After going through my posts on the writing process, blogger Kevin commented that I seem to “write with intent rather than for ‘mere’ expression.” A lot of his poetry arose from the fun of it and the wish to express himself in a particular way. He also asked if I always analyze what I read, if I ever read just for the pleasure of it.
Which leads me to ask you: what is art?
First, the question on reading. I don’t pick apart to death everything I read – in part for the small matter of time. As for intent, let’s visit some accomplished artists. I would almost kill to be able to ask Michelangelo, “Can art be a whim? An accident?” Did he ever “merely” express? Can art be spontaneous? My right-brain readers are nodding away. Can art be discovery? The Sam Francis exhibit that once ran at the Pasadena Museum of California Art showcases some extraordinary work by a most interesting painter. “Paintings are my thinking,” Francis said. “Not about anything…They perform the unique mathematics of my imagination.” Is there then such a thing as chance in the art of mathematics?
Could we consult the Ancients in their wisdom? To this end, I veer off a bit to share some relevant thoughts on my blogging and the homeschooling that converged two years ago. A few months into the blogging, I came to see that what I’d been drawn to exploring on this blog were truth and beauty. Not long later in a seminar on Classical homeschooling, the speaker elaborated on the model I had chosen for our family; it was in essence about truth, beauty, and goodness. I was floored. We went on to hear a podcast featuring Andrew Kearn of the CiRCE Institute on the goal of education, which brought to light the meaning of the liberal arts. I’ve scaled it down to highlight some parts that bear on this post. Which of these insights resonate with your work?
Liberal spawns from the Latin liber [free]. Without these arts, we cannot know the fullest extent of human freedom. The Hebrews and a good many of the Greeks were the only ones in the ancient world who believed truth is knowable. Freedom is intimately related to perception of the truth. Education is learning to see deeply into the truth or essence of whatever is before you – be it spouse or garden. To see beyond the “accident of it,” the things that come and go. The lost tools of truth-seeking are the liberal arts: the art of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric (which make up the Trivium of communication); and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy (the Quadrivium of calculation).
The Greeks looked at how people communicate. What leads the community to truth, to harmony? If a good man or woman speaks effectively, that is the glory of rhetoric. The mind wants harmony. Math is the ability to find this in the universe. If I tell you 2 + 7 = 5, you feel the disturbance in your mind. Astronomy is the study of shapes moving. Planet literally means wanderer. The Greeks discovered that when you examine the movement of the stars, you see patterns. Your mind can be disciplined and ordered to see things you cannot see any other way. Same thing for reading or learning another language. If you can’t do either, there is no way someone can get you there virtually. The way you know a scientific theory is by its beautiful harmony.
This approach to learning took my breath away. And it happened to dovetail this post I had been mulling over two months. What is art? To what extent is achieving harmony or articulating the essence of something the goal in your dance, your sport, your music? What is it about your painting that begs visual utterance? Do you find you’ve been in pursuit of ancient and timeless virtues? Beauty does not necessarily express happiness or cheerfulness. There can be great beauty in brokenness and sometimes, it is only among the ruins you find treasure. Years ago I looked regretfully upon some morose paintings by a gifted artist who had grown up in a nudist colony and believed she had a bipolar disorder. Her rich work was a window into a dark psyche. I felt they would reach her promise if her painful confusion were redeemed. I’ve said in The Writing Process, Part 1: Color that the darkness is an easy way in through the door of inspiration. But I now feel great art is more than bleeding all over the page.
Often honored as a process, art need not be defined by its product. But does a story not have a point? A reader quoted for me from My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn Hejinian, “the anticipation of the pleasure of making sense.” In my writing, this expectancy is the wee hours of dark that prelude the stream of dawn, the knowing stillness almost as thrilling as the satisfaction of breaking light on the landscape of my intention. The objective, to get across exactly what I’m seeing. Though a poem may sing in metaphor, should it not sustain a coherence that draws assent from the reader? Is art random? Take the greatest masterpiece we can name, the human body. Illness is simply disharmony. And the life in the womb: there is articulation, a little body forging ahead in full purpose. Though to elaborate would be another post entirely – indeed I find order, truth, beauty, goodness in our wondrous frame.
I’m thinking aloud for the answers, surveying the fields of virtuosity. Instinct whispers the difference between war and the art of war. There’s straightforward violence. Or the boxer who flails struggling at the level of technique, trying to get the moves just right. But observe the fighter who executes with fluidity the right tactic among all the possibilities in that moment, and be enthralled by elegance. Through my brief time in mixed martial arts, I came to see the brilliance in the problem-solving we call fighting. I now understand the sense and logic of the art. It is geometry – angles, lines, space in motion. Just shift and turn to create the space your opponent wants to deny you and make your way out. Fighting is chess. I love the Greek appreciation of disciplining and enlarging your mind to possibilities. The thousand drills you hammer into muscle memory are the tools for conceiving your art. The unspeakable beauty of ballet is borne of training and toil, from endless run-throughs that demand reflex and mastery. I agree with Miles Davis that more than the sight-reader, the musician is the one who can improvise. But you need to know the grammar of the music to be able to create at levels above, though some who have gone without the training find it by instinct. What I’m getting at is that art comes by merit. The endowment suggests a certain caliber of performance, of craftsmanship.
Which then incites the question whether something can be art at the elementary or exploratory stage. How about your kids’ fun on construction paper? We don’t hold up the canvas of children’s imagination against the expression of Monet’s, but isn’t there, shouldn’t there be a standard of measure within a given range of age or capability? Here I circle back to my beloved. Standard.
As I set out in my writing and my son’s learning two years ago (as it turned out, upon the same road), I accepted the guidance of the virtues named in the Classical world. As marvelous our fascination with the Minotaur, so we cheer Theseus on and breathe again when he rids Crete of the senseless terror. The living nightmare makes for a great tale but we don’t really want to live in fear and endless night. We hunger for the true, beautiful, and good because for these we were made.
Photo credits in order of appearance