Oscar Wilde, who made a pretty living out of making subversive, witty and astute social observations said, “All art is entirely useless”. After all, he was one to know. Having written a handful of droll plays and a novel about a portrait taking over the life of its sitter, he was still bound by the tedium of life’s practical problems. His dirty dishes didn’t disappear when he flung a leather-bound poetry anthology at them, nor did the flat tyre of his carriage auto-inflate to the sound of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.
Wilde’s facetiousness would have been reviled by Stephen Dedalus, the 22 year-old hero of Joyce’s Portrait and later of Ulysses.
Young Stephen takes art extremely seriously as did the many ‘greats’ before him. In the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses he’s strolling down Sandymount Strand and decides to close his eyes as he walks to see how far he can get in the ‘dark’. He takes a few steps but just before he opens his eyes again a suitably verbose thought strikes him: “Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? … Basta! I will see if I can see. See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.”
Stephen, self-absorbed and brilliant wants to know if the world continues to exist when he stops seeing it. Unfortunately of course, he will never find out because he can’t have his eyes open and closed at once.
Wilde’s idea that art was –in practical terms – absolutely useless and Stephen’s anxiety about the relationship of his senses to the outside world make for nice discussion points about the purpose and perception of art.
These days it’s not difficult to be classed as an artist. I’ve heard pedagogues described as “teaching artists” and people that roll dough as “pastry artists”. I’m all for it. The idea that there’s such a thing as an “artist” who exists on a plane of perception loftier than that of mere mortals is archaic and implausible. While the indiscriminate use of the term “artist” might be democratising and flattering to the individual, in effect it has now become a pleasant synonym for “skilled”.
Since it’s now acceptable to use the term “art” to refer to general skill rather than individual genius, Wilde – were he still here-would have to admit that “art” in its broadest understanding has become very useful indeed. I’m sure he would have delighted in calling in a “drainage artist” to unblock his toilet.
There’s something deeply unsatisfying about sealing off the definition of art as coterminous with “skill” though. To be skilled may be considered a favourable, functional quality leading generally to better prospects but doesn’t being an artist require something more than just know-how? A particular kind of sensibility perhaps? What happened to the image of the melancholic artist living in a hut penning poetry about his unrequited love? What about the assumption that pure art is “divinely” inspired?
Christopher Witcombe, Professor of Art History at Sweet Briar College, Virginia traces the emergence of the modern understanding of the artist back to the sixteenth century. He argues that during that period, “A work of art was believed to contain an extra indefinable spiritual essence”. This “divine” inspiration was impossible to explain and so the Italians referred to it as “un non so che” (I don’t know what), which was later taken up by the French, who called it the “je- ne-sais-quoi”.
People naturally became fascinated with the mysterious, god-like figures who created celestial masterpieces. Theories about their personalities and temperaments emerged and thinkers came to the consensus that the quality, which predestined an individual to become an artistic genius, was melancholia. It wasn’t a new idea; Aristotle had thought it before, and Hippocrates guessed that it occurred as a result of a build-up of black bile in the body.
Not much has changed. We’re still fascinated with the idea of “artists” today. And no, I’m not talking about the ones that teach our kids, roll our pastries and fix our toilets. Language is constantly changing, but no matter how loose the term “artist” has become, we still differentiate in our own way between those possessing a skill and those with an innate “genius” quality.
Present-day admirers, like their Renaissance counterparts, continue to elevate their artist heroes to deity status. One of the many adoring comments under a youtube video featuring the actress Natalie Portman claims “if you don’t like Natalie Portman you don’t like God”.
One of my students, a middle-aged French lady, once said that she considered Lady Gaga an artist in the “true sense”. I’m not sure how she justified it, but she reinforced the widespread assumption that ‘pure’ artistry actually exists.
Luckily, we’re living in an era of relentless scientific inquiry and rather than accepting that true artists are born god-like to inspire us with awe, we can test the theory by removing some of the potential confounders.
Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post set out to do just that in 2007. He asked world-renowned concert violinist Joshua Bell to help him conduct an experiment to determine whether people would recognise the intrinsic value of art in the absence of relevant context. Bell was an ideal specimen for such an experiment. His playing had been famously described by Interview Magazine as doing “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”
Weingarten asked Bell to pick up his violin, dress up in jeans and a cap and perform for 45 minutes at a Washington metro stop during rush hour. Just days before, he’d sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall, with tickets $100 a piece.
During Bell’s performance, 1070 people hurried by without stopping, 27 gave money, and seven paused to listen for at least a minute. At no point did a crowd gather. One lady recognised the performer and gave him $20, which amounted to a significant portion of the total $32 and change he made that day.
So context matters. When people are in a rush, they’re not primed to recognise brilliance, or even as many describe Bell, genius. They’re not used to train stations playing host to maestros and anyway, they’re not really in the mood for “art”. The kids need to be picked up, and the laundrette closes at 2.
Knowledge matters too. The difference between a virtuoso violinist and an amateur is easy to identify if you’re a classical music enthusiast, or if you play yourself. Not so if you’ve never consciously listened to anything like it before.
Unless of course, a truly essential or “divine” quality really does exist, in which case, we should be able to identify it without prior knowledge or relevant context.
Which brings us right back to Sandymount Strand, where Stephen Dedalus, himself a wannabe artist is testing his own perception against the idea of an objective reality.
It’s a futile attempt because it’s impossible to escape the bounds of his own perception. Stephen can’t ‘see’ with his eyes closed and he can never be sure of what happens to the world when he shuts it out with darkness.
When I was at school, I found it strange that entire groups of friends seemed to like the same music. It confused me and sometimes it made me unsure of what I really liked and what I thought I should like. Was artistic appreciation a prerequisite for forming bonds? Or did people simply like the music their friends liked, because they were primed to see its value? It’s impossible to know really. Teenage sensibilities seemed to be invested heavily in film and music, and less so in visual art and writing. I couldn’t imagine lunchtime conversations featuring encyclopaedic knowledge and endless speculation about the direction of Irish sculpting or the American short story back then.
One of the most appealing attributes of art is that it evades definition. Is a well-placed mahogany chair “art”? What about a stickman figure Picasso may have penned when he was drunk? We delight in arguing about these questions because deep inside us, the idea of “art” as something pure and divinely inspired hasn’t vanished. We talk about skill, because it’s measurable: This genius savant has an IQ of ‘200’ and that performer could play the trickiest passages from Chopin at the age of seven.
New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that the possibility to become an artistic genius lies in all of us. All it takes, he feels, is diligent practice, single-focus and proper mentorship. He reminds us that the brain is plastic, and that we “construct ourselves through behaviour”.
The Irish Times recently reported on a study that found that when subjects gazed at artwork they found particularly beautiful, they experienced a surge of Dopamine, (known as the “reward” neurotransmitter) through the brain at levels equivalent to gazing at a loved one.
In this experiment, the brain simply responds to a visual stimulus, which it has already categorised as beautiful. The Irish Times conclusion that “these findings have significant implications for Government policy” is a leap too far however. The study tested subjects with pre-existing notions of beauty. It did not explore other potential pleasure-stimuli, like a beautiful view, the smile from a stranger, a spontaneous meeting or the feeling of soft sand under your feet.
Dopamine pathways aren’t just activated by a masterpiece. They also play a key role in the progress of addiction as well as during eating and sex.
Society shouldn’t formalise art. It should encourage us to look more deeply at the world around us and to be creative in what we class beautiful. If you’ve lived all your life in a high-rise block of council flats littered with crisp bags and dirty runners, you might not be flooded with dopamine when you visit an art gallery. Maybe though, when you look outside your window and see a flower popping its head out of the box you planted it in, you will feel a rush of pleasure.
Oscar Wilde, who had “nothing to declare” but his own “genius”, fell victim to a society, which classified art into moral highs and lows. His love- surely the highest of all art forms-for another man landed him in prison in Paris, where he died a pauper’s death. Maybe it was this world of narrow definitions, which Stephen Dedalus was shutting out when he walked in darkness along Sandymount Strand.
High Art and Low Art don’t exist. Every one of us can experience moments of intense pleasure and awe. It can be at the taste of your first Lindt bunny after Lent, at the birth of your first child, or in the look in the eyes of your grandmother as she knits you a Christmas sweater. It can be in the middle of traffic in an ugly part of town or in the vast expanse of a city’s art gallery. It’s all around us.