David Watson Hood, visual artist
what is the point of art: lecture given at Duff House 18/7/98.
First I would like to say that the dichotomy between artistic and scientific creativity is false. Artists, scientists and indeed philosophers are all engaged in evolving new descriptions of the world that are more enabling than the pre-existing interpretations. We should be considering 'what is the point of creative thought and action' as opposed to repetitive actions resulting from an unquestioned acceptance of already established concepts. The dictionary gives as its first definition of art: that which is not nature.
It is perfectly valid to start by questioning what the point is of the entirety of human culture: from Plato to pottery and from armchairs to atomic theory. Those who deny value in activities that lack utility are often unquestioning in their assumption of value in other activities. I recently saw the Gombi chimps on T.V. (studied by Jane Goodall for the last 35 years) they appear to be perfectly fulfilled without culture, "taking no thought for the morrow", and only in fact threatened by ourselves and our own culture. We have an even closer relative in the Bonobo or pygmy chimp, an animal that replaces the violent social interactions of the common chimp with erotic social interactions. Although these primates use rudimentary tools no animal other than ourselves has a complex conceptual or material culture nor do we in fact need one in order to exist.
So what is the benefit that has caused culture to survive. In psychological terms, each new advance in our material and conceptual culture provides a brief appeasement of our innate desire for comfort and security. However we soon become used to any increase in our power over resources or our assumption of understanding at which point our insecurity returns. If we view 'culture' within the terms of reference of biology it can be argued that our human culture gives us the advantage of greater adaptability. This is why we have become so widely distributed over the Earth and why there are so many of us compared to our nearest animal relatives. However all human cultures suffer from a tendency to cultural ossification. To speak figuratively cultural mores can become rigid like the shell of a crab that prevents it from growing or changing. From time to time a crab must split its hard shell open and expose a new soft shell capable of allowing growth.
Fine artists (that is artists whose work is principally intended to affect and satisfy the mind or the spirit rather than to fulfil a utilitarian function) are a major factor in cracking the shell of cultural rigidity and restoring the adaptability to changing circumstance on which our survival depends. As they do so, along with theoretical scientists and philosophers they are also creating the new shell, art and science function as the growth point of culture. Let us consider how creativity works. How artists, or scientists, do it? Basically the creative process is a matter of what Arthur Koestler calls biassociation. That is simultaneous awareness in two or more pre existing matrices or patterns of conceptual apprehension. Let me explain this a little further. In culture as in nature all new things come from recombinations and new syntheses of what already exists
I will take an example from science. Einstein developed his theories of relativity from the starting point of biassociating time and space, before he did this time and space were distinct and independent conceptual interpretations of our experience of reality. After the development of Einstein's theory we had the new concept of four-dimensional space-time, a concept that enabled mankind to assimilate a larger experience of the universe.
Let us consider how creative individuals differ from others. The biological process by which we have all been distinguished from our common ancestor whom we share with chimpanzees is referred to as neoteny. Neoteny means the retention in the adult individual of infantile, larval or embryonic characteristics. In the case of humans the effects include: hairlessness, a flattened face, an extension of the period of rapid brain growth and perhaps most importantly an extended immaturity with the ability to play. Many of you will have noted a resemblance between baby Chimpanzees and very old men. In a way that is exactly what they are. If we were to suffer the reverse evolutionary process of geronteny we would become something similar to the other great apes.
While neoteny properly refers to a physical process I would argue that creative individuals are psychologically, perhaps even neurologically more neotenous than the rest of humanity. With an increased ability to play and discover, and an enhanced degree of freedom from cultural conditioning and preconception. This is the point of the famous anecdote concerning Pablo Picasso: attending an exhibition of his own work he overheard a women saying " my five year old daughter can paint like that" he is said to have replied "Madam if she can still do it when she is fifty then she will be a genius". In other words genius consists of the ability to apply a child's freedom from prejudice to an adult's experience and accumulated data. Or to quote the bible you must become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18 v3).
I am aware that in some circles concepts such as the strongly individuated creative genius or the authorial presence in literature are currently disapproved of, the artist is expected to function as a mirror or a sounding board for their society. I obviously do not concur. I believe this attitude is a manifestation of an attempt to restrict art to reinforcement of a collective cultural prejudice, intentional 'shell hardening'. If the principle value of art lies in increasing our adaptability by providing new apprehensions of reality then it must reflect the perceptions of individuals who have avoided the conventional assumption as in "we do it like this because we do it like this and always have done it like this".
There is of course more than one aspect to art to return to my metaphor of the crab there is not only shell breaking but also the shell making. We feel the need for an interface of interpretation between our own being and the amorphous cosmos. An articulation of the relationship of the self and the rest. This is the magical aspect of art as invocation and intercession. This is also the point where the artist is in greatest danger of producing not art but kitsch.
We must remember that numerically most paintings, sculptures installations performances etc. will always be kitsch. Let me try and define the difference. Art has an essential quality of truth to nature, in terms of an integral ambiguity not in terms of mimesis (imitation of appearance of one thing by another). Kitsch makes definitive and dogmatic statements that confirm cultural prejudice, as in "it is thus" not "is it thus" or "it can be thus and also thus". That is why kitsch is so often highly finished there is no openendedness left for the viewer to come to a personal interpretation. Because kitsch is defined by the ambient cultural prejudice, at the time of its creation, kitsch of the past can challenge the culturally conditioned prejudice of our own time and almost function as art except for that lack of essential integral ambiguity. Similarly great art of the past can be 'kitschified' as essential references are lost, it is reproduced inappropriately and finish is added by repetition: examples, Renoir on a table mat, Native American masks made by modern artist's lacking the ambiguities of the original.
A current post modernist slogan is "context is everything" like all clichés it is an oversimplification the physical or cultural context of an artwork is certainly very important but it is not 'everything'. Not very long ago a well known London dealer found a valuable Persian carpet in a skip in the street, it had been ignored by hundreds of passers by, but what was significant to its finding? Not a change in its physical context but the educated perceptions of a particular observer able to recognise qualities inherent in the carpet. More importantly I would argue that we all share with any artist at any time or place the context of the human condition and of a shared original basic human culture. Thus the observer, listener, reader etc. does have the potential to read levels of meaning intrinsic to a work although it may be rendered obscure by more superficial alien cultural references. I am not saying that this is easy. Or possible in every case for every observer but I do dispute the deconstructionist argument that denies meaning to art works independent of their context or the specific cultural references of the observer, an argument that I believe to have been itself distorted by the racist concepts endemic in the cultural context of that arguments creation.
© David Watson Hood 17/7/1998