Katharsis. Remarks on the Function of Art

  1. Art or/and Function
  2. Message and Method
  3. Teaching and Telling
  4. Reflecting
  5. Inspiring
  6. Cleansing

Introductory Remarks

There comes a point in life where you have to decide what you are, what you want to be, even decide what you have been. Self-definition, self-exploration, self-knowledge is something which has to come in one form or another, sooner or later. Not too soon, to not let you get too fixed in your ways when you should be exploring your possibilities, yet also not too late to not being impeded in your abilities, to not get lost in indecision.

The essay at hand will serve two purposes. One is to make a statement about aesthetics and arts themselves, that's the more obvious level, the topical one. Another is a more personal one, following the above mentioned needs.

For more than fifteen years I have been interested in artistic production, for ten years I have been writing poetry, for two years I have been undertaking photography. That's one thread. But for four years I've also been training my academic engagements, becoming more and more interested in analyzing things and probing into various fields of study. I've come to value both aspects, the artistic and the academic one, and I've also arrived at the conclusion that for me both belong together, the one not making any sense without the other.

Thus it is only natural to combine my two fields of activity. With my web site, I've always also commented on my artistic production, providing reflections on my poems as well as on my photographs, but these were of a rather small focus, making less statements about art in general and more about my own work.

This essay has also been inspired by quite common discussions about the uses of both the arts and academics. Both these fields may seem to be be quite underestimated in a rather pragmatic and financial culture. Pragmatism often only sees the nearest possible result, thus endangering both fields, an exception being applied natural sciences because of their ability to provide something like instant pragmatic gratification. Finance may seem to restrict art in accordance to a mere revenue-oriented goal. Given my fascination with movies and television shows, I wouldn't quite agree to that, yet there are also fields of art which may seem to suffer from a financial side, like non-applied poetry and photography.

Yet I'm not trying to convince anybody of the uses of arts with this essay. I'm merely trying to approach the topic from a descriptive side. This is not an article about politics and political decisions, it is about the arts. Other things may be inferred from it, of course, yet that's not my primary motivation here.

And also, though "capitalism" may often be a (somewhat problematic) term for Western society, we are living in a rather democratic and liberal political system. Thus all financial problems set aside, the arts may probably have the best possibilities to unfold themselves under these conditions, thus making any inferrable criticism a relative one[1]. There's only one thing art needs: Freedom to indulge in it, both for the producer and the consumer. The same freedom may allow academics to be the analytical link for both sides.

Using that freedom via the even freer medium of the internet, I want this essay to be somewhat academic, somewhat personal, somewhat free from too much methodological bragging, it's rather a reflecting about some aspects of art, nothing more, yet also nothing less. It's not supposed to be reaching closure or quoting lots of supposedly big thinkers. Genius has been found an over-estimated construction anyway in a post-modern setting, anyone's genius that is. Thus this input into the discourse consists just of some remarks that I deem necessary to unleash to whoever may stumble across this text.

1. Art or/and Function

To some, art has no function. It's just something made for it's own sake, l'art pour l'art, any use inferred from it considered a sacrilege, an unholy act. Art is seen as something totally detached from life, totally detached from the necessities of life, from the very elements of life even, from the living and their institutions, from time even. Art also, by some, is seen as the product of an original creation by some genius creator/thinker, making it a solitary happening and a holy thing, something to be absorbed by an awed beholder. Art also, by some, is seen as a refuge, an escape into a dream-world, a totally arti-ficial cloud-minded edifice whose consumers are not having any connection to the so-called real world. Art also, by some, is a concept so glorified and sanctified that for it to be sincere it must be so abstract, so devoid of any pragmatist elements, so devoid of any worldly concerns, so un-common and aristocratic that it is only for few to enjoy, for even fewer to create, and anything gaining some larger following and making some "concessions" to public taste being considered anything but art. Yet for some also, art is nothing but an instrument, a truly pragmatic institution to support and underline political and ideological needs, to serve as an instrument of what is understood as education.

Those approaches are usually not clear-cut phenomena but rather occurring in some combination, thus I'll address all those points in one attempt. What's missing in such kind of thinking are several kinds of premises which should at least be considered first before jumping to any high-brow (or low-brow) conclusions.

Naturally, one question has to concern the very nature of art itself. What is art, what does it encompass, what does it do. I'm always keen on linguist analysis, that's often a first step, my interest in etymology probably comes from my also being a historian. But neither the Latin root ars nor the Greek equivalent of technê, both meaning something like faculty or skill, then inferring production, can be of much help with such a term. They may deliver an interesting sidenote, underlining a rather pragmatic origin for the phenomenon called art. Maybe from contemporary words like "artificial" and "technical" we may infer a sense of something different than nature, or contrary to biological nature, something peculiar to humankind even. Art seems to be a similarly confusing term as culture[2], revealing both everything and nothing about its nature. Art indeed seems to be something peculiar, something not necessarily linked to the most acute needs of the earth[3].

Setting this question aside for the moment, I'll try getting to the weak points of above mentioned arguments. First of all, art is produced by somebody. That somebody is a human being, female or male. The producer of art is not an empty plate, no tabula rasa, and the production doesn't take place in empty space. The producer is a biological and spiritual and social being with biological and spiritual and social needs, capabilities, disabilities. The producer is made both biologically (by their biological parents) and spiritually/socially (by their biological and societal parents), s/he is embedded into an entire history and exchange of ideas and concepts, witnessing events around them, being subjected to perception and both limited and guided by language of whatever kind. S/he is not a god-like creator-genius of their own making, neither just a processing machine creating a certain output from a certain input. The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle. Art is thus rooted, not completely artificial, not timeless. It has a history, it has a biological, anthropological component, as well as a cultural, societal and spiritual one.

Neither is art just happening in an empty space for no particular reason, for no particular purpose. Physics teaches us that an object tends to stay in the state it is in unless it is shaken up by some kind of impulse. Then, and only then, it changes its course and does something. Living beings tend to be like that: if everything is fine, both physically and psycologically, they can remain happily in one state. Certain needs or impulses are necessary to make them do something, even if it's just boredom - or something so primal as earning a living. Also, there's a reason for everything, be it apparent or not, conscious or not. Why paint a picture when you could also take a photograph or write a poem or make a sculpture? There's a choice here. Why write something down when you could just indulge in the moment or memorize it for yourself? Why tell it to somebody, whom to tell it to, why write something down if not for a possible reader? Otherwise, sometimes a cigar may just be a cigar. Really? Biology doesn't produce waste. As biological beings, we are always performing a certain function for a certain purpose. That this purpose may be unknown, or inexpressible, doesn't unmake this purpose. Art is produced out of a certain incentive, and made for a possible audience. Even if it's just a boy running to his parents to show them the sand castle he's just built, out of a psychological need to gain recognition and attention.

Art may be produced (not created) by somebody, but this somebody could never completely understand all the discursive variables behind her or his doing, or the unconscious parts of the production. Neither is the audience completely known, nor all possible effects the consumption of the piece of art may have on any possible person. There is no original author, there is no final audience. Even if the planet should explode one day, killing all inhabitants, there is no reason a deeper spiritual level should not have been touched in one way or the other, granted that physical existence ain't everything. Whatever purpose may be attributed to art, such attribution can only be a very narrow prediction, in an equation with that great many variables it is impossible to calculate a definite result. There's no reason for art to be seen just in one prescribed way, there are lots of possibilities for using a poetry book, from reading to memorizing to inspiring somebody to write poetry of their own, down even to using the paper for assisting a very basic biological function. Who knows? Who could possibly know?

Thus art seems to be neither with a definite function nor without it, neither with a creator nor without one, neither understandable a concept nor not understandable. That sounds like a rather Buddhist answer, and I don't quite know if it makes any sense. Let's just leave it at that for the moment.

Anything can be the object of art. But although this would make it a very painstaking process to name all possible things art could be, all pieces of art have one basic thing in common, whether it be a Shakespearean sonnet, a play by Sophokles, a Mozart symphony, a painting by Da Vinci, a building by Schinkel, a film by David Lynch or an episode of "The Young and the Restless", doesn't really matter. What all these share is what they do: They mimick something, reflecting upon some aspect of perceived reality:

to te gar mimeisthai symphyton tois anthrôpois ek paidôn esti (kai toutôi diapherousi tôn allôn zôiôn hoti mimêtikôtaton esti kai tas mathêseis poieitai dia mimêseôs tas prôtas)
kai to chairein tois mimêmasi pantas[4].

The object of mimicking can be a physical as well as a non-physical one, the result of the mimicking need not even look like the object which is depicted, abstract art can be, well, rather abstract. Nevertheless, there remains an act of mimicking, the object of mimicking can even be identical to the incentive to perform this activity.

The function Aristotle attributes to mimicking is to enjoy (to chairein, s.a.) or to bring enjoyment (hêdonê, 1459a / 23,20), the latter being a rather controversial term, especially for Plato, but we'll come to that point later. But Aristotle here has to be understood in the context in which he is writing. Firstly, Peri Poiêtikês - like all of his writings that have survived - is just a collection of rough notes, not a finished text, it's esoteric, not exoteric, not intended for public use, thus it may not be as coherent as it would have been if it were a finished text. Secondly, Aristotle restricts most of this thoughts on the theater, on the Greek tragedies. Given the context they were performed in, he may be completely right, and surprisingly candid about it. It's just entertainment. That's what most art is, if not all of it, yet not everybody is so open about that.

Nevertheless, though I like the freshness of his honesty, I wouldn't necessarily restrict art to entertainment only, mainly if "entertainment" is understood as bringing joy, not just to entertain some thoughts. Entertainment, in a neutral sense, can just mean comsuming something, spending your time and mind on something. Yet this sense is usually lost in that context now, and I do not agree that "hêdonê" should be the sole object. A documentation about the Shoa may be a piece of art, yet it's purpose surely isn't to provide "hêdonê".

So does art have a function? Definitely. A piece of art is just like any other text (understanding "text" in a more abstract sense here, as an entry into and part of the discourse), it has a past (precursors, influences, inspiration), a present (the moment of production) and a future (its continued life in the discourse). Yet there is one thing where art and scholarship may differ: While an academic text mainly addresses the rational side of the audience, art tends to go more for an emotional reaction. And in contrast to academic writing, which should follow some kind of logic, there are no rules in art. Anything goes.

2. Message and Method

Art has a function, as I tried to establish in the previous part. This, however, can not yet be a satisfactory answer, and it would probably be of some help to know what this function could be exactly. But that's maybe the most obvious peculiarity and oddity of the concept behind what's considered art, something which has always allowed art to be considered function-free. Knowing - or believing? - that there must be a function doesn't necessarily lead to an effective narrowing down of the nature of that function.

What would we expect such a function to be? What purpose would be served by that function? Is there a true pragmatic agenda, a true pragmatic result, is the result visible in each and every possible way? What could we understand as a "visible", an obvious result? A poem consists of words. Such words can be written down, manifesting themselves in symbols or letters. That's a rather material component analysis, and if you go even further, you could say that the poem leaves material, physical, traces attached to the material it is displayed upon: That could be ink on paper, or bytes on an electronic storage medium, light points on a viewscreen. Yet is that all? The same properties would also be true for a written news report, a letter from a friend, an advertisement. Any of those things would be "artificial", non-biological and human-made, definitely anthropological artifacts or sources for a historian. But art?

Can art really be narrowed down to the mere physical components, isn't there something else? A spiritual component, something arising from the spirit of the person who produced a piece of art? Something of an aura, a non-physical, almost meta-physical, set of components that would add to the mere artifact the very properties that make it a piece of art in the first place?

Let us postpone a definite answer for now and return to the poem example to be more specific. Let us take a specific poem from a specific author:

Wallace Stevens: "The American Sublime" (1935) [5]

How does one stand
To behold the sublime,
To confront the mockers,
The mickey mockers
And plaited pairs?

When General Jackson
Posed for his statue
He knew how one feels,
Shall a man go barefoot
Blinking and blank?

But how does one feel?
One grows used to the weather,
The landscape and that;
And the sublime comes down
To the spirit itself,

The spirit and space,
The empty spirit
In vacant space.
What wine does one drink?
What bread does one eat?

The text cannot be said to contain any especially strange words, everything is part of the English language as we know it. And when written differently, in ongoing lines, parts could be read as an ordinary question or sentence: "How does one stand to behold the sublime" - that's a question. "One grows used to the weather, the landscape and that" - nothing extraordinary here either. But taken as a whole, it can be seen that there's something wrong with the text. It doesn't necessarily make any sense if you're looking for instant gratification. It raises more question than it provides answers. What is a mickey mocker? Why does he mention General Jackson? What statue? How does the first part of stanza two go along with the second part? Why the allusion to the weather? Why the incompleteness of the uttering "The landscape and that"? Do the concluding two lines constitute a religious reference? Why is the text divided into lines and stanzas?

The text of the poem stands out when compared to a news article or a different text of everyday use. There are certain elements which make it different, certain formal aspects, a persistant negligence to answer any questions, a desire to raise issues, a seemingly incongruent use of allusion after allusion, a strangely partitioned language. It almost seems that the text alone is just a pointer to some larger text, an abbreviation for something else. It is deliberately cryptic, having done away with some conventions of everyday speech. The text is a distortion of everyday texts, a disconfiguration of speech, a collage of fragments, a methodically arranged set of words put together in a deviant way, deviant from what is considered "normal" or "ordinary", compliant to the rules and norms of society. It resists the ordinary pragmatic understanding of function. People use language to communicate, to make themselves understood. Can we actually gain the impression that the text of the poem is playing along the lines of wanting to be understood? Isn't it rather something that makes you stumble, frown, stop with what you're doing? Isn't it rather concentrating on deliberately frustrating the beholder by not complying with the rules of communication?

The text doesn't even intent to deliver anything approaching a definition of what it calls "the sublime", it is not a thorough academic or journalistic treatise of a certain topic. The focus lies on something different, on raising questions, on pointing a finger to a certain issue, problem or phenomenon.

Yet is the text therefore less potent in approaching a topic? Is it less powerful than a thorough academic paper? Isn't it more uncertain, more obtruse, and deliberately so, more obscuring an answer, doing anything but directly pointing a finger? Can the method tell us something about the existence of a message, or isn't the method just that, a way by the means of which a result is achieved?

It could be pointed out that there are other forms of art which don't seem to obscure anything, realist photography for instance, or realist sculpturing, something trying to depict reality "the way it is". Well, what could make anybody think that a poem like that one above wouldn't be trying to do exactly that also, yet in a different way? Portraying reality, the reality as it is perceived by an observer who happens to be a producer of art? Even a realist photograph is different from a casual tourist's shot. A sincere photographer would commit differently to his photograph than a tourist who'd just want to have a picture of himself standing in front of some landmark. It's what goes on inside the head, it's what makes an artist do what he does, call it inspiration, drive, obsession, anything but casualness. In art, even casualness is artificial, is staged. No "realist" picture is "real" in the meaning of "truly casual" - the artist has been looking for a certain motif, and even though the motif may be looking casual, it isn't. It's like a journalist who, too, doesn't just happen to take a picture for a documentary on the situation of Afghan women under Taliban rule. There are no true accidents or incidents in art, everything is either staged or put into a staged context.

Art has a message or agenda just like any other text or object, the difference, I believe, lies mainly in the method. Maybe art itself is a method, just like that. It is a way to express something, a way which is less restrictive and more focused on the execution of an idea than on the idea itself. Maybe this can be narrowed down to the following: Art as the more emotional and scholarship as the more intellectual side. Yet I don't quite believe in dichotomies, they are too limiting, and almost always crude simplifications that rather hinder us from finding an answer than to assist us in our search for, well, for what exactly?

What is it we search for? Can this question be answered in such a generalizing way? Isn't this what scholarship (even still nowadays despite post-structural awareness of certain difficulties) are rather focused upon, finding answers that can be investigated, can be cataloged, can be applied, are valid for all humankind? And maybe, just maybe, art is a more individual enterprise, focusing on the private obsessions and interpretations of the producer of art, still attempting to find answers for all, but generally perhaps a bit more honest about the subjectivity involved? That it is rather about "how one feels" than about what one thinks to know?

Maybe it's not about art and scholarship, or "real-life" approaches, maybe it's about zones of grey, about to what degree you apply a certain method. Art could be a matter of degree. It could also be possible that both agendas are the same, aiming at creating a certain awareness, at telling something about something. Yet from my very own uncertainty with this text, you may already have sensed that I'm not quite sure about anything right now, I'm rather trying to make it up as I go, meditating upon the topic, trying to discuss it with myself, or with the keyboard and screen in front of me. Not quite academic, not quite artistic either, for that my choice of words may not be shrewd enough.

Maybe that's also part of what it is: This inbuilt insecurity, the constant search for improvement. Is art playful and childish, and scholarship the talk of serious and important grown-ups? I can only talk on the basis of my own artistic experience, and on what I have seen. An artist rarely creates something final. Every object of art is only as good as long as it isn't surpassed by an improved version, or a new approach or angle. Sometimes, art is about singularity, just as Salinger has written one novel. Sometimes, art is about reapproaching one thing over and over again from different perspectives, like Haydn's symphonies. Sometimes, art means doing one thing for a while, then making a break and starting anew from scratch, deliberately creating a distortion, like what Picasso did in the long run. But there seems to be one thing in common: The desire, or rather an obsession, to communicate in a way different from what is usually done. And maybe, in a world full of what we'd call extravagance, a down-to-earth "normal" lifestyle would be art too. Oh wait, that's been done also: Realism after Romanticism, Cynicism after Hippiedom. Art comes in phases, is embedded into the culture, is never neutral but always closely connected to where it comes from. There is no art without an audience.

3. Teaching and Telling

Art is a form of communication, there is something which needs to be told. That message can be anything, it can be social, political, aesthetic, entertaining, depressing, shocking; that doesn't really matter. And sometimes, one might say, a cigar is simply a cigar, sometimes, a piece of art is just made for no specific reason. Of course that could happen, on a conscious level. But I don't quite believe that - nothing happens without a reason. There needs to be an incentive, even if it be earning your living or killing time.

Some forms of art, or shall we say, expression, can have a very pragmatic agenda, they are good for one specific thing, they want to achieve a result, and their consumption is dedicated to that one end. Porn, for instance. Very pragmatic. Religious art, like devotional items, crosses, pictures of saints, things intended to be used in religious acts. Television commercials, intended to sell something.

Other forms of art may contain different layers, can be more diverse and less directly pragmatic. But I do believe there's still some level of pragmatism involved: Even the Wallace Stevens poem cited above could be said to have a certain purpose: It wants to create a certain awareness in the reader, or at least it wants the reader to read it in the first place, to consume the words. This may sound primitive, simplistic, but it does have a point. It's information flowing into the mind of the reader, who knows what could be achieved by that. But the reader is infected with the material of the poem, to what degree, that may stay unknown.

Every artist, it seems, goes for one thing: For a reaction on the part of the consumer. The worst thing for an artist would be to go unnoticed, it's again like the already mentioned child with the sand castle. "Look at me, I did this. You don't have to tell me if you like it, just look at it" - that's what seems to be implied with every piece of art. Communication seeks for a receiver at the other end, a message isn't told to go unnoticed, it is told in order to be told. As soon as it is picked up, the work of the message is done. It has reached its target, now it's up to the target to either show or not show a reaction.

What reaction that could be, that's again - partly - depending on the message. A message which conforms to reality will more surely go unnoticed than a message which goes rather against it, yet not too drastical if it doesn't want to be blocked out due to a collective feeling of shame or other causes for denial. A message, if it wants to be heard, can neither go nowhere nor too far, the mentality of the audience has to be taken into account.

Some examples. The television show The X-Files enjoys a certain popularity, though it deals with topics rather dark and horrific. Therefore, the target audience is not your average redneck, it's somehow a more educated middle-class population, the faint of heart perhaps taken out of the equation. Yet still, the show makes certain "concessions" to public taste: There is a (twisted) love affair between the protagonists Mulder and Scully, and with late Season Two and Season Three, the show had begun to contrast its darkness with a more humorous and self-ironic touch, thus making both the horror and the drama bearable. The show is now in its ninth year, with no end in sight. Chris Carter, the creator of the The X-Files, also developed an offspring show called Millennium, something even darker and more desperate than its parent show. The artistic level was raised, as well as the tension and the horror and the drama and the subtlety. The show was better in every single possible way but one: It didn't make the above mentioned "concessions", constantly pushing the audience, demanding a loyalty from them which they simply were unable to develop. You can only go so far. The show was canceled after three years.

I didn't put the word "concessions" in quotation marks for no specific reason. I don't quite like the word in that context, though the situation may often be perceived as that. An artist wants to tell something to an audience. So s/he better deal with that audience first. I stronly distaste certain high-brow trends which almost value the artist as a saint and see the audience as nothing better than an unknowing pigsty who don't know what's thrown at them. If that's how you think about your audience, you better stop considering yourself an artist. An artist serves both their art and their audience. If art is communication, and it is, it has to be understandable, at least on a minimum level. Not every recipient needs to understand each and every thing. Neither has every single piece by a specific artist to be taken into account separately, one should rather look at the whole picture. You may go off limits now and then, but you should also put your feet on the ground most of the time. That gives the audience some kind of an assurance that you're doing what you do for them, not for your own egotistical and megalomaniacal desires. Every artist is a megalomaniac. Every artist is an arrogant tyrant who thinks of themselves so highly that s/he wants to throw their material and thoughts at the world. As long as that is done for the audience it's ok. As long as their work is seen by themselves in the context of the audience, they will stay productive, they will stay a productive part of the culture in whose shaping they partake. One should not feel too bad about an artist who is constantly "mistaken" by an audience that cannot anymore stand his or her extravagant derogating their audience. A dog should never bite the feeding hand on a regular basis. One non-fatal bite once every larger unit of time may be ok, may take the people out of their complacent catatonic state. Yet constant biting only leads to being ignored and rejected, that serves noone's cause.

If art wants to teach the audience something, the question isn't only "what" but - even more importantly - "how". How plain should it be, how far should it be going? Should the cause you're fighting for be visible in an obvious way, or should your artwork be more layered, more subtle, containing more ambiguities and more possibilities for reading it? There's no rule to that. Anything that works, goes. It's rather a matter of individual style. An artist is also a teacher, and just like a teacher, art is also an art of pedagogy. And also, like a teacher, not every possible result can be predicted, neither should an artist be held accountable for every (or any!) possible consequence. Artistic freedom is a two-fold way. Not only the artist deserves it, also the audience. With freedom also comes responsibility - on both sides. The consumption (not just the production) of art needs to be taught, that's a predicament for both the artist and society. And that's precisely where scholarship sets in.

4. Reflecting

Art follows no rules regarding to what it should be dealing with. Everything can, must be a topic. The only restrictions would have to apply concerning the way art is presented, or shaped. Some things are truer in aesthetics than others. Some things you can do to an audience, others you shouldn't - not constantly at least. But if anything else is sort of free, what's the point of it, what can be achieved, what is the objective? Is there something like a general definition of what art does - is there anything in common to music, literature, architecture, sculpturing, theater/television/cinema and whatever else?

Art reflects. It reflects something, it reflects upon something.

Art takes place in a discourse, in a surrounding, a discussion, a context. Art is also shaped by somebody, often also called the "creator" of the piece of art. Yet the so-called creator is also part of the discourse, s/he may contribute their "own" perspective and interpretation; but to what extent, I am not yet sure. In that, I follow a post-structuralist way of thinking: The artist is a producer, not a creator; the writer a scriptor, not an inventor of the text, just writing down something available in their frame of reference[6].

Art is not necessarily scholarly, it is not bound to be sincere in scope, depth and not even in truth. Art needs not be objective (whatever that would be), it can, perhaps even must be subjective. In that, art is a reflection of the world as represented in the piece of art. Art is artificial, it is not a representation of the world "as it is" - it is always interpretation, alas, not only a reflection of but also upon something. Art takes something out of context in order to polarize, to bring it to speech: It creates or uses language, communicating its cause. For that, it uses simplification and stereotypization - necessarily so, as otherwise there would be no way to communicate anything.

Art always constitutes something, as it also always not constitutes something else, something "other". In that, art is like language. It's maybe something like an advanced sign language: Highly emotional, highly condensed, highly ambiguous; highly polarizing.

In art, there is always a choice. A photograph also means that it is not a painting. A poem is not a novel. The form is of relevance, it may be the truest point where you can still see the hand of the producer. That's one of the conscious choices a producer of art has to make; yet this one also has to be seen in its context, meaning, are the technical prerequisites already given (you cannot expect Michelangelo to have undertaken photography), is a certain method outdated or not quite en vogue, or vice versa: The form then limits the content, and somehow, it even enables the content to take shape in the first place. In that, art always also defines its form: Every photograph is a definition of what photography means, every poem is a definition for poetry. Every piece of art is a definition of art itself: Art reflecting on itself; ars gratia artis[7], or, l'art pour l'art.

5. Inspiring

Art is not a finished product. It is not just a piece for itself; it is something that so strongly depends upon some kind of user interpretation or reflection that its purpose could be described as provoking a reaction of whatever kind. Art almost always tries to open things up, it rarely wants to put something into a box and lock it up and shove it conveniently into a corner. Art rather concentrates upon exploring new possibilities, it wants to push people forward, it wants to make them see things they wouldn't ordinarily be either used or inclined or expecting to see. Art isn't something that wants to make things easier, on the contrary: Art is a trouble-maker, a dia-bolic scheme (in the literal sense): It wants to shake and stir.

Of course, not everything that belongs to art shares this prerogative, and maybe I'm being overly drastic and polarizing here. Well yea, what about it. Still, there are compromises to be made. Sometimes an artist is "forced" (and sometimes also without the quotation marks) to do something so-called artistic integrity would want to not be done. Good art then proves that it can make some reasonable compromises and be pragmatic, as long as it pays off in the end. The commercial and publicational machinery isn't the enemy of the arts, on the very frelling contrary: It is the best proliferator imaginable for the arts, yet it needs a lot of patience and drive to finally being able to make use of it. The internet nowadays proves as an (although much weaker) antidote, offering those a chance to speak up who cannot (yet) make use of that machinery, the very author, pardon, writer of this very article included.

Some things are done for the money, the effect, for enlarging or keeping the audience; others for art. What counts in the end is what has helped the art part: The rest, the entertainment factor, is not to be neglected either, yet without artistry, entertainment is void. Thus you can see people like Beethoven write more or less conservative, though nice and still fantastic symphonies, and in contrast to that some string quartets that are truly mind-blowing and filled with foresight, revolutionizing the music industry of his time. His string quartets, however, couldn't have had any impact without his symphonic and otherwise more popular works having paved the way, opening up a fandom still thriving today.

The same scheme repeats itself over and over again today, the battlefield now being popular music, movies and television. Other media and forms, same old story. How else could you explain the Homerian heights shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are achieving? Or the photographic, musical and athmospherical perfection apparent in most of The X-Files and Millennium? Television, though a highly commercialized and even more intensely ignored medium (ignored by all those ignorant fools whose cultural horizon ends somewhere between total snobbish obscurity and conservatism and the utter past), is also a high-tide for the arts, if you give it a chance, and if you care to ignore the dumbed-down material that fills the screens at 99.9 per cent of the time (which is also true for movies, novels and classical music by the way. There's a reason why Mozart has written over 40 symphonies and we get to hear only a handful of them on a regular basis).

Art is a property which can be observed in different, or all, kinds of media. Art isn't restricted to any specific medium. You can have cultural masterpieces as well as utter BS in any kind of form, be it sculpturing or the latest action movie. What counts is the artistic sincerity, and the possibility to actually be opened up and inspired, and to open up and inspire.

Art is productive, it has to be: It is a form of communication, communicating itself: That's what artistic cooperation between fellow artists is all about, that's what Hollywood (to a marginal yet very significant part) as an artistic community is all about. Money and power, sure. But that's just the pramatic level. Everybody wants to live. The question is just, how long? Do you want to be forgotten or remembered? Will your work still stay long after you're gone? Isn't art also a way to fight mortality? Isn't death, and the disappearance of time, the greatest inspiration?

6. Cleansing

It's about time, I believe, to drive the dagger home, so to say, to come back to the part in this essay that said something like "katharsis", namely, the heading. I've been quite successfully navigating around that term, avoiding it at all costs. Instead, I've been concentrating on making some rather general statements about art in general, putting the core issue at the very end, the reason being that I wanted to touch other issues firstly, but also, that I tend to approach a topic by avoiding it till the very last possible moment. I like to have the table cleaned before something is introduced, that's like holding your back free. Of course, I can't do that any more really, for I've written too much over the years to really have my back freed, on the contrary, every single word and sentence, every half-cooked egg seems to haunt me more and more, some day I fear this will culminate and strike back with a vengeance, creating a cleansing effect even. There you have it.

How your position towards the ideal of catharsis sounds like seems to depend on how your general emotional outlook is structured. If you tend towards believing that logic and analytical understand will do the trick mainly, the usual understanding of catharsis is nothing for you to like. Alas you will find people like Plato ridiculing it as a cheap effect. However, if you come from a position that values human emotionality, while still struggling to understand it, the term catharsis will probably have a sort of cathartic effect on you. Catharsis is something that cannot be imagined without playing out your emotionality, or exposing the emotionality of others.

First of all, catharsis in the original meaning is a kind of cleansing indeed, cleaning something, purging or purifying it. That, of course, taken to a less literal and more, yet not complete, abstract level, can lead to the idea of cleansing and purifying the mind, or more effectively, the soul of an individual. This can mean a truly religious form of cleansing, a ritualistic action; and as we all know (or should remind ourselves), all literature and art has some religious background. Athenian theater originated from religious ceremonies, most (published) accounts of early literature have a religious character. That is not supposed to rule out any kind of "profane" utterances made, yet art, from its inception, seems to spring from a highly religious desire to understand the world and depict and interpret it, to understand and unmask (or remask and construct) its workings. The farther you go back in time, the more aboriginal the culture you are studying, the more you will see that the border between the secular and the religious which we, in the Western world, and in Europe even more so than in America, have become used to; that those borders cannot only not be upheld in those eras, they cannot even be seen. Everything is religious (or secular, whatever), there is no separation.

The purpose of this entire side-tracked excursion was to establish the idea in this article that art has some religious properties. The cleansing implied by a literary term like "catharsis" has to be seen in this light: Catharsis is something that directly affects an individual, something that directly accesses the soul, the spirit, the emotional muddle which is our puzzling existence. What makes important literary works important? What makes effective literary works effective? They find a way inside this muddle. They can overcome the barriers erected by our distancing from the world; they can bring the world, the artistic world, inside this equally arti-ficial "real" world. They achieve something other than grabbing your pop corn or your bottle of bear next to you.

In the 19th century, a style that tried to reach this result was called sentimental. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin surely is a highly emotional work, derided as sentimental; following the same line of thought (poor Hawthorne) accusing "scribbling women" of some unholy and blasphemically effective and monetarily rewarding style of writing. It's the same line of thought that for long prevented the common soap opera from being given proper credit for some of its ingredients, the same line of thought that overly values the often very crude and preposterous moralizing focus on ethics over the portrayal of human emotions, of human interaction. Granted, soap operas drive this to the extreme. Yet if those means can be put to use decently and with some sense of balance, people like David Lynch (as in Twin Peaks) or Joss Whedon (as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) are able to create a soap opera which is not a soap opera, a soap opera which is more about "the soap opera as such", a genre show which is both following the rules and expanding them, playing on them. To be blunt, if sentiment meets intelligence, we have something else: We have artistic catharsis, something walking the fine line between what Plato (partly rightly so) accuses of being tear-jerking low-level BS, and what others would consider a religious exercise of purification.

If you look more closely on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel and Farscape, and compare them to something like Star Trek, you'll easily notice a stark difference between both approaches. (Or, for TV-haters, compare Tchaykovsky, Mahler and others of the Romantic/Modernist era with Vivaldi, Haydn and others of the Baroque and Classic eras; or compare Garbage with Phil Collins; or compare Shakespeare, Homer and Stowe with Mark Twain; or compare Caspar David Friedrichs with Andy Warhol). On one side, you'll find a highly emotional approach that takes the outside threat and turns it inside. Everything is about the personal growth of the individual, or of a group. The small group stands in the center, and is usually torn apart on a rather regular basis, it is a twisted set of characters that often defy logic and are proud of it. On the other side, you'll find a highly intellectualized approach aiming high at some philosophical issues, or some problems of society. The story focuses less on the individuals and more on the higher cause, the problems are more or less discussed, logic is the prerogative. In one case, it's the effect, it's about "how does one feel" - in the other case, it's more about the structure, the strict aesthetic undercurrents, the philosophy, the pedagogy, the teaching. One stands inside the world and tries to understand its inner workings, the other looks down on it and points a finger towards a problem. Both have a relevance, both have their place.

Yet doesn't the second one sound rather like a philosophical treatise, trying too obviously to walk the line, trying to not to get in too deep into the lower ranks of something that takes itself literally? Isn't this cooler detachment, this somehow high-brow approach (and I myself admit it, I was initially abhorred by even thinking about watching something with such a ridiculous name as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), doesn't such a detached and somewhat cynical method sound like "safer sex", like "what the noble person can still afford to watch / read / listen to without embarrassment"? The Frasier Crane approach to art? Don't get in too deep, don't even dare cry at a movie, be a man, stay tough, don't allow something to get near to you, and even if so, don't show or admit it? Isn't this kind of luke-warm? Is this art?

The understanding, the altered mind-set of the audience, the true catharsis, can be reached either on the emotional level (the "O my God" approach) or the intellectual level (the "heureka" approach). Catharsis is both, and to succeed, it may need both levels to function. That works for all the examples I've given so far. Cathartic art makes you look twice, it makes you take a step aback to look at the greater picture, it makes you become addicted to the level of artistry involved, mostly, without even knowing what just hit you.

Art hits. It can hit hard, it can grab you by your complacency and surprise you and push a dagger into your back while you get fooled by its constructing realities that must need to be understood as fictional. And it's fiction because our constructed mind cannot afford to accept its inner truth as what it is, but this is already an entirely different story.

September 1st 2001 - December 31st 2001 (first posted on philjohn.com December 31st, 2001)


[1] cf. Tyler Cowen. In Praise of Commercial Culture.
[2] On "culture", see my paper "The Scope of Culture"
[3] There is an interesting episode of the television series Crusade, episode 10, "The Needs of Earth", in which a culture is measured and valued not for conquests or population or science but for artistic achievements, artistic products deemed to be delivering a source of hope and inspiration for a planet doomed for extinction. The needs of earth are not such commonly perceived as practical, but those that further spiritual nurturing and growth.
[4] "For the mimicking is innate to human beings since their childhood (and in that they differ from other living beings in that they are especially able to perform mimicking, and that they have gained this knowledge through mimesis in the first place) and the joy everybody experiences through mimickries". Aristotle. Peri Poiêtikês. 1448b / 4,5-9. -- Regarding the topic of mimêsis, see also my poem Broken Down.
[5] Wallace Stevens. "The American Sublime". Holly Stevens (Ed.). The Palm at the End of the Mind. New York: Vintage, 1971. 114.
[6] cf. Roland Barthes. "The Death of the Author." Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977. 142-148. See also my paper "Constructions. The Crisis of the Representation of Language and the Sign in Post-Structuralism" (1998/2000).
[7] the motto of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

For a bibliography, please check the Selected Bibliography page.