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Art and Soul

by Rick Lewis

Art goes back to the earliest ages of humanity. Graceful, stylised cave paintings of deer and hunters show both our kinship and our differences from our ancestors. Some would say that the patterns on the edges of broken pieces of prehistoric pottery are art too. What links them to Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Jeff Koons’ kitsch dogs or Damien Hirst’s pickled shark, so that we can call them all by the same name of Art?

Anja Steinbauer in her introduction points out that the experts are divided over whether there could even be a single set of criteria to distinguish art from non-art. Yet we all have an idea, roughly, of when to use the word. Ludwig Wittgenstein once claimed that the word ‘game’ can’t be defined but that all games share a family resemblance with other games. In other words solitaire has something in common with poker (both involve cards) and poker has something in common with hockey (both are competitive) but solitaire has nothing directly in common with hockey. However, this web of resemblances lets us say that all three activities are games. The aesthetician Morris Weitz suggested that something similar may be true of different forms of art – so that trying to force all the different sorts of art into a single neatly-labelled category is a mistake.

Art comes in many forms, and this issue contains articles dealing with painting, with performance and with music. (We don’t have anything about literature as we’ll probably be publishing an issue devoted to it sometime next year.) Each field of art has its own particular questions. Even so, I had a sense that the various articles in this issue were different pieces of the same jigsaw. One fundamental question about art is ‘What is it?’, – but two others are ‘What is it for?’ and ‘How does it work?’

Art is often about things referring to one another or representing one another or evoking one another. One set of philosophical questions about art concern how this works. Marek Soszynski ponders how pictures represent the world. But much of art is to do with the emotions. Patricia Railing discusses how some early 20th century abstract painters saw the nature of artistic expression. In the process, she explains how they used Hermann Helmholtz’s discovery that different colours evoke different emotions, to represent or evoke emotions in their paintings.

I was particularly pleased to read Ben Ushedo’s piece discussing the link between music and the emotions. “What passions cannot music raise or quell?” asked Dryden, and it is certainly true that some music makes us bouncy and happy, some music inspires, other music leaves us feeling sad or lonely or regretful. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been faintly but persistently puzzled as to why that should that be. Why is a particular piece of music regarded as happy music, for instance? Is this due to a social convention which we somehow learn as we grow up? If so, could there be societies in which music that we regard as jolly could be heard as depressing or funereal? If not, how does music raise or quell emotions? Does this tell us anything about the way the brain processes emotions? Ben explains some competing explanations.

So what is art for, if anything? What is its purpose? For some provocative discussion of these matters see particularly ‘Dasein and the Arts’ by Reneh Karamians, and Raymond Tallis’ piece on art and the ultimate aims of human life. Karamians suggests that art, particularly music, relates to our fear of death and an attempt to take control of the remorseless passage of time. Professor Tallis thinks that art fulfils a basic hunger in humans – the hunger for meaning. There has never been a human society which has been without art, so clearly the artistic urge does reveal something very central about the nature of human beings. It can touch the souls of people who enjoy it but also reveals the souls of the artists.

Anja Steinbauer also explains Arthur Danto’s idea that art is collapsing into philosophy. But if Karamians and Tallis are right this won’t stop people producing art, or appreciating it. Art – good art, bad art, with or without theory – is simply indispensable because it satisfies basic human needs.

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