Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Repost: How Art is Philosophical

In the last two posts I wrote about the philosophical nature of true art, and how a purely political art is rightfully labeled as propaganda.   I left off last time with the question about the use of art for propagandist purposes, or rather the misuse of art.   In order however to understand how art is misused, it may be good to understand exactly what I mean when I say that art, as opposed to propaganda, is philosophical.

In the example pointed out before, the Shootings of May Third, is the depiction of a particular historic event.  What raises this painting however to the level of art, is that also represents a universal truth about humanity.   It is not simply that the painting depicts the scene of the firing squad, that makes this art, but that it depicts the real emotion, the defiant courage of the man in the face of death, that all men feel kinship to.   This scene, which to a historian would be a mere fact, becomes through the focus on the executed man's courage, a vessel for communicating a universal truth to anyone who views it, regardless of having knowledge of the particular circumstances of this historic event.  

The historians might tell us that such a painting is not entirely accurate depiction of the events of May Third, or even that this happened some other time, but to an artist this is unimportant.   Rather than being interested in the accuracy of an event depicted, an artist is more interested in the truth, the universal truth of this man's courage.    Indeed this is why fiction is so lauded, because it tells us more truth in the telling of a story than science might ever tell us.   The novelist Patrick O'Brian points this out through the imminently philosophical scientist, Dr. Stephen Maturin.
But I imagine, sir,' - to Stephen - ' that you read books on medicine, natural philosophy, perhaps history - that you do not read novels or plays.'  'Sir,' said Stephen, 'I read novels with the utmost pertinacity.  I look upon them - I look upon good novels - as a very valuable part of literature, conveying more exact and finely-distinguished knowledge of the human heart and mind than almost any other, with greater breadth and depth and fewer constraints."  - Patrick O'Brian, The Nutmeg of Consolation.
The art of literature then tells us more about the universal nature of man than any discourse on psychology or anatomy ever could, because it focuses on what is universally true about man, not just what is correct.   Simply painting a man on his horse would tell us no more than a photograph might, but should that man be pointing and sternly riding a rearing horse, what is communicated is clearly the virtues of his great leadership and stern courage, which makes message of the painting not the man, but the virtues which can be universally known to all men.  This is what makes art philosophical, that art speaks about parts of the soul of human beings which are common to all of us.

What makes something art is that it depicts not just the events and situation of a particular event or person, but that depicts the parts of about human nature which are universal to all mankind, and through that points to something other than the mere facts of our existence. 

Posted on Beatus Est on 10/18/2011

Repost: Political vs Philosophical Art

In the last post I wrote about how art is used to promote political ends, such as the coerced composition of the 5th Symphony of Shostakovich.    The final distinction I left off with, that while art some is sometimes made to be political, all art is philosophical, deserves to be looked at further.

Politics is by its nature a changeable thing, something that despite the advent of "political science" still manages to be a fickle thing, not responding to theories of unbreakable rules.  This is because politics is related to particular, rather than universal things, particular politicians, particular issues, budgets, and voters, all of which are subject to the particular circumstances of a time.   In other words, a political campaign which one time worked in one state might not work in another, or even the same state at a different time.  

A purely political art then is a work of art that is used to promote a particular political end.   A purely political art is most properly called propaganda, it is used to propagate, promote and convince people of the goodness or importance of an issue.   After this particular issue or cause is no longer in play, the purely political art loses its moorings and becomes meaningless, art then becomes merely an item of curiosity.   The art of the Chinese Cultural Revolution comes to mind, the posters don't really move you to anything other than finding the design striking and interesting. 

Politics and politicians however are not guided simply by particular circumstances, but rather (at least the best of them) are guided by principles that are applied to particular circumstances.    The principles are what a philosopher would call universals.   The universal truths, such as justice, equality, courage, et cetera.  When we see these universal principles as the guiding force of work of a politician, rather than simply the expedient, we acknowledge this as a great thing and label such people "statesmen" rather a politician.

Art then works the same way.   The universals are at work in the best works of art, the courage of a man, the need for justice, the longing for beauty, these make the best art universally loved, thus we call it "Art."    On the other hand, art which is purely used for political ends, which has little or no value in the universal sense, but is valued as we said only for the particular circumstance of the time and place, is called "propaganda."   But yet, even in art which is intentionally political, which might be called propaganda in some sense, still can express the human virtues in a universal way.

Looking at Goya's The Shootings of May Third, we do not have to understand the particular political event which inspired the painting to be inspired by this.   The defiance of the man with his arms stretched out stands out.   He may be a radical, or a monarchist or whatever party, but his courage is what strikes everyone viewing this painting, this universal virtue turns Goya's painting from propaganda into the realm of true art.

Thus it is the universals, the philosophical, which makes art what it is, but the purely political degrades art into the realm of propaganda.    The artist stands to the propagandist like the statesman 
stands to the political hack.

But what happens when the propagandist uses, or more correctly misuses art for terrible ends?

Posted on Beatus Est on 9/28/2011

Repost: Shostakovitch, Art and Propaganda

Today I came across a very interesting show about a piece of 20th century music, which raises interesting questions about the nature of art, politics, philosophy and propaganda.    The program, PBS' "Keeping Score" with Michael Tilson Thomas, explores the history of the creation of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony and how the life of an artist in the early years of 20th Century Russia was affected by the totalitarian government of the Soviet Union.

I found the show interesting in that it explores not just the music qua music, but that music is a particularly powerful means of not just expression but of propaganda.   Every person interviewed in this program acknowledges that music, indeed all has a power greater than just to be enjoyed, but that it has a deep power that can be used to political ends.    Stalin recognized this, and before the 5th Symphony, made Shostakovitch persona non grata with a particularly scathing review of his opera, labeling the music as antithetical to the state.

To the totalitarian Soviet Regime (indeed all totalitarian regimes), all art is in a sense "political" and therefore simply a tool to be used for or against the regime, so artists are chosen for their support of the state.  This is however only somewhat true, as some art is intrinsically political (anthems, statues of patriots etc,) but some art is only political due to its adoption by a party or state.  The adoption of Wagner as quasi-politico-religious themes by 1930s Germany is a good example of this, as Wagner was dead before the Nazis came to power.   This exposes the difference between the works of art made to be political from those used for political ends. What makes this possible is not that all art is political, but that all art is philosophical.   

This is a theme which I am currently exploring further so look forward to another post explaining further that connection between philosophical art and political art.

Posted on Beatus Est on 9/22/2011