Art and Humanness

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Moments of intense aesthetic awareness are often portrayed in metaphysical terms. One becomes lost in a brushstrokes of a painting, swept away in a symphony’s swelling harmonies, lifted outside of oneself by the grandeur of an architectural edifice. These sensations are available to multiple parties: the makers, the gazers, the performers, the audience. They are suggestive of an artwork’s perceived independence: its capacity to rise above the material domain and take us along with it. But when the mystical surface is scratched and emotional influence is separated from the equation, what remains are human beings reacting to the handiwork of other human beings.

The ideal of “art for its own sake” (“l’art pour l’art”) has roots in the early nineteenth century, when works of art were conceived as disembodied objects removed from utilitarian purposes and moral concerns. Artists were depicted as channelers of divine inspiration and transmitters of the muse. Art was separated from life; artist was separated from art. What distinguished the master from the ordinary person was the possession of some supernatural gift. 

Lost in this view is the essential humanness of the artistic endeavor—a process best described as the expression and application of human creative skill and imagination to produce something that is appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotional effect (Merriam-Webster, adapted). Our reactions to visual and performing arts are fundamentally empathetic. We stand in awe of the work (or are repelled by it) not because it exudes otherworldly energy, but because we instinctively place ourselves in the artist’s shoes. We admire those whose skill and creativity exceed our own because we know what it means to have skill and creativity. We are mesmerized by the difference in degree between a Di Vinci sketch and our own scribbles, a verse from Chaucer and our own babbling, a passage from Bach and our own noodling. Moreover, our interactions with specific artworks are heavily shaped by culture: learned sets of ideas and behaviors acquired by people as members of a society. There is a human history underlying our reception of artistic creations and our appraisal of them.

The argument can be made that, because art is made by and for human beings, it can never fully be experienced as independent or absolute. It bears the inextricable imprint of human consciousness and manipulation. Perhaps the only way to achieve a pure aesthetic experience is via encounters with nature. It is in wild places that beauty detached from human meddling truly exists. Unlike art, which is representative, a natural landscape is simply itself. Its beauty is derived from its autonomy and apartness. While human artwork can display the highest human potential, nature conveys something greater. Its beauty, as philosopher Roger Scruton has written, has the “capacity to show us that the world contains things other than us.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

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15 thoughts on “Art and Humanness

  1. John Morton

    Another interesting blog Jonathan and well written as always. I don’t think that the work of Jackson Pollack could be called ‘representative’. As our eyes burrow into the implied tunnels and canyons we may ‘see’ all kinds of things – a bit like the associative image test in psychiatry. Also, when we make a decision to ‘stay with’ a piece of music that, initially, we don’t dig, we cease to be purely subjective. It’s rather like an investment that we hope will be worth the effort. Listening to music, which is a temporal idiom, we’re compelled to go this route because we have to give the music time to commit itself. If our reactions are purely empathetic then our choice of artist or composer might, perhaps, be very limited(?) I need to think about that.

    Reply
  2. jlfriedmann Post author

    Obviously, we interact with artworks (visual and otherwise) on a number of levels. One of those levels is empathy. Whether or not it was Pollack’s intention, his works are perceived through a human lens. Not only do we try to figure out what he’s trying to convey, but we also invariably put ourselves in the moment of creation. Thus, as is often the case, the viewer might be unimpressed, thinking “I could spill paint just like him.” That’s an empathetic response. I suggest that the same occurs in musical listening. (Again, it’s not all that only reaction that occurs.) The natural world, however, is out of our realm, and thus not subject to the same tendencies.

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  3. John Morton

    I’m with you on all that, Jonathan but the term ‘representative’ implies that the ‘creators’ have a clear idea of what they wish our response to be which is a difficult idea to translate into Pollack. (If I could afford it I’d festoon my walls with his paint spillings.) I have difficulty with these kinds of exchanges because, for example, I can’t use words such as ‘creative’ or ‘gifted’ because I don’t understand what they mean.

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    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      I get what you’re saying. The philosophy of art tends to treat artworks as representative, whether or not they convey an artist’s specific intention. The spectator/auditor’s experience is taken into account. Thus, a Pollack painting (which I rather like as well) is seen as representing an emotional state. I agree that this can be problematic; but there is a sense in which we look for meaning and motivation, even when it’s not explicitly there. Wagner’s coinage of “absolute music” — in his usage a derogatory term — comes to mind. For him, art had to have some meaning, otherwise it had no reason to exist.

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      1. John Morton

        Back to Ben Shahn’s ‘content’ again. It would be out of keeping with these fruitful exchanges for us to argue over a word but I interpreted ‘representative’ to mean that the work of art brought to mind physical objects or states. I think we know where we’re going on this.

      2. jlfriedmann Post author

        I agree that debating a word is not very fruitful. However, this discussion brings to mind Stephen Davies’s theory of “appearance emotionalism”, or the resemblance between temporally unfolding music and human behaviors associated with emotional expression.

      3. John Morton

        This is interesting, Jonathan, since it takes us back to the early stages of our exchanges where I, without having studied Davies’s theory, argued for the objectivity of musical expression claiming, at the time, that other methods of evaluation would tend to deal in superficialities. [Davies: expressiveness is an objective property of music and not subjective in the sense of being projected into the music by the listener.] Perhaps, in discussing music’s effect, we must differentiate between meaningful (whatever that means) reactions and those which might be based on an individual’s personal history, for example. It is possible for a piece of music to evoke unpleasant memories for all kinds of reasons.

      4. jlfriedmann Post author

        There can be some objectivity in the response, adjusted for cultural variation. However, to assume that such symbolism in music occurs without prior exposure may be a stretch. If I were to visit a remote tribe and listen to its music, I almost certainly wouldn’t detect the appearance emotionalism it conveys. I think there needs to be education before such “objectivity” can take place. Perhaps one must be an insider (or a dedicated student) to respond in the natural way Davies suggests.

        Here’s a summary of a related study, showing the instinctive and learned responses to the music of the “other”: http://icmpc-escom2012.web.auth.gr/sites/default/files/papers/272_Proc.pdf

  4. John Morton

    Interesting article, Jonathan. I suppose my comments are based chiefly on the areas in which I expect to function, ie. westernized music, including jazz. I have stated on here previously that the fact that classical fans show less of a tendency to disagree over music appreciation is due to the objectivity of musical composition. Of course, listeners have to be exposed to western ideas of scale structure and tonality for harmony and the kinetic forms of melody to have meaning for the listener. Harmony, in the sense of the harmonic series, might be instinctively assimilated since we experience it in many ways but then western harmony has a life beyond that, with only the acoustic arrangements of the parts of an orchestra (vertically) relying on the series. Tribal music tends to focus on rhythm, melodic forms being simplified accordingly. Having said that, ‘western’ composers can, and do, write pieces that are purely rhythmic, even to the extent of using percussion instruments that have no definable pitch. Rhythm is one element in music that I believe is relatively free of cultural differences since it results from interference patterns that are a feature of everyday life. The problem here is that primitive cultures are not tied to the passage of time in the way that our commercial lives are and so it might be difficult for us to hear things as they do.

    Reply
    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Good point about the different temporal conceptions in modern and pre-modern societies, which finds expression in the “strong time” of mythology versus the linear time of history. I often marvel at the rhythmic complexity of many non-Western societies. Western composers have to “think outside the box” to approach that effect.

      I’m sure you’re familiar with “Ionization,” the piece that changed Frank Zappa’s life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJEjb1o3tqQ

      Reply
  5. John Morton

    I’d like to add some comments of my own regarding the perception of time, which might not actually ‘pass’ at all. I’ve noticed that a short ‘span’ of time that is crowded with events will be perceived to have passed quickly but, on reflection, will be remembered as being ‘longer’ than it really was. This enters musical composition, of course, because music is a temporal idiom. Extremely short compositions can share this characteristic although there’s a limit to how short a piece can be if formal layout is uppermost in a composer’s mind since the various sections will be compressed to the point they can’t be recognized.

    Re: Ionization, believe it or not I wasn’t familiar with this piece. Strangely, if I had a recording of it I doubt it would ever be played but this is not intended as an adverse comment.

    Reply
    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Your observations have support among the ancient Greeks, who had two conceptions of time: chronos (quantitative), and kairos (qualitative). Chronos is chronological time, while kairos is something like “important” time, freed from the shackles of the ticking clock.

      Reply

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