I have been taking a course at the University of Maine on creative concept development. In this highly political and charged times, it seems appropriate to ignore CNN and consider the definition of art. In Art as Experience, John Dewy, a philosopher of aesthetics who gave the first William James Lecture at Harvard, makes the distinction between an object of art (a painting, a statue, a film, an installation) and the work of art. He says that the work of art is active and experiential whereas the art object is physical and potential. This spoke to me in the sense that the course has inspired me to the work of art even if the products I produce are not necessarily objects of art in the sense that I would put them on a wall and offer them for sale. The exception is my poetry, which I have written throughout my life as my own reflective exercises in the sense recommended by Rita Charon for physician self-practice. However, the course has convinced me to put my poetry on display as art objects whatever that means. Not, however, necessarily my drawings and paintings; regardless of how much I enjoy making them.
Dewey uses metaphors from physics to define a work of art. He talks about the force of an object, which is interesting in that I had learned that objects have mass, but force is work done on an object. Force is a vector, a verb, and not a thing. He talks about energies issuing from experience which also seems odd, for it seems to me that it is energy that we experience and that moves through us, upon us, and around us. He talks about mutual affinities and antagonisms working “together to bring about a substance that develops cumulatively and surely (but not too steadily) toward a fulfilling of impulsions and tensions (pp. 168-169).” That metaphor just didn’t work for me. For me, the act of making art is a way of exploring my world through means that are otherwise hard for me to access. Poetry, for example, can capture a situation far more astutely and completely sometimes than prose. A painting or a drawing can communicate an experience beyond the capacity of words. However, the making of art is the making of a relationship. It is a relationship between some of my internal characters with each other and with (sometimes) external beings (if we can ever understand the boundary between internal and external). The visual arts in North America are a means of recording and communicating experiences without words. When I communicate my experience to you, you have an experience. The force lies in the communication and not necessarily in the object of art. It’s a cultural artifact that people buy and sell these artifacts of communication, whether they be visual or verbal or otherwise. We have constructed an entity which calls itself the art world in which people participate and decide what objects will be called art and bought and sold and what objects will be ordinary and valueless. This is different from my reflective communication through whatever media of my experience in the world (including other dimensions).
Dewey says that the work of art is perception, and to this, I would add communication and reflection. I recently asked a client who had been traumatized by the experience of two policemen coming to her door to serve her a subpoena to draw the scene. She wanted to know why. So you can fully experience it, I said. “You talk around it in a way that avoids integrating it into your life. If you draw it, you will enter into it in a way that you understand it better.” I showed her some drawings from William Kentridge, the South African artist, that are dark, done in black and white and grays with thick lines and an intensity that grabs one. “These are what I imagine your scene with the police to be,” I said, “though you may represent them quite differently.”
It’s also odd to me that her first response when invited to participate in an experience is to ask why. Despite what I said above, I don’t fully know why. I know that drawing evokes new perspectives and emotions for me than talking about an experience or writing about an experience. I see it differently in the visual mode. I can’t predict what the difference will be until I do the drawing. I do understand that the various media in which we can represent and dialogue with our experiences and the beings, internal and external, who constitute our non-local selves give us different perspectives depending upon the media. Since I have begun drawing and painting again, after a hiatus of many years in which I believed I was not sufficiently talented to be allowed to draw and pain, I have been noticing the details of the world differently. In England, I drew sheep (which are everywhere). I began to notice subtle details about their ears and the angles that their ears can form. I began to notice the length of their legs compared to the height of their bodies. My perception had changed. I also began to experience how different the world that we see is from the world of the drawing we render. A relationship exists clearly, but it is not a one-to-one correspondence. The world in the drawing is never the same as the world we see.
Dewey uses the metaphor of rhythm to take us deeper into the experience of perception that is a work of art. Hee says that art depends upon and is grounded in the rhythms of nature. He says that rhythms are “the conditions of form in experience and hence of expression (p. 169).” He says that these rhythms become esthetic when the become a rhythm in experience itself. In this I didn’t really follow her. Aesthetic philosophy can be dense and probably, to give credit to Wittgenstein, could be spoken more plainly. We could just say that we call something an esthetic experience when we have a powerful communication with it, when it evokes emotions and meanings within us. We probably don’t need the metaphors of physics to understand this, however fun they are to us.
Here is my poem. It was a response to her saying that non-art is a situation in which all the individual parts are floating in chaos and confusion because they are not integrated into a whole. I tried to describe that poetically but ended with a whole. So, I disagree that it is possible for parts to be separate from the whole.
The lamp floats above the wing of the plane and it’s all random where things go or stay and the man’s hands shake as he pours his coffee for perhaps he didn’t realize the separateness of it all especially the coffee. It’s all coffee. Coffee is curiosity, tension, years of cultivation, the nemesis of Andrew Weil who thought it was evil. What would have happened had he found this exotic bean that could be brewed to awaken people in the mornings to their full senses and to participation in the world though I have stopped drinking coffee after the morning realizing that it’s water I need to stay awake and not stimulants in the coffee variety. Eyes float above the coffee. People forget them as they rush to their jobs and their appointments leaving their eyes briefly cruising above the newspaper but how will they find their way to their trains subways trams taxis ubers lyfts and footpaths without their eyes which seem so crucial to urban navigation but that’s what happens when you’re in a hurry and can’t be bothered. As for myself I see the parts of the plane floating in the sky the jet engine the fuselage the cockpit the nose of the plane the wheels and the hydraulic brakes all those things that become a unified whole when appreciated as a plane but individually they’re just so many components. I have been the same height for many years but I remember my acquaintances as taller. By the light of the sun and the moon everyone is intimidating me even those who have no right to make such a claim. I am seeking peacefulness in my daily interactions yet the parts of the room keep floating off and the tables go one way and the chairs another and the chalkboard starts to rise spilling the chalk on the floor and the coffee is rising. Kindness seems to come with a price. Love comes with ultimatums anger is our dominant emotion flowing forth like lava from an Hawaiian volcano in this moment now the floating parts of the airplane don’t frighten me as they once did. I no longer fear walking down the floating jetway to the separated fuselage which has departed from its engines. The anger has left the boarding process though the eyes are still there security cameras operative scanning the crowd the pilots and the flight attendants flitting past the waiting crowd and it’s all so scattered. This world was not gentle to my father. But if only he had had the good fortune to meet me it might have mattered for us to converse. Our conversation might have made him softer. The airplane would not tremble in separate disconnected parts as it now does. The oxygen masks would have dropped down much later into the flight. The parts would come together into a smooth flight and visit.
- Or not.
Of all the parts
From the whole
Does not make
It real beyond
The illusions of
Your white picket
That boxes us into
- What is art?
Blind epistemology is causing your philosophy to rot
Because you hide behind the language of the smart
I’m begging. I’m pleading. Why can’t you see that art is the people.
Art will resist ever effort to define it, will persist like the Berlin Wall
Which fell 30 years ago but remains a part of global consciousness.
Art is that which pierces the darkness with morning light
Art is the fleeting moments of ecstasy amidst the constancy of despair
Art is the clarity that overcomes our sight
In the dawn in the dusk in the twilight in the moonlight.
Art is your last breath and the compromise you make in that moment
Art is the sunset as your soul rises amidst the chaos of the world
Please don’t die a slave to philosophy.
A desperate unfinished poem sent to the God of Art when I was 17 and didn’t know that he was out on the town banging Persephone.
Art spends what should be a childhood
Pushing it forward into womanhood
So that it can be conceived and born again
Bearing the pain of childbirth to recover itself
Art is a man who can’t bear to watch its rebirth
The one who hides in the corner while the women
Do their work and when all is said and done
Art is called the weaker sex
In deference to science.
There has been a dead bird lying flattened in defeat on the corner of college avenue and bathhurst where the street care stops. Many days have gone by and how many people have passed it wondering how it died and thinking someone should really clean up that bird but it shouldn’t be me and it should be some unnamed part of City Government such as the department of cleaning dead birds off the street, whereas I wonder why I haven’t been the one to remove the remains of that bird, at least into the bushes of the funeral parlor or the Anglican Church down the block or perhaps into the gutter or the sewer but I have not stooped so low and I have not sullied my hands to do the deed and I have breathed away the guilt as any good yoghini for
That bird is art.