On Art

What is acceptable we call acceptable; what is unacceptable we call unacceptable. A road is made by people walking on it; things are so because they are called so. What makes them so? Making them so makes them so. What makes them not so? Making them not so makes them not so. Things all must have that which is so; things all must have that which is acceptable. There is nothing that is not so, nothing that is not acceptable.

Things are defined by use. A work of art is a work of art because we call it a work of art, but it is not actually a work of art until we ask it to function as art so we can experience it as art. If we ask it to be something else—illustration, decoration, political message, cover for a hole in the wall, or whatever, it becomes, for the moment, something else.

On Sculpture

The art of sculpture is unique. Unlike pictorial art and literature, it occupies real space in the world, and unlike the performing arts it occupies that space permanently. Because it occupies space, it must compete with other objects: with natural ones like rocks and trees as well as with a multitude of man-made ones. Most of the latter – furniture, buildings, tools, and machines – serve some purpose. Sculpture alone occupies space for its own sake. While it can be argued that sculpture often represents bodies, and that this amounts to a kind of purpose, representation need not take up space; it can be accommodated quite adequately by pictorial art, and that art calls for surface alone.

Because it occupies space, sculpture is at once the most and the least artificial of art forms. On the one hand, it is an utterly purposeless fabrication, while on the other it is uniquely real. While the reality of sculpture is founded upon simple objecthood, it extends beyond it. Objects became sculpture through a kind of heightened presence that separates them from the world of things and events. Sculpture without this presence is not worthy of the name.

Since the late 1970s Edmonton, Alberta, in western Canada, has been the world’s most active centre for abstract sculpture. However, few people have had an opportunity to see the works which have been produced there. They are mostly large and usually done in welded steel which makes them expensive and difficult to transport and store. And Edmonton is remote, far away from places like New York which normally showcases modern art.

On Culture

Culture is simply the way in which people live. The culture of the cave man meant sitting on a rock gnawing a bone. The culture of Germany between 1935 and 1945 involved making soap out of Jews. One of our difficulties in Canada is that too many of us insist on thinking of culture as a kind of lacy frill which is attached to the edge of life, whereas to be worth anything it must be the whole fabric of life. We have a culture now which is in some respects remarkable, but which has not given rise to any art of a stature which commands the attention of the world. We may perhaps do so, but there is no reason why we should not absorb and make the fullest use of the art from other parts of the world. As Dr. W.A. MacKintosh of Queen’s University said to the Royal Society last June – “A national culture is not a direct object of endeavour. It is not created as a gown by a designer. It is a by-product. Further, a country can have a truly national culture, incredibly bad. Canadians should aim at what is excellent intellectually, aesthetically, socially. If it is real, it will ultimately prove to be Canadian but its justification will be that it is excellent.”

On Aesthetic Experience

1. It is a stable feeling- our pleasure in the something pleasant does not of itself pass into satiety, like the pleasures of eating and drinking. We get tired, e.g., at a concert, but that is not that we have had too much of the music; it is that our body and mind strike work. The aesthetic want is not a perishable want, which ceases in proportion as it is gratified.

2. It is a relevant feeling- I mean it is attached, annexed, to the quality of some object – to all its detail – I would say “relative” if the word were not so ambiguous. One might say it is a special feeling, or a concrete feeling. I may be pleased for all sorts of reasons when I see or hear something, e.g., when I hear the dinner bell, but that is not an aesthetic experience unless my feeling of pleasure is relevant, attached to the actual sound as I hear it. My feeling in its special quality is evoked by the special quality of the something of which it is the feeling, and in fact is one with it.

3. It is a common feeling. You can appeal to others to share it, and its value is not diminished by being shared. If it is ever true that “there is no disputing about tastes,” this is certainly quite false of aesthetic pleasures. Nothing is more discussed, and nothing repays discussion better. There is nothing in which education is more necessary, or tells more. To like and dislike rightly is the goal of all culture worth the name.

The solution to the problem of aesthetics, I believe, lies in a more thorough understanding of the connections between the 30 visual centers in the brain and the emotional limbic structures (and the internal logic and evolutionary rationale that drives them). Once we have achieved a clear understanding of these connections, the insights they offer into the human brain will have a profound impact not just on the sciences but also on the humanities. Indeed, they may help us bridge the huge gulf that separates what C.P. Snow called the two cultures—science on the one hand, and arts, philosophy, and humanities on the other. We could be at the dawn of a new age in which specialization becomes old- fashioned and a 21st-century version of the Renaissance person is born.

On Taste

Taste is a word that became compromised during the 19th century. It was in good standing in the 18th, when a philosopher like Kant, and English philosophers of aesthetics took for granted that that’s the faculty you exerted in experiencing art and experiencing anything aesthetically. And then in the 19th century it wore down into something that had to do with food, clothes, furniture, decoration, and so forth, and became very much compromised. Now I think it’s a much handier word than aesthetic judgement or faculty of taste, faculty, and that it should be rehabilitated, if only because, while we can’t define it, we recognize it. And it’s got a nice old-fashioned flavor to it that I particularly like.

And one other thing, taste is intuitive and nobody yet knows what goes on in intuition. The psychologists haven’t been able to take intuition apart, nor have the philosophers. Well, by the same token, nobody yet has been able to take apart art or aesthetic experience.

Well, there is talk, especially nowadays, about swings of taste, turns of taste, and so forth. True taste doesn’t swing, doesn’t veer. The very notion of taste swinging is anomalous. True taste, genuine taste, develops, expands, grows. It changes only insofar as it corrects itself, true taste. And it doesn’t do that temperamentally, but as part of the process of its growth. Growth means increasing openness, catholicity, inclusion more than exclusion. As you go along, get older and look at more and more art you find yourself liking more and more art, without having to lower your standards. Taste refines itself; it’s true. It discriminates more as it develops, and yet at the same time, paradoxically, it becomes opener. Open in this way: that you look at Hindu sculpture, say, in the same way, by and large, as you look at contemporary art or the art of the old masters or any other kind of art. And you look, it’s hoped, with the same honesty.

Regardless of what lies behind our instincts for art, those instincts bestow it with a transcendence of time, place, and culture. Hume noted that “the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature… the same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and London.” Though people can argue about whether the glass is half full or half empty, a universal human aesthetic really can be discerned beneath the variation across cultures.

On Objectivity

The consensus of taste confirms and reconfirms itself in the durable reputations of Homer and Dante, Balzac and Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Goethe, Leonardo and Titian, Rembrandt and Cezanne, Donatello and Maillol, Palestrina and Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert. Each succeeding generation finds that previous ones were right in exalting certain creators—finds them right on the basis of its own experience, its own exercise of taste. We in the West also find that the ancient Egyptians were right about Old Kingdom sculpture, and the Chinese about T’ang art, and the Indians about Chola bronzes, and the Japanese about Heian sculpture. About these bodies of art, practiced taste — the taste of those who pay enough attention, of those who immerse themselves enough, of those who try hardest with art — speaks as if with one voice. How else account for the unanimity, if not by the ultimate objectivity of taste?

Detachment and objectivity, both in thought and in feeling, have been historically but not logically associated with certain traditional beliefs; to preserve them without these beliefs is both possible and important. A certain degree of isolation both in space and time is essential to generate the independence required for the most important work; there must be something which is felt to be of more importance than the admiration of the contemporary crowd. We are suffering not from a decay of theological beliefs but from the loss of solitude.

On Materials

Men admire the man who can organize their wishes and thoughts in stone and wood and steel and brass…. this man is followed with acclamation.

Symbolically the values of both bronze and brass are identical, both being alloys of copper; in the case of brass, with zinc, and of bronze with tin and silver. Being children, symbolically speaking, of a marriage of opposites, since copper is associated with the sun and fire and the other metals with the moon and water, the two aspects of this metal’s symbolism are in violent conflict and it is as a whole ambivalent. Given the metal’s high degree of resonance, it is first a voice – on the one hand the voice of the cannon and on the other that of the bell – and however unlike the one may be from the other, both are powerful and terrible.

Whatever the material you choose to work with, your art is base if it does not bring out the distinctive qualities of that material… If you don’t want the qualities of the substance you use, you ought to use some other substance…. So again, iron is eminently a ductile and tenacious substance – tenacious above all things, ductile more than most. When you want tenacity, therefore, and involved form, take iron. It is eminently made for that. It is the material given to the sculptor as the companion of marble, with a message, as plain as it can well be spoken, from the lips of the earth-mother, ‘Here’s this for you to cut, and here’s for you to hammer. Shape this, and twist that. What is solid and simple, carve out; what is thin and entangled, beat out.

The age of iron began many centuries ago. It is high time that this metal cease to be a murderer and the simple instrument of an overly mechanical science. Today the door is opened wide for this material to be – at last! – forged and hammered by the peaceful hands of artists.

It is only when the artist works entirely to the dictates of the medium – only when he or she abandons the pursuit of virtue or relevance and submits to the objective standard of aesthetic success or failure – that the work of art will testify truthfully to the historical condition and moment of its production, and in that sense become itself a true medium. It is not through correspondence with the appearance of the world, then, that realism is to be achieved, but, on the contrary, through the achievement of an aesthetic autonomy.

On Autonomy

 If you want to earn the gratitude of your own age you must keep in step with it. But if you do that you will produce nothing great. If you have something great in view you must address yourself to posterity; only then, to be sure, you will probably remain unknown to your contemporaries; you will be like a man compelled to spend his life on a desert island and there toiling to erect a memorial so that future seafarers shall know he once existed…. He who truly thinks for himself is like a monarch, in that he recognizes no one above him. His judgments, like the decisions of a monarch, arise directly from his own absolute power. He no more accepts authorities than a monarch does orders, and he acknowledges the validity of nothing he has not himself confirmed.

On Happiness

All the conditions of happiness are realized in the life of the man of science. He has an activity which utilizes his abilities to the full, and he achieves results which appear important not only to himself but to the general public, even when it cannot in the smallest degree understand them. In this he is more fortunate than the artist. When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honoured while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy. Very few men can be genuinely happy in a life involving continual self-assertion against the skepticism of the mass of mankind, unless they can shut themselves up in a coterie and forget the cold outer world. The man of science has no need of a coterie, since he is thought well of by everybody except his colleagues. The artist, on the contrary, is in the painful situation of having to choose between being despised and being despicable. If his powers are of the first order, he must incur one or the other of these misfortunes – the former if he uses his powers, the latter if he does not. This has not been the case always and everywhere. There have been times when even good artists, even when they were young, were well thought of. Julius II, though he might ill-treat Michelangelo, never supposed him to be incapable of painting pictures. The modern millionaire, though he may shower wealth upon elderly artists after they have lost their powers, never imagines that their work is as important as his own. Perhaps these circumstances have something to do with the fact that artists are on the average less happy than men of science.

On Motivation

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition – in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.

2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

4. Political purpose – using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.