John Banville, Oscar Wilde, Philip Evergood, Simon Schama, Sydney Pollack, Thomas Carlyle, Walter Pater
I’ve been neglecting this blog recently: too busy keeping up with too much reading for the Campbell Award. It’s frustrating, I’ve got a couple of biggish things in my mind to write here, and by the time the decks are clear enough to do so I’m sure the inspiration will have faded, or I’ll have forgotten why on earth I wanted to write about that.
But here’s a brief thought, as a place holder if nothing more.
The first episode of Civilizations has Simon Schama talking about the origins of human art, and eventually he comes down to something like: “This is art because it is beautiful!” It’s the sort of floundering generalization we all make at some time or other: art equals beauty, art is the creation of beauty, if it’s beautiful it must be art. And yes, some art, quite a lot of visual art, is beautiful. But not all. Some art is ugly, deliberately so; some art is making a point or telling a story, and whether or not it is beautiful is irrelevant to whether it is art; and our ideas about what constitutes beauty change in ways that our ideas of what constitutes art do not change.
The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has an interesting article by John Banville about Oscar Wilde. Inevitably it raises the idea that first came to prominence among the exquisites, the belle lettrists, the romantics of the late-Victorian age: Art for Art’s sake. It is a resonant phrase that was still current in my youth, and for all I know is still current in some artistic quarters today. It is, of course, an abdication; it is Walter Pater and the aesthetics, and their peers and descendants throwing up their arms in defeat and crying: we don’t know what art is and we don’t know what it’s for, but we know it should be for something. (Following Carlyle, the Victorians were great believers that everything should be for some social or moral good, a viewpoint we’ve still not shaken off.) So, art is its own purpose.
But that is surely missing the point. Art is many things. It is the glorious and tiny carved female head that Schama was looking at when he declared: this is beautiful and therefore this is art. It is the song I haltingly pick out on my guitar. It is the seering dystopian novel I am currently reading. It is the broad comedy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It is painting and scrimshaw and poetry and dance and film and theatre and prose and …
And just as there is nothing that binds these various forms into a whole (they are certainly not all beautiful), so there is no one reason why we engage in creating or consuming these various arts. Yes, we might want to create beauty, or it is to exercise a skill, or to make a political point, or to express a spiritual belief, or to make money, or all of these or none of them.
I said, long ago, that science fiction is indefinable because it is not one thing, though the various strands that make up science fiction are loosely linked by family resemblances. That is an idea I stole from Ludwig Wittgenstein who argued, in Philosophical Investigations, that sport is indefinable because it is not one thing, but various sports are loosely linked by family resemblances. And the same, surely, is true of art. We shouldn’t try and define art because it is indefinable, it is not one thing. A painting, such as Philip Evergood’s “Dance Marathon” from 1934, may have family resemblances to a film, such as Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? from 1969; but there are other things (not least the medium) that divide them.
And this is a good thing. All these things, art and sport and science fiction, are the more interesting precisely because they are so malleable, so imprecise, so various. There are as many science fictions as there are readers and practitioners of the form; there are as many sports as there are sports people and spectators; there are as many arts as there are artists and writers and film makers and photographers and people who enjoy and appreciate and benefit from these paintings and stories and movies and pictures. That is why art is so important to us; because in all its multifarious forms it is never speaking to the many but to the one, to me. And it speaks in many languages. You and I may experience the same piece of art, and what it says to you cannot be precisely what it says to me.
That is why it is art. That is what art is for: not for its own sake, not for any quantifiable social benefit, not for any religious or political purpose, but because in art something expressed to the many speaks uniquely to me.