abstract painting

Art: As Reaction or Act in Itself Posted January 2014 by Jitendra Suman

The present discourse entails certain basic issues regarding the nature of artistic work and the role the life of an individual artist plays in the process of creating a work. First, the position “art as reaction” situates artistic work under the larger scheme of social life where both meaning and the process of creating that meaning are determined or shaped by the forces outside the artistic domain. The second position, “art as an act in itself” indicates the autonomy of an artistic act, an issue which is in perennial debate through the modern period. In this perspective, the meaning of artistic work is described as immune from other areas of human life, essentially non-artistic. In both of these diametrically opposed positions, the notion of individual freedom or the freedom of an artist is central. The nature of this freedom needs to be discussed.

Dissecting the Debate:

The question of art as a reaction or an act in itself compels us to ask what precisely an artistic act is; how is it different from other non-artistic human acts and if there is a relationship between these two positions, what is the nature of that relationship? What precisely is an artistic act? In order to investigate the nature of an artistic act we have to take into consideration the historical perspective attached to this issue. György Lukács holds the view that in order for us to know where we stand and where we are going, we must have clear perspective; we must know where we have come from and what roads we have traveled. In determining the nature of an artistic act we have to differentiate it into two categories: pre-modern and modern artistic acts. The same is applicable to human acts in general. Pre-modern artistic acts can only be defined under the larger notion of human acts. In pre-modern society there was no such differentiation of scientific, religious and artistic modes of reflection as distinctly different from one another. Human acts at this stage are indistinguishable. They have unity in their mode of operation as well as in their expression.

During later stages, up to the end of the medieval period some development occurred regarding the separation of artistic and non-artistic acts. This movement appeared explicitly in ancient Greece where freedom of the individual as a citizen of city republics led to a unique development. It symbolized the pride of the people in their city and enhanced their unity. Through art, human ideals were represented. But it was still a freedom fight. With respect to the eastern world artistic activity was largely done for ritualistic purposes. There are examples of non-religious art but they are meager. However the most remarkable development occurred with the commencement of the modern period. Here the notion of individual freedom emerged as the defining condition of human existence based on the notion of the equality of all human beings. The artist’s life has taken on totally new dimensions – radical and anarchic. These two mentioned attributes are largely determined by the human ecology of a particular cultural area. As explained above pre-modern artistic activities were subsumed under general human activity. The artist’s life was part of community life as mentioned in Ferdinand Tönnies Gemeinschaft; or community life. Community life was the manifestation of the consensual value system of the society.

But with the modern period a marked shift occurred regarding this aspect. Modernity questioned the consensual value system. With this questioning, modernity derived the logic of its existence and sustenance. Such opposition of the general value system appears inevitable when we review the course of human history, especially western European history during the post-renaissance period. This questioning became the deciding character of the notion of individual freedom. Thus emerged the notion of the atomistic individual; alienated from his community, struggling to accomplish the idea of absolute freedom. These atomistic individuals segregated from society and congregated with fellow crusaders of individuality to form their own micro communities. This was the case, especially with modern artists. Members of these micro communities share a distinct framework of a self-evolved meaning system. Chief characters of this meaning system were the idea of innovation and novelty. Innovation itself became a major value shaping both the artist’s work and his life. Social context of the artistic act was denied especially regarding the impact of artistic creation upon the general social environment. Artists refute that their work has any other objective except the artistic one. From here we could derive a second argument of our present discourse that art is an act in itself. But as far as my view is concerned this is not a true condition. No act can be enacted without having strings attached to it, explicitly and implicitly from the areas contradictory to that act. Art is not for art’s sake.

Thus many a time art is a reaction. Like the first major modern artist Manet who in 1860 challenged the traditional assumption of art cannon, in a number of ways. Impressionists, themselves like a micro community, formed a closed group of fellow artists who organized their own exhibitions following the scandalous ‘Salon des Refuses’ held in Paris in 1863. Similarly Surrealism and Dadaism emerged as a reaction to the anarchic conditions of the first and Second World Wars in Europe. Their exhibitions were intended to bemuse and outrage. Shock elements or alternative reflections with uncommon meanings were the primary driving forces. One could find similar patterns of development in other fields of art such as music, sculpture, literature, and architecture. In my opinion the artistic act is a part of a social act. Obsessive senses of individuality led to the formation of many hallucinatory assumptions regarding the relationship between the individual and his/her society. I believe that an act in an individual life cannot be atomistic as we don’t have a compartmentalized consciousness.

It therefore emerged that the notion of freedom in democratic societies was an illusion, especially when juxtaposed against other necessities of the human condition. Like in a market context, the meaning of an artwork is greatly compromised with respect to its potential to be saleable. Artistic experience comes under general consumerist pleasure. Thus freedom of an artist is ruled by the laws of the marketplace. Whereas the pre-modern artist was in direct and fertile contact with his audience, the modern artist, with his sense of unlimited freedom, experiences a severely loosened and sometimes completely eliminated, contact with his community. This situation emerged due to the denial of social context and a highly impulsive orientation. Emmanuel Kant‘s philosophy largely measures the theoretical foundation of the modern concept of freedom. He suggested that an act should have clear direction from the conscience of the actor and that conscience must have a social context within the community. In the end I would like to say that we cannot turn back and we shouldn’t. Although it is worth appreciating that in regard to the idea of freedom, human society has recognized the value of each individual. But this freedom should not be impulsive. It must have the backing of human conscience. I don’t want to use the word reaction with artistic creation. Instead I would like to use the word reflection. Art is a reflection which intends to interpret the relationship between the individual and his community as well as the nature around him. And this reflection is shaped by the artist’s conscience.

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