Friday, May 6, 2011

All Art Is Symbolic/The Creative Act

All Art Is Symbolic

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin, Still Life with Plums and Nuts, 1765

If art could do nothing better than reproduce the things of nature, either directly or by analogy, or to delight the senses, there would be little justification for the honorable place reserved to it in every known society.  Art’s reputation must be due to the fact that it helps man to understand the world and himself, and presents things to his eyes what he has understood and believes to be true.  Now everything in the world is a unique individual; no two things can be equal.  But anything can be understood only because it is made up of ingredients not reserved to itself but common to many or all other things.  In science, greatest knowledge is achieved when all existing phenomena are reduced to a common law.  This is true for art also.  The mature work of art succeeds in subjecting everything to a dominant law of structure. In doing so, it does not distort the variety of existing things into uniformity.  On the contrary, it clarifies their difference by making them all comparable.  Braque has said: “By putting a lemon next to an orange they cease to be a lemon and an orange and become fruit.  The mathematicians follow this law.  So do we.”  He fails to remember that the virtue of such correlation is two-fold.  It shows the way in which things are similar and, by doing so, defines their individuality.  By establishing a common “style” for all objects, the artist creates a whole, in which the place and function of every one of them are lucidly defined.  Goethe said:  “The beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature, which would have remained hidden to us forever without its appearance.”

Georges Braque, Still Life With Black Plums, 1935

From Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception, A Psychology of the Creative Eye.  Berkeley and Los Angeles. University of California Press, 1969.

The Creative Act

Advertisement for Sapolin Enamel Paint, United States, ca. 1916

Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity. 

To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing. 

Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity. 

But before we go further, I want to clarify our understanding of the word 'art'— to be sure, without any attempt at a definition.

Marcel Duchamp, Apolinere Enameled, 1916-17

What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion. 

Therefore, when I refer to 'art coefficient', it will be understood that I refer not only to great art, but I am trying to describe the subjective mechanism which produces art in the raw state— à l'état brut— bad, good or indifferent. 

In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.

Marcel Duchamp, Three Standard Stoppages, 1913

The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of. 

Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal 'art coefficient' contained in the work. 

In other works, the personal 'art coefficient' is like a arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.

Marcel Duchamp, Network of Stoppages, 1914

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists. 

Marcel Duchamp with a star shaved into the back of his head, 1921

Marcel Duchamp, Session on the Creative Act,  Convention of the American Federation of Arts,  Houston, Texas, April 1957.

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