What Makes Art, Music or Literature Great?

In Fine Arts on August 13, 2008 at 4:25 pm
Or Perhaps This One?

Would You Call This Art?

Recently, I heard that age old question again, the one that suggests that to understand art you need an expert who can explain it to you. Having just written a blog that rejects this idea for self help victims, I felt that I had to accept the challenge to address the same issue with regard to art, music and literature. I will admit some bias: I do not understand the idea of having little or no participation in the important events of my life, especially if the justification is because someone else is claiming to be an expert, and insisting that I don’t have the proper credentials for such things. I believe we lead better lives when we consider the advice of others, but make our own decisions. This is true whether we are talking with financial experts, medical doctors, or the gardener.

That said, back to art, beginning with an observation: to describe genius in painting in terms of brush strokes is like describing genius in literature in terms of typography, yet I’ve heard it said in a graduate class. The professor insisted that we cannot appreciate art without exercising our “higher faculties” (our intellect). “Great art,” he said, “is only knowable through an understanding of its period in history and its place in our culture.” If this were true, I suppose it would mean that we need several experts. In short he was suggesting that only an intellectual could reveal a painting’s greatness.

That got me to wondering: how intellectual is a picture? It seems to me that the very nature of a picture is anti-intellectual in that it is primarily visual, emotional and sensual. It’s strongest appeal is on a gut level. I suppose it’s true that a picture can make a statement, but I think a large number of people would have to agree on the meaning of that statement for it to have any validity. And how intellectual can you get, when a picture-as-statement is only an instance in time, frozen in some sort of suspension of life?

Augsburg, Germany, by Krasnysky

How About This One?

To over intellectualize our view of art requires the mind to build a construct for interpreting a 2-dimensional flat world to create the illusion of more than is there. The buildings above, for instance, were painted by an architect who understood and used perspective to create the feel of 3-dimensions.  A tentative conclusion is that technique is perhaps the intellectual part.

If that were true, however, then craft is more important than message and that would imply that the painting exists primarily for intellectual reasons. Art becomes nothing more than the illustrated history of desicated concepts, more fully explained in the footnotes of old philosophies, histories, and formal religions. There are more important uses for the intellect. I would argue that the intellectual approach to painting should be secondary to the sensual experience of vision and emotion.

A picture makes you feel something about it. Even one replete with intended symbols must be taken in for itself, in totality, apart from all else except for ones own raw experience. And if the observer has not yet had sufficient experience to which he or she can relate, that person will not be able to fully appreciate the art work and can only talk about it in general terms. We will come back to this point. For now, however, let’s just say that the intellectual part seems to be associated primarily with craft.

Before we further pigeonhole an artist’s work through classification (e.g., assigning it a place in history as part of a movement), and before we start discussing its similarities through comparative intellectualizing (also called the study of art history), we need to let it work on us. Only when it gets into our gut and works its way around our more visceral feelings will we fully digest it. Without this direct “experiencing,” we might just as well begin without the picture. I would further generalize this assertion by saying, in contradistinction, that we cannot underrate our “lower” faculties, or we might as well dismiss all art forms.

Paintings have been found on cave walls, such as those at Lascaux, that were created more than

Room of the Bulls, Lascaux

Room of the Bulls, Lascaux

17,000 years ago – long before written history, and long before the intellectuals stepped in to explain their historical context, or to speculate on the role they might have played in early French culture. Most of us can make the connection between our distant primitive relatives and our contemporary families without assistance. Most of us would stand quietly in a place like this and feel the personal nature of the experience, might feel some emotion from crossing 170 centuries to see ourselves in the faces of these primitive tribes.

I would say that the Intellectual approach is not the only method, nor necessarily the best method, to understand our physical world. Words in fact are not the primary medium. Indeed, a great deal of cerebral activity is pictorial imagery, and a great deal of art is understood through this imagery (including the big three:  paintings, music and literature).

Next, I would suggest that it is fairly easy to find the association of this image-generating mechanism in literature, through the act of reading, i.e., we “see” images in our minds when we read. The author can’t tell us everything or the fictional account would be very long, and very boring. The reader has always been assigned the task of filling in where the author leaves off, though perhaps it is difficult to understand this when we are surrounded by video, movies, television, and other visual media devices that do this for us. Literature with a “big-L” is meant to engage us emotionally, unlike “small-L” or genre (which is intended to be just for fun, such as science fiction, detective stories, romances or westerns).

The same line of reasoning can be used for music.  You can take almost any piece of symphonic music and the composer will describe the real world events that inspired the music. And often we find ourselves listening but imagining visual affects, such as shifting colors (amorphous) as the mood of the music shifts. Additionally, music affects our emotions through hearing, but we also feel a sensual quality while listening, which in its most intense form can be experienced by standing too close to a modern rock band and feeling the sound waves bounce off our internal organs. Again, in spite of the differences between how we hear music vs see art, we are back to the emotional and sensual experience.

I do feel that there is an intellectual component to virtually all art forms, although not a little effort has been expended in recent years to break away from underlying structure and to introduce free form approaches. But this has driven our appreciation of these modalities into an even lesser appeal to large numbers (without the interpreter).  One can argue that we have freed the artist from arbitrary constraints, or maybe that the artist has sold us down river – depending on your point of view.

In my opinion, it doesn’t much matter which because I make the claim that art is personal and appeals differently to different people. The more intense the appeal, the more personal it is. In my view, greatness with regard to art is an opinion. The larger the number of people who share the opinion, the greater the work of art. And this cuts to the chase. Great art is ALWAYS an opinion. So the answer to our question is: You make great art great, by expressing your opinion.

There was a time when art was for the privileged, when you and I did not get to vote because we didn’t belong to the club. But that time is likely gone forever. For now, it is one person, one vote. Almost nobody argues the point. Not sure how to vote? The first picture is Picasso’s Three Musicians. And the second picture is Krasnyansky’s Augsburg, Germany. Does that help? It shouldn’t make any difference, but it’s O.K. if it does because you are not alone, and it’s your vote to use however you choose.

There are those who point to this trend and pronounce that art is dying or has already died. If art is dying, this isn’t the reason. The cause is self-pity. The humanities can only be destroyed if we let it happen. Art today tends to reduce the state of man from heroic to pitiful, no longer depicted as stately, no longer waging the eternal battle for universal principles; in other words, it is the artists (not the scientists) who have sold us out … depending on your opinion.

Text Copyright © 2008 by Tad Laury Graham

Pictures appearing herein are very low resolution, small copies of the originals, used for educational purposes only. It is likely that they are under copyright (this is unknown) or some other form of protection, but are used herein consistent with the protections and laws that govern copyrights.

  1. I can’t understand how I missed this post . I love it! and it parallels a similar exploration I’ve been making on exactly the same topics. Several years ago I went through my music collection – classical and popular – and kept only the music that I like. At about the same time I learned to go into art museums and look at the painting to decide whether it speaks to me rather than reading all what the experts tell me I should like. It’s amazing how much it has opened up the world of music and art. Thank goodness I’d already learned to do something similar in relation literature or that world would have been coralled too by those who think that the arts belong only to the intellectual. I’m all in favour of an academic analysis of the arts. Let’s just not pretend that it is the essence of appreciating it.

    Oh, and yes: I expect my doctor to give me advice too; not make my decisions for me.

    Wonderful post. Thank you for it. Even if I am a little late in saying so.


    • No need to apologize, Terry. I am so far behind in responses and acknowledgments that I owe you an apology: Maybe they cancel each other out? (Glad you liked it. As always, I really appreciate hearing your perspective on things.)

  2. […] The busiest day of the year was January 30th with 46 views. The most popular post that day was What Makes Art, Music or Literature Great?. […]

  3. art is dying?? hmmmmm art is a child listening to the elder tell the story, as he paints her face with the moon. or when the dance beginsand that childhas prepared his about the good feeling he feels as he watches the people hold their feathers to their for himis the songs he chants when one dies. he knows one qwill find his way to the great spitit. art lives with the people, art is hearing the flute telling us we will remain.PEACE and harmony to you and your people MR GRAHMAN

    • I am always delighted to hear from you, and to hear about your unique take on life. You got it right … art is only dying if we kill it. But if we nurture it, like your elders, perhaps, it has much to teach. There are those who will never stand for letting art die. You, for one. Art is personal and speaks to everyone in a way that each person can understand, can learn about life, can learn about self, can learn about others, and can learn about death, all of which are the human connection common to the universe.

      I may get it wrong, at times, but I think more often I simply get it different. Each culture shapes the message of art in that culture, so that each may understand. Art, as I have said before, is whatever you want it to be, whatever speaks to you. Consider how brash it would be if we stood in front of each other only to insist that each of us knows more about art than the other! I value your art because you value your art, and because you are a friend. But feel free to tell me when you think I miss the point. We learn more from disagreement than we ever will from agreement. It’s our nature.

    • We are both saying the same thing, Will. Only I used more words and gave it a Western cultural background. Art is what speaks to you.

  4. Take a look at the following link for some additional viewpoints on what makes a work of art a work of art. These kids seem to understand the connection that art needs to make with its audience, and they are finding ways to express it’s meaning to the rest of us.

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