Sunday, January 24, 2010

Defining art

I've recently finished reading Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct. While I have no problem with making "high art" restrictive, I do think that we are crippling ourselves as a society with the implied idea that any visual product that is not "high art" is defective or worthless. I see art more in terms of "stimulating art" and "relaxing art". It is my experience that if someone doesn't have enough stability in their life, they are more moved by relaxing images, while someone who need more stimulation in their life, whose life lacks any real challenges, goes for the stimulating images. Both needs are valid and both needs can cause great psychological and physical harm if they are not met in some fashion. If you doubt the need for relaxing art, just look at the statistics on stress-related diseases and disorders. If you doubt the need for stimulation, look at the people who turn to drugs, the extreme risk-takers, and the lines at horror movies.

Here is Dutton's list of the cluster qualities that define "art" (or what I am calling "stimulative art"):

1) Direct Pleasure
2) Skill and virtuosity
3) Style
4) Novelty and creativity
5) Critism (or "illicits a positive or negative judgment")
6) Representation
7) Special focus
8) Expressed individuality
9) Emotional saturation
10) Intellectual challenge
11) Art traditions or institutions
12) Imaginative experience

From an economic point of view, the values usually assigned to high art are justified. In fact, high art, as it currently exists, is probably the greatest example of consumerism there is. Even Dutton recognizes this when he writes, "The created work of art may be more impressive if it is remote from any possible use." According to his theories, art developed in humans as a means to signal that one has more than enough resources to spare for a suitable mate. With that in mind, it's not surprising that some people act like snobs about the stuff - they're trying to place themselves above their competition.

After discussing the evolutionary purposes for art and some of its historic importance, Dutton gives us four primary properties of (stimulative) art:

1) Complexity
2) Serious content
3) Purpose
4) Distance (not done to please others)

You might consider reading Dutton's book to get a better idea of what he means with each of these because not only don't I want to infringe on his copyright, but your interpretation of his explanation may be different than mine - especially since, as humans, we all read our own meanings into things. (Sort of contradictory there, aren't I?)

Before I go on to what I call "relaxation art", I am going to give a nod to Dutton's concept of self-affirming art (my term). This is art that helps a person re-inforce a view of themselves. At its best, it helps people to grow and enables a sense of stability of self. At its worst, which is what Dutton talks about when he talks about destructive kitsch (versus charming kitsch), it creates a shallow view of the self, rooted in appearence more than substance. The first type of self-affirming art is usually created by the person, themselves, as a means of self-exploration and integration. The second is often purchased and mass-made. Though, in my opinion, being mass-made is not enough to make the owner shallow. Some mass-made objects act as a means of social identification of shared values, as in reproduced religious works, or a means of group affiliation, such as sports related imagery. As to whether or not these means of group identification can be considered art if they meet other criteria, well, I have no definite opinion on that. Though I do reserve the right to giggle at someone who uses it as a means to declare their uniqueness.

Now, on to "relaxation art", which is as near as I can figure out a concept not fully conceived of in formal terms in our society. We skirt the edges of it, but because it often refers back to the natural world, we humans tend to neglect it as not being as creative as stimulation art. Here is my criteria for "relaxing art":

1) Evokes a sense of peace and well-being (lowers the blood pressure and encourages deep breathing).
2) Like stimulative art, it was done purposefully.
3) Holds the attention of the eye, without "shock tactics".
4) Like stimulative art, greater skill makes it more effective.

I realize that what I am describing exists in some form in many living rooms and offices, in the form of landscapes, cityscapes, portaits and still-lifes. I maintain that there is a good reason for it, especially in this day and age where people are becoming more and more divorced from traditional stabilizing factors in their lives, like working with nature, social traditions, and such. Some of these things needed to be changed, but that doesn't mean that we can ignore the loss of stability caused by the change. Luckily, there are ways of increasing stability and I believe that introducing more natural elements into urban areas is a necessary one. Relaxing art is an easier way for most folks to do the same. If I ever do become an art therapist, I have every intention of having high-quality relaxing art in my waiting area. I want the stimulation art in a session to come from the client, themselves.

While thinking on this topic, I had a vision of some future expert going, "According to our tests, Mr. Thomas, to achieve optimal emotional satifaction and cognitive functioning, the art around you needs to be 35% relaxing, 45% stimulating, and 10% self-affirming." I laughed at the thought, reminding myself that to some extent, we do this on our own - provided we are allowed to and are not shamed out of it. (I was very pleased that Dutton discussed the social pressure of aesthetic formalism in his book.)

Long story short, as long as it doesn't completely surround me to the point I can't find some visual relief, or deliberately offensive, I don't have a problem with most people's tastes in art. I usually carry enough internal images in my own mind to make me happy. What really annoys me is people complaining loudly and incessantly about having their delicate art senses abused. What can I say? I'm sorry that the world doesn't revolve around you. To quote Ramana Maharshi: "Wanting to reform the world without discovering one's true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes."

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