Dec 2, 2010

Games as Artistic Media (Or Not) - What is Art? (Part 3)

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Of substantial usefulness in my research was a book by Leo Tolstoy entitled What is Art? This was particularly good because as well as Tolstoy giving his own opinion, he also summarises the views of some forty philosophers and writers, meaning that it gives a fairly broad picture up to the end of the 19th century. Of all these various definitions of beauty and art, there are two main recurring ideas. These are a definition wherein art has a mystical quality to it, wherein it's function is to transmit ideas (be they any variety of things – moral ideas are common, but it could also be political or cultural) from some 'other world' (which could be, depending on who you ask, divine, or simply the artists inner world – thoughts, emotions, etcetera) to the normal physical world, and one where the function of art is to supply beauty or please people through some other means.1
Tolstoy's own view is that art is fundamentally a form of communication. He distinguishes it from conversation in that “by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.”2 Furthermore, to be called art, this transmission of emotion must take place intentionally – i.e., the artist must be feeling a certain emotion, and intentionally create a work with the desire to transmit this emotion to others, and make them feel this feeling also. This is not in itself a bad definition, and it gets away largely from the subjectivity associated with saying that “art is beautiful” or “art is that which gives pleasure” and also from any religious or spiritual association, which is not something that I feel is necessary to include. But it isn't perfect.

For one thing, it supposes that in good art (where the composer is very clear and skilled in transmitting his emotion) there will really only be one possible interpretation and reaction to the piece of work – any piece of art that invites a broad range of reactions is poor, because the artist was not clear and successful in transmitting whatever emotion they were feeling. Ergo, much post-modern art is either poor art or not art at all according to this definition.

Tolstoy's ideas, and the ideas of earlier philosophers or artists, have heavily influenced modern ideas of art as we saw earlier in the piece from Wikipedia and various textbooks. The ideas of expressing emotion, creating a pleasurable experience for the audience, and being of some high level of cultural or social value are fairly pervasive. Other common considerations are the skill of the creator, and originality of content.
In “Art's Value,” Roger Scruton discusses his belief that there is an important difference in the value of high culture and popular culture when it comes to art. He claim that “[t]he best art is devoted to the task of making the ethical life worthwhile, and showing that all the costs involved in it are fully compensated.” citing the example of Shakespeare's tragedies, which show that, although there is a huge cost involved in living an ethical life, there are also the greatest rewards. The value of high art, he places in the fact that it allows us to imagine what it would be like to realise our ideals, even though they are impossible to achieve in reality. This is evident in tragedy because it “vindicates the ideal, by showing people how to be greater, more interesting, more worthy of praise, than the forces that destroy them.”

Scruton also identifies a difference between popular and high culture in that objects of high art genuinely engage the imagination, where as others are merely objects of fantasy. Some art titillates real emotions as a substitute for genuine satisfaction, where as high art “is an endeavour to create a possible world, an imaginative world, where the emotions are also imaginary.” The suggestion here is that in proper art we are just imaging what that would feel like to realise our ideals (to link this quote to the earlier statement regarding the value of high art), where as in improper art we receive something of a cheap, sentimental shadow of that feeling, but feel we that actively, as opposed to only imagining what it would be like. This is an interesting distinction to make, and one that is not immediately easy to understand. An example given of this is in distinguishing erotic art from pornography. He says “pornography is an invitation to fantasy sex. The erotic, in contrast, puts the sexual object at a distance – so that it becomes an object of contemplation. . . . A Titan Venus is not masturbation material at all. The whole image is veiled by contemplation and idealized. It is not a woman for the taking, but rather a woman who is thinking of her own lover. To grasp the atmosphere of the picture, you have to set it at a distance from yourself.”3

James Joyce identifies a similar distinction between proper and improper art in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This text suggests that improper art is kinetic, that is, it draws us towards something or repulses us from something. Pornography would be an example of the first kind of kinetic experience – it appeals to a base instinct or reflex response in order to attract the viewer. An example of the second might be found in the recent trend of horror movies to focus on “gore-porn,” which eschews suspense or psychological horror in film in favour of achieving an effect of repulsion on the audience by simply displaying extremely graphic and realistic torture and violence. This example is mine, not Joyce's. Proper art, however, leads us towards an “ideal pity” or “ideal terror,” identified as such:

“Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”

The word “arrest” here is meant to indicate that these emotions – and the proper aesthetic experience – are static, as opposed to kinetic. There is an obvious similarity in definition; however, Scruton and Joyce have different ideas of the purpose of art. Joyce says that

“. . . To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand—that is art.”4

The goal of art, according to Joyce, is beauty, a purely aesthetic experience. Joyce's idea of this aesthetic is quite based in the sensory, distinct from the idea of the importance of the aesthetic of the idea behind the art as is present in Introducing Art and, to an extent, in Scruton's definition. But it is also more than a mundane beauty - the impression given by the above is of a kind of ideal beauty, assembled from diverse sources and brought into one place. Joyce can be seen, in a way, as a middle-ground between simple definitions of art based on sensory beauty, and Scruton's definition which has very little to do with the senses at all. Joyce places the aim of art as being this sensory beauty, but, importantly, also states that in proper art the perception of this beauty and the experience awakened by it are static and experienced in a deeper, contemplative fashion, rather than in terms of a simple reflex response to something which is desirable or detestable. They also seem to share the feeling that the concept of the ideal world is important in art, although this manifests differently – as the realisation of our own aspirations and ideals in Scruton, and as the manifestation of an ideal beauty in Joyce.

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1 An earlier version of the thesis included quotes from or descriptions of the ideas of a vast number of persons, however I felt that this disrupted the flow of the piece too much and that most readers were unlikely to absorb much of this information anyway. Interested readers should be able to find a copy of the book for free online (it's in the public domain). Of primary interest for this topic was Chapter 2. 
2 What is Art?, 48.
3 What Philosophers Think, 144-146.
4 The above quotes are from Chapter 5 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which can be found online at <> and was first published in book form in 1916.

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