Precious Bodily Fluids

On the Universality of Art

That unfortunately lofty title implies that there’s a lot more below it than there can reasonably or realistically be. However, after hundreds of consecutive posts of particular films (interspersed with little news items or trailers and the occasional comparative study), larger concerns keep getting caught in the drain while everything else washes down pretty smoothly. Now, the glob has gotten so big that it’s time to fish it out and make sense of it.

The concern here is fairly straightforward. It has to do with a dialectic present in looking at, understanding, interpreting, and evaluating films. The medium of cinema is of particular interest here, since it is qualitatively and quantitatively distinct from other forms of art and literature: the novel, the painting, the sculpture, the symphony, the sonata, the comic book, the poem, the play, the performance, the dance, the on and on and on. The term “art” has been largely flushed down the academic toilet in recent years on account of the difficulty in defining its boundaries. Some works are clearly “art” in classical or traditional senses, but the problem of finding any kind of fine line separating art from non-art has led many to the rather lazy conclusion that the whole term should be abandoned and the mindset behind it. The idea is that “art” as an idea indicates a class prejudice, a certain aristocratic point-of-view giving precedence to some creations over others. In an age of relativity and egalitarianism, it’s politically incorrect to say that one idea is better than another, or that something is more beautiful than something else in any objective or universal sense. Of course, on a popular level this notion is rejected in deed if not in word. American Idol wouldn’t exist without a presupposition that some people are better than others at singing and performing. Ironically, it’s also American Idol that has largely contributed to or is at least indicative of a sadly pragmatic view of art that’s prevalent nowadays; as if it’s only good insofar as it’s popular and produces capital.

As for the aforementioned dialectic, it’s essentially this: inherent in art is the reality of the ineffable or the sublime; there are “things” (thoughts, ideas, objects, forms, colors, movements, sounds, harmonies, representations of experiences, emotions, word formations, and combinations of all of the above and more) that elude the ability of a human subject to articulate (ineffable) or grasp with the understanding (sublime). But there is also plenty that can and should be explained and understood. A recent conversation with friends led to the argument that, in fact, music (for example) can be explained. There is a mathematics that underlies music and that shows it to be, in a sense, explainable. Music theory is apparently a field that attempts to expose the non-mystery of music. No attempt will be made here to approach music theory. However, as breathtaking as mathematicians and even musicians might perhaps find the math behind music to be, it is not the music itself. To be in a symphony hall and hear Beethoven’s 6th or to be in a cathedral and witness FaurĂ©’s Requiem or Victoria’s Agnus Dei from the Missa O Magnum Mysterium is fundamentally different from quantitative analysis of musical counterpoint. What one hears in those environments when the music is performed and presented with care and competence elevates the listener to somewhere other than the science of the notes, rhythms, and harmonies. Cognitive theory has done well to “explain” this aspect of art, too; how a person encounters art, receives it, and responds to it. Certainly biological and cultural processes having plenty to do with upbringing, education, (gulp) nature, and intelligence are relevant and insightful. On this end, too, though, we have a deconstruction of art – in this case, music – that reduces the creation to its parts, components, and facets. As a result, it’s stripped of the cohesive beauty and contextual presentation that allow it to do something special, and possibly exclusive to art.

The other, only briefly mentioned half of the dialectic of art mentioned above is more often taken for granted, so not much space will be dedicated to it directly here. This is the position that interpretation can happen with a work of art. In fairness, though, maybe it isn’t quite “taken for granted” these days. This brings us back into the contradictory realm of the popular outlook: that anything can mean anything, but it can’t really mean anything. The problem with the “overly objective” position regarding literary/art criticism is that it neglects the nature of truly great literature and art, which can’t be reduced to mere interpretation. As a result of this, a naive and hasty mutiny has been declared on objective interpretation to the even rockier ground of complete relativity and nihilism. This is a mistake. The problem of the overly objective position is that, when it fails, it’s too easy to flee to the opposite extreme rather than finding a synthesis through an intelligent and hermeneutically respectful examination of artworks and art as a whole. George Steiner dubs this synthesis an “art act,” borrowing from the philological term “speech act.” A work of art is a creation by an individual or individuals requiring certain hermeneutical guides by which to understand it in its intended context but also, by virtue of the “art” part of it, forcing the one who encounters it into the realm of immediacy. This notion of immediacy has everything to do with idea in the title of this post, “the universality of art.” Rather than abandoning objective interpretation, it must be met or synthesized with a respectful response to the form and content. This response is allowed some freedom by virtue of the nature of art. In the same way that an 18th century Russian composer’s music can be performed for a 21st century North American audience with no clue of the original context of the music and still be recipients of its beauty (not that that’s good or ideal), so also with any art-act and any audience to varying degrees depending on the other half of the dialectic.

Of course, to the literary critic, this will reek of the death of meaning. The literary critic is more accustomed to doing stricter interpretations based on discourse analysis, historical and political context, translation, and everything else they do. This is all fair; not only fair, but very right. And it must be emphasized that this aspect of criticism (of art or literature) is indispensable. Were the 21st century North American audience to understand much more fully the context of the 18th century Russian composition, it would undoubtedly contribute to a fuller appreciation of the music. And while Kant would perhaps frown upon this sort of aesthetic appreciation, chalking it up to “interest,” which discounts the quality of beauty, from a less “aesthetic” and more “literary” point of view, it is still valuable. However, Kant was on to something; specifically, breaking down aesthetic appreciation – “beauty” – from its spouses: facts and truth. There is a history, or there are histories, behind every art-act (the term itself is historical in nature). Some kind of truth is accessed and alluded to, also. Kant rejected these as criteria for beauty, however, and he was not completely wrong in doing so. An “objective” foundation for beauty is not impossible even from a Kantian point of view. It is still viable when the notion of immediacy is kept in mind. Though he may or may not have ever said so, Kantian aesthetics seems to have presupposed immediacy as its point of reference. Since the notion has yet to be defined here, it is basically this: immediacy connotes the primary moment of reception by the subject encountering the art-object prior to analysis and interpretation, in the conventional senses of those words. This immediate moment, of utmost importance in the very idea of art – indeed, without it, art has no feet to stand on – in no way contradicts or rejects analysis and interpretation but demands that they remain chronologically secondary to and hermeneutically on the same level with that instant series of impressions an art-act leaves upon an encountering subject.

What are these impressions? It depends on who’s asking. If it’s Kant, impressions preclude emotions or, strictly speaking, thoughts. It is an aesthetic sense divorced (albeit problematically) from “interest,” which includes thoughts and emotions. Even if this reception or reaction that Kant prescribes seems idealistic, he is on to something important. The intellect and the emotions belong to a different realm of judgment than the aesthetic sense. A full “interpretation” of a work of art will incorporate all of these “senses” together, giving them equal balance and doing them justice where they demand it. The problem of the academic tends to be an over-reliance on analysis (often intellectual). The problem of the non-academic tends to be an over-dependence on immediacy (often emotional). The academic’s critical detachment when encountering art is advantageous, but the the non-academic’s less analytical mindset gives much freer reign to the necessary first step of immediacy, allowing the art-act to “do” whatever it will in the subject. Beauty may not be relative, but it is subjective. Understanding the non-subjective background, context, and nature of art-acts will supplement a subject’s aesthetic appreciation by providing information of varying importance to that understanding. When it comes to speech-acts, immediacy may be of less importance than the objective aspects. An exception to this would be poetry, which by its more “musical” nature than prose, offers and demands an immediate effect from the reader/listener not demanded by, for example, Churchill’s history of WWII, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, or some of the lengthier portions of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe when the protagonist describes building a fence step-by-step. Even the epic or the novel, in many of its forms, no longer has the capacity for immediate aesthetic effect that it once did. Robinson Crusoe or Milton’s Paradise Lost is tedious to the modern reader, who needs to go back to the context of literature in those respective periods before adapting to appreciate their beauty.

All this discussion of art in the broad sense and literature has kept the topic from moving to cinema. As mentioned earlier, cinema is qualitatively and quantitatively different from other forms of art. By this is mean that it is different both in degree (quantitatively) and in kind (qualitatively). First, “kind”: by its nature cinema is a conglomeration of other art forms, combining sound and image in such a way as to create what early film theorists such as Sergei Eisenstein and Andre Bazin dubbed “montage”. These days montage can essentially be chalked up to editing images together with a soundtrack and (re)presenting them in a way that no other art form does or can do. (The only arguable exception to this would be television, an offshoot of cinema but different still in a way that will be explained shortly.) Bazin in particular insisted that cinema never be considered “filmed theater,” as theater’s differences from film fundamentally distinguish them. The manner of representation, the ability of cinema to achieve a level of realism far surpassing the stage, the lack of a real presence of actors and spectators, the ability of music to function in harmonic conjunction with the image, and above all the priority given to the image(s) over the scene and dialogue all set cinema apart from the play. Since the theater is film’s closest cousin in the arts, demonstrating a qualitative distinction between the two should suffice to prove film’s unique nature from all the other arts. Second, “degree”: this is perhaps best explained first by example. A cinema professor has responded to students’ claims that they have seen any particular film with a two-headed question: “Have you seen it twice in a theater? If not, you haven’t seen it.” Cinema in its essence demands the environment of the cinema: a relatively large, dark room with a projector in the back booth emitting flashes of light at twenty-four times per second onto a large screen with a corresponding soundtrack of (usually) music, dialogue, and sound effects. The difference between cinema in this sense and television is really more of degree than kind. (On the other hands, other differences such as commercials, episode length, and serial programs may arguably set television apart qualitatively as well.) However hyperbolic the professor’s claim, an important aspect of cinema is being suggested that makes it “cinema.”

The written arts (literature/poetry/etc.) have a level of intentionality within them that is hard to deny or ignore. Derrida and Barthes aside, the words are written on the pages in a fairly straightforward way and the author’s approval over his/her creation is relatively concrete. Not that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t labor feverishly over his books, editing them to the point of numerous rewrites, but most of the time literature comes down to the words on the page. Of course, anyone who has studied literature knows the devilishly deceptive appearance of simplicity this implies. There is nothing simplistic about good literature, nothing cut-and-dry about it. It may be the subtlest of all the arts by virtue of its apparently “basic” nature; “basic,” arguably, but “base,” never. Cinema, on the other hand, theoretically permits “mistakes” in a way that not even Michael Crichton’s “literature” permitted. When you point a camera at something and shoot, whether it’s a constructed set or on location, there are bound to be things within the frame that are anywhere between unimportant/incidental and crucial to the meaning of the scene. Some things contribute meaning merely through mood or aura. Whether it’s dialogue, soundtrack, or something in the background mise-en-scene, how does one know what “should” be in the scene verses what could have been omitted? There are ways to discover this. The most obvious way, which could be chalked up to a cheat, is to ask the director and the crew. Most of the time, however, they aren’t going to answer that question very willingly. This is either because they have already spoken, through the film, and they don’t want to build upon an art-work with banal talk about it; or because they are concerned about spilling the beans regarding what parts of their film are unimportant. Most artists do what they do because they think they whole thing is important, and discrediting even the smallest, unintentional details does a disservice to the artwork.

This taps into something important about cinema, and not just cinema. It might be distinguished from a novel, though, so observe this contrast. Though a novel might have any number of particular meanings to different readers, the “cut-and-dry” nature of literature comes out in terms of what the author meant to say with the novel. There is something more “objective” about a novel (at least a classical kind of novel) that allows a this-or-that kind of interpretation limiting the freedom of the reader to take the meaning in numerous directions. A film seems different – whether qualitatively or quantitatively is hard to say. Because the effect of immediacy is bound to be stronger, as a rule, in cinema than in the novel, the effect of the film on a spectator will likely vary from the first moment of encounter. The immediate effect of the film on the viewing subject may or may not be consistent with the ideas of the filmmaker in creating the film. Most filmmakers not only are aware of this fact but are more than happy with it. If they weren’t happy with it, you would see a lot more filmmakers writing books and articles, and conducting interviews explaining the underlying meaning of their films and insisting that viewers not misinterpret them. This is a rarity, although exceptions include Antonioni, Kieslowski, and Tarkovsky. (This is an ironic fact, since these filmmakers made the most difficult, seemingly inaccessible films of all.) Films seem to be outlets for filmmakers, ways to express ideas without discriminating toward those ideas that are fully worked out. Perhaps in this way it can be said that filmmakers are the ultimate extroverts: an idea isn’t an idea until it’s put into a film. The more one reads the actual words of film directors, the more one sees how true this is. Are they putting us on, feigning ignorance about the nature of their own films? Some of the best films are the ones that create a cohesive world within themselves with numerous elements complementing one another toward a common theme or idea or question. It is not that difficult to believe that the choices made by the filmmakers were instinctive rather than “intentional,” intuitive rather than deliberate. Any given element does not stand alone as a proof of meaning. They all work together and off of one another and can only be understood or felt in the broader context of the film. When a certain filmic element is claimed to have meaning of a certain kind, it will likely be difficult or impossible to “prove” it epistemologically. Whether that matters is probably an important counter-question. But an easier answer is to point to the many other elements within a film, or any art-act, that function similarly and consistently.

Looking back up at the title of this post, I’m wondering how all of this fits into that notion. It seems that the ideas rambled about here regarding the art-spectator (immediacy, interpretation, analysis) and the artist (intentionality, intuition, instinct) give a big-picture view of the phenomenology of an art-act. How does it take place? How can it be understood? Like this. These very broad parameters allow substantial freedom for different forms of art to function in a variety of ways from a variety of artists for a variety of spectators. Am rather repelled by the pretentiousness of all of this, as if “parameters” have been set or a “phenomenology” set forth. This certainly isn’t to say that this hasn’t been done before, and by much more articulate and thoughtful persons, or that next month’s thoughts about this won’t show everything here to be wildly naive and juvenile. It’s a start, though.

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This entry was published on November 6, 2009 at 11:45 am. It’s filed under Ramblings and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “On the Universality of Art

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