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Is it ART or N'ART?

by Michael Atlee

Have you ever gone into a museum and come out confused about what you have just seen, just what fine art is these days? On one wall there was a beautiful portrait of a child by Sargent; in the next room there was a painting, all squiggles, by Cy Twombley or Pollock. In another, there was a gorgeous still life of lemons and oranges by Zurburan or a dazzling interior by Vermeer. You turned the corner, maybe, and there were some photographs by Mapplethorpe of men in homoerotic moments. Here, there was a burlap sack with three red bricks glued to it; there, some polished mahogany boards leaning against a wall. And then, perhaps, paintings by Stuart Davis and Dubuffet that looked like something you did in the fourth grade. The last work you see, as you head for the exit, is a giant abstract painting by Helen Frankenthaler that would cover a small house. As you push through the doors you remember the same crazy mix, flipping through an art magazine and wandering through your community art show. As you stand there on the sidewalk scratching your head, you cry out, "What's going on here? Are they all art?"

The answer to your questions is: The works by Sargent, Zurburan, Corot and Vermeer are indeed ART. Those by Mapplethorpe, Davis, Dubuffet and Frankenthaler are what I call N'ART Before we go any further, let me say that this does not mean that N'ART is not as important as ART. It is simply that it has a different basis.

You may well want to know what N'ART is and when, why and how it came into being. To learn of the origins of N'ART we must look to the 18th and 19th centuries.

TO be sure, N'ART was foreshadowed by the Romantics (Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" is a good example) and by Goya, who in his late period turned away from beauty to paint the ugly horrors of ignorance and human suffering. There are other artists, historical events and theories that indicated that N'ART was birthing, but for the sake of an all too succinct overview, the discussion will be limited to the following:

  • The rise of the common man
  • Darwinism
  • Marxism
  • Voluntarism of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche (his "will to power")
  • The establishment of the rudiments of photography
These five phenomena are signal because they spontaneously fused to form the rejection of the basic concept of what ART (fine art as opposed to the others) was supposed to embody. Mention could be made of the writings in aesthetics until the early nineteenth century of Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Ficino, Shaftesbury, Kant, Schelling, Hegel and others who influenced each generation of artists as they tried to make the creative process uniquely their own. Their ideas would appear to be variations on Platonic themes: so the focus of interest will be on those themes that formed the basis of the systematic essentials of ART philosophy that served Judeo-Christian until the end of the last century. It must be noted here, however, that when Plato put forth his philosophical aesthetics they were principles of art to be found wherever the human spirit expresses itself creatively, be it ancient, non-European - whatever. Let's look at what ART would ideally embody in painting, sculpture, drama, poetry, music ... etc.

To begin, ART was grounded in God and Beauty. It was born of the belief in God, the sanctity of art and the divine power of the artist. This did not mean that the subject matter had to be religious. ART was a kind of representation of a divinely inspired vision turned out in a beautiful form. It was also religious in the sense that, like religion, it ostensibly served to unite rather than to separate us. But principally ART was to reach that holy place in all of us that could not be arrived at through logic. And the fastest way to that place was through Beauty. It was not unlike giving medicine to a child, that is, by putting it into something sweet. Horace later was to call this technique "utili dulce".

Beauty, admittedly, was subjective; however, any and every human would find True Beauty irresistible because of its unity, order and proportion, which Plato called "Measure". A beautiful work, per force, had this harmony as well as definiteness, which meant - for painting, poetry, sculpture, drama - a realistic representation.

ART, therefore, was a question of creating an imitation of man's world as he knew it (Plato called this "Mimesis"). Not everything could be represented artistically, only that which was worthy of imitation to the benefit of society as a whole. So it was that an artist could not represent his personal vision, no matter how beautiful, unless it threw into relief a truth that linked him to his fellow man, bringing them together to a higher level of understanding and, therefore, taking them nearer to God.

ART, it followed, could not be achieved by perfect form (Techne) alone. A work of ART was to be not only a perfect beautiful form but also an Aesthetic expression of those universal human truths that cannot be expressed through logic. The work of art that best accomplished this would therefore be a fusion of form and content. When one experienced a true work of art, one could not appreciate the form without appreciating its content.

Thus it was that when you experienced a work of ART you should have experienced an alteration, perhaps a birth in beauty, a happiness, a reaction not only to its form but also to its content which you could not explain but which you felt so intensely that you might weep, fleetingly knowing what it meant to experience union with God. You could say then that ART was like love and/or good. When you experienced it, you had more life. (As Judith Balfe, the contemporary sociologist puts it "...the arts exist to comfort the afflicted and not just afflict the comfortable.")

As for the artist, he was a divinely chosen, gifted, high minded MAN from the select class in the aristocratic hierarchy. He understood the fundamental principle of appropriateness, enabling him to judge which imitations were worthy, which debased. When he created a work of beauty it was in a moment of divine madness or "enthusiasm" which in Greek means "to be possessed by God". This creation spoke to any and everyone, regardless of the period in time, the social class, or intellectual level - all to the benefit of society.

These points about the artist come from the notion of aristocracy, that concept of ideal government based on the rule of the strength of the best, resulting in a small, elite privileged class ... much like the structure of the Olympic Games - Only the best. There have always been exceptions such as Giotto, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, et al, who were of humble origins but who nonetheless conformed to the accepted canons of art mentioned above. And they were the best.

You don't have to be told how rare a true work of ART or a true artist would be.

You might well ask, just what is N'ART? The easy answer is that it is everything that ART could not be. But let's take a look at those five phenomena of the 18th and 19th centuries that contributed to the birth of N'ART, phenomena which you are well aware of but perhaps have not linked to ART in the way that I am about to suggest: The Rise of the Common Man. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries brought about the social and economic changes that would free the common man from the tyranny of the rigid Aristocratic system. For our purposes here, this social and economic freedom would come to mean that the artist did not have to be a special MAN (divinely chosen; gifted; high-minded) from a select class. Eventually, anyone could and would be an artist - man, woman, rich, poor, high-brow, low-brow, talented, untalented, children, and, yes, even an animal (You have heard about galleries selling paintings by monkeys, I'm sure).

Charles Darwin. His naturalist theories of organic evolution cast grave doubt on the teachings of the Bible, strengthening the force of Science in its battle against Religion. The Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man threw the Western world into upheaval. Some took his ideas to mean that man had no soul and was not created by God but descended organically from the ape. His ideas were debated hotly everywhere. And, in some places, they still are, as you are well aware.

Karl Marx. With materialist theories of scientific socialism and communism, he took the side of the exploited common man (the proletariat) against the unproductive aristocratic class. Because his philosophical method placed primacy on the material, the ideal (God/Religion) was cast out. "Doubt everything," he taught, especially the existence of God. For him art was to serve social and political, rather than aesthetic and religious, purposes.

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Both of these thinkers gave the power to the will of the artist. Nietzsche, who detested Christianity, declared that the artist, in his heroic quest, was beyond good and evil. Forget about the traditional system of Judeo-Christian moral values. Though Nietzsche had something else in mind, the way the proletarian artist interpreted this will to power was that he could do whatever he wanted; and he would. In 1883 in the rebellious Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche, voicing the scientific mood of the period, has a character declare that God is dead, dealing ART the final and fatal blow. If God was dead, then any and all artistic philosophy based on the concept of God was no longer valid. Plato and his followers were to be buried together. So the search was on for a new philosophy of art, a new meaning of life. And you know the result. Ask an art-aware friend to name the various art movements since the 1890's. There are so many theories of art that your friend will not be able to do so. And ask that same friend what the basic underlying philosophies of art are. Your friend won't be able to do that either because N'ART can be anything and everything:

N'ART can be beautiful, but it doesn't have to be. It can be realistic, but it doesn't have to be. It can be based on the concept of God, but it doesn't have to be. It can be well-proportioned and harmonious, but it doesn't have to be. It can be of a subject worthy of imitation, to the benefit of society, but it doesn't have to be. (Think Mapplethorpe's men.) Furthermore, it can try to express aesthetically a universal truth that cannot be expressed through logic, but it doesn't have to. It can be the artist's truth with no relationship to anyone else's.

In fact, N'ART can be anything the N'ARTIST wants it to be. And if you had to come up with a simple definition of N'ART you might be well served by Benedetto Croce's observation that in contemporary works one sees the concept of beauty being identified with that of expression, that is, Expression is Beauty or Beauty is Expression. Or maybe, you'll respond to John Dewey's notion that a modern work is simply a creation of experience, a "dynamic, self-forming, self-fulfilling interaction between man and reality." One thing for sure: When the new definitive philosophy of art is written, it will be infused with the spirit of science; more than likely, a synthesis of the scientific and the religious, because I believe that the religious spirit will never be abandoned, regardless of the discoveries of science or how one feels about religion, per se. So now do you understand why I want to persuade you that so many works that you see are N'ART and not ART?

And one last point. Some of you, to be sure, turn your nose up at N'ART. You wouldn't have it in your house, let alone stop for a few moments in a museum to give yourself willingly to it. But you should, because N'ART is principally about Freedom and Discovery, freedom and discovery in every sense for the person who created it and for you who would experience it. To explain, let's take a look at the last point mentioned in the beginning of this article: The establishment of the rudiments of photography.

The invention of photography gave birth to a scientific art form that freed the painter from having to create realistically. Little by little, as photography becomes refined, it can produce a realism, including a kinetic, almost impossible to match. So today, the painter of landscapes, for instance, does not have to imitate the glories of nature. But he can do something else: He can now be free to paint his interior landscapes. And you can be free to interpret them as you like. If you see a realistic painting of a dog in a colorful garden, there is not much freedom for you, the viewer. You see a dog in a colorful garden. But in front of an abstract painting, you have the Freedom to interpret it as you will. So the next time you see a work of N'ART give vourself to it with an open mind. Let yourself find expression in it. You may Discover something to make your mind - and, if you're lucky, your heart and soul - glad.

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