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If film is art, what is art?

Here is an essay I wrote on art some years ago. I wanted to know what art is by finding out what it does. Films are (or perhaps should be) art; so this is also a good way to find out what film are, and thus what screenplays are. What is the function of good screenplays? To prescribe good films. What are good films? That question is almost impossible to answer; but we all know good films when we see them.

Because we FEEL them.

Anyway. Here is my essay on art:

The dictionary tells us that art is: ‘the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.’ Of course there are numerous definitions; but I took the first one I found (on, which is the one I most agree with.

Formal definitions aside, a good way to find out what something is, is to take it away. That way you learn what it does and if, therefore, it does anything. If we took art away, if no one did or had ever done art, what would happen? What difference does art really make, after all? If it didn’t exist the world would just be uglier, wouldn’t it? It’s just cosmetic.

I suggest that art is of fundamental importance.

Prehistoric art synthesised the world of our forebears. It made that world portable and ductile in the smithy of the nascent imagination. Such art was the product of minds that had learned to manipulate the world advantageously. It was fundamental to the creation and development of consciousness through invention. It was a manifestation and a driver of sentience.

To describe is to know, and the better the description the more accurate the knowledge. As a mode of description, art is very different to science; but the comparison is worthwhile. Let’s try to get a fix on what art is by comparing it to science - something usually seen as very different.

Science tends be reductive, even when it contemplates the largest scales. Like art, science can be holistic in that it seeks to frame phenomena in a context. Science collates and relates phenomena in causally and structurally logical ways, while art alludes to the world beyond or within in tacit and in sometimes ambiguous ways. In its abstraction, art can be deeply pertinent: T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ isn’t about anything. That is why it’s about everything. Science, however, is always about specifics. In very different ways, art and science both seek to uncover hidden essences. They both involve original thinking. They both seek to reveal truth through the process of description. Insights gained from art and science can feel similar because of their preoccupation with revelation. Both can stimulate insight. Both can be profound, and inspire awe.

Both science and art can be reductive and holistic. Both are different expressions of the same urge to ask questions about reality – an urge that we seem uniquely prone to and equipped to exercise. We can act on the answers to these questions to develop subtler insights, and useful machines that reflect the complexity we find in nature and each other - one and the same.

What would the world be like without science? It would be more primitive, less comfortable, and given to the dogma that flows from guesswork about fundamental things; it would thus be more violent. In this, science seems more essential than art. I would say that it’s more obviously functional; but that seems to diminish art, and that is not fruitful.

Let’s now ask: what would the world be like without art? How, indeed, would the world have evolved? Would it have evolved at all?

The fact is that modern people and societies can get along fine without art. People work and die and breed and eat. The cogs turn. This can be a somewhat static society, however; and society must evolve to survive: it has no swim bladder. I suggest a correlation between art and the cultural and even ethical evolution of societies and individuals.

Art has always offered an insight into the world around us by freezing time and exploring space. It enables us to dwell on things in ways denied us by our senses, and by the warp and weft of busy lives. Art enables us to explore the world in our own time and thereby notice things that might otherwise be lost on us. As music can, art can re-wire the brain in subtler and more complex ways, affecting the state of awareness in the brain’s product, the mind. Musical notes that follow each other in unpredictable yet cogent ways can mirror and stimulate the experience and practise of revelation that follows investigation. Inventive music can prepare us for and help us seek revelation, and thus help us learn. It can stimulate creative thinking. Invention stimulates invention, and prompts orthogonal thinking. The unexpected becomes expected.

So the visual arts can enable us to study the world by freezing the flow of existence and prompting us to dwell on the world in ways that can be insightful – or at least stimulating. Technology has enabled us to do this in a more extreme way that the human eye and hand ever could; it has also provided us with the leisure time in which to do this. Whether it is thereby enlightening us and engendering a sense of cosmic perspective is open to research and debate; I suspect that it is in those open to such perspectives and isn’t in others.

It makes no sense to try to shoehorn much of art into a description, of course. Dance can make the spirit sing, or drive us to our emotional knees. Music can move us as much as it can make us move; and literature can change our lives. By definition, most good art defies definition. It creates a sensation by being subtle, ingenious, original, or sensational; this can be transformative - or just chase away the blues for half a day. Art must do these things or lose the privilege of being called art. Art must have an effect on the psyche that is positive, and this positivity is of profound and practical value to society because if everything is utilitarian, we wither, and we thus wither because we are essentially creatures of the imagination. Consciousness itself can be called an act of imagination. This in no way diminishes its status as reality (because reality can only be imagined, as only can love). Like love, that which consciousness imagines may be manifested in four dimensions through the portal of the hands. The hands are therefore the structures that can transmute the imagined into the sensible and the potential into the actual. In this way the many can share the sensations and observations of the one; if these sensations and observations allude of common truth (truth being the way we describe reality), we celebrate the artist and the art for enlightening us and drawing us together through commonality.

Art and science are the right and left hands of mankind.

What art can and should do is give us pride in our achievements and faith in our capacities and potential – particularly if we’re the artist; but possibly (and subconsciously) if we are the art’s witness. Depending on your definition of what art is (if you choose to call what termites do when they build their mound art, this statement won’t work for you), you can consider that only the most developed animals do art, or can see art in the activities of other life forms. As an artistic species, this should give us pride in ourselves; but of course most of us are too wrapped up in the ‘everyday’ world for it to do so. It should also engender the profoundest modesty and humanity. Art is the enemy of ignorance, and the worst enemy of prejudice. The greater the art, the more effectively it confronts and negates these states of mind, neither of which enable individuals or societies to evolve into more complex or (practically or ethically) functional entities.

That which can be considered to be art is of course a matter of opinion; what you call art I may not and visa-versa. In my opinion, the definition we started with works very well. It covers most of the bases. For me, art must be beautiful, original, and skilled. If art offers insight through the lens of its originality, so much the better; if it doesn’t, the art is worth experiencing for its beauty, originality, and skill. Witness Michelangelo’s David, which I believe redefined the human condition by suggesting that its potential is limitless by virtue of its excellence.

In my opinion much modern western visual, physical, and musical art refutes or disobeys this definition almost perfectly.

This is where it gets shocking – or at least sad, because to apply the definition to the practise of his or her art would render a modern, western artist as good as risible in the eyes of most of his or her colleagues or critics. The adjectives ‘beautiful’ and ‘appealing’ are the last one might apply to most of that which is called art in the modern, western canon. It seems to me that modern art can only claim to be ‘of more than ordinary significance’ because it suggests that the ordinary is significant - magnificent, even - which of course it is. There is no such thing as ordinary. This is obvious, however; and surely the essence and function of art is to allude to or try to describe the ineffable and to stimulate insight in the process.

Like many other things in western (and increasingly global) society, art has become a poisoned, poisoning thing that exists despite, and at the expense of, the rational mind. I say ‘at the expense of’ because a lot of modern art is irrational to the extent that eventually it actively diminishes the rationality of the observer – if the observer allows. It’s no coincidence that works of art have become financial investments on a large scale only in the last century or so. Surely the whole point about works of art is that they are priceless by definition. By endowing them with financial worth we abase them and diminish their worth, which is emotional, aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual.

But the whole point of art is that it is irrational, some might say. I disagree. Art can and perhaps should be creative to the point of unpredictability, yet rational. You may consider that much of the music of, say, Benjamin Britten exemplifies this criterion but that much of the music of, say, Harrison Birtwhistle doesn’t. One is original and abstract yet largely by and large cogent; the other posits an apparently deranged world with no internal structure or future: a world that cannot be understood. Whilst the patterns in Birtwhistle’s chaos may be there, if those patterns are so inextricably encrypted within the music that they are effectively inaccessible, the music has failed in its mandate to give the listener access to an order in life that exists ‘below’ the surface, yet which is effective and which can become familiar through a modicum of quiet involvement - or passion. The patterns are there, you might argue – it’s just a question of discerning them, and that’s just like the universe itself, the causal fine structure of which is hidden from us by barriers of distance and scale in time and space, and by our ignorance.

It’s a question of digestion, surely: if a piece of music or work of art cannot be understood or digested by anyone but the artist him or herself, what’s the point of it? Should we be expected to do a limitless amount of work in deciphering the art to extract sense from it or learn that the universe is nonsensical? Because of course the universe is as nonsensical as it is without a prime directive. It’s a physical system that manifests random yet causal change that we call time. Only art and science can help us accept this seemingly unpalatable reality; because like it or not, reality it is.

Perhaps art shouldn’t need to be explained. Perhaps art should explain itself. If it is inherently inexplicable, it should suggest to us that things that cannot be quantified can be treated as realities, too. Consciousness itself cannot be quantified; yet it is the product of quantifiable phenomena.

This takes us to the issue of what is real and what isn’t - surely a topic at the very heart of art. You may choose to assert that one thing is real and that another isn’t. You will be disagreed with. You may choose to assert that anything can be art; someone else might refute this. In prompting this kind of response, art of any kind is doing a very important job: it’s stimulating us to lose the desire to assert anything. This is vital because the first step to any kind of knowledge worth having is to lose the desire to be right; and of course the children of this ideological parent are the children essential to any functioning individual or society: humility and humanity.

Modern art suggest we dwell on and praise nothingness; in so doing it leaves us empty.

All too often it requires no talent; it assumes no intellect on the behalf of its witness; it says nothing other than that the artist has nothing to say and understands nothing – or little, at least.

Worse still, much modern art is mediocre, and mediocrity is cultural violence.

Modern art is the emperor’s new clothes.

How has this come about? It’s hugely complex, of course, and any attempt to find causes will be flawed. Yet as ever, the process of enquiry can be enlightening.

There is a sentence in the chapter ‘The Majestic Clockwork’ and programme of the same name in Jacob Bronowski’s great book and TV serial The Ascent of Man ‘. . . ‘Time and light first began to go awry just about this time.’ It is the case that circa 1900 the old scientific and moral certainties were undermined and then replaced by an air of uncertainty. Time and space were among the many things that seemed to go awry at the end of the Victorian era. It was an epoch when thinking people thought there was little left to learn. Of course such comments usually signify the beginning of a student’s journey, not the end.

Bronowski was discussing - or adducing - Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which contradicted Newtonian physics – as did, and do, quantum mechanics. The Theories of Relativity (Special and General) turned the world on its head. Yes, its causes, actuality and effects are undetectable and irrelevant to everyday life; but everyday life has little to do with reality because reality is perfectly subtle. (It depends on what you call reality.) That’s where art could, or should, come in: art can and must increase the degree of subtlety in society; it should champion truth and draw it ever closer to those things we can consider functionally real.

Yet if it ever did this for most people it no longer seems to do so for anyone.

The two world wars also undermined the old ethical and religious certainties and replaced them with questions about the real nature of humanity: is man inherently evil? How could a God allow such abominations as the Holocaust?

Into the spiritual vacuum left behind by the 20th Century flowed confusion. Science was vilified, and cited as the cause of dehumanisation. If God was dead, what was the point?

As a good scientist himself, Bronowski understood that good science is humble and fallible. It embraces doubt. It bows to reality rather than prescribing it. It is the opposite of dogma. In its theoretical phase science is as creative as the mind behind the Mona Lisa: Leonardo was as much a scientist as an artist; indeed in him the two were joined and revealed as one. In its experimental phase the revelations of science can stimulate a profound humility and awe for nature that can be more detailed, productive, and subtle than any religious fervour.

Our society has come to associate science with false certainty and inhumanity. In fact science is the only thing that can endow a privileged view of things; yet good since is inherently uncertain, even when experiment and maths proves and predicts the thesis. You can have knowledge or certainty. You can’t have both.

Science can seem hard because science is interested in reality; but why choose reality when you can have the validation of you tribe, however wrong it is? Reality doesn’t matter; short term gain - especially the procurement of social status - does. Evolution has ordained it thus.

So did the upheavals in science, psychology and society catalyse the revolutions in art that took place in the 20th Century? Perhaps all we can agree on is that these factors may have had some effect, to some degree. As visual arts became increasingly less representational in the late 19th Century, a journey was begun (or continued) into abstraction that seemed pointless to stop, or which has developed such momentum that it became unstoppable. At some point art lost touch with the cogent; of course it did this on purpose: it didn’t get lost - it chose to lose its way. In this way we discover, of course: this way is vital to revelation. At some point art lost its association with an identifiable and convenient reality and began to suggest that we can call anything we want reality, because reality is just a word and subjectivity is all.

Art simply redefined itself, we might agree. It extended and then threw off its boundaries and became that which it should be: unbound. The distinction between madness and genius, however, is achievement; and the purpose of art is to extend, redefine and champion the genius of humanity. Art’s achievement is to suggest that human potential is limitless. It can allude to the divine in us in non-religious terms, and that is a sacred function.

Modern art (creative thought and activity generally) no longer functions as a signpost to ‘truth’; it suggests that the notion of truth as an actuality is flawed. Our apprehension of the universe is too subjective and multifarious for any human collective to claim it has a lien on reality, or better access to it than any other. Truth is the way we describe reality; art, accordingly, has come to suggest that whilst there is a status quo to which we have no access (and which is therefore effectively hypothetical), what we have to make do with is our impression of it, and act in accordance with our impressions. By doing away with the assumed verities of old, art has challenged dogma head on, and in much of the west, triumphed.

But that triumph is under threat from resurgent dogmas. Whether manifested as science or art, creative thought must enter the public domain and stand firm.

Like most things people do, it seems to me that art has gone too far in its presentation and exploration of the universe as inherently chaotic. At the microscopic level, nature is stochastic but deterministic. Effect follows cause in a phenomenon that for the sake of convenience we call time. Physics aside, time works just as well if you choose to claim that it exists or not. The same can be said of the present, which cannot exist if we choose to consider that time in some sense ‘exists’, and (the Plank Constant aside) is not granular.

What art has come to do is prompt us to ask what it means to say that something exists. This may have once been easier to deal with that it is now. By and large, people have come to think something exists if they can sense it or believe in it with sufficient conviction – or significantly: if the majority of people believe in it. Shared belief enables people to feel like they are part of a collective, which extends the evolutionary benefits of the herd, and comforts the isolated psyche. How can large scale, organised religion have failed, given its attention to these needs, and its position of a parental deity?

What a cursory study of the universe can suggest to us is that all there is is change. Change is the only constant. It may be the only thing we can call real. The universe is so fundamentally dynamic that we don’t even think of it as such as we go about our lives. We remember and cherish we have survived; we fear a future that will destroy us individually. For this reason, each generation believes things have got worse, and that the world is soon to end.

Harmony is a construct of sentience. It’s tempting to think that ‘natural’ situations are harmonic. We talk of fauna and flora existing in natural equilibrium - balance that is actually a continual adjustment that involves much conflict: plants strive to commandeer soil resources and access of light so they can survive at the expense of others; all animals will, when pushed, selfishly appropriate resources in order to survive, so that they can pass on their genes. What seems like harmony to us is actually a state of aggressive flux. The harmony lies in us. We might call it serenity. We associate harmony with serenity. We associate discord with stress.

For me, good art is harmonic. It is beautiful. By ‘art’, I also mean music.

If we say that for something to exist it must be perceived, we must say that harmony ‘only’ exists in the mind. Intelligent mammals respond to harmony and discord in different ways. Elephants seem entranced by harmonic music. No doubt other ‘higher’ species can be, too.

Harmony is a determiner, shaper, and product, of mind.

Without mind there is ‘only’ sound. Intelligence may attempt to perceive patterns in chaotic sound, but when it fails, it perceives the sound as chaotic.

Let us call chaos that upon which we can impose no structure or purpose. Harmony and chaos relate to teleology. Chaotic systems have zero teleological substance. Harmonic systems (things) can have non-zero teleological substance: they can calm intelligence and cause eudemonia. Harmony is eudemonic, whereas discord is not.

Art creates and finds patterns in chaos, and renders patterns in chaos intelligible, and appealing. If the rendition is appealing, we may feel that it is more revelatory than an ugly interpretation. Why? Beauty can seem to be a portent or conveyor of the profound. Truth can be ugly, of course; but the verity ugliness portrays tends not to be profound. This is significant.

The correlation between beauty and truth has been much discussed. The correlation can seem mysterious; it is the product of a reality, however: that the human brain is good at discerning functionality, which can confer a survivalist advantage. A lever can do something that can help me. I therefore like levers. I find them more appealing than the potential for leverage now strewn unconstructed on the ground. In constructing the lever I become conscious because my brain must simulate reality neuraly and manipulate it. (All animals that use tools are not necessarily self-aware. Tool use may be learnt, or instinctive [primarily genetically caused] behaviour that is caused by chance effectiveness.)

To find chaos in pattern isn’t useful.

To create unstructured art seems to me to be self-indulgent. It doesn’t help the world at large, and art has to help. It can do this, and does, by providing a counterpoint to the world of utility that engages us all on a daily basis, and by signposting the potential of the human for the non-trivial. In this way it can engender a sense of perspective that is generally inaccessible to the senses, and minds busy with the quotidian lot. This is important because perspective enables us to do what’s best. Without context, we make parochial judgements that are usually centric. By decentralising ourselves, we can develop morally and philosophically, and be more ethical.

Perspective encourages us to be awed by the self in nature, which is the nature of self.

I believe we need art to survive as creatures of aesthetic capability and potential; for we are nothing else. All else is emptiness and futility. We are not creatures of industry or domesticity; those things merely serve to make provision for activities that draw us on into realms and states of mind that inspire awe, and our evolution. For without awe we are only a poison.

Art must be numinous. It must suggest that here is a simian on a tiny rock in a universe of effectively infinite size and potential – an artistic ape at the beginning of its journey that can go on to become infinitely subtle. It must reinforce hope in our species by miraculous skill, and by prompting its witness to consider that mankind is indeed worthy, modest, and astonishing.

Yet for the most part art has become everything but this. It has become a sordid exercise in sham repetition. It says nothing about anything. It is mute. The guiding light has gone out. This catastrophe has infected society in everything from popular culture, in which mediocrity is all because mediocrity is easy, to the pretensions of Charles Saatchi, who seems content to shoulder a blame he either does not or cannot admit.

Our confusion is such, though, that such claims are untenable in the public domain. Yet the currency of the public domain is lies. Lies are everywhere. Turn on the television and you are bombarded by a tsunami of lies that try to trick you into buying a product. That product may be a utility or a luxury; it may be political; it may be the empty heart of a drama that is so devoid of verity that it must disguise itself in sensationalist violence. Go online and you will have to defend yourself against lying on a gigantic scale on your way to the equally vast amount of excellent web content at your disposal. Have a private or professional conversation; it will be riddled with lies. They won’t necessarily be malicious; they’ll probably be benign; but lies are the essential coinage of the game playing we call communication.

Art is the opposite of lying. Art is therefore the opposite of war.

We see the stupendous waste of human life and resources in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of us don’t really understand these situations; I certainly don’t. Most of us are so inured we say and do little or nothing. We buy the lie.

The simultaneity of the loss of hunger for truth in our society and the demise of art may be no coincidence. A kind of insanity has entered via the door of history opened by a misguided media hell bent of profit or simply lost and functioning according to an agenda that is no longer questioned. People are drip-fed mediocrity that in excess, can rob them of original thought. This is no new thing: in our feudal past, the religious and societal aristocracies did the same in a pyramid structure typical of oligarchies: the few manipulated the many for self-gain and righteousness. They still do. Yet this is not conspiracy. The masses aren’t subjugated by the media in order to maintain their gullibility. Media manipulation is the product many causes. It is often unwitting, and the product of misguided intentions. The tabloids are defended by people who feel they have a genuine and benign function in society. Of nothing is entirely good or bad; everything except a hypothetical divinity is good and bad to some degree, and this is as Fuzzy a truth as the assertion itself is Fuzzy. Tabloid culture will do good things for some people sometimes; yet is may also be a cultural wrecking ball that keeps our evolution on its knees and enables people to remain immature; and the immature are rarely ethically developed: morality is a kind of maturity, and some of the least educated people are the most ethical.

The notion that the masses are fed rubbish by the media, so they remain easy to manipulate seems a tired and predictable one. While this indeed may happen in some societies and certainly has happened in the societies of the past (ref: Caxton and Gutenberg, Henry 8th, the King James Bible, Luther and the devolution of knowledge by the promulgation of knowledge through printed, comprehensible literature: a groundswell that cannot be disassociated from the Black Death and its effect on ‘People Power’) , the act of broadcasting and publishing ‘low brow’ culture has complex roots in complicated socio-political movements and intentions: France had the guillotine but Britain got Simon Cowell. Amusing, yes; true, arguably – though arguments are usually futile.

It’s obvious that what seems to be the case rarely is the case (and art can help us determine what is, or what needs to be); yet with a few welcome exceptions, in all its expressions, art seems to have been degraded in the west. As alluded, socio-political elements are probably that cause; the rise of the proletarian society in reaction to the predatory elitism of the past have created a society in which everybody’s options and abilities are ranked the same. The drive behind this may be good; but it is fallacious because in reality some people are wiser and more capable than others. I believe this is a product less of genetics and more of environmental nurture: at birth, the human is almost limitless in its potential for excellence. In almost all cases, though, people are immediately compromised and downgraded. They are made ordinary by confusion or the inability to identify or value potential or greatness.

This is a huge and tragic problem.

Etymologically, art is synonymous with artificial. Whilst art is by definition artificial, its artifice is positive: all invention is a type of artifice; yet inventiveness - or originality - is the tool we use to scrape away the layers of illusion to reveal a hidden reality. To describe is to know. In this way we evolve as individuals and as a species. What we find as we dig deeper are layers of reality that are ever more subtle; among them, I believe, is the reality of the pain of others. I see a connection between our increased humanity and our awareness of previously hidden realities in the universe. I believe we are kinder as a society because we are more aware of its physical mechanisms, whose structures and processes can be stupendously complex - as complex as people: the most complex of those structures and processes of which we are aware.

The word ‘artificial’ has taken on negative connotations in 21st Century western society. It will certainly have had those connotations in other times and in other places. Art has become artificial in that it busies itself making the glib and obvious point that nothing is ordinary. A cursory observation of the universe reveals this to be true if we define extraordinary to be ‘beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established’. A more detailed examination tells us that it is beyond this beyond, and even beyond that. Art needs to do more than state the obvious. Its job is to state the obscure and reveal hidden truths - even if by doing no more than catalysing a sense of enquiry on the behalf of its witness. In this way the witness can evolve.

I believe that art’s job is to stimulate human social evolution, which is the evolution of ethics; only by this yardstick can evolution be measured. Art should be an inspirational element in society that signposts human potential through its beauty (truth), originality and technical excellence. Culture is the product of the conscious hand. Art is one of that hand’s most promising products. It is that thing through which we find the divine (but not religious) within us, without which we are less than nothing because we have become toxic because of still primitive technology wielded by misguided minds. Art should be the lodestar by which we navigate - instead of which it has become the litmus of our journey into intellectual and spiritual oblivion.

This wasn’t intended as a critique of art; its intention was to attempt to find out what art is. It attempted to do this by finding out what art does. Naturally, it failed. The closer we get to truth, the harder it is to define, or even see. When we reach the centre of reality we find nothing there, and that is sublime.

It may be the case that to describe is to know; yet the most valuable and subtle sensations and experiences - the only ones worth having - in life are inherently indescribable. Art is thus. What a relief; because if we’d managed to define perfectly (or even to mutual agreement) what art is, we would have diminished it; and above almost all things, art must never be diminished. Perhaps in this realisation we find art’s true value, and the value of truth.

Art is the wonder of things; as such, it is an appreciation of life. Like life, art must assume and explore all possible configurations, some of which endure, and most of which, in a Darwinian parallel, go extinct because their effectiveness is too limited to ensure their survival.

Art isn’t dead. Like us, it’s at the beginning of its journey. In this, surely we can take hope. Things are often best described by contemplating their opposite; the same can be said of art.

What is art? Art is the opposite of war.


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