The Practice of Appreciation Posted on December 28th
In the New York Times the other day, Roberta Smith wrote an article titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Art about the obtuse and pretentious language in art criticism today. Smith takes issue with three words: privilege, reference (both used as verbs) and the term practice used to describe what artists do. Smith seems particularly uncomfortable with the word “practice,” claiming that it characterizes art-making as a white-color activity, that it implies that artists need license to practice (of which she disagrees) and, most interestingly, that “practice” indicates that art is ultimately a problem-solving activity. Here’s how Smith puts it:
Second is the implication that an artist, like a doctor, lawyer or dentist, is trained to fix some external problem… Art rarely succeeds when it sets out to fix anything beyond the artist’s own subjective needs.
Smith’s issue with the word practice is less interesting than the bold claim it leads her to about the purpose of art. She seems to believe that art is most successful when it doesn’t try to tackle any problem outside the artist’s psyche or aesthetic aims. Sunil Gangadharan at Art and Perception wrote an insightful response that makes the point that art often draws attention to global problems, perhaps encouraging “the viewer to think about (and in the ideal case, acting to alleviate) a problem hitherto unknown or underrepresented”–thereby tackling an “outside” problem. Certainly this would be the goal of most political art.
I have never thought of art as a problem-solving activity, outside of the inherent problem-solving in bringing an intention to realization. Art may gesture towards problems in the world, but I agree that the best art does not aim to “fix” anything. The purpose of art will always be debated, but my natural response is that art, rather than solving problems, is a means to a greater valuing of the world, problems and all. The best art is a sophisticated and distinctive appreciation of the world, and the best art criticism is a sophisticated and distinctive appreciation of art.
Without art, what we would appreciate in the world would be limited. We would no doubt appreciate food, water, shelter, family, and any personal relationships that benefited us. But our pleasures would likely be restricted to only what contributed to our survival and immediate happiness, and our way of ordering the world would probably consist of a simple dichotomy: good and bad. Good things help us survive or feel good, and bad things impede our survival and hurt. Art, however, gives us the ability–and the permission–to appreciate the unclassifiable details of the world. For instance, without art, we might find the natural world beautiful, or we might be drawn to a hard-to-read feature in someone else, like a sardonic yet shy smile. The appreciation of such things perhaps existed before art, but it is art that encourages us to dwell in and value these perceptions.
Art is also a supreme comfort because it gives credence, by its very attention, to the various moods and modes of being. Joy, triumph, contentment all seem real to us because these are the things we want to feel as real, and suffering is real because of the vividness of pain. But the more subtle states of being–bittersweet melancholy, self-amusement, mischievousness–these states and every other, art argues, are just as real and just as capable of being valued.
When I find art or literature moving, I feel as if the art is elaborating on something I once felt briefly. For instance, Hawthorne’s “My Visit to Niagara” explores the numbness and intimidation and loss of self we sometimes feel in the presence of natural phenomena. I felt, when reading “Niagara” that I also had this experience in the presence of nature (my visit to the Andes in Peru was one example). But like so many sensations throughout the course of life, I let myself be swept along to the next experience without pausing on the significance and singularity of that moment. Good art slows the world down and shows us the dimensionality in even the most transient of experiences. Art is perpendicular to life: if a lifetime is a horizontal and forward-moving, art is vertical–showing us the heights and depths in moments from which we are compelled to move on. Art may not fix the problems of the world, but it shows us the fullness of what’s at stake.Trackback URL