Friday, August 03, 2007

The Artist's World View: General Chat about About Styles in Art, Decorating, Music and Fashion

At a real finishing school, you would take courses in music and art appreciation, and you would learn about how styles and cultures have come in and out of fashion over the centuries. One reason you would learn this is to be able to converse with others who have an interest in these things. Another reason would be to understand art, music, etc., so that you can presumably appreciate it more.

A final reason would be so that you could achieve harmony in your own surroundings. For example, an understanding of periods would help you be able to blend antiques or reproductions or even modern furnishings into a home in a pleasing way.

Many of us are introduced to these things in the course of our education, even if we don't attend a "finishing school". You probably already know more about this than you might guess. What you don't know, you can learn by visiting museums and attending concerts, checking books out of the library, or reading articles online.

Now, I'm about to delve into a matter of opinion. Please feel free to agree or disagree with me. But, I do hope you will give it some thought.

Also, please note that when I refer to artists in this piece, I mean the term in the broadest sense. I include visual artists, musicians, writers, archietects, and craftsmen in this category.

There was a time when the arts were dominated by the "didactic" philosophy, which states -- in part -- that every work should be either beautiful or instructive. Early didactic artists believed art should inspire us to live up to high ideals. Often these ideals were drawn from Christianity, or, if they were not, they at least championed principles of morality, beauty, and order.

The didactic sculptor, for example, wouldn't want you to view a bust he did of a young man and walk away thinking, "Oh, wasn't that lovely? Now, what's for lunch?" Instead, he would want to communicate something to you by the beauty or nobility of the young man's face, and he would hope you would contemplate the piece long enough to be moved by the message.

In my opinion, the point of view that art should be either beautiful or instructive has a lot of merit. Some of the most magnificent works of music, art, and literature were created by people who held to this train of thought. After all, these artists set out to create beauty and to inspire, and we should not wonder that they did, in fact, do just that.

In one sense, we can ask, "What is the point of creating something if it isn't beautiful or useful or valuable in teaching us something good?" Do any of us get up in the morning with the wish, "I hope that the works of my hands today are ugly and pointless?" Not if we're healthy-minded.

Every thing God does or makes is both beautiful and fruitful, for his work flows from the infinite goodness of his nature. Since we are created in his image, we long to produce things that are good and lovely, as well. Also, we are encouraged when we encounter good, instructive, and beautiful works produced by others.

The weakness in the didactic line of thinking is that fallen people are not always in touch with what is truly beautiful and good. At the extreme end of the didactic school of art, people use art as propaganda. The causes they choose to promote are not always beneficial. Consider the artists, film makers, etc., who worked in the service of Hitler's campaign. Many were quite talented, but, tragically, they used their talents to promote evil. What a horrible legacy they left!

In the nineteenth century, a competing philosophy that had been floating around was finally crystallized. This theory was "l'art pour l'art" or "art for art's sake". Originally, this was a reaction to artists who served the state and the state church. The artists who served the state did so by creating didactic works. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, schools of art were dominated by these traditional didactic thinkers. At that time, the didactic artists, writers, etc., had settled into a comfortable rut. They kept re-creating the same types of things, rather than reaching for new heights. They throttled the enthusiasm of young students who wanted to explore different ways of doing things.

Some young artists chafed at this level of control over their works. They wanted to be free to create art simply for its own merits. They did not want to appeal to any particular line of thought, but simply to practice the principles of good art.

James McNeil Whistler wrote: Art should be independent of all claptrap —should stand alone [...] and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.

One tenant of this thinking is that a work of art should be judged on its own merits. It should not be rejected simply because the person viewing the art disagrees with or disapproves of the artist, himself.

Now, there is some merit to this line of thinking, as well. If someone has the skills to capture a beautiful sunset on canvas or by camera, we can enjoy the resulting work of art without giving a thought to the artist, himself. Because he is creating a representation of one of God's glorious creations, the image inspires us. In the same way, we can enjoy a symphony simply because it is beautiful, though we know nothing of the composer. And, we do not have to know the potter's thoughts on politics to enjoy the beautiful blue bowl he created. Nor, do we have to know the philosophy of a poet who produces a beautifully written poem.

Sometimes, people do create works of art that transcend their own personal behavior and thought. If they are representing or writing about one of God's good works, likely, their work will mirror that goodness. In my opinion, is neither our job nor our right to go around judging the life of each and every artist or craftsman.

But, just as the didactic school of thought has its weaknesses, the philosophy of art for art's sake breaks down, as well. You see, the truth is that every person working in the fine arts and every craftsman has a world view, even if they haven't fully thought it out. Whether the artist intends to or not, he or she can't help but communicate some of that world view in the works he or she produces. Our deeds and the works of our hands do flow out of who we are. Movies, books, and music with lyrics are especially embued with the authors' view of life.

In the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, a certain dark strain of art grew out of the art for art's sake philosophy. Many artists moved beyond the simple creation of art for its own sake. These artists sought to live counter to what they viewed as constrictive, middle-class morality. They wanted to shock and to offend, instead of to inspire or to teach what is good. They felt they were doing society a service by shocking people out of complacency. They wanted to "free" people from what they viewed as the chains of religion and morality.

Yet, in following this course, the artists actually turned out to be didactic in some sense. They were "preaching" anti-morality as blatantly as the old-line didactic artists tried to inspire morality.

Many commercial artists have tagged onto this way of thinking. This is probably because commercial artists have found that they can make money by titillating the public. For example, popular filmmakers say that they are pushing the creative envelope by showing bolder and bolder images and by using language and violence that is more and more shocking. They bring in viewers by appealing to our baser instincts. Thus, they take up the battle cry that standards of morality should not be imposed upon the arts.

We in the public are not innocent, however, if we pay money to view things that push people to accept lower and lower standards of morality. Supporting such works with our money only reinforces the opinion of filmakers that people really are happy with lowered standards. Every one of us will have to make our own choice about how to approach this problem. We all face similar dilemmas in the ad world.

With regard to art for art's sake, some artists who were disheartened by the horrors of World Wars I and II concluded, wrongly, that there is no higher power in the universe and, thus, that there is no higher meaning to life. These thinkers were agnostic or even atheist. Since they felt that life is without meaning, they sought to strip art of meaning, as well. In the visual arts, they wanted to communicate this sense of meaningless through very abstract, unconstructed images. This was true in the visual arts, in literature, and in music.

Other artists seemed to have interpreted art for art's sake as living for the sake of art. The artist became a slave to his art and sacrificed everything for his art. Such an artist elevates art to a place it cannot truly fill.

Still, other artists of the art for art's sake school believed that the only meaning that counted in art was whatever satisfaction the artist or craftsman got out of his own work. The artist created for himself alone. He was not interested in communicating anything to the people who viewed his art. Rather, the artist divorced art from communication altogether. His work was purposefully abstract and hard to read. The artist sought to have his own subjective experience in creating his piece of art, and he left it up to other people to have their own subjective experience when viewing, listening to, or reading the pice of art. As far as the artist was concerned, it was up to others to find their own meaning out of what he had created. If they could relate to the work in some way -- great! If not, they should merely appreciate it as the artist's own self-expression.

This was, perhaps, the most extreme form of art for art's sake. Yet, even here, the artist failed to truly create something for art's sake alone. He actually sent a message of self-focus, combined with a sense of meaningless, into the world. And, there is a bit of irony here. If the artist really wanted to create something for himself only, why did he seek to have it sold or otherwise publicly displayed?

Some artists did have a deeper meaning to their work. These artists sought to bring the uglier realities of life -- such as poverty and ignorance -- to light. They rebelled against overly sweet, sentimental art, because they felt that it glossed over the truth that life is hard for many people. They felt, perhaps rightly so, that such sentimental art failed to speak to human suffering. In their attempt to bring real problems to light, they often used images and techniques that were intentionally raw and ugly.

Here again, these artists back up on the didactic theory; in calling attention to a problem, are they not sending out a message? Some very gifted artists in this school of thought actually have inspired society to eradicate certain injustices.

However, a large number of artists have presented suffering as such an all-encompassing reality that the emotion they arouse is one of despair. They sent the message, "Isn't life sad and depressing and hopeless," rather than the message, "This is unjust; now, what will you do about it?" This latter type of artist fails to move people to act on behalf of the suffering.

Also, many artists focused in on their own personal suffering, which was often the indirect result of their own pessimistic view of life. This brings us back to the increasing self-focus of so many artists in the past two centuries.

All in all, artists in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries experimented with the purest essences of light, color, shapes, sounds, and words. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. Each of these elements can be beautiful and meaningful when approached with appreciation. However, so many artists embarked on this experimentation from such a dark point of view that the results have left a bad taste in the mouths of many people. The pure essenses of light, color, shapes, sound, and words should be evidences to the artist and to us that there is an order set into the universe by a higher power. Sadly, many artists and consumers of art have missed this message.

Most people think that art for art's sake still is the dominant philosophy of the arts in our world, today. I would humbly like to suggest that this is not so. I believe that today's books, movies, films, home furnishings, etc., communicate the artists' world views more directly than people like to think.

Consider the fact that feng shei is so popular in decorating. Many use its principles without even realizing that it comes from an Eastern philosophy or that that philosophy relies on superstitious principles, rather than on God. But, many promote it knowing exactly what philosophy it entails.

Or, think about the recent films, "Sicko" and "An Inconvenient Truth". No matter what you think of these films, they are overtly didactic films. The film makers set out to "inform" you and influence you, according to their own beliefs. These films were also were made to motivate people to action, again according to what the film maker believes is best. Advertising is the most obvious vehicle that uses elements of art to induce us to buy things.

So, what are we to do? Do we accept without question any work of art, blindly absorbing the creator's world view? Or, do we appreciate only those things that were created by people who think just like we do?

I suggest that this is where we can exercise some common sense. 1) We should all realize that we are affected by the things we read, hear, and view. We are naive if we think otherwise. 2) We should also realize that every artist has a particular viewpoint and that he or she can't help put communicate some of that in his or her work. Some writers, artists, musicians and craftsmen are honest about the fact that they are expressing a particular world view. Others claim not to have a message in mind and some may even believe that they don't. But, most likely, there work does communicate something. 3) Every trend of art is driven at first by a particular philosophy or school of thought. When the trend becomes popular, people latch onto it without knowing the philosophy behind the trend. Thus, it is possible for someone to innocently appreciate an art trend without recognizing or internalizing its message. 4) If the message behind a particular work of art is not obvious to us, and we find it to be beautiful or intriguing, we can probably enjoy it on an innocent level. Thus, we don't need to needlessly analyze every trend of art that comes down the road. Some artistic philosophy is academic and has little relation to how we actually use art in our real life. If confronted with the underlying message, however, we will have to decide how we will respond to it. 5) Some eras have produced a greater amount of art that is inspiring and beautiful than have other eras. Since the fall of man, however, there has been no era in which every artist has presented a wholesome view of life. And, in every era, there have been at least a few artists who have created things of truth and beauty. We need to have discernment to recognize and choose the good things from any era. Today's works should not be rejected out of hand simply because they are of today. 6) In some cases, being presented with an idea counter to our own does cause us to think and to grow, provided that that idea is not something purposefully intended to tear down our faith. 7) We do well to choose to view and hear those things that are wholesome, useful, beautiful, encouraging, instructive, and of merit. 8) Others may be influenced when they see the types of arts and crafts that we enjoy. Not only does an artist or craftsman send a message to others, we, as consumers of arts and crafts, send a message, too. Again, we don't need to become paranoid about this. If you love certain mid-twentieth century abstract prints, it's not likely that the average person is going to think enough about art history to conclude that you think life is pointless. But, if you surround yourself with wholesome messages, you will be setting a good example for others. 9) People who create art from a Christian world view (or at least from a positive world view) will communicate best if they produce works of the best quality their talents allow. Such works will be better received if the artists keep the basic principles of art and literature in mind. If the works are better received, they will have more influence. Many a well-intended work of art has been rejected by the public and by critics because it was poorly executed.

I'm no art historian. The topic of didactic thinking versus art for art's sake is a bit complicated, and I'm sure that I did not represent every point correctly as I tried to distill it into a simplified form. If you have a better understanding of this, please leave a comment.

The major point, however, is to be aware that artists and artisans do not create in a vacuum. They are influenced by various philosophies and schools of thought. They naturally craft the things that influence them into their art, even if they do not realize they are doing so. So, we do we do well to focus on works of art that inspire us toward higher things.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject! So, if you visit The Merry Rose today, be sure to leave your comments on this post.



Mrs. U said...

Very interesting post!!! There is a lot of meat here to process, indeed!!!

I tend to agree with "...every work should be either beautiful or instructive..." philosophy. The only problem, though, is the artist's interpretation of "beautiful and instructive". Goodness knows, a visit to any museum these days will give occasion to view some horrendous "artwork"!!!

I am going to think more on this. You present both sides VERY well!!

Mrs. U

Elizabeth said...

Hi Mrs.U:

I lean towards thinking everything should be beautiful or instructive, as well. I suppose that it's up to each of us to sort the gems out from the rest.


Sandra said...

I agree with Mrs. U, there is alot of meat here in this post. It is well-written and interesting. I liked your points for using common sense.

I do agree with what you've said and feeling that creating something whether art, music, etc., should be beautiful as that reflects God's creation. I have just finished taking a music history course (exam is next Friday, yikes!). This particular course covered the 19th century (Romantic Era) and the 20th Century. Alot of the music of the 20th century was about experimenting with sound and moving away from the traditional way of composing music. It's my personal opinion that the composers of this music were just trying to shock people by a new sound or make a name for themselves by being so different. Trust me, alot of the 20th century classical music is NOT beautiful, lol!

I want art, music, literature to make my life better not cause me to feel depressed or nervous. As Christian, aren't we to dwell on things that are lovely?

Stepping off soapbox now! :o)

Anonymous said...

I wish I had read this before I took my university art class. I viewed some horrid pieces of "art" and I don't remember any beautiful pieces that weren't ridiculed. It left a bad taste in my mouth until the beautiful paintings that ladies put on their blogs caught my eye. Frankly, I've learned more about art from digging around and enjoying well-designed blogs than I did in the four months of my art class. :-(

Thank you for a well-written article.

Many blessings,


Elizabeth said...

Hi Sandra,

I agree that we should dwell on things that are lovely and noble.

The 20th century left a mixed legacy in the arts. It will be interesting to see what happens in this century.


Elizabeth said...

Hi Charity:

I can empathize with your art class experience. But, as you've seen from the blogs, there are works of beauty out there. You just have to hunt for them.