Monday, 21 May 2012

The ultimate question

I have always been nonplussed by the subject I teach, Art. I have to to cover content which is not based on hard evidence at all. I may be rewarded by the gusto with which students work at tasks I set them, but in the background lures a monstrous question: “What actually is this about?” I fear the student who comes up with it, and as a teacher I would cut a poor figure if I didn't answer. So I do answer. Most of it is bluff. What I can't have in my class room is the gratuitous notion “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I mark their works of art, so at least I must be able to tell them the fundamentals of Art, to the best of my knowledge and experience.

1 Universal beauty

The American crocodil is a beautiful animal
with special aesthetic preferences
Universal beauty does exist. The aesthetic experience is one of the motors of evolution. At least all motile creatures prefer configurations of the environment that match their own constitution and head towards these. We can see they do so.

So it is not a special feature of mankind, I believe that the amoeba which moves toward light actually enjoys it. What we call beauty is the perception of an environment which is better suited for survival. There is no reason to limit such joy to the human species. The experience of beauty is in the nose of the crocodile which smells a rotting corpse. Surely it runs for it.

Our species has preferences of its own, and these can be augmented and studied. Making art is a way to do so. It makes you susceptible for for the way nature hard-wired you. That's why you like to make art. This cannot be evaluated with a mark. I should not give you a bad mark for your painting when you happen to be colour-blind, should I? Nor do you deserve a good mark when you just follow an instinct, do you?

To some extent this universal beauty of the species homo sapiens can be laid out in prescriptions or rules. These tendencies of our sensory system have been studied by psychologists and art historians. For example, we like contrasts in form, so a sure way to draw attention to your work is exaggerating these contrasts. If you draw a lady, giving her large boobs will work. I would like to mark that, but unfortunately simply executing prescriptions won't work as some of these rules are remarkably contradictory. For example: symmetry is supposed to be beautiful, then why is it so often boring?

By the way, there may have been a time, when our ancestors walked in the savannah, that they liked the smell of rotting flesh as well. Those predecessors of ours were scavengers.

2 Cultural beauty

Paul McCarthy transforms dog's poo into a work of art
We are story tellers. We can learn from stories. Also we imitate behaviour of clever members of our tribe and learn from them doing so. That's how we build culture.

Culture is a massive development in evolution. We are not the only ones, a tribe of chimps teach each other how to use stones to crack hard nuts that grow in their forest, other chimps can't do it, wild dogs teach their youngsters hunting techniques which may differ per family, and old female elephants teach their daughters where to find water in their particular environment. But we are the champions of learning and teaching.
So that's what I do for a living. I teach you the art of our culture, Western Art, which is based in Europe and has grown into a global thing. I am not versed in traditional African art at all, that is a wholly different kettle of fish. You need a lot of knowledge of magic and sorcery to understand traditional African art. I am good at Western Art, and you are to learn about it. I can mark your attainment in culture.
To make it even more complicated: Western Art shows some strands that are quite incompatible with Universal Beauty. Sometimes I must teach you to appreciate ugly things! It takes a lot of knowledge about how ugly things came about to be beautiful to understand this strange phenomenon. That body of knowledge is called Art History. It is an amazing story.