Brevity is not the soul of wit

At least, I hope it isn’t.

A reader posted a fascinating response to my previous talk, and what started as a response to her remarks became a follow-up post. I’ll post the original comment first, and follow it with my (very unbrief) response. Thanks again to our reader The Missy for her engagement with my writing. Here’s her comment:

While I agree mostly with your assessments on determining what is considered “art”, I have a curious thought about Duchamp’s urinary “fountain”. I am with you that I would probably reject it as art of any kind, however, “disgust” and other negative feelings ought to be considered as an evocation of feelings to be conveyed in the message. If we came from a time that toilet was just an unconcealed pit, would Duchamp’s toilet not be a refreshing piece of art? Additionally, dark art is an art, even though I am hardly a fan of this category, but perhaps it’s exactly because it evokes the fears and sadness in me that I resist it. Is it not conveying a message?

“Standards” is a controversial term in evaluating art, but I do like your analogy of medical diagnosis. I say controversial because I wonder how “standards” would implicate more broadly in terms of art creation. If we accept standardised evaluation as a form of recognition to art, we are accepting the specific prescriptions to qualify our work as art or garbage. What I’m trying to say is that standards are often associated with measurements; measuring if the brush strokes were skillfully and consistently applied; measuring to discern conceptual and perceptual presentations and accurateness; discerning a child’s random scribbles from an artist’s abstract images, etc. So, are we not the products of modernity by standard? From the witch-doctor who may not need years of formal training and hours of supervised practice, to an artist whose works were appraised by the mass; we introduce standards to classify what is to be accepted as “qualified”. Relating to feelings, are less desired feelings less valid than what “ought” to be felt?

I am not resisting the concept of modernity, in a specific discipline or in life in general. I do embrace evolution (I mean, life moves forward, resistance is futile really). I am just more caught up with art being fluid (subjective) and standard-evaluated (objectivity).

And here is my response:


Delightfully thought-provoking points and questions. Let me address your topics in the order in which you raise them:

DUCHAMP, HIS TOILET, AND THE ROLE OF DISGUST IN ART

Disgust, I think, can have a place in art. Or, put another way, truly great artists must be free to employ whatever tools they deem necessary to convey the feelings they want to convey.

Also, a fine porcelain structure like a toilet could be “artful” in the hands of a craftsman who seeks to beautify the homes in which the toilet will be installed, but this sort of “artfulness” is not what we mean when we think of high art. Art, we must remember, is the transmissions of the noblest and loftiest feelings that humans have ever reached, and craftsmanship is not art in this sense.

I have no respect for Duchamp or his toilet, though. He didn’t declare his toilet an artwork because of the emotions that it conveys. As a modernist, he may not have had any intention for the toilet; many modernists rejected reason and logic altogether. And honestly, if I were to see a urinal in an art gallery, my disgust would not be caused by the urinal itself, but by the cynicism and the smugness of the false artist who conned some gallery into displaying such a thing as a work of art.

So when Duchamp put that toilet in an art exhibit, I think that that was his purpose—he was smugly and cynically rejecting traditional notions of art. In placing a toilet on a pedestal, he was trying to make a mockery of art, to humiliate genuine works of art down to the level of filth receptacles. This kind of cruel cynicism was common among the intellectuals of the day, and it can be found in some of today’s intellectuals as well. So the toilet may convey a “message,” as you rightly say, but it is not a savory one. And that leads us to our next point.

DOESN’T DUCHAMP’S TOILET “CONVEY A MESSAGE”?

Remember that art is not meant to convey “messages” but feelings. It is actually quite hard to remember this, because the leaders of art have trained us for over 100 years to believe that art must “mean” something for it to be any good. Tolstoy illuminates this fact with his singular clarity of vision in his What Is Art?, which I cited in our conversation yesterday:

“This manner of [deliberately obscure] expression, consisting of euphemisms, mythological and historical allusions, came into use more and more, and seems to have reached its extreme limits recently in so-called decadent art. Recently, not only have vagueness, mysteriousness, obscurity and inaccessibility to the masses been considered a merit and a condition of the poeticality of artistic works, but so, too, have imprecision, indefiniteness and ineloquence.”

Duchamp’s toilet seems to be a perfect example of this, of a piece of false art that actually aims to be imprecise, indefinite, and ineloquent.

Tolstoy continues:

“After [the French poets Verlaine and Baudelaire] comes Mallarme, regarded as the most important of the young poets, who says directly that the charm of a poem consists in our having to guess its meaning, that there should always be some riddle in a poem.”

So we, the art-interested public, have been trained for a century that any art that is not a puzzle or riddle is stupid and unsophisticated. It is hard to break the pattern of approaching high art in search of clever puzzles. But we must be vigilant to do so, because puzzles are not art, and art is not a puzzle.

Don’t get me wrong; puzzles are often quite fun, and one might even say that nature itself is a grand puzzle that modern scientists have been trying to solve for 500 years. We can even go further: To come to an understanding of totally new feelings and emotional states, the artist must act as a scientist, and try to “solve the puzzle” of these new emotional states that exist at the frontiers of human consciousness. But—this is the critical point—what the artist shares is not the puzzle but the fruit of the puzzle.

The same is true of the scientist. The scientist may work for years or decades trying to tease out some mystery of nature, but once the mystery is solved, he publishes his work (ideally) in as clear and logical a form as possible, so as to communicate the puzzle’s solution to others. The artist does the same thing, only instead of writing a report on the findings, the artists creates a new work of art that provokes in viewers the new feeling or emotional state that the artist, though hard work, has puzzled out and discovered.

Scientists share the frontiers of their understanding; artists share the frontiers of their feelings.

WILL ARTISTIC STANDARDS STIFLE CREATIVITY?

This is a worry, but honestly it is not something I worry about in the current culture. Today, the opposite problem reigns over art: No standards are imposed on anyone, and children are told that even their laziest and purposeless scribblings are valuable, that no one’s art is any better than anyone else’s. (Of course, that rule is true until it isn’t, and a modern art museum tells us that this ugly, inscrutable painting is more valuable than that one, for an equally ugly and inscrutable reason.)

You are right when you say that “standards are often associated with measurements,” and that this can translate into judging someone by their brush strokes and other tedious criteria. In fairness to the modernists, this strict and small-minded approach, which you rightfully fear, is one of the things that the modernists were rebelling against; the previous artistic methodology had become so strict that no healthy person could get a full breath within such bindings. These are not the kinds of standards that Tolstoy or I am in favor of.

Tolstoy’s 3 standards for art are, to some people, too vague to mean anything, but I think that any reasonably sensitive person can see when these standards are being followed and when they are being broken. As a refresher, here again are his 3 standards:

  1. How unique and valuable is the feeling that the artwork conveys?
  2. How clearly does the artwork convey that feeling?
  3. How sincere has the feeling been conveyed?

These standards are how we measure the value and skill of a work of art. Things like brushstrokes, musical structure, and other practical concerns all must be subservient to these 3 ultimate criteria.

Now, I happen to think that the more practical or technical elements of art are highly important, because good technique makes the art more likely to transmit feelings smoothly, and bad technique can be jarring to the viewer. This is seen quite readily in popular art, like in movies and TV shows. These days, the production of movies and TV shows has become so refined that even the average viewer can tell when a TV show was thrown together sloppily, and is annoyed at the cheapness of the special effects or the clumsiness of the lead actor. The same principle applies to high art. If we have been exposed to enough art—if we have read enough novels, or listened to enough Mozart—we can start to notice mistakes or clumsiness on the part of the author or the musicians. And these mistakes disrupt the artistic experience, and bring us back, irritatingly, to reality. These practical concerns all fall under the category of technique; so we see that technique is crucial indeed.

But again, technique is always subservient to the big 3 criteria. A work whose technique is lacking, but which nevertheless contains feelings of genuine insight and power, is much more moving than a work of technical perfection whose emotions are hollow. I think that viewers have the duty of forgiving, as best they can, technical shortcomings, especially when they can see that a valuable and unique feeling or emotional state is being attempted in the artwork; and artists have the duty to perfect their technique as much as possible.

IS ANY ONE FEELING “BETTER” THAN ANOTHER?

In a word, yes.

Okay, more detail is required. Intelligent people have struggled for centuries to demonstrate logically that some feelings, emotional states, and values are objectively better than others. Some people resign themselves to saying, “I can’t ‘prove’ that murder ought not be done—I just don’t want neighbors who disagree with that proposition.” But I think that we can do better than that.

The key to “doing better than that” is, I think, to realize that human behavior is as predictable, as bound by natural law, as any other phenomenon of nature. In other words, free will does not exist. I’m not writing this response to your brilliant comment because I “choose” to; I’m writing this because I’m compelled to, by the laws of psychology. I find your post intellectually and emotionally thrilling, and I eagerly share my responses, as they develop in real-time, through the process of writing this new post.

External forces are always nudging our behaviors into certain patterns. This is why humans are predictable. If humans really had free will, there would be no predicting human behavior; each response to a given stimulus would be impossible to foresee. The predictability of human behavior demonstrates that human behavior is governed by physical laws, not by “free will.”

So how does this apply to our desire to create objective standards of moral and artistic values? Let’s work upwards from this foundation: It is objectively better for humans not to suffer than it is for them to suffer. Humans have no control over this fact; one cannot choose for suffering to be superior to non-suffering. People can be conditioned to take pleasure in certain sensations that are considered painful, but if they are taking pleasure then they are not suffering. And if they are suffering, then they are not really taking pleasure; or better still, they are attempting to take pleasure in a harmful state of being.

Non-suffering is better than suffering, and because all humans are genetically the same species, there are common biological laws that apply to all humans, regardless of culture. Mutilation, torture, cruelty—these are harmful, regardless of culture. Anything that is harmful to a human irrespective of culture is objectively bad. Anything that is helpful to a human irrespective of culture is objectively good.

And yes, cultural differences do exist; events, words, hand gestures, and so forth have different meanings in different cultures. In some cultures, a certain hand gesture is meaningless, whereas in another culture that same gesture creates feelings of offense and anxiety in the viewer. So in one culture, that hand gesture is objectively harmless, and in the other culture that hand gesture is objectively harmful. This is as objective a fact as any other, regardless of whether the objective harm applies to all humans or just to the humans of a particular culture.

I can’t say that I know the following claim for sure, but I believe that the loftiest and noblest feelings and experiences are applicable to all humans, once cultural differences are accounted for. Because of the nature of the human organism, love is better than hate, in any culture. The process of getting each culture to see this in a way that makes sense to that culture may vary, but the essential truth does not vary. So any art that stirs in people’s hearts the importance of valuing love over hate is better, objectively, than art that attempts to make us feel that hate is good or that love is naive.

SUBJECTIVITY IN ART

I’ve written enough for one day, so I’ll try to keep this concluding section brief. I agree that subjectivity is ultimately what art is about—art is about the experience that you, the viewer, get when you view or take part in the artwork. The art is just a means to evoke in you the intended experience.

It is the job of the artist to get you to feel what he wants you to feel. If the artist is talented, you will feel immediately and powerfully the emotional state that he intends for you to feel. Will all art be meaningful to all people? Quite possibly not. If people’s backgrounds are too different, then meaningful communication at the emotional level may not be practicable. But then again, I’ve heard it said that all communication is a matter of patience and imagination, so who knows?

Some people are better communicators than others. Some art appeals to just a few people—the artist’s family, perhaps, who share many common experiences with the artist and already know “what he is trying to say.” Some art appeals to entire countries, like hit TV shows. Somehow, the people working on those shows have a clear understanding of the values and emotions of their people, and they can make stories that move millions or even billions of people all over the world. That ultimately is how we can spot a great artist—we look for those people who have that dazzling ability to sense the essence of what their culture is experiencing at any given moment and to communicate new emotional insights about those shared experiences.

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A chat over tea and scones: Tolstoy and T.S. Eliot

What do you think of these lines?

I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

These lines come from The Waste Land, Eliot’s most famous poem—
or most infamous.

To my taste, they’re exquisite. They’re some of the best verses that T.S. Eliot ever composed. It’s a shame, then, that they were preceded and followed by “verses” of hyper-modern idiosyncrasy.

At the risk of self-contradiction, as much as I love portions of Eliot’s Waste Land, I don’t care for the “art” of modernity. In fact, to my taste it doesn’t qualify as art.

Who are you to say what is and is not art?

Ah, the democratic instinct is always with us. Who is one person to say what counts as art and what does not count as art? Notice, though, that this question is not asked in more “concrete” areas of life. We do not ask, for instance:

Who are you to say what is and is not a pulmonary embolism?

Physicians work and study for years to learn the means to identify things like pulmonary embolisms. And I have worked and studied for years to learn the means to identify art.

But you’re still insisting that your opinion is more valid than mine.

Well, perhaps, but not out of arrogance. (I promise.) Some opinions are more valid than others. Returning to medicine, a physician’s opinion of the meaning of an x-ray is more valid than mine. And that is true precisely because the physician has worked hard to remove himself from the equation. He assesses an x-ray based on its similarity or difference to the images that he studied in medical school and encountered in his practice. So it’s not really about him or his ego (ideally, of course); it’s about the objective standard set by the medical texts he was given to study by his teachers.

Art isn’t “objective,” though.

Isn’t it? Yes, art creates in people a subjective experience, like laughter or sadness, but there is an objective means by which the art creates this experience. And it is through analyzing this objective means that we can determine whether something is a work of art, and if it is art, how good or bad a work of art it is.

What is art?

The only human who has ever given me a coherent definition of art, aside from my mother, is Tolstoy. Here is his definition of art, taken from his 1897 treatise What Is Art?:

“Art is a human activity the aim of which is to convey to others the loftiest and best feelings people have attained to in life.”

Art, in a general sense, is the way that one person conveys their feelings to another person. So if something funny happens to you at work, and you want to share that feeling of humor with your family, you can’t sync your brains together with Bluetooth and have them experience the feelings you did directly; you have to communicate those feelings indirectly. And the most common way of sharing humorous feelings is through storytelling. So we tell our families: “You’ll never guess what happened at work….”

But Tolstoy is right, I think, that there is more to art than these sorts of everyday feelings. Art is a serious thing. In Tolstoy’s view, religions are the storehouses of mankind’s loftiest feelings. In my view, religions have proven themselves rather poor stewards of this great charge, but in their best forms they execute this duty more seriously than, say, Comedy Central.

More from Tolstoy:

“It is only on the basis of religious consciousness, which reveals the highest degree of understanding of life attained by the people of a certain period, that there can emerge new feelings never before experienced by men.”

“Religions are indicators of the highest understanding of life accessible at a given time in a given society to the best of the leading people, which is inevitably and unfailingly approached by all the rest of society.  And, only because of that, religions have always served and still serve as a basis for evaluating people’s feelings.”

These quotes demonstrate, I think, Tolstoy’s view that religions are fallible human institutions, and that they are only as good as the civilizations that create them. We also can sense Tolstoy’s insight that not every civilization is of equal religious value or quality, and that individual civilizations vary and fluctuate in their religious quality as time goes on; they neither stay static, nor do they progress evenly from lesser to more refined feelings; one generation can be morally refined, while the generation of their grandchildren can be morally superficial. And these changes are reflected in that civilization’s art.

“Thus we call art, in the narrow sense of the word, not the entire human activity that conveys feelings, but only that which we for some reason single out from all this activity and to which we give special significance.  This special significance has always been given by all people to the part of this activity which conveys feelings coming from their religious consciousness, and it is this small part of the whole of art that has been called art in the full sense of the word.”

In our democratic age, everything is “art.”

Deep down, though, we all know, or we all should know, that this simply isn’t and shouldn’t be true. A work of tenderness and love, like the poetry of John Keats, deserves more reverence than the “art” of modernist Marcel Duchamp, who signed a bathroom urinal, named the urinal “Fountain,” and was hailed a genius of 20th-century art.

For those of us with any decency or loveliness of heart, desecrations like those of Duchamp should be ridiculed and condemned and rejected as art. But how do we assert that his toilet is not a work of art, other than appealing to our personal, subjective preferences?

The same way that a doctor diagnoses a pulmonary embolism—we appeal to objective standards and definitions.

When determining whether something is a work of art, we must ask: What feelings, if any, was this piece designed to convey?

Examining the pretentions of people like Duchamp, we see that there are no coherent or valid feelings. What feelings do you get when you look at a bathroom urinal, sitting on a pedestal in a museum, with an expensive light beaming upon it in smug reverence? I don’t see how a healthy human being could feel anything other than confusion, or annoyance.

Art critics and philosophers have had exactly 100 years to figure out what they make of this piece of garbage, and they for all their cleverness have failed to come to a consensus. Some say the piece is meant to provoke you to anger; some say it is meant to “challenge what it means to be a work of art”; some even get really deep and say that the art is not in the urinal but in the photograph of the urinal. It’s all quite disgusting how self-congratulatory these idiots are with these pompous pseudo-ideas.

So let’s sort Duchamp’s garbage for recycling and move back to art.

Once you’ve determined that something is a work of art, how do you determine whether it’s good art or bad art?

How do you determine whether a bridge is a good bridge or a bad bridge? A car is a good car or a bad car? By how well it carries out its intended function. The same is true of art. Let’s return to Tolstoy:

“Art becomes more or less infectious owing to three conditions: (1) the greater or lesser particularity of the feeling conveyed; (2) the greater or lesser clarity with which the feeling is conveyed; and (3) the artist’s sincerity, that is, the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself experiences the feelings he conveys.”

(Let’s note quickly that when Tolstoy calls art “infectious,” he is referring to its ability to convey, or “infect” the viewer with the feeling or emotion intended by the artist.)

So here we have the 3 criteria by which we judge whether art is good or bad:

  1. How unique (and valuable) is the feeling being conveyed? Is it a feeling that everyone has felt, like the feelings you experience from a teenager’s love song? Or is it a truly unique and fresh emotion, like what Keats felt when he read Chapman’s translation of the poetry of Homer?
  2. How clearly does the artwork convey the feeling? If we think about a joke, is the joke delivered poorly, and we only get a little chuckle, or is the joke crafted and delivered masterfully, leaving us seized with laughter?
  3. How sincere is the feeling being conveyed? Did the artist actually feel the awe that he is trying to make you feel? Or is he just trying to make you feel something for his own amusement, or to manipulate you? Propaganda is a good example of insincere art, of art that is not felt by the artist but that is meant to convey strong feelings to the viewer.

One thing that I will add is that not all 3 of these criteria are equally important. For instance, in my view, #1 is the least important. The feelings conveyed should be valuable, but it’s no great crime if they are not unique. I enjoy listening to teenage love songs that conveys the same emotions that teenagers have been feeling for decades, centuries, eons, what have you, so long as the emotions are conveyed with clarity (#2) and sincerity (#3). On the other hand, I can’t abide art that is conveyed with insincerity, like propaganda or other hypocritical works of art. Much of modern pop culture is insincere; movies are produced almost on assembly lines, and solely for the purpose of making money. The feelings are quite often conveyed with great skill and clarity (#2), but the feelings are not very valuable (#1) and certainly not sincere (#3).

With this understanding of art, let us return to the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

What do we make of T.S. Eliot? Well, let’s top off our tea and conclude today’s thoughts.

On the one hand, Eliot’s poetry is terribly modernist—deliberately difficult and arrogant. The poem changes from one speaker to another, without warning or indication, and it even changes languages that quickly from time to time. It’s also packed with obscure references to ancient literature. Now, it’s possible that he intended his work only to be appreciated by the 30 people living at the time who could read all of those languages and who could identify all of those literary references. But if that’s true, he should have published his poem in some obscure academic journal and not in mainstream press, haha.

No, much of Eliot’s poetry, and most of the “art” of modernism and beyond, fails to qualify as art. Art is supposed to contain the loftiest and noblest feelings that humans have ever achieved, so that those lofty feelings can be shared with as many people as possible. That doesn’t mean making it so easy to digest that the loftiness is stripped away, and there will be some people who cannot or will not take part in art of loftiness; that is unavoidable. But art should be made so that most people with a sensitive and open heart can experience immediately the feeling that the artist was trying to convey—otherwise, it is either bad art, or not art at all.

Art is no more meant to be “difficult” or “clever” than humor is; no comedian wants to stand on a stage and tell jokes that are so densely structured and obscure that the audience has to Google every third word; no, the comedian wants laughs, and lots of them. So must it be with art. The artist wants people to be moved by his art, as immediately, as instinctively, as an audience is moved to laughter by a comedian.

So where does that leave The Waste Land?

Well, to the best of my ability to determine, parts of that poem are junk, but parts are truly touching. The parts that I like convey sadness, or loneliness.

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves….
These lines are nice. They’re not perfect; they just give a sense of the sadness and ugliness of death. But they’re nice. They definitely convey a lofty feeling. They definitely are art.

Welcome to my garden

Welcome to my cottage, and to the garden that contains it.

I don’t have a name, but you may call me Endymion.

“Endymion” is fitting enough. They say that he spent most of his life asleep, and that is how I have felt for many years. It is so much easier to sleep than to live, and so pleasant. Why else would beauty take the trouble to keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing?

When you watch a movie or a show, or even a game, what are you watching if not a dream? The men playing games for your diversion have no quarrel with one other, except for the one they are paid to have. And all of those beautiful young creatures who dream of fame—yes, dream of fame— and who dedicate their lives to learning how to enchant you for an hour or so—what else do they do, but help you have a waking dream?

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.

Today I am awake, but it is my hope that I will help you dream.

With my writings, I hope to share what it is to feel out of place with those who live around you. These writings are the green little plants whom I will plant in my garden, for I feel the need, the need that we all feel, to share the contents of my heart with those who will listen. My writings I will deposit like bulbs in rich, black earth, and I hope that the plants that they yield will grow green and pleasant. In other words, I hope that you may rest in the bower of my heart.

Why plant a garden, especially a garden of poems and words? Life is not a happy garden, you know.

Yes, I know. I know as well as anyone that life is a miserable thing. It is precisely because life is hard that we must try to be happy, that we must create out of our hearts a little garden where we may ease our anguish, a place with blooms of music and the fragrance of words.

Therefore, on every morning, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
In spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy, overdarkened ways
Made for our searching. Yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.

When we wake—yes, wake—each morning, our work begins again. We must “wreathe a band of flowers to bind us to the earth”: We must find something pleasing that will bind us to life again, with each morning, that always must be with us, or we die.

So I say again, Welcome. Welcome to my garden.

Enjoy a walk among the blooms, or sit on a cushioned bench with a pleasant book, or stand, arms behind your back, perhaps, and rest your eyes on a glade. When you are ready, come into the cottage and sit with me, and I will offer you a cup of tea, a scone, an air of gentle music, and an hour of pleasant conversation.