Art and the artistic in a time of war

“Lo más terrible se aprende enseguida,

Y lo hermoso nos cuesta la vida.”

Sergio Rodríguez

It is difficult to write about art at this time. It may also be strange for the reader who can see that I have never written about art before. Nevertheless, however extemporaneous it may seem, this is precisely the moment to speak about art. In a time of war and closed minds,  art seems to be out of place, but, as I will try to show here, precisely this difficulty shows us the roots of war and conflict.

First we need to recognise that this recession of art into obscurity is not a product of war, but happens before it. Indeed, if I am not wrong, war is a product of the loss of art. A permanent state of war is in this sense a product of a permanent loss of the meaning and the reality of art and the beautiful.

In the context of the dominant techno-centric world view, art is also forgotten. Instead of art we have technique. Even in war and other human conflicts, instead of “the art of war” we have only miserable tactics and dishonourable, twisted manoeuvre. Even more characteristically, techno-centrism devalues anything artistic, so that any “performance,” passes as art, and everybody, anybody is an “artiste” –as a now forgotten French critic once said. In this world, “everything goes.” This is as true as the fact that the current state of permanent but trivialised war would not be possible outside of the techno-centric world.

So, in the place of beauty and art we have the ugly, mechanical product of expediency-seeking individuals.

What is the essence of art? This question is necessary here, because we must first note the obvious: the fact that art has changed. Hence it is not easy to arrive at a definition. In fact, the loss of art has everything to do with the changes and shifts in the practice and the definition of the artistic.

In general, it can be said that art has changed within and through social transformations. Keen observers of the artistic sphere are aware of the fact that art (in the past) had a social meaning, to the point that in some periods, art was essential to the fundamental human practices, for example for agriculture.

In those periods (I have also in mind for example the sense of the musical in the Confucian rites) art was not only directed to the social, but it actually represented the social.

Art had rules, conventions: it was also social in that it purposefully followed those rules and conventions and human relationships were meant by art, as well as manifesting themselves through art.

But, precisely because art was so innately social in past eras, it is possible to see an important connection in that artistic practices were not “realist,” while art becomes realist only during and because of the ascent of the private individual (I must underscore that this process was not linear or continuous). For sure, I am assuming here that antique and classic depictions of reality do not correspond to and cannot be equated to any form of realism as we had after the Renaissance. Antique and Classic realism is the realism of the ideal, where Modern and pre-Modern realism are the realism of the individual “point of view.”

On the other hand, by a quirk of history, art had to become realist (prefiguring Science) so to conserve its original intention of re-presentation. We have to distinguish this, though, from the need to become realist which arose from the need to become exchangeable.

Contrasting evidence, in support of the above, is that art had to become less realistic, once the transition to the wordless, person-less era was complete. Art became abstract and fragmentary, incomplete, when finally its function became less social and revealed itself as more differentiated (i.e. self-referential).

Realism and non-realism proceed in cycles and epicycles, and we can also find one within the other. In many cases realism appears only to open the door to non-realism, and vice-versa.

In correlation with these cycles, we can see also the corresponding movements towards or away of artistic rules and conventions. By these rules I mean the “what” and “how” of the depiction, as well as the choice of materials and instruments.

The essential observation is, though, that both the realist-antirealist changes, as the coming and going of rules and modalities of art do not negate the artistic altogether. And art may still be called art despite these changes. My understanding is that the core of art is not in the rules or conventions, and also not in the symbols (realistic or not) it may use or portray.

Indirectly, rules and symbols show the action-activity of the artist. This activity, as human movement and commitment of attention, is indifferent to the object of art, in the same measure as the object of art is indifferent to this activity.

This means that there is a quality of human concrete, committed movement, which is not dependent on the rules of conventions of the artistic. More specifically, it is not dependent on social relevance or acceptance. This quality is also not dependent on the prevailing social symbols.

If we weigh the nature and evidence of change and permanence art and the practices of the artistic, we can see that what can be called art is the activity itself, and what can be recognised as art (across the ages) is the quality of the “work of art” as human work, even if the product does not fit contextual conventions and symbols.

I am not saying anything new by asserting that this explains the persistent value of pre-modern, classic and prehistoric art.

In this sense I am inclined to say that human beings “recognise” art “when they see it.” This means that we are able to perceive a quality of art which is independent of the social epoch.

It has been said (correctly) that art had a quality of “completeness” in the past, when it articulated the purpose (intention), the rules of form, the expertise in the handling of the tools and the and masterful selection and exploitation of the materials. Indeed, classical art, more so in the classical antique, represented a qualitative fullness, articulating these aspects at the height of its perfection. In this context it might be said that religious purpose should not be seen as the only or main sign of completeness.

Completeness –to reiterate—is not a matter of the use of this or that symbol, but of articulation of purpose, form, agency and material.

An illusion may arise here by which all previous art would be disqualified as art for not proceeding from particular ethnic groups or national formations; but this can happen only if we adhere to an aesthetic of the symbol and ignore the other three aspects of human action.

So, while it is correct to highlight the completeness of articulation in some particular eras, it is much better to go further and discover what this entails: above everything else, the completeness of the activity itself, i.e. the completeness of human movement.

It is not superfluous to indicate here that human movement has a large albeit bounded level of freedom. This obviously is derived by the relative lack of specialization of the human body.

This power, this connection, this primordial source of completeness (and of freedom) has taken hold of human societies in many different ways and senses, and this connection continues to happen.

For the key is that rules, conventions, materials and symbols are sought in particular ways (and can be recognised as art) only because certain instances of these remain as art. The quality we are seeking to grasp is neither in the conventions themselves, nor in the symbols or the materials, but in the structure, the “form” of the articulation.

This “form” regulates the interaction and sequence of the conventions, symbols and materials, but also the internal structure of each of these realms. In some cases, for example in the realm of “agency,” the movements of the body have a quality of articulation which can be called more or less artistic independently of the other moments of the totality.

This form too, i.e. what can be distinguished, relies on and depends on a proportion, a match or comparative weight of the different moments of action. More than a simple proportion of one versus the other, we should see here a series of proportions or better a “continuous proportion” of movement. This continuous proportion is the “secret” of all art.

So, when we say art (or Art), we mean this structure, this series of articulations. And when we say that something is artistic we mean that it shows at least in part some of these articulations. The artistic then may be incomplete, as when a movement can qualify as artistic even without having an object (a material to impress).

Following this train of thought we can say that what has happened with art in the modern and postmodern periods is that we have lost the basis of art (the mediated articulated activity of the individual) in the measure that this basis is now atomised, automated and rootless. So that even if the activity were complete –and even if rules, conventions, symbols and materials are adopted in imitation of past eras–, the artistic activity is still dead. It is dead because it is incomplete. It is empty not because it lacks a purpose, but because its purpose is incompleteness.

Now, the tragic sign of our times, when art is anomic and atomised, is that we can still find the artistic impulse holding the “work” together. Consider the pathetic scene of the rootless individual holding a mask with a desperate gesture, sometimes in secret.

Conventions are still employed, symbols are shown, roles are followed, and materials are worked upon. The painter still paints on a surface intended to be seen!

In the completeness of articulation we just have a better understanding of mimesis, of the imitation of nature. In fact, a comprehension that art may use symbols and follow rules, while fundamentally being itself a “symbol” i.e. a mimetic chain of human actions which follows, repeats the pre-existing movements of nature.

In this sense art is natural for the human being (and it comes naturally to us), but human art is not natural insomuch as it separates nature from itself. Technology, i.e. the artistry of the post cultural era, is not natural because it is invented, although we have done nothing but vanquish nature.

Art is natural as nature, only because it is layered, arranged, and similar to nature and directed to human nature; but art is not natural in the measure that it is human. “art imitates nature” means “art is natural action,” while simultaneously asserting that art is essentially human, and only as essentially human art can become non-art. Art has become technology.

On these lines we may understand, first, that there is also rule and convention even in the most anomic art; and second, that there is art in every human activity.

As in the space of the artistic, in technology we also follow conventions and symbols (we even develop sub cultures!) and this is so because all human activity has to be articulated, mediated, and action by default follows certain proportions of movement and interaction. Human action in the world does not exist but rooted in and branching out of fundamental articulations.

All of the above may help and lead to understand that what we seek in art is the artistic life (and not only the product of art). We seek artistic life through the product of art, as a participation and celebration of a life crowned by art. We seek empathy even with the remotest forms of art.

Is this possible in a world absorbed and framed by technology? It is possible if we seek completeness, overcoming the overwhelming lack of empathy and love of beauty that seems to be the mark of our time.

The lack of empathy is currently a force, the context that surrounds art and everything artistic, but also all and every other human action. And it can be said that the march of the modern and post-modern is driven by growing post-cultural and anomic behaviours. Modern and post-modern art (if and when these existed) were not inferior to classic and antique art for what they did (everything is possible!) but by the fact that they died in a world of emptiness.

It still remains to be seen if, even in a period that has forgotten art, the artistic life, the complete life, whether ignored or not, is still possible, or — better said– if we can still have meaningful examples of heroic life and death.