What Is Art? What Is It For? An Inquiry

November 14, 2022 Elijah Perseus Blumov
What Is Art? What Is It For? An Inquiry
Show Notes Transcript

Topics discussed in this episode include:

-My thanks for (past and future) rating and reviewing! 
-Art vs. Craft 
-The spectrum of creativity 
-Craft as all making, not rote production 
-The Romantic fallacy of art without craft 
-The case to abolish "art." 
-Utilitarian vs. Rhetorical craft 
-Horace's "Dulce Et Utile" 
-The secret third thing that Horatio had not dreamt of in his philosophy 
-The three functions of art 
-The Hedonic function ;) 
-Sensory, Cognitive, Emotional Pleasure
-Let me teach you about the Noetic function. 
-Insight vs. Sensitization
-What do YOU think of the Dialectical function? 
-Functional symbiosis 
-Individual functions in excess and isolation 
-A rubric for artistic evaluation 
-Collectivist Art (for us!) 
-Individualist Art (for me!) 
-Humanist Art (for the universal spirit of humankind!)

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Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
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The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft Season 1-2 Bonus Episode: What Is Art? What Is It For? 


            Before we start I’d like to thank everyone who has gone to the trouble to rate and review my podcast on Apple Music and elsewhere. Ratings and reviews really are the currency of podcasting, and I deeply appreciate every single one. Shout out to Ethan McGuire Collins, who I admit is the first person to review my show whom I don’t know personally. If you’re listening Ethan, thank you so much for the incredibly kind words. If any of my other wonderful listeners would like a shout-out on the podcast…you know what to do. 

When you’re making a podcast episode, you have the option of not only choosing which episode number it’s going to be, but of which season it’s going to be a part. This has gotten me thinking about how I might want to divvy up seasons in my show, and I’ve concluded that every ten episodes should comprise its own season. On this model, season 1 of Versecraft has just ended. Being in between seasons gives me the opportunity to create a bridge episode between season 1 and season 2 where I can do something outside the model of poetry analysis, and I’m thinking that I’d like to use these bridge episodes to talk about more general topics related to poetry that are dear to my heart. Today’s episode is an adaptation of the graduate lecture I gave at my MFA program in Creative Writing. I hope you enjoy. 

The show today consists of three parts: the first will explore the question: what is art? and attempt to reach a working definition based on an empirical consideration of how the word is used. The second part will explore the natural follow up question: what is art for? and will attempt to elucidate the multiple yet simultaneous goals that art seeks to accomplish. finally, the third part will address the different kinds of relationships artists can have with their public and discuss how these types of relationships influence the art the artist makes. So, let’s get into it. 


What is art? Let’s consider a performance of violin music. How many people are necessary in order for this performance to take place, audience excluded? Well, if we assume that each person only fulfills one task, the answer is at least three: there is the composer of the music; the violinist themselves; and the maker of the violin, the luthier. How do we label each of these individuals? Without question, we call the composer an artist. Without question, we call the luthier a craftsperson. And the violinist seems to fall somewhere in the middle. Why is this? Fundamentally, it has to do with the degree of creativity we ascribe to each of these individuals. 

The composer is inventive —through the use of their intellect and imagination they create an original work of music, and for this reason we call them an artist. 

The luthier, skilled as they are, doesn’t invent anything—instead, they painstakingly create an instrument from a preestablished model or blueprint, perhaps one that has been passed down for hundreds of years. Because they primarily enact an existing plan rather than invent one of their own, we call them a craftsperson. 

The violinist, because they perform music based on a score, is also an enactor. Thus, they are a craftsperson, using their skill to carry out the program they have been given. But the violinist also has a creative role—it is their job to interpret the music by making expressive choices with their instrument. Beyond this, they may even be permitted to improvise melodic flourishes of their own, and if they’re a Jazz violinist, they may improvise entire passages of music. In this capacity, they would seem to be an artist as well. 

The complex status of the violinist, and of the performing artist in general, highlights the fact that what we call artistry is a continuum. Whether we call a piece of work or a performance art or craft seems to depend upon how much original thought went into its production. Yet we should be suspicious of this distinction. 

The reason why is that it does the notion of “craft” a major disservice, because craft doesn’t actually refer exclusively to what is built by rote, but to all kinds of making. Is it true that a work of sufficient imagination ceases to be a craftwork? Certainly not. The Laocöon or Michelangelo’s David are works of great imaginative vision, but they are still, at the end of the day, highly crafted pieces of marble, and the artworks could not exist if the artist had not possessed the sculpting ability to make his vision a reality in stone. If these are artworks due to their creativity, they are just as much craftworks due to their skill. 

The thing is, when we think of art as somehow opposed to craft, we’re at risk of falling victim to the implicit assumption that art can do without craft—that somehow, visionary genius is enough to ensure the production of a well-made thing. Yet no artist can succeed that is not in control of their materials— no matter how imaginative you are, if you are not a master of draftsmanship and color, you will never be a good painter; if you are not a master of language, and the musicality within language, you will never be a good poet.  

Rather than oppose art and craft, it’s far more accurate and useful to say that all made things are craftworks, and some craftworks are more creative than others. Drastic though it would be, if we were to get rid of the term “art” altogether, and instead use a term such as “creative craftwork” we might be much better off. For one thing, we would no longer be tempted to wrongfully oppose art and craft; for another, we could cease to debate the many nebulous and often prescriptive conceptions of the slippery word “art.” Thirdly, we would place a valuable and refreshing emphasis on the necessary skill and work required to create pieces of quality; And finally, when we recognize that all artworks are craftworks, we recognize something else of incredible value—namely, that these objects must have been constructed to fulfill a specific purpose. I will return to this point in more detail shortly. 

Before I do however there is another problem to address. Though we’ve made progress by exchanging the term “art” for “creative craft,” this latter term is still not specific enough, because it includes many things which require imagination to create yet which we still would not consider properly artistic, like mechanical inventions and tools, recipes, textbooks, and work emails. 

So far, we’ve distinguished creative from non-creative craft, with a lot of wiggle room in between that encompasses everything from violin performances to decorative pottery. Yet we must further distinguish what one might call utilitarian craft—craftworks made to fulfill one or more precise, mechanical tasks, like memos, machines, or manuals—from rhetorical craft— works which attempt to move, persuade, and galvanize the human psyche in a holistic fashion. Clearly, what we typically label the “fine arts” falls in the latter category. 

Now that we’ve determined what it is we’re dealing with—rhetorical creative crafts—we can move on to considering the purpose of such crafts. 


What is art for? In his Epistle to the Pisos, more widely known as the Ars Poetica, the Roman poet Horace famously remarks that the purpose of art is to “instruct and delight.” This slogan does in fact elegantly sum up the uses to which art is put, except for one important omission: Horace neglects to mention that art—or as we might more accurately put it now, rhetorical creative craft— doesn’t simply communicate the maker’s thought, but often works to catalyze original thought in its audience. To sum up then, the rhetorical creative crafts have the potential to perform three important functions. We might call these: the hedonic function, the noetic function, and the dialectical function. Let’s examine each in turn. 


First, there’s the fun one: the hedonic function. The Hedonic Function is to provide pleasure. The pleasures that we derive from craftworks can be subcategorized as sensory pleasures (like pleasing colors, shapes, sounds, or rhythms), cognitive pleasures (like the pleasure taken in wit, virtuosity, ingenuity, and complexity), and emotional pleasures (like the pleasure taken in catharsis, suspense, horror, humor, and sympathy). Works that emphasize the hedonic function alone, to the detriment of other functions, can be classified as entertainments, and are of superficial value, suitable only for the occasional hour of escapism. Entertainments themselves however can be of greater and lesser quality— one might point to the novels of Agatha Christie or the comedies of Oscar Wilde, the nocturnes of Chopin, or the exquisite stained glass lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany as constituting entertainments of a high order. On the other hand, works that neglect the hedonic are dull, and are therefore ineffective instruments of communication, persuasion, and engagement.


Now for the serious one: the noetic function. The Noetic Function is to provide edification, which can be subcategorized as insight (a new and better understanding of something) or sensitization (a new and more powerful awareness of something already known). Works which emphasize the noetic function to the detriment of other functions can be classified as didactic. Didactic works that are nevertheless of a high artistic order might include the poetry of Alexander Pope and John Dryden, the dialogues of Plato, or the zoological illustrations of John James Audubon. Works that aren’t sufficiently noetic are, at best, trivial distractions— at worst, purveyors of falsity. 


Finally, there’s the dialectical function. The Dialectical Function is to provide the opportunity for critical reflection upon an issue or situation by an audience. Because there must be material upon which to reflect, the Dialectical Function is to some extent dependent upon the existence of the previous two functions, the Noetic especially. Works that emphasize the dialectical function to the detriment of other functions, an exceedingly common occurrence in the avant-garde, can be classified as curios and are vague to the point of being vacuous. Still, some works excite fruitful interest primarily for their wealth of possible interpretations, like the paintings of Salvador Dali, the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan. Works that aren’t sufficiently dialectical are crude, obvious, often didactic, and unconvincing. 


So much for the three functions in themselves. In great craftworks, all these functions are woven seamlessly together, and support one another: for example, the tragedy which best illustrates the plight of the human condition, thus fulfilling the noetic function, will also be the most cathartic, thus fulfilling the hedonic function, and will also provide the most powerful spur to existential reflection, thus fulfilling the dialectical function. Likewise, the painting which is most visually arresting, thus fulfilling the hedonic function, will have the potential to most powerfully communicate a message or particular way of seeing, which fulfills the noetic function. The visual potency and the message together in turn provide a fruitful occasion for philosophical and phenomenological reflection, thus fulfilling the dialectical function. The unique synthesis of these three functions into a whole greater even than the considerable sum of their parts, a synthesis capable of producing comprehensive and complex statements about reality and the human experience, is what make the rhetorical creative crafts the most holistic and effective means of calibrating the mind to itself and its environment. 

On the other hand, when a work is devoted too exclusively to one function to the detriment of the others, it is not only more inherently limited in the value it provides, but the very function to which the work is devoted is itself attenuated because it is not given depth and support by its sister functions. Furthermore, a work which is too focused upon one function is liable to distort reality in service to its goal. 

We see this in popular entertainment, which often attempts to provide pleasure by distorting or escaping reality and encouraging us to succumb to our emotions at the expense of our morality and common sense. We see this in propaganda, which attempts to hammer home its message by dumbing down the issues at hand and playing on our fears, leaving no room for nuance, counterpoint, or the complexity of truth. We see this in the art of the avant-garde, which oftentimes expects us to approach a work much as we would approach gazing at clouds, compelling us to form our own subjective interpretations of meaning in order to substitute for the utter lack of actual meaning in the piece. 

Now, despite the fact that the three functions are intertwined and interdependent, all rhetorical creative craftworks can be analyzed by the way in which they specifically fulfill each of the three— doing so provides a clear way to assess the overall value of a given work. Thus, while it is only sometimes that one function predominates so much that it is appropriate to label a given work a piece of “hedonic,” “noetic,” or “dialectical” craft in itself, it is always useful to consider how well a given piece of creative craftsmanship fulfills the roles of hedonic, noetic, and dialectical craft. This critical vocabulary gives us firm ground upon which to base our judgements: for every given piece, we know what we are looking at (a rhetorical creative craftwork), and we know what it is for (to fulfill the three functions). Thus we can assess, based upon how well the work fulfills the functions, both in themselves and in relation to one another, the ultimate value of the work for ourselves and our culture. 


I’m going to conclude by speaking briefly about three different ways that an artist can approach their relationship to the public. If we accept that to be an artist is to be a maker of rhetorical creative craftworks, the purpose of which is to entertain, edify, and challenge an audience, it’s clear that how we view ourselves and our work in relationship to our audience is of utmost importance in determining the kinds of art we produce and the direction of our efforts. So far as I can distinguish, there are three principal emphases that the artist can orient themselves toward in relation to their public. 


At one end of the spectrum, we have the Collectivist Approach. The collectivist artist views their work primarily as a contribution, often anonymous, to the advancement of a larger social goal, determined either by their community at large or a particular employer. Until the modern period, most artistic cultures have been collectivist: the vases, masks, temples, cathedrals, sarcophagi, totem poles, epic poems, folk songs, tapestries, reliefs, and countless other artworks throughout pre-modern cultures are testaments to many thousands of artists who have viewed their calling as an opportunity to beautify and enrich their communities, with little thought for autobiographical expression. Modern examples may include street artists, video game designers, architects, and studio musicians. It wouldn’t be true to say that these artists don’t take pride in their work, seek glory, or develop a unique style; it’s simply to say that they see their output in terms of serving a concrete function for their community. Civilizations which have a predominantly collectivist artistic culture, like the Ancient Egyptians or Chinese, develop their art forms very slowly, seeking to innovate only when doing so contributes directly to the effectiveness or functionality of their work. On the one hand, there is a profound nobility in the selflessness and commitment to functionality exhibited by the collectivist—on the other hand, such artists often lack originality or the incentive to innovate, and furthermore, the level of their artistic quality and ambition is largely determined by their cultural environment. 


            At the other end of the spectrum is the Individualist Approach, which is typical of modern times, especially among amateur artists. The individualist artist may be abstractly concerned with having a positive impact on their community, but their primary objective is self-expression, often auto-biographical expression. Artists of this sort are concerned with developing a unique style which will set them apart from others and broadcasting their thoughts, emotions, and memories in order to connect with an audience. Such an approach leads to breathtakingly rapid experimentation and novelty, and at its best, invites us to sympathize with those who are like us, empathize with those who are unlike us, and learn from both. Obviously however, a predominantly individualist milieu risks developing a culture of narcissism and emotionalism, an abandonment of traditional standards and techniques, and a loss of the ambition to create universally resonant, enduring art. 


Obviously, these are extremes, and most artists fall somewhere in between these two sides of the spectrum. The serious artist must make a healthy marriage of these opposed impulses, maximizing their benefits while avoiding their pitfalls. Like the Collectivist, they will strive above all to benefit their community; like the Individualist, they will rely on their own values to determine how best to do so; like the Collectivist, they will recognize, respect, and study their place in a larger tradition; like the Individualist, they will strive to expand upon and even correct that tradition with the strength of their own insight and creative vision. 

All of the artists generally considered the greatest in their field have achieved such a golden mean: to use three traditional Western examples, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Michelangelo all strove to enrich their communities with abiding visions of the human spirit while at the same time imbuing those universal visions with the particular light of their own personalities. All were innovators who changed their respective genres forever, but did so by expanding upon and perfecting them, not by breaking from them. They embody what might be called a Humanist Approach to Art—an approach which recognizes the artist’s responsibility to inspire, delight, instruct, and galvanize their communities, yet recognizes too that the best way to do so is to develop one’s own creativity and ambition to the highest pitch. This is the sort of artist that I believe all serious artists should strive to be—artists who are mired down neither in the trendy hubbub of their day nor in the easy comforts of their own egos, but instead rigorously endeavor to hone their minds and develop their craft so that they can have the greatest and best possible impact on the society in which we live—and, hopefully, upon all civilization yet to come.