Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Art is not life. Although woven into life’s intricate tapestry, artistic expression stands apart from the messy details and fluid meanderings of worldly experience. Even the most elaborate artwork—be it a novel, film, symphony, or painting—is simplistic compared to the overwhelming complexities of an average day. Poetry, both calculated and free-flowing, bypasses the vagaries of flatly spoken words, and all the “uhs” and “ums” that come with them. Poets supplant natural speech with measured syllables, crafted imagery, thoughtful word choices, and detours from standard syntax and grammar. Singers follow suit: their words are crafted into clean and fluid phrases; their “speech” is regimented into meter and tonal intervals. The focus is narrowed, the fat is trimmed, the message is tightly conveyed.
This essential quality of art is illustrated by its opposite. In 1951, University of Kansas psychologist Roger Barker and co-author Herbert F. Wright published One Boy’s Day: A Specimen Record of Behavior, chronicling a fourteen-hour span in the life of a mid-western boy. Eight researchers took turns following the boy, recording his minute-by-minute activities at home, school, and play. 7:08 AM: “He came out of the bathroom carrying a bottle of hair oil.” 8:24 AM: “He tossed a stone in the air and swung, but accidentally clipped a flag pole.” No theoretical approach was offered or suggested, just 435 pages of unadorned verbatim notes. Barker expected scientists to enthusiastically examine the raw data, breaking it down and interpreting it in various directions. But the book flopped. Readers—both scientists and laypeople—had little interest in trees without a view of the forest.
Artistic representations avoid life’s tedious details. According to musicologist Curt Sachs, “Art denaturalizes nature in order to raise it to a higher, or at least a different, plane.” This applies well to music. Unlike the ever-ticking clock, musical pieces are set within limited durations (“The Song that Never Ends” perhaps notwithstanding). The self-enclosed architecture of musical form contrasts with the convoluted tangles of the natural world. Musical lines, whether monophonic or hyper-polyphonic, are cherry-picked from infinite sonic possibilities. In both vocal and instrumental music, there is an unnatural clarity of intentions and ideas. Stereotyped modes, phrases, devices, and figurations replace the murkiness and gray areas of real life.
The foregoing discussion is summarized in Picasso’s famous saying: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Our attraction to art stems from its distinction from natural processes and mundane human affairs. Without this fundamental separation, there can be no art.
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Well written as always, Jonathan.
I received a Christmas present of ‘A Beautiful Question’ by Nobel prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, the theme of which is to find nature’s deep design. It’s a fascinating book, as you would expect, but which struggles a little to maintain its fidelity to the thread. When I closed the last page I considered (again) that beauty lies entirely within human perceptions of reality. Things are not beautiful. They are what they are. We have an urgent need to abstract stimuli selectively, in my view, because of our need to make sense of the world, a need which is rooted in self-preservation and the desire to avoid a feeling of isolation.
Some of my acquaintances appear to have no need for art. I recently shared a car journey to London with a man who can afford to live in Belgravia, London(!). He lives to make money and to watch Rugby. When I said I’d been to an orchestral concert the previous evening he noticeably shuddered and said that it wouldn’t mean a thing to him. I mention this because I paused when I read your closing remark that ‘Without this fundamental separation, there can be no art’. It’s certainly true but I wonder if it will always be so or if it is true for all.
Wonderful to read from you, John. I thoroughly appreciate your comments.
I suppose there is an “art” to money, and certainly to sport. I’m reminded of Johan Huizinga’s classic Homo Ludens, which argues that “the play element in culture” is fundamentally sacred, since it is “set apart” (sacra) from the rest of life, operates by its own rules, and is fundamentally “not real.” That’s a rather good description of money.