MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Arts and Minds

Part B: Stimulus & Response

Soul Traders

As a person's philosophy can be good or bad, consistent or confused, so can the art that proceeds from it. Of all human endeavours, art is the one that most openly displays the soul of its creator. As noted in Part A, functional activities are more or less constrained by reality (they have to work!), but art doesn't "do" anything in that sense, so it can be whatever the artist wishes.

As philosophy determines art, so it determines the response to art. If the artist displays his soul in the art he makes, so you display yours in your response to it. If art touches you, what it is touching is your philosophy and/or sense of life as it relates to the artist's (as well as how his style and aesthetics appeal to yours). Since the "practical" purpose of art is that emotional response in the audience, what the artist normally wants is for his work of art to generate the emotional response that he wants: he wants to audience to love what he loves or hate what he hates, and to experience that via his work.

Thus, a "successful" work of art is one that generates in the audience the kinds of emotion that the artist wants them to feel, for the reasons that he wants them to feel them. Clearly, this is not merely up to the artist. It requires an audience that matches the art.

Even then, different people will respond differently to the same work of art. Your response to art is as uniquely yours as the core of your being, which is what does the responding. Even when the general values we choose are the same, the particulars will differ (as a non-art example, most people want a partner, but their specific choices of partner differ). In addition, our life experiences differ, so our value-associations and the feelings evoked by particular sensations and symbols vary accordingly.

Criticism & Quality

That philosophy determines art and the response to it, is reflected in the sad state of modern art and its criticism. As the dominant feature of modern philosophy is subjectivism and all its derivatives, such as existentialism and nihilism, it is not surprising that the art world is dominated by meaningless praise of meaningless, ugly and talentless art. Examples may be seen in any gallery displaying contemporary art. The precept that rules today is the mindless subjectivism, self-indulgence and licence expressed by the words of one of the Dada artists, "whatever the artist spits is art."

But like all values, art is objective, not subjective. So what would be the basis of valid art appreciation and criticism? It would have to address the multiple facets of a work of art. There is execution – the technical proficiency of the work; what it is about – the plot of a novel, the subject of a painting, etc; what the artist is trying to say through that plot etc – and whether it is worth saying; and how well the artist succeeds in saying it, and in generating in the audience the kind of response(s) he wants.

A great work of art is one that is brilliantly executed and whose execution matches its theme: one whose height of quality matches its depth of meaning. Art which is beautiful, masterful but meaningless is a waste of talent, when one considers what the artist could have done with his ability had he had something to say. Art with a great theme but poor execution is a failure. In art as in life, the means must be worthy of the end: and the end must be worth reaching.

The final aspect of art criticism is the deepest: is what the artist is saying valid? Is it life-affirming, or life-denying? Does it inspire with the feeling that things are worth achieving and you can achieve them, or does it paint man as hopeless, life as futile and reality as malevolent and/or incomprehensible? This is what determines whether the art is good or bad in the philosophical/moral sense (the criterion being, as always, whether it promotes human life). What art should and can express and achieve is illustrated in this passage from Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged:

Not since childhood had she felt that sense of exhilaration after witnessing the performance of a play – the sense that life held things worth reaching, not the sense of having studied some aspect of a sewer there had been no reason to see.

Compare that type of art with, for example, the movie Seven (about a self-justifying serial killer who destroys the "hero").

Thus, a great work of art is not necessarily a good one. Art can be great in terms of how the artist says what he says, yet philosophically mixed or corrupt in what he is saying. For example, Victor Hugo's "Toilers of the Sea" is a great novel, but its underlying philosophy is mixed. On the one hand, it celebrates man's will, his pursuit of values and his ability to achieve them despite great hardships and difficulties. Yet in the end the hero is doomed to fail due to an unthinking betrayal by the very value he seeks, and due to his own nobility of spirit (in Hugo's terms). But that flaw is minor compared to Dostoevsky, for whom, in the words of philosopher Andrew Bernstein, "man without God is a loathsome creature doomed in every conceivable form." A view of man which Dostoevsky paints very dramatically and well – but which is not worth painting.

Indeed, you can make an analogy between food and art – where art is in a sense food for the soul. The best food is both a delight to the senses and nutritious. Beautiful but meaningless art is like candy: sweet, not very nutritious, and leaving less room for better sustenance. And art which is brilliant in execution but corrupt in its message is candy laced with arsenic.

(Note that these considerations apply to art for the sake of art. Things such as decoration, which is done explicitly for its pleasing appearance with no pretensions of going beyond that, or art whose primary purpose is some practical one such as advertising or scientific illustration, must be judged in the context of their primary purpose.)

Given the above, it is remarkable and sad that some artists don't even know themselves what they are trying to say. For example, once when accepting an award, the pop singer Seal announced that often even he didn't know what his songs meant. A similar attitude is seen in artists who claim their work means nothing but what it means in the minds of their audience. Contrast this attitude with that expressed by a fictional music composer in Atlas Shrugged:

I do not care to be admired causelessly, emotionally, intuitively, instinctively – or blindly. I do not care for blindness in any form, I have too much to show – or for deafness, I have too much to say.

You only have no idea or care of what you are saying if you have nothing to say.

Show and Tell

As noted before, art is meant to engage the emotions, to show rather than to explain, and is by its nature selective and value-oriented. Such considerations led Ayn Rand – who was both artist and philosopher – to define art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." To quote her further:

Consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist's view of man's nature; both are concretised representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.

Art is a concretisation of metaphysics. Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts. (The Romantic Manifesto)

That is the sense in which art can teach. Art cannot discover new knowledge (to be "knowledge" it must be validated by evidence, and that is not the province of art – though the artist might and should engage in it, of course). But through art, the artist can express what he thinks, feels, believes or knows: and show that to other people, not as a philosophical exposition in words, but as directly perceived concretes – such as the images in a painting, the form and composition of a piece of sculpture, or the imaginary world created in a novel or play.

That is the power of art: that it shows rather than argues, that you perceive it directly as a given thing in reality, rather than having to follow an abstract chain of reasoning whose concepts are many steps removed from direct perception. One might laugh at people who felt like giving up pork after seeing the talking-pig movie Babe – but that illustrates the point well. It is the role of philosophy to look at the world and develop a system of thought comprising the broadest and finest abstractions. But the broader and finer the abstraction, the longer the chain of reasoning from directly perceivable facts. It is the artist who can concretise such abstractions into the directly perceived: and by doing so an artist can do more to bring a philosophy to mankind than any number of professors – for good or for ill.