On Art

Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?  (David Chalmer, Hard Problem of Consciousness).

I have always thought that too much interest in why certain things happen leads only to frustration (which occasionally produces a book or two, and maybe tenure for the really lucky among us, but at what cost to the soul?). The prime objective of a beautiful life, to my mind, has never been to take all our aesthetic relationships and reduce them universally to one rational narrative (however elegant); the best theory of art (say that of Schopenhauer), lovely as it is, pales in comparison to art itself (especially when one discovers some art that one really loves doing).

I do not say this as someone who hates theory. On the contrary, I love it (and Schopenhauer’s theory of art) a great deal, akin to the way some people love painting or music. But it is only partial, a single piece in a puzzle too large to be finished (or fit together too neatly). To focus too hard upon finishing the puzzle once and for all is to neglect other things: Schopenhauer himself made time to enjoy art, not just to reflect on it, and I am not persuaded that he wouldn’t have done better to practice it more (to get out and make something, even something ‘inferior’ to the greatest of which his generation was capable).

In the final analysis, I don’t really care why physical processing should give rise to a rich inner life. I am more about cultivating that life. The theory I accumulate for myself is a series of notes to my own inner life: it becomes richer and more meaningful to me and others who appreciate me as I populate my experience with art that I do, that I embody (poorly sometimes) for myself. Part of that experience is necessarily enjoying the art of others, the community of humans I find out there (in the places where I live and move and have my being). But I should not let my appreciation for their art displace the need I have to produce my own, and I should never be so tangled in the need to explain art that I forget to enjoy and produce it.

I don’t think there is such a thing possible as a universally satisfying explanation for art. (But if that is what you are looking for, you could do worse than to read Schopenhauer.)