What Does Art Do?   [Stagebill Magazine, 11/89]

   It is both a source of delight and a principal burden that our emotions possess a life of their own. Even the most powerful mind cannot argue away an emotional response. Something as directly felt as jealousy over a rival, devotion to a pet, or fear of the unknown is going to play a paramount role in the psyche. Because feelings direct us, art, which above all traffics in the emotions, becomes suspect. This is true for citizens and congressional representatives, just as it was true for men like Plato. Indeed, art is problematic even for artists because their predicament is self-induced (nobody asked them to become artists) and their stakes are higher. It is not as though they could be other than they are: a smiling citizen or a corporate raider.
    The artist is not fit for the world as we have it. Its priorities seem to require of him less than he can accomplish. If he wishes to use his gift there is no real place for it. So what he does is create a world that requires of him the utmost. The tricky thing about this is not that artists, men and women alike, become obsessed with what Plato would call “untruths,” but that others who are enmeshed in important realities like government, economics, media, and education get interested. The Musee d’Orsay is across the street from the Museum of the Legion of Honor (the highest civic award that France can bestow.) The latter is empty — the Orsay’s turnstiles rotate every second. Why?
    Not because art is true or real. Balzac tells us that the world is an amphitheater, the oceans its floor, the mountains its walls, and the sky its velarium emblazoned by a diadem of stars. Gustav Mahler senses that the reverberations within this chamber rhyme with our most poignant and intimate feelings. Science though, tells us that we are magnetized to a ball hurtling through cold space, which is filled with matter most of which no one can see, on the tail of an explosion no one can remember, towards an end no mind can foretell. Which of the two is true and real?
    Science claims priority on the basis of its method. It may pose as dispassionate cogitation but it really serves as a formidable bastion against the precariousness of our existence, individually and collectively. Science is aggression against the unknown. It attempts to put a face on the forces without, to name them so that we may feel more comfortable within. . If our predicament appears forbidding and ungracious, science, if it cannot help, will provide us with sufficient electronic stimulation to distract us. Science, in the last analysis, is suspect too. It has recast the world it purports to investigate in its own image. Anyone flying across America at night can see our landscape striated with luminous radio transistors posing as cities. The predictable labyrinths that mirror what science, in its ambition, declares itself to be.
    Art, however, is not in the spirit of enterprise but of receptivity. It allowas what we see to affect us; it seeks to make us more vulnerable — not less so. Art replaces knowledge, our chief secular defense against the unknown, with sympathy. When the dancer leaps, we leap with him, and this shows us that what is in our world is in our system.    
    When Delacroix wrote "The world is of a piece," he was posing a law of sympathy. He understood that art parallels, in the handling of its particulars - color and line in painting, harmony and rhythm in music, mass and syntax in dance — the acquiescence of nature, that which lets life live.
    So we can say that art retains, in some form, what the mind already knows exists but does not in the course of our daily life ordinarily see. And it is through this that we belong to the world rather than merely lend ourselves to its manipulation.

  All the rest is all the rest.



I understand that an oyster can make a pearl from a grain of sand. Pearls are considered beautiful and valuable in society but the oyster is oblivious to such things. It is seemingly only concerned with ridding itself of the irritation the sand causes it. The secretions that create the pearl are actually a response to this irritation. I’ve always felt that art is akin to this inasmuch as the painter so often paints out of a profound discontent coupled with feelings of futility. He marvels at the reassurance and contentment it provides so many others. Yet, if he’s at all ambitious — having the universal in mind rather than the personal — he can’t pretend that he’s merely involved in some masochistic exercise. He takes it for granted that barriers between people are largely of their own making; to undergo the irritations and disappointments married to the making of art so as merely to get at something personal seems hardly worth it.
      Picasso, when asked what his paintings meant, replied that one might well as ask what a bird’s song means. A clever but less original mind like Barnett Newman’s came up with the line that art criticism as much to artists as ornithology means to birds. Perhaps zoological metaphors have played themselves out. Neither of these remarks fly too well because they imply that artists are somewhat bird-brained, that we work mindlessly or on the basis of some sort of instinctive behavior. I can’t say I’m altogether free of such metaphors because, as you can see, I started this piece with oysters.
      Actually, when artists are at work their minds certainly are at work; it’s just that the intellect — the part that calculates consequences, constructs syllogisms, that understands all too quickly, that in a word, ‘plans’ — is kept in abeyance. A good part of the development of an artist is wrapped up in learning how to put oneself in an inert state, which one might construe as ‘receptive.’ When artists like Picasso or Newman avoid questions about ‘meaning’ it’s not because they dislike words; on the contrary, they love them more than many. It’s just that they also fear them, being acutely aware of their power, their surgical directness and their seemingly infinite capacity to put everything in its proper place. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of letting words substitute for the art itself. We should remember that the art was created precisely because the words were not enough. Artists don’t want to argue their own cause, because the employment of the words themselves are a tacit admission that the art itself is not getting through.
    The only other thing I can tell you in this short piece is that the way a picture spreads across its surface has some connection to the way an emotion expands – wells up — within the body of a person. And curiously enough, pictures — no matter how big — often succeed on the basis of something small and obscure. It’s not necessarily something identical or even harmonious with the picture but rather is the thing that sets it off; a spark that is not easily located and is often impervious to words.
      As far as the spread goes, the interesting thing about it is that it has within it a sentiency — an awareness — of its animating principle as well as its limits. A good part of what can be understood as artistic discipline is making this simultaneous expansion and containment identical with the physical dimensions of the canvas. In olden days this was limited to concepts of composition — of composing a picture — which is to say, where the things in it were going to be ‘placed.’
    Even now, much activity is expended on making things that normally act in opposition to each other — open and closed, full and empty, the corporeal and the fugitive, the articulated and the vague, that which is held in a vise and that which slips the grip, the many Gordian knots and their Alexandrian solutions — finally resolve themselves in something like a comprehensive totality. One all too often finds art to be a sum of near infinite adjustments. But when one is painting well these dichotomies tend to fall away and one has the fleeting suspicion that it all isn’t very difficult; the fact that you can’t do it all the time just means that there’s something wrong with you. There’s still a part of you that’s not fully an artist.
    The last thing I can think of is that this sentiency — this awareness within the picture — is the human part of it. It probably does have something to do with you as an artist, so you could say it’s personal, but that in and of itself may not be such a good thing. Although it may mark your individuality, ie. the difference between you and other artists, it also establishes your limitations, spiritually and otherwise. Remember that a defect is also a distinguishing mark. Perhaps it would be better to get rid of it.
    This business is the business of the studio; the falling away of difficulties is a process of unlearning the lessons we have been taught by our culture. One of the things we unlearn is aggression and artifice.
    We belong to this world; we are not its masters. We are all finding out now that our all too blithe manipulations and artifices are coming back to haunt us. The alarm has sounded. I’d like to close with one of the chimeras of Gerard de Nerval. It begins with the line, “Everything is sentient.” I think he lifted it from Pythagoras. Translated from the French, it reads:

Man, free thinker, do you believe you alone
are possessed of thought in this world,
where life bursts forth in everything?
You are free to dispose of those forces at your command
but the universe is absent of all of your plans

Honor the spirit found in every creature,
Each flower is a soul that opens on to Nature;
Each metal harbors a mystery of love:
“Everything is sentient”.
And everything has power over your being

Beware of the blind wall with watchful eyes:
Even matter is imbued with a word.
Put it not to sacrilegious use.

Often the most obscure of beings houses a hidden god,
and like a nascent eyes veiled by its lids,
a pure spirit buds beneath the husk of stones.



A) Culture is generally viewed as man's interruption of nature (cultivation implies clearing away woodland,)  although recent primate research suggests that there are contiguities where the two become indistinguishable or confused.

B) Experiments suggest that a propensity for magical thinking may well be a solely human characteristic.

C) Magic is a primordial cultural practice designed to control the future. It corresponds directly to man's knowledge of his own mortality, a knowledge which animals likely do not possess in the abstract.

D) Different magics possess either an active and passive character; the former is interventionist, the latter, divinatory.

E) Both aspects have their congeners in art; the first is figurative, ie, the creation of totemic, apopotraic, or voodoo likenesses; the second the reading of patterns, intervals and spatial designs.

F) The aesthetic element in both comes to the fore when the belief in the practicality of magic dissipates or is abandoned. The relationship is still preserved in our language.

G) Play and ritual share many characteristics. The defining characteristics of play are enumerated for the reader. Both play and ritual descend from magical practice. Ritual always maintains a magical quotient, even to this day. It couldn't exist for long without it. Even science makes use of it at times. Like its magical ancestor, science also is an attempt to control or determine man's fate. In this respect it is an attack on the unknown. Whereas religion attempts to put a face on the unknown to which it can appeal or submit, science intend to remove the unknown altogether.

H) Art is in the end, a species of play, the object of which is the creation of forms that need serve no purpose other than that of revelation. (This is not to say that they cannot serve other purposes if made to. Only that it is not a necessary part of it.) Similarly, although technique and/or craft may be a greater or lesser element in any given art, the art cannot be reduced to it and remain an art. The Greek notion of identifying art as craft has long been superseded. Modern art only hammered the final nail in the coffin.

I) That like all manner of play, art has rules and boundaries. Although they may alter themselves over periods of time, they never dissolve altogether.

J) Art likely started out as a communitarian activity practiced on feast days and days of rest. All the arts were linked together. The subsequent specialization constitutes in large part the development of art through human history. It is umbilically tied to the appearance of prowess; namely the presence of those who are more accomplished and who often set their own standards for themselves. These individuals probably were always there. Cave paintings suggest as much.

K) Prowess implies elitism. It will always have an uneasy relationship with egalitarian or communitarian longings, even those of the artists themselves.

J) The final problem therefore is the question of quality in art. This is never identical with popularity. Who determines what constitutes prowess (over and above technique,) and who appoints him or herself as 'the explainer' or intermediary between the artist and society is decisive today. Quality is never left up in the air, but determined by self appointed intermediaries.