WHAT IS ART? THE HUMAN SPIRIT
A Meditation in Honor of George L. Sturman

 

by James Mann, Ph.D., Curator
Las Vegas Art Museum

 

I Art is the human imposed upon the natural world. No matter how distorted an artistic product is, it is made of something humanized. Art is made of something external to the world, humanly imposed upon the world, so that even the Impressionist painters couldn't deny the altering agency of the painter's eye, which imposes itself upon the world. This is the human possession of the world, rather than submission to it. Those artists who impose the most upon the world are the farthest from it. Instead of obedience to the world, they deny it, aggress against it. That is the most important thing artists do. As man's spirit becomes alienated from the world, the more beautiful the world is. The human spirit transcends the world. That transcendence could be the definition of "spirit." One can see it even in the paintings of animals in the cave man's art, the most profound art that there is, because it represents the force of those animals that the real animals themselves do not represent. These painted images are entirely spiritual forms: entirely, humanly imposed upon the observable shape and vigor of the animals; a greater impression than the living animals themselves produce. Because the animals become ennobled by the imposition of the form of the art. When a philistine praises a work of art as "realistic," the individual is inadvertently offering the simplest affirmation. By calling attention to its form above all else, the person is actually confirming or demonstrating that the art in question is not realistic--and that is all he is capable of judging. No work of art is or can be, in the simplest sense, realistic. All is at least subtly distorted and imposed upon the figuration of the thing itself. Mankind cannot in any sense invent or impose a fully correct or complete representation of the world. Man must always impose it in the form conceived by the spirit that interacts with the thing represented. Try as he can to depict the things of this world representationally, he fails. The attempted achievement is impossible--because of the interference of man's own spirit. This is the main reason why African art is so moving: its creation and existence are so thoroughly spiritual. African art resoundingly proves why whoever writes about the "spirit" in art is invariably successful. The "spirit" in art is what absolutely distorts the depicted imagery and makes it human. In all of the writing about art, the thing most valuable is the notion of "The Spiritual in Art" (Kandinsky's phrase). And all we mean by the spiritual is the degree to which the work of art does not anchor itself in the world. Of the meaning of our relation to the world, all that can be said is that it is "spiritual." And spirit equals transcendence.

II If the foregoing is a general theory of art, it seems almost too radically simplified. Yet it takes care of all the manifestations of art, down to, say, a little plaything used by Japanese children, a toy grasshopper with bells on it. We are trying to get at the concept of human experience. Everybody has tried, and everybody has succeeded, yet without knowing it. The human spirit is nothing knowable in itself but by the various manifestations of it: from the Great Sphinx in Egypt to the toys of childhood. The same process of deformation is found in all human artistic creations. The striking thing is that the deformation that occurs is a manifestation of both childhood and adult spirit. This is a new idea: that the deformation of the actual is the basic process, the essence of art, and is the sign of the human spirit at work. The human spirit turns the actual to its own purposes. The deformation of the actual is the sign of the human spirit. It is indeed the only concrete evidence of the human spirit. One of the simplest modes of deforming the actual is the mask. Who employs a mask? Why do we do it? The element of disguise is not paramount: instead, the distortion is paramount, the deformation. Deformation of the actual is the clue to art itself. The clearest, most basic clue to the manifestation of the human spirit. It is the beginning and end of all art. In all art there is deformation of the actual. Merely "realistic" painting in the occidental tradition is so unsatisfactory because it requires no work from the perceiver. Realistic painting is easy to like, because it requires no intellectual work to do so. Only when painting breaks the bounds of realistic imagery does it become really interesting. Impressionism is interesting first of all because it breaks through those bounds, the bounds of the literal. Impressionism shatters the illusion of the merely representational. This shattering leads us to an understanding of what art really is. Even in the oldest cave paintings, the depictive distortion, humanly imposed upon direct, visual experience, is what makes the pictures interesting, what makes them so valuable to us. Art appears when the illusion of representation is shattered. The illusion of the empirically, directly observable is destroyed: then art emerges. Only then does human imposition, human interpretation achieve its mastery. We are in possession of the world when we see it by means of interpretation, and possess it to whatever degree we manage to interpret it. Because then only, and to that extent only, is the visual, the actual humanized. Art is the most marvelous distortion of reality. We can play with the world as we wish. Art is the most profound result of our playfulness with the world. Only through art can we reduce the world itself to our own measure. Art is not made to the absolute dimensions of the world. Instead, we distort those dimensions in, through, and by the art we make. Art is the human imposed upon the natural, visual world. No matter how distorted it is, art, artistic interpretation, consists of something that has been humanized. And to that degree of distortion, that reach of imagination, that amount and effectiveness of interpretation, the world is cognitively remade by humanity, for humanity.

III The physical manifestation of the mask--a covering for the face--is itself the result or product of the imposition of the will of the human spirit, through the frankly deforming embodiment of the mask. The mystery of the human spirit manifests itself through the mask. Art's deformation of the actual is the means of the spirit. That spirit can manipulate the actual, can undermine reality, can do anything it wants with them by means of the mask. The mask is simply a product of the human, spiritual deformation of the world. The spirit can deform the world any way it wishes, and this act, this art itself is an affirmation of the spirit. Simply, spirit equals the willful way man exists in reality, in the actual, the all that surrounds him. In African religions, the whole concept, the whole attribute of that which is worshipped, the applicable interpretation of the world, is a mask. And the mask is a transformation of reality, a deformation of the actual. We can almost absorb reality by means of art's transforming of reality. We can only know the real world by means of our transformation of it to our own purposes, which constitutes our interpretation of it for the purpose of human thought and action. The mask, the art, can then reveal the true essence of the phenomenon, the fundamental apprehending that directs and informs one's behavior. We can mask things in order to reveal, through the form of the mask, the authentic imagery of a phenomenon, in all its particularity. A mask depicting the rain god, for example, is the artist's essential interpretation, the artist's fully rendered, objectified understanding of rain itself. For the culture within which it is made, the concealing mask reveals the interpreted evidence of particular phenomena. The mask reveals all but the spiritual affirmation of the world. That affirmation is our spirit, our endless mystery, the phenomenon of mankind.