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Pathways to Philosophy

On Criticism and the Purpose of Arts

by Vikram Singh


I come straight to the point. The most famous french composer of the 20th century, Maurice Ravel composed one of the best loved pieces in orchestral music. 'Bolero', as it came to be known, which was commissioned by dancer Ida Rubenstein to be played while she performed on the stage. Soon it was famous all over the world as a stand alone orchestral composition.

It has become a method of critics to encompass in their dissection, the very state of the creator at the time of piece's creation. It has been drawn from the delicate melodies of Schubert, that they are not unconnected with his homosexuality. Ravel himself described Bolero as an experiment; a gradual crescendo. And it found me, among the composition's many admirers. But the purposes of a piece is incomplete without presence of an observer. It is a different thing, how much the observer derives from his interactions. This is my first point. Although my examples could be extended to any piece of art.

My perception of Bolero is formed on its maintained hypnotic rhythm, persistent theme and evolving orchestration. I must say that I need not build any hypothesis on ideas of Ravel to define the pleasure which I receive while hearing it. But soon I learned that, above the Spanish atmosphere, which Bolero's rhythm so emphatically confirms, it was the sounds of industrial machines that inspired Ravel to compose it. Certainly, this is quite contrary to what I have come to associate with it. Even more so, I find it hard to see it through eyes of the composer. And sometimes it seems even an repulsive idea to reorganize my thoughts in this direction. Is it possible to attain something from an piece of art which its creator never fused it with? Is a piece of art an intellectual property of its creator, such that it should be be looked through his perception of the world?

Ever since turn of the 19th century, critics have increasingly peeked into the lives of creators to look out for meaningful explanation for their works. Many times, the links are quite obvious. And it has almost re-awakened the world's interest in Da Vinci's paintings ever since the claims of hidden clues have started to emerge. But how can a critic pass a judgement on a piece linked with an artist's homosexuality, when half of the audience see wild ocean or flying birds in it? Is that kind of criticism meant only for the creator, who in many cases is dead by decades?

Pieces of art and literature, are outbursts of creativity and rhetoric. The creator might have put many years in contemplating the piece, but the moments of creation are like mind full of sparks. It would be proper to define these to timelines before we proceed to outline the proper critic's method. First we have to look at the process of observation.

Art is a language. It conveys so many things that oral linguistics cannot. The word 'happy' has a different meaning for everyone. And for everyone its meaning changes over time. I have discussed this in detail, in my last article, 'Monologue on Art' (Philosophy Pathways 80). If a piece of art is defined by emotional state of the creator, than it is worthwhile to understand, what brought the creator to that mental state. But this also intimately links the purpose of creation to the thought process of artist's mind. This is important because it rules out the notion that great pieces of art are already made somewhere and an artist is just God's translator. Many times they reflect the overall thought process that the world is going through.

If a person is introduced to certain painting through certain dialogue, then that dialogue is going to have an intermittent effect on the person's perception of that painting. As I had said before, it is not possible to recall (or remember) a rather closed chain of thoughts, without committing itself to other thought processes. The person may know the original intentions of the creator over a course of time. This means that it is possible to grow totally different ideas about a piece of art than someone else who is interacting with the same, side by side. This is even without resorting to our very own ideas which will be induced after the purporting effect of personal interaction. And it is not necessary that those two persons' ideas are congruent with that of the creator. If the artist has created the piece with an intention to convey a 'very defined' state of emotion to the observer, then he has failed. It can be drawn from this that it is not possible to transit a certain state of mind to another through process of arts. If any artist sits with these intentions, he is bound to fail himself.

Now coming back to segregating the timelines. This is again based on my earlier arguments that no two states of conscious mind are congruent and consequently there is no method to go back to an earlier emotional state. When Ravel saw industrial machines let his mental state be C1. When he sat to write Bolero his mental state be C2. For an authentic reproduction of what he was at C1, it must be that C1=C2; which is not achievable. I should state here that the moment of creation and the moment of inspiration are two different sociological points. They cannot follow each other unless they occur at the same time. So Bolero is an actual reproduction of the state C2. C2 is the moment of composition. So his first inspiration is composition itself. Although it is quite contrary to what we normally believe. And our mind has not evolved enough that we could handle two emotionally complex states as above, simultaneously.

Recently I read that Ravel had symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease and the constant repeating rhythm may have to do with that!

Coming to my earlier question. Is it possible for me to conclude from a piece of art, what the composer never induced it with? Here I assume that I am interacting with a painting, whose creator is alive and standing by my side. Let us think that an event inspired him to paint it. His mental state at the time of event was C1. When he painted, it was C2 and when he is standing by my side, it is C3. Let us also assume that he is aware of what we have discussed so far. So he says that the painting is reflective of his state at C2. I ask, is C2=C3? My argument is that, whatever state in which the artist painted the picture, he cannot recall in authentication while watching it. So even for him the meaning of his creation is constantly evolving.

Let me give you an extreme example; Assume that the painting is of a Tiger shown in its splendor. The artist saw that tiger sometime back. After the creation of that painting, assume his son was attacked by a tiger in a recent attempt to revisit the place of 'inspiration'. How different would you think the state C3 would be from C2? (Will Ravel still admire today's industrial machines? Or what would a boy gather from his remarks who is brought up today?) If the emotional statement of a creation changes when the creator forms the observer, how can we be so definitive about the same? It should be understood, that a creator can be readily changed in place of an observer. His past is going to effect him as much ours effect us. So it is perfectly tangible to form our own perception of a piece of art from any perspective. Understanding the state of creator forms a parallel process and cannot be taken as a more 'correct' or 'positive' approach.

While approaching past masterpieces, it often the case that the artist is dead. The emotions that the creation arouses in us without any knowledge are our sincere evaluation of it. It is worthwhile to understand the social limitations and problems that the artist faced while creating it. But in that case, the creation is assessed bound to the name of the artist and his time. As a standalone piece it can only be compared by its creative intensity. We might think that a certain poem was revolutionary because it broke the mould at that time, but may not stand in creative intensity in front of more modern poems. These pieces gave rise to more brighter pieces but this cannot raise their own intellectual level. Since we can argue that if someone would have written a more revolutionary poem in some other direction, then the present creations might be even brighter.

Art has given rise to many new ideas and even political thoughts. For those who argue that a certain piece of art is higher because it changed the course of history should also say that it changed for good. And those people must also convince me that the present state of affairs could not have been done in a better way, and all is perfect. If the present state of social world is not perfect, then there is always a possibility that the past could have been handled in a better way and so could be direction of certain pieces. The purpose of this is to say that, art and literature changed history, but this can never be said with certainty that it was changed for good. So it might be true that someone who wrote about sex in 12th century, was brave. But brave is all he was.

There is also a method to raise the value of a piece for because it brought about certain positive changes in the overall thinking of the society. Again, it cannot be made certain that the same piece can never be used for opposite purposes in the future. This directly follows from my earlier arguments, that the value of a piece is constantly evolving. It is not in the hands of its creator, to create it in such a way that it remains limited to certain domain of ideas or time. A piece of art is like a two sided window. On one side is the creator's mind and on other side, observer's mind. Once one of them closes it, all it remains for him is to see the window in his own way and dress it in his attire.

Thereof, the methods of a critic should be such that his evaluation should not be rendered meaningless if the social value of the piece of art should change. He cannot take the words or mind of the artist as his stepping stone to dissection. If he looks to produce a definitive argument in either case, he should be aware that such arguments are limiting in nature and could only be considered relevant in a particular time-frame. As such, a timeless, definitive argument could not be produced. So a critic should decide first, what he is looking to attain. An observer oriented argument can be produced, if the critic could make the audience see through his eyes. This can be done through method of dialogue or elegantly produced lecture, preferably at the time of first interaction.

In other cases, it is possible to draw certain ideas from certain pieces of arts which may not even be existent during life-time of the creator. Should the artist be credited for their origination? Here I would like to state that, whosoever derives concrete ideas is a creator in himself. If a 10th century painting gives me an idea to write a monograph on Nihilism, than that painting (and not the artist) is my inspiration. The artist might have got inspiration for the painting, by watching an apple tree; that is immaterial to me. That painting serves me the same purpose that the apple tree served him. It is possible to draw ideas from a piece of art almost contrary to what its creator held in his lifetime. So a piece of art in itself pregnant with possibilities, which its creator has no power upon. Neither the painting, nor the artist can be commented upon being nihilistic.

It must be understood that, just as observer and creator can be interchanged, art and inspiration can too. It is a chain. An artist creates a piece. The piece can create an artist. The fundamental purpose of arts is to inspire further arts. Our method breaks down when we strike out this possibility. Ideas give rise to arts, and arts give rise to ideas. They exist in a general pool of society and time frame. A piece of criticism is a creation inspired by corresponding piece of art. And in that sense, art has succeeded in its purpose, whatever the critic says!

© Vikram Singh 2006

E-mail: vikram.sr@gmail.com