art, which is not so much about art as it is the nature of human beings themselves, which is extremely significant, yet mostly ignored by those who presume to be experts in the field. Everybody is different. The capacity to experience and enjoy things is very diverse, and what will be greatly enjoyed by one person will be loathed by another.
These differences are usually attributed to differences in taste. To some extent these differences are cultural (determined by what one is used to). In some cases they are determined by what one has learned (those who have not learned to read and write will not enjoy cross-word puzzles). In some cases they are determined by one's nature (what one is able to taste, hear, smell, see, and feel, as well is what their unique personality finds interesting, or their physiology enables them to do.)
Regardless of the source of the differences, it is not possible that any product, including any work of art, will provide enjoyment or equal enjoyment to all people. Some works of art too difficult for some to enjoy (especially in literature and music), and others are annoying to certain personalities (repetitious music is extremely annoying to some very sensitive people). Even the objective value of a work of art is finally determined by taste. While the technique of the artist and the degree to which the work of art conforms to the principles of the technical requirements of the art form are purely objective, if the work is enjoyed by no one, it has no value at all.
Ultimately, art is a luxury. While art can inspire one to greater achievement and provide the emotional fuel required by those pursuing life's greatest challenges, it is not a necessity of life. No individual or society suffers any lack or loss without any particular work of art. (The exception, of course, is the individual who pays a fabulous sum of money for a painting that is subsequently stolen.)
There is a kind of snobbery and mysticism that pervades the world of art and those who presume to be its authorities and high-priests. Art is the one field in which no one has the authority to dictate values. Value presumes an answer to the question, "of value to whom for what?" No work of art is of value to all individuals, and some works of art might be of great value to very few, and the ultimate value of art, even the best and most valuable, is ultimately limited by the limits of individual taste. Those who presume to declare this work of art, or the works of this or that artist, "the greatest work since blah, blah, blah ...," are all presumptuous phonies.
The almost mystic awe with which anything called, "art," is regarded is a huge con perpetrated on those who have no idea what art is, but are petrified to admit it. In the name of "art" anything can be put over as a value, and everyone is terrified to admit, "I don't see anything in that but excrement and trash!" when the so-called "work-of-art" is, in fact, excrement and trash. Daily, in art museums and salons, in concert halls and theatres across the country, the emperor appears naked holding excrement and trash and everyone declares they cannot decide which is more beautiful, the emperor's new clothes or the art he is holding.
This superstitious awe of art is raised to the level of a god when the value of art is placed above the value of man himself. While the wanton destruction of those artifacts of human achievement destroyed by those who are so perverse that destruction and death are themselves virtues, such as the vile destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Muslim Taleban, demonstrates the evil of those who abandon reason for superstition, it is not the, "art," destroyed that is the evil, but the evil principle that makes destruction a virtue. While almost all of the protest against such destruction is directed at the, "loss of great art to the world," the moral and psychological evil that caused the loss is hardly mentioned.
Suppose through some quirk of nature, there were some disease that threatened the lives of some small number of people, say just two or three, and somehow, this particular infection could only be stopped by destroying every piece art in all the art museums of the world. Those who worship art would gladly sacrifice the lives of two, three, or even three hundred or three thousand people to save the art. Those who love the truth above all other things would see every work of art ever created on this planet destroyed before allowing the death of even one human being. All works of art are only things, and no thing has any value except as a value to some human being. If the price of art is the loss of the enjoyment of life for even one human being, do away with the art.
Everything that is wrong with art is manifested the National Endowment for the Arts. As evil as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Muslim Taleban was, it was merely childish vandalism compared to the evil being perpetrated by the NEA. The Taleban only destroyed some physical artifacts, the NEA is destroying the very soul of art, that is, the values that enable human beings to create, appreciate, and enjoy art. For details see this series of articles by Jeff Jacoby.
The kind of art any individual will enjoy is determined by the kind of person they are. The trite mediocre majority will enjoy trite mediocre art. The exceptional individual cannot enjoy the insipid fare that satisfies the average. He can only be bored or irritated by it. But the art that the exceptional enjoy cannot be enjoyed by the average, because it is too difficult. One measure of art is the demand it places on those who enjoy it. The average person will despise great art because it is too difficult. The exceptional will despise the commonplace because it is too easy.
This is why we no longer watch television. We have nothing against television. We are disappointed that such a wonderful and powerful technology is being wasted, but we can still read and maybe someday there will be something on television besides childish pap.
There are a lot of people today who complain about the evil influence television is having on people. No doubt, television is reinforcing all that is wrong with the kind of people that can watch it and believe they are being entertained or informed. The real problem is not television, however, it is the fact there is a society where more than five or six percent of the adult population could possibly find enough interesting on television to even turn one on.