Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Art: A Piece of Eternity

The conversation about art and its modification continues, and Tom at Disputations some interesting posts on the topic. One of the topics that's being batted around in the comments is: If art constitutes a contribution to the 'cultural conversation' (a premise which I'm not sure what I think of, since I'm always leary of 'conversation' metaphors) then isn't modifying an artist's work simply more of the conversation?

There seem to be two basic points of view. The one essentially says that the work of art is itself the artist's statement about the world, and so changing it in any way constitutes attempting to modify the artist's message: essentially making as if he had something other than he did. Thus modifying art is seen as lying and also attacking the integrity of the artist's expression.

The other view sees art as the artist's contribution to 'the conversation' as a specific moment in time. Taken in that sense, changing the work of art consists of making a further contribution to the conversation, and not in any sense falsifying the original statement of the artist.

I'm hesitant to try to nail all this down rationally, in that I am not sure that my beliefs about art are all that rational. (I'm not saying that they're irrational so much as that they are not derived from me sitting down and reasoning out a position.) Still, having thought about it for the past few days I believe I can say that the reason why changing another artist's work strikes me as such a bad idea.

As several people have pointed out, art is a sub-creative act. We imitate God by creating a small fragment of a world, ordered by our ideas of beauty and how the world is (or ought to be). However, there is another sense in which the artist's act is 'godlike', in that the artist is trying to stretch beyond the boundaries of our mortal condition by creating his own 'world' which (if properly taken care of) stands to last many centuries after the artist himself has turned to dust. Thus, the art created by some unknown sculptor in Greece 2400 years ago still conveys a statement that, "Once I lived, and I saw the world thus. Once I created that which was beautiful." Thus, through art, man strives for life after death, through concretizing his thoughts in such a way as to share them with others years, centuries or millennia hence.

Some would call this desire for one's own thought and vision, unchanged by others, to last our the centuries selfish. All very well for the artist, but what good does it do the viewer to have these static artifacts of some long dead person's vision sitting around? To my mind, it actually gives the viewer quite a bit. In viewing the art or reading the words of a long dead artist, we come to experience as clearly as we ever can experience such things how another person thought and felt and viewed the world. What he was, what he believed the world was, and what he wished to convey to people after his death. Thus, if someone changes the artist's work, that person also robs future viewers of the ability to truly know the artist. When art is changed or destroyed, the artist dies again.

Now, some artist aren't worth keeping alive for eternity. I'm hesitant to actively destroy art (count me out on book burning, even of really execrable stuff) but at the same time I see no particular reason to take care of art that isn't good, or that is actively bad. But changing art (unless you're creating a wholly new piece based on someone else's original) seems to violate this 'art as eternity' purpose.

If there's an argument against this way of looking at things, I think it's probably that there's some art whose greatness no one questions which is no longer whole. The Venus de Milo is an obvious example. The Parthenon Frieze is another.

These works are of unquestioned value, yet we don't see them as they were originally created. And more disturbing yet, to my assessment, is the possibility that part of what makes these works so appealing is that the slight vagueness that age has imposed upon these works. Were they more beautiful when newly made, or does the fact that we ourselves must fill in the gaps provide a universality that the original, newly-minted, lacked?


Anonymous said...

A lot of good food for reflection there, DC.


Pro Ecclesia said...

"These works [the Venus de Milo, et al] are of unquestioned value, yet we don't see them as they were originally created."

There's something iconic about the Venus de Milo sans appendages. If I were a Calvinist (which I most assuredly am NOT), I'd say that we see the Venus de Milo exactly as God meant for us to see her.


Steven said...

Dear Darwin,

I would say there is a third group that questions what one means by "modified." By Tom's definition, it seems that it means any derivitive works, which I would argue comprise not modifications to the original, but new works.

If we accept that, then modification as such is the natural progress of art. However, if we start to talk about making changes to the one and only original, we're into the territory where I agree entirely with what is here for "the fine arts."

(The other part of the difficulty at Tom's is that the defintion of art is never quite stated fully and he uses it to mean both fine arts and artifice--a defintion that takes in nearly every human activity and so renders any discussion about Art as such as nearly useless.)

But, irrevocably changing an original is, if not a crime or a sin, certainly often a great tragedy for those down the line. Napoleon's "modification" of the Sphinx comes to mind.



Unknown said...

Yes. We prefer the Pantheon friezes abstract and white, but they were originally vividly painted.

Darwin said...

Yeah, I know that's the way the Greek statues were originally made, but I find it incredibly hard to imagine...

Unknown said...

How about this: each artwork combines universal human values with aspects that are specific to a time. The human core of a work is what makes it a classic, not the patina of the times. With the Odyssey, we appreciate the story, the relationships, the themes, but we are not particularly attached to the many cliches (Book 17, if I recall correctly, is mostly a series of cliches).

Then again, each age tends to focus on those aspects of classics that confirm the fads and interests of the day. For example, the Romantics were fascinated with the fragmentary and so, had an especial appreciation of the fragments of the ancient world.