An Ethic for Aesthestics: What is Art? (Part 1 of 6)

As far as I am concerned, art occurs.  It happens.  It is always an event rather than an object — though it is by means of objects that art takes place.

The painting, then, that hangs in a nighttime darkness on the museum wall is not itself art.  It is a medium for art.  When the light comes on, when a viewer steps before the shapes, the textures, and the colors composed upon the canvas, when the viewer enters the thing by playing her sight from part to part of the painting — that progressing event is art.

Likewise, when this post is closed and unread, it has the potential to become art, but it still awaits the moment of its happening.  It waits for a reader.  It waits for you.

Art is its own peculiar form of human communication.

As such, the complete event is divided into two parts: first, the artist acts.  Second, the reader experiences.  First, the artist (after long preparation, in craft and in life, both consciously and unconsciously, drawing upon life-long wisdom, insight, memory, and yet upon knowledge gathered for this present project) acts by composing  the medium for this particular to which the  viewer or reader will react.  The artist paints.  Or conceives a cathedral (within which conception multitude of other artists carve, sculpt, engrave, build, color and cut).  Or dances (making of the shape and the movement of her body a medium for the immediate reaction of her audience).  Or puts words to paper and detail to narrative.

The artist is well advised to work in the knowledge that his work will not be finished till it finds its audience.  Only so does he move outside himself, into community, communion, culture (or his work may exist in his eyes only, satisfying the self perhaps, but perishing, too, with that self).  Only so does he acknowledge the “other” he will recognize certain basic obligations.

First, the artist composes.  Second, the reader participates in this composition of sensible detail — details which are able to be sensed, imagined, felt: experienced.

To my definition, then.  Altogether, in its full completion, I define art as “composed experience.”

But this particular experience — the artfully designed experience — is peculiar among the great, undifferentiated blends of general human experience.  As I’ve argued, it is a “shaping” experience, more powerful for forming a person’s (a child’s!) sense of truth and of self than plain teaching can, or than the rest of her daily life can.

For this experience is discrete, having clear beginnings  and endings, being separated from the rest of the day, and receiving therefore an especially concentrated attention, a peculiar wholeness of the child’s attention.

And this experience has an internal integrity.  I mean that there is not a detail in its world which is accidental or extraneous.  And no detail important to the story is left out.  All the details, all the sensations exert an integrated, harmonious force upon the mind and spirit of the child.  The force of many details working together is like the tread of many soldiers crossing a bridge together: any single soldier on the bridge could not affect the bridge; nor would many soldiers if they broke stride; but if all the soldiers stepped in time with one another and continued marching in perfect harmony, why, the force of their rhythm could build up until it destroyed the bridge.  All the parts of a story in such perfect composition can have the same effect on the child, the destruction of certain notions, the construction of others.

And this experience involves the whole of the child: her calculating mind, all her senses (in the cauldron of her imagination), her affective heart and emotions, her moral judgements, her body in motion and laughter and fearful anticipations and cuddling and drowsiness.

If this is the “shaping” experience, then; if its effect can ultimately help compose  the perceivings, if not the character and the identity, of a child, then I find myself as the artist not entirely free!  A self-satisfying, completely self-determined freedom could damage  her.  In order to be a good artist, I am already under aesthetical obligations.  But I wield a powerful tool.  In order, then, to compose “good” experiences for the child, I believe I am under certain ethical obligations as well.

If anyone questions the power of art to change reality, let him consider what propagandistic cinema, music, architecture, verse, rhetoric have done to whole populations when demagogues desired to go to war (or when democracies are themselves at war).  And miscomposed stories have justified unjust behavior (as the story of Noah’s curse upon his son Ham once justified slavery in my own native land).

In his essay “Religion and Literature,” T.S. Eliot writes:

“The fiction that we read affects our behavior toward our fellow men, affects our patterns of ourselves.  When we read of human beings behaving in certain ways, with the approval of the author, who gives his benediction to this behavior by his attitude toward the result of the behavior arranged by himself, we can be influenced towards behaving the same way.”

And when the audience that experiences the literature is youthful enough, he says,

“what happens is a kind of inundations, of invasion of the undeveloped personality, the empty (swept and garnished) room, by the stronger personality of the poet.”

I observe certain ethical obligations, then.

But because art is itself a living thing, I don’t consider myself obligated to rules which are fixed and absolute.  That would be deadly indeed.  Rather, I believe that as an artist I enjoy mutual relationships with the principles embraced by these obligations, aesthetical and ethical, and with the people affected by my art.  As relationships, then, which may change and grow to honor the growth and the change in either party (or in both of them); as relationships in which each party acknowledges the other, making promises to the other and keeping them, I can best understand my writerly and my communal obligations as covenants.


The next posts will look at these covenants I make while I work on a story or novel.  Until then…

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